Friday, September 29, 2006

5 Things Feminism Has Done For Me

In response to the cuts by the Conservative federal government to Status of Women Canada, folks over at the Progressive Bloggers have started a meme in which members list five things that feminism has done for them. I sometimes find the excessive focus on party politics by many at the PB to be wearying -- frankly, I don't care who the next leader of the Liberal party is -- but I think this idea is a pretty good one, so I'm going to jump on board.

I'm actually tempted to go through all of the posts that result from this meme and do some kind of analysis of them. In the few I've read, I've seen things like strong feminst women who have felt they have to write things that are pre-emptively defensive in anticipation of hostile comments, which says something about the blogosphere environment. And I've seen at least one anti-feminist rant by a supposedly progressive male blogger, which I suppose says the same thing. However, I don't think that kind of analysis is my role, and hope that perhaps one or more of the feminist women in the PB might do that and post their thoughts. Instead, I will post my own answers.

  1. Feminism has created material and ideological infrastructure (still too little, thanks to constant backlash, but some) to support women I care about if they experience physical and/or sexual violence at the hands of a man -- something almost all women that I know well enough to know this sort of thing about have already experienced at least once.

  2. Feminism has given me an opportunity to deal with the ways in which socialization into masculinity has damaged me (as it does to all men). Of course, as Robert Jensen has recently written, "As feminists have long pointed out, there's a big difference between women dealing with the possibility of being raped, beaten and killed by the men in their lives, and men not being able to cry. But we can see that the short-term material gains that men get are not adequate compensation for what we men give up in the long haul -- which is to surrender part of our humanity to the project of dominance." The work of dealing with this injury belongs to men, but the space to make it possible to do so, or even to name the need to do so, exists because of feminist challenge. Feminists have named the problem. Feminists have demanded men deal with it. Feminists have opened some social space to make dealing with it more possible (though it is never easy). An example: Past feminist struggle (plus privilege we hold along other axes) means my partner has a good, professional job and I am able to stay home with our preschooler, which has been one factor that has contributed to partially dealing with one particular sort of masculinity-induced injury. Another example: Any hope of men (hetero or queer) developing theories and practices of liberatory sexuality is because of work done by feminist movements and writers (as well as queer movements and writers). A few queer men who identify as gay aside, most men seem largely uninterested in this project, but when we take it up, it will be possible in part because of feminists.

  3. Feminist movement fed into progressive change more generally in the era of the New Left, in the '60s and '70s. I have come to see that social movements in diverse geographical and social locations can feed into each other, momentum building on momentum. Whatever gains other movements made in the New Left era was in part because of the energy feminist movement added to the struggle (and vice versa, of course).

  4. Feminism has taught me about the complexities of power -- not as a participant in that movement, obviously, but as an observer, and in some ways more effectively than any space I have ever belonged to myself. It has shown me that nothing is pure, nothing is untainted. I have seen feminist women challenge male-dominated movement spaces and male activists on their sexism time and again, despite men resisting and refusing to listen and forgetting. At the same time, I know feminist movement spaces struggle with other axes of oppression in their own functioning, from second wave foremother Betty Friedan's fear of the "lavender menace" in decades past to the ongoing racism faced by radical women of colour in the feminist blogosphere and in real life feminist spaces. I have known some straight, white, middle-class feminist women (by no means all!) who live keen, keen theory-and-practice from their experience of oppression, and whom I absolutely know I must listen to when they speak up on sexism in me or in shared spaces, but who seem almost entirely devoid of theory-and-practice based in their experiences of privilege, and seem blind to things like racism and class oppression and colonialism -- from little things like not seeming to notice that the only feminist women in the community they consistently designate as "hard to work with" just happen to be Black women, to big things like implicitly defining victory as middle-class white women becoming equal with middle-class white men in a system that continues to oppress indigenous women and men and women and men of colour at home and abroad, and depend on the exploitation of working-class women and men of all backgrounds. And yet the biggest lesson is that, for all the ongoing struggles in feminist spaces over these issues, I know that feminist movements, or at least parts of them, have dealt with these challenges more seriously than any male-dominated movement I have been a part of, seen, or heard of. From feminist struggles over power and privilege, we all can and must learn.

  5. Feminism gave me the tools to understand certain events earlier in my life (to which I was peripherally connected but by which I was still affected) in political and social terms rather than as purely isolated and individual.

So what's your answer?

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Review: Change the World Without Taking Power

[John Holloway. Change the World Without Taking Power: The Meaning of Revolution Today, New Edition. London: Pluto Press, 2005.]

Holloway begins not with the word but with the scream.

He writes:

In the beginning is the scream. We scream.

When we write or when we read, it is easy to forget that the beginning is not the word, but the scream. Faced with the mutilation of human lives by capitalism, a scream of sadness, a scream of horror, a scream of anger, a scream of refusal: NO.

The starting point of theoretical reflection is opposition, negativity, struggle. It is from rage that thought is born, not from the pose of reason, not from the reasoned-sitting-back-and-reflecting-on- the-mysteries-of-existence that is the conventional image of 'the thinker'.

This is an important beginning. I like many things about it. I'm not certain I like everything about it, but I like a lot.

It is, first of all, a grounding for what all action-and-theory must be, a demand that we recognize the ethical/political imperative of making what we do responsive not primarily to the beauty of the pretty word pictures that we might paint to ferret out fine details of the world, not to the pursuit of tenure or sales, not to the abstracted fine thinking of the abstracted fine subject, but to the fact that the way human doing is organized on this planet today causes untold death and suffering and is ultimately destroying life on earth.

It is also a powerful rhetorical device. By grounding theory in the scream -- not an imaginary scream, but the very real scream of the thousands that die needlessly every day, of the bashed queer, the hard working worker whose kids still go hungry, the raped woman, the migrant shot by vigilantes -- it is possible to cut through much theoretical hemming and hawing rather easily. How can you allow discourse to paralyze you or entrap you in irrelevance when the scream is very, very real, if only you stop refusing to hear it?

I have a vague unease about the implications of the metaphor of the scream, however. I applaud its foregrounding of urgency and its refusal to let us look away from the realities of suffering that need not be. But still I wonder. It makes me think back to a book I read years ago, The Demon Lover by U.S. radical feminist Robin Morgan. I do not remember Morgan's thesis in detail, and I know that there are aspects of her analysis and how she relates gender oppression to other oppressions that I would not necessarily agree with completely, but her relentless naming of the seeping of oppressive masculinity into supposedly liberatory politics has stayed with me. And I would not for a moment wish to attribute anything I say in the rest of this paragraph to Morgan -- rather, they are questions inspired by a hazy memory of a book read years ago. But still I wonder. Why pick the moment of trauma as the grounding for your theory? Why the moment of inchoate rage, the moment replete with possibility not only for liberatory resistance, but for abusive lashing out, of salving trauma from hierarchy above you by creating more below? Why not, rather, pick the moment that is no less hurt and no less angry and no less committed to struggle, but that has reentered the everyday, that is about picking yourself up off the floor and making dinner for the kids because they need it, about connecting with others and finding joy in spite of trauma, about survival, about affirming life despite the scream even while struggling against it? And I don't even know if anything underlies my vague concern about this metaphor, really, because Holloway is very explicit later in the book about the importance of the everyday; about the foolishness of seeing the militants as saviours and moments of visible militancy as the totality of struggle; about the fatal error involved in embracing the disciplining of life and the dismissal of the everyday by the puritanical, hierarhcical, grim ugliness of struggle that I think Morgan would associate with masculinist psuedo-liberation politics. In many ways, the argument that Holloway develops about power-to and power-over and the importance of the rich diversity of struggle is very much against this. But still I wonder what the metaphor carries into the work that might perhaps undermine its intent.

And who among us really need to be reminded of the scream, need to be told, even by our own inner voice, that it is where we must start? I do, certainly, and I won't pretend otherwise. But I wonder if the constant, deliberate return to the social, psychological, and theoretical moment of the scream is much more important for those of us who have privilege of various sorts, and perhaps many of those whose scream is rawest and most immediate to their lives might well see it as more sensible just to assume the scream and begin their theorizing some place else. If that is so, then what does that mean for the choice to start with the scream?

Perhaps these worries are abstract. Certainly, it is a powerful place to start, and I'm glad he starts there.

The obvious question, once you've got the scream firmly in mind, is what's next? You can actually find a brief summation of his argument here (in PDF format). You can find many responses to the arguments of the book here, some in English but many in Spanish and also a few in German.

A central distinction in the the work is buried in the English word "power." By that, we can mean some quite different things. We can mean "power-to", which at its heart is the simple ability to do things. Doing is at the heart of Holloway's work -- physical, embodied, social, human doing. Holloway stresses the social character of doing, that it is inevitably embedded in a flow of past doings and often contributes to a flow of future doings. Human beings have the capacity to do not just mindlessly as bees but to see something that isn't but should be, and to make it happen. He seems to see the essence of human potential in doing, not because it can produce things, but rather as an endlessly flowing social process of interacting, expressing self, constituting both "I" and "we".

Another way that we can understand "power" is as "power-over", the nasty side of the word, domination, expoitation, oppression, the bending of others to obedience. It depends on the power-to that exists within all of us to function -- however else they happen, death camps and bombings and call centres all happen because of people doing.

Holloway theorizes that what turns power-to into power-over is a break in the social flow of doing. A feature of capitalism, described by Marx as "alienation" and later as "fetishism", is that instead of people relating to people, the world tends to become seen and in certain respects to function as things relating to things. In other words, a social flow of doing in which doing is related organically and intimately in expressions of self and in healthy social relations with other human beings, that flow is broken. Doing becomes done. Doing which is social and expressive and projects human consciousness into the future becomes abstract labour which expends effort in the service of another to make things -- things which are disconnected from the doing which creates them, things which become commodities. Most human beings today have scant opportunity to truly do, in the sense of envisioning and acting to create that vision, and most doing does not flow organically from and into other doing but functions in the world as objects disconnected from the doing that created them, as done. The done is separated from the doers, taken from the people who produce it to be used in reinforcing their exploitation.

Holloway argues that this breaking should not be understood in the narrow sense that it might have been applied by Marxists of the last century, as something that happens exclusively to the industrial proletariat at the point of mass production. That is still important, but the disruption of doing extends throughout life, gets inside all of us and colonizes social spaces far and wide. This same dynamic is present in struggles of all sorts the world over -- in all of them you will find doing denied, fragmented, broken, whether that is in Chiapas or Caledonia or struggles for socialized daycare or against police violence or whatever else you can imagine.

He then goes on to explore what struggle might mean in such circumstances, including responses to orthodox Marxist analysis and strands of autonomist Marxist analysis. He describes a struggle that is not a uniform struggle between two extrenally existing objects (labour and capital) but rather a massive diversity of struggles over doing, rejections big and little of the indignities heaped upon us and projections big and little towards something different. He hypothesizes a struggle that is pervasive but never pure, a struggle that we can have hope in precisely because the done that is taken from us and used against us depends on our doing, but a vision of revolution that is as a question rather than as some sort of apocalyptic answer.

I like a lot of what Holloway has to say, and I certainly appreciate the passion and poetry in his theory, but I still have questions. I like the distinction between power-to and power-over, but I'm not certain I completley understand all of the implications of that distinction. On an interpersonal level it is easy -- I make a sandwich, that is power-to; I beat someone up, that is power-over -- but I am less clear what it means when we try to extend these things to more complex and more social kinds of things. And from my own experiences of life I can really identify with what he describes as the struggle between active, social doing and broken doing or abstract labour or "the done". That really resonates. However, I'm not sure I've entirely wrapped my head around how the obvious manifestation of this at the point of production can be seen as inherently behind the way it functions everywhere in society.

In particular, I have trouble with the way he talks about how the rich diversity of struggles he recognizes and values and supports relate to one another, and his theorizing of identity. He sees identity, the tendency for human beings to base themselves in "I am" rather than in "I do", as a product of the fetishizing influences of capitalism. Our doing is broken and it does not provide the scope for us to express and constitute self through the social flow of doing, so we think of ourselves as being static and confined to categories. I can understand this to a certain extent. I can accept that capitalist social relation permeate all other struggles, and the process of fetishization has become part of how we think about self and identity and must be a part of how we struggle from all of our diverse locations. But he seems to be going beyond that and positing capitalist social relations as the sole cause of the fragmentation of the social into isolated, static identities -- "I am" rather than "I am this and more than this" -- and as underlying all other struggles. Certainly I think it permeates all other struggles on earth today, simply because capitalist social relations do have a homogenizing, totalizing impact, but I think he's saying more than that. But, for example, limits on the doing of women existed in different forms before those limits became perfused with a capitalist character. I can accept that struggle against gender oppression necessarily entails struggle against capitalism, but I don't think that's all it requires. I can accept that identity as it currently functions tends to include fetishization and inherently limits who and what we are, though I think people who live oppression everyday are more likely to think of identity as "this-and-beyond-this" than those of us with privilege. But I'm not sure I accept as complete a rejection of "I am" as Holloway seems to be advocating -- avoiding essentialism, avoiding thing-ifying self, embody self as "this and more than this", sure, but I still don't buy identity as being solely created by capitalism and I don't buy identity as being entirely bad. Embracing both a rich diversity of struggle and an underlying unity is all well and good, but I think I need to hear a lot more about what that really means before I can be entirely comfortable with it.

I think I'm going to stop here. This has been surprisingly difficult to write, probably more because my head has been foggy than anything else, so I think I will let me reaction to the book stand as it is and perhaps return to topics that interest me at a later time.

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

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Albert Draws Lessons From Chavez Speech

Michael Albert's reflections on Hugo Chavez's speech to the United Nations are important, I think -- too many of us are caught in traps of civility, of playing it safe, of reacting to discomfort-but-safety by hiding even when that fails to be accountable to very real lack of safety for many, many others.

A few relevant paragraphs:

I would guess that Chavez didn’t think to himself, they will revile me in their columns and commentaries, so I better not rip into Bush and celebrate Chomsky. The ensuing ridicule might reduce my stature, I better avoid it. To rip Bush and celebrate Chomsky will look strange, I better avoid it. If I do that I will be giving time to elevating someone else, and not myself, and I better avoid it. I will be displaying anger and passion, and that will brand me as uncivil and improper, it will label me as undignified and even juvenile, and I better avoid it. How many of us think like that, how often, is a question worth considering.

Instead, I suspect Chavez thought, Chomsky’s work deserves and needs to be more widely addressed. It affected me. It needs to affect others. I will try to push it into people’s awareness using all the means at my disposal to do so, which, indeed, he has been doing, though with much less success, for some time now. ... We don’t all have a giant stage, or often even a large stage, or even any stage at all, from which to sing our songs. But we can still do our part, wherever we may be. And the fact is, we who know so much often don’t do our part. We often don’t point out sources of ideas and discuss them with our workmates, schoolmates, and families at every opportunity. If we have audiences for our work, again we don’t use our writing, talks, and other products to promote valuable work by others beyond ourselves. Why is that? Sometimes we are afraid of reprisals. Sometimes we are afraid of looking silly. Sometimes we just don’t want to do it because it isn’t our thing. Cheerleading and recommending, that’s not my thing. I doubt it will work. I won’t bother trying. Then our foretelling of failure is fulfilled. Well, we need to get over all that.

Again, I think the difference between Chavez and most others even on the left is that Chavez is seeking to win, and we are instead seeking, as often as not, to avoid alienating pundits or to even appeal to them. We are seeking to avoid annoying anyone we like, or anyone we might like, or who might like us. We are seeking to avoid looking odd to anyone, or to avoid making a mistake, or to avoid seeming shrill and angry, or self serving, or passionate. And we need to transcend all that.

Now, I think the phrase "we who know so much" should be understood as being pronounced with a bit of a tongue-in-cheek inflection -- the point isn't so much "us" having more knowledge than "them", which may or may not be the case in any particular situation, as raising potentially alienating issues to begin with while keeping a firm, humble, openly admitted grip on both our knowledge and our ignorance. So I'd maybe want to add a whole paragraph or eight about listening and asking questions as well as pontificating, things the left in North America is often pretty awful at as well. But that doesn't take away from the importance of sharing where we are at and engaging with those around us in face of the tension-in-the-body instilled within us by white middle-class North American conventions of oppressive/repressive civility. I'm not always so good at that.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Quote: Repression and Oppression

[T]he unfree individual introjects his [sic] masters and their commands into his own mental apparatus. The struggle against freedom reproduces itself in the psyche of man, as the self-repression of the repressed individual, and his self-repression in turn sustains his masters and their institutions.

-- Herbert Marcuse


Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Review: Institutional Ethnography

[Dorothy Smith. Institutional Ethnography: A Sociology for People. Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press, 2005]

Dorothy Smith is perhaps Canada's foremost feminist sociologist. Her greatest contribution to the discipline is the elaboration of a sociology -- not a methodology, but an actual alternative sociology -- called institutional ethnography (IE). This book is her most recent, most complete theoretical discussion (albeit with plenty of concrete examples from actual IE studies over the years) of the bases and major features of IE. (There is also a companion volume from another publisher which is a collection edited by Smith of more practical essays on IE. Doubt I'll read that one.)

I first became aware of Smith's work about four years ago when I bought a book by her, Writing the Social, from the book table of a conference I was at. Just this year, that conference resulted in a book on a subset of institutional ethnography called political activist ethnography, a book I have since read and reviewed.

In my initial reading of Writing the Social, though I'm sure there was much that I didn't quite get, there were also a number of things that impressed me as addressing concerns that had troubled me in my thinking about the world -- questions about how to think about the vastly different scales across which our political thought and action must extend, from the brief and interpersonal to the global; questions about how to respond to the extremes of crass and clumsy pseudo-materialism of certain Marxist grouplets on the one hand, and the disconnected discourse-bound entrapment of certain strands of academic thought on the other, while rejecting neither the material world nor text; and questions of orienting knowledge production towards changing the world rather than just describing it.

A number of traditions fed into Smith's work. Feminism and her experience in the second wave of North American feminist movement were central. She noticed that the world she experience as a woman, as a mother, as a wife, really had very little to do with the world that the mainstream (or malestream) sociology that she learned and taught as a graduate student seemed to be describing. If there was a disjuncture between conceptually-based explanations coming from mainstream sociological discourse and the everyday lived experiences of women -- and she noticed that there were, all the time -- then sociologists would inevitably favour the former, if they noticed the disjuncture at all. The approach also comes from a certain reading of Marx and what he had to say about grounding understandings of the world in the physical lived everyday of human beings, an important idea even if many later intellectuals claiming to follow him have disregarded that insight, and even if Marx himself really only applied it to men. And finally, as I was reminded the other night, she drew on an approach to sociology called ethnomethodology, something I do not really know much about but that I understand is relevant because it insists that the world we experience is continually being produced and reproduced in the moment through human actions.

Underlying IE is the idea that the social world is created not through abstract and indepently existing "structures" or "systems" forcing us to do things, but through the concerted activities of ordinary people. These activities are concerted, or translocally organized, mostly in our current era through texts that get activated in local, everyday spaces by human beings. The coordinating function of texts means that there are standard features across workplace A, workplace B, and workplace C, and that there are material, learnable connections between the goings on of shop floor A and boardroom A and regulatory agency supra-A. The experiences of someone on social assistance are produced in a direct interaction with her case worker, and her case worker's activities are a product of activating regulations and directives (texts), which were written in bureaucratic offices by specific human beings, who were obeying other human beings by implementing certain specific discourses in how they wrote the regulations. And so on.

You start off by figuring out whose experience you are putting at the centre of your research -- whose standpoint you are adopting -- and then you proceed to figure out what is going on in terms of translocal coordination of activities to produce those features of local experience that matter to those at your starting point. Along the way you probably do detailed observation of or have detailed discussions with people about their work (understood broadly to mean any deliberate activity) as they actually do it. This will include not just those people at your starting point, who continue to provide the orientation for your inquiry, but also people at work in lots of different parts of the process you are learning about. And you read lots of texts, and thereby figure out how it all fits together.

Institutional Ethnography serves as a convenient, clearly written, one-stop method for understanding IE, with plenty of guidance towards earlier writings by Smith and others which go into greater depth on specific topics. Smith's writing can be dense but it is usually quite clear, and the occasional glint of humour shows through.

I am not a sociologist, at least not in any sense that those who have the blessing of the discipline to apply the label to themselves would recognize. At the same time, the general interest sparked by Writing the Social and its more active application to politics in Sociology for Changing the World would have been enough to light within me at least a certain level of passive interest in reading Institutional Ethnography, simply because of the relevance that I find in IE to thinking about activism and about any kind of writing or theorizing related to activism. I also, in the last few weeks, have begun auditing a sociology course at the local university for which this is a source of a few supplementary readings, though I actually ordered the book a couple of months prior to any hint that I might be doing so and only received it recently.

Probably the most immediate reason for moving it from my ever-growing passive to-read list and on to the list of books that I am actually likely to read in a reasonable amount of time was because of feedback on a draft of the Introduction to my book-in-progress that I received last spring. In the way that I am approaching history in that work, as I have briefly described before, one of the concepts that I am making use of that is alien to conventional history is the idea of standpoint. The term was originally coined by feminist theorist of science Sandra Harding in reference to the work of a number of women in the social sciences, including Dorothy Smith. When I wrote the version of the Intro that was the subject of feedback in the spring, I did not understand that there have been multiple approaches to theorizing and applying the idea of standpoint, and the feedback suggested making use of things that Smith has written on the subject. My current understanding is that there are at least three different major approaches: seeing standpoint as being an almost (or even in some cases actually) essentialist attribute of individuals most crucially centred on gender and giving one access to certain kinds of truth about the world; seeing standpoint as being a lot less stable than the first version and constructed via a wide range of experiences of privilege and oppression but still treating it as an attribute of individuals; and, finally, the IE approach, which involves treating standpoint as a shared space constructed by dialogue which focuses on understanding what is important about the socially produced experience of the group in question via that dialogue as a basis for directing social inquiry and social change. I may be simplifying and vulgarizing, but I think I've caught the gist of them. The middle of the three is the one that has been closest to the de facto use of the term that I have developed through reading and writing and doing that tries to be informed by anti-oppression analysis but I have never encountered a formal construction of that position in quite those terms (though I have a feeling the place to go would be woman of colour feminists). Reading this book has certainly helped me deepen my understanding of the differences among theories of standpoint, particluarly Smith's unique approach which refuses to assign it as an attribute of individuals and instead insists that it is most usefully understood as a socially produced space.

I still have reservations about Smith's approach to standpoint, simply because it seems to me that while it is very useful in producing the kinds of research she wishes to produce, it does not provide sufficient guidance to researchers. It still seems to me that some kind of analytical category related to the sedimented impacts of an individual's history of experience of privilege and oppression on that individual's ways of knowing and being and doing (i.e. my functional understanding of "standpoint") is important in helping said individual make decisions about her or his own engagement in political activity and research in the social world -- in other words, how you participate in the shared space that is standpoint in Smith's formulation depends in part on your standpoint as I have historically understood it. In terms of my work, I think there are elements of all three approaches to standpoint that are reflected, and I do not feel particularly pressured to come up with a final, coherent, comprehensive theory of standpoint for that purpose (though I'm thinking I could write a pretty interesting essay on the subject if I wanted to take the time to read another half dozen books or so of theory, which, alas, I don't think I can afford right now).

Another attribute of the overall approach that is institutional ethnography is that it feels, at least as Smith describes it, to be a bit pessmistic about the possibilities for radical social change even as it provides insights of great practical use for those of us who want to create exactly that. The subset of IE known as political activist ethnography (PAE) applies its theorization of the social and its methods specifically to moments of confrontation between social movements and ruling regimes, rather than more broadly to the everydays of oppressed people as IE does. In my class the other night, someone asked about the disctinction between PAE and IE, and wondered if it might map in some rough way onto the old divide between revolution and reform. The professor did conced that, over time, Smith herself has become less optimistic about the possibilities for radical social change. Certainly making the transition from seeing (for example) capitalism as a featureless blob that is the respository of all evil and that we just need to (abstractly) destroy and replace, towards an understanding of how ruling relations and capitalist social relations are actually put together and what would be needed in practical terms to transform them, can be a bit daunting even if it is absolutely necessary to effecting that transformation rather than just engaging in pseudo-radical posturing. At the same time, after some reflection, I think mapping PAE and IE onto the old revolution/reform divide -- a way of conceptualizing change I have always thought to be silly -- is a mistake, and in some ways it replicates a common mistake of privileged activists. PAE applies its investigation exclusively to moments of active, collective, public confrontation, and that is absolutely vital. However, I would argue that the insights of IE are just as crucial to creating the details of a better tomorrow: it is easy to see the confrontational moments as the only things that matter when you are a privileged activist whose engagement with oppression is episodic and mainly via such moments, whereas what I have learned over the years from activists who experience the impact of oppressive social relations in North America most directly is that the everyday must never, never, never be written off as an important field for struggle.

This is a book well worth reading. It is the place to start for understanding institutional ethnography, and the place to get a firm grounding in the crucial basics of the approach even if you are more actively interested in political activist ethnography. Even as I move forward to exploring the world both through my direct experience and through texts (always lots of those!) there are certain core concepts from the stream within my reading of which Institutional Ethnography is the latest that I will definitely carry with me and seek to build upon.

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

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Kids and Modes of Consciousness

The first Wednesday of September, L -- the newly three year-old bundle of stone throwing, train driving energy that occupies most of my weekdays -- attended his first morning of pre-school.

First off, I should insert that this new enterprise seems to be a success. He loves it, his level of toilet training is far from perfect but certainly adequate, and the opportunity to have multiple 3 or 4 hour chunks of guaranteed work time while the sun is up every work week should jump start progress on my main project from glacial to merely slow.

The phenomenon of political interest here is not, however, how it has gone, but why I, faced with the pending commencement of something which could relatively easily provide me with more of something whose lack I was keenly feeling -- work time -- felt moderate but quite persistent anxiety about it in the lead-up to two Wednesdays ago.

There are some individualistic and quite uninteresting psychological factors that were probably operative: the fact of change itself, for one thing. Uncertainty over details in the six weeks preceding. The possibility that it would begin and then, for some reason, not work out. The fact that even though I have a high opinion of the institution he is attending now -- it is a Montessori pre-school -- I cannot help but see it as a first step towards institutions about which I have serious political misgivings but where he will undoubtedly end up going.

The interesting part is this: I can't shake the feeling that my anxiety at this transition -- quite a minor one, really, at least in terms of the amount of time affected by it -- has to do with the transition at the other end, when I began my role of stay-at-home parent. L was 9 months old and it happened at the same time as our move from Hamilton to Los Angeles, which meant that an already challenging shift had its impacts on me potentiated by all sorts of other tricky changes happening simultaneously.

A good way to begin pointing the way between my isolated individual experience and the political implications is the following quote from renowned feminist sociologist Dorothy Smith:

Leonore Davidoff and Catherine Hall have described how, during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in England, the domestic sphere of the middle classes became increasingly isolated from the more and more exclusively male worlds of business, politics, and science. While women remained at work in the particularlities of domesticity, men of the middle classes were active in businesses that connected them to the impersonal, extralocal dynamic of the market; they were also active in the public discourse that emerged in talk with other men in the clubs and coffee houses of Britain and Europe and in the saloons and places of public assembly in North America where the topics of journals, newspapers, and books were discussed. A radical division between the spheres of action and of consciousness of middle-class men and women emerged. The peculiar out-of-body modes of consciousness of the nascent ruling relations required a specialization of subject and agency. The formation of the middle-class male subject in education and ideology aimed at creating that extraordinary form of modern consciousness that is capable of agency in modes that displace or subdue a local bodily experience.

According to Joan Landes, women's exclusion from the emerging public discourse, associated with the Enlightenment and with the rise of capitalism as a general economic form of life, was essential to men's capacity to sustain what she calls 'the masquerade of universality.' The public sphere was defined by a gender order that excluded women. During the French Revolution and later, women's attempts to organize in public 'risked violating the constitutive principles of the bourgeois public sphere.... [They] risked disrupting the gendered organization of nature, truth, and opinion that assigned them to a place in the private, domestic but not the public realm'. Men confronting men did not raise the spectre of particularity whereas women bore particularity as their social being. Hence men associating exclusively with men could avoid recognizing 'the masquerade through which the (male) particular was able to posture behind the veil of the universal'. [references in original]

This quote really resonated. It is, perhaps, not making a terribly original point for those with some background in feminist thought. The idea of masculinity being associated in our culture with mind, with the universal, and femininity with body or emotion and with the particular is quite well established. What struck me about this quote was that it is not stuck just at the level of ideas and imagery or even merely individualistic psychology, but talks about the actual historical social basis for the production of quite different and gendered modes of subjectivity.

Not only that, but it feels true to my experience of myself. I know in my body exactly what she means by phrases like "[t]he peculiar out-of-body modes of consciousness" and "that extraodrinary form of modern consciousness that is capable of agency in modes that displace or subude a local bodily experience" and even "the masquerade of universality." Admittedly, if I were to explore my experience of it in more detail and trace its origins on an individual level there would be quirks of personality and of family-of-origin experience that push me in similar directions, but Smith's connection of it to gendered social production of subjectivities feels right as well and is undoubtedly underlying the individual factors. I can see it not only in myself but through my interactions with (most of) the people with whom I share emotional intimacy of various sorts and levels, and what they have to say about their lives and how they go about saying it. Perhaps one of the most everyday reminders of this reality is in my relationship with my primary partner and the contrast in how we engage emotionally with some of the smaller details of daily life -- I like yummy things as much as the next person, for example, but finding a new product at Trader Joe's or discovering an interesting new recipe does not seem to bring me quite the same level of delight as it does for my partner, or even really interest me in the same way. (And I shouldn't need to say this but in a culture that reflexively devalues things associated with femininity I feel the need to add that noting this capacity to appreciate the local and particular should not be taken as in any way implying any inability on the part of this highly capable scientist and academic to engage with text-mediated public forms of consciousness.) And Smith's description is certainly consistent with my observations of gender dynamics in activist spaces, particularly the tendency of (white) activist boys (me included, though I think quite a bit less now than I used to) to blow hot air about things they have read and seen but to expend what sometimes seems like extraordinary amounts of energy to keep their/our own personal experiences not only out of conversation but completely outside of their/our own politicized awareness.

The quote also relates very directly to my experience of becoming a stay-at-home parent. Among other things, that represented the forcible transition from a life which allowed me to indulge in those "peculiar out-of-body modes of consciousness" precisely whenever I pleased to one in which I could no longer "displace or subdue [my] local bodily experience" whenever it was convenient.

Generally speaking, I spend a lot of my time living in my head and a lot of the time that I spend there involves engaging in dialogue with texts: I read things and I think about them and I write things. I have perfected the art of reading while walking down the street and even when you see me without a book, often I am writing something in my head. Or doing some kind of reflection that is a sort of post-text consumption processing and/or preamble to writing. Of course I don't want to exagerate my disconnection from the particulars of everyday life in how I'm describing this -- though this particular vocabulary to describe the process is at least partly new to me, deliberate engagement with the particular and the embodied has become an increasingly clear personal and political priority for me over the last decade. But even so, going from a fair amount of discretion about where and when and how that process moved forward to suddenly spending ten to twelve hours a day, five days a week, as the person solely responsible for the health, wellbeing, and entertainment of a baby and then a toddler meant being forcibly submerged in the local, the particular, the embodied. Being with a baby or a toddler or a pre-schooler for extended periods of time mandates such a subjectivity. Full stop. I've become more skilled than I was initially at finding ways and opportunities for sneaking bits of text as if they were a sip from the bottle hidden in the bureau drawer, but no amount of artful dodging can get away from the fact that doing even a halfway decent job of being what you have to be for a little one requires a different mode of subjetivity than middle-class men are taught to experience as natural (and as their inalienable right).

The transition was a bit of a shock. Mind you, it was a shock that was good for me, but it was still a shock. And I should add that I'm not trying to romanticize the experience of being a stay-at-home parent -- regardless of the gender socialization from which you are starting, its moments of delight and deep satisfaction also inevitably come packaged with boredom, frustration, exhaustion, and isolation. There are still times when I seek retreat into text, like bringing a book with me when we are going, yet again, to throw stones in the nearby creek. But I think the transition did force a process which has perhaps subtley but definitely significantly (though certainly not decisively or finally) shifted my engagement with consciousness that is local, particular, embodied. When since my own childhood would I have spent twenty minutes crouched in front of a post crawling with caterpillars, just watching?

The points of particular relevance to where I started this post can be found in that transition. How I navigated it is, inevitably, particular to me; I'm sure other boys would do it quite differently. But for me, it was important to frame the shift -- and remember, at the time I really could not articulate it as I have in this post, I just knew I had to get used to something being different -- as being a political and even a moral imperative. I can picture feminist women that I know rolling their eyes at that and asking why I couldn't just go ahead and do it, and I also recognize that this involved the rather strange approach of taking things that for me had a great deal of their origin in those "peculiar out-of-body modes of consciousness" and using them to facilitate my engagement with a quite different mode of consciousness. But don't knock it, it (more or less) worked.

The thing is, this involved me attaching a particular kind of value to my parenting work -- value that it deserves, certainly, but also value of a sort that means that the prospect of deliberately laying down some small part of that responsibility, particularly for what felt like selfish reasons like getting more work time, felt like a bit of a betrayal of the political and moral imperative that helped me take up the responsibility to begin with. Which made me anxious.

Yeah. Boys are dumb. I know this.

In any case, I raise this because it seems like a useful way to talk about the issue of gendered modes of consciousness, particularly in relation to how they have been socially produced. Understanding this particular reality, and understanding in the body and not just in a cerebral way, could be important for anyone engaged in the ongoing process of wrestling with their gender socialization. And on a personal level, once he actually started attending pre-school, the anxiety went away. Over the longer term, as L gradually needs less and less intensive parental supervision, I think the struggle will be to avoid losing whatever lessons I have learned from the shocking transition of consciousness even as I embrace with enthusiasm and energy whatever new realities life brings.

Friday, September 15, 2006

A Canadian Lefty's Master List of Book Reviews

For my own convenience, I decided to assemble a "master list" of book reviews that I have published on this site. Here is that list.

This list links to most but not all reviews and responses to books that have appeared here. I say "most" because early on there were a few kind-of-reviews that really aren't long enough to be worth listing, and there may be one or two reviews that I really don't like at all any more and so I don't want to draw attention to them by mentioning them. There are many more that I would write quite differently now, given that my knowledge base, life experience, and analysis have all evolved over the life of this blog and will continue to evolve...that's the potentially vulnerable side of putting at least part of your intellectual growth on public display. Anyway, here they are, and I will continue to add new ones to this post as I write them.

CATEGORIESIndigenousFeminist/Pro-FeministGeneral Anti-Racism/WhitenessAfrican Canadian/African AmericanSouth Asian Canadian/South Asian AmericanQueer/SexualityPeace/WarLabour/ClassNeoliberalism and Struggles Against ItWelfare StateSocial Democratic, Socialist, and Communist HistoryGeneral Movement HistoryGeneral Canadian HistoryOther HistoryMarxist and Anarchist Theory, and Left Theory That Doesn't Fit ElsewhereShameInternationalReligion/TheologyPsychiatry/Anti-Psychiatry/Mind DoctorsParenting and PedagogyMemoirDisability Pop CultureNation and NationalismOther Stuff