Friday, December 15, 2017

Review: Policing Black Lives


[Robyn Maynard. Policing Black Lives: State Violence in Canada from Slavery to the Present. Halifax NS and Winnipeg MB: Fernwood Publishing, 2017.]

I commented in some social media context or other before I had read this book that I thought it would likely be one of the most important books published in Canada this year. Having read it, I can now say so unreservedly.

Policing Black Lives was written by Robyn Maynard, a Black feminist writer and a long-time anti-authoritarian organizer based on Montreal – and, I hope, a future guest on Talking Radical Radio. (She has expressed interest, but so far the scheduling hasn't worked, though I remain hopeful that we'll be able to figure something out for the new year.) The book is a very straightforward presentation of exactly what it promises: a look at the trajectory of state violence, in particular anti-Black state violence, in the Canadian context from the early days of colonization – those long centuries in which slavery was as Canadian an institution as maple syrup and cold winters – to today. The book's importance and power derives both from its relationship to the context into which it is entering and from the way that it does its work.

The context is absolutely crucial to what the book is doing. Maynard quotes radical scholar Rinaldo Walcott (check out my interview with him and one of his colleagues here) as describing the experiences of Black individuals and communities in Canada as "an absented presence always under erasure" (4), and talks elsewhere about Blackness in Canada as hypervisible and oversurveilled yet resolutely and consistently denied space in dominant narratives of here. This means that despite the fact that there have been dedicated, mostly Black scholars, writers, and activists in Canada writing about and working on these issues for many decades if not longer, a common theme in the (admittedly quite plentiful and favourable) media and popular response to this book is to characterize it as completely new rather than as an important advance built on the solid foundation of all of that earlier work by others. Not sure whether this was intended by Maynard or not, but it does feel like the book is using the attention made possible by this sense of novelty to disrupt the erasure that is the basis for it. And to put it more in a movement context, part of why this book is so important is that, even granting all of the work done in decades past, most white-dominated social movements and communities-in-struggle in the Canadian context have a relatively shallow (and in some cases completely absent) understanding of anti-Black racism and its place in constituting "Canada" and in constituting us as white settler Canadians.

As for how the book does its work, it starts from a small number of powerful and important ideas, and carries them through a methodical, rigorous survey of both the history of anti-Black state violence in Canada, and key ways that state violence shapes Black lives in Canada today. The important ideas include a really thorough feminist commitment to paying attention to how other aspects of experience and identity intersect with Blackness; attention to the interrelation of anti-Blackness and settler colonialism that is not exhaustive but still more substantive than anything I've seen from the white left in this country; an expansive understanding of state violence that looks not only at the violence of police but also the less visible violence of other elements of the state like child welfare services and the social assistance system and schools; and a constant circling back to the ways in which the shape of anti-Blackness in Canada today has emerged from long histories originating in slavery here. Along with being quite open about the fact that more work needs to be done exploring the interrelated character of anti-Blackness and settler colonialism, the book also freely admits that it doesn't talk much about resistance – some, but not a lot. As well, part of the absented presence of Blackness in Canada means that there are lots of areas where data that considers racialized impacts just doesn't get collected, and lots of other areas where specific research that is done routinely in the United States is much more sparse or even absent here. Nonetheless, the book carefully collects and considers what has been done, and weaves it together in a theoretically rich and accessibly presented whole.

It is really encouraging to see how broadly this book is being taken up. Of course it is never a good idea to underestimate the resilience of white Canadian refusal to take anti-Blackness seriously – including on the left, including on the radical left – but I think this book is an important contribution to the upsurge of radical Black activism and organizing in this country in recent years, and (among other things) I think it's an excellent tool for those of us in predominantly non-Black movement contexts tool to inform the kinds of hard conversations that we need to be having.

I've also done a video version of this review. Check it out:


[Check out the somewhat out-of-date but still extensive list of book reviews on this site.]

Friday, November 24, 2017

Review: From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation


[Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor. From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation. Chicago IL: Haymarket Books, 2016.]

If you are on the left, you have probably encountered some version of what has become a pretty standard account of the history between the end of the Second World War and the present. It follows the social democratic compromise between capital and labour after the war, the rise of the welfare state in conjunction with unprecedented (if nowhere close to evenly distributed) prosperity in Western countries over the subsequent two decades, the capitalist crisis of the early 1970s, and then the rise of the neoliberal assault on all of those gains that continues today.

It's a useful history. It captures a lot about what matters, a lot about what has changed, and a lot about the growing precarity and violence organized into people's lives over the last few decades. But this fairly standard marxist approach leaves a lot out as well, along a lot of different axes. For instance, it often fails to capture how the uprisings of the 1960s and 1970s were a reaction to multiple forms of exclusion from access to the growing wellbeing of the post-war years. Or you can read Vijay Prashad's The Darker Nations and The Poorer Nations as a re-engagement with that history centering the nations of the Global South during the heady promise of the end of formal colonization and subsequent reimposition of obedience via the neoliberal model. Or there was an observation I saw just the other day on Twitter from Vancouver-based migrant justice organizer Harsha Walia noting how conventional accounts of neoliberlism so often ignore how the weakening of the state's ability to redistribute and regulate is integrally tied to strengthening carceral and punitive state power.

Which brings me to this book: It's not the book's explicit goal, but some of it can be read as a re-telling of bits of that history in a way that centres African Americans. The whole book is an exploration in the US context of the intertiwining of white supremacy (particularly anti-Blackness) and capitalism, with lots of attention to how both racial oppression and Black resistance shifted over that time. So during the uprisings of the 1960s, Black struggle, in all of its militant diversity, "pushed mainstream politics to the left" (45) and opened space for thinking about poverty, racism, and anti-Black oppression in terms of systemic injustice rather than in the racist terms of personal and cultural inferiority. In the 1970s, the fading of street-level militance and the elite counter-offensive closed this space in the white-dominated mainstream, amplified law-and-order politics, and reconfigured white supremacy around the colourblind logic that dominates in North America today. In particular, Taylor explores the profound shifts that Black politics underwent between the civil rights era and today, with attention to the shift in emphasis from mass street-based politics to focusing on electoral victories by Black politicians. As understable as that change was given the context, Taylor shows how the dramatic increase in Black people holding elected positions over those decades has accomplished certain kinds of things but has had a limited impact on the central issues in the lives of poor and working-class Black communities, due to how the electoral system and the state more broadly work, and how that has also been part of fundamentally reconfiguring the landscape upon which the Black freedom struggle operates today. The book then zooms in on the justice system and questions of mass incarceration of Black and brown people. It talks in a more focused way about the Obama years and the profound limits on what the now-mainstream Black political establishment can accomplish, again principally in terms of core concerns for poor and working-class Black communities. Then there is a chapter about the Black Lives Matter movement to that point, and finally a chapter outlining Taylor's vision for moving forward with a politics that fully integrates anti-capitalism and opposition to white supremacy and to anti-Blackness.

The most valuable part of this book for me is its engagement with history. There were bits and pieces that weren't new to me, but many more that were, and I learned a lot from its reformulation of some elements of 20th century history. I also really value its account of African American struggles in the decades after the 1960s, which is something that those of us who are connected to movements but are not part of those communities don't necessarily know much about. For all that I'm reading this in the Canadian context, and the shape and historical trajectory of anti-Blackness isn't the same here – the next book I plan on reviewing will likely talk about that a bit – I still think this was a worthwhile read for me. After all, the Black freedom struggle has in some sense been the core of overall movement momentum in the US for a long time, and struggle in the US often circulates in significant ways to the Canadian context. So this feels quite relevant to me, here.

As I said at the start, one of the core goals of the book is to show how we need an analysis and a political practice that integrates anti-capitalism and anti-racism. This isn't a new idea, but it is an important one, and I think that it is very timely to be forcefully arguing for it. In the last couple of years, electoral dynamics in the United States have created a toxic and to my mind entirely unnecessary polarization between those two – I think because of a mix of deliberate efforts to do so by neoliberal forces in and around the Democratic Party as part of fending off challenges from the left, but also because of a lot of really boneheaded moves by said left, including bad choices around race politics by prominent figures and initiatives like the Sanders campaign, as well as the growing embrace by a subset of both socialist and anarchist grassroots anti-capitalists of politics that, when unpacked, boil down to a form of class reductionism. Taylor is very emphatic that this is not inevitable – anti-capitalism is not at all inherently class reductionist – but in a lot of instances when it is white-dominated anti-capitalist groups, that is what happens.

That said, I was a bit disappointed in the book's final chapter, which serves as a sort of manifesto and vision for working towards the promise of the book's title. Like I said, I think the book's vision for a politics integrating anti-capitalism and anti-racism is important and timely, but its articulation in the final chapter felt kind of closed, perhaps even a bit doctrinaire. I know there are other approaches to understanding and resisting white supremacy and anti-Blackness that are radical or revolutionary in character, and other ways of thinking about how fighting capital and white supremacy have to go together, that are not the same as what is articulated in this book. And the final chapter feels a bit dismissive of all of that. Admittedly, some of my discomfort may just be about differences in political sensibility – it has always made the most sense to me to engage generously with a range of political traditions, and take up what's useful to you while doing your best to be able to learn from and work with the rest. So I think things like the critical and radical scholarly work on white supremacy and anti-Blackness, and on efforts to resist them, that are being articulated in academic spaces and are not necessarily quite as grounded in struggle on the ground as this book are still really important and still things that I want to learn from, and that I want the movements I'm in to learn from. And I know that there are some quite different approaches to thinking about and working against anti-Blackness that come from quite a different place, that are (among other things) often quite a bit more skeptical about working in coalition, and I don't think our movements can afford to not engage seriously with those approaches.

To put it all a bit more sharply, I think white anti-capitalists need to be careful how we read and mobilize this book. Definitely I think we should be using it to counter the toxic polarization that is trying to tell people that anti-capitalism and anti-racism are incompatible. But we should resolutely refuse to use this book to evade anti-racist critiques of how instances of white-dominated anti-capitalist organizing are happening, right now, on the ground – these critiques are not always going to use left language, and that doesn't mean we should just dismiss them. And we should not be using it to dismiss or to justify not seriously engaging with other forms of radical and revolutionary anti-racism that don't happen to fit as easily with our already-existing anti-capitalist politics.

So, yeah...this is a very useful book that I think should be widely read. I hope we can let its engagement with history transform our understanding of the last half century and inform our political choices in movements today, but I hope that white anti-capitalists in particular deploy it with political care and respect and don't use it as an excuse to close ourselves off in various ways.

For a video version of this review that is a bit less detailed than the written version, check this out:


[Check out the somewhat out-of-date but still extensive list of book reviews on this site.]

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Thinking about how cis men can and should be speaking publically about sexual violence


I've been thinking a lot in the last month about how cisgender men can and should be speaking publically about sexual violence and gender oppression.

I've been thinking about this for some obvious reasons and some less obvious reasons. The obvious ones should be – well, obvious. In the last month, these issues have received unprecedented mainstream attention. And not only that, there has been a critical mass of pressure that has resulted in powerful institutions that would normally ignore or dismiss or attack survivors being forced to take some meanintful action in response. There are all sorts of limits to this, and there is a great need for ongoing pressure to sustain and deepen this moment, but it has nonetheless been quite significant.

I have also been thinking about this because the whole situation has made me feel a lot of difficult feelings. Not because I'm a survivor of sexual violence – I'm not, and I know what I've been feeling is a mere fraction of what survivors have been feeling. Neither have I sexually assaulted anyone. But I am, as a cis dude, complicit in various ways in sexual violence and gender oppression. And related issues have wound for years through my own ongoing efforts to work through some of the central challenges in my own life. Hence the many feelings.

One of the things that I've been feeling is a certain sense of political obligation to speak publically on the issue. But I've also been feeling a complicated hesistance, and on reflection I think that some of that hesitance is warranted and some of it is not. So I've been thinking through how I can and should be speaking.

Acting in the World

Acting politically in the world inevitably begins from where we already are – the spaces we're already in, the groups we already belong to, the workplaces where we are employed, the informal networks we're already part of, the activities we already do. Taking action can change our trajectory, bring us into new places, create new opportunities for acting – ideally collectively, becuase I think collective action is what is most needed – but inevitably, in any given moment, our choices about acting must begin from where we already are.

I think perhaps the single most important thing for us cis guys to consider as we reflect on speaking publically – whether that's a Facebook status update, a piece in the New Yorker, a speech in Parliament, or a comment in an activist group meeting – about sexual violence and gender oppression is that if we really take seriously that acting politically starts from where we already are, then speaking publically must be only one small part of how we act. A much bigger, and arguably a more important, part is the political choices we make in the rest of life – all of those things that so many pieces published in the last month, and so many more published in the last 50 years, have named. How do we enact complicity in sexual violence and gender oppression every day? Because assuredly we do. So how do we challenge and change that? How do we relate to the partners, friends, co-workers, family, and other people in our everyday lives? How do we listen, how do we speak, how do we communicate about sexual violence and gender oppression with all of those people? How do we act in small, non-visible ways to support public initiatives led by women, trans people, nonbinary people, and survivors of all genders? And when it comes to the public circulation of knowledge, rather than leaping to spewing our own (perahps dubious) contribution, what can we do to read, watch, and listen to more material on these issues produced by women, trans people, nonbinary people, and survivors of all genders? And in this social media age, where all of us can play a role in amplifying knowledge, what can we do to make sure all of that circulates more too?

It varies with context – if you have a co-worker who, right now, is being attacked for speaking out about abuse she has suffered, then speak up publically and support her! – but I think for most of us in most situations, more of our effort on these issues needs to go in directions other than speaking publically.

That said, however, speaking publically (in an expansive sense) is one element of what I already do. Not that huge numbers of people listen to any individual instance, of course, but writing and making media of various sorts that I send out into the world for people to engage with has been central to my work for a long time. And given that it is what I already do, it makes sense, I think, to reflect on doing it better around questions of sexual violence and gender oppression.

Political Responsibility

So here's what I came up with: In order for speaking or writing publically about sexual violence and gender oppression by cis men to be useful, it must be organized and informed by a logic of political responsibility. That is, in making decisions about when and how to speak, we have to prioritize a recognition that what matters here is the broader issue, and the struggles by women, trans people, nonbinary people, and survivors of all genders to challenge practices of sexual violence and transform the social relations of gender oppression that enable those practices. We have to work at understanding those struggles, and choose our moments and methods of speaking publically such that they feed into those struggles. That's what matters, full stop.

Of course, that's still not a guarantee that speaking publically will be a good choice or will in any way be useful, but it at least avoids guaranteeing the opposite. When that logic of political responsibility gets displaced by other logics in shaping how we decide what we say and when we say it, we need to step back and look critically and closely at what we're doing. We need to be on the lookout for that ourselves, and we need to be able to hear it when other people tell us that's what's going on.

So at the most immediate level, and at the broadest applicability, that means that if there's even a whiff that speaking in a given moment is really about me in some sense, then maybe I just shouldn't. For instance, for cis guys speaking on these issues, it easily turns into performance. And if you're about to say something and you have even a faint suspicion that it's really more about performing a certain kind of politics in order to play activist status games or in hopes of getting into somebody's pants or whatever else, then it's probably best to stay quiet. Another example that has cropped up in the last month has been a handful of progressive men who engage in a certain kind of generalized public confession of complicity. Not that strategic and careful examination in public of elements of one's own complicity is necessarily bad – I haven't seen much of it, but I suspect that it can be quite useful in unpacking the how of complicity in grounded ways, which doesn't happen enough. But while generalized public confession may seem like it follows a logic of political responsibility, I think often it is more about meeting some kind of need in the person confessing and doesn't necessarily contribute much to broader struggles.

Or take a much narrower instance: I think that, in general, if a given instance of speaking publically about sexual violence or gender oppression is attached to opportunities to make a living and/or build a career, cis men should be very hesitant about taking those opportunities. By definition, doing so introduces a logic other than political responsibility to the choice to speak. I'm not going to say they should never take them – though others would, and I wouldn't argue with them – but especially if there is even a hint that those opportunities and the attached resources could go to a woman, trans person, or nonbinary person who is doing this work, in most scenraios I can imagine the politically responsible thing for a cis man to do is to step back.

As narrow as that instance is, though, it connects to something much more broadly relevant. One of the weird dynamics of how this plays out is that cis men get affirmation, recognition, and social reward for even minimal acts of public speech against sexual violence and gender oppression that is vastly greater than any affirmation, recognition, or rewards that women, trans people, and nonbinary people get. In fact, often we get applause for saying things that bring them nothing but scorn and abuse. Moreover, this easily crystallizes from a moment of excessive affirmation into a sort of personal branding as "a dude who gets it" or "one of the good ones." Now, this isn't entirely under the control of the cis dude in question, but nonetheless there is an obligation to refuse and disrupt this branding.

Partly this is because there is a long and awful history of men who behave abominably towards women and trans people in their private lives in part protecting themselves by building a public reputation as a progressive guy who "gets it." Think of the Canadian media personality with the initials JG, a certain prominent male women's studies prof (HS) who went down in flames a few years ago, and a certain comedian in the news right now. Part of defusing that predatory tactic is to constantly trouble, to the extent that the individual in question can, how this affirmation is allocated and the ways it gets turned into a brand.

More broadly, though, it's important because it is a crucial way that a logic other than political responsibility manages to sneak its way into our decision-making. Because it is seductive to get this kind of affirmation. I mean, I can't say it has come up often for me in the last few years, but even so I can think of three or four times in the last year and a bit where the particular context led to enough of that kind of excessive positive feedback that I felt its pull (as well as its icky-ness). And it very easily leads to saying and doing things publically that are much more about one's own needs than about what would flow from an honest assessment of political responsibility. So to preserve our ability to make good decisions, we need to push back against this tendency towards excessive social rewards and consequent personal branding, and to work to not become attached to receiving them.

And the final thing I think we can do to speak publically from a logic of political responsibility is to work really hard to do so from our whole selves. Which may sound strange and abstract, but I think it might well be the most important point that I'm making here. We can't just pick one issue that we recognize in an intellectual way is important and focus on getting good at talking about that in a public way. Our reference point can't be "Oh, well, I think gender is important so I'll learn about that and talk about that." Rather, we need to recognize, even if we can't fully articulate, the totality of what we're implicated in. We need to start from all of who we are, from a recognition that we are simultanously immersed in social relations organized in a huge number of ways, along many different axes, that organize violence into some people's lives and unearned benefit into other people's lives in a whole lot of different of ways, always and all the time. There's an all-at-onceness to who we are as people and to the social relations that we're in. Acting from a logic of political responsibility, including that slice of it that involves speaking publically, means always starting from how we exist in relation with all of that. Not necessarily talking about all of it, all the time – I mean, you couldn't, right? – but grounding our decision making about what and when and how, in that big picture. It's huge and it's messy and it's hard, and it's so big that it makes any kind of political purity or performance of being "good" pretty much impossible, but we need to stay in it.

There are lots of reasons why this is important. I think emphasizing starting from all of who we are, all of where we are, all of what we're already doing helps to maintain that logic of political responsibility because it involves always going back to that bigger picture of the social relations that surround us, that we create, that create us, and asking, what do we need to do to act with responsibility here, now? I think it helps us remember that speaking publically is only one narrow part of what we need to do when it comes to acting from where we already are, because even for those of us whose work involves (in a broad sense) speaking publically, it really amounts to a pretty minor part of life. I think it can be useful in disrupting the risk of personal branding, because it forces us to constantly confront how it is all so big and multifaceted and messy, so it makes it that much harder to fall into cultivating a reputation (or believing our own) for 'getting it' on any particular issue. I think it leads to better politics, because it's a better accounting of how our world actually works and a better grounding for making decisions – single issue understandings are always limited. And it also leads to better politics because it pushes us to learn from political traditions that already have this understanding of the world, whether that is the long Black feminist tradition and Kimberle Crenshaw's concept of "intersectionality," works that integrate marxist insights about the social world with analyses of patriarchal and white supremacist social relations like Sylvia Federici and Himani Bannerji, or any number of other radical theorists like Dean Spade or Eli Clare or Sara Ahmed. And, personally, I think grounding efforts to act from a logic of political responsibility in our whole selves creates space to be putting that responsibility into some kind of healthy relation with our work for our own liberation, and for a vision of a better world that includes space for pleasure, desire, and joy rather than the moralistic grimness that can (especially among cis guys who take the politics seriously) so easily result from devotion to some sort of abstracted future.

So. Those are a just few incomplete thoughts on how cisgender men can and should be speaking publically about sexual violence and gender oppression in the current moment. I haven't really said much about the content of what we might want to be saying in this moment, but I'm keen to hear what others think about that. What have you been saying, in this moment of difficult but vitally important heightened mainstream attention to sexual violence and gender oppression? More importantly, what have you been doing beyond that narrow slice of life that involves saying things in public?

-----

In line with some of the work that I did on book reviews in late 2016, right now I'm experimenting with producing video versions of various kinds of writing that I'm doing. I think the written version above is a bit clearer than the video version, but I make essentially the same points in both, so if you are someone who would rather watch than read, check this out:


Wednesday, November 08, 2017

Work-in-Progress #1: An overview of my current projects


So I recently realized that I'm a bit bored with the big projects that take up most of my work time. Not wavering in my commitment to them...just a little bored. Now, I already feel that I don't have enough time to do the things that I need to do, or at least to make progress on them as rapidly as I'd like. Nonetheless, the thought of revisiting my experimentation with video, which I indulged in about a year ago, gives me the sort of feeling of enthusiasm that I hope will be a good counter to my boredom. It's entirely possible that enthusiasm will fade by next Tuesday, but...my current idea is to make bookish, bloggish, and work-in-progress kinds of videos (all of the "talking head" variety that is common on YouTube). So to that end, here is the first work-in-progress video. Most will be about one quick, narrow thing, but this is a bit of an overview of the different projects I'm involved in right now:



Friday, October 27, 2017

Reading *The Lorax* to Enbridge! (And opposing the Line 10 tar sands pipeline expansion!)

My first effort at making a video that's more than just linear editing of a talking head. It's a little rough, perhaps, but it's a chance to see some of an action that took place in Hamilton, Ontario earlier today in opposition to Enbridge's Line 10 tar sands pipeline expansion project.

Check it out:

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Review: In the Wake

[Christina Sharpe. In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. Durham NC and London UK: Duke University Press, 2016.]

This book develops ways of exploring and describing the relations that constitute Black diasporic life.

As I understand it – and I’m sure I’m missing lots – it begins from a recognition that conventional ways of approaching historical archives, as well as many more contemporary sources, leave unsayable much that is crucial to understanding Black experience, because of how anti-Blackness has shaped what is kept and what is erased, and how it continues to shape the very fabric of dominant ways of knowing. As well, most dominant scholarly ways of knowing are vastly inadequate to understanding the relationships among all of those different kinds of sources.

To challenge this, the book develops a novel approach that weaves all of these things together – historical sources, current events, and diverse sorts of cultural and artistic production that are grounded in Blackness.

The title, In the Wake, points to the book’s use of the multiple meanings of “wake”, but particularly the disturbance of water that a ship has passed through, as a figure through which the relationships among the past, the present, and the cultural and artistic can be understood. The ship that leaves this wake is not, of course, a generic ship but the slave ship that carried kidnapped Africans to the Americas. The book argues that Black diasporic life remains unavoidably shaped by slavery, to the extent that it is not a matter of slavery having ended and something new begun, but rather today continuing in/as the “afterlives of slavery.” The specific legal institutions may be long gone, but the logics which animated them are just as present and just as crucial to shaping Black life today.

The book goes on to employ other figures drawn from the era of slavery – the ship, the hold, and the weather, most prominently, but others as well. It seems to me that each of these is meant to capture some common aspect of experience shared broadly by people in the Black diaspora. It takes those aspects of experience that find no reflection in ways of theorizing the world that refuse to engage seriously with Black standpoints and names them, describes them. It then shows how the figures thus named weave through not only everyday Black life today, but through histories stretching back to the beginning of the transatlantic slave trade, and through a wide range of visual art, drama, literature, film, photography, and other cultural making by Black artists.

The book also presents an understanding of resistance based in a recognition that these circumstances, this living in the wake, is something that will not be changing any time soon. Rather than seeking some sort of immediate material strategy that might overthrow this order, its focus is on building on and enhancing the ways in which Black people already navigate it – ways of seeing, learning, speaking, and caring that enable Black life in the midst of the afterlives of slavery – as the only possible sources of the seeds of broader transformation. To translate that into slightly different terms, it seems to me to aim to cultivate a form of living otherwise from a place within, against, and beyond the wake, where “beyond” is and will for the conceivable future remain in an imaginative and aspirational register.

The most obvious level of learning from this book for those of us who are white is about the social world: We do not live in the wake, in the sense this book means of being targets of its violence, but even so we live lives that are organized through social relations that have been profoundly shaped by slavery and its afterlives. One outcome of that shaping is, of course, incentive and encouragement for us to remain largely unaware that it is happening. This book is a chance to look at elements of the world that we have made and that has made us that we usually look away from.

I also think the book has much to teach not just about the social world but about ways of producing knowledge about the social world. It's not a matter of directly taking up its approach – its method depends, I think, on access to standpoints of Blackness that I simply don't have. But its example can serve as a sort of destabilizing and disrupting influence for approaches to knowledge production that have other sorts of groundings. It's a push to re-think any way of knowing that is unable to recognize and connect with what it describes, a push towards specific askings of "What is missing from my account? What lives? Whose humanity? What violence? Whose readings?", and a push towards much more creative and fluid ways of perceiving and navigating interconnections among ways of making knowledge and meaning and beauty that are often kept separate.

I do worry a little bit that its ideas about responding to life in the wake might be misunderstood by some white readers as advocating a sort of quietism. Not the book's fault, of course, and not the book's responsibility to address. Especially when its clear and complex glimpse into the mountainous inertia of violence that is part of our world but so often hidden from our everyday lives is such a (difficult but important) gift, and one that, if we sit with it, can perhaps help in grounding our own reflections about how to resist, how to relate, how to perceive, how to engage in care.

[Check out the somewhat out-of-date but still extensive list of book reviews on this site.]

Monday, September 18, 2017

A few thoughts about the NDP leadership race...


...from a Twitter thread I wrote earlier this evening, in the unlikely event that anyone is interested in what I have to say.

First, some context to position myself: I am not and have never been a member of the NDP, nor any other political party. I identify politically with social movements. My relationship to electoral politics is skeptical but pragmatic. I see all sorts of limits to what parties and states can do, but I vote, because I've never understood why those limits should stop me from taking a low-impact but low-effort action (i.e. voting). I've lived most of my adult life in ridings where the NDP consistently places 1st or 2nd and I tend to vote NDP.

In terms of the current leadership race, I've followed it some, read some, but not devotedly. I'm no expert. My main interest has been the extent to which it might become a means through which a Corbyn or Sanders effect might arrive in Canada. Corbyn and Sanders aren't the (potential) saviours that their most ardent partisans understand them to be, but they are figures through which something different is happening, something different and positive.

And my question was, would the NDP leadership race be a way for that something different to happen here?

Importantly, the difference in question is only partially about platform and policy. It is also, and I think more importantly, about pushing institutions, i.e. the Democrats and Labour, to function differently, about materially pushing the neoliberal party form towards something else, however tentatively. That has looked different in the US and the UK because the parties & electoral systems are so different, but it's true in both. And in both it has been related to grassroots members/energy refusing to be contained by the neoliberal discipline of the party hierarchy, and making the organization function in ways, even if only small ones, that its neoliberal hierarchy doesn't like. Obviously not to transformational degrees, and less in the US than the UK, but the number of neoliberal hacks recently pushed to embrace #MedicareForAll shows that it hasn't been without impact in the US either.

The key lesson here is that even though both of those happened in part via leadership drives by people embracing the label "socialist", it isn't the presence or absence of an avowed socialist running things that has, at heart, mattered. It was those changes in organizational functioning forced on the Dems and Labour by grassroots energy that mattered. So an avowed socialist winning #ndpldr will not, in and of itself, change much. And while there are a couple of organized efforts to push the NDP leftwards, at least one of which still seems somewhat interesting, and I have seen signs of pockets of left-of-NDPers reluctantly signing up to cast a vote in a way that I haven't before, I see no evidence of sufficient kind or amount of energy to push the NDP apparatus to be anything other than what it has been.

Whichever candidate, whichever platform wins, the basic dynamics of the NDP as an organization will be more or less the same. There are people I know and respect supporting Singh, Angus, and Ashton (though, interestingly, not Caron). There are pros and cons to each, for sure, and real reasons why individuals might passionately support one or another. But the NDP as an insitution is going to emerge from this much as it entered.

Which is not to be all Eeyore about it...perhaps the Courage organization + Ashton supporters + Leap-related stuff will still crystalize into a Sanders/Corbyn moment down the road. But the NDP leadership race is not that moment.

And, with no disrespect intended to those who put energy into the leadership race, I still feel that hope, as always, lies with movements.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Review: Living a Feminist Life


[Sara Ahmed. Living a Feminist Life. Durham NC and London UK: Duke University Press, 2017.]

Living a Feminist Life is the latest book from UK-based feminist philosopher Sara Ahmed. I’ve read a number of her other books and find her ideas to be really useful, and I was keen to read this one. Happily, it was as thoughtful, clever, well-written, and politically challenging as I’d hoped.

Ahmed’s approach to understanding the world starts from a very fine-grained sort of attention to lived experience. In some of her writing, she explicitly connects this to phenomenology, a school of philosophy originally developed in the early 20th century that is known for such close attention. One of the things she does in the first part of this book, though, is to re-ground some of the key ideas and figures from her earlier work in ways that disembed them somewhat from academic citational lineages. Ostensibly, such citation is a kind of intellectual accountability, but she talks about the pressures to enact it in certain ways that reinforce established (patriarchal, white) intellectual authority, even in a lot of otherwise feminist scholarship. The first section of the book deals in various ways with the process of becoming feminist, hers and in general, and she shows how some of the key ideas and figures in her work derive most directly not from dusty books but from thinking through those experiences of politicization, taking them up, and putting them to work (often while functioning in relation to a rather different set of books). She doesn’t quite put it this way, but it seems to me to be enacting a different sort of citational accountability – these ideas and figures in her work have power precisely because they speak to the realities of women’s lives, and to feminist struggles across a range of scales that seek to change those lives and the world, and it is a more politically meaningful sort of accountability to refuse to cloak these origins with undue attention to whatever similarities they might have to the ideas of some dead white guys. It’s not a sign of unwillingness to learn from or be in dialogue with other thinkers – far from it – but a commitment to theory that prioritizes lives, struggle, and liberation.

The book is written in Ahmed’s very distinctive style. As I said, it begins from close attention to experience, and it involves thinking through how those experiences are shaped. It tries to capture the dense thick complexity of how that works in all of our lives through the approach to writing – attention not just to straightforward causality, but to resonances, echoes, and lateral connections through shared meanings and the multiple derivations and impacts that are always at play. It is often playful, and occasionally comes across as trying a bit too hard, though in a clear majority of the time it’s an approach to writing that works for me both aesthetically and in terms of the features of the world that it is meant to capture. In this book, there was really only one significant place where it consistently felt forced – the discussion, especially when it was initially presented but also to an extent when it was revisited a few times later in the book, of “feminist arms.” Not that I have any quibble with the analysis she raises through that figure, but the writing felt like a bit of a stretch, like it was working a lot harder to convey that analysis than the smooth, clever word-dance of most of the rest of the book.

The second section of this book focuses on drawing lessons from the author’s work on engaging in institutional change work in university contexts, which she originally wrote about in an earlier book that I have not read. While it is based in one particular kind of experience in one particular kind of institution, it can be read as a generalizeable instance of pushing to make change in the institutional relations that immediately surround you – what it involves, what it feels like, what it costs you. In Ahmed’s case, this was work that has its origins in histories of challenging racism and sexism within universities, though the official naming of such work today is often much more euphemistic. Though I am someone who largely benefits from the uneven landscape within institutions rather than being targeted by it, I did in earlier years have a few experiences of participation in that kind of work, albeit in a different sort of context, and a lot of what the book says felt very familiar. The book’s close attention to the experience of institutional change work and then its theorizing based on that attention to experience provides both important content about how institutions work to maintain injustice and a powerful example of how to notice and learn and act while stuck in the middle of it.

The third secion of the book is about the consequences of living a feminist life. It talks about harms, about loss (including loss of self and loss of relationships), and it talks about breaking points, but it talks about that which can be gained as well. It also offers an articulation of a specifically lesbian feminist politics that refuses to reject in toto an earlier era’s version of such a thing while at the same time refusing to be bound by that version’s political limitations. And finally the book ends with both a toolkit and a manifesto for feminist killjoys.

Part of what I value so highly about Ahmed’s work is the way that it is consistent with the sense I already had of how, materially, the world works – how we exist in relation with one another, how the injustices and resistances often talked about in somewhat abstracted ways play out materially at the experiential level – but it pushes that sense to become much richer and more grounded. Even though our experiences are so very different, my own lived experience of being constrained and shaped and regulated by my immediate environment, especially the people around me, fits very well with how she describes the world. Though her approach stays very close to the level of experience, I think it offers plenty of hooks to bring it into relation with forms of analysis that operate at other scales, and I think it offers tools to think about social relations of power and resistance that are quite embodied, felt, and physical, in contrast with more common approaches that are either wholly abstracted or understood primarily through both actual practices and metaphors of the visual.

I haven’t read any other reviews of this book, though I know there are many out there, and I wonder how it is being taken up – especially how it is being taken up by younger feminists who are not scholars and whose framework for understanding the world is basically liberal in form. I wonder this because my guess is that this book is not what its title might lead some to believe: It is not memoir, though it is definitely writing from experience in a broader sense. And it is not precisely a guidebook for the living of a feminist life, either – at least, not in the straightforward sense of, say, an Everyday Feminism listicle, though you could make a case that it is precisely that in a politically sophisticated and queered sense.

I guess one way to understand how it might confound expectations for a book with this name is related to its refusal of a liberal understanding of the social world. It doesn’t pretend that we are isolated individuals in a formless social sea, so the two most common ways of offering life guidance that are premised on such an understanding – the content-less affirmation of “discover yourself, then you do you” or the puritanical direction of “feminists do X, feminists don’t do Y” – would not make any sense. It offers a different way of thinking about what a self is and how selves move through the world, and most importantly how selves move through the world with a particular politics. It recognizes the social world as having a shape, a form, a direction, and feminism as being a way to name a particular range of experiences of and orientations towards that shape. It offers ways to figure out that landscape, to name it, and it suggests shapes that you may encounter and have to theorize based on what she has enountered – not assuming identity between the two but also recognizing that there will be some relation between them. It is a sharing of what the author has done and learned from the doing, but that is as much about the modelling of the learning as it is a telling of what was learned.

As someone who is not gender-oppressed, I don’t sit in that landscape in the same way, I haven’t had a comparable cross-section of experiences of injustice to prompt me to turn towards justice, and the consequences I face for speaking and acting (or not) are rather different. Yet this book’s lessons for how to pay attention to the world and how to turn what is taken in through that attention into politically incisive knowledge is no less useful to me. Plus, the way it is written refuses to allow intellectualizing of other people’s pain to become a way for readers situated like me to dance away from our hard but obvious basic political obligations. That is, its commitment to keeping theory grounded in lived experience and everyday struggle means that the imperatives to show up, speak up, shut up, or whatever else a given moment might require are never far from the surface.

[Check out the somewhat out-of-date but still extensive list of book reviews on this site.]

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Review: What Love Is

[Carrie Jenkins. What Love Is: And What it Could Be. New York: Basic Books, 2017.]

A philosophical examination of romantic love aimed at a lay audience. Some good stuff, but I didin’t like it as much as I’d hoped. It takes a critical, feminist, queer, non-monogamy-friendly approach, all of which is good; I think I’d quite like the author if we met socially; and it says some interesting, thoughtful, useful things. But there were a number of aspects of its approach that I was more ambivalent about. I’m pretty sure a lot of them are connected to the fact that it is a work of analytic philosophy, and that carries with it certain expectations – I don’t know enough about it to be certain, but I think that’s what’s going on. Some of those expectations are good things, like the admirable emphasis on clear thought and clear language. But others of them have more mixed implications.

So, for instance, there’s a valuing of going back to first principles when putting together an argument. There are good reasons for this, and it is connected to the emphasis on clarity I mention above. But sometimes it feels excessive. So, for instance, this book took two or three chapters methodically working up to one of its central points: that we need to take seriously both the cutting edge of biological research as well as social organization when we are thinking about romantic love, and we need to approach both sides rigorously and critically. Which is great – I think the specific model the book ends up at is perhaps a bit simplistic and is certainly only one possibility for thinking biology and the social together, but it’s at least in the same general area as my understanding. Except when considered from a how-did-I-enjoy-this-book perspective, the fact that I started there means I found those two-to-three chapters working up to it to be kind of tedious and could’ve done without them.

And then there is the tendency in analytic philosophy towards thought experiments and hypotheticals, including some that seem quite ridiculous on their face, and others that might appear odious at first glance. This can be useful, and in some cases it can even be entertaining, and it is part of the valuing of clarity and rigour. But it also imposes a very uneven relationship to context. Sometimes context and history are clearly considered; other times, whether it is in the name of not pre-judging or whether it is about maintaining the clarity of an illustrative example, they just aren't. So, for instance, in the chapter towards the end of the book when it actually considers what it might mean in the future to intervene biologically in processes related to “love,” it point towards at least some of the cautionary histories and many of the caveats and concerns that I think such a prospect deserves. But it mentions the possibility multiple times earlier in the book, saying it’ll be explored later, and in those instances it does so without a word of caution and even, at times, with a tone of excitement and possibility. And to my mind, thinking about how I would write about such things myself, I think the highly troubling character of intervening biologically in how people experience love deserves attention at first mention.

And then you have things like speculations about the future of love. While the book does eventually come around to recognizing that it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to talk about it as if we can collectively and rationally decide how we are going to encourage the development of romantic love in the future, it does so after talking about it that way rather a lot. Though it recognizes the role of past struggle in shaping romantic love today, it doesn’t frame future changes as clearly as I think is warranted in terms of power and struggle. And, honestly, I don’t think you can speculate about what romantic love might look like in the future without explicitly considering how the social world, including but not limited to social relations of neoliberal capitalism, will shape the pressures and demands we face in how we relate to one another -- for me, this isn't just an arbitrary "well what about X" consideration, but is absolutely central to thinking about how our relationships and our narratives of relationship will be able to evolve.

And even beyond that, whether it is talking about the past or speculating about the future, the book mostly doesn’t talk in an explicit way about whole vast areas of literature where smart people have done important work in thinking about how norms and normalization and normativity function socially, and how those relate to power and struggle. Not, I think, because the author doesn’t know about them – I would guess she knows way more about them than I do, and certainly the approach to the social world in the book is grounded in recognizing the power of socially enforced norms. But how do you talk about that, and how do you relate to literature that is often opaque and confusing and built on layers and layers of specialist language? Again, I admire the commitment to clarity, but I’m not convinced that not building more explicitly on what others have built before is necessarily the best trade-off, especially when what is being lost (as I would argue to be the case here) is a certain degree of incisive edge in understanding how romantic love and power and struggle are bound together. Not that this book ignores that intertwining – it definitely recognizes it – but it feels like it just doesn’t pick up certain tools that could make that side of the conversation richer and stronger.

So...yeah. There’s some sharp thinking and good ideas, but there’s lots about the approach that didn’t quite work for me. If it's a topic that interests you, and particularly if you're keen to find some rigorous thinking that refuses to exclude counter-normative ways of experiencing and doing romantic love, maybe don't be too put off by my reservations and check it out anyway.

[Check out the somewhat out-of-date but still extensive list of book reviews on this site.]

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Losing people to the right, emotion, and movement building


I've been thinking, lately, about the transition that some people go through from having left politics to having not-left politics. It's not that it happens all that often, in my experience, but it is something that I've seen come up more in the last little while as a rhetorical device to discipline other people on the left -- as in, "Don't do X, or you'll drive me/him/her/them to the right" -- and that has got me thinking about when and how it actually does happen.

In reflecting on this, there are a couple of ways that it happens that I am not thinking about right now. I'm not thinking about the stereotypical life-stage explanation of politics: you move left as a university student, and then right again once you're in the world of paid work, which is really the updated version of Winston Churchill's dismissive quip about people who aren't a socialist at 20 having no heart and people who are a socialist at 50 having no brain. For lots of reasons, I don't think this pattern is nearly as common as bewildered older relatives of student activists often presume, but there is a conversation to be had about how political community, the material necessities of life, and the challenges of committing to activism and organizing over the long term figure into our political choices and identities at different points in our lives. It's just not the conversation I'm having here.

As well, I'm not really that interested at the moment in the case of people who transition from movement involvement to being in some kind of institution which (not inevitably but often) pulls their politics to the right, or at least towards the centre -- which could be the academy, it could be the agency sector, it could be the state, it could be a social democratic party. Again, that happens, and it's worth talking about, just not right now. What I'm thinking about here is people who make the transition from left politics to not-left politics in other kinds of contexts.

In reflecting on this, I have five specific people in mind who have undergone a transition of this sort. Four of them are people that I have known, two moderately well and two much more casually. The fifth is a prominent liberal feminist YouTuber who recently jumped ship to the alt-right -- I don't know her but lots of people have been writing about it, so I have a sense of the situation. The kinds of left (or at least left-ish) politics that each of these people started with are different, and the kinds of not-left politics they ended up with are different too. The amount that I know about each of their journeys varies considerably. For those that I have known personally in one capacity or another, I don't want to reveal anything that might be too identifying, so I'm not going to lay out what I know in any depth. And I could go into more detail for the one who is a public figure, but I won't -- while I admit to reading a few pieces about her case, Laci Greene just isn't interesting enough for me to write about at length.

So here's what I've come up with: I'm always wary of psychologized explanations of people's political choices. I think psy discourses tend to make it harder to see the ways in which all of us are woven into the social world, and I think they often get deployed not to understand but to belittle and dismiss people's political analyses and convictions. That said, it's also a profoundly unhelpful tendency -- and a common one on the left, or at least in its less feminist contexts -- to separate our emotional lives from how we narrate our political choices and actions, and to maintain a sort of masculinist insistence on a particular kind of rationality that implicitly or explicitly devalues feelings. I don't think depoliticized psy explanations and self-fracturing faux-rationalist posturing are our only options, though. It's not always easy to do, but integrating affect into how we talk about the social world and our political navigation of it is certainly possible. (I'm a big fan of Sara Ahmed's work, for instance, and find her really inspiring in this regard, but there are lots of other writers out there, especially feminists, who do this.)

In thinking about these five people who used to be on the left in one sense or another and who are no longer, I think for all of them this political transition was at least in part a means of resolving some kind of emotional challenge. Again, the depth of my knowledge varies a lot across these instances, but as far as I am aware, all five of them were experiencing some kind of sustained knot of bad feeling which was resolved by a change in their politics.

The exact details of this knot vary, though with a perhaps telling relationship to timing. Of these five, two of the transitions occurred longer ago. One of these was related to a very deep and passionate commitment, political and affective, to a particular position on one specific issue that at one time was quite common in the white-dominated North American left. Over time, it became much less common and much less accepted on the left, to the extent that this position is now seen as supporting some pretty intensely oppressive realities. On this issue, the broader left shifted and this person didn't, which I'm sure was temendously difficult in emotional terms -- feelings of loss, betrayal, etc. And eventually, though not as spectacularly as some of the others I'm thinking about, this was resolved by a partial shift away from identifying with the left. The other instance that happened longer ago was -- well, it was more complicated than this, but it involved a very emotionally difficult personal situation that was shot through with gendered implications. This person's later embrace of explicitly reactionary gender politics, and subsequently a broader reactionary perspective, was in part related to resolving the heavy emotional stuff from this personal crisis.

The more recent three have all happened during the Trump era -- not necessarily since he was elected, but since, say, he became the frontrunner in the Republican nomination race. In all of those cases, the knot of bad feeling being resolved by a move to the right is much more similar. In all of them, it is connected to being politically challenged, I think probably in a sustained way over time. The exact content of that challenge varied in the different situations, and I have no idea how fair or deserved it may have been in particular instances, or how exactly it was conducted. Some of the content that one or more of them was challenged about was related to race stuff (all three are white), some of it was about trans stuff (all three are cis), some of it was about political choices, and so on. And even though these challenges were about a lot of different things, there is a weird way that it all feels tied to whiteness -- not so much the challenges per se, but having the space to resolve feeling bad because someone else is challenging you politically, whether or not that initial challenge was about racist behaviour and/or politics or not, by moving to a politics that really is pretty openly racist. All three of them -- this is the two distant acquaintences plus the former liberal feminsit YouTuber -- had a knot of bad feeling that at least from a distance appears to be similar, and in the Trump era felt that they had space to resolve it by making a similar kind of shift in political identity and practice.

I think it's important not to jump to conclusions that are too hasty or too broad from these observations. Certainly the more recent three have narrated their own experiences in ways that decry "callout culture" and the "intolerant left." But while I agree that there is a need for ongoing nuanced discussion when it comes to the toxicity of social media and the politics of calling people out, cutting people off, no-platforming people, left purity, sectarianism, and all of that stuff, I'm really not that interested in the opinions of people who use "someone said mean things to me" as an excuse for their renunciation of support for social justice. So "don't challenge racists or they might become more openly racist" is not even close to a sound conclusion to draw based on what I'm saying here.

I'm also not saying that strategizing about how to prevent this transition from left to not-left should necessarily be a big priority for us. For all its use as a rhetorical device by certain people, it's not clear to me that it is really that common an occurrence, it's not clear to me that there's much we could do about it while remaining principled in other ways, and it's not clear we'd be better off doing those things even if we could.

I think what I am saying, though, is that thinking about the mechanics of what's happening in the relatively rare cases when this kind of transition actually happens is one relevant factor among many to consider when we are having those nuanced, careful conversations about how we engage with each other and how we engage with those beyond our immediate circles. It's about recognizing that -- like it or not, and whether or not it should necessarily factor into any specific political decision that we make -- our emotional journeys, and the spaces that our circumstances and self-understandings allow for resolving emotional crises, are integral to our political journeys. Without at all pre-judging what this has to mean in practice, I think it is fair to say that movement building has to take this seriously.