Monday, October 03, 2016

Review: Extraction!

[Frederic Dubois, Marc Tessier, and David Wdigington, editors. Extraction! Comix Reportage, 2nd edition. Ottawa ON: Ad Astra Comix, 2016. (First edition published by Cumulus Press in 2007.)]

I spend quite a bit of time thinking about the how to convey grassroots, critical, against-the-dominant-commonsense knowledge about the world. Just in this post, you can see this attention to method and medium by the presence of an embedded video -- as I explain here I'm experimenting with combining my longstanding practice of reviewing nonfiction books related to social issues and social movements, my longstanding Talking Radical project, and a new interest in developing at least rudimentary skills for working with video to augment my written book reviews with video book reivews. I'm also a fan of comics-based narrative. I didn't grow up reading them, which is a bit surprising because I think I would've liked them, but I've come to appreciate them as an adult. Also, despite my complete lack of anything resembling artistic ability, I have thought a bit about the potential for comics to convey the sorts of ideas and knowledge and information that form the core of my own work. All of which means that I find the combination of journalism and sequential art in Extraction! Comix Reportage, 2nd edition to be intriguing and exciting. I feel somewhat cautious in reaction to it, too, but as I'll explain below, that's really not about the book itself.

Extraction! was first published in 2007. It sold out quickly, and the publisher folded in 2008. This second edition was put out by Ad Astra Comix, a publisher in Ottawa specializing in social justice-related comics, in 2016. The book tells four stories, each bringing together a different journalist with a different artist, and each reporting on a different instance of a Canadian resource extraction company doing its thing -- gold mining in Guatemala, uranium in Quebec, bauxite in India, and the tar sands in Alberta. There is also some text-y frontmatter and backmatter that talk about the project and the process.

I like the art. I appreciate the skill of the writing. I've done some grassroots journalism myself in the past, though unlike the reporters who contributed to this volume it has never been my primary focus, and I appreciate the evidence both of their journalistic skills in general and of the work of thinking through how best to apply them to a medium with quite different strengths and weaknesses than the written word alone. It was also good to see that there were at least a couple of different approaches to doing that represented.

The book, as I said, isn't new, but for the most part that didn't bother me. Fables of corporate social responsibility notwithstanding, violence to people and the earth are endemic to the Canadian mining and broader resource extraction industries, and these stories felt well worth telling and worth reading even if they're a few years old. The only one of the four that felt a little bit off, perhaps because it's the one of the four that I went in knowing most about already, was the one about the tar sands. It felt a little dated, as it was written before what has been a pretty change-filled decade in terms of basic facts and impacts and political dynamics. Still, it does a pretty good job of introducing some of the history and the environmental outcomes, and I think would be a good tool to get senior elementary and high school students thinking about the issue. More concerning, though, was that it talked almost exclusively about the environmental impacts, with almost no attention to the colonial character of the tar sands, and I think that's pretty politically troubling.

Even given those concerns, though, I liked the book, and thought it was well done. I think it can be a tool to introduce critical material about the impacts of capitalist resource extraction to people who might otherwise not encounter such material, and I hope it gets used that way.

But that brings me to the side of my reaction to this book that's hesitant. And, really, this reaction isn't about the book at all -- it is more about my own two decades of experience with both the power and the limits of grassroots media-making and knowledge production. On the one hand, it's work that I am committed to because I know that it can reach people and it can be an important element in supporting struggles for a better world. I know that consistent, solid work on an established project or form can do this, and I know that investing energy in exploring new possibilities, new media, new forms can do it too -- I wouldn't remain determined even after three and a half year to meet a time-consuming weekly radio deadline if I didn't believe the former, and I wouldn't be playing around with video for the first time ever if I didn't believe the latter. At the same time, the scale and reach of dominant institutions and practices of both media-making and knowledge production are vastly larger than anything that we're capable of at the moment, and it's hard to simultaneously hold onto both excitement for what we are able to do along with sober recognition of the sharp limits of our reach and the harsh realities of what we can't do.

That concern is about far more than mainstream news media, but I'll lay it out with reference to that because that's what's most relevant to this book: Dominant institutions and practices of mainstream journalism incorporate particular kinds of silences and biases and erasures into the core of their work, even at its best. The fact that initiatives trying to enact radically transformed institutions and practices for knowing the world are nowhere near the scale they would need to be to functionally replace mainstream media institutions, however, means that struggles to change the world still depend on mainstream journalism's ability to do certain kinds of things dependably and well, whatever its limitations. Except even that has been hollowed out over the last twenty years -- just last week, there was a report in the Toronto Star about the crisis in Canadian news media. And while I disagree profoundly with the solutions being suggested by Canada's media capitalists, the fact that the largest circulation daily in the country has cut its newsroom from 470 journlists to just 170 in the course of a decade, and that many other papers have done similar things or closed up shop entirely, is the sign of a major problem, and one that is very relevant to social movements and to communities-in-struggle, however vigorous and justified our criticisms of the mainstream media might be.

Like I said, this hesitance isn't at all about the book. Rather, it's a reminder -- to myself as much as to anyone else -- that even as we need to celebrate the things that we make that are grassroots and critical and committed to a vision for a better world world, like this important book, we need to keep an eye on that bigger picture and not get lost (as I know all to well can happen) in a neoliberal celebration of novelty and innovation and creativity when, as lovely as those things are, our bottom line really needs to be social justice and collective liberation.

So please do read this book. It's a solid journalistic introduction to the realities of Canadian resource extraction industries, which are known by far too few people given how central they are to colonial capitalism in the northern half of Turtle Island. As well, the book is an important experiment with a new approach to producing and circulating knowledge about the world that, despite my indulgence in broad pessimism above, I really do want to see develop and grow. In fact, I want our grassroots media-making and knowledge production to grow until it really can offer an alternative to the institutions that dominate and distort how we know the world today.

[For a list of all book reviews on the site, click here.

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