Monday, February 12, 2018

WIP: Double radio, extra reading, hold the writing


In my first post of the year, back on January 1, I declared an intent to try writing blog posts that were more frequent and casual, often starting from Twitter threads.

I have been very pleased with that new practice. I've kept it up, mostly. I'm not as good at making them casual as I might like, but I've managed to write a range of kinds of things and to do it all in a way that connects, a little or a lot, to other things I'm working on. It feels both useful in multiple ways and pleaureable. So less-than-daily, more-than-weekly, quick, casual blogging is a practice I intend to maintain.

That said, it's a practice I intend to suspend for the next six weeks or so.

I'm going to be travelling for a couple of weeks in March. I have a separate mix of ambivalences about the travelling itself, which I may eventually write about, though I'm sure there will also be lots to enjoy. Of more immediate relevance, however, is that when you live with a rolling weekly deadline, as I do for Talking Radical Radio, two weeks in which no work whatsoever can happen necessitates a great deal of advance preparation and hassle. I'm actually in okay shape – not yet out of the woods, but on a good path – in terms of ensuring I'll have all of the interviews I need when I need them. But it's also going to require doubling up on the most time consuming element of doing the show, which is editing, for a period of a few weeks. So as of tomorrow, more or less, I'll be doing double my usual daily amount of radio editing.

As well, in the January 1 post I mentioned a major re-orientation of a book project that I've been intermittently working on for a few years. I say a little more about that as well in the first paragraph of this post. Since the new year, that has mostly involved doing a bunch of reading (as well as some exploratory writing), some quite similar to what I would be doing anyway, and some rather new. My goal is to have done enough of that to be able to make some further decisions by the end of March. And it has been happening, but unfortunately it has not been happening as quickly as I'd like.

Which means that along with double radio in the next few weeks (and no radio at all while I'm on the road, other than some social media promo stuff), I will be doing extra reading over all of that time. As a consequence, I don't think I'll have time to do any writing, or at least not any that will be seen by eyes other than mine. There are a couple of points where I might try to sneak a post in...but I won't have time that I can count on for doing writing of that sort until the last week of March.

All of which I say less because I think too many people who aren't me will be fussed one way or the other, but more as a way of making clear to myself that this will be a no-writing tunnel that will have a distinct and clear light at its end.

And now, off I go to begin mapping the interview for next week's episode of Talking Radical Radio. Well, first I'll cook dinner. Then the mapping begins... :)

Friday, February 09, 2018

Review: As We Have Always Done


[Leanne Betasamosake Simpson. As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom through Radical Resistance. Minneapolis MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2017.]

How to read from somewhere – and from where I am in particular – is an ongoing preoccupation in the reviews on this site. It's always a relevant question, but I feel it particularly keenly in instances like this book, where it's 100% clear that the book is not in any way addressed to me. Not that this book discourages anyone from reading who is willing to approach it in a spirit of respectful engagement, but it is also very clear about who it is written to and for. So given that, how do I read? What can I learn? How should I listen?

This book is written by Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg scholar, writer, and artist Leanne Betasamosake Simpson. It builds from her earlier book Dancing On Our Turtle's Back – which I read and reviewed last year – and outlines a comprehensive vision, grounded in Nishnaabeg thought but relevant to other Indigenous nations as well, for radical resurgence.

The premise for this work, at least as far as I am able to understand it from my external vantage, is the persistence of the integrated material cluster of lifeways, land, stories, logics, relationships, ceremonies, systems of perception and meaning and knowledge, and ways of organizing communities and lives that constitute, in a very practical and bottom-up sense, Indigenous nations. Centuries of colonial violence and, in the case of the author's territories in Ontario, massive and growing settler intervention in the landscape mean that it cannot be lived in quite the same way as in years gone by. But the seeds of the whole, the core, the basis for living otherwise, for theorizing the world in an Indigenous way and for refusing colonization in an Indigenous way, remain vital and alive. They key to resurgence, the book argues, lies in "the brilliance and complexity of Nishnaabeg embodied thought" learned from Elders and the land through traditional pedagogies, and that must be the emphasis of Indigenous resurgence. Simpson argues, "the intellectual and theoretical home of resurgence had to come from within Indigenous thought systems, intelligence systems that are continually generated in relationship to place" (16). As understood in this book, resurgence "is a flight out of the structure of settler colonialism and into the processes and relationships of freedom and self-determination encoded and practiced within Nishnaabewin or grounded normativity" (17).

The bulk of the book works through the author's understanding of what this flight from settler colonialism into Nishnaabewin looks like along different axes, including how it happens in practice and what key elements of that thought/practice consist of. It is assertively internationalist and anti-capitalist. It centres bodily sovereignty and ways of living that refuse the heteropatriarchal domination that has been so integral to settler colonialism. It involves (following Glen Coulthard) a stepping away from politics that see recognition from the settler state or settlers themselves as central, and instead a centering of Indigenous reciprocal recognition. It is premised on an idea of flight from but in recognition that, in the current state of things, amplifying the scope for autonomous Indigenous grounded normativities will inevitably come into conflict with the colonial violence of the settler state, so the kinds of resistance that implies will be part of the way forward as well. It is very clear about naming anti-Blackness and about prioritizing alliance with Black and other racialized communities as part of Indigenous resurgence, while seeing little direct role in resurgence for white settler allies. It advocates cohereing into small collectives as a useful, radical starting point, and offers some interesting cautions about online mobilization based on the author's involvement in the peak moment of Idle No More.

There are probably many ways that I could read this book usefully from where I am. Certainly there are the generic strategies for reading/listening across differences in experience that I first started to think about while doing my oral history project years ago: Using that listening to learn about areas of the social world beyond one's direct experience, and then engaging in the work to extend that into understanding how that experience and one's own are connected and are products of the same social world. There's always value in that, I think.

In particular, this book has helped me develop a richer understanding of the ways in which the collective, material context, and therefore the political possibilities and responsibilities, are different across the Indigenous/settler divide. To put it starkly, Indigenous people have at least the possibility of deep connection with the still-extant, place-based grounded normativities that Simpson writes about – the very real, material persistence of lifeways and episetemologies and logics that are substantially different from the colonial capitalist patriarchal totality that dominates most of social life. And white settlers don't.

This goes beyond a simplistic anti-oppression reading of the colonial axis of domination, i.e. who benefits and who is harmed, and begins to think about how the practical differences in positioning impose different starting points for engagement with struggle and therefore different political responsibilities.

So I know it's not a perfect metaphor, but I still find a great deal that's useful in heterodox marxist theorist John Holloway's way of talking about our resistance as cracks in the oppressive social order of which we are a part (which he would name simply "capitalism" but which I would quibble needs to be named more expansively and variously.) Part of what I like about the metaphor of the crack is the way it shows the necessary continuity between the tiny acts of everyday resistance that all of us engage in, the larger collective cracks that can be nurtured when we work to collectivize our everyday resistance, and the broad system-threatening ruptures that occasionally become possible.

Using this metaphor, to have the possibility of becoming part of an existing Indigenous grounded normativity is to be already in relation with a pretty substantial crack in colonial capitalism – which in fact isn't exactly a crack so much as a space that has, despite the past five centuries, never been wholly subsumed. That crack, as I said above, contains at least the seeds of an entirely different social logic that requires and is cast into resistance – inevitably – by the pressures of continuing to exist within, against, and beyond heteropatriarchal capitalist colonialism. Which is not to suggest that having that possibility dictates any particular choice about what to do with it. That is, after all, part of the point of the book: to outline the author's understanding of the value of choosing active immersion in the grounded normativity with which one is in relation. But obviously for that to be a meaningful possibility, you have to exist within material circumstances that make it possible to actively embrace the flight out of settler colonialism and into an Indigenous grounded normativity.

We – meaning white settlers – do not exist in relation to anything similar. Our range of possibilities looks much more like what Holloway describes. We, too, must make choices about how to relate to heteropatriarchal capitalist colonial social world in which we exist, but in making those choices we don't have that kind of larger crack that we can choose to orient our existence towards. We have only the flickers of our own everyday resistance and those of the people around us, and whatever we can weave together collectively from those flickers. So, for instance, the metaphor of "flight" really makes no sense for me and for others like me – we have nothing to flee to, and the only possible way to understand flight in the absence of some connection to grounded normativity is flight into quiescence, which is a very different thing. So I don't know exactly what all of the implications are, but it does point to a very different kind of political work that is required of us.

And yet I see moments of overlap, too. Simpson looks at the existing practices of small collectives of Indigenous people oriented towards grounded normativity, particularly but not exclusively artist collectives, and suggests a broader practice of using small collectives "for instantiating microcommunal forms of grounded normativity and Indigenous intelligence" and acting as

doorways out of the enclosure of settler colonialism and into Indigenous worlds. They can be small collectives of like-minded people working and living together, amplifying the renewal of Indigenous place-based practices. They can be larger Indigenous nations working within their own grounded normativity yet in a linked and international way. When these constellations work in international relationship to other constellations, the fabric of the night sky changes: movements are built, particularly if constellations of coresistance create mechanisms for communication, strategic movement, accountability to each other, and shared decision-making practices. (217-8)

And yet when it comes to beginning from the tiny cracks of everyday resistance, even with no grounded normativity to orient towards and to work to strengthen, it seems obvious that a major part of what is needed remains cultivating collectivity. It isn't done with the same purpose, with the same basis, or with the same resources – starting from flickers is an impoverished place to be. As well, I think there is value to experimenting in the context of settler society with lots of different organizational forms. But I think small collectives as building blocks remain one important element.

As for the larger question of how to read books that are not addressed to you, while the specifics in any given instance may not be clear, the general shape of the answer has to include a mix of working to understand the text on its own terms, including appreciating that there are elements of the world and of political practice that are just not about you and never will be, while also putting in the work to figure out how the text can inform your understanding of your own political responsibilities.

In the case of this book, I am keenly aware that I would be able to get more out of it on both scores if I was reading it with other people, so we could talk about it. At a bare minimum, though, I think it makes it very clear that there will be moments, as Indigenous people pursue the strategy that it outlines, when repression by the settler state and in a more populist vein by violent settler individuals will need to be opposed. And there will also be moments when resurgent Indigenous nations force the land question unavoidably onto settler agendas. In both of those cases, and probably many more, we have a responsibility to act in solidarity, which includes ongoing efforts to figure out what solidarity looks like. It most definitely doesn't mean trying to insert ourselves into the middle of struggles that should not centre us, of course – we have more than enough work on the settler side of things trying to figure our own stuff out. And the more effective we are at doing that, the more effective we are in growing the cracks in colonial heteropatriarchal capitalism as it surrounds and shapes us, the more we will be able to bring to struggling against the injustices that we face ourselves and that shape our communities in all kinds of ways, and the more we will have to offer in solidarity.

Saturday, February 03, 2018

Limits of Listening

A big chunk of the reading and thinking and writing that I'm doing at the moment is focused on working out how to expansively and radically think about listening as we work to understand the world and to build movements (including making movement media) to change it. The plan is to read things explicitly about listening (and various related topics), to read movement-ish things that I would be reading anyway but through a lens of listening, and to re-read a select few things that I've read in years past through that lens too.

I read a piece this week that drove home the idea that listening, however earnestly attempted and well intended, has limits -- not a new idea for me, but a powerful articulation of it. The piece is "It Takes an Ocean Not to Break" by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson in Cindy Milstein's collection Rebellious Mourning: The Collective Work of Grief. I've hesitated to actually name the piece here, as it is so much more than the few narrow thoughts by a random white dude that I'm about to offer, but it seemed more disrespectful not to. It's a powerful, dense piece sharing deeply personal colonial trauma and resultant grief. I'm drawing out a single element, but as I said the whole is so much more, so please read it if you can.

Part of what that piece does is narrate the experience of the author, who is Indigenous, of going to a white woman therapist. The author gets enough from it to keep going back, but despite years of listening, the therapist never comes close to grasping the colonial realities she relates or their impacts on self, family, community.

Given my current focus on thinking about listening, this instance of a deep failure of listening caught my attention. As I read it, this absolute insufficiency in listening can be traced to two causes: One is because the therapist only has therapeutic (psy-based) discourses into which she can read the experiences of colonial trauma that she hears. Therapeutic discourse is simply inadequate to understand colonization. The other is white-settlerness. That is, our experiences of systemic harm and benefit shape our capacities to know the world. Committed, humble, listening while in genuine relation can bridge some of that, partly, sometimes, in some ways. But not always.

There will always be a gap.

There will always be moments, sometimes tiny and sometimes painfully deep and broad, where listening fails.

There will always be moments where those of us who experience benefit along some axis are generously gifted stories by those who experience harm, where we earnestly work to take them up, and where we fail to understand what is being said.

What are the implications of that?

Well, I'm not entirely sure.

I am certain that the lesson should not be, oh, well, don't bother trying then. It has more contradictions and limits than popular movement songs and slogans allow, perhaps, but I think we still need to cultivate solidarity whenever we can, and that requires a commitment to listening, even knowing it will sometimes fail.

So...what, then? I'm still thinking it through, but I think it has to do with how we listen.

We have to be aware that our listening inevitably has limits. We have to reject the approach to listening, to perceiving the world, to taking up the stories of other people, that expects that the resulting knowledge can be complete and that it will lead, in some sense, to mastery. That last word is important – it captures a whole complex history of how we are taught to know the world. It is the knowing of colonization, the knowing of capital, knowing that is oriented to control, domination, profit. Not that most of us occupy the violent cutting edge of that knowing most of the time, but it's still how we are taught: the world as knowable in a particular way, and therefore controllable, even if it's not us who knows and controls as individuals.

Instead, I think we need to listen in a way that acknowledges its limits, our limits. Listening done in this way has (I think) no choice but to stand back, allow autonomy, encourage co-creation. It is a listening that must be humble – what other choice is there, when you know you can be told directly and repeatedly, you can listen deeply and genuinely, and still (in a moment or over a whole vast field) be clueless?

It is a listening of the listener who knows that they might not know, so they have to ask.

It is, I think, a kind of listening that is a much better starting point for genuine solidarity.