[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
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
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.
Posted by Scott Neigh at Saturday, November 12, 2016
Thursday, October 27, 2016
[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.]
Posted by Scott Neigh at Thursday, October 27, 2016
Friday, October 14, 2016
[Edited by the Graphic History Collective with Paule Buhle. Drawn to Change: Graphic Histories of Working-Class Struggle. Toronto: Between the Lines, 2016.]
[Robert Kristofferson and Simon Orpana. Showdown! Making Modern Unions. Toronto: Between the Lines, 2016.]
How do you do history in ways that allow it to move, travel, and engage people in non-university contexts? I've thought about that a lot over the years, and I still don't feel like I have any firm answers, but I think it's possible that these two graphic histories point towards at least one possible way of thinking about doing that.
The first books is Drawn to Change: Graphic Histories of Working-Class Struggle from the Graphic History Collective. It features nine different stories of working-class struggle drawn from Canadian history and presented by a range of different historians, writers, and artists. The content goes from the Knights of Labor in the 19th century to much more recent history, like the Days of Action in Ontario in the late 1990s and the struggles of migrant domestic workers. Some are about specific conflicts, like a 1935 coal strike or a battle by dock workers on the west coast; others are more biographical, like the one about iconic trade unionist and feminist Madeleien Parent (who is famous in Quebec but little-known in the rest of Canada) and itinerant radical Bill Williamson (whose name I'd never heard, but who cropped up in many important radical contexts in Canada and internationally in the first half of the 20th century); some focus on a particular organization, like the small socialist-feminist union that did some important work in British Columbia in the 1970s and 1980s; and some on particular groups of workers, like the story of Indigenous workers in the west coast fisheries in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Each comic had a short introduction, mostly written by left historians, labour studies profs, social movement scholars, and so on. And the book itself has a great intro written by the Graphic History Collective that situates their work in the history of activist comics.
(I should also add that I was surprised and pleased to see my own name included in the acknowledgmenets sections -- one of the first episodes ever of my radio show, Talking Radical Radio, featured a member of the Graphic History Collective, back when this book was still early in the planning stages, and I'm touched that they thought that worth mentioning. Thanks, GHC! :) )
The other book is Showdown! Making Modern Unions written by Rob Kristofferson and illustrated by Simon Orpana. It is an in-depth examination of one particular strike that rocked the steel industry in Hamilton, Ontario, in 1946. This conflict merits a full book's worth of attention because of the context: There was a wave of strikes in Canada that year that played an important part in establishing the power of organized labour and cementing a new labour relations framework in the post-Second World War era, and this strike was one of a handful that were absolutely crucial to that process. The book, while in one or two places feeling a little over-the-top in its declarations of the strike's historical significance, makes great use of it -- it draws readers in through its wonderful portrayal of the drama of the strike itself, including direct use of voices and images that emerged from it directly, while carefully including the broader historical context in which this year and this strike were key turning points.
Beyond my interest in the content and the quality of the work, it is that potential to engage people who otherwise might not pay much attention to history-from-below that really excites me about these two books. I've done grassroots history-from-below work myself, and am just embarking on a new project in that vein, and I'm feeling particularly conscious that just doing the work is not enough. We are entering the project with a wide open sense of what we might produce the other end, depending on what will be most useful to movements and communities, and to those engaged in related struggles today, but even at this early stage of consultation, I'm beginning to think there isn't a clear answer to that. Generally speaking, lots of people who are involved in movements and communities-in-struggle agree in principle that we need to know more about movements of the past and that which movements have faced, but that rarely translates into creating space for such thinking and learning to happen. Most of us, most of the time, take up knowledge about the world via practices that are habits -- yes, our media consumption practices change over time, and in specific circumstances can even change abruptly, but mostly we learn about the world today in much the same way as we learned about it yesterday. And given that most movements have no deliberate collective practices of learning from the past, and most individuals (whether active in movements or not) do not have such practices either, an ungrounded good will towards remembering past movements does not easily translate into doing anything about it.
I don't really know what the answer to that problem is. I have a sense that part of it involves creating collective proccesses or events or mechanisms for engagement -- mechanisms that are not too onerous; mechanisms that are perhaps arranged by people friendly to but not necesarily in the movements or communities themselves, so the work doesn't detract from pressing organizing; and mechanisms that are appealing in their own right, and don't count on "should"-based sentiments to generate participation. But artefacts are important too, not just processes and events, and I think these books seize on that last principle to experiment with the kinds of artefacts that might be useful -- that is, ones which are engaging and entertaining in their own right, and convey grassroots historical knowledge via that engagement.
When I think about what all of that might mean for my own work, I remain quite uncertain. But as myself and my collaborator continue to puzzle that out, in consultation with other folks in the community, I hope that it will be possible to keep tabs on these two books, to get a sense of the ways in which they are engaging people, the spaces that they are reaching, the excitement that they are generating, so that we might learn from that.
[For a list of all book reviews on the site, click here]
Posted by Scott Neigh at Friday, October 14, 2016
Monday, October 03, 2016
[Frederic Dubois, Marc Tessier, and David Wdigington, editors. Extraction! Comix Reportage, 2nd edition. Ottawa ON: Ad Astra Comix, 2016. (First edition published by Cumulus Press in 2007.)]
I spend quite a bit of time thinking about the how to convey grassroots, critical, against-the-dominant-commonsense knowledge about the world. Just in this post, you can see this attention to method and medium by the presence of an embedded video -- as I explain here I'm experimenting with combining my longstanding practice of reviewing nonfiction books related to social issues and social movements, my longstanding Talking Radical project, and a new interest in developing at least rudimentary skills for working with video to augment my written book reviews with video book reivews. I'm also a fan of comics-based narrative. I didn't grow up reading them, which is a bit surprising because I think I would've liked them, but I've come to appreciate them as an adult. Also, despite my complete lack of anything resembling artistic ability, I have thought a bit about the potential for comics to convey the sorts of ideas and knowledge and information that form the core of my own work. All of which means that I find the combination of journalism and sequential art in Extraction! Comix Reportage, 2nd edition to be intriguing and exciting. I feel somewhat cautious in reaction to it, too, but as I'll explain below, that's really not about the book itself.
Extraction! was first published in 2007. It sold out quickly, and the publisher folded in 2008. This second edition was put out by Ad Astra Comix, a publisher in Ottawa specializing in social justice-related comics, in 2016. The book tells four stories, each bringing together a different journalist with a different artist, and each reporting on a different instance of a Canadian resource extraction company doing its thing -- gold mining in Guatemala, uranium in Quebec, bauxite in India, and the tar sands in Alberta. There is also some text-y frontmatter and backmatter that talk about the project and the process.
I like the art. I appreciate the skill of the writing. I've done some grassroots journalism myself in the past, though unlike the reporters who contributed to this volume it has never been my primary focus, and I appreciate the evidence both of their journalistic skills in general and of the work of thinking through how best to apply them to a medium with quite different strengths and weaknesses than the written word alone. It was also good to see that there were at least a couple of different approaches to doing that represented.
The book, as I said, isn't new, but for the most part that didn't bother me. Fables of corporate social responsibility notwithstanding, violence to people and the earth are endemic to the Canadian mining and broader resource extraction industries, and these stories felt well worth telling and worth reading even if they're a few years old. The only one of the four that felt a little bit off, perhaps because it's the one of the four that I went in knowing most about already, was the one about the tar sands. It felt a little dated, as it was written before what has been a pretty change-filled decade in terms of basic facts and impacts and political dynamics. Still, it does a pretty good job of introducing some of the history and the environmental outcomes, and I think would be a good tool to get senior elementary and high school students thinking about the issue. More concerning, though, was that it talked almost exclusively about the environmental impacts, with almost no attention to the colonial character of the tar sands, and I think that's pretty politically troubling.
Even given those concerns, though, I liked the book, and thought it was well done. I think it can be a tool to introduce critical material about the impacts of capitalist resource extraction to people who might otherwise not encounter such material, and I hope it gets used that way.
But that brings me to the side of my reaction to this book that's hesitant. And, really, this reaction isn't about the book at all -- it is more about my own two decades of experience with both the power and the limits of grassroots media-making and knowledge production. On the one hand, it's work that I am committed to because I know that it can reach people and it can be an important element in supporting struggles for a better world. I know that consistent, solid work on an established project or form can do this, and I know that investing energy in exploring new possibilities, new media, new forms can do it too -- I wouldn't remain determined even after three and a half year to meet a time-consuming weekly radio deadline if I didn't believe the former, and I wouldn't be playing around with video for the first time ever if I didn't believe the latter. At the same time, the scale and reach of dominant institutions and practices of both media-making and knowledge production are vastly larger than anything that we're capable of at the moment, and it's hard to simultaneously hold onto both excitement for what we are able to do along with sober recognition of the sharp limits of our reach and the harsh realities of what we can't do.
That concern is about far more than mainstream news media, but I'll lay it out with reference to that because that's what's most relevant to this book: Dominant institutions and practices of mainstream journalism incorporate particular kinds of silences and biases and erasures into the core of their work, even at its best. The fact that initiatives trying to enact radically transformed institutions and practices for knowing the world are nowhere near the scale they would need to be to functionally replace mainstream media institutions, however, means that struggles to change the world still depend on mainstream journalism's ability to do certain kinds of things dependably and well, whatever its limitations. Except even that has been hollowed out over the last twenty years -- just last week, there was a report in the Toronto Star about the crisis in Canadian news media. And while I disagree profoundly with the solutions being suggested by Canada's media capitalists, the fact that the largest circulation daily in the country has cut its newsroom from 470 journlists to just 170 in the course of a decade, and that many other papers have done similar things or closed up shop entirely, is the sign of a major problem, and one that is very relevant to social movements and to communities-in-struggle, however vigorous and justified our criticisms of the mainstream media might be.
Like I said, this hesitance isn't at all about the book. Rather, it's a reminder -- to myself as much as to anyone else -- that even as we need to celebrate the things that we make that are grassroots and critical and committed to a vision for a better world world, like this important book, we need to keep an eye on that bigger picture and not get lost (as I know all to well can happen) in a neoliberal celebration of novelty and innovation and creativity when, as lovely as those things are, our bottom line really needs to be social justice and collective liberation.
So please do read this book. It's a solid journalistic introduction to the realities of Canadian resource extraction industries, which are known by far too few people given how central they are to colonial capitalism in the northern half of Turtle Island. As well, the book is an important experiment with a new approach to producing and circulating knowledge about the world that, despite my indulgence in broad pessimism above, I really do want to see develop and grow. In fact, I want our grassroots media-making and knowledge production to grow until it really can offer an alternative to the institutions that dominate and distort how we know the world today.
[For a list of all book reviews on the site, click here.
Posted by Scott Neigh at Monday, October 03, 2016
Saturday, September 10, 2016
[Faith Beauchemin, writer and editor. How Queer! Personal narratives from bisexual, pansexual, polysexual, sexually-fluid, and other non-monosexual perspectives. Atlanta GA: On Our Own Authority Publishing!, 2016.]
Though the title emphasizes the personal narratives, this book actually combines its fourteen short personal narratives by non-monosexual people who are not professional writers or activist superstars with several essays by the editor. While I have some suggestions in terms of what might have strengthened the analysis in the essays, as someone who is also committed to paying close attention to how everyday lived experience is a starting point for theory and to generating understandings of the social world and our struggles to change it in non-academic contexts, I am a big fan of this book's project.
First, the narratives: I have a soft spot for this kind of personal storytelling, partly because of my sense of the broader political significance it can have but to a large extent because I really like hearing from people about their lives, particluarly about how sexuality and gender and relationships work in their lives. (I'm much less enthusiastic about talking about how those things work for me, but I'm working on it....) The fourteen stories captured here manage to be both an interesting range of different experiences while also (inevitably) being just one arbitrary and limited slice of the vast territory encompassed by people who are in one sense or another non-monosexual. Which, in the overall context of bisexual erasure, is still a pretty great thing. There are a couple of Canadians and one young woman in India, but it is mostly people from the US, with the core being (I think mostly white) people who grew up in conservative religious families. The range of experiences includes a mix of the recognizeable and familiar (accompanied by all the complicated reactions and feelings that can carry with it) with things that feel less so. In particular, it was a reminder of how deeply variegated and often painfully oppressive the social landscape remains, especially for youth, beneath the thin veneer of supposedly already-accomplished liberal tolerance that tends to get presumed by (particularly non-queer) denizens of many urban Canadian contexts to be both universal and sufficient.
The essays, which don't draw directly on the personal narratives but serve as a sort of contextualization and a theorization based on the kinds of experiences the narratives present, bring together in a short, accessible way many of the main ideas found in the rad side of 21st century queer politics in North America, with a non-monosexual emphasis. What this means is that if you're already familiar with those politics, you probably won't encounter much that's new here. However, because it is packaged and presented in a way that is short and accessible, and because the book foregrounds the personal narratives, I think it has a good chance of conveying these politics to young queer readers who otherwise might be less likely to encounter them, and that it has a shot of blowing some new-to-this-stuff minds in a really great way.
Saying that, of course, is not at all the same as not having any opinions about what might strenghten the book's analysis, of which I have plenty. For instance, there are definitely points where the book's account of the social world feels a bit schematic -- a politically important and useful schema, but still more abstracted from the sensual messiness of lived experience than I think we really need. In quite a few places it falls into talking about identities in fairly reified (as opposed to relational) ways, which isn't at all surprising given that it is probably the dominant mode of thinking about identity these days, but it's still worth noting. As well, it feels like it consistently downplays the capacity of capitalism to recoup and put to work even radically intentioned and overtly oppositional ways of enacting diversity, difference, and transgression. Which relates (but is not reducible) to another tendency in the analysis that was concerning -- and that I think is not unusual in ceratin kinds of rad queer politics -- which at least some of the time seems to be framing the enactment of transgressive sexual and relationship practices as much more intrinsically threatening to existing social relations than I think they actually are, in the absence of conscious and deliberate efforts to use them as building blocks for projects of collective liberation.
It should be said that the author is pretty up front in the introduction about what the book does and does not do: It presents individual narratives and it presents some social and political analysis, but it does not try to answer "what is to be done" in a collective way, either through talking about existing collective projects or theorizing about what groups could and should do. Which on a certain level is fine, in that it is never fair to critique a book for not being a different book, but I wonder if taking on that piece and fitting it into what the book already does, and incorporating discussion of how existing collective efforts are being implemented and experienced in practice on the ground, might be one approach to beginning to address some of the limitations in the book's analysis.
Anyway. A neat little book that will go out into the world and do some good work -- it will be supportive and affirming to some folks who really need that, and it will take important and rad political ideas to people who might not otherwise come across them.
[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]
Posted by Scott Neigh at Saturday, September 10, 2016
Tuesday, August 23, 2016
[Kelly Fritsch, Clare O'Connor, and Ak Thompson, editors. Keywords for Radicals: The Contested Vocabulary of Late-Capitalist Struggle. Chico CA: AK Press, 2016.]
For a long time -- longer, at least, than I've been thinking about such things myself -- one important element of both internal and external conflict involving the broadly-defined left has been questions related to language and vocabulary. Accusations of inaccessible verbiage and politically pointless quibbling about language are constantly used to dismiss either the left in its entirety, or whatever sections of the left the speaker doesn't like. While, regretfully, leftist arguing about the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin does sometimes happen, it actually happens much more in the fantasies of those doing the accusing -- whether that is Fox News reactionaries who wouldn't know the actual left if it bit them on the shin, or whether it is aging post-radicals complaining about how social justice-oriented youth conduct themselves on Tumblr -- than in actuality, because even if the issues are not always addressed functionally or directly, and even if that importance is never quite named clearly in the conversation itself, questions that touch on or weave together with issues of language and vocabulary are of larger political importance. And so various language-related questions do matter far beyond themselves. To name just a few: What is the relationship between language and the world around us? How should we approach naming the world in the service of justice and liberation? How should we relate to a particular way of talking and naming and explaining that has (or perhaps had) great power to help us understand the world in certain respects, that is perhaps fading from common use or is still around but whose limits are becoming increasingly clear? How do we navigate conflict among different (parts of) movements who use the same language in different ways...ways that really do reflect substantive political differences? Or among constituencies that potentially could be working in alliance but that are starting from vastly different language and politics? What do we do when politically careful naming of the world becomes in-group signalling that keeps people from engaging with ideas that we think are important?
Keywords for Radicals is a thoughtful engagement with language and the world, inspired in part by a similar but not identical project by English marxist scholar Raymond Williams called Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society that was published forty years ago. The newer book takes 50 terms that are important to social movements and social struggles in the early 21st century. These might be terms that are hotly contested, they might be terms that are so ubiquitous that we don't even notice that their meanings are muddy or multiple, or they might be terms that get deliberately employed to avoid debate rather than clarify understanding. They go all the way from "accessible" and "accountability," to "misogyny" and "nation," to "war" and "zionism." Each is then explored by a different radical writer.
The book is based on a materialist understanding of language that argues that the ways in which language gets used -- the conceptual practices which are thus conveyed -- are related to aspects of social organization. So when usage changes, when a given way of deploying a term goes from clear and mobilizing to contested and confused, say, or when new ways of framing and describing and demarcating social phenomena arise, it is not just whims of speakers but reflective, albeit often in complex ways, of shifts in the social world. So by historicizing and socially contextualizing the ways in which people engaged in struggle use language, we can build understanding of struggles and of the world. The goal of the book is not to resolve tensions in how words are used, not to establish stable 'correct' meanings nor to destabilize supposedly illusory consensuses, but to trace out how shifts and changes and tensions and contradictions have come to be and exist in the present, and to probe what we can learn from that.
Though each entry is written by someone different, and clearly the authors had some latitude to put their own stamp on things, there is also more consistency in approach and feel across the entries than you might expect for a multi-author collection. Most include a brief dictionary-based etymological accounting that goes into the deep past, as well as a more detailed exploration of more recent history and present uses of the terms in question. Though I'm sure many are not exhaustive, and specialists in particular areas would find things to add and expand, they do a good job of touching on key movements and theorists that have shaped the terms in question in the 20th century and more recently, and various tension and competing usages/politics today. I particularly appreciated those entries in which the writers were able to introduce some sort of novel insight beyond elementary description of the landscape of contemporary usage of that entry's keyword. I also appreciate that those who have been invited to contribute, though all are on the radical left in one sense or another, represent a range of political and intellectual traditions. However, because of the emphasis on breadth, completeness, and generous readings within each entry, as well as the editorial effort to produce a common tone, this doesn't come across as an effort to perform some sort of strained political balance but just as a recognition that thinkers from a range of traditions and politics have something to contribute.
That said, it's important to be at least a little bit cautious in how you read these entries. There were very few of the entries that read to me as if they were badly done, but at the same time it would be easy (particularly, I suspect, for readers for whom these ideas are newer) to read them as being more complete than they are. So, for instance, the entry on "class," which was not badly done but which left me with more concerns about completeness than most. As far as it goes, it deals with some important history and current tensions, but I think it leaves a lot of important things out when it discusses the contemporary tension that many radicals frame as existing between liberal identity politics and a more radical class-based politics. Most versions of that framing that I have encountered, including the one in this chapter, present what to me seems to be a very simplistic account in which liberal, reified identity politics are made to stand in for all politics that take identity and related phenomena seriously, thereby erasing politics that do so in ways that are relational, revolutionary, collective, anti-liberal, and non-reified. I see this as profoundly politically unhelpful, and as very common at the moment, so it's disappointing that this chapter didn't push beyond it. As well, in a related but not identical omission, it leaves out any consideration of critical marxist feminist interventions into the category of "class" (though other entries in Keywords for Radicals engage with some of that work) and of autonomist interventions that greatly complexify and expand what "class" captures. And to be clear, I still think it's a useful chapter...I raise this more as a caution about how the entries should be read than anything else. If you are someone who works with the ideas in this book -- and, really, if you write stuff about the social world from a vaguely left-ish perspective, then you do -- the entries in this book are quite useful places to start and pointers to important thinkers and movements and ideas. But they aren't endpoints, and shouldn't be taken as such.
Anyway. It's a sizeable book, and certainly not everyone's cup of tea, but it's very readable and, I think, full of really useful stuff. There's lots to pick apart and debate and discuss in the entries, which I think is valuable in itself, and the underlying theory of why and how language matters is super important. Though this is not it's primary purpose, I think the theory underlying Keywords gives us ways to think through how arguments about language and terminology arise within and beyond the left, and to perhaps approach them in ways that are more historically grounded and potentially useful.
[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]
Posted by Scott Neigh at Tuesday, August 23, 2016
Monday, August 15, 2016
[Dean Spade. Normal Life: Administrative Violence, Critical Trans Politics, and the Limits of the Law. Durham NC: Duke University Press, 2015.]
This is a classic of radical trans politics, written by legal scholar and organizer Dean Spade, and originally published by the sadly now-defunct South End Press in 2009 and re-released by Duke University Press in 2015.
A central premise for the book is one of the key divides in contemporary social movements. On the one hand, there are politics that focus on narrowly defined single issues, that don't really consider differential impacts of their agenda within or beyond their presumed base and that therefore centre the more privileged elements of that base, and that tend to lack any critical understanding of the state. On the other hand, there are politics that may be grounded in a particular set of experiences but that prioritize seeing the interconnections between different struggles and that aim for collective liberation, that are very attuned to the differential impacts that various reforms would have both within and beyond their base in ways that centre the most marginalized people within that base, and that are very clear (but not dogmatic or rigid) about the oppressive violence inherent in the state form. This is perhaps most clearly talked about these days with reference to queer struggles, and this book puts an emphasis on drawing lessons from past queer movements and applying them to present-day decisions in trans organizing, but it is a distinction that is relevant to quite a few movements.
Given that Spade is a lawyer and a legal scholar, a particular emphasis in the book is examining the role of law reform within movements. Again, there is a distinction that maps roughly onto the two broad kinds of politics described above. The former often ends up relying quite heavily on legal strategies, to the extent that they take on much more weight and significance, and absorb more resources, than more grassroots elements of struggle. In the context of lesbian and gay movements, these politics have tended to emphasize law reforms that constitute some kind of positive recognition -- most prominently equal marriage, hate crime legislation, and explicit inclusion in human rights law. The latter kind of politics, and the one Spade argues for, uses law reform as only one part of a larger, multi-faceted movement strategy, and is quite careful that grassroots, often base-building, activities are prioritized. He goes through each of those major legal achievements of queer movements in the United States and shows how they often don't have the promised impacts on queer lives, and that at least some have significant negative consequences on some (often racialized and/or poor) queer and non-queer people. He suggests an approach to law reform in movement contexts, with particular reference to trans struggles, that begins from asking what aspects of law have the greatest material impact on the greatest number of lives, and then seeking to change those things. In the case of trans people, he suggests that rather than following the lead of LGB movements in seeking things like inclusion in human rights codes and hate crime legislation, the largest impact on trans lived experience would actually be made by challenging how gender functions in administrative law -- which hate crime legislation and human rights codes mostly don't touch. He also argues that, again using the metric of actual impacts on the lives of trans people, it is crucial for trans movements to become part of larger coalitions challenging the prison industrial complex and various injustice related to immigration.
The book is scholarly, but very lucid, very clear in its argument, very easy to follow. I think what I like most about it is how grounded and practical it is when it comes to arguing for a sort of intersectional collective liberation approach to movement politics, and when it talks about state violence. I find that too often when activists or writers take those positions, particularly more privileged activists, they end up sounding radical but feeling pretty detached from lived experience in a way that allows single-issue politics and the downplaying of state violence to come across as the pragmatic and reasonable position. Spade does an excellent job of making clear that in fact politics that strive for collective liberation and that refuse to ignore state violence are not just too-the-root radical but also, when done right, the more practical alternative to making incremental improvements to people's everyday lives.
As a cis person, I have no standing to comment on the choices facing trans politics at this moment of heightened visibility and attack, but I think this book is one excellent way for those of us who do not have that lived experience to understand some of the ways that trans lives and gender more broadly are socially organized, and I think the political lessons in this book resonate through all of our movements.
[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]
Posted by Scott Neigh at Monday, August 15, 2016
Saturday, July 23, 2016
I want to make a simple request to everyone in Canada who thinks of themselves as in some sense or another part of the left. I don't actually suppose that anyone will listen -- after all, who am I to ask such a thing? -- but I will ask nonetheless. And my request is this: I want all of us to commit, for the period between right now and November 9, not to write, publish, or share anything to do with the elections in the United States.
The basis for making this appeal is a bit different than some readers might assume, so I'm going to start off by talking about what my reasons are not. Then, I'll explain what they actually are.
What I don't mean
The first thing this request is not is an expression of left nationalism. It's not based in smug Canadian we're-better-ness. It's not based in a commitment to reinforcing borders as naturalized demarcations of belonging and action. I hope that if I have demonstrated anything over the last 20 years of writing and making media and otherwise acting in the world, it is a distaste for Canadian nationalism, left or otherwise, so even if this request seems superficially to be in line with such a position, it really comes from rather a different set of political commitments.
This request is also not an assertion that the elections in the US don't have an impact on us; they most certainly do. They always and inevitably do, given...what's the quote from Trudeau Senior about being a mouse on the back of an elephant? Anyway, you get the idea. I also have the sense that there are some dynamics specific to this election. There are lots of people who know more than me about electoral politics and about the right in Canada, so I may be wrong about this, but here's my take: The electoral right, federally and at least in Alberta and in a different way in Ontario, is in a bit of disarray at the moment. However, the grassroots right-wing social movement that brought the Harper Conservatives to power -- and my thanks to a Hamilton anarchist for first introducing me to the idea of right-wing electoral success in Canada as resulting from a highly organized grassroots base -- is still around. It has never been as strong as its counterpart in the US, and the more terrifying and openly white nationalist elements within it have not generally had as much influence as they do south of the border right now, or at least not since the Second World War. But the grassroots right in Canada is still stronger now than it was in the second half of the twentieth century. The electoral disarray is not due to grassroots decomposition, and that means that once the specifics of electoral circumstance that have resulted in that disarray have passed, they will have no trouble rebuilding to challenge once more for state power. There are no doubt lots of factors determining what kind of electoral expression that resurgence will find, and what sort of flavour within the right-wing coalition comes to dominate, but I suspect that one factor is the fate of the openly white nationalist, misogynist, xenophobic Trump campaign south of the border. If he wins, that element of the right in Canada will be energized...even more than they have already been by him winning the Republican nomination. So, yes, the election down there matters up here.
And finally, it's not an expression of rad left puritanical anti-electoralism. I wrote years ago about my take on electoral politics. I continue to combine both a sharp critique of the limitations and dangers of electoral and other uncritically state-focused politics with a strong commitment to pragmatism. Electoral politics can make only very narrow and specific kinds of changes to people's everyday lives (particularly in the absence of powerful extra-parliamentary movements), but those changes can still mean a lot in terms of people's experiences of violence and suffering and access to the resources they need to live. Given that, why not invest half an hour every four years to have a tiny role in shaping that? And I'm at least open to discussing more collective left interventions in elections as well, though my skepticism increases sharply in relation to the resources and attention required, and how that might either detract from or contribute to movements. In any case, I don't see voting as an expression of existential self, as avid proponents and die-hard opponents of voting both so often make it out to be, but as a small tactical intervention. Spending a lunch hour on someone else's picket line isn't going to end capitalism either, but it similarly can't hurt and might help a tiny bit. In a way, I see voting as a sort of harm reduction measure. All of which is to say, I welcome ongoing conversation about how best to relate to elections and to state-focused politics, and I'm not taking the position at the heart of this post out of any sort of conviction that paying attention to elections is uniformly Bad.
What I do mean
So why do I wish that Canadians (and perhaps all non-USians) would stop posting and tweeting and sharing and opining about the elections in the United States?
Well, there are a couple of pieces to that. One key element is that even though the elections affect us, even though I'm not turning my nose up just because it's an election, and even though I don't think looking and feeling and thinking across borders is an intrinsic problem, we can't actually shape the outcome. We can't vote. We can't donate. We can't knock on doors. We can't phone bank. We can't do any of the other things that might make a difference to who wins. All we can do is watch the spectacle in horror and talk about it. Which isn't, on its own, necessarily a problem -- I'm all for posting and chatting about all sorts of things purely for the sake of knowledge or entertainment or edification or debate.
Until, that is, you think a bit more about what exactly the spectacle does.
So. I think our efforts to change the world, considered in their entirety, must begin from people's lived experiences and then proceed through efforts to understand how and why people's lived experiences got that way as we seek ways to make change that gets to the roots of problems. While there will inevitably be small steps and hard decisions and compromises on the way to get there, our overall vision has to encompass the entirety of the problem. Reducing poverty a little bit is a positive step, for instance, but the endgame has to be transforming the social relations that produce poverty. Any individual campaign may only win, say, a modest increase in welfare rates, a handful of concrete changes to reduce racist police violence, a single pipeline stopped, but those campaigns have to happen in the context of overall political visions of a world without poverty, a world without white supremacy and the prison-industrial complex, a world in which Indigenous sovereignties are respected and planet-destroying carbon-based capitalist industries are transformed. We can't make good decisions within movements and communities-in-struggle about the steps along the way if we don't hold on to the big picture.
One of the most pernicious impacts of electoral politics is the way that they get inside us and shape our imaginations of the future, of what's possible, of the world that we want. The range of things that can be changed through purely electoral means is narrow, and the degree to which they can be changed is usually small. Like I said, that still matters, because people's lives and wellbeing are at stake. But because of the incredible amount of resources invested in electoral politics, because of the huge amount of space they are given in the mainstream media, because of the massive legitimacy with which they are treated in mainstream discourse, and because of the power of the spectacle that results, this narrow spectrum of issues and narrow range of possibilities exerts tremendous power over people's political imaginations -- over our sense of what's important, what's possible, what's desireable, what we can and should do. Many people have had hardly any opportunity at all to imagine anything outside the narrow range of the electoral spectacle, and even those of us who try to act with a more expansive movement-based vision in mind still cannot help but be shaped by it.
Now, it's one thing to navigate that when it's an electoral contest where you live, that will have an impact on your life and your community, and that you can, at least in a small way, intervene in (or deliberately not). How do you intervene? Where do you put your energies? What non-electoral things should movements be doing too/instead? How do you recognize the real-life consequences of electoral politics while still fending off the dangerous impacts that the spectacle has on our sense of overall political possibility? It's all difficult and a mess, but it's an unavoidable one because it's not a matter of "false consciousness" but of a hard-to-navigate material situation.
But that's not what I'm talking about here. In this case, no matter what we know or discuss or decide, we are not going to have any influence on the outcome. For those of us not in the United States, as relevant as this election is to our lives too, all we have is the spectacle. All we have is the way that the spectacle shapes us.
And make no mistake, it does shape us. I don't know about you, but I find myself reading and thinking and talking about this election. Even though I know full well that it hasn't magically appeared from nowhere and is the product of a long history, I am finding myself emotionally shaken by it. It is under my skin, and it is taking my attention and my energy -- taking them, that is, from things that I could actually do something about, taking them from a kind of engagement with the world that is, yes, interested for the sake of interest at times but dynamically related to interest for the sake of acting, and instead focusing them on a political car accident that I can do nothing to change but can't look away from.
In the world of 21st century social media, there is a kind of active economy of socially organized attention and affect that is very different from back in the day when daily newspapers delivered to every door were the prime mechanism of creating publics and the public sphere. Now, our knowledge systems are produced much more through our unapid labour of clicking, sharing, liking, tweeting, +1ing, and so on. The democratizing potential of this more active role is greatly overestimated in some quarters, I think, but it still means we have some potential to shape at least our own and our local spheres (bubbles?) of content. That is, we have at least a little bit more control than a generation ago over how we relate to and reproduce that element of electoral politics that is the spectacle that deforms our collective political imaginations.
So I guess what it comes down to is that I'm not saying don't pay attention to and don't care about Trump vs. Clinton. I'm not saying don't read articles if you feel like reading them. I'm just suggesting that it might be a politically useful discipline not to share them, to opine on them online, to circulate them. I've been doing my best to do that, and even just at the individual level, it helps to interrupt the circuit a bit -- to get into the habit of thinking, no, I'm not going to pass that along, I'm going to stay attentive to things that are more directly connected to things that I and that the various wes that I'm a part of can actually do something about. And, like I said at the beginning, I don't expect this call to resonate, because after all who am I to make it. As well, I know how empty it can be to call for individuals to change what amounts to a consumer behaviour, when it is systems and institutions and social organization that are really to blame.
Nonetheless, wouldn't it be great if every time some lefty in Canada thought about sharing an article on how horrible and authoritarian and racist Trump is or how awful and neoliberal and imperialist Clinton is, they just stopped and shared something about...well, maybe about how awful the Canadian state is and Canadian corporations are. Or, even better, what if instead we focused on sharing material about movements and communities-in-struggle on Turtle Island (both north and south of the border) that are already taking action every day to challenge and change all of these things.
Posted by Scott Neigh at Saturday, July 23, 2016
Thursday, July 07, 2016
It shouldn't be news that knowledge alone is never enough. Ignorance isn't the root cause of oppression, education won't singlehandedly change the world, and uncovering just the right fact will not be the catalyst that leads to global transformation.
Just because that liberal conception of knowledge-as-social-panacea is foolishness doesn't mean knowledge doesn't matter, of course. Events near and far have been hammering that home for me in a whole bunch of ways lately, but I was particularly struck by it last week when I went back and listened to an episode of Talking Radical Radio from May that features my interview with Robyn Pitawanakwat and Sue Deranger of the Colonialism No More protest camp. (For the latest from the camp, click here.)
In this episode, Pitawanakwat and Deranger talk about the protest camp outside the Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada office in Regina, Saskawtchewan; about the suicide crisis in Attiwapiskat; about the wave of #OccupyINAC actions through which Indigenous activists and their allies in some cities responded in solidarity to that crisis; and about how the crisis is so much broader than just Attiwapisakat and how it is grounded in histories and ongoing realities of Canadian colonialism.
It's all very clear, very straightforward. Nothing is obscured by academic jargon. The various ways that the interviewees, their families, their communities, and communities of people out on the land who look like them face violence from the Canadian state are laid out plain as day. They don't say it directly, but it's clear -- powerfully clear -- from how they talk about their own paths in this work that efforts to challenge this violence have been going on for generations. They present immediate, direct steps to begin changing these colonial realities.
It's only a 28-minute show, and at least part of the point was exploring the immediate context and the current actions being taken by this particular group of Indigenous people and allies in Regina, so it certainly doesn't present an exhaustive history or complete contemporary description of colonialism. There is lots more to learn about how it plays out, and lots more to think about in terms of how to end it.
But here's the thing: The core is there. You don't need a lot of background knowledge. You don't need specialized vocabulary. You don't need to do a lot of other digging (though hopefully you feel inspired to do some). All you need to do is listen to these Indigenous women talk about their lives, their communities, and their struggles, and to believe them. If you are a white settler person and you do that -- really do it, really take up the gift of the knowledge that's on offer in that interview -- then you are left with a clear path to thinking way more groundedly about who you yourself are and about the country in which you live. That's not to say it's easy, or that there's no need to do a lot of talking to figure out what to do next, but the outline of the path is there.
Even more important is the fact that, as pleased as I am with this interview, it's really pretty ordinary. Sure, given that we have mainstream education and media systems that have only very recently started to inch away from a near-complete exclusion of Indigenous voices, and that still dramatically underrepresent and distort, you do actually have to look a little bit to hear about this stuff. But you know what? You only have to look a little. It's a complete myth that it's hard to find or that it's hard to understand; it's really not.
So why doesn't the fact that this knowledge is out there and that it points in a simple way towards a very different understanding of "Canada" and what it means to be "Canadian" actually result in a kind of collective "Aha!" moment that spreads like wildfire among non-Indigenous people in this country? Well, the simplest answer -- not fully explanatory but certainly encapsulating a core truth -- is that there are always ways for us to not-know things that it is in our material interest to not-know.
For some purposes, that explanation is enough. Certainly those at the forefront of anti-colonial struggles have better things to do with their time than dissect out the details of consciousness of those who don't support them. But I think perhaps examining the how of this not-knowing is relevant to the secondary but still important work of building solidarity with Indigenous struggles among settlers (and I can probably speak to this most clearly with respect to white settlers). So how does this not-knowing actually work?
I don't have any definite answers, just a few areas that merit further investigation. I've already alluded to one: What knowledge gets produced and circulated by the knowledge systems that reach the most people is shaped by power, and this kind of unvarnished Indigenous truth is not something that has much access to those systems. Exactly how that exclusion is maintained varies with context, but it's pretty consistent. Even the relatively small barrier of having to look for such material rather than having it just show up in front of you has a significant impact.
Here's another: We're not passive vessels into which knowledge gets poured. We take it up actively or we don't, actively. And that decision about whether we enter into particular kinds of encounters that could lead to particular kinds of knowledge -- whether we click a link or not, read an article or not, go to an event or not, watch a show or not, participate in a conversation or not -- depends on how we feel about it. Philosopher Sara Ahmed uses language like "orientation" and "proximity" to get at this. It boils down to whether that cluster of feelings we have in response to the possibility of one of those kinds of encounters makes it feel close to us, relevant to us, about us, or not. This is mostly not particularly conscious or explicit, it's more of how we are steered by fleeting gut feelings. Also relevant in that moment of decision is a kind of unconscious prediction of how the encounter itself is likely to make us feel; often something that we expect will make us feel bad, in general or about ourselves, is something we'll avoid. We all have limited time and energy, and we're much more likely to engage with material that we feel close to and that will make us feel good, so often the knowledge that's out there about these bare-bone basics of colonial Canada just gets...passed by.
Even once we've engaged with whatever encounter might lead us to this knowledge, there are other ways that we sometimes manage to not-know: There's the matter of actually believing it. When we have some sort of encounter with a person or an object or a text and we are actively producing knowledge from it, part of that process involves matching this new knowledge up against the knowledge we already have. Sometimes it fits, and it's easy enough to take it up. Sometimes it doesn't fit, but for whatever reason, we are transformed by it, or at least unsettled by it, so we adapt our existing knowledge to fit with what we have just learned. Or it doesn't fit, and we dismiss or disbelieve it. Part of how many of us who are white reach that place of disbelief in this sort of instance is about deep-down sedimented stuff that we learn about the world from growing up in a white supremacist, settler colonial context. Even when we sit in the more liberal parts of the context that would be horrified at hearing this expressed explicitly, there are still all sorts of subtle messages that we are bombarded with over our lifetimes that Indigenous people, Black people, and people of colour aren't quite, or aren't yet, or aren't really fully human, or they are but they aren't as trustworthy or as knowledgeable as you-know-who. That may sound over the top, but it's a big part of how the knowledge that winds through white supremacy and settler colonialism is maintained -- how easy it is to disbelieve and ignore what Black, Indigenous, and people of colour say about their own lives and about the world.
Connected with that but not quite the same is the fact that part of this matching up of new knowledge with existing knowledge is dealing with places where they don't fit neatly together. And when you're hearing about the colonial realities of Canada for the first time, odds are they aren't going to fit with your existing (mis)understandings. That misfitting is uncomfortable, dissonant. A lot of people are pretty attached to an understanding of "Canada" and "Canadian" that is completely at odds with truly reckoning with our colonial past and present -- and when I say "pretty attached" I mean viscerally and intensely. One way to deal with the discomfort of that dissonance is to just dismiss the new knowledge, and to then go on a search for excuses to justify your dismissal. Of course the systemic dehumanization and disregard mentioned in the last paragraph helps with that. Another way to deal with this dissonance, however -- and this is one that I think is a specialty of liberal multicultural Canada -- is to accept it and compartmentalize it. You say, "Oh, okay, that's your reality. That's really hard. I empathize with you and I want to support you." But you keep that knowledge neatly segregated such that it remains entirely about the speaker or writer who originated it, and the fact that it has deep implication for you the listener or reader is studiously avoided. Of course it isn't always this stark, either. In fact, I think a lot of white settlers in the huge expanse from left-liberals to the far reaches of the anarchist and marxist left fall into a milder version of this, where we know a bit about colonial realities, and we even know that it says something about us and about the country in which we live...but we don't know quite what, or what it would mean to end it. (And I think this notional solidarity with partial comprehension is a difficult and dangerous dynamic in which lies the seeds of future white supremacist settler colonial backlash. But that's a different post.)
And one other piece of how this all works is the way in which our knowledge systems deprive us of a good sense of how the social world is actually put together, of how it all works. There are demonstrable material ways that the world around us is socially organized, but not only are we given little opportunity to learn the details of that, we're also largely deprived of the concepts that would be the building blocks of learning those details and derailed into a nearly useless liberal conception of atomized individuals in a structureless massified social whole. That means that even if we have the right encounters, we don't turn away, we actually believe what racialized and colonized people say about their own lives, we don't dismiss the uncomfortable new knowledge, we know it has something to do with us, and we commit to doing the work to figuring out what this all has to do with who we are and where we live, it's not always easy to make anything useful with the knowledge. And because it's not easy to do, the alternative of giving up in dismay is certainly appealing. Or it's easy enough to do some of the work and get somewhere, but then to get stuck or distracted.
I'm sure there is lots that I've missed -- this is just a preliminary sketching of some of the ways that not-knowing happens. It's also not completely clear to me how to turn these ideas about the mechanics of not-knowing into actions that might contribute to building real solidarity. Certainly some part of that has to rest on a recognition of knowledge production not as some heroic individual task that we succeed or fail at, but rather a collective and dialogical process. In other words, this is not something that can proceed in any meaningful way by us individualistically sitting in front of screens or with books in our hands. Rather, there has to be deliberate collective engagement and challenge of some sort on these questions. But what is certain is that the very active character of not-knowing re-affirms that there is a lot more to it -- a lot more challenge, a lot more need to unsettle, a lot more need for dialogical and consistent engagement -- than simply transmitting information.
Posted by Scott Neigh at Thursday, July 07, 2016