Monday, November 12, 2018

Review: Bored and Brilliant

[Manoush Zomorodi. Bored and Brilliant: How Spacing Out Can Unlock Your Most Productive and Creative Self. New York: Picador, 2017.]

Some time last year, the realization crystallized for me that I don't experience much direct loss of explicitly designated work time due to social media or other online activity, but it does tend to eat up rather a lot of my time that is not thus designated – it fills up lots of little corners, it shapes leisure, it offers possibilities and, in the inevitable way of such things, it takes away others. Now, I'm generally quite scornful of the moral panic that often surrounds the ways in which computers and smartphones have reshaped our lives. I was a somewhat slow adopter of Facebook back in the day – my eleventh anniversary of joining was last week – but I'm not bothered morally or practically by spending lots of time online. To others of my generation and older who grumble about youth today walking down the street with their face in their phone or using their device to remove themselves from a social situation, I generally retort that I did exactly the same things when I was young except with books (and still do now when I can get away with it, frankly). And if my time is reorganized because of devices compared to what it was 20 years ago, well, so what, that on its own is neither good nor bad, and generally speaking, said devices don't get in the way of me doing what I want to do.


Excpet they do, I noticed in my realization last year, get in the way of me staring off into space, either on its own or with a pen in my hand. I do that way less than I used to. And staring off into space outside of the bounds of explicitly designated work time is a pretty core activity for someone who is a writer and otherwise maker-of-things. This is a lack that I keenly feel.

Earlier this year, I read about this book: The subtitle "How spacing out can unlock your most productive and creative self" may signal enthusiastic buy-in (untempered by any critical perspective) to the cult of neoliberal self-help, but it also spoke to my concern about lack of time spent "spacing out." Last month, I bought the book.

This past week, I was feeling pretty lousy. Particularly early in the week, life was pulling me in lots of different directions, my anxiety levels were quite high, I had lots of external obligations, and I wasn't left with much time that I had much say over – I was busy, and I got done the things I needed to get done, but I managed to do hardly any work on the long-term writing projects that are what I really want most to be doing. When that happens, it always makes me miserable. And I returned to my realization of last year that my explicitly designated work time doesn't tend to suffer too much from the intrusion of online distraction (unless I'm otherwise in a bad headspace), but consumption of online media *does* take up rather a lot of my non-work time, energy, and attention. Which as far as I'm concerned is fine, in and of itself, and most of that time could not be magically transformed into prime work time anyway even if I wanted to go the all-work-and-no-play route, but...could I be using it differently, in ways that still fit with how that time is genuinely constrained, but that would leave me feeling better about things even in a week of high external demands? Might making time to stare into space instead of into my Twitter feed be part of that?

The author of *Bored and Brilliant* is a journalist who hosts an NPR radio show and podcast on technology issues called *Note to Self*. (I've never listened to it.) The book is based on a week-long experiment that they did with a sizeable group of listener-volunteers, giving them a different challenge each day that would alter and thereby make them more aware of their smartphone use. I think something like 20,000 listeners participated in that initial experiment, and the book builds from there. The author is very clear that this is not meant to be anti-tech and it is not meant to get people to stop using their smartphones, but to help people develop tools to be more aware of how they use their technology and more deliberate about making those choices. The science behind the subtitle is based on the fact that when we are "mind-wandering," we are using our brain differently than when we are engaged in some kind of concrete task, and time spent mind-wandering can be crucial to developing new ideas and engaging in figuring things out in our lives and in our work in creative (if not generally terribly directed) ways.

The parts of the book that were about being mindful of choices about time usage and about intervening in various ways into one's own practices felt useful and interesting, or at least a mix sufficiently rich in useful that it felt worth reading. I mean, worrying about how I spend my time has been one of my main preoccupations since I decided to experiment with being a writer twenty years ago, as the proportion of words devoted to exactly that concern in the 10 to 12 shelf-feet of filled notebooks in my office would make (boringly) clear. And as a source of new insights into that ongoing area of reflection, I'm glad I read this book. It prompted me to recognize ways in which my time flows, unthinking, towards screens that I wasn't previously aware of. It got me thinking in new ways about how I might want to engage more strategically with online media. And I think it will have some impacts on my use of devices and will perhaps, I hope, maybe, if I'm determined and lucky, help me win back some time for staring off into space. (And maybe a bit more time for reading books, as well.) There is occasionally some puritanism that appears in how the book talks about these things, but it wasn't present so strongly that I couldn't read things into what I think is a more useful frame of competing interests and desires – I don't like the narrative of excess corrected by restriction, in large part because so much of how I understood myself and the world in my early years was framed in those terms. I much prefer to recognize that I get X out of one pattern of choices and Y out of a different pattern and doesn't Y really meet my needs and desires more effectively?

Anyway. The practical stuff was useful to me, but I didn't love a lot of the explanation and grounding that the book provided. I mean, it's not badly written, and I think it makes skillful use of the sources that it cites. But what it can do is limited by its choice of sources.

And by that, I mean this: The book is written in a style of popular nonfiction clearly informed by the author's background in journalism. It largely cites studies (and authors of studies) that examine technology use through positivist experimental social, psychological, and sometimes medical science of various kinds, as well as people who are prominent in the tech industry and people who have written popular nonfiction about the impacts of technology on our lives. It does not cite very many people whose ways of making knowledge are grounded in the humanities or in social sciences that are other than postivist experimentalism. And I think that's a big weakness. Now, I'm definitely interested to know what experiments about technology show – I'm glad those are included. But citing *only* those kinds of sources means, for one thing, that it doesn't cite people who can talk about other ways that the shape of our lives have changed over the last 30 years, which means not talking about how neoliberal changes in the organization of work and leisure beyond just our smartphones may have a role in all of this.

Perhaps more seriously, it means that it doesn't bring in the voices of those who might be able to critically unpack the conventional narratives that we have available to us to talk about technological change. So even though the book makes clear that it is not meaning to be anti-tech, in drawing on the kinds of sources it draws on, it can't help but treat what-was-before as normative and what-is-now as implicitly deviant. The kinds of experiments this book draws on so heavily cannot help but make that kind of presumption in how they are designed, I think, and whatever *this* book's intention, a lot of the scholars and authors it cites situate what they do in the context of already-dominant narratives of the dangers of technology. And that means that, as often as not, the text ends up reinforcing moral panic-style readings of tech's impacts, even when I think the author genuinely doesn't mean to. More than that, it means that sometimes technology and/or individual fallible habits get blamed for particular outcomes, when maybe more of the blame should be placed on the social organization of our lives and workplaces and families and communities under capitalism. Also, I would love to have seen critical but generous engagement with first-person accounts from the older range of people who are young enough to have grown up in the smartphone era talking about how they navigate all of these things, especially marginalized (queer, racialized, disabled, etc.) youth who have creatively used tech in their struggle to survive in a world that doesn't want them to – I'm sure they have things to teach the rest of us, and perhaps ways to help us parse out different-and-possibly-a-problem from just different, which I don't think this book does very well at all.

I also look a bit askance at the ways in which this book treats so much of this as new. Sure, smartphones and social media mean that my obsessing about my time usage has different details than it did in 1998. But the basic questions about the life you want to live, the things you want to make, the experiences that you want to enjoy, the dynamics of self that pull in this direction and that, and the practices of self-fashioning that can cajole a reluctant self into the shape that you want it to take are no different now than then. At least not for me, anyway. It's not about my phone, or it's only a bit about my phone; it's mostly about me-in-the-world.

Anyway, given what this book sets out to do, and given where I'm reading it from, I suppose it's not surprising that I appreciated at least some of the tools and insights it has given me to think about how I use my time and how I might use it differently, and that I was simultaneously skeptical of its approach to social analysis.

Friday, June 01, 2018

Review: Turning to One Another

[Margaret J. Wheatley. Turning to One Another: Simple Conversations to Restore Hope to the Future. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., 2009.]

This is a peculiar book with a powerful idea at its core but presumptions about how the social world works that take it in directions that I think are misguided.

The core idea of the book is that we live increasingly fragmented and isolated lives, in an increasingly complex and traumatizing world, and that a key step that all of us can take to improve both our own individual experience of life and to improve the world is to put effort into having genuine connected conversation with the people around us. The first section lays out, in a very accessible way, why the author believes this. There is a brief second section meant to provide some opportunity for the reader to reflect. And then the third section is a series of questions that the book encourages you to gather people together and discuss – mostly deep meaning-of-life kinds of questions. Each is accompanied by some thoughts from the author about these questions. Throughout the book, there is lots of use of blank space on many pages, a scattering of hand-drawn images, plenty of quotes and aphorisms, and pieces of poetry.

There are definitely things in here that I like. She never uses the word "neoliberalism," but I think some of what she is diagnosing in terms of the problems of isolation and social fragmentation are exactly the neoliberal shifts in the social that we have seen in recent decades. That's not all she's saying – there is a kind of weird "those were simpler times" nostalgia mixed in there that I find pretty troubling, and the diagnosis of things getting worse to a certain extent confuses actual changes with shifts in perception caused by the fact that it's now harder for more privileged North Americans to ignore certain things. Still, the fragmentation and isolation she identifies are real and important, and even if it isn't all necessarily as novel as she implies, the world is no doubt a violent and traumatic place.

I also agree that the act of connected, honest conversation can be a powerful one. It can be personally fulfilling in a profound way and it is an essential element in building relationships, whether that is romantic parternships, friendships, political alliances, or the kind of trust necessary to come together across deep conflict. Even granting my own bias related to my personal investment in a certain kind of conversation – that sort of connection is something I crave, but something my experiences of shame and social anxiety can make more difficult to realize than I might like – I think it is fair to say that a hunger for interpersonal connection is fairly widespread in this anxious and isolating neoliberal era. It's unlikely that I'll do anything along the lines of hosting groups to discuss the questions she proposes, but I can see the value in doing so.

And conversation can, as she alludes, be the first building block in massive, collective waves of change. There are certainly aspects of how she discusses this that I like. She is clear about the importance of understanding change as starting where we are and building from our connections with the people around us. She regularly refers to the work of Paulo Friere, the radical Brazilian popular educator. Indeed, there are moments in the book where she talks about the importance of real talk among ordinary people in a way that reminds me a lot of how people I know who are very committed to an organizing approach to social change (in contrast with more activist or mobilizing kinds of approaches) talk about what they do.

Unfortunately, where the book goes from its central point is pretty disappointing in some ways. There is inadequate recognition of how power shapes the landscape and possibilities for conversation and for what conversation can do. There is similarly inadequate recognition of what it means for what comes after conversation that our world is socially organized in complex material and fundamentally social ways rather than the more formless liberal-democratic presumptions that implicitly underpin the book.

So, for instance, while there is a paragraph at some point in the book that recognizes that one element of oppression is the dehumanization of the oppressed, that is not taken into account in the book's broad prescription of conversation as a cure for society's ills. Maybe there are moments where oppressed people might want to engage in this kind of conversation with those who dehumanize them, those who are cheerfully content with a world that does them violence, but we need to recognize that a decision of that sort occurs in a much different landscape than when the parties involved are separated by, say, divergent passionate commitments to whether trade tarrifs are good or bad. So advocating conversation, including with those with whom you differ, as the fundamental step in creating a better world comes across as very different advice in those two kinds of cases, and offering it in a blanket way without at least discussing what it means to have such conversations with someone who disregards your humanity, seems like a problem to me. And I should add that towards the end of the book there is a recognition that this kind of conversation must happen between people who regard each other as equals, but that reads as an add-on – the book does not grapple with the broad extent to which that simply isn't true in many relevant practical instances, and it doesn't grapple with what that means for when and how such conversations can happen.

As well, some of the more general talk about social change is a bit weird. Like, the way that the book cites Paulo Friere often has this weird self-helpy boot-strappy vibe to it that is not at all where Friere was coming from. I found that quite offputting. There's also a section that speaks vehemently against the active embrace of identity. I'm not against having a nuanced discussion about the different ways that identity gets taken up and put to work, and about what those various approaches mean in terms of how we understand ourselves and how we can act in the world, but nothing in that section acknowledges how crucial an active and affirming embrace of identity has been and continues to be for certain kinds of collective struggles by oppressed people. And in the few instances where the book moves from general language about broader change being catalyzed by conversation to more specific examples, it picks movements that are distant from and politically safe for privileged North Americans – the Polish movement Solidarity gets mentioned a couple of times, the "orange revolution" in the Ukraine, and so on. Movements closer to home are never named, which makes it possible to avoid dealing with the complex political realities that such collective effort inevitably entail.

It's that invokation of larger collective change but refusal to engage with what it might entail that I find most disappointing. The recognition that genuine conversation can be a crucial step in broader change is carefully presented in a way that speaks about what might come after that initial conversation in only the vaguest of terms. I mean, I suppose I get not wanting to scare people off or to foreclose whatever might emerge from the moment of encounter itself. I do think it's important to enter into encounters with other people with openness, and I agree that will to make change, new knowledge about the world, and transformation of self are all things that can emerge precisely from these kinds of encounters. Certainly in some instances a new openness to hearing certain kinds of unhappy facts about the world may be something that these kinds of encounters can catalyze.

I'm afraid, though, that putting that moment of encounter in one category, a speakable category, while the material details of the world beyond that encounter and what might happen after that encounter in another category, a category that we won't speak about (or at least not now), serves to affirm ways of understanding the world that help keep those of us who benefit from the status quo stuck in that place. Conversation is framed as a clear moral good that precedes and perhaps transcends politics. But the book avoids the reality that what comes next when conversations lead to large scale change is inevitably polarizing, messy, complicated, and political in all the senses you could name. The implication, intended or not, is that deep conversation with your neighbour is what the world needs, but when that turns into action that doesn't share the same kind of easily recognized apolitical goodness, it has become something else, and maybe it's okay for you to just not pay attention to that and go and have another conversation with your neighbour. If we want to think about conversation as a key element of large-scale social change, we can't separate the two – we can't leave power out of how we think about conversation, and we can't pretend that the messy polarizing reality of grassroots movement politics can be treated as separate from the conversations that we hope might lead to change.

I think, yes, we need to explore the power of conversation, including honest conversation across differences that might normally keep us apart. But we have to recognize how power factors in to if, when, and how those conversations occur. And if we want connected conversation to have an impact on the world that goes beyond reducing our own individual sense of isolation, we can't detach talking about those moments of connected conversation from talking about what it actually takes in practical terms to turn moments of grounded connection between people into broad social change.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Thinking about listening and seeing

For more than five years, now, my central project has been a radio show and podcast. And my main book project recently morphed into something that aims to talk about listening in a thoughtful, political, grassroots way. Despite this, and despite being the son and brother of musicians, my way of engaging with the world is really more visual than aural. Audio-related work is not a particularly obvious fit for me, but somehow it has become a significant part of what I do. With that in mind, it has been interesting, lately, to be reading an essay collection called Known and Strange Things by Teju Cole.

I had fallen into a rut of reading nonfiction mostly for its content rather than for its writing, and called on Facebook for recommendations of nonfiction with delightful, moving, writerly writing, regardless of its subject. Cole's name was one response. He writes about a few different kinds of things, but one preoccupation is photography, as informed by a vast knowledge of art history. Despite claiming an affinity for the visual above, I don't really know much about photography or art – I enjoy images, moving and still, but feel much more competent analyzing and creating things that are written. So apart from the delight of encountering Cole's writing, this book has also been interesting for me because it involves such close reading of and deep thinking related to the visual, even as my own writing is currently very focused on exploring things aural. And it is interesting because one of the things that I need to think through in my current work is exactly what the material specificity of different ways of engaging the world means for a book organized in part around "listening."

I'm already quite clear that I mean "listening" in a very expansive sense. I want to draw metaphorically from listening as we conventionally think of it (in a way analogous to how lots of theorizing draws from the visual, but with the intent to subvert that) while thinking about responsive engagement in a way not dependent on sense X or medium Y. I have some awareness of how easy it would be to fall into ableism, and reading and thinking about that is very much part of my process. At the very least, I know not to assume that all bodies communicate in the same way, or that any one approach should be treated as normative. I'm also well aware that the material specificity of different modes of listening/speaking really do matter. Texting and an in-person vocal conversation and sign-language over Skype are quite different modes of relating, at least in some respects. I'm less clear on how those specificities matter and on how to draw on them to talk about the kinds of things that I want to talk about, but it's something I'm actively thinking about.

There's one specific thing that reading this book by Teju Cole, and particularly its essays on photography, has helped me with. That is, when I think about the materiality of engaging with the world through what I see versus what I hear – you might, awkwardly, use the language of eye-listening versus ear-listening – one difference seems to be that eye-listening more easily falls into relating to what is seen as object to be consumed, whereas ear-listening seems to do more to force you to engage with others as agents, as expressers of opinions, producers of knowledge, deciders. So often, the visual seems to be about power-over – surveillance, a la the panopticon, or otherwise deriving pleasure (much media) or knowledge (much academia) from an Other whose voice is treated as irrelevant or nonexistent. At the very least, with the aural, whatever other power relations are at play, that voice is present and is the basis for engagement. The fact that the Other (or even just the other) speaks is part of the premise of the interaction. Yes, there is consumptive listening, objectifying listening, listening that denies personhood. But because voice is how the interaction happens, it seems like that is a violence that requires more work, more active denial of personhood, in the moment.

I'm not sure what I actually think about this distinction – I'm still reflecting on it. As well, obviously, all of this is grounded in the experience of someone whose interpersonal commnication, at least when not text-mediated, is done primarily with voice and ears, not with hands and eyes. So already I know to treat this as specific, not universal.

In doing this thinking, it has been useful to encounter Cole's detailed examination of specific photographs and the work of particular photographers. He demonstrates a mode of eye-listening, even beyond direct interpersonal communication, which foregrounds people and our activities and our agency in engaging with the visual. Images, as he reads them, are not just sources of pleasure or knowledge, but are expressions of human practices and agency and self. It is, I guess, a way of listening to the visual that pushes back against reification, objectification.

One of the things that I think I want to do with listening as a way of framing our engagement with other people and with the world is to push back against the dominant, consumptive, reifying ways we're taught to engage. Part of that will probably mean using the frame of listening to unsettle assumptions and practices associated, in dominant understandings, with the visual. But Cole's work is a reminder that this association with the visual is not an essential one that can only be resisted by turning to other senses or media, but one that is constructed and learned, and that can also very much be resisted on the terrain of what we see.

Which is perhaps an obvious point, and certainly those whose primary communication is through the visual would not need it, but for me it was a useful and unexpected new avenue into some of the things that I've been thinking about.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

The increasing fragility of our ability to know and communicate about the world

I've been thinking a lot this past week about the fragility of human communication and of our ability to know the world. That is, I've been thinking about how easy it is, how many ways there are, for human communication and human knowing to fail. This is hardly a new thought, for me or in general, especially in this era characterized by what is sometimes aptly but usually inadequately characterized as "fake news." But it has been weighing particularly heavily this week.

Look at the coordinated right-wing hate campaign against Nora Loreto, for instance. There's lots going on in that situation to make it what it has become: the deliberate and coordinated character of it, how easily many white Canadians become aggressively resistant even to what she did say, and the ubiquity of misogyny are all crucial. But another key element is that there was active, pervasive lying about what she said, done in order to evoke a particular emotional response and fuel the attacks on her. Somehow, the affective power of the lies about what she said was more than enough for lots of people to maintain their outrage and their belief in the lies even in the face of her actual words.

Or look at the various responses to the Western bombing in Syria in the last week. I'm not going to get into the details, but it has all really driven home for me how grassroots politics in the West around war and empire are a complete mess, and not in any easy or singular way. Massive, multiple failures of human communication and knowing are part of that.

In these current examples, technology and social media and the knowledge production practices that have emerged with them are central to the failures of communication and knowing, but this fragility is not tech-dependent. Another example that has been on my mind is a small personal one from almost twenty years ago. It was one of the first times I spoke in a university classroom about my experiences of involvement in activism and organizing. Don't remember exactly what I talked about, but one thing that has stuck with me is that one young woman in the class said some things that made it clear she had understood me to say exactly the opposite of what I had actually said on some to-me politically important points. This shook me. Afterwards, my friend who was teaching the class assured me I had been plenty clear, and that sometimes that just happens. But it still shook me.

Of course, my friend was right – when we come to know the world, we're actively involved in producing that knowledge, and there are a million and one ways that we can get it wrong, whether through our own practices or through how the situation is socially organized. Yes, we are able to meaningfully know the world through our experiences and through our encounters with people and with narratives, yet even without "fake news" and "Russion bots" (real or imagined), that ability is fragile. I do think, however, that even if this fragility of communication and knowing is not tech dependent, it is certainly amplified by how knowledge is produced and how it circulates today.

So. I just don't think those of us who support social justice and collective liberation and so on have really figured out how to deal with this increasingly fragile character of communication and knowing. There are a number of ways of responding that I see among people who broadly identify with those politics, but none that are yet adequate.

Some people surrender to it, and treat this fragility when it comes to knowing the world on any scale beyond our everyday life and then communicating that knowledge not as fragility but as impossibility. I don't think people directly active in movements do this a whole lot, because being active depends on having some faith in our ability to know the world and communicate that knowledge. But I think it is not uncommon in the broader (and much larger) group of people who have social justice-y values but don't have access to collective contexts for acting on those values, and so can only relate to them in very isolated, individualized ways. This is, I think, one of the ways that conspiratorial thinking comes to flourish in progressive contexts, though it can also just feed cynicism, disengagement, and despair.

Other people respond to the fragility of knowing and communicating by rejecting that fragility, by doubling down on a liberal faith in the solidity of our ability to know and communicate, often with an implied "if only" attached. This approach seeks to restore some nostalgic past regimen for how our knowing and communicating about the world was socially organized, whether that is a romanticization of mainstream media or of supposedly more ethical elites of earlier generations or something else.

Then there are other broadly left formations that recognize the fragility of knowing and communicating, and they lean into it – they take every advantage of it in order to push their particular agenda. This may not be a tactic that is as broadly used on the left as it is on the right, but I definitely see the neoliberal pseudo-left as well as centre-left, authoritarian far left, and anti-authoritarian far left people and groups who do it.

So what should we do? I don't have an answer, I'm reflections on this question over the last week have not been particularly optimistic.

All I have is a certainty that we need to figure it out: A way to navigate the fact that our ability to know and communicate about the world is real and genuine, but fragile. A way to navigate all of this that is principled. I think it has to do with putting faith in organizing, including organizing with a strong face-to-face component, rather than online-heavy mobilizing. I think it has to do with centering our political work on responding to the deeper currents of how the world is socially organized, rather than being quite so focused on the details of the moment. (Though of course we must always be able to respond to crises.) I think it has to do with having politics that, yes, are informed by theory, but that are firmly grounded in our everday lives and the everyday lives of our neighbours. I think these must be politics based on seeking the radical conclusions made possible by listening to the everday lives of people around us, people across town, people on the other side of the world.

But I don't really know what doing that might look like in practice under these conditions of increasingly fragile knowing and communicating...except that I'm sure the seeds already exist in what some people in some places are already doing.

And at the moment, I have no ideas about how to defend ourselves from the massive bad-faith interventions by elite and/or far-right forces into our knowing and communicating, and the smaller but still significant mimicking of such bad-faith actions from segments of the left.

Friday, April 06, 2018

Review -- Divining Desire: Focus Groups and the Culture of Consultation

[Liza Featherstone. Divining Desire: Focus Groups and the Culture of Consultation. New York: OR Books, 2017.]

This is a fascinating history of the focus group and related technologies of consultation written by journalist Liza Featherstone.

Since its inception, the form of listening made possible by the focus group has been about allowing elites to understand the experiences and desires of ordinary people, and therefore to respond to them in limited ways while keeping actual power in elite hands. From its origins in social democratic political milieus before the middle of the 20th century to its increasingly avid use by the advertising industry starting in the 1950s and by political campaigns starting especially in the 1980s, the details of that listening and the use to which it has been put have shifted. Especially towards the end of the 20th century, the focus group and the broader culture of consultation of which it is a part have been central to the neoliberal project of making changes in law, policy, and society that are consistently harmful to ordinary people, through a combination of giving elites the information they need to better figure out how to use image and spectacle to sell their agenda (often portraying themselves as the exact opposite of what they are actually doing) and of providing a platform to perform the act of listening which makes people feel heard even as they are increasingly shut out of any actual collective power over what happens in their lives. Though the book is almost exclusively about the US context, I repeatedly thought about the antics of Justin Trudeau and his government, particularly their dedicated performance of listening and sympathy when it comes to things like climate change and the environment, even as they approve the pipelines and other extraction projects that industry wants and that will contribute so much to frying the earth.

At the same time, there has always been an elite disdain for focus groups and for consultation that has grown in the early 21st century and has increasingly manifested in the authoritarian masculinist rejection of listening to anybody about anything seen in figures like George W. Bush and Donald Trump. Yet even as they do this, and as it meets with the approval of a certain segment of the public, their campaigns and regimes are no less dependent on listening to figure out how to sell their agenda (sometimes still via focus group, sometimes using other methods) than those that listen performatively, like Barack Obama, Hilary Clinton, or Justin Trudeau. Part of why this elite rejection of focus groups and consultation can work as a brand is because there is also a popular suspicion and even disdain for it, and not just on the right or among white men angry at having to occasionally listen to everyone else for once. Featherstone argues that this represents a broadly misdirected anger – on some level, we recognize focus groups and consultation as part of a project of elite deception, yet so often that comes out as popular disdain for other ordinary people and for listening to them, rather than recognizing that the problem is elite maniuplation and the growing inequality that makes focus groups and performative listening so crucial to the maintenance of elite power.

Today, social media provides elites with more data than ever before to allow them to listen to the rest of us when it comes to certain details while keeping politics firmly non-threatening to elite interest, while focus groups persist because of the power of face-to-face interaction within small groups in illuminating not just opinions but the feelings and rationales underlying them. In some ways, the current scare about foreign interference in Western elections through strategic social media interventions based on prior mining of social media data is just a refinement of what our own elites have been doing to us for decades.

Featherstone argues that much of the culture of consultation that dominates politics and the commercial world today was appropriated from the movements of the New Left, significantly including the women's movement, but that in movements today there is also a way in which the legacy of New Left culture mimics its corporate up-take in the excessive emphasis on "giving voice" and "being heard" and the relatively little attention that many movements today pay to building and exerting power. She argues that we need to learn from the power that focus groups and other approaches to listening hold, but we must re-orient away from an emphasis on voice and consultation towards actual organizing. Which is a reasonable point in a lot of ways, though at least as it is made in this book it paints with too broad a brush, both in terms of its characterization of actually existing movements and in terms of its advocacy for how to do things differently. In fact, in some ways I thought this was the weakest part of the book because it smuggled in assumptions from the author without making them explicit or defending them. My sense is that she holds particular democratic socialist understandings of how we should relate to the state and to power, and that we should "take power" in that sense. And certainly that analysis needs to be part of the conversation, and certainly seems to be one useful element of a broader response to the decades of defeat under neoliberalism. But there are also other ways to think about organizing and about building power that don't necessarily fit within the newly re-forming democratic socialist tradition but that don't belong under the somewhat caricatured picture of movements seduced into liberal ineffectualness that the book paints. Frankly, I think this section of the book would have been significantly strengthened if it had itself been based on a lot more consulting and listening – to the many conversations about related issues already happening in many different movements, and informed by a range of radical traditions and perspectives. So: Some good ideas, but needs a much longer and more nuanced discussion, and inclusion of other radical perspectives as well.

Overall, though, I thought the book was really good. Its examination of the how of an important piece of late-capitalist governance is very important and I learned a lot. And as I've alluded to before on this blog and on social media, the recent re-orientation of one of my own major writing projects involves paying much closer attention to the politics of listening, and this book has definitely been helpful to me as I develop my thinking about at least some aspects of that work. Definitely worth a read.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

What violence do you fail to perceive?

What violence do you fail to perceive? What violence do I fail to perceive?

What violence escapes your notice, is invisible, inaudible, imperceptible, floats by like normal or nothing in your world?

Those are hard questions to answer. After all, if you don't notice it as it happens, why and how would you end up understanding the extent to which the world is in fact saturated with violence? But it is. It's all around us. Our lives are built on it.

That violence is a punch in the face, a truncheon to the gut, an uninvited grope, yes...but it is also hunger that need not happen, toxins that could have been prevented, avoidable inequality that shortens lives. It is the welfare regulations keeping you in an abusive relationship, it is the school policies and curriculum reproducing "queer = shameful," it is having your children taken when you have been denied the supports you need to raise them. In this understanding, any harm that we could prevent but don't, any suffering we allow to be inflicted when things could be otherwise, is violence.

This violence is all around us. And particularly those of us who face little of it directly (and are least likely to perceive it) live lives that are built on it. When we move into a shiny new apartment made possible because the low-income community that used to live on this street has been torn apart by evictions, rent hikes, and punitive policing, we are benefiting from violence. When we as settlers do *anything* on the stolen Indigenous lands of Turtle Island, in this context in which colonial violence is not of the past but alive and now and painfully ongoing, we live a life based on violence. When I check my Twitter on a phone built from violently exploited labour and using rare earth metals extracted via blood spilt and toxins released, I live based on violence. The examples are endless.

The point of raising these examples is not that we can somehow obtain purity, that we can escape complicity as individuals. We can't: We're in this, and nothing we can do on our own will get us out. (See, for instance, Alexis Shotwell's Against Purity.) Only through collective struggle can we make a dent in any of this. Though even that is complicated, messy, imperfect, and inevitably ongoing.

This post is not about that collective struggle, though. This post is about something that, at least in a certain sense and for some of us, has to precede that: The bare act of noticing the violence that surrounds us. There are lots of ways that this not-noticing happens. In some cases, we just don't have the basic knowledge to notice – our schooling and the media keep us ignorant of how the social world works. In other cases, the dehumanization of racial, sexual, class, and gender Others that those of us with privilege so often learn gets in the way of recognizing harm to those who are Othered as being horrific, as causing pain, as truly being violence. And in many other cases, it's kind of like how Naomi Klein describes the left version of climate change denialism: It's not that we deny the facts, it's that we acknowledge them intellectually but can't seem to find ways to incorporate the horror and magnitude of that knowledge into how we actually live our lives.

None of us, I think, can fully perceive the violence of the world. I know I certainly can't. Just as there is no way to will ourselves to innocence from this violence as individuals, there is also no way to will ourselves as individuals into full awareness of it. And yet, there are things we can do. At a very bare minimum, we can engage in practices that will make us better able to perceive this violence down the road.

When we have a strong emotional reaction to some event in the media, it's worth taking a few moments to think about what else might be happening that's as bad or worse that we aren't reacting to at all, or just with a pro-forma "tut tut, that's too bad."

When we feel inspired to share some political something on social media or in conversation, it's worth reflecting a bit on what doesn't feel important enough or appropriate to share, even though the harms involved are as bad or worse.

When we are swimming in our media-saturated everyday lives, it's worth asking why we find article X to be worth reading, to be somehow *about* us, when we perceive no connection to article Y, or it just doesn't feel important.

And it's worth starting this practice of noticing from at least an intellectual recognition of how not-noticing happens, even if we can't yet feel it in our guts. We need to start this questioning of how we direct our attention and how we react to things with a recognition that we are systematically taught to devalue some lives (BIPOC, LGBTQ+, women, migrant, poor, disabled, etc.) and from a recognition that we are taught to write off many forms of systemic violence as normal, or natural, or inevitable, or just how things are.

This is, of course, difficult. And it is not any kind of magic answer. But it is one way, I think, of doing the work of "staying with the trouble" (a phrase used in the book linked above, quoting Donna Haraway) which in turn is absolutely necessary to enable other kinds of responses that might begin to adequately address the violence of our world.

And I should add that I don't write this from a place of pretending I have things figured out; I write from being mired in the middle of it, from failing to perceive lots of violence, from sometimes having gut reactions that are oppressively hypocritical, from recognizing some aspects of oppressive violence intellectually but not yet having figured out at all what it means to live a life with that awareness, and all the rest.

But I write from a place of thinking that it is still worth asking: What violence do I fail to perceive? What violence do you fail to perceive?

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

It's Talking Radical Radio's Five-Year Anniversary!

Today marks five years since the first episode of Talking Radical Radio appeared. For all of that time, it has been my biggest ongoing project. On a weekly basis, almost every week, the show has brought grassroots voices from across Canada to radio stations and various online venues. It has given people involved in a wide range of social change work a chance to talk in depth about what they're doing, how they're doing it, and why they're doing it. And it has given the rest of us a chance to learn from their experience, insights, and analysis.

If you are interested in learning more, you can check out the show's website or follow us on Facebook or Twitter.

You can subscribe to the podcast via iTunes, Stitcher, or TuneIn.

And you can listen to all of the episodes via SoundCloud and

A big thank-you to the hundreds of people who have so generously shared their stories with me over the years! And a thank-you as well to the many more who have made suggestions, listened to the show, clicked 'like' or 'share', or otherwise made it possible for this work to continue.

Here's to many more years!

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.