Thursday, April 07, 2016

My writer's block is neoliberalism's fault

I should start out by saying that there is no part of the title of this post that is actually accurate. I just like the sentence.

The first inaccuracy is the phrase "writer's block." While I have, over the last couple of weeks, been having greater difficulty than I expected in returning after a time away to a particular kind of writing, I'm not having trouble with writing in general, and I have no doubts at all that a little patience and a little persistence will get me back to where I want to be. Some people might use "writer's block" to describe this kind of experience, but at least as of yet, for me it doesn't go beyond the inevitable and entirely normal ebb and flow of writing, in which sometimes it is slow and painful to get words down while other times it's quick and easy. That's just how it works.

The other inaccuracy is the focus on "neoliberalism." As I'll explain below, the flash of insight that I had the other day about my writer's not-block – writer's ebb? – is based in features of how capitalism has constructed (privileged) subjects from the very beginning, and it is not unique to the current phase of capitalism. However, it does particularly relate to aspects of capitalism that have become even more pronounced in recent decades, hence my choice of wording.

But let me back up by quite a few years.

Fairly early in my journey of figuring out how I wanted to write about the world and how I wanted to act in the world, I came to place considerable importance on recognizing that all of us understand the world, write, and act to make change from some place, and that the specifics of that someplace matter to how we can and must know, write, and act. Some people describe this as "standpoint," other people call it by other names, and still others don't really name it at all but still value it in how they act. Recognizing this means understanding what that someplace is, how it matters in a given instance, and how it can and does and should shape what you do. In terms of writing, that means understanding where you're writing from, and it means figuring out how that can and does and should shape your words, and perhaps sometimes how it can and should become part of the content of what you say.

This is not at all a novel insight on my part, certainly, and I'm sure some of you have been aware of it as a matter of course for as long as you can remember, but I had to learn it.

As politically and epistemologically important as I think this understanding is when it comes to producing knowledge and writing about the world, it isn't necessarily an approach to writing that came easily to me. Some of this is connected to personal quirks, but a lot of it isn't. For instance, a lot of what we learn in school about writing, many mainstream definitions of 'good journalism,' and the work of many a lefty whitedude superstar, all can make it seem like the only serious way to approach producing knowledge and text is the "view from nowhere" that pretends that we can stand above the world and pontificate, unimplicated. The view from nowhere is really no such thing, of course, and is a very specific somewhere disguised as nowhere, and the farther your specific somewhere falls from that dominant specific somewhere, the more friction you experience in trying to write from that faux-universal place. I didn't feel a lot of that intrinsic friction pushing me to figure things out.

So it didn't come easily, but I've worked away at it over the years and done my best to get better at writing from (and when relevant, about) my own experience of the world. It's important to add, I think, that what this actually looks like varies a great deal. There are lots of approaches to knowing the world that fit under this umbrella, and lots of different kinds of writing. Self may be visible and obvious, or it may inform the writing in a much more subtle way. The piece may explicitly draw on one's own experience, as in memoir or memoir-informed theory, or it may allow experience to more delicately shape how other things are talked about. The writing may end up feeling polemical, thoughtful, descriptive, analytical, or a whole host of other possibilities.

Over the years, I've engaged in some kinds of writing and some ways of relating to my own experience that fall under this broad umbrella. So, for instance, I've done a lot of book reviews on here, and I long ago rejected the more traditional approach to reviewing where your main reference point for situating and reacting to the book is an externally defined field of study or discipline, and instead grounded what I write in my own uses for, reactions to, and reasons for engaging with the book. And you can also look at my own books, which in their final form include explicit discussion of standpoint and visible inclusion of some relevant aspects of me and my experience...after a long journey of trying different models that did not initially include either of those things. And if I were to page back through the decade-plus of this blog, I'm sure I'd be able to point to other ways that I have consistently written from, and sometimes about, the experiences that have shaped me. Even so, it feels like there is far more of this broad territory that I've avoided, especially the parts that involve more attention to embodied experience and to visibly including self in what I write, and far more I could do with a little practice.

Back before Xmas, I was putting effort into writing more, and more kinds, of short pieces – for the moment, mostly for the blog, though with a hopeful eye to expanded possibilities in the future, and for the most part with my larger project of writing for and about movements firmly in view. It wasn't very systematic and it involved a lot of following my nose and writing whatever came up rather than being strategic, and it's likely that someone going back and looking at what I was doing wouldn't see anything much different than what I've done many times before. In fact, an important part of how I was doing it was that it was kind of like play, not in the sense of being leisure rather than work but in the sense of being semi-random and exploratory. Anyway, in the course of that, one of the things I was playing with (again, not necessarily in ways that a reader would be readily able to perceive, because at least some of it was about process rather than outputs) was how experience and self connect with writing.

Since the new year, or at least since the second week of January, I've been busy with other things. Along with the radio show that has imposed its own weekly discipline for more than three years now, it has been a mix of projects and activities that range from the tedious to the exciting, but none of which are for immediate public consumption. As I said at the top of this piece, however, in the last week and a half I've been working to get myself back into writing more, and more kinds, of short pieces, and I've found it trickier than I expected.

So picture this: I'm sitting in my desk chair, but swivelled away from my desk. My feet are up on the little folding table I use for that purpose, pen poised above the notebook on my lap. I know from how much great writing I've read that does this that it is entirely possible to start from any moment of experience, any encounter with an object or a person, and move on from there through the socially organized interconnections that bind us all together to say something interesting and useful about the world. I've even been able to do a fair-to-middling job of it a time or two myself, but it is still one of the things that I want to get better at. I admit that I did think that it was low-hanging fruit in this instance – after all, what's the point of having things that you worry about, that you notice, that you think about, that occupy your attention in an everyday sort of way, if you can't turn them into a half-decent blog post, right? :)

Except I couldn't. My pen stayed poised, hovering half an inch above the page. Then it wrote down a few words. Then it scribbled them out again. And so on.

I mean, I could identify various things that had occupied a little or a lot of my attention over the preceding week. I could even see in an intellectual sort of way how those individual preoccupations were in one way or another connected to things bigger than me – again, everything is, so it's not actually that hard to see, with a little practice. But – and this is going to sound flaky – I couldn't feel that connection to the broader social world, and it was writing from/with/through that felt connection that really interested (and interests) me.

So I could look at my concern about how tired I'd been that week, I could reflect on my fretting about various aspects of non-normative relationship practices, I could bring to mind my irritation at L's line of ongoing patter as he played a video game the night before, I could really feel the deep mixing of anticipation and introvert's anxiety about the unusually dense sociality the following days held in store for me, and I could intellectually recognize how each of those things could be connected to broader social questions and social relations – to (respectively) questions of class and work and control of time; to any of a number of questions about navigating normalizing pressures when you know yourself to be especially susceptible to them; to questions of gender and gaming and pro-feminist parenting; to deeper musings on self-formation, sociality, and how best to be present in activism and organizing as someone who finds sociality to be deeply draining and very difficult, just for example. But what I wanted to be doing was not just using those focuses of attention as triggers and then writing about related things in the world, but writing from those experiences, in a way that felt embodied and affectively connected, to broader questions as I might be implicated in them. And that just felt impossible. It felt like there was this huge chasm: My experiences were trapped on one side, and I could see across to various indistinct shapes that my experiences pointed to on the other side, but they were just too far away to bridge the distance...I would've had to disconnect from the my-experience side, hop in a heilcopter or whatever to fly across, and start in a disconnected way from that other side.

Weird, right?


And some of that is, as I already said, about personal quirk, and some of it is about my experience in this particular stretch of time – I have, after all, done similar things in the past. I'm less interested in what is different about this moment that is temporarily making it trickier, than I am in the features of the landscape that are always there that this moment makes it easier for me to perceive. That is, the chasm.

So the inspiration for this post (along with performing the neat trick of doing the thing even as I talk about being unable to do the thing) is the conviction that even though I was in an exaggeratedly sensitive moment that made it all feel much more absolute and daunting than it might have felt at other times, it is also a reflection in the body – in my body – of aspects of how the social world is organized all the time. In fact, of aspects of the social world that I have already spent a lot of time thinking about, but had not felt directly before in quite this way.

Again, let me back up a bit, though not quite as far as before.

So. A couple of years ago, I was toying with two different ideas for major writing projects. One, I decided to move forward with. Even the main strand of that work points towards something way different today than it did two years ago, and one of the things that occupied my writing energies in January and February was not even that main strand but an offshoot that, if I'm lucky, you'll hear more about later in the year. Still, it's all moving forward, if slowly and in unpredictable ways.

The other, I set aside, because I couldn't figure out how to do it. This path not yet taken (but not rejected either) was based on an insight into my own journey of...well, of politicization and of self-awareness and of thinking about the social world. I realized that the concept wasn't ripe enough after trying to explain it to two friends who are about as optimal an audience for this particular idea as I could hope for, and utterly failing to convey it, so bear with me. The gist is that one of the ways that I was taught to understand myself growing up (not explicitly, but in assumptions embedded in everything from school work to TV shows to newspapers) was as a self that is separate, self-contained, and complete – an individual that exists apart from and prior to anything social, which can then choose if and how and when to engage with the social world beyond itself. This notion of the atomized, individualized self is really the essence of the liberal-democratic understanding of the subject and its relationship to the social world, though it has come to loom even larger in the neoliberal era. The "I" of "I think therefore I am" exists (or so it is supposed) because it thinks, and it can then make rational and deliberate decisions about engaging with a social world that is entirely external and separate. Just look at the most readily available language we have for talking about ourselves, our choices, and our engagement with the world – it's mostly premised on this autonomous liberal subject, while deep interrelatedness is often awkward and cumbersome to put into words. Or look at popular culture – Hugh Grant's man-child character in About A Boy ("I'm bloody Ibiza!") or the romanticization of the Jedi of the Star Wars universe, say, may be more exaggerated than usual versions of this self-sufficient liberal subject, but they are hardly unique.

And I should add that this conception of the subject is not only something enthusiastically endorsed in classical liberal, neoliberal, and right-libertarian writings, but its presumption is also embedded very materially in many of the institutions of liberal-democratic capitalism. It is, as the guests on my show this week reminded me in the context of how children (and the mostly-women who are their primary caregivers) are so often excluded, embedded in our assumptions about who can and should occupy public space, and the appropriate ways for that space to be used. This is the kind of individual that our legal system, many other aspects of state practices, and institutions of capitalism presume, and anyone who for whatever reason cannot or will not pretend to be such a subject is treated by these institutions as less than a full human being. And because of this material basis, and because of how deeply down in language and in dominant conceptual repertoires this understanding of the subject is rooted, it shapes in a functional way the presumptions of people far beyond adherents of those strands of thought that explicitly embrace it. I think it is pushed on all of us, really, but not all of us take it up in equal measure: The more privilege you have, the closer your lived experience can be to this liberal ideal, while the less power you have over your circumstances, the more you have no choice but to recognize that you cannot be what the social world tells you is the proper way for a human being to be. Of course, none of us are really this kind of subject. We are all formed socially and we are all interdependent, it's just a matter of who gets to pretend otherwise and who can't.

So when I try to write and I feel that chasm between my everyday experience and broader social phenomena – and I want to emphasize again that this really was a visceral experience, not just some cerebral difficulty in choosing the right words or something of that sort – that deeply socially organized and ideologically inculcated gap is what I'm feeling. And as I said, what's interesting isn't really the fact that for a brief week or two more contingent aspects of my experience made it so starkly palpable, it's that even when it all feels a bit more manageable – when there are occasional rope bridges across, so to speak, or winding paths down one side and back up the other that a careful climber can follow – that chasm is central to the basic landscape of at least part of what I'm trying to do these days. It's not a personal block that can be wished away, or even worked away, though of course developing craft and capacities and insight can make a huge difference in navigating it. Rather, it's a feature of the social world that writes deeply on who we are, on what we feel, and on how we think of ourselves and the world.

That's what I mean by the title: It's not really neoliberalism, and it's not really writer's block in any normal sense, but it's this huge challenge that needs to be navigated to do writing that weaves self seamlessly into the social. Its source is not individual frailty but rather how selves and the social world are produced (and, consequently, experienced and understood) under white supremacist imperialist patriarchal capitalism.

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