Sunday, June 11, 2017

Review: Revolution at Point Zero

[Silvia Federici. Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle. Oakland CA: PM Press, 2012.]

Silvia Federici's Caliban and the Witch -- a feminist reexamination of the origins of capitalism -- was, for me, a mind-blowing and paradigm-shifting book. While her essays collected in Revolution at Point Zero didn't shake me up in quite the same way, their analysis does succeed in hammering away at our inherited understandings of capitalism using a similar cluster of insights to those that animated her earlier book in such a way as to leave those understandings fundamentally reshaped.

Originally from Italy, Federici was one of the founders of the International Feminist Collective in 1972, which went on to launch the Wages For Housework campaign. She has continued to work as a writer, teacher, and organizer since then, in Nigeria for many years and most recently in the United States.

At least in part because of the hard work of Wages For Housework and those who came after, it has become a feminist truism in the early 21st century that all of those kinds of mostly-unpaid work that make life possible and that even today remain vastly disproportionately done by women -- the cleaning, the cooking, the emotional labour, the work of caring for children and older adults, the relational work that is the foundation of community -- are, in fact, work. Most frequently today, this recognition is taken up in a moral or micro-political mode and connected to efforts to change relations and practices for individuals, couples, and small-scale communities. Which, without a doubt, are important, and need greater recognition and buy-in from those of us whose lives are organized into greater freedom to opt out of this particular burden. Similarly, to the extent that there is awareness today of the Wages For Housework campaign, it is regarded (as it was as well by many who dismissed it back in the 1970s) as simply a demand -- maybe a helpful and important one, maybe an unreasonable one, maybe even a misguided one that would end up expanding the reach of the market into everyday life, but nonetheless just a demand for improved material conditions for individuals (especially women), households, and small-scale communities.

From the early essays written during the heyday of the campaign in the 1970s, to a couple written during the years of Reaganite reaction, to many from the era of the triumph of neoliberalism in the 1990s and beyond, they all make it very clear that Wages for Housework was never just a demand -- it was a revolutionary perspective. In combination with theorists writing from anti-colonial contexts, Federici and the other feminists affiliated (and later inspired) by Wages For Housework make clear that capitalism is not just a name for those relationships mediated by the wage and by money, but is a system that has always depended on appropriating vast amounts of unpaid labour. This applies to the unpaid labour of enslaved and indentured people in/from the Global South, and it applies to the unpaid labour appropriated mostly from women all over the world that can be described as "reproductive" in character. This unwaged labour is integrally part of capital, and it is subordinated and devalued precisely by its unwaged character, which makes it seem entirely natural and as if it flows from some essential attribute of the category "woman." In demanding that it be waged, feminists were demanding that it be seen as a central and foundational aspect of how our contemporary social relations work. And recognizing that centrality -- truly recognizing it and faithfully following its implications -- must necessarily transform, in ways large and small, everything else that we understand about capital and about struggles within, against, and beyond it.

As with any career-spanning collection, even a fairly compact one like this, there is some repetition across different essays, and also some unevenness. In part because it is well-curated and fairly short, I didn't find myself minding the repetition, and indeed I found it helpful -- the kind of shift prompted by Federici's analysis is the kind that takes multiple exposures to work its way into all of the nooks and crannies of our existing ways of thinking. For instance, given how thoroughly most analyses of neoliberalism in the last two decades have ignored the importance of unpaid reproductive labour in how capital and our lives have been transformed in this era, as well as in how resistance can and must happen, I found it pretty useful to have more than one essay filling this gap in different ways. It was interesting, as well, to trace the shift in the political moment through not just the shifts in the content of the essays across the years but also in the mood and tone of the writing. It's not exactly a happy trajectory, given the years covered, but it's an important one to understand. (And it somehow felt less unhappy than I remember being the case in a collection of essays by US feminist Charlotte Bunch that I read years ago, that covered much the same period from a somewhat different sort of feminist perspective.) It is also interesting to trace Federici's evolving understanding of reproductive labour -- she notes this explicitly in her Introduction -- from a very direct impulse to reject it as imposition and burden in the earlier years, to a much more nuanced understanding by the end that recognizes not only its role in the subordination of women and of the broader working class but also sees collective experiments in new non-state, non-market ways of organizing it as a crucial basis and site for the struggle for a radically transformed world.

As much as I appreciated its analysis, in reading this book, I found it difficult not to be pessimistic. I don't think that pessimism is necessarily something that Federici put in the writing, at least not in any deliberate way -- it's really more a product of my reading of it. I think truly taking account of the role of reproductive labour in global capital, both in years gone by and today, makes our current unpleasant global trajectory even more stark. It makes it even more clear than conventional left analyses that nostalgia for some mythologized (and misunderstood) slightly-better (for some) yesterday simply cannot be what shapes our anti-neoliberal politics. It didn't help that I was constantly aware, as I read, of this book's resonance with Jason Moore's Capitalism and the Web of Life, which builds on the analysis of Federici and many others and adds an ecological focus on capitalism's dependence on appropriating the unpaid work done by what we might call in imprecise shorthand "nature." Even without Moore's focus on ecological catastrophe, though, Federici's work makes it quite clear that there is simply no return to what from the inside looked like an everpresent horizon of plenty and relative ease for the middle class and at least some of the working class in the West in the post-Second World War years, but that from the outside was clearly an unusual bubble and blip in the course of world history that depended on massive predation, and on high levels of appropriation of unpaid labour from women, from the Global South, and from the natural world. We shouldn't want to recreate it, even if we could. None of which is at all new to me, but even so it's still not a happy or easy truth to face, and I felt very aware of it as I read.

Like I said, though, that pessimism is more about me and about the world than it is about the book. And the book is well worth reading. It advances an analysis that is important and useful, and that we cannot do without. As for how exactly to translate these insights into action -- well, that's a lot less clear. Certainly Federici gives examples in some of the later essays, particularly drawing from how working-class women in the Global South and also in urban contexts in North America are already self-organizing. But mostly I get the sense that, in the spirit of the autonomist roots of her politics, she mostly sees that as something that needs to be worked out collectively on the ground as we move forward. And this book is her invitation to do just that.

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

Friday, May 12, 2017

Review: Hegemony How-To

[Jonathan Matthew Smucker. Hegemony How-To: A Roadmap for Radicals. Chico CA: AK Press, 2017.]

We need more spaces and more opportunities to think through past, present, and future choices that we face in our movements and communities-in-struggle; this book is an effort to catalyze such things, so I'm glad to have read it. But my response to it is quite mixed. On the one hand, I think it raises some very important questions and has some good suggestions for how movements need to be approaching the task of organizing for change. On the other hand, there are some basic aspects of how the book does this that I find quite troubling.

There is lots about this book that draws me into affinity with it, or at least with elements of it. It doesn't hurt that the author and I are of a similar political vintage -- we're both white dudes who were more or less politicized in the era of the global justice movement, with sensibilities formed in the broadly anti-authoritarian current therein. We both, interestingly, grew up in small, conservative, Mennonite-majority towns, though in different countries and situated somewhat differently within them. The author's path, however, has much more centrally involved organizing, while mine has tended more towards movement-focused writing and media production, especially in recent years. Perhaps of most relevance to the contents of this book, during the Occupy era I was in a small city and I was a peripheral supporter of the Occupy process there rather than central to it, whereas Smucker was a core participant in Occupy Wall Street in New York City. This book seems in large part to be an effort by the author to use the resources of the academy to draw some lessons from the experience of Occupy, both its breathtakingly rapid impact on this continent's political culture in a crucial moment and its failure to translate that opening into a form of movement that might have been more successful in pushing for material political change.

Like I said, there's lots here to like. I'm all in favour of appropriating the resources of and knowledge produced in the academy for the benefit of movements -- that has limitations and isn't necessarily the most important way for our movements to be learning about the world, but I think it has value, even in a lot of cases when the knowledge in question does not initially seem to have direct relevance to movements. I like the fact that the book experiments with mixing story and theory. I don't necessarily like all of the specific choices made in the course of that experimentation, but trying to find a novel approach to weaving together lived experience and the informal knowledge produced in movements with more formal scholarly sources is a worthwhile endeavour.

I also broadly like the sensibility that the book brings to its concrete recommendations for movements. Not that I agree with every individual piece of that advice, mind you -- I don't. But I like the conversation that the advice will catalyze. Plus, I do like that the book's political recommendations are broadly focused on the need for combining radical vision with pragmatism, on overcoming our allergy to organization, and on contesting the mainstream of power rather than engaging in self-isolating practices of radical puritanism or purely non-confrontational building of supposed alternatives. I think we have some different ways of thinking about how all of that relates to the state form in the longer term, and likely how to apply it in some kinds of specific situations, but I don't mind those differences too much.

I especially want to name how much I appreciate the book's discussion of one particular organizing project that happened outside of the major metropolitan centres that usually dominate movement attention. I say this because not only did I grow up in a small town, but I spent over a decade in a small city, and it was a source of constant frustration that the movement-based left in the big cities that we worked and had relationships with really had no conception of how things worked differently where we were, and almost no interest either. The amazing success that the author and many others had in organizing in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, could definitely have been a source of lessons for the small group I worked with in Sudbury, Ontario.

But I mentioned some serious misgivings. This doesn't capture everything, but I think a lot of my discomfort with the book rests in its conceptual middle, its way of connecting its beginning and its end, its problem and its suggested solutions. I think it sets out to address an interesting and important problem, and it ends up in a place that...well, like I said, there's lots I agree with, and lots more that I don't necessarily agree with completely but that I think will spark important conversations. And if the starting point for the book is interesting and useful and the suggestions it reaches are at least worth discussing, should my concerns about the middle count for much?

Let me talk about some of them, and you can decide.

I think the biggest problem with this book is that it does something that has been endemic to Western approaches to knowing the world for centuries: It centres something specific to the knower's experience and then fails to recognize its own specificity, treating it as general in a way that erases or devalues difference. For all that this book mentions other movements, and occasionally uses examples from them, it is a book that centres Occupy. I suspect the author's understanding would be that Occupy is a case study, and a good one to use because of his central involvement. And that's fine, as far as it goes. But a lot of what the book takes from Occupy doesn't always work very well as a stand-in for movements in general.

So, for instance, much of the book is premised on identifying some key faults in movements, broadly understood, which Occupy is taken to exemplify -- a resistance to recognizing that leadership is present whether you name it or not, and the value of formalizing it; a tendency towards self-isolation of movements and groups; a refusal to build organizations; a refusal to get involved in the nitty-gritty of the landscape of power; a tendency towards a sort of strategy-less prefigurative politics; and so on. All of these were central to Occupy, and I certainly don't deny that many of them have, to a greater or lesser extent, been present in a lot of movements in the last thirty or forty years. But that qualifier -- "to a greater or lesser extent" -- is a pretty important one. If you tried to do the sort of analysis in this book but instead of centering Occupy, you centred Black Lives Matter or Idle No More or the migrant justice movement, you might well end up identifying some of the same barriers and challenges, but you'd end up with some different ones as well, and the relative emphasis and the narrative would also be, I think, quite different. Plus, in my own experience of doing in-depth interviews with a few hundred activists and organizers from across Canada in the last four years for Talking Radical Radio, the problems that this book identifies in its analysis of Occupy are important for some groups and projects and broader political tendencies, but not so much for others. And I want to emphasize, I have no problem at all with an analysis that centres Occupy or any other specific movement -- the problem is when the analysis gets generalized and abstracted such that it stands in for movement experience in general, especially when what is being erased from movements-in-general through doing this is lessons flowing from or specifically relevant to activism and organizing among more marginalized people. Some people will read this book and say, yes, that speaks to what I'm facing, and other people will read it and not feel like that at all, and I think it is better to be up front about that landscape.

This tendency to erase specificity showed up in other ways as well. Take, for instance, the discussion of the rhetoric of "the 99%" in Occupy. The book is quite right in recognizing how powerful this was as a frame that allowed certain kinds of narratives about class to be told in a way that had not been possible in the mainstream in the United States in a long time, while being open enough to allow broad and differentiated identification with the figure of the 99% and to allow it to draw in a range of quite differently imagined political projects. As the book discusses, this sort of flexible or "floating" signifier can be really important in generating new kinds of political unity -- which Occupy demonstrated.

At the same time, the operation of any such frame is going to bump into limits in the real world, and "the 99%" was no exception. The book talked about some of those limits, like the tendency for self-isolating practices of many radicals to undo the broad "we" that the frame of the 99% helped make possible. However, it was strangely silent about others. So, for instance, it acknowledges that "many critics from the left and from the academy have taken issue with the meme of the 99%, arguing that it poses a false unity that obfuscates important heterogeneity and power concentrations within an absurdly broad category." It counters these critics by pointing out that what really matters is not the textual accuracy of the framing so much as what it can do out in the world. Which is very important -- I can think of a lot of cases where textual critique by academics or sectarian leftists protecting their own purity gets in the way of really understanding what a given image or figure or document is doing, and that was certainly happening around the genesis of Occupy. But nowhere does the book deal with the fact that it wasn't just academics and sectarians who saw problems with the figure of the 99%. If you're really serious about understanding what that figure could and did accomplish out in the world, and what it could and couldn't have done under different circumstances, how can you not talk about (or at least acknowledge) how the broad economic populism that it invokes may be a floating signifier that has the capacity to draw some constituencies in but it also enters into concrete histories which mean that other constituencies -- including some that must be a part, or even central, to any broad movement for collective liberation on this continent -- have much more complicated, even ambivalent, relationships with it.

I can think of two examples, and there are probably more, of how this is true of the frame of "the 99%": The first is perhaps less visible in the US than in Canada, though it shouldn't be, but there is a subset of Indigenous activists and organizers who may be cautious about or resistant to such a frame becaue it seems to have no space for their nationhood. This is not just me mounting a textual critique, it is identifying a material and fundamental political question that you can't just ignore when you are considering how an appeal to broad economic populism is going to work out in the world (especially in Canada), or how floating signifiers in general work (or don't) to generate possibilities for political unity. And more central to Occupy Wall Street's immediate context, there's a pre-existing history of waves of economic populism that have at least implicitly centred whiteness (as Occupy did) stretching back to Reconstruction that, each time, failed African Americans in one way or another. If you look at how Occupy unfolded (or more recently at the Bernie Sanders phenomenon), that history led to a different pattern of relationships to the blanket message of not-explicitly-anti-racist economic populism among African Americans than among many other groups. That difference isn't simple or direct, it varies a lot with things like location within the country and individual ideology and generation, and you can certainly make a case that it isn't insurmountable -- but it is real. And not only is it real, but to me at least it seems central to an analysis of what Occupy did and didn't, could and couldn't accomplish, and what it might have done to accomplish more. You can't, to put it in terms of this book, contest for hegemony without figuring it out.

Another problem that isn't quite the same but is, I think, related, is what kinds of sources the book draws on. On the one hand, if it ends up in interesting and useful places -- which it certainly does sufficiently to make me glad I read it -- then does it matter what sources of knowledge it engages with along the way? Again, my concern here is not enough to make me dismiss what I find useful in the book, but it is still a concern. Why, for instance, does its engagement with scholarship focus mainly (as far as I can tell) on social movement theory and on fairly mainstream sociology? There's nothing wrong with those bodies of knowledge per se, though I've never found social movement studies to be very useful myself, but why those and not scholarly work of other sorts that centre struggles for justice, particularly those produced primarily by scholars who are socially marginalized and politically radical? And why, even though the book acknowledges that things like informal conversations, movement debates, and interviews with activists and organizers were a part of the author formulating the knowledge presented here, was it not grounded more explicitly in the active debates happening in movement contexts? And I don't just mean mentioning these divisions to explain the reason for writing, but actually digging into their content, and perhaps even exploring on-the-ground experiments by groups that come to different conclusions. Why not, for instance, talk about the self-marginalizing tendency of Occupy and other movements by more explicitly drawing on the active discussions of exactly that, which I know full well were happening during and after Occupy? Why not talk about projects and experiments and examples of actual organizing practice on the ground that, for instance, deal in different ways with questions of leadership? Given that a big point of the book is intervening in such conversations, wouldn't that goal be facilitated by engaging more seriously with how they are already happening?

Take the chapter on prefigurative politics. It ends up in a place that I agree with in a broad-strokes kind of way, arguing that any understanding of prefigurative politics that poses building alternative spaces and practices as something we need to do instead of confronting powerful institutions to create broader social change (which it calls "strategic politics") is a dead end. I agree -- the book doesn't put it quite this way, but we need to "oppose and propose" simultaneously, as radical scholar Andy Cornell has described it. But I'm pretty ambivalent about the way the chapter argues for this. It does so by constructing a binary of "prefigurative politics" and "strategic politics" as ideal types, associates them with a number of other binaries that are based on the particular sociological analysis of the world and of movements that this book develops, and concludes we need the former and not the latter. This feels very divorced from how these conversations actually happen in movements and it doesn't feel like this particular instance of appropriation of scholarly knowledge for movement purposes adds much -- like it was written to pay far more heed than I think is warranted to certain poli sci or sociological disciplinary requirements.

Moreover, it felt like it was quite selective in how it engaged with the field of different kinds of politics that it is supposedly deriving its ideal types from. You could make a case that it bakes its conclusion into the way that it does this derivation, which felt pretty arbitrary to me. Among other concerns, it didn't recognize at all the growing presence on the far left of ways of doing politics that pay lots of attention to strategy but have no time whatsoever for any considerations that are even vaguely prefigurative. And at no stage of the conversation was there any recognition that a major strand of activity and thought that falls under the label "prefigurative politics" as it is often used is less about building little islands of utopian belonging a la Zucotti Park than about figuring out better ways for us to work together as we push for collective liberation in a world saturated with social relations of white supremacy and misogyny and so on -- maybe including that recognition would have changed the overall analysis, maybe it wouldn't, but it seems an awfully important element of prefigurative politics to leave out. And if your goal is to spark and contribute to conversations about these things in movements, why do it in a way that seems so detached from existing conversations and movement practices, and that employs abstraction in a way that itself might make some readers skeptical? Maybe it doesn't matter, but it just seems that there are more convincing paths to get to "oppose and propose" than the one taken in this chapter.

I could go into plenty of other examples to illustrate my concerns, and really I should probably stop here, but there's one more that I think is important enough that it warrants a mention. The final full chapter of the book is called "The we in politics" and talks in detail about the complexities of how we come to understand our individual and collective political identities. As with most of my other areas of concern, it's a chapter that has plenty of interesting and thoughtful things to say, some of which I would agree with and some of which I wouldn't. But after initially reading it, when I stepped back and reflected on what it had to say, it came as a bit of a shock to realize that this detailed chapter on the complexities of political identity in the context of social movements in the United States does not cite even a single piece of work from the Black feminist/radical women of colour tradition. And I don't say that in a shallow, liberal, identitarian way -- I say that because by far the most sophisticated political thinking done in North America in the last half century about the complexities of political identification in the context of struggle against oppression and exploitation has been done by radical Black women, Indigenous women, and women of colour. Even if you ultimately come up with an approach to such things that is grounded in other ways, it seems an odd choice not to engage with this important, powerful, diverse body of work at all -- it seems disrespectful, for one thing, but it also seems like an odd choices given that it's the kind of engagement that will only sharpen your own argument. And, again, if your main goal is to intervene in conversations in movements about these things, I'm not sure I understand the logic of ignoring a body of work that informs the political choices and self-understanding of an important subset of people doing radical, creative, and effective activism and organizing on the ground (again, particularly but far from only many radical women of colour).

So, like I said, quite a mixed response. I worry I'm not being entirely fair. But I think whether or not people might find it a useful read will vary a lot from person to person. There is, I want to stress, lots of good stuff in here, including some different ways of thinking about age-old movement questions, some sharp thinking about some of the strengths and weaknesses of Occupy, and some practical recommendations for movements that many people will be able to learn from. But its inadequate recognition of its own specificity, its silence on certain kinds of key movement questions, its choices about which sources of knowledge to engage and which to ignore, and its idiosyncratic decisions about how to discuss certain things mean that lots of other people will probably prefer to give it a miss.

[Check out my somewhat out-of-date but still extensive listing of my book reviews on this site]

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Review: Direct Action

The following review was done for the April 27, 2017 edition of GET LIT, a bookish show that broadcasts on 93.3 FM CFMU. Check out both the written and audio versions below.

[L.A. Kauffman. Direct Action: Protest and the Reinvention of American Radicalism. London UK and New York NY: Verso, 2017.]

Hello, my name is Scott Neigh. I'm the host of Talking Radical Radio (my site, on, on SoundCloud), and I'm here today on Get Lit on 93.3FM CFMU to talk about Direct Action: Protest and the Reinvention of American Radicalism, which was written by L.A. Kauffman and published by Verso.

For many people, the most direct association that they have with the phrase "social movement" is the now-vaguely remembered and much mythologized 1960s. And even for those who link that hazy past with more recent collective mobilizations like Occupy, Idle No More, and Black Lives Matter, there is often little knowledge of what might have happened -- if anything -- in the 40+ years in between. Even many of us who are activists and organizers ourselves know a lot less about the histories of movements in the 1970s and later.

In Direct Action, Kauffman does some important work to fill that gap. She begins with one of the last great mobilizations against the Vietnam war in 1971 and traces a path through some of the most important movements in the United States between that point and the beginning of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2014. The book's emphasis is on those movements that in one way or another employed direct action -- which she describes as "the fierce, showy tradition of disurptive protest employed by many of the era's most distinctive and influential movements" (x). To a greater or lesser extent, the book talks about the anti-nuclear movement, organizing against South African apartheid, Earth First! and other militant environmental groups, direct action AIDS and other militant queer organizing, the global justice movement, the great anti-war mobilizations around the US invasion of Iraq, protests at Republican and Democratic national conventions, and of course Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter.

History can sometimes end up being a bit of a stodgy read, and 40 years is a long period to cover, but Kauffman makes skilfull choices about when to zoom in and provide generous detail and when to pull back and give broader strokes. As well, the writing in Direct Action is lively, engaging, and thoughtful, and it strikes a good balance between capturing the intensity and excitement of people taking the streets with the often somber political questions that followed movements throughout these years -- from the challenge of staying active in the context of ever-more-powerful right-wing forces, to the ongoing need to challenge the racism that has so starkly divided movements on this continent.

There were a number of elements of the book that I particularly appreciated. I really liked the book's emphasis on recognizing the role of women, particularly queer women and women of colour, in driving some of the key political, theoretical, and practical innovations over this period -- something that is so often erased. I really liked its willingness to recognize problems with how movements have done things, but to do so in a way that is fundamentally generous rather than based in the more-radical-than-thou sniping that sometimes defines these conversations within movements. And most of all, I appreciated that beyond discussing specific actions and the political and practical dynamics in key moments, the book places a great emphasis on tracing the transitions between different moments and movements. That is, on talking about what was passed down, what stayed the same, and what was adapted and changed.

Of course, as with any book, it has limitations. It is, for one thing, very US-centric. I still think that Canadian readers can learn a lot from it, given that what happens here is always in tight dynamic relation with what's happening south of the border, but that's still not the same as it actually being about what happened here. As well, the lack of attention to the international context felt particularly grating during the discussion of Occupy in 2011, which perhaps more than any point since 1968 was clearly part of a global circulation of struggle.

Most disappointing to me, though, were some of the choices in the book in terms of covering the most recent era. So, for instance, there are certain movements that the book just doesn't focus on. The labour movement, for instance, is beyond the scope of what it covers, and I think that's just fine. But the relative absence of migrant justice organizing from the book, particularly in its coverage of the last two decades, feels like more of a problem, particularly given that movement's energy, its political significance, and the increasing adoption by certain groups within it of direct action tactics. As well, the attention to transitions -- to continuities and to innovations -- between moments and movements that was done so well in much of the book felt sparser and thinner for periods after the anti-war movement of the early 21st century.

Nonetheless, this is very good book -- great content and a lively, fun read. It does some valuable work in filling in our knowledge about important social movements of the last four decades and their use of direct action tactics. And I think it models important ways for thinking *about* movements that we can all learn from as we move forward into an increasingly frightening and uncertain future in which working collectively, audaciously, and creatively to change the world is becoming more and more urgent.

Again, I'm Scott Neigh and I've been talking about Direct Action: Protest and the Reinvention of American Radicalism for Get Lit. I encourage you to tune into Talking Radical Radio at 1:30pm on Thursdays on 93.3FM CFMU in Hamilton, Ontario, at various other times on community stations in different parts of Canada, and online at and

[Check out my somewhat out-of-date but still extensive listing of my book reviews on this site]

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Review: Brilliant Imperfection

[Eli Clare. Brilliant Imperfection: Grappling With Cure. Durham NC and London UK: Duke University Press, 2017.]

I can think of few writers whose work better exemplifies radical, deeply thoughtful, passionate, nuanced, and incredibly readable engagement with the social world and its injustices than Eli Clare.

Brilliant Imperfection, as its subtitle indicates, grapples with cure -- a word and an idea that, in Clare's radical reading of both it and of the world, is about as far from the straightforward and unadulterated 'good thing' of commonsense usage as you could get. He reveals cure to be both a dense node and a driving force in the social relations that organize the oppressions felt by disabled people and many other people as well, tightly bound up with the equally deceptive and devastating ideas of normal and natural. The book's exploration of cure is not a linear journey advancing a singular thesis, however, but a skillful exploration of the complex whole of that which is wound together in, through, and by cure, accomplished by strategically entering the social tangle at key points and tracing, often in deeply embodied ways, the strands that meet there. The chapters form a cluster around the centre that is cure -- "Ideology of Cure," "Violence of Cure," "How Cure Works," "Promise of Cure" and so on -- and each chapter is itself a cluster of sections grounded in different epistemological and rhetorical approaches that are brought together to illuminate its target.

The politics and ideas in the book are deeply challenging -- or, to be more precise, I felt challenged by them, and I suspect that so would pretty much any reader grounded in movement/left but not specifically disability politics, and probably at least some people engaged in a sustained way with disability organizing as well. Precisely because the book takes the complexity of the social world seriously in its analysis and its writing, it's hard to come up with a singular and simple way of characterizing that challenge that feels even vaguely accurate. It challenges dominant assumptions about what "cure" means, yes, but its relentless examination of how cure permeates the organization of a whole host of other ideas and practices and facets of the social world pushes for a much broader re-thinking as well.

This includes paying a lot of attention to the interlinked character of...well, of the social world, of the aspects of our lives that we're taught to talk about as separate, and of our struggles to change the world. It is the antithesis of the ritualized but often shallow naming of race, class, and gender you see in a lot of scholarly and non-scholarly-left writing. And it feels, when these links are made, like it is a product of thinking and talking deeply about the connection in question. Even when this takes the form of a relatively brief naming of some connection or other, it feels concrete, not the kind of gestural gloss that so often passes for consideration of intersectionality.

The book also embraces difference and contradiction. At several points, Clare directly addresses voices of people with very different experiences and analysis, and considers those differences seriously. Sometimes his conclusion from this engagement is an opposition no less profound than might have resulted from a more superficial consideration -- for instance, his reflections on the words of the father of a disabled girl whose awareness is compared to that of a three month-old about his choice to take surgical and hormonal steps to prevent her from sexually maturing. Sometimes the result is the introduction of new complexity into his analysis, or the admission of contradictions that cannot easily be resolved -- for instance, when considering the somewhat different analysis of cure held by a friend whose disability includes the experience of intense chronic pain. I particularly admired this willingness to let contradiction stand. A lot of the time, such contradictions in our thinking or in our movements reflect contradictions out in the world, and the impulse to smooth them over just leads to a shallower understanding. There was even one instance, in Clare's discussion of his visceral rejection of the idea that his disabled body needs any kind of fixing but his embrace of a particular surgical intervention as part of his journey of being trans, where a relatively neat resolution of that contradiction would have been possible but where he explicitly refuses it, instead engaging with the question one more time in order to unearth the continuing contradiction that he knows is still there.

Even beyond all that I have to learn from this book about the integration of disability into grassroots ways of thinking about and acting in the world, I'm excited by what it can teach me about writing about the world. The introduction to the book describes its form as "a mosaic," or "a swirling, multibranched pattern of histories, ideas, and feelings." Over the course of its many chapters and their many sections -- more appropriately conceived, I think, as a cluster of clusters, rather than the blandly linear series that "chapter" and "section" tend to evoke -- it makes use of a lot of different approaches. It presents broader histories in straightforward narrative ways. It starts from particular figures or media texts and radiates outward into feelings and issues and analysis. It uses memoir. It uses dialogue in various forms, both recounting actual dialogical engagement with people in Clare's life and using a form of imaginative recreation of dialogue with archival figures. It deploys atmospheric vignettes. It traces how categories and terms have evolved, how institutions have shifted, or how they haven't. It, at points, gives full vent to emotion -- a section of direct address to a friend long dead from suicide, for example.

Moreover, it is a great read, and an inspiring example of presenting challenging ideas in accessible ways. Rather than the disjointed shifting from mode to mode, voice to voice, approach to approach, that could have resulted from this experimental form in less skillful hands, it comes together exactly as the label "mosaic" intends -- lots of different kinds of little pieces that are combined to make a powerful and appealing whole. This was a wonderful read, but even more than that I am excited by my prelimanry reflections on how the lessons of this book might be relevent to challenges I'm currently wrestling with in my own work.

[Check out my listing of all of the book reviews on this site]

Friday, March 31, 2017

Writing, "okayness," and the limits of learning by listening

Okayness is a sedative.

Okayness makes your lids drowsy, your thoughts slow down, your focus turn intwards.

Okayness is an outrage. It shouldn't be -- it should be normal, universal, an inheritance that comes with being born. But that isn't the world we live in.

Okayness is an irritant. I'm sure many of you don't want to read about it. Goodness knows that in 42 years, I've become pretty sick of reading and listening to and watching stuff about people who have this kind of okayness, and I know that lots of you are way more over it than I am. If that's you, feel free to click on something else, search for cat pictures, read some fanfiction, find some deep analysis that centres you, whatever you need in this moment. But for the rest, particularly those who experience the kind of okaness I'm talking about: read on.

Okayness, as I'm using it here, means something very specific. I don't mean contextual okayness, the kind of okayness that comes and goes with the vagaries of fortune. I don't mean I didn't burn my breakfast, my bus came on time, no-one I care about died recently, I'm okay. Nor do I mean the okayness of making do, the okayness of surviving or even thriving despite -- there's no shortage of people who manage to rock that kind of okayness without any access whatsoever to the kind of okayness I'm talking about here. No, I mean the kind of underlying bedrock of okayness upon which some of us get to build our lives, while others do not.

It's a hard sort of okayness to talk about, because it doesn't necessarily feel very good on those days when we did leave our toast in too long, when the bus splashed a puddle on our pants as it sped past the stop, when we are grieving, when we are in pain, when it feels like nothing will ever be good and fun and happy again. It's a life-isn't-perfect, tragedies-happen, good-luck-and-bad-luck, hard-work-usually-pays-off, it's-up-to-you realistic expectation of okayness as your default. Fate will tackle you and punch you in the gut, but this okayness means that is a deviation from what the world has promised you. It's an okayness that you can't always feel, but that lets you have faith down to your deepest fibre and your smallest cell that, on balance, unless you're unlucky or you make bad choices, you'll likely be okay in the end -- and even if the dice don't go your way or you make a series of serious bonehead moves, it all might be okay anyway.

That is the kind of okayness that is a sedative and, because it is denied to so many, an outrage.

I say that it's a sedative because it gets inside of us and interferes with our ability to feel things and to know what's going on. But that's a pretty limited metaphor, because it makes it sound like it is only inside of us, rather than something about how our lives and communities are organized that gets inside and manifests there too. Because really, our experience of that sense of bedrock okayness or the lack of same is about the extent to which we get steered away from or towards the sharp jagged edges of the social world. If we never encounter them, they don't show up in the internal picture we build of the world, or do so in a minimized and distorted way. Those who have little chunks of flesh torn out by them every day, however, have no choice but to know that they are there, and to do some work towards figuring out how they operate. The sedative of okayness means we end up with a shallower and less accurate understanding of how the world works, and we get attached to this distorted vision and resist attempts to dispell it.

Of course it isn't simple. There isn't a clear binary, a division of the world between okay and not-okay. There's all manner of nuance, complexity, and gradation, and many different sorts of sharps and points and blocks that target different people in different ways and end up producing different combinations of knowing and not-knowing about the social world. And individual path matters, so there's no absolute and simple correlation between who we are and what we know, or who we are and how we act in the world, or even between who we are and what we know and how we act today, and what that might look like a decade from now.

Even given all of that, however, there are ways of generalizing about this that are useful. Maybe you do have that bedrock okayness and you've gotten the sense your whole life that you belong and that you are entitled to be okay. Or maybe your access to that okayness is shakier or sharply proscribed, but you're close enough to it and you've been told often enough that you should be just as able to feel belonging and to access the limited supply of okayness as the cis straight non-poor white guys of the world and so it shapes your vision for your life and for how things must change. Or maybe the world has made crystal clear from when you were born that there is no way you will ever access that kind of okayness, barring a fundamental transformation of the social world. These fault lines matter to who we are, what we know, and how we act, even if that mattering isn't always simple or direct.

Learning by Listening

A lot of the work that has filled my life over the last twenty years has involved writing and other kinds of media-making, all of which is premised on the possibility and value of learning by listening. For that kind of work to do anything at all in the world, it depends on a reader (or listener, or viewer) finding it, engaging with it, and learning from it. In a lot of what I have created, from my rather disastrous dabblings with short stories to various kinds of grassroots journalism and blogging, that has mostly been intrinsic to the form but not discussed. For some important pieces of it, though, I'm pretty up-front in the work itself about the epistemological and pedagogical importance of listening: My two books of social movement-focused Canadian history-from-below briefly theorized a way of thinking about the past that is explicitly organized around listening across differences in experience and beginning from there to figure out how the social world we all share has produced those differences. And in my largest ongoing project, Talking Radical Radio, I begin each weekly episode in part by describing the show as a "chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they're doing, how they're doing it, and why they're doing it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in stregnthening all of our efforts to change the world."

If viewed in a certain way, what I mean by that premise -- the possibility and value of learning by listening -- is so broad that not only is it not controversial, it isn't even very interesting. Any time we learn about the world through someone else narrativizing their experiences and analysis, we are learning by listening -- whether that is in a one-on-one conversation, a YouTube recording of a lecture, a newspaper article, a book, a radio documentary, or any other sort of live or recorded textual (in the broadest sense) account of the world. So this encompasses basically any learning about the world through which we come into contact with experiences and ideas via words or other sorts of symbols put together and delivered by someone else. Without that, we would know very little about anything beyond our direct experience, so of course it is possible to learn that way and of course it is important.

Even so, we don't generally think very carefully about how learning by listening happens. If pressed, we probably concede that it is more complicated than this, but often we act as if we believe it is as simple as encountering some sort of account of the world as a written or video or audio text, and either learning from what it has to say or not. Once we think through a little more carefully how we ourselves learn and how we experience the learning of others, it becomes clear that there is more going on and perhaps we should be shifting our expectations of what our work as makers of written or video or audio texts can do in the world.

Consider a stark but illustrative example: Let's start from someone who grew up with the kind of bedrock okayness I described at the start. They live in Canada. They've been led to feel so completely like they belong here that the very idea of questioning whether they belong here feels weird and inapplicable. Their life has its ups and downs, but they have no reason to doubt that if you work hard and catch a break or two, you'll be okay. Their parents have or had decent jobs, the people around them have decent jobs, and they either have one or can be pretty sure they can find one. They are utterly confident that if they really need help, there are places they can go to get it. They've never had to feel concern that the state might take away their children. Crossing the border is no big deal. Nobody bats an eye when they speak the language they learned growing up. If they face some sort of interpersonal violence or harm or loss, they will have not a moment of hesitation in going to the police, and if they are just walking down the street minding their own business, the police will be unlikely to interact with them in any way. This is how they have come to know the world, and their knowledge reflects, at a very deep level, a sort of generalizing of the lack of sharp edges in the social world that they have experienced themselves, which sets the ground to attributing any collective experience of not-okayness by some group or other as about their inadequacies rather than about how the social world is organized. This is not just individual "facts" in their knowledge that reflect this bedrock okayness in which they exist, but the entire framework of how they think the world works.

Now let's consider some sort of text or combination of texts that would challenge that view, and that would present in a relatively brief and accessible way a mix of analysis and first-hand experience illuminating at least some of the ways in which violence is socially organized into people's lives -- the violence of police and jails and courts, the violence of borders, the violence of colonization, the violence of war and empire, the violence of patriarchy and the gender binary, the violence of capitalism and the poverty it creates.

First of all, people whose lives are built on bedrock okayness aren't terribly likely to encounter that kind of material just by chance -- the kinds of media that get organized into mainstream lives, the kinds of content these media valourize versus marginalize, and the way socially produced but individually held inclinations and preferences shape choice within what's on offer all play a role in this. When they do encounter such material, in many cases the source will be a priori dismissed or at least rated as less weighty or reliable, whether that's because it gets tagged as "radical" or because the source is Black or Indigenous or otherwise Other. And even if that effect is minimal in a particular instance, the likely lack of fit between existing and new knowledge can feel uncomfortable or even threatening, and our usual default in such situations is to stick more closely with what we already know. And sometimes, the conundrum of what to do with new and uncomfortable ideas is just too much work to be bothered with, so we just stop thinking about them. There are, therefore, lots of reasons even aside from specific choices based on specific points of content that some or all of the new knowledge might be dismissed or otherwise subordinated to exsting knowledge.

Perhaps what is least appreciated, though, is the limit to our capacity to integrate new knowledge even under ideal circumstances. Even if there is little or no dismissal because the source is "too radical" or Other, even if there is an active commitment to navigating the lack of fit with existing knowledge and its associated discomfort by prioritizing the new knowledge, even then we can only do a limited amount to reshape how we now the world in response to any given instance of learning by listening. We have, over our lifetimes, built a whole edifice around making sense of a spectrum of experience that has largely kept us from the social world's jagged edges, and the entire edifice reflects that. It is entirely possible, and in fact entirely likely, to genuinely and earnestly accept one or two or several core points about the jagged edges out in the world and the injustice that steers some of us away from them and others towards them, in a way that will manage to simultaneously accept those points while leaving the edifice built upon the presumption of their opposite largely intact. One encounter with a text or a voice, or several, will not reorient or re-build the whole interconnected structure of my knowledge, or of yours.


I want to emphasize again that, in saying this, I am not claiming that people don't learn and don't change, including in ways that are informed by listening; I'm just claiming that it often fails to happen when it (practically) could and (politically) should. And when it does, it happens slowly and gradually through ongoing commitments and repeated instances of learning by listening and reflecting rather than all at once. It is a process of discipline -- of self-fashioning through repeated practice -- rather than of revelation.

So what can we learn from that?

Well, some of the implications are, or should be, unsurprising, particularly those for learners and teachers. In our role as learners, this way of thinking about learning by listening reinforces some pretty standard pieces of advice: Do so with humility. Don't assume you know more than you do just because you read something in a book once or heard someone talk about it. Treat learning about experiences and aspects of the social world that don't target you as a lifelong project. And so on and so forth. Similarly for teachers, there are vast fields of literature on various kinds of critical and radical pedagogy that amount to wrestling with this very phenomenon -- others know much more about this than I do, and I won't try to even summarize it here.

What I'm most interested in but also most unsure of, is what this understanding of learning by listening means for writers and others who shape content in various mediums and send it out into the world -- that is, for people who make texts but who aren't, in constrast with teachers, involved in shaping the circumstances of their uptake.

If your goal is to unsettle the default knowledge of people who grew up in bedrock okayness -- and I'm not saying this is the most important goal out there, or even a very useful one a lot of the time, but for those of us who grew up in bedrock okayness I think it's at least one element of our political responsibility -- how do you do that work given the limits to what any one text can achieve, and any one encounter with a text can achieve? Really, how do you engage in any effort to convey complex substance about underlying features of the social world that lie counter to some aspect of dominant commonsense, particularly anything that people are likely to be personally invested in?

Given how we learn, how and what should we write?

I mean, I can come up with a few things. It means we need to let go of the illusion that simply revealing some truth or other in what you write will catalyze some dramatic change. Mostly it won't, because people just don't work that way. It means we should probably take a look around ourselves at how people come to be who they are, and recognize that the practice of deliberate self-fashioning through engaging with texts may have been important for us but is actually pretty weird and rare in the world more generally, and is of no greater (or lesser) value than any other way in which people get shaped. And I think it also points towards a need to deliberately act in relation to movements, which are social forces that shape how texts are taken up. I'm not sure quite what I mean by this, because I'm certain I don't mean that the only valid work is directly meeting needs of organizing efforts for written, audio, and video material -- we also need a more complex and lively millieu of ideas and images and stories that has its own rhythm yet is in relation to struggles for justice and liberation.

But, really, these don't feel like enough. When I sit down at my keyboard or with pen in hand, when I consider how to put together next week's radio show or how to write something engaging and substantive based on my years of doing the show, what do I say to maximize what can be accomplished through learning by listening?

Given how we learn, how and what should I write?

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Review: Policing the Planet

[Jordan T. Camp and Christina Heatherton, editors. Policing the Planet: Why the Policing Crisis Led to Black Lives Matter. London UK and New York NY: Version, 2016]

Smarter people than me have observed since last Saturday's Women's March -- in which millions came together to oppose the intensified harm to ordinary people that the incoming Trump administration has quite openly promised -- that mass mobilizations are complicated. They are always full of contradictions and imperfections and really great things as well as troubling things. They are politically messy, always and inevitably. For some people, situated in some ways, the cost of having to wade through oppressive nonsense at such an event outweighs the benefits of participating, despite holding broadly shared goals, and can end up taking away from whatever important work that they are already doing to win justice for their communities. But for many of us, those contradictions and imperfections -- and that nonsense -- should be taken as a reason to engage with even greater vigour.

Take, for instance, the issue of policing. From the ways in which local Women's March organizers in some locations framed and implemented their events, to lots of the social media conversation about how it all went after the fact, it's pretty clear that this is a site of sharp and troubling political disconnection among those who oppose the agenda of the new administration in the US. This isn't the only way that it breaks down, but I'm thinking specifically of how the broader tendency among many white people of liberal, progressive, and left inclination to refuse to really grapple with the reality of police and other state violence, particularly against Black and Indigenous people, has been no less present in this context than it is in general. This is not a slam against the Women's March in particular, but it is a call for those of us who are ourselves white and who have a more critical understanding of policing and of state violence to figure out how we're going to engage with that political disconnect.

It seems to me there are two broad areas in which we really need to be asking questions about how our politics must change if we (as people not directly affected) are to take seriously the ways in which policing is experienced by Black and Indigenous communities. One is around the practical doing of grassroots politics. What demands and goals would follow from a solid understanding of the role of policing under patriarchal white supremacist settler colonial capitalism? How would existing demands change? What implications would that underestanding have for how we organize our actions? For how our actions relate to the police? For who we invite to speak? For how we understand the differences in police conduct and media coverage with respect to different grassroots actions? It's not that the answers to these questions are simple or singular; there is not just one right way to do things. It's just that not enough of us who are not ourselves directly targeted by police in our everyday lives are asking them.

The other area is more theoretical. It's about those of us who aren't targeted going from the experience of, for instance, seeing lots of reports of police killing of Black people and recognizing that it's an important issue, to actually doing the work to start figuring out what's going on beyond what the media shows us, and how it relates to all of the other important issues and struggles going on in the world. How do these horrific high-profile cases relate to more mundane and everyday experiences of policing by Black and Indigenous people? Of homeless people, of trans people? How are they a product of the historical origins of policing and of the ways that policing is currently socially organized? How do the bits and pieces of racist police violence that become visible to those of us who don't experience it relate to histories of white supremacy and settler colonialism? What about to histories of capitalism, and to the development of neoliberalism? And what about militarist and imperial violence that the US and Canadian settler states are involved in -- how does policing connect with that?

I think for anybody wishing to think through those kinds of questions, and wishing more generally to develop a critical analysis of policing today, Policing the Planet is a good resource. Now, it's important to keep in mind that some, perhaps most, of the refual to deal seriously with all of this on the part of a lot of people who aren't harmed by the current order of policing is not really about "not knowing" in any simple sense -- it's about not wanting to know, about a refusal to know. A book, on its own, will do little to change that. But what a book can do, and what I think this one does, is help equip those of us who already want to wrestle with these questions (and of course those who have no choice but to do so) with better tools for doing it.

Policing the Planet is a collection of short pieces by different people about policing and about popular struggles responding to policing in the era of Black Lives Matter. It is particularly concerned with what gets called "broken windows policing," which emphasizes punitive police responses to small infractions and even to non-illegal phenomena that get understood as "disorder." It is the dominant mode of policing in the United States and is very common globally as well. The book also has some sharp things to say about other approaches to policing which sometimes get posed as alternatives to "broken windows" but which are not, in fact, much different in their end result -- things like "community policing." Under all of these approaches, policing is about maintaining order and the (oppressive) status quo. Blackness, indigeneity, visible poverty, homelessness, and gender non-conformance, among other things, are framed in our society, in different ways and to different degrees, as inherent markers of threat and disorder. This is true regardless of how people who bear those markers behave, and as a result they are disproportionately targeted for police harassment and violence.

I particularly like the mix of pieces in the book. I mean, none address the Canadian context, and it would've been nice to see at least one do that. But I really like how seriously the editors took their mandate to ground the book in movements. Often, when it comes to collections like this, the topic emerges from a movement of some kind, but the logic governing the writing and the selection of pieces feels like it is more about scholars getting a chance to publish things of interest primarily to other scholars. This is very much not like that. The authored pieces seem largely to be by people who are pretty grounded in movements themselves, whether or not they also work in universities -- both people with familiar names, like Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Vijay Prasad, Robin D.G. Kelley, Rachel Herzing, and others, as well as people I hadn't heard of. And it combines these with short, punchy interviews, mostly with organizers who are doing this work on the ground, and not just a token one or two such interviews but around ten of them.

The book certainly doesn't do everything, and for those of us trying to educate ourselves around this stuff there is lots more to learn, but I think it does a pretty solid job of starting to answer some of the questions I posed above, or at least giving us the raw materials to answer them for ourselves. It explores how policing works today, and where that came from. It connects that to how racism has shifted in the last few decades, and how capitalism has shifted in that time, and so on. I think that, in particular, it is important for white leftists to understand how austerity and increasingly repressive policing, with its disproportionate targeting of Black and Indigenous people and its enmeshment with white supremacy and settler colonialism, are tightly bound together. As well, the book gives multiple, easily accessible windows into how people are engaging in collective struggles to try and change things. As a result it will, I think, be a useful resource.

Moreover, for those of us who are not directly harmed or even benefit from the current order of policing but who clearly see its injustice, I think the book presents us with resources that we can use to inform our conversations as we engage with other people like us in our organizations, communities, and mass mobilizations about the oppressive realities of policing.

[For a listing of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Review: Light in the Dark

[Gloria E. Anzaldúa. (Edited by AnaLouise Keating.) Light in the Dark/Luz en lo Oscuro: Rewriting Identity, Spirituality, Reality. Durham NC and London UK: Duke University Press, 2015.]

I feel uneasy writing this review.

I feel uneasy because I'm not sure quite what to make of my relationship to this book, and to this author's work more generally.

That is not, I hasten to add, about a lack of enthusiasm or regard. I think Anzaldúa is a brilliant thinker and an amazing writer. A particular piece of her writing, which I first read 15ish years ago in a collection and which is also used as the concluding chapter of this book, had a profound impact on me when I was going through a difficult time. One of the very first posts I ever made on this blog, way back in 2004, was noting and mourning Anzaldúa's passing. And other things that I have read since then by both Anzaldúa herself and by the editor of this book, AnaLouise Keating (who draws very explicitly on Anzaldúa's body of work) have made major impressions on me. I don't claim that I've taken up their ideas in ways that these writers would recognize or approve of, but they have affected me. And, frankly, though we are situated very, very differently, I think Anzaldúa's experience as someone who did radical thinking mostly outside of the academy and who was also very committed to the craft of writing is an inspiration to me, as someone who aspires to my own version of those two commitments -- not that I delude myself into thinking I have even a fraction of the capacity for those things that she had, but still she inspires me.

At the same time, I feel very keenly aware that there are other elements of her writing that don't speak to me in the same way -- that either don't move me in the same way or that are addressed to kinds of experiences that I just don't have. In a situation like that, I know that it is very easy to read such that I end up extracting what I like, forgetting what feels less personally relevant, and thereby internalizing a simplified, whitewashed, and ultimately very disrespectful version of her ideas. In terms of this book specifically, there were elements of it that I thought were powerful and profound and that resonated in a visceral way, while there were other elements that...well, that I respect, but that I cannot take up in the way that she means them (for various reasons that I'll get into below) and that I must therefore respect from a distance.

I think this is far preferable to refusing to engage with her work at all, or to not being fully honest about the contours of my relationship to it, but it all makes me uneasy, because while it seems better than any alternative I can think of, I'm sure this approach to encountering her work has implications that I am not able to fully grasp.

With that proviso in mind, let me talk more about the book. Gloria Anzaldúa was a well known and influential radical thinker and activist. She was involved in the women's movement in the US context, in Chicano/Chicana liberation struggles, in queer organizing, and more, and she initially became widely known for her role in co-editing the foundational women of colour feminist text This Bridge Called My Back, which was published in 1983.

Light in the Dark is her final book. She was not, in fact, done it when she died. She had a rigorous, intense, lengthy writing process, and when she passed away from her long-term serious health isssues, she had taken this book most of the way through that process, but not quite all the way. AnaLouise Keating is a scholar and activist who had worked with Anzaldúa for years, including as a collaborator but also relating to Anzaldúa as a mentor, and she has carefully and thoughtfully taken the manuscript to a stage where it, she hopes, would meet Anzaldúa's exacting standards for both analysis and craft. Keating includes, where she has determined that it is relevant, an account of the trajectory of the work that ended up in this book, as well as other fragments and versions that were part of the writing process.

It's hard to summarize the work done by this book because it covers a broad and diverse range of issues, and not in a way that fits neatly into conventional categories of Western thought. One way to think of it might be as a sweeping exploration of world-making, knowing, self-making, and creating. A hallmark of Anzaldúa's work is how she would take up imagery and figures from the Indigenous side of her mestiza heritage as ways to organize powerful ideas and the writing through which she presents them. So, for instance, she talks about a process of coming undone and re-forming yourself in a different configuration (I think particularly with reference to experiences of trauma as a colonized/racialized person, but also more broadly) through the figure of Coyolxauhqui, a goddess who is dismembered yet returns to wholeness. One of the most important concepts in her work is that of nepantla, or the border areas between various sorts of difference, and nepantleras, those who exist in those areas and take on a deliberate kind of political and spiritual work made possible by being thus situated. Along with presenting these and other important ideas best understood through consideration of the book as a whole, particular chapters analyze things like imagination, various forms of artistic making as political practice, her own writing process, a sophisticated and powerful take on identity formation, and a sort of synthesis of all of these that is about how the world exists, how we intervene in it, and how we are shaped as people.

The element of this that I feel most keenly like I must respect from a distance is how it sketches out a very distinct ontology -- that is, a way of thinking about how the world exists. I don't even know that I would have read it as being about ontology if that hadn't been pointed out so emphatically by Keating's introduction, because it is written in such a way that those of us inclined to understand these figures and ideas primarily as metaphor for phenomena in the social world and as imagery can certainly do so and still feel like we're reading something important and powerful. But as Keating points out, this was not actually what Anzaldúa was doing. She really was invoking a world in which these spiritual realms, these realities beyond the dead matter of most Western materialism, this Indigenous-informed but not Indigenous worldview, were very practically real. Not, I hasten to add, in the kind of fluffy appropriative escapism of so much white North American New Age-ism, but as part of a spiritually-infused and materially-grounded call to see the world as it is and act to make it better.

I respect that understanding of the world, but I'd be dishonest if I tried to take it on as my own.

What that leaves me with is the question of what I can take up from this work, and how. I'm not sure I can give a final answer to that, and I know I can't give a satisfying one, but I have a few thoughts. The most obvious piece that feels directly relevant to my own life is one chapter's powerful auto-ethnographic account of her writing process. It's pretty different from mine, but it feels like something I can learn from and be inspired by. One very immediate lesson is in her slow intense rigour, and its contrast to the pressure those of us immersed in the world of social media feel to publish quickly, frequently, and as a result often shallowly, but there are many more insights than that to be gained from her deep exploration of her process. I will definitely re-read this chapter in the future, in moments when I'm going through one of my periodic re-thinkings of how I do my work.

And even if I can't take on all of her ontology, even if my inability to do so is disrespectful -- I hope not, but I'm open to hearing that it might be -- her ideas on subject formation, identity formation, and how we exist as selves in the social world can be taken up in ways that can integrate with my sense of how the world works. I think her theorizing that responds to the necessity but limits of reified approaches to identity politics (particularly when read along with Keating's work, my review of which I link above) is so much richer, so much more sophisticated, so much more a possible grounds for creating the 'we' that might accomplish collective liberation than the reinvigorated smooth-tongued class reductionism of a growing (mostly-white) section of the anarchist and socialist left. As well, in a bit of a different vein, the fact that the final chapter managed to have such an impact on me years ago despite my inability to fully take up (or even, at that time, fully recognize) its ontology is, I think, fodder for future reflection about...well, about what it means to learn about the world through encounters across significant difference.

There's a lot more I could say about this book and about the various lines of reflection it has inspired in me, but I think I'll restrict myself to just one more: It has really made me think about the boundaries we put around who we listen to, who we read, and what work we take seriously. (This line of thought is also inspired by things I've seen online from feminist philosopher Sara Ahmed about citation practices and how we construct our intellectual/political lineages.) The most acute end of this for me is a recognition that there are people whose thinking and political work I really respect -- and I'm thinking most directly of certain mostly-white marxist and anarchist men, but not only them -- who would be very unlikely to read this book, who would be (privately) scornful of it if they did read it, or who would give it a tokenistic nod of respect but never really take it seriously in their own writing or political practice if they didn't just dismiss it. Now, though this reflection was sparked by this book, obviously it isn't really about one book or one person's work. Just as obviously, there are without a doubt ways that I too enact a similar kind of refusal-to-learn, so I'm not trying to be smug here. I also know that we all have limited hours in our days, and we all need to make practical decisions about how to move forward, whether that is in writing work or in organizing on the ground...but even so, I think that the kind of swift dismissal of differences in radical practice that is so endemic to how graduate school trains people to relate to radical ideas, and how correct-line political formations (be they marxist or anarchist) train people to relate to ideas and to practices, will ultimately be unhelpful in building the "we" that we need to make progress towards collective liberation -- in going from "nos/otros" to "nosotros," to borrow language from Anzaldúa. But even so, I don't claim to have any good answers about how to act differently...just a sense that pushing ourselves to have a more complex and generous sort of response to the radical ideas and practices of others that don't mesh easily with our own -- a sort of response based in respectful engagement even in the face of complexity and disagreement and unease -- has to be part of that.

[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Review: Mirrors

[Eduardo Galeano. Mirrors: Stories of Almost Everyone. New York: Nation Books, 2009.]

Earlier this year, I came to the rather startling realization that relatively little of the what I read bears much resemblance to what I want to be writing. I want to be writing things that are thoughtful and social and radical (in the sense of to-the-root) and writerly, yet online most of what I read is either journalistic or polemical or analytical without being particularly thoughtful, and offline much of the nonfiction that I read ends up being too scholarly or too plain or not quite enough of one of those things that I really want. I have good reasons for reading all of these things, certainly, but it doesn't change the fact that there is definitely something counterproductive about not reading more that experiments with craft and form and the like in ways that I find interesting and challenging, rather than exclusively for content.

I came up with a number of ways to try to change that, one of which was to brainstorm authors whose writing I knew or suspected might fulfil those requirements. One of the people who ended up on that list was the late Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano, and the book of his that I semi-randomly decided to read was this one.

Mirrors is a history of the world, but of a very specific sort. It is "from below and to the left," certainly (to re-purpose a slogan from the Zapatistas), but it does things with craft that are very different from either left historians in the academy writing for the discipline or most movement-based historians (whether autodidacts or deprofessionalized) writing for a lay audience. This book is written from the sensibility of the storyteller. It clearly emerges from vast amounts of research and reading among more scholarly and conventionally historical sources, but it aims for something more and different than simply adding to the ranks of those sources. One way to say it might be that it aims for accessibility, but that is an inadequate description, because accessibility on its own often ends up plain and boring, whereas the focus here is being entertaining and mischievious and clever and engaging.

The almost 400 pages of this book are packed with brief, carefully crafted stories, most shorter than a page. They begin from the ancient world and its myths, and proceed to the present day. They draw from all parts of the world, and they centre the overlooked, the downtrodden, the forgotten.

These little stories take a range of forms -- a moment or a tangent or a list of key points from a life or a telling conjuction of facts or a poetic vignette -- and they have the feel not of written history but of stories told aloud. They are put together with a master storyteller's ear for both rhythm (for which translator Mark Fried surely deserves some credit as well, and not just Galeano himself) and for exactly the right details to create an effect and to convey an essence, with no attempt at giving an exhautive accounting of anything.

You could quibble, of course. You could insist that such-and-such is not adequately nuanced, that this detail over here is not the one you would have chosen, that the anecdote on that page leaves out too much. You could also probably critique the selection of stories, because for all that it pushes back against Eurocentrism and patriarchy (among other things), it perhaps could do more and better.

Nonetheless, it is delightful to read, and its politics are clear and powerful (if sometimes more heartbreaking than inspiring).

As for whether it is the kind of writing that I want to do, I'm not sure. In some ways, that kind of misses the point if asked too narrowly. My goal with this somewhat reoriented approach to reading is not find forms to mimic, but to find examples and explorations to inspire. This book is most definitely thoughtful and social and radical and writerly, and it feels like it falls very much within the scope of the kind of writing that I want to be reading more of, and learning from, as I plod forward in my own projects.

[For a list of all book reviews on the site, click here.]

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Complaint vs. Ontario judge who celebrated Trump victory from the bench

On Friday, The Globe and Mail and The Hamilton Spectator reported that Ontario Justice Bernd Zabel wore and then prominently displayed a pro-Donald Trump baseball cap in his Hamilton, Ontario, courtroom. I know of a number of people who are filing formal complaints at this behaviour, and I have decided to join them...and I encourage you to do the same, at the address below. Note that I'm not a lawyer, so I have no idea if I have framed or worded my complaint effectively, but the guidelines make it seem like the system is meant to deal with complaints from lay people. Also note that I have my own deep misgivings about the legal system that are much more fundamental and systemic than I express in this letter, and I am also pretty skeptical about what in-system complaints mechanisms are likely to achieve. For me, however, an important part of taking this small action (and making it public) is as a gesture towards refusing the normalization of white nationalist politics, which I think is important. Anyway, here's what I said...I'd be keen to see what you say in your letter.

The Ontario Judicial Council
P.O. Box 914
Adelaide Street Postal Station
31 Adelaide Street East
Toronto, Ontario
M5C 2K3

Re.: Conduct of Ontario Court Justice Bernd Zabel

Dear Madam/Sir,

I am writing to lodge a complaint about the conduct of Ontario Court Justice Bernd Zabel, as reported in The Globe and Mail ("Ontario judge's pro-Trump baseball cap causes courthouse uproar," Nov. 11, 2016) and The Hamilton Spectator ("Hamilton judge under fire for donning Trump hat in the courtroom," Nov. 11, 2016). In those articles, it was reported that, in his courtroom, Justice Zabel wore and prominently displayed a hat bearing a campaign slogan of United States president-elect Donald Trump, "Make America Great Again."

I am not a lawyer, so I cannot speak to the formal rules of judicial conduct, but basic fairness and decency demand that this action be condemned in the strongest possible terms. As a resident of the city in which this action took place, I am asking that Justice Zabel be fired.

If all that was at issue here was a judge, in normal political circumstances, expressing a political preference from the bench, I would be content with a milder reprimand. These circumstances are not normal, however, and history teaches us that we must resist pressures to normalize them.

In the course of the campaign, the president-elect was shown as admitting that he had assaulted women and gotten away with it; regularly engaged in brazenly sexist, racist, and xenophobic behaviour; campaigned openly on doing harm to marginalized groups; and made statements at various points calling into question his commitment to the rule of law. History teaches us that this is a very dangerous combination.

The open celebration of these stances from the bench calls Justice Zabel's ability to do his job -- his ability to adhere to the standards of impartiality that the judicial system proclaims as central to its legitimacy -- into fundamental question.

To cite but one example, given that the campaign in question opened with the candidate labelling Mexicans as "rapists," what does the celebration of that campaign say about the ability of Justice Zabel to preside fairly over proceedings involving Mexican-Canadians? Countless similar examples involving many other marginalized groups could be listed.

Jusitce Zabel's conduct is an embarassment and a disgrace, and he should be fired immediately.


Scott Neigh

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Review: Coming Up Short

[Jennifer M. Silva. Coming Up Short: Working-Class Adulthood in an Age of Uncertainty. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.]

Coming Up Short sets out to ask what it is like to come of age as a working-class person in contemporary North America, and ends up answering -- or at least exploring in a much more grounded and empirical way than most other writing I've seen -- how the changes that get grouped under the label "neoliberalism" have completely reshaped not only that side of life we usually reify as "the economy," but also the most intimate and personal aspects of how working-class people experience, understand, and navigate life.

Sociologist Jennifer Silva did in-depth interviews with 100 working-class young adults -- men and women, Black and white -- from a couple of different post-industrial cities in the United States. She got the interview participants to talk about their lives and about their transitions to adulthood, and uses these detailed accounts to develop a rich understanding of how institutions and broad social relations shape the biographies, the choices, and the very selves of the people she interviews, as well as of the strategies that they use to navigate and make sense of it all. It's this careful examination across scales, this attention to the dynamic interplay between aspects of the social world that we usually segregate as "individual" and "social", that makes this book feel important to me. It not only attends to the neoliberal transformation of society as more than "economic," which is rare enough, but it really focuses on trying to figure out how the laundry list of broad changes we associate with neoliberalism are having an impact on ordinary people. I think that's tremendously important and we need lots more work like that.

The writing falls into that flavour of scholarly prose that is unexciting, but very careful and relatively accessible. The ways in which interview material was woven through the analysis was particularly well done, I thought, and the storytelling that the book does based on the interviews is very effective at not only conveying fact but at painting pictures of the lives of those who were interviewed in a way that draws the reader in.

Given the magnitude of the changes that have swept across North America in the last 50 years, it should be no surprise that this book finds that coming-of-age trajectories and even core elements of selfhood are very, very different than those found by classic sociological studies of similar things in decades past. During the heyday of the post-war economic boom, working-class men (particularly white men) could reaslitically expect stable employment that paid a good wage. The transition to adulthood generally involved a fairly set series of markers like graduating high school, getting a job, getting married, and having kids -- and, increasingly starting in the 1960s, going to college sometimes fit in there too. Social life tended to be marked by fairly strongly enforced gender norms, a broadly stoic attitude towards hardship, and often a sense of collective commitment and responsbility. This is definitely not to romanticize that era, but just to note that in amidst the more rigid white supremacy and patriarchy of that time there was also (allocated in highly racialized and gendered ways) reasonable material plenty, reasonable stability, and a sense of collective belonging and possibility for at least some segments of the working-class that simply doesn't exist today.

Now, granting that there are definitely positive things about such rigid and oppressive norms losing sway in the last few decades, it is still the case that one of the key aspects of neoliberal change is that the kinds of working-class jobs that made that kind of life possible largely no longer exist in many areas of the United States. Because such a high proportion of employment is low-wage, temporary, precarious, and non-union, the majority of working-class youth simply don't have the option of meeting those stable markers of adulthood. But neoliberalism is more than intensive downgrading of working-class employment -- it is also about major changes in all of the other institutions that shape our lives as well. And it is major changes that, even more intensively in the US than in Canada, have meant that institutions that were in large part outcomes of working-class struggles waged a few generations ago have either been completely destroyed, or have been so defunded and distorted that the devil's bargain that combined material support with intrusive moral regulation at the height of North America's limited experiment with social democracy has now become much more about regulation and not so much about material support. Education, social services, and health services have been experienced by the interview participants in this study nearly universally as inadequate, opaque, untrustworthy, and harmful. A key lesson that almost all of the participants internalized in a deep, deep way was that you can't count on anyone or anything but yourself, and if you do, you're going to be betrayed. This is because they can't count on any institutions, whether employment-related or social support-related, and because the lives of everyone around them are as precarious and subject to change and instability as their own, they can't count on peers or family either. This is a very different set of circumstances for figuring out who you are and what life means than existed for much of the working-class 50 years ago.

Perhaps the most fascinating and disturbing finding of the book is about how working-class youth make sense of and navigate this reality. Now, there isn't just one way. A small subset of (mostly white) men still had access to stable, well-paying working-class jobs, primarily as cops and firefighters. A significant proportion of the youth from all demographics opted to go into the military, for lack of other options, but it was mostly white guys who were able to parlay this into access to these uniformed, stable forms of employment, and this subset had ways of navigating and understanding the world much more like older forms of working-class masculinity. As well, though they were far from the only ones who identified in some sense as Christian, it was a small subset of Black women in the study who narrated their experience very strongly through faith.

Pretty much everyone else in the study (including most white men and Black women) developed an understanding of themselves and of the world that the author characterizes as "therapeutic." That is, they see the task of growing up primarily in terms of identifying and overcoming various sorts of emotional, psychological, family-of-origin-based traumas, not so much in any way that leads to material security, but to self-awareness and a sort of emotional self-responsibility. And that's primarily how they see themselves, too.

There are a number of things that are sriking about this. One is how quintessentially neoliberal it is, in that it's intensely individualistic and self-focused, and it makes everything about changing you and how you feel about your circumstances rather than about anything social or about any collective effort to change anything out in the world. (And I want to be clear that I'm not blaming people for this, because it really is an approach that fits with the moment.) As well, it is very, very different from what existed a couple of generations ago, where that kind of individualized, psychologized, feeling-focused presentation of self was almost a marker of class difference, in that (an earlier version of) it existed to an extent among middle-class people but was largely rejected by and/or inaccessible to working-class people. It wasn't necesarily the politicized version of socialist fantasies, and it had its downsides for sure, but there was a kind of presumed 'we' that permeated the experiences and outlook of a lot of working-class people. Of course the therapeutic approach doesn't entirely work for most working-class people now, either, because for it to really fit seamlessly and frictionlessly, you need to have access to material resources and stability that most people just don't have. But there really is no social space for anything else to be easily imagineable -- again, it's a product of a lifetime of betrayal by (neoliberal) institutions and other people (whose lives are similarly unstable because of neoliberal realities), and a sense that really it's pointless to try to change anything but yourself.

And most significantly, it is precisely these various institutions that are largely experienced as unhelpful and negative that offer these tools -- they don't offer much in the way of material resources, but schools, health-related settings, and social services all offer therpeutic tools and resources and advice that amount to disciplinary mechanisms that produce people as therepeutic subjects. So in a real way, various kinds of neoliberal changes to institutions, from de-industrialization to the vastly reduced and re-oriented neoliberal welfare state, have created in a very material way the basis for a diferent kind of working-class self. "We'll make it impossible for you to get a decent job, and we'll make school really hard to access and not super relevant to what you need, but we'll offer you ways to process your feelings about all of it instead."

This, of course, has political implications as well. The book points to this rather than exploring it in any detail, but it certainly begins to get at some of the many aspects of working-class experience that middle-class lefties tend to completely mis-read, and to potential problems with approaches to organizing (used by folks of all backgrounds) that presume and draw on traditions based in earlier moments of working-class experience. Appeals to collective solidarity and to collective mutual support don't resonate in the same way they might have once upon a time because the institutions that shape working-class lives have worked hard over decades to produce circumstances where they won't.

I'm not really sure lessons to draw, and I worry that the way I've summarized the book here is a bit simplistic and caricatured, but I think this kind of attention to how people narrate their own experiences is crucial to building movements for change, and I think the specific findings in this study are things that those of us who do not directly experience them (as a middle-class guy who is a bit older than the interview participants here) need to think long and hard about.

And it is important to point out that the author is very clear that none of this is absolute or complete or inevitable. She points to the single interview participant in her study who had a very different way of making sense of his life and of the world -- a working-class white guy, who through a range of circumstances and choices, ended up with a political consciousness he describes himself as "revolutionary socialist." Working together for radical social change is still very possible, but we need to recognize that the route to get there isn't necessarily going to look much like what 50- and 100-year-old blueprints tell us.

[For a list of all book reviews on the site, click here.]