Saturday, January 09, 2021

Review: The All New Don't Think of an Elephant!

 [George Lakoff. The All New Don't Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate. White River Junction, Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2014.]

Second edition from 2014 of a classic of US liberalism first released in the early George W. Bush years. The author is a cognitive scientist who has devoted much of his career to applying the findings of experimental neuroscience to politics. He has published a bunch of scholarly work along these lines too, but this book was how he brought his insights into the liberal end of the popular political
conversation south of the border. He argues that framing is central to how we make knowledge, particularly to what we take up and what we dismiss, and that framing has a biological basis. He argues that in the United States at least, there are two overarching frames under which all politics happen, the ‘strict father’ family and the ‘nurturant parent’ family, and everything else can be explained by how those frames operate and how political actors relate to them. He then explores in considerable detail how the insights that one can derive from this approach would enable progressives to reframe key issues in ways that would make them more winnable.

Not gonna lie, I found this a pretty agonizing read. Not because there’s no value in it – I think it does actually contain some insight into the practicalities of political communication that can be extracted for use by the grassroots movement-ish left, including outside of the US. But the useful stuff is so embedded in things that for me ranged from distracting to odious that I’m not sure I’d recommend it. Frankly, I think folks on the movement-ish left are better off learning lessons in this area by listening to the advice of movement-based people who are committed to approaches to change grounded in organizing – and here I mean “organizing” not in the more common usage where it gets applied to pretty much anything that is vaguely activisty or that involves putting on events of whatever sort, but rather in the more specific sense of an approach to change grounded in one-on-one conversations and engagement across difference with other people in the same workplace, building, or community to build an organization or some other form of collective power.

Anyway, the book. On the level of craft, it was annoying because it’s very repetitive. Maybe that’s deliberate and based in some other lesson from the author’s background in neuroscience – repetition to hammer the point home, or something like that – but it didn’t make for a particularly enjoyable read.

I was also uneasy about how it talks about the relationship between biology, as understood via experimental science, and the social and political world. Not that I deny that connection or dismiss the experimental findings. But in my experience, the ways in which many scientists theorize the social world is weak (or worse) which in turn means that how they conceptualize the relationship between biological knowledge produced through experimentation and the social world also often tends to be weak (or worse). I don’t know enough about the science in this case to even hazard a guess about how I might critique how this book does it – and because it is lay oriented, the book itself does not provide anywhere close to enough of a basis for a reader who doesn’t already know the science well to figure that out – but based on past experience in other areas, I’m sure I would differ from the author. Among many other things, the fact that the biology as characterized by the author maps so incredibly neatly onto the two-party system in the US makes me think there may well be more to say on the subject.

And the book’s take on politics and on the social world is just, from my perspective, not great in a number of ways. A big part of the book is suggesting how liberals and progressive might frame issues differently, so of course to do that it has to describe the issues it then goes on to frame for us. And...yeah. So many problems.

Some permeate the whole framework. So, for instance, he has very little to say about how any of this intersects with how race and racism operate in the United States. Like, how can you present a framework that you claim explains how people orient towards political choices, especially when your political imagination begins and ends with the electoral mainstream, without even a nod towards one of the most consistent electoral patterns in US political life over the last fifty years: African Americans overwhelmingly vote Democratic. I have no way to know this for sure, but I wonder if perhaps this wasn’t mentioned because it doesn’t map onto his overarching ‘strict father vs. nurturant parent’ frame in a simple way. And then there are specific examples where it seems a glaringly obvious omission, like when he’s talking about the debates over health care during Obama’s first term. And I think what he has to say about how framing played into those debates is worth paying attention to, particularly again if you’re approaching it from a standpoint within mainstream US electoral politics. But how can you talk about the Republican success in mobilizing against the itself-pretty-terrible Democratic plan without at least a nod to the ways in which anti-Blackness energized and surrounded every aspect of the right's opposition to Obama?

And, just, all of how it talks about political issues is firmly within what you would expect for US-based liberalism, though perhaps towards the more progressive end, so from a left perspective it omits and distorts a great deal. For example, the book talks about the better and worse ways that you can make use of these insights into framing. Ideally, it means finding more resonant ways to articulate your genuine beliefs, but some people will use it to claim to be doing one thing and then do the opposite in practice. He gives lots of examples of Republicans doing the latter, but his example of a Democrat doing it was Clinton’s so-called welfare reform in the ‘90s – that is, he framed this as Clinton stealing language from the right but then doing the opposite of what the right would do. Which, I don’t know, maybe that is from the talking points that James Carville gave to operatives for use when talking to progressive audiences in those years, but even from up here in Canada I know that is nonsense. Clinton was not just stealing right-wing language; he was implementing right-wing policies and engaging in a terrible assault on poor people. And don’t get me started on how the book talks about foreign policy – exactly the sort of erasure of liberal complicity in war and empire that is almost always present in liberal sources. Then in multiple places, the book talks about environmental problems in part in terms of overpopulation, which is a terrible and dangerous way of framing them. And beyond troubling accounts of specific issues, there is overall an inadequate engagement with questions of power and how change happens – not none, for sure, but a fundamentally liberal engagement that is inadequate in itself and that shapes the rest of the book in less-than-helpful ways.

So as I said at the start, I think the idea of framing and some of the core insights of this book could be potentially be useful to radicals of various stripes trying to build grassroots power. And I definitely think that many of us who understand our politics in movement-ish ways desperately need to re-think how we engage with people who do not already agree with us. But while I think it is possible to learn useful things from this book, we might be better served by learning from experienced grassroots organizers instead.

Sunday, December 27, 2020

Review: Reading Across Borders

 [Shari Stone-Mediatore. Reading Across Borders: Storytelling and Knowedges of Resistance. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.]


A lot of Serious People who do Serious Things when it comes to knowledge tend to treat stories and other kinds of experience-based narratives as inherently suspect and not terribly useful. Some do this from a sort of empiricist place, an unreconstructed Enlightment approach to knowledge in which our best approximation of accuracy and reliability, and dare I say it objectivity, comes from removing knowledge and the process of its production to the greatest extent possible from the flaws and biases and partiality of human observers. We don’t want stories about what happened, these folks say, because they are sure to be inaccurate – we want objective proof of the facts of what happened. And then there is another crew seemingly diametrically opposed to this first group, but with a similar skepticism towards stories and experience-based narratives. This second group points out the ways in which any account of some sort of event can only be told using the discursive resources that already exist in society – existing language, existing rhetorical forms, and so on – so no matter how committed you are to what you imagine to be hard-nosed empiricism, you will always be conveying meaning far beyond any supposedly neutral facts, in a way that favours the status quo and the powerful. And while some have used the stories of the oppressed to counter that which is omitted and erased by the faux-neutrality of the empiricists, this second group argues that this inevitably falls into the same problem of only being able to use the discursive resources that already exist and therefore being trapped in reproducing dominant ideologies.

There are definitely things to be learned both from Enlightenment epistemologies and from the critiques of them by 20th century post-structuralists. But a lot of people, including me – and to be clear, a lot of what I’ve done in the last 20+ years is premised on this, in one way or another – have a pretty clear, embodied sense that regardless of what these two groups say, stories, particularly experience-based narratives of people who navigate and struggle against oppression and exploitation, have value as ways to help us know the world and as elements of struggles to transform it. We know that the scorn that these two groups of Serious People hold for these sorts of narratives just don’t account for the ways that stories actually work in the world. This book is an attempt by philosopher Shari Stone-Mediatore to both acknowledge the limits of what experience-based narratives are and what they can do, while also creating a clearer theoretical basis for the powerful things that they have to offer us and articulating some suggestions for how best to relate to them. It is, moreover, a first attempt to sketch out some approaches for evaluating the knowledge thus produced in a way that refuses the alternatives of treating any given story as something that succeeds or fails based on whether it gives us access to some sort of objective truth, or as an artifact so hopelessly trapped in dominant discourse that we might as well chuck it in the bin.

Stone-Mediatore starts out by exploring just how central the story form is to how we know the world and to our political life. Moreover, she makes a case for stories not only being an inevitable part of our political engagement with the world, but actually a positive one. Stories are not a simple reflection of an objective reality (though of course we can still hold stories up to standards of accuracy), but rather they are a more complex sort of thing. They involve producing knowledge and meaning here, now through engagement with there, then, such that what you get out the other end is always produced in that process – it is never a simple reflection of an objective reality but a complex reflection of a partial, situated reality, seen through the lens of how it impinges on the person/group in question. Stories do not tell us about the world in the ways that the empiricists would want, or primarily in the way that empiricists would test them as they apply their own standards to them. But they do tell us about the world. And, yes, stories are built from pre-existing discursive resources and cannot escape that fact, nor the ways in which dominant ideologies are always part of what they wrestle with. But depending on how the story is told, the meaning conveyed cannot escape but can overflow the constraints of inherited discourse, can draw imperfect and partial but real attention to the contradictions, the limitations, the problems, the violence in dominant ideologies. How much and to what extent this happens depends a lot on the nuts and bolts of the telling, and Stone-Mediatore goes through in considerable detail some examples of how this can work. To borrow a phrase from heterodox marxist John Holloway, stories done well can be a sort of rhetorical resistance that takes place within, against, and beyond the limits placed by the fact of our embeddedness within an oppressive discursive system.

To think through how we might evaluate knowledge of this sort, Stone-Mediatore begins from an account in Immanuel Kant of how to assess aesthetic knowledge. Kant outlines what he calls “reflective judgment” which we accomplish via what he calls “enlarged thought.” Put simply, we view a piece of art and we have whatever response we have. In his approach, we must take care to know that our own aesthetic response is a partial and limited one rather than some sort of universal truth. Given that, Kant recommends setting ours aside and imagining how other people might respond to it, and using that to further inform our own appreciation of the art in question. In doing so, he argues, we can approach a “universal standpoint”, a sort of shared and impartial truth of that art that can be reliably communicated with other people who engage in the same kind of assessment. Stone-Mediatore then talks about how this approach is taken up by Hanna Arendt and applied not to aesthetics but to the political realm – a shift that makes sense because it values serious engagement with the perspectives of others as well as communicability, among other things. Stone-Mediatore, in turn, extends Arendt’s use specifically to the context of storytelling and experience-based narratives. Rather than following Kant’s claim that this approach can allow us to approximate some sort of objective or universal standard, she engages very productively with feminist standpoint theorists like Sandra Harding, Nancy Harstock, and Dorothy Smith to make clear that the knowledge given us through serious engagement with the standpoints of others remains situated and partial, but nonetheless a powerful way to enlarge our understanding the world.

In particular, she argues that we can learn more about the world by engaging with the experience-based narratives of people who are exploited and oppressed. The frictions and contradictions and violences of dominant material and discursive realities show up more insistently in the lives of oppressed and exploited people – that is, after all, what oppression and exploitation are. Therefore the stories that oppressed and exploited people tell about their own lives are more likely to illustrate these frictions and contradictions and violences in ways that don’t escape how we are hemmed in by the discursive resources that we have no choice but to use but that can still overflow and exceed those limits. Engaging with those stories teaches us about the shape of the world – not in a way that pretends to be able to stand above it, but in a way that reflects real, material stuff as perceived and understood while in the middle of it. Stone-Mediatore goes on to sketch out some preliminary ideas for how enlarged thought can serve as the beginnings of a standard for evaluating the many stories we encounter in the metaphorical public square, in a way that attends both to the epistemological value of such stories but also their value for visions of justice and liberation.

This is, obviously, a scholarly book that will be of interest mostly to we nerds who spend a lot of time thinking about how we know the world. My own enthusiasm for it grew as the book progressed – from a sense during some of the earlier stuff about Kant and Arendt and so on that, okay, sure, that’s kind of interesting, to a feeling during the final chapter’s detailed engagement with feminist standpoint theory of, oh my god, this is so useful and so relevant. I say that because it resonates a lot with my own undertheorized sensibilities about knowing the world, and wrestles with so many questions that feel important to me. I mean, if you look back at my books that use the stories of long-time activists to enter aspects of Canadian history – both published in 2012 by Fernwood Press – the way of engaging with historical knowledge that I very briefly recommended bears considerable resemblance to what Stone-Mediatore says about reflective judgement and enlarged thought as reimagined through the prism of feminist standpoint theory, though in my case without anything close to Stone-Mediatore’s sophistication and hefty intellectual underpinnings. I probably will have a lot more to say about this book after I let it percolate some more, but I am, by happy coincidence, poised to start writing the final chapter of my current book project, a chapter that is going to talk mostly about how we know the world. I’m not sure how I’m going to take up this book in what I write, particularly given that I am not writing for a scholarly audience, but I’m sure I will. So glad to have read this!

Saturday, November 07, 2020

Review: Life as Politics

[Asef Bayat. Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East, Second Edition. Stanford CA: Stanford University Press, 2013.]

A book about struggles for social change in the Muslim Middle East, mostly focused on Iran and Egypt but with scattered references to other countries as well. The first edition was written not long before the Arab Spring and laid out an analysis that didn't quite predict the uprising but that described dynamic circumstances allowing for its possibility in a way that most commentators in that moment failed to recognize. This edition was updated in 2013.

My interest in this book was its analysis of what it describes as "nonmovements" as a distinct way in which social struggle plays out in the Muslim Middle East. According to the author, most English-language scholarly analysis of movements in that part of the world has either been hopelessly orientalist (especially regarding movements that incorporate Islam in some fashion) or has uncritically adopted frameworks for analyzing movements that were developed in the West without recognizing why material differences in conditions matter. He argues that most of the states in question act in repressive ways even towards fairly modest forms of collective dissent but at the same time are not as strong or as pervasive in their penetration of social life as we in the West imagine states to be. This means that there is less space for the development of social movements in the sense that we generally understand them here. But (as true everywhere, in all eras) there is still all manner of political diversity, of dissent, of desire for things to be otherwise, and a lot of the time, that manifests in what he describes as "nonmovements." They involve a sort of mass disobedience to state-enforced norms that is not centrally coordinated and is really just lots of individuals acting on their own and in their own interest, but that nonetheless has a deliberateness to it and that cumulatively over time seizes space, physical and social, that the state does not want to yield. This can, under certain circumstances, become more deliberately collective and contentious politics, often when states try to crack down on space that has been seized. He explores this in detail in the context of the urban poor, middle-class women, and youth. In the case of the urban poor, it often means things like appropriating public space for their own purposes, whether that is space acquired to live or to make a living in the informal economy, as well as things like illictly stealing municipal services. For middle-class women, that means pushing against various restrictions on their choices and behaviours, not in a collective and overtly political way but just by pushing back against them in their own lives and in some cases just going ahead and doing the things, in ways that end up over time reshaping dominant norms. States and ruling elites don't like any of this, but are limited in what they can do in response. And obviously this form of struggle has its limits, but it has still managed to accomplish some important things in the context being considered. My own interest in this is because it is very much related to everyday resistance, which I talk about in one chapter of my current book project. Bayat goes to great lengths to argue that what he is describing is distinct from everyday resistance, and I get where he is coming from but I'm not sure that matters for my purposes. I think partly he is distancing what he is doing from some of the less useful (and less actually resistant) aspects of the everyday resistance literature that have emerged in the decades since James C. Scott originally used the concept, and I'm really not very interested in those aspects. And I think partly the phenomenon he is examining includes but also exceeds what "everyday resistance" generally captures, so he is using new terminology to make clear the distinctiveness of the context he is focused on. So despite his disavowal, what he has to say still feels pretty relevant to how I talk about everyday resistance in what I'm writing.

In addition to that part of the work, which I thought was going to be the whole book but is really just the first section, he explores a bunch of other aspects of social change in Egypt and Iran, in a way that mixes history and sociology. I don't know much about these contexts, and I'm fully aware of the limits of what you learn from reading just one book about a topic, but it was still fascinating learning. I wonder in particular how the author's analysis of the Arab Spring might have changed, given that this was written at a point before some of the more tragic and repressive downstream events had become clear. But I enjoyed his examination of the politics of fun (which are quite relevant to the Western left and its tendency towards certain kinds of puritanism), his reflections on what revolution can and does mean today, his use of the idea of everyday cosmopolitanism, and just all of the bits and pieces he shares about political life in the Muslim Middle East, especially Cairo and Tehran, from the '70s to the 2000s. There are points where he talks about movements in distanced and reified ways that seem to be informed by social movement studies discourse, which I don't love, but I didn't find that negated what is of value in this book. I don't know how many people are going to be interested in reading it, but certainly if you are someone who thinks a lot about social movements and other kinds of efforts for collective liberation, and you usually restrict yourself to North American content, this book would be a useful way to branch out.

Saturday, September 19, 2020

Review: Red Round Globe Hot Burning

[Peter Linebaugh. Red Round Globe Hot Burning: A Tale at the Crossroads of Commons and Closure, of Love and Terror, of Race and Class, and of Kate and Ned Despard. Oakland CA: University of California Press, 2019.]

A sprawling, intricate history set in the Atlantic world, particularly Ireland and England but also connecting events there to America and Haiti and France and beyond, during the revolutionary ferment of the decade and a half following the French Revolution. It is organized around the story of two people – Ned Despard, a younger son of the Anglo-Irish gentry and erstwhile British military officer, and his wife Kate, a Black woman from the Caribbean. At some point along the way, they developed revolutionary politics. Ned was playing a leading role in planning an uprising in England that was to seek Irish liberation, a restoration of the commons, and the overthrow of George III, when he and the other leaders were arrested. He was hanged in 1803. Kate organized a vigorous campaign for his release, co-wrote his gallows speech, and disappeared afterwards into the underground for freedom fighters that existed in Ireland at the time. But while the story of the Despards serves as a sort of centre to the book, they are just one small part – important, yes, but small – of a dizzying excursion across topics and time, a series of digressions and lateral associations and circular explorations. It reaches back and forth through years and geography, wanders off to explore this detail over here, illustrates a larger point by a carefully accounting of that theme over there. It makes skilful use of speculation and draws attention to connections, including those that are not (and often could not) be known for sure from the documentary record but that are, on balance, likely. It does all of this to create a sense of the era that a plodding linear history could never match. Linebaugh, I think, has a very lateral way of thinking, and when combined with his voluminous knowledge it results in a unique way of writing history that can sometimes be a bit overwhelming but that I think is magnificent. A key focus for him in this book is drawing together two themes of history-from-below that are often treated separately, the struggles of the working class (very broadly understood) and the struggle for the commons. In these early years of the modern working class in England, the fact that these are not just connected but often the very same fight can be made quite clearly.

Even though it's not something Linebaugh particularly draws attention to in the writing, I also felt moments of keen connection to today. Some of those moments were when he, for instance, quoted radicals of 1790s London writing stridently against the evils of war or the tyranny of the rich men who own what should be held in common, and the exact same words written today would be just as relevant and just as inspiring. And some of those moments were because the struggles of ordinary people today are so often connected to the struggles he wrote about – where I live, two of the most important struggles happening right now are by homeless people to make use of public space to live as safely as they can in the midst of a pandemic, and by Haudenosaunee people and their allies to prevent the settler-colonial enclosure of yet more stolen land via the #1492LandBackLane reclamation at Six Nations. The details are different two centuries on, and (contrary to how some left-leaning scholars and radicals sometimes treat the commons) the difference in continent really does matter quite a lot. But you get the sense that Irish peasants, Caribbean sailors, English labourers, members of the London Corresponding Society, and all the rest would, if magically transported to Hamilton in 2020, instinctively *get* those struggles based on what was going on around them back then. As well, in the context of the growing precarity today of the limited but real democratic constraints that the subsequent two centuries of struggle has put on Western states, it is also sobering to read about the more naked use of state terror in defence of wealth and empire in those years – by the year after Despard was hanged, such terror had managed to drive working-class organizing in England underground, where it remained for at least a decade and a half.

I don't have too much to say that's critical about this book. I think some people might not enjoy the way it's written as much as I did, just because it has a sort of frenetic feel to it and because in its relentless drive to make connections it doesn't always explain everything so it makes you work a bit as a reader. As well, while I really like the approach to writing history employed here, with its expansive circuits orbiting the core of the story, it does mean that sometimes topics that are further to the periphery might occasionally miss the mark a bit. Another element of Linebaugh's method is taking sources produced back then by oppressors and their institutions and reading them against the grain, to see traces of resistance and tell-tale silences. He is mostly great at that, but there were a few moments when he was doing that in relation to experiences of Indigenous people in North America in that era that felt a little off-key, and I wondered if perhaps greater engagement with Indigenous struggles and Indigenous writers and scholars today might strengthen the work in these instances.

Anyway, this is a great book, and I highly recommend it.

Sunday, July 05, 2020

Review: Sonic Agency

[Brandon LaBelle. Sonic Agency: Sound and Emergent Forms of Resistance. London: Goldsmiths Press, 2018.]

A book concerned with "positioning sound and its discourses in dialogue with contemporary struggles," that attempts to seek out "ethical and agentive positions or tactics" grounded in "experiences we have of listening and being heard" (1). It does this by drawing on the scholarly area of sound studies and a range of other theoretical resources, as well as various manifestations of sound and listening, to construct four figures – the invisible, the overheard, the itinerant, and the weak – for re-thinking the social world and how we act to change it.

Given one of my major pieces of work at the moment, this should have been an inspiring and deeply informative read, but my experience of it was much more ambivalent than that. Though there definitely were fascinating new-to-me ideas in the book, and it did point me towards other sources that may be useful to me, I spent most of my time while reading it reflecting on the complicated relationship between academic work and struggles for collective liberation. As I've said lots of times before, I'm a firm believer that it is possible to read many different kinds of scholarly work in ways that can help inform such struggles, even when the work was not written with that intent in mind – this is rarely the most important thing for people doing intellectual work for and with movements to be doing, but it is at least possible and sometimes quite useful. And, like I said, there were things in here that felt that kind of useful to me. Like in the chapter on "the overheard," the book outlines an interesting vision for the ways in which the highly networked, mediated, and surveilled realities of at least many of us in rich countries create a distinctive social environment where much of both our own experience and formation, as well as our contributions to the experiences and formation of others, are arbitrary, fragmented, unintended encounters. What does that actually mean for who we are, how we know the world, and how we might act to change it? Questions worth asking, I think. And there were plenty of other bits and pieces – far from all, but more than a few – that got at aspects of the social world in new-to-me and interesting ways.

Unfortunately, notwithstanding those bits, lots of this book also felt disconnected and not very useful. And I am not sure quite how to talk about it, because I don't want to feed into the anti-intellectualism in the general culture or the variant that pops up in movements – I don't think it helps to be dismissive of anti-intellectual responses and we should work to understand where they come from, because it is often connected to power and is enflamed by the more ridiculous and elitist elements of scholarly research and writing, but I don't want to contribute to it. At the same time, this is a book that draws explicitly on movements, written by someone who seems to have political commitments that seem like pretty good ones to me, and when I sit and think about how its substance specifically when it comes to things like agency and change might be useful...I don't come up with much. I worry I'm being unfair or ungenerous. No doubt other readers would have a different experience than me. And like I said I think there are bits and pieces in it about how the social world today works that are potentially useful. But much that seems to want to be relevant to struggles for justice and liberation seems to be floating in the air somewhere, disconnected and not easy to pull down to earth.

I've been trying to articulate a bit more clearly what it is about the work that makes me say that. I'm sure if I took more time than I care to, I could come up with something. But my best preliminary guess goes back to feminist sociologist Dorothy Smith's insight from decades ago about the very real, material divide between knowledge that emerges from a grounding in the world of the everyday and most knowledge in the academy that is produced in relation to other institutional discourses and the ruling regimes in which they are embedded.

On a related but narrower and perhaps more petty note, I also found it frustrating that the book would retreat into asking rhetorical questions, often as a device to suggest a certain sort of relationship between its ideas and struggle, without actually having to definitively claim that relationship and therefore have to defend it.

Anyway. Reading this has not fundamentally changed my sense of the kinds of things I think are worth reading, or my sense of the relationship between scholarly work and movemenets. But it perhaps makes clearer something that I already knew: that the relationship between the topic of a given piece of work and its likelihood of containing useful-to-me ideas is a complicated one.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Review: Life Isn't Binary

[Meg-John Barker and Alex Iantaffi. Life Isn't Binary: On Being Both, Beyond, and In-Between. Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2019.]

A look at the ways in which, in Western societies, binaries organize our thinking and our lives, and at ways we can navigate and perhaps at moments move beyond them. Clever and very accessible, though not without its limitations.

I've read two books by one of the authors (Barker) before, one focused on relationships and the other on sexuality, both of which I liked very much. Their general approach seems to be to take ideas which are usually found in inaccessible and often quite academic and theoretical forms, and present them very clearly and accessibly and concretely. They use that to push readers to think more expansively and complexly about the area in question, and thereby to open up possibilities for living differently. This is, I think, the most ambitious of the three books I have read by them. I really like what it takes on and think there are things about how it executes that project that are excellent, though other ways that it falls a little short.

Life Isn't Binary begins from contexts where there is at least a certain degree of familiarity with the idea that most of us think in binary terms but some experiences and some people don't fit within those binaries – so the first chapter is about sexuality and the second chapter is about gender. Indeed, both authors are nonbinary in both of those areas, and another way to characterize this book's mission might be to theorize the world starting from that nonbinariness. The remaining chapters go on to explore how binaries operate in terms of relationships, bodies, emotions, and thinking, how they are limited (but also productive), and various ways to live and think and act (to borrow a phrase from John Holloway that this book doesn't actually use) within, against, and beyond them.

This is obviously a tricky thing to write about, if your aim (as is the case here) is to reach beyond the already initiated. Not only are you trying to talk accurately and usefully about the dense social totality that surrounds us, but you're trying to do so in a way that cannot just make use of existing assumptions about the world. That means that there is going to be a careful, linear, cumulative process of laying things out to the reader and helping them build their understanding, so not every moment of writing is going to actually capture all of the complexity. It's not surprising, then, for a reader who has at least a little background in some of these areas to have moments of reacting with "Yeahhhhhh, but..." to what is written. I certainly had some of those moments. I had some of those moments, but particularly given that I think a lot about how to write about the world myself and have a sense of how tricky it is, I can certainly appreciate how you are inevitably going to end up with such moments unless you write something sufficiently dense that it will not be broadly readable.

On the other hand, though, there seemed to be a pattern to such moments. I mean, they were all quite different, but most of them seemed to boil down, in one way or another, to what felt to me like inadequate attention in that moment to socially organized materiality and to power in the context of whatever binary was being discussed. Not that the authors are unaware of such things, and of course had lots to say about them at other points. But I do wonder if the consistent presence of this kind of "Yeahhhhh, but..." for me might indicate a bit of a different understanding than the authors of the relationship between binaries as conceptual practices – and note I'm not invoking the mind/body binary here, but rather using language that keeps the things we do with our brains firmly in the material realm – and binaries as features of social organization. These two are of course deeply interrelated, and are perhaps best articulated as different moments within the same landscape, but they aren't the same thing, and how they relate to each other is not obvious, consistent, or easy. I think, at heart, that more of this book needed to be both more consistently and more clearly social and material in how it talked about these things.

There are a couple of other minor points I would make. There were occasional "Slow down!" boxes that presented exercises to help readers pause and connect with how they were feeling about what they were reading. I thought this was in principle an interesting and innovative experiment in terms of care for the reader. But I also found it a bit puzzling, because I had trouble imagining, at least in many instances, the kind of difficult intensity that these call-out boxes seemed to presume as likely, or at least possible, reader responses. Perhaps I'm just underestimating the impacts of the text on people to whom all of these ideas are completley new? And I had mixed feelings about where the book ended up. By that point, it had effectively challenged a great many inherited assumptions, had introduced many new and challenging ways of thinking, and was exploring some ways of navigating all of this. But it kind of felt like even as it was working so hard to be expansive and inclusive in this field it had opened up, it was really grounding its advice in a fairly specific sensibility. Which isn't a problem, necessarily, but it felt a bit odd that that specificity remained largely unmarked.

Anyway. As is so easy when you are writing a review, I think this comes across as more critical than I actually mean it. I think this book is a great idea, that it does a lot of things very well, and that it will equip lots of readers who might otherwise never encounter such things with some tools to deal more complexly and compassionately with the world, with the people around them, and with their own experiences. It challenges us to recognize that even when it comes to binaries that feel like they fit our experiences well, all of us have moments of misfitting; and it opens up space, in the context of those binaries that we refuse or that we just can't fit within, to feel seen and supported. I'm certainly glad I read it.

Thursday, January 02, 2020

Review: How to Do Nothing

[Jenny Odell. How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy. Brooklyn NY: Melville House Publishing, 2019.]

A very thoughtful, very well-written book by an artist who lives in California's Bay Area. A self-proclaimed "field guide to doing nothing as an act of political resistance to the attention economy" (xi) that is "not anti-technology" but that is "obviously anti-capiatlist" (xii). A book about why we might want to resist the latest generation of encroachment by capitalist logics into our lives and selves via profit-driven tech platforms that are part of a broader set of social relations, and more importantly how we might go about doing that. Not, it emphasizes, by something as simple as 'going off Facebook' or strategic social media fasts – there may be times and places where refusal might look like this sort of thing, but moralistic withdrawal won't transform these logics any more than 'dropping out' to set up communes on the land did in the 1960s. Instead, the book traces one particular logic of refusal that is less about the sort of individualistic shifts in consumption that so often fill books on this sort of topic and more about practices of refusal-in-place – not about seeking purity by not consuming X, but about experimenting with what can be gained by cultivating new practices of attention that follow logics other than the overriding capitalist imperatives of productivity and efficiency.

To the possible frustration of some readers, this is not a how-to – but it doesn't neglect the inevitable desire by readers to figure out what to do in the face of it all, either. It stays connected to the level of lived experience. It never abandons the individual for the kind of disembodied analysis you might find, say, in a traditional political economy take on the same topic. But it does this while maintaining a deeply social analysis that it refuses to collapse into the individual. So it leaves you saying, "Yes, but what exactly should I do with this?", but it gives you a basis to start productively figuring that out for yourself – it just doesn't pretend it can answer it for you.

The particular approach that the author comes up with and explores in depth focuses on cultivating kinds of attention that are grounded in place. Summarizing it like that doesn't really do it justice, because it is not just some randomly chosen not-social-media focus of attention, but rather is very much a product of thinking through the character of the logics being resisted and what kinds of logics might present possibilities for different, more liveable worlds. It explicitly tries to learn from Indigenous relationships to place. It explores what tech-mediated relating and social media might look like if it was not driven by the needs of capital. It, in short, opens up fields of possibility for individual and collective exploration.

I really liked this book and it gave me lots to think about both in terms of my own practices and, in a different way, in terms of my own current book project. I do wish that it had spent more time in what you might call the middle ground, talking about different partial, compromised, imperfect, but useful modes of refusal. I mean, I think all of us have a lot to learn from the approach that it follows and from the author's own experiments, but more attention to what might be helpful to people put together and situated in other ways would, I think, strengthen the book – make it a bit more directly useful, perhaps, while still not collapsing it into the fiction of individualistic self-help.

Excellent read and highly recommended.

Monday, December 16, 2019

Review: Weapons of the Weak

[James C. Scott. Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1985.]

A classic from a political scientist of anarchist proclivities doing what amounts to anthropology and studying the fine-grained class relations in a peasant village in Malaysia in the late '70s and early '80s, in the context of the capitalist re-organization of agriculture often referred to as the 'green revolution'. It is a classic because it is generally credited as the entrypoint into academic discourse for the idea of "everyday resistance" (though you can certainly find related ideas, if not always those words, in some anarchist, left communist, and autonomist sources, and perhaps elsewhere, from before this point). I can't comment on how this stacks up in the context of its disciplines, but my sense from its reputation is that it checks the necessary boxes to count as a classic in that regard too.

Even setting aside its political significance, I found it fascinating just in terms of its detailed attention to people's lives and interactions on an everyday level – which is maybe not everyone's cup of tea, but even when it is set in a context completely unlike the one I live in or any that I'm likely to ever write about, it certainly is mine. A lot of the detail of this book is really beyond what I need it for, and before I started reading it I considered doing something I almost never do, which is to only read it partially. But I was just too interested in this aspect of it to do that.

And of course its argument is pretty politically important, I think: There is this traditional understanding of peasants as politically passive the vast majority of the time – which even on the left has often been interpreted as active buy-in to hegemony – and then given to very, very occasional paroxysms of collective violence against their oppressors that almost never results in any kind of victory. Scott argues that this conclusion, and the everyday life-level observations from many which support it, are at fault because they only observe what peasants do when they are directly interacting with people who have power over them. He, in contrast, pays attention to that and also to what they have to say and do in other situations. From that, it's clear that they do not buy into the ideology of their oppressors, and comply visibly because they have no other choice. But he skillfully identifies the many different ways that they are engaged in a constant, discreet, ostensibly individual but sufficiently widespread and coordinated to be at some level collective struggle using the 'weapons of the weak' signalled in the title – the everyday skirmishes about work, food, land, taxes, and respect waged via "foot dragging, dissimulation, desertion, false compliance, pilfering, feigned ignorance, slander, arson, sabotage, and so on" (xvi).

Part of this is about little acts that take back or block the expropriation of time, money, food, and so on in small ways. But it is also inevitably a struggle over meaning – conversations in coffee shops and on doorsteps, and interactions that aren't openly conflictual but that shape what gets seen as right and wrong. It is the poorer peasants mobilizing the moral framework they share with those who have power over them to their own advantage. And he argues that class struggle inevitably, and not just in peasant contexts, starts with these kinds of mostly invisible acts done at the level of everyday life where ordinary people do what they can to intervene in situations where they are exploited and oppressed – not necessarily with any grand political vision but just to carve out a bit more space, to retain a bit more dignity, to hold on to a little bit more of the resources we all need to live life.

Scholars and revolutionaries alike have often either ignored this scale of struggle or, sometimes more recently, romanticized it in unhelpful ways. Scott is clear that everyday resistance is just what people do to survive. Recognizing it and taking it seriously and giving respect to what people are already doing to improve their own lives are essential for making whatever collective and overtly political projects you might wish to build stronger, more just, and more effective.

Anyway. A book that is super important politically, and that despite being in some ways an old-school scholarly monograph is actually very entertaining and readable.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Review: Black Feminist Thought

[Patricia Hill Collins. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. New York: Routledge, 2009.]

A Black feminist classic, and deservedly so. An effort by one of the most prominent Black feminist sociologists in the US to create a sort of overview and synthesis of the rich and varied Black feminist tradition in that country. As you might expect, it methodically outlines the basis of that tradition and explores its core ideas and themes. It skillfully draws on the work of a diverse range of thinkers and presents its ideas in a way that is both rigorous and accessible.

There is so much important stuff in here that I'm not going to attempt even to summarize it. I think perhaps what I valued the most is the way that it constantly draws connections between social organization and intellectual practices – in this case, between the social organization of Black communities and Black women's lives at various points in history, and the preoccupations and ideas and approaches found in the intellectual work of Black women in those eras. So often, particularly in popular writing but in more 'serious' political writing as well, even when you have some acknowledgment that standpoint is a thing or that who we are shapes what we know and how we understand the world, it's often left as an abstracted, shallow, and somewhat essentialized notion. In contrast, this book makes very clear that those connections are material and practical and grounded and always in motion – they are about the kinds of labour that Black women have been forced into, the kinds of community institutions in which they have come together, the opportunities and constraints in their relationships, and all sorts of other very practical things. On related notes, I also appreciated the book's emphasis on epistemology, its insistence on Black feminist thought as an expansive social justice project, and its honesty about the strains being put on the tradition by the novel (i.e. neoliberal academic) circumstances in which an increasing amount of such work is being done today. And I thought that its examination of how Black feminist thought has always placed a high value on changes in individual consciousness, while never denying the need for collective action, was fascinating – a lesson, through the implicit contrast with superficially similar emphases in other political traditions, in how much the collective context shapes the political implications of individual change.

Collins does note in her preface that she perhaps gives the tradition an appearance of creater uniformity and cohesion than it (or any intellectual or political tradition) actually has. I'm not sure I know enough to comment on that in general, and anyway it's clearly just a predictable aspect of the form rather than any sort of problem. But I did find that reading some of her analysis with respect to sexuality so soon after reading adrienne maree brown's Pleasure Activism (and my greater affinity, at least on a first pass, to the focus and emphasis in some of brown's analysis) made me more conscious of differences within the tradition than I might otherwise have been. Not that I'm constructing some sort of false opposition between them – the two different works seem to exist in amiably dialogical relation to each other and to a broad set of shared ideas – but it's a useful reminder that any political tradition is comprised of many strands and many voices.

I'm a little puzzled by how slow a read I found this book to be. As I said, while it is certainly scholarly in character, it is equally obvious that great effort has been put into making it something that lots of different people could quite comfortably read rather than just other scholars. I would say that the writing isn't exciting, but it is skilled, clear, and precise, and therefore a quiet pleasure to read. And while there were some parts of the book that grabbed my interest more effectively and others less so, I would also say that overall I was quite interested in what it had to say. So I think perhaps reading it felt like a slow process in part for the very practical reason that it is one of these academic editions that's set in fairly small type, but also because of the form of the book – I think a summary and synthesis by its nature is going to be a slower read than other kinds of nonfiction because it likely will include a certain kind of methodical repetition as it applies its core approach and ideas to each area under scrutiny.

Anyway, an important book for understanding a vital political tradition that has had a great impact on a range of currents in the academy and in grassroots politics, and one whose influence will be made more politically sharp and valuable if those of us situated in other ways improve our understanding of its roots and of the histories of survival and struggle from which it emerged and from which it continues to emerge.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Review: Guerrillas of Desire

[Kevin Van Meter. Guerrillas of Desire: Notes on Everyday Resistance and Organizing to Make a Revolution Possible. Chico CA: AK Press, 2017.]

A book with some useful and important ideas, but one I was not as able to like as I'd hoped. It sets out to demonstrate that everyday resistance has been historically pervasive and crucial to successful struggle, and to argue that movements in North America today need to do more to understand how everyday resistance is happening now and to nurture, support, and centre that resistance rather than prioritizing abstracted notions of 'correct' politics. It draws primarily from anarchist and especially autonomist marxist resources to do this.

The book is organized into a couple of chapters of theory at the start laying out its main concepts, three chapters tracing the broad trajectories of histories of slave, peasant, and worker struggles respectively (with an emphasis on keeping the everyday level visible), and then a final couple of chapters applying this theory and history to movement debates today.

I think the task this book takes up is an important one, and I broadly agree with the stance of starting from resistance that is already happening. I agree that autonomism offers some quite useful tools in this respect, and that it is largely underappreciated by folks active in movements on this continent today. And I have great respect for efforts to produce movement-grounded theory outside of the academy. Unfortunately, I think this book is kind of uneven and could have been executed more effectively.

For instance, I think the theory chapters are quite uneven. Some of what they present is quite useful. Another subset I found a bit tedious, but mostly because I was already familiar with the ideas, and I think presenting them works in terms of what the book is trying to do. But some of it was clearly presenting ideas that mattered a lot to the author but in ways that did not fully convince me of that significance. And a few bits were just weird – I'm thinking most obviously of the section with a bizarre genealogy of the concept of "white privilege", but there were others. Those bits aside, I wonder if putting more emphasis on finding a way to make it all flow a bit more organically would have helped.

The history chapters covered useful ground, but I didn't find them all that engaging – and I am someone who really enjoys reading history, especially movement history, when I have the opportunity, even when it is about an era or a struggle that I'm already familiar with. I think my relative disengagement was related to the degree of abstraction required to cover so much ground in just a few short chapters, and to the fact that this was history being deployed primarily to support an argument, which is understandable but which doesn't always make for the most compelling way of relating to the past.

And I felt like the engagement with contemporary questions at the end of the book was, well, similar to the earlier parts of the book: Some useful stuff, certainly, and I definitely support the overall conclusion that movements in North America need to be way better at starting from the ways in which ordinary people are already engaged in struggle of various sorts and at various scales. But a lot of what led up to that felt like it was rehashing ground that is already well-trodden on the left and so wasn't all that interesting, and/or felt like interventions in longstanding and contentious debates that were just too brief and too abstracted from actual movement practices to shed new light or to reframe them in productive ways. In a way, I think it needed more attention to grounded examples. I really appreciate the strong insistence in the book that the kind of engagement with what people are already doing can't come in the form of an easily applied recipe, but rather must involve getting out there and doing a lot of listening, a lot of respectful dialogue, and a lot of hard thinking. But I think given that's the case, it would be a more rhetorically engaging and more politically convincing to make the case for movements built via the nurturing and amplification of already-existing everyday resistance if it went through in rich detail and with lively storytelling some contemporary examples where people are actually doing that.

Anyway. I'm glad I read it because it is useful for something I'm working on, and I do recognize that some of the book's choices were made with a somewhat different reader in mind so it's possible I'm being too critical. It is certainly a useful contribution in a direction that I support, and I hope it sparks a lot of discussions. I just maybe wish some different choices had been made in how it was written.