Thursday, December 03, 2015

Thinking through writing about interviews with activists, part 2

Earlier in the week, I published a piece in which I began the process of figuring out how to write from my Talking Radical Radio interviews in a way that might address some of the misgivings I wrote about last month. What I published on Tuesday was pretty heavy on the 'what does it all mean' theory end of things, and I made a case that any writing that I did starting from those interviews would by definition involve putting the interview into relation with something else in the social world. Today, I want to move on from there to the much more practical questions of what I might put the interviews into relation with and how I might usefully do that work.


As I explained in my earlier post, this act of putting-in-relation is inherent to writing, so maybe I don't really need to be deliberate about it. Maybe I can just write what I want and let it happen.

Maybe, but I don't think so. I can see two main reasons why that would be a bad idea, one related to each term of the "me + interview participant" basis for these interviews. Both of these objections are based in the sense that, though writing inherently puts the object of the writing into relation with other aspects of the social world, if you're not being explicit and clear about it, it tends to happen in a way that keeps attention on those two core terms and invisibilizes in plain sight, or at least deemphasizes, the broader relational element. In terms of the "me" portion, I already talked last month about how monological, blog-standard, white dude opining is not quite what I want this writing to look like, and I think that's what it would look like if I wasn't explicit about bringing in this as-yet unspecified something else. And in terms of the "interview participant" element, there's a good chance that whatever I did would end up looking like pronouncements made about them and their work -- the group or project or struggle or whatever at the heart of the interview. Really, what else would there be to talk about, in this scenario? And I don't want to be doing that. Certainly I agree with those who argue that we need to do a better job of lovingly but critically evaluating our own and other contributions to struggles waged by our communities and movements, but that role is completely inappropriate for how I and the work that I'm doing are situated.

So if I really do have to be deliberate about putting the interview in relation to some kind of something else, what are my options for that something else?

Well, like I mentioned a month ago, one option would be to put it in relation to other sources that were from or about its immediate environment – that is, to use the interview as a basis for grassroots journalism. These sources would allow me to present additional knowledge about the context, the struggle, the other parties to the situation, allies, opponents, ruling relations with which they come into conflict, and so on. And a few could also be "experts" whom I could quote as sources of analysis that would help introduce new ways of thinking about the situation. As I wrote before, this is a kind of work that has limits but that we need more of. But, again, I'm not well placed to do this when it comes to the Talking Radical Radio interviews, because I don't have easy access to the communities and environments which situate most of the people I interview.

Another way to put a Talking Radical Radio interview into deliberate relation with an element of the broader social world would be to put it into relation with another Talking Radical Radio interview. If done sensitively and with respect for everyone involved, I think this could sometimes end up being pretty interesting. I'm a little wary about it, again because I don't want it to become a more sophisticated version of me making pronouncements that judge and assess and evaluate the work of those whom I'm interviewing. I also suspect that for it to work, it would have to be just the right pair (or collection) of interviews. So I'm planning on keeping my eyes open for opportunities to do this, but I don't think it can be my default approach.

Or, I could put the interview in relation to me and my experiences. This may not sound like it's any different than the "me + interview participant" default that I've already dismissed, but it differs in that it treats me and my experiences as explicit object of inquiry and source of raw material – as a starting point for theory – rather than me solely occupying the role of unexamined opiner. I'm not going to dismiss this possibility entirely, because I think figuring out how to write about theorizing the world from our own experience is an important subset of figuring out how to theorize the world from everyday experience in general, and it's something I'm interested in working on more directly in the longer term. As well, part of why I think starting from experience is useful is because mine will differ from yours will differ from hers over there, and we can learn a lot about the world by thinking about how they are all socially connected. So there may be instances where this has the possibility to lead to something interesting and politically useful, but again I suspect that will be quite rare, so I'll try to be open to it but I certainly won't count on it or (heaven forbid) force it. (I suspect that what's more likely is that capacities that I build in doing this work with the Talking Radical Radio interviews will come in handy as I do other work, the odd bit now and more later, that will begin just from my own experiences.)

All of which leaves me, as far as I can tell, with one other option. I may be missing something -- and please tell me if I am -- but all that I can think of that's left to put these interviews in relation with as I write is other textual sources. In principle, that could be any sort of texts that might fit, and I'm certainly open to writing about an interview in relation to some online piece that I find, or to a short article, or to a song, or to a poem. I do hope that I manage to keep my attention to possibilities for this kind of writing broad and open enough that I do some of that. But it occurs to me that I read rather a lot of books -- maybe not as many at the moment as at certain other points, but still a fair number. Part of why I read at least the nonfiction portion of these books is in the hope that they contain ideas that are useful for understanding the world, and therefore for writing about it and for trying to act to change it. Now, I already write reviews of most of the nonfiction that I read. But I write those reviews mostly for my own purposes, to help me integrate what I've gotten from the book into my existing knowledge of the world, so while I'm happy for people to read them, considerations of any audience beyond me are usually pretty secondary. So why not put some of these ideas to work? Why not, in my quest to figure out what I can do with these interviews, begin from explicitly and deliberately putting them into relation with ideas from books (or articles, or essays, or ... or ... or ...) that I have read? Not whole books, but key ideas -- maybe just one key idea per piece of writing.


I don't think I am yet able to offer a definitive answer to how I will go about putting Talking Radical Radio interviews into relation with key ideas from written sources (or other interviews or maybe even my own experience). Partly this is because doing so will depend on me being clearer with myself about exactly what I want these pieces of writing to accomplish. And I want to accomplish a few different kinds of things, so it may be that there isn't any one answer anyway. And partly this is because coming up with an answer won't be something I can do in the abstract but can only come from experimenting with the actual writing.

Still, there are a few general features for how I want to approach this work that I'm already sure of:

  • The process of putting the two (or more) in relation should be done clearly and deliberately and explicitly, rather than in the sort of casual and ad hoc way that often happens in, say, a blog post. The point here is to transparently invite in voices and ideas other than my own, to make the resulting writing less monological.
  • It will be crucial to centre the interview, not the something else. I don't mean "centre" in terms of giving it the most space, necessarily, but in terms of allowing it to guide what ideas are used and how, as opposed to the sorts of violence done to stories when they are chosen and/or deformed to fit with pre-set ideas.
  • The goal is to go outwards -- to start from the grounding that is the interview, as put into relation with whatever else I'm using, to talk about something out there in the social world. The goal is not, except perhaps in rare cases, to make the movement or group or person the object of analysis or comment.
  • This isn't the only kind of output that I have in mind, but a key initial goal would be to produce posts that are relatively short, relatively accessible and readable, and done in what you might call a writerly mode rather than, say, journalistic or op-ed-ish or scholarly modes.
Saying what you intend to do before you've started doing it is always dangerous, because you might start and discover that, really, you've come up with a truly appalling approach that you want to bury in a hole in the back yard rather than continue to enact. In this case, I'm a little worried that what I have in mind risks being more time consuming than I'd like. But, frankly, I can live with that, at least provisionally. I'm also worried that it might result in writing that isn't as broadly interesting as it could be. But, then, that's always the job: to deploy ideas and craft together in a way that results in something that someone might actually read. I'm occasionally struck by how audacious the act of writing inevitably is, in that it presumes that other people will do work for you just because you have plonked words down in front of them -- the work of reading and thinking. But it's a constant source of delight and surprise that, at least on occasion, people do.

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