Monday, January 19, 2015

Writing the Connection Between the Big Bad World and Everyday Life

From that moment as an undergraduate university student when I first allowed my childhood dream of being a writer to reawaken, it has been clear that what I want to write about is the world. That has taken many different forms, from the nonfictional bits and pieces that I scatter about in public today, to my occasional private forays into bad poetry and not quite so bad but still not good short stories in years gone by, but it has always been present. At some point along the way, it became clear that in order to do that I also had to write about myself – not only because that's what everyone from the driest purveyor of political economy to the most fanciful spinner of fairy tales inevitably does on some level anyway, but because the direction taken as my politics and epistemology have developed pretty much dictates that I have to do so in an overt sort of way.

This is not easy, however. It is not easy in part because I often have a difficult time talking about myself even in the safest of environments – and though it is much less hostile for me as a middle-class white guy than for racialized people of all genders and gender-oppressed people of all racial backgrounds, the internet is far from being a safe place. But it's also not easy on some other level, a level that goes beyond my (partially socially produced) personal idiosyncrasies.

When I think about my daily life, there are a range of kinds of questions that occupy my time and emotional energy. Things like, "What am I going to cook tonight?" and "Should I do laundry today?" and other kinds of domestic concerns. Other things – lots of things – connected to my writing/research/media work, like, "What if I don't find a next radio interview in time?" and "How can I fit some writing in today?" and "Did that hour of work result in anything good or did I just totally waste my time?" and "What should I work on next?", along with lots related to the content of whatever I happen to be doing. Things connected to political involvements, like, "What do I have time to take on at tomorrow's meeting?" and "How on earth are we going to grow the group?". And there's a big chunk organized around being highly introverted, quite socially anxious, and, frankly, dissatisfyingly lonely, in combination with actively craving human connection, like, "Did I say something stupid in that interaction?" and "Does that person like me?" and "Do I have the energy to go to this event?". And at various times there might be worries about money, about the welfare of particular people, about matters of desire and sexuality, about specific tasks or commitments, about public events (both local and global), about my own health, and so on. And, inevitably, more existential "What does it all mean?" and "How should I live my life differently?" kinds of obsessing.

When I think, however, about the political discourse I encounter on a regular basis, it all has a much, much different shape than all of that. I think about the various places I get news and information and analysis, not so much in terms of books but in shorter and more rapidly produced formats. And I think about what counts as "political talk" in the contexts in which I exist. And even for me – someone for whom privilege means I have lots of space for choice in what fills my days, and whose choices include lots of things connected in one way or another to what is widely understood as "the political" – the connections between what fills most of my days and takes most of my emotional energy, and the shape and content of that broader political discourse, are not at all clear.

Public and Private

There are a number of things going on here, I think, but a lot of this disconnection between my everyday experience and various forms of discourse that are commonly understood as being about "the world" has to do with the divide between public and private that is so central to liberal capitalism. As I'll explore more below, how this plays out depends a lot on who you are, but in general our everyday lives and the concerns that fill them are relegated to "the private" or "the individual", while much of our written and spoken political discourse requires, for admission to the category, that it be organized around things that fit the labels "public".

It isn't just "wrong ideas" that make the public/private divide so central, or that make it seem like the two are essentially separate spheres of life – this flows from hor our lives and our social environments are organized, and things could, in theory, be organized otherwise. And even as things are now, there is really no essential separation between the two. They are always and inevitably tightly integrated. But the challenge here is that the separation manfiests in the language and other methods of communication that we have readily available to talk about the world. That is, writing in a way that refuses this disconnection and that really does treat the everyday/private/individual as integrated into the political/public/social is not necessarily an easy thing to do, particularly if you want that writing to be broadly circulated and taken up.

I should add, too, that this is a bit schematic, and things aren't quite so clearly divided. In particular, feminists have taught lessons that push against this divide in different ways many times over the years: In the founding years of its New Left resurgence, they taught that the personal is political; Marxist feminists taught that production and reproduction are inextricably bound together; women of colour feminists taught that it is yet another form of dominating violence to insist that a person be present only as a fragment and not as their whole self. So feminist work is a crucial place to learn in answering the question I'm posing here.

That said, there is also another form of popular political discourse that often (though not always) connects to (liberal versions of) feminism which seems to counter this divide but, I think, doesn't really. It presents a certain kind of politicization of everyday life that in some ways is useful, in that it creates space to talk in political ways about such things, but that mostly fails to connect that political talk to questions of social organization or collective action. It is a kind of politicization of the private and individual that pushes against the divide but often remains trapped within it. It, too, is an instance of continuing to have our politics and our ways of communicating about the world governed by the separation. Of course we should be thinking about things like consumption, aesthetics, sexual practices, and other aspects of personal conduct in politicized ways, but often when this happens the connection with the social world and collective action is made poorly or not at all.

So this separation persists, even among plenty of feminists, and certainly in the broader left. This is not a product of individual failing, but of the fact that, as I said, it is organized into our lives by dominant discourse and social relations.

Public, Private, and Movements

Not surprisingly, the power of this socially organized division also manifests in how we think and talk about social movements and struggle. I may not always succeed in finding the right balance, but in general I think it's improtant to work at seeing, valuing, and suppporting a broad range of forms and modes of resistance, prominently including the everyday-and-individual and everyday-and-organically-mutual modes – those that are most often erased and devalued by being slotted on the "private" side – because they are what is most present in most people's lives. That said, modes of resistance and change-making that are collective and confrontational – those which are more obviously public – are crucial as well, and there are too few opportunities to participate in such things in North America today. Hence my sense of the importance of activism, organizing, and movements. I think we need to have an analysis of what organizing is that works against this separation of modes of resistance along the public/private axis, and against the dismissal of those modes that fall into the "private" side of the divide. That is, I see the process of organizing as, ideally, one of catalyzing the possibility for people to bring together the moments of resistance and refusal we experience in our everyday lives into some kind of more deliberately collective and confrontationl effort to create transformative change.

But, again, how can we effectively talk about this? How do we avoid making our recognition into some sort of ritualized acknowledgement of everyday resistance (of reproductive labour, of that which inhabits the private sphere), or a digressive paragraph we include if length allows? How do we integrate this continuity between our everyday lives and the social world, between private and public, between the modes of resistance that sustain us as we go through the day and those that bring us together to challenge and confront and transform as a collective?

The Landscape of Possibilities

In pondering the possibilities for doing this, it became pretty clear, pretty fast that the range of answers that each of us has access to is, like so much in this life, shaped by the specificities of our experience.

So, for instance, if you happen to exist in a context in which there already is a very clear connection between the experiences of everyday existence and practices of collective struggle, figuring out how to speak or write the integral character of the two should, at least in theory, be reasonably straightforward. It might be personally very difficult or even dangerous, but the shape of potential discursive paths to doing so are at least visible. In North America today, this is a rare sort of context to be in, but it does exist. During the Quebec student strike of 2012, for instance, or the big strike at the mines here in Sudbury in 2010, I suspect the most active strikers had that experience. I think many of the indigenous communities across northern Turtle Island that are under most active attack have that experience. And I think that perhaps folks who are immersed in the Anarchist or radical scenes that exist in the very biggest cities have an experience of that sort (which is not to say that I don't have significant reservations about that as a model for propagating struggle).

But I am not in such a context, and neither are most of us, at least most of the time. And mostly we can't just choose, on an individual basis, to become part of such a context – nor, I think, should we valorize such a choice. And I think not being in such a context is true not only for relatively privileged people like yours truly, but also for most people who experience quite intense levels of oppression and marginalization. And saying that isn't to disregard the extent to which survival is resistance for a lot of people – that's paraphrasing Audre Lourde, if I'm remembering correctly – but rather to recognize the gap between that level and mode of resistance, and more collective and confrontational modes that carry at least the potential of social transformation, for most people, given the neoliberal (atomized, isolated) contexts in which most of us exist in North America today. With some important but mostly fairly localized exceptions – mostly related to transient upsurges of mass activity or longstanding place-based communities of resistance – there is little access for anyone to any sort of overarching movement environment in this particular time and place. (And I hasten to add that if I'm wrong about this, if I'm misjudging this diverse array of experiences that are unlike my own, please jump in and correct me.)

Another very relevant kind of specificity in our experience (which cuts across being present or not in an all-eveneloping movement environment) is about the ways in which we benefit and/or are harmed by various forms of socially organized injustice – racism, patriarchy, heterosexism, ableism, capitalism, and so on. How our experiences are shaped by the public/private divide have always been bound up in our experiences of these other axes of social relations. The bourgeois family was the initial model for “the private,” in contrast with the publicness of both the poor and aristocracy. This shaped social norms of propriety that came to dominate, and both were and are used as justification for scorning those who, for one reason or another, choose not to or are simply unable to abide by those norms – because of not having the material resources to be private in the right ways, or perhaps because of the mandatory publicness (and impropriety) that adheres to being “not-white” or “readably queer” or what have you.

It's this last – the ways in which publicness or privateness is made socially mandatory for some people in terms of some aspects of self – that matters for the questions of writing and otherwise communicating that I'm talking about here. Examples of mandatory enclosure in the private realm include the socially enforced silencing of queerness euphemistically individualized as "the closet", the historical confinement of economically privileged white femininity to the private sphere, and the related enforced private character of intimate partner violence that is directed most often (but not only) from men against women – social movements have weakened but not eradicated these forms of mandatory privacy in recent decades. And mandtory publicness includes, as I said, things like racialization or out/unhideable queerness or gender non-conformity or homelssness/visible poverty or some kinds of disability, where a certain kind of surveillance and scrutiny and reading-into-publicness of aspects of self is an element of the overall experience of socially organized oppression.

So if you make a crude division of aspects of everyday life among mandatorily public, mandatorily private, and orindarily private – and of course not everyone will experience the first two, though I think all of us have moments of the last – then it becomes clear that the challenges for integrating the writing about the world grounded in everyday experience can differ significantly.

What To Do

Again I return to the very practical question that triggered all of this: How do I do this? I look at (most) lefty political discourse and the (especially non-book) spaces it shapes and is shaped by, I look at my own everyday life, and it is not immediately obvious to me how to go about writing the integrally related character of the two.

How to do this kind of writing is not actually such a great mystery, of course – there are many examples, many experiments, especially (as I said above) feminist ones. They are enough to make it clear that anyone thinking through this problem is not treading novel ground, and they are a solid starting point for figuring out one's own approach.

Yet questions and challenges remain. For instance, my sense of those experiments in writing about self and the world in this way is that, for all of their breadth, they much more often begin from mandatorily public or the mandatorialy private aspects of people's everyday experience, and much less often from the ordinarily private (though certainly you can find examples that begin from the first two and reach into the last). Beginning from the ordinarly private is less often done, and may take some careful thought.

(It may seem, by the way, that this kind of writing might be easier to do in the context of experiences of the everyday that are manditorily public. I don't experience that, so I can't say for sure, but my sense is that would be a gravely incorrect supposition. With mandatory publicness, there may be some sort of discursive connection between everyday life and larger scale questions that is more readily available, but often that is solely through discourse that is severed from actual experience, often discourses of ruling (like social policy discourse – sorry, friends and former colleagues, but it is) and at least some discourses of resistance. Often, despite a public visibility, it is extremely challenging to articulate an understanding of that which is made public that truly connects experience with the social world, and instead various negative things that are socially produced get made to stick to manditorily public bodies and treated as individual flaws. Moreover, I think there is a kind of forcible dehumanization that goes along with mandatory publicness, a kind of aggressive rejection of the presence of full humanity in public and instead a sort of appropriative mandatory severing of self. Again, I could be completely wrong on this.)

Another challenge is that I believe this kind of discourse should be common in some contexts where is currently rare -- to a certain extent at least, this is less a problem of writing than it is a problem of the expectations of publishers and readers. Where you most often find writing that does this is in longer forms, and less so in short ones, so while it exists, it isn't central to how we engage with the world. It still mostly isn't present in what we read, watch, and hear on a daily basis to learn about what's going on in the world beyond the local space of our direct experience.

Why Bother?

It may not be immediately clear why, in this world of many problems, I think this particular problem is worth time and attention and effort. But I do.

I think that overcoming this division in how we write about the world, how we talk about the world, how we relate to the world as we go about our lives, could be useful. Not that shifting our communication can make the very material basis of the private/public distinction magically transform into some other way of organizing our communities and lives. But pushing against the way in which the sides of that distinction so often appear as separate rather than tightly integrated in how we talk about them, and pushing against the assumption that a distinction organized in this way is inevitable, can contribute to making space for imagining how things might be materially different.

I think that by failing to do this, we end up reproducing discourse about the world, analysis, political talk that most people don't relate to. And, really, who can blame them. It's not that the big issues and big struggles that fill our news and analysis pieces, that fill our urgent conversations at meetings and over pints, are not connected to the everyday lives of ordinary people, but we persist in talking about them as if they are not. So perhaps wrestling with this issue, and finding ways to bring our experiments in doing so into the centre of our ways of communicating rather than relegating them to the margins might help to connect with more people. It might reduce barriers of accessibility to engagement with social movements, with activism, with organizing.

And I think even for people who are engaged with the issues that various flavours of organizing, activism, and movements focus on, this separation from everyday life erodes the accessibility and sustainability of our movements. As I argued above, most people, most of the time, will not be in contexts where that connection between everyday life and large-scale collective struggle is clear and directly experienced. And by not doing better at integrating awareness of the connection that does exist between the ordinary everyday and the social world/collective struggle, we contribute to valorizing those people who can organize their entire lives around involvement – the cult of the militant, as it is sometimes called. This means we place less effort than we need to on organizing in ways that create space for many kinds and levels of engagement, and we rhetorically position folks who can be involved in only limited ways, for whatever reason, as less important or less rad than folks who can devote every moment. This excludes a lot of people, and we need a lot of people. And it harms the sustainability of our movements, because often young activists reach a point where it feels like they are failing or betraying their politics if they take on responsibilities – including paid work, childcare, eldercare, and much more – that mean more of their time has to go into the ordinary everyday and less into organizing, and many feel no choice but to withdraw completely. Again, figuring out new ways to talk about the world is no cure-all, as it's more about how we organize, but I think that challenging that discursive disconnection between the ordinary everyday and the social world and collective struggle can be one element.

I also wonder about what impact the persistence of such disconnection between big issues and everyday lives has on how we organize. I'm not sure about the details, but I'd bet it does, and I'd bet that it's bound together with the tendency of many movements to ignore or underplay or misunderstand the relationship between everyday resistance and more collective and confrontational modes. And dealing with this better in how we communicate is tied to doing a better job overall in recognizing and respecting and integrating the importance of everyday resistance and reproductive labour into how we relate to both the world and our movements.

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