Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Thinking through writing about interviews with activists, part 1

About a month ago, I wrote about my feeling of an odd reluctance to write about social movements, despite my ample experience of and means for doing so. The kinds of writing that I want, in various ways, to be doing -- and which I am increasingly convinced can play an important role in several interrelated but distinct projects that I have either started or am considering -- involve beginning from the weekly in-depth interviews I do for Talking Radical Radio and seeing where I can go. To try to figure that out, I'll be working through it in this post and at least one other.

One way to think about these interviews is as encounters between myself and the interview participants. These encounters result in a text – a recording or audio text -- that is then edited and shared online and over airwaves. Anyone who's interested can spend 28 minutes listening to the show and thereby have their own encounter with the audio text of the interview. They can take up and reflect on their experience of this "listener + recording" encounter, and thereby produce their own knowledge about the group or project or organization or struggle that was at the heart of the interview.

It's really that text, the recording resulting from the initial interview encounter, that is the starting point for the writing that I want to do. I'm involved in the initial encounter that produced the recording, of course, but the writing will result at least equally from my later encounters with the recording – from the careful, repeated listening and note-taking that's part of the editing process – and then whatever meaning I can make from all of that close attention. At the moment, I have no firm commitment to exactly what form that meaning should take, what sort of final products I want to end up with, what sort of topics I want to cover, what sort of claims I want to make, or anything like that. Instead, I want to figure out what I can do, in terms of what is possible at all, what is ethical, what might be politically useful to movements, and what might be compelling to readers, from this starting point. Once I've done that, then I hope my speculations about these various projects can take on a more concrete form.

Reflection on this has taken me pretty far up the chain towards first principles and towards consideration of what it means to produce knowledge and to write, and what exactly the doing of those things actually involves. And what I've come up with, and what seems pretty important to consider in making any decisions about how to proceed, is that any act of making meaning from X – any act of knowledge production, any act of writing – involves considering X in relation to something else, whatever that something might be.

I can't actually tell whether that assertion will come across as nonsensical or as utterly obvious to readers, so the rest of this post is going to be me walking through what that means and why I think it. And if you find it totes obvs, well, my apologies, and you can probably stop reading now. But on a certain level, why should it be obvious? Does writing about X really have to involve consideration of anything but X, or at the very most the person doing the writing plus X? Couldn't I write about these interviews by just listening to one and then riffing off a "hot take" blog post -- just me, the recording I'm encountering, a few hastily typed words, and bang it's done? I don't particularly want to do that kind of thing, but I could, right?

Well, no.

However casual and sloppy, whatever angle I take – "Wow, the state was evil here" or "there's something else going on here too" or "racism bad, solidarity good" or "Hey, movement, you screwed up, do it differently next time" or whatever – already points to some kind of source or focus or input or comparison or implication that is beyond what was already present in the interview. If I talk about "something else" in the situation, that's obvious, but similarly by invoking "racism" or "the state", I'm pointing to socially organized constellations of relations and practices out in the world, and in pointing out some error in movement practice I can't help but at least implicitly bring in ways of evaluating movements that came from somewhere -- if they are approaches to evaluation that are even vaguely useful, they must have been produced with reference to other movements and with ways of thinking about change that emerged from other situations. So I am already making meaning by putting the interview into relation with something else, even if it feels like me just sitting down and putting a few thoughts onto the screen. I mean, think about eating an apple and then writing about eating an apple: I'm not sure there is any way to do that without at least implicitly invoking other apples or other tastes or other situations.

My conviction that this is inevitable comes not just from hasty thought-experiments, either, but from reading work by a number of people who are much smarter than me who all seem to point in the same direction.

Take philosopher Emmanuel Levinas. He thought a lot about encounters between self and other, and in fact based a great deal of his work on how this kind of encounter is foundational to what it means to be human, and that there is no such thing as a self prior to its constitution in encounters with other people. For him, a sort of idealized "self + other" encounter is the core of this and is the starting point for thinking about our existence in the world. But he is also quite clear that you only get to the full implications of it all for our lives when you realize that this "self + other" encounter always happens in a context in which there is someone else, some "third person" (or, really, an infinite range of others) to whom we are also in relation and to whom we also have obligations. That complicates the initial ethical relation to the other and introduces the need for judgement and analysis and balance that point towards justice. Now, the use that he puts all of that to has to do with recognizing a primacy for ethics in thinking about how we exist as beings in the world, but I would argue that it also has implications for our knowledge of the world -- whenever we are producing knowledge through an encounter with a person or an object or a text, it is never just an encounter between me and some other being or object, but an encounter and a process of making meaning that happens in relation to those who are beyond that immediate encounter.

You can also look at philosopher Sara Ahmed's writing about encounters, both in Strange Encounters and in Queer Phenomenology. She starts from the philosophical tradition of phenomenology (of which Levinas was one part) and its close and intense readings of experiences (i.e. encounters with various sorts of objects and situations and people) and she queers it by arguing that we must attend not only to what is perceptibly present in our encounters, but also to what is not directly perceptible but is still important to them -- what came before, what exists on the margins, what sits beside, what is pointed to beyond. Failing to do those things means failing to know all we can about and from a given encounter.

And of course the kinds of knowledge and knowing that I'm interested in are those that can be put into words, and doing that -- as per this quote from Mikhail Bakhtin that I posted almost a decade ago -- means taking up words that are already populated with meaning from how they have been used by others. That means that the very use of words is social, not just because you are trying to convey meaning to other people, but because you have no choice but to use socially produced vessels of meaning to do that. That means that everything, from the slap-dash hot take I hypothesized about above, to the most sober and considered scholarly reflection, involves putting the topic/object/person/encounter at hand into relation with other aspects of the social world as reflected in the words we use to talk about it.

Of course, the default ideas and language that we have available for thinking about these things don't necessariliy make all of this obvious to us. We easily fall into erasing the inevitably social character of writing, and the fact that it fundamentally involves navigating, understanding, and rearticulating relationships among aspects of the social world, and instead we tend to reduce all of that to some isolated Herculean activity of an individual intellect that creates something out of nothing. But that simply is not the case.

So. Writing about X means making meaning from the the web of relationships that X has with other elements of the social world. Writing about my Talking Radical Radio interviews will therefore involve considering them in relation to other aspects of the social world, beyond my encounter with the interview participants, and beyond my further encounters with the audio text of the interview.

But what other aspects of the world? Put into relation in what ways? And to what ends?

I'll continue with those questions soon in part 2.

No comments: