Saturday, November 03, 2007

What Makes Writing Politically Relevant To Me?

Not along ago, I had cause to respond to a particular piece of political writing. Now, I won't go into what that piece of writing was or outline all of my objections to it. I mention it because of only one of my concerns: I expected this piece of writing to be relevant to my political practice somehow, to challenge me in ways that were not just about pretty ideas but about what I do, but it did not.

That got me to thinking about what exactly would pass that test. I read lots of stuff that wouldn't, including lots of political stuff, and I still enjoy it or find it a useful thing to do for one reason or another. But what kind of material do I find relevant in a really grounded political way?

The standard of relevance I'm employing here depends on doing in which I am involved, so I think the place to start is to think about the units of action of which I am a part.

The most obvious unit of action is "I". Not that anyone ever functions in the kind of atomized way that we are painstakingly trained to imagine when we think "I," and noone is ever apart from the contexts in which they exist, but each individual does have a certain (inequitably distributed) space for agency.

I can think of a few different kinds of political writing that feel like they are directly relevant to decisions at this level. Any writing which helps me develop a sense of how that "I" is integrated into the social, for example, has the potential to be relevant in some way to my political practice. You can't act effectively if you don't know who and what and where you are. In theory, any writing which is descriptive of phenomena at the social level might be able to meet this criterion, but in practice only some of it does. I'm not sure I can succinctly sketch a boundary for what does, either -- it has to do with the effort that the piece of writing itself makes to tie individuals to the social, to contextualize the "I" within social relations, as well as how the subject of the writing relates to the map I already have in my head connecting myself to the social. In other words, whether or not there is any effort to do this in the writing itself, does the way in which I take up the printed words allow me to add to this grounded, metaphorically map-like picture of me-in-the-world that I have, or is it just floating out there in Abstraction Land?

The second kind of writing that qualifies based on its relevance to the "I" unit of action is anything that helps me produce my movement history book. That piece of writing is (among other things) a political act coming from the "I." The writings of people who have come before about Canadian social movements and about ideas relevant to the movements that I am writing about are central to producing my own writing, so they count as being of grounded interest to my political practice.

The third major category of writing with grounded relevance to "I" is writing which challenges me around everyday/everynight practices -- at least potentially, things like parenting, relationship practices, media consumption habits, complicity in or challenge to oppressive ways of doing things at the level of personal interaction and micro-politics, and so on. At its best, this is actually a subcategory of the first example above, connecting me to the social, but with content that is prescriptive as well as descriptive. While there is always a danger that it will become the kind of individualistic, privilege-based, purity-seeking orientation that some on the left tend to accuse in a blanket sort of way, I see it as being of social and political relevance if properly understood. It is through our everyday/everynight choices and actions that we personally participate in constantly creating and recreating social relations. Deliberately changing and tweaking those choices and actions certainly can't transform social relations on a large scale but they can unsettle them in a local way, which seems to me to be a necessary part of any model of social change from below.

I am not just "I," of course; I am also part of many, varied, and shifting varieties of "we." What writing is of grounded relevance to "I-in-we" is entirely dependent on exactly which "we's" I am a part of at any given moment and if/how those "we's" act.

One kind of "we" that all of us are a part of are large-scale, involuntary "we's." These are not things we get to choose, though we can embrace them with enthusiasm or (mostly futilely) attempt to distance ourselves from them or subvert them depending on their character and our own. I am, for example, part of the large-scale "we" labelled "Canadian" and the one labelled "white." These constructions of "we" do not tend to act in consciously collective ways (though those who belong to them still manage to frequently engage in distributed, ongoing action in the service of collective self-interest, such as the ways in which many everyday behaviours by people socially marked as white function to reproduce white supremacy, regardless of intent). Any writing relevant to membership in this kind of "we" is of interest in ways connected to what I wrote above about understanding the integration of "I" into the social and how that is relevant to our actions.

Any "I" is also part of many "we's" that are smaller in scale and experienced in a more immediate way. Though many other people are, I am not personally a part of any deliberately and locally constructed identity-based "community" entities founded on shared racial background, language, faith, or sexual orientation, and the physical neighbourhood that I live in has no deliberate organizational expression of collectivity. However, like everyone else, I live as part of complex, overlapping relationship networks based on various kinds of personal affinities, histories of how and where and when those affinities were initially generated, and evolving choices about how to relate to one another in practice. I intensely dislike the ways in which those networks usually get subdivided and categorized because those categories tend to reflect imposed norms which often covertly express and reinforce various kinds of relations of privilege and oppression, and blind us to the importance of how these networks and the relationships which constitute them actually can and do function by focusing our attention on how we're told they should function. With that caveat about limitations in available language kept in mind, the individual relationships that compose the filaments of that network that directly touch me span a broad range: from such powerfully significant and longstanding ones as those who comprise my family of origin and with whom I share a range of kinds of active connection today, the wonderful person who is my long-time primary partner and co-habitant and co-parent, and a few other people first met during my teenage years that I remain connected to in various ways; to relationships of personal significance but somewhat more recent vintage, like a number of fellow activists who became friends who are now geographically scattered but whom I still stay connected with socially in a range of ways and intensities, or a couple of friends turned lovers turned friends, or plenty of former co-workers I still like to get together with for beer when I visit the city I used to live in, and of course the little one who plays "kid" to my "parent"; to many more transient connections, like the woman who intermittently participated in anti-poverty stuff I have been involved with in Sudbury but whom I didn't really get to know but whom I ran into today for the first time in ages and had what was probably the longest one-on-one conversation we've ever had at a length of 15 minutes. And there are many others, each with their own peculiar mix/presence/absence/flavours of history, intensity, continuity, political affinity, hiding, emotional affinity, conflict, desire, duration, physical affection, intellectual affinity, humour, pain, shared interests, and mutually (if usually unconsciously) negotiated ways of relating. All of these many and varied and wonderful (or not) relationships function on their own or in combination to in turn constitute various more or less fluid and transitory spaces -- various "we's" that might last a few moments or a lifetime.

The spaces thus created can vary enormously in character, durability, fluidity, role in the participants' lives, and relation to the social world more generally. In my experience, the kinds of doing that happen in and from these spaces tend to be contiguous with everyday doing of the "I" and the writings with grounded relevance to them are much the same. I think, by the way, that the formal left often underestimates the importance of politically conscious doing in and from such spaces. Particularly for people who are surviving the ravages of oppressions of various sorts, these are vital spaces for crucial mutual aid and support that allows for the ongoing anti-oppressive defiance that is survival and provides a basis for the possibility of more visible resistance. For all of us, relationships are the context in which we learn about ourselves and the world, and the changes in our consciousness and practice in and because of these spaces can be much more deeply rooted than those that come about in more consciously and overtly political but less organic collective spaces. And of course these spaces can and do blend into more formally political ones. Struggles that erupt from groupings with internally dense organic, affective ties are always more powerful, though I have never personally been part of such a thing. More common in my experience is the other direction: informal affective connections that form on the basis of initial encounters in more deliberately created "activist" spaces, which then tend to feed back into the more formal spaces and strengthen their capacity to act.

Despite this overlap, I have experienced these informal and fluid spaces formed on the basis of diverse sorts of interpersonal affinities as qualitatively different from spaces constituted around specifically political affinity and around the intent to deliberately intervene in the world, which is the final type of "we" I will consider. Obviously a good part of the writing that might be of grounded relevance to this sort of "we" depends on exactly what sort of intervention is intended. I can think of several different "we's" of this sort to which I belong at the moment -- two highly overlapping but not identical in-person groupings, constituted in different ways but with similar intents; and two(ish) geographically dispersed groupings with quite different intents and forms of organization. (One of the web rings to which this site belongs is probably regarded by some of its members as a "we" but it has no scope for deciding upon and then enacting deliberate, coordinated action -- it does happen occasionally, but that is generally by accident -- so I don't consider it to be a "we" in a sense that is relevant to this post.)

Written material that might be relevant to this kind of "we" would include writing on the subject matter that is the focus of the group, particularly how the things that we are trying to change are organized, socially and in discourse; grounded strategic and tactical critique of the larger movements of which these "we's" are a part; analysis of how groups of this sort function internally and how they might function better (group dynamics, ways of work, how-to stuff, group-level anti-oppression analysis, etc.); and stuff that tries to figure out how social change more generally can and does happen. I suppose I would also feel that there is grounded relevance in writing which presents strategic and tactical critiques of movements that none of my "we's" are a functional part but which are movements which I would wish at some point to be a part of or to functionally ally with in some way.

So. I think all of the above boils down to a few general categories of writing that are, or at least can be, of grounded political relevance to me and the various sorts of doing in which "I" and "we's" I'm a part of engage. These are writings related to

  • politicized, anti-oppressive, contextualized-in-the-social and not purely individualistic ethics;
  • my political writing;
  • understanding how people work (psychology (often but not necessarily contextualized-in-the-social), pedagogy, etc.)
  • understanding how groups work;
  • my social location, how it is socially produced, and how it is connected to other social locations;
  • the social organization of things I'm actively organizing to change;
  • constructive criticism of movements that I am a part of or that I am not a part of but can still learn from;
  • processes of social change more generally.

In doing the thinking to write this post, I have had to recognize that even though I think collective doing is absolutely imperative to deal with the violent, exploitative, and oppressive social organization in which we are all currently embedded, the largest chunk of my doing still proceeds from the basis of "I" rather than "we." I'm not quite sure what to make of this. It might merely be a reflection of the fact that, after all, "I" is where we have to start. It might be a comment on the insulation of privilege enabling me to avoid committing more self to "we's," and me going along with that. It might be a reflection of the atomizing effect that neoliberalism (and capitalism more generally) has had on our social organization, particularly for those with access to middle-class financial resources. It may also reflect the current low ebb of social movements in Canada as a whole and Sudbury in particular. Probably it is all of these things.

It has been a strange process to think all of this through explicitly, I have to admit. It makes me wonder how other people think about such things -- that is, about the relevance or lack of same of writing to their political practice, broadly conceived. Anyone care to share?


Polly Jones said...

Hi Scott,

Regarding the following:

"It might be a reflection of the atomizing effect that neoliberalism (and capitalism more generally) has had on our social organization, particularly for those with access to middle-class financial resources."

As you've discussed writing itself can be politically relevant and, in my view, activism in itself. Certainly, the book your writing documenting movements is important to know and to inform future action.

But, as we've been discussing on my blog, I continue to wonder how useful blogging is...To me, it is atomized...not all blogs are written by privileged middle-class, but many are...I would venture to say that most blogs involve the flexing of the 'I' and are about ego (keeping a good/read blog) and less about connecting with others...

Yours may be a bit of an exception because I believe that you use this space as a sounding board or forum for your writing...And, I know I've learned about physical world events on here which I presume you take part in and very much connected to your writing...

I generally feel though when looking at blogs that there is so much great thinking, but a lack of coordinated discussion (by that I mean that comments often unfold more in the tone of a debate). Sometimes I think group blogs would be a step in the right direction.

I certainly don't know the answers. It could also be that because I am limited in physical world activities with illness, I am overly concentrated on the role of internet activism and have a skewed view...Perhaps, many are engaged in relfection and thought on their blogs and acting regularly in more collaborative ways.

Scott said...

Hi Polly.

Yeah, I agree that writing can be politically relevant, and even activism. And I hope I didn't come across in the post as too dismissive of the importance of other political doing grounded in the "I" unit of action -- it's our basic unit of doing, after all, and no useful activist "we" can be built without "I's" that want to build it. And politically conscious doing based in "I" in the context of our informal relationship networks can be tremendously important too. That said, I do think it is important for people to be critical and self-critical about the things that keep us atomized and isolated and attached to political doing grounded in "I" but wary of political doing from "we"...people need to get involved in ways that suit them, of course, but I've run into too many people whose reasons for avoiding opportunities to act as part of a "we" are pretty weak.

As for blogs...I dunno...

Personally, as you identify, I think my orientation to blogging is different from a lot of folks. It isn't necessarily any more collective, mind you. I've gone through phases where I have tried to be more deliberate about interacting with other bloggers, participating on comment threads, and so on, but I haven't come away from those periods feeling like it was effort very well spent or that it was particularly personally useful. Which I still feel kind of bad about, because the possibility of that kind of political connection at a distance is an exciting one in the blogging medium. I know that there are people who experience one form or another of isolation who have used blogging to connect with others in very positive, very political ways -- women of colour in predominantly white areas, people whose health restricts their mobility, people of left politics in very right-wing areas, and so on. And I know that relationships built and maintained primarily through computer technology can play an important part in political activity on the ground, in various ways. But I think you are right in observing that, mostly, these sorts of things don't happen, and mostly blogging is not done with that kind of political project in mind.

So mostly my blogging is of an "I" sort, though connected to other sorts of political doing, some "I" based and some "we" based. You are right, I think, in identifying that my "I" grounding for the blog is a bit different than many, though...I like to be read and I like to get comments, of course, but if not, oh well. For me the blog is much more about developing ideas and figuring out how to express them in a way that just wouldn't happen if the words stayed in my notebooks where I knew noone would ever read them. (And a secondary purpose is using it to spread the word about things I'm involved with or things that I'm not involved with but think deserve support.)

Anyway. I'm not sure what could make blogging more useful, more coordinated. Group blogs is an interesting idea. There are also the discussion forums, like En Masse and Babble and Bread & Roses...have you every participated in them? Do you find them useful? What is the tenor of the discussion, most of the time? I've never gotten involved with anything like that, but I've considered it.

Even if you don't know at the moment what organizational form would help us attain it, what sorts of things would you like to see happening in and coming out of blogs and online forums and other things like that?