Tuesday, November 18, 2014
[Emmanuel Levinas. Entre Nous: Thinking-of-the-Other. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.]
For reasons explained in the first couple of paragraphs of this post, one broad category of books I'm reading at the moment is those that enact or analyze ways of knowing the world through encounter and relation. I solicited suggestions on Facebook a few months back, and one respondent whose judgement I quite trust suggested it might be useful to read some of Emmanuel Levinas' work. From the smattering of mentions of it that I had encountered before -- including, if I'm remembering correctly, in Sara Ahmed's book Strange Encounters, which I didn't review, and in this book on feminist philosophy of religion, which was quite influential on my thinking while writing about related themes for one of my own books -- I was inclined to agree.
One way to quickly summarize why Levinas might be of interest is that whereas most of Western philosophy starts from being and then goes on (or not!) to think about us existing in relation to others, Levinas argues that relation precedes being, and therefore that ethics are more fundamental than ontology. His way of arriving at all of this is very different from anything I'd thought about before, but it does fit in rather neatly with a preoccupation of my own in recent years: the ways in which particularly the more privileged amongst us see ourselves as these liberal-democratic discrete agents that get to choose when and how we engage with the broader social world -- a conceit that I think is profoundly harmful, but even those of us who recognize it as a problem have no easy path to really internalizing the implications of the fact that we are always already and thoroughly social.
This book is a collection of short pieces -- essays, interviews, texts of lectures, excerpts from longer works -- spanning several decades and dealing with this particular aspect of his writing. I don't have much background in this area -- or, anyway, what I have is idiosyncratic and sparse -- so I found reading this to be very slow going, but also very productive. It was helpful that the many pieces in the volume returned frequently to the core ideas, approached them in a range of different ways, and took them in a range of different directions. Though I'm sure any proper philosopher who happens to read this review could easily point out ways that this is not the case, I feel that the book left me with a pretty solid grounding in those core ideas.
So. Descartes' idea of I, reasoned from his experience of being a thinking self, has been pretty central to philosophy and ideas in the West since he first came up with it. In the mid- to late-20th century, a number of thinkers, including feminists but also including Levinas, have pointed out that this formulation does not make a lot of sense because it does not describe a circumstance that ever actually happens -- there is no moment where we are an I alone. At a very basic level, from the moment we come into existence we are always in relation to others. For Levinas, this existing in relation takes the form of an encounter with what he describes as "the face of the Other." That precedes all else and imposes an obligation, a sort of duty of care, upon us that in its pure form is absolute. However, in our lived reality we never face a single Other -- there is always a third person, in fact many other people, and from that springs the need to balance our obligation to these many others, to recognize the differences in their behaviours and their treatment of each other, and therefore a need for analysis, a sense of justice, and hard decisions.
Of interest to me given my reason for picking up the book in the first place, among the many different things that Levinas relates to this core idea is a particular analysis of how we know the world. The Western epistemology that flows from Descartes' "I think" begins, as I said, from ontology. The being of I is central, and really the only subject whose subjecthood you can be sure of is your own, and this means that knowing the world is a process of intentionally reaching out to surrounding phenomena and in a sense incorporating them into self through knowing them. It is a relation that is acquisitive and dominating, that turns all that is Different into Same through the incorporation into self, that through thematizing and making known that which is different makes all the world an object. This ignores, Levinas argues, the subjectivity of the Other. Rather than making ontology primary, we must begin from our encounter with the face of the Other. In that encounter, the Other is not known, it is clearly a subject and it is clearly not reducible to I. And it is not a difference that is different in a known way, either, but is a uniqueness that refuses and overflows our categories, an alterity that cannot be reduced to sameness, a fellow subjectivity that cannot be incorporated into me but rather that must be related with in an intersubjective way.
Levinas is not against knowing, in the sense of a reaching out into the world with intention and incorporating the world into self. It is exactly that sort of exercise that becomes necessary when responding to the complexity of the "third person" and the consequent need for analysis and some measured approach to justice. But he insists that the ethical obligation proceeding from the encounter with the face of the Other precedes this, and it is only through recognizing that precedence that we can begin to counter the many problems that flow from the domineering Western approach to knowing.
Though the basis and the language he uses are very different, it all feels at least vaguely consistent with some of my own writing about knowing the world, in the Intro & Conclusion to my books and in a haphazard way on this blog. I talk about an approach to knowing that is very explicit about being situated, inevitably incomplete, saturated with a certain humility, and a product of dialogical relation with other subjects and their accounts of themselves rather than of treating the social world purely as object.
I don't get the sense that Levinas is terribly hopeful about the possibility of what might be called knowing otherwise. For him, this objectifying and acquisitive character is inherent to knowing, and it's a matter of balancing that, in how we act in the world, with the ethical commitment that flows from our encounter with the face of the Other. I'm less convinced that this is our only alternative. I think that perhaps his insights and the insights of others can be used to build a sort of synthesis that incorporates the relational and the ethical into social ways of knowing -- that through recognizing not only the knower as a social being (which he does) but knowing as a social process (which is much less visible in his work), we can enact practices that allow us to relate differently to each other and the world as we go about producing knowledge. I hope so, anyway.
I think it is reasonable for me to ask myself, at this point, whether it was worth reading this book. Yes, I found it powerful and interesting and relevant, but I think at least some of my affinity for the work is about relating to the mid-level analysis rather than extensive buy-in to the fundamental scaffolding upon which he builds it, so I'm not sure I gain much by now having the ability to point to his scaffolding. Perhaps more important for my purposes, it's not clear that people who are engaged with the social world and who are interested in movements and struggle today will care at all about some obscure dead Frenchman's insistance on the primacy of ethics and relationality, especially when there are lots of other sources -- many people who think about things based in feminist, anti-racist, anti-colonial, and other struggles, for instance -- who present much more commonsense and everyday arguments for seeing that primacy, and who might even regard the need to develop elaborate arguments to defend such primacy as a sign of a regime of knowledge that is better left behind. And all of that is fair enough. But I do have a sense (that is still quite underdeveloped, admittedly) that there is value in trying to excavate more liberatory and just tendencies from dominant traditions even as we engage with and listen to ways of knowing the world that emerge more directly from struggles for justice and liberation and that tend to be more thoroughly marginalized in the mainstream. Not sure how that relates to anything I might do, but I still think it's worth further reflection.
Before I close, I should point to some political limitations in Levinas. I agree in general terms with his argument about the presence of the "third person" impelling a need to develop analysis and a sense of justice and to make hard, balancing decisions, but for him that very clearly means a need for the liberal-democratic state. He's very insistent on this, but I don't get the sense, at least from what is presented here, that this is a product of particularly critical thought about the world at the social and political level, it's just the only possibility in his millieu that he can see that might fit. (This reminds me a bit of Ladelle McWhorter's Bodies and Pleasures. It's a book I love, with its reading of Foucault presented via the author's journey of reading him and applying his ideas to her own life, but I was disappointed that her sharp insight and critical analysis seemed to falter when it came to considering how to act in collective political ways, and the dominant liberalism of her environment seemed to allow her little space to imagine other ways of approaching that sphere of activity.) I don't agree with Levinas in this, of course, but I do think his presumption points towards a much more complicated conversation that we rarely have, about the ways in which, in a violent and unjust world, even if we try to imagine our way outside of the state form, it is hard to imagine that whatever we replace it with won't have to incorporate aspects of what I remember reading Dean Spade describe once as "stateness," in that sometimes it is hard to perceive a path towards justice even at a very basic and interpersonal level that does not include at least some manifestations of coercion or even violence.
I also have a vague impression that there are things that a feminist engagement with Levinas might take issue with. I haven't talked much about it because I don't entirely understand it -- it wasn't really emphasized in the pieces chosen for this book -- but Levinas sees the encounter with the face of the Other as a call not just to ethics and care but to the possibility of violence. As well, I wonder about the primary encounter with a subject that is not I being an alien Other rather than the one who birthed you -- would some way of recognizing that initial blurred separateness, and the care (and demand and often ambivalence) that is (at least in most instances) bound up in that relationship change his analysis? And I'm pretty sure some feminist thinkers have taken issue with ethics that make responsibility to other people an absolute good, given the role that ethical blandishments with exactly that form have had in subordinating women.
And, finally, to note something that is only touched upon very briefly in this book and is not particularly relevant to his philosophical work, Levinas seems to have been supportive of the Zionist colonial project in Palestine. Perhaps understandable given the era and social location of his writing, it still points to all sorts of questions about what it means to translate philosophical ideals into lived realities, about whose humanity we recognize, and about our own social production as subjects.
[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]
Saturday, October 25, 2014
There's this phrase that scholar Sherene Razack has used that I've been thinking about: "the race to innocence." I've been thinking about it as I've watched the reactions to the shootings in Ottawa unfold.
By this phrase, she means "a belief that we are uninvolved in subordinating others" (Looking White People in the Eye, p. 14). My understanding of how she uses the idea of "innocence" is that she's trying to capture the ways in which people with privilege often assume that we are not involved in social relations that cause harm to others and benefit us, and we act and speak and come to know the world in ways premised on that (faulty) assumption that we don't benefit from and contribute to perpetuating harm. Not only that, we often do things that, however they work for us internally, sure look a lot as if, on some level, we really know that we're not innocent at all. It can be hard to read some of these actions as being about anything other than trying to perform innocence, to broadcast innocence to the world, to make sure that at the very least it is the innocent image of ourselves that everyone else in the world has to see and deal with. Now, from what I remember of that book -- I read it a long time ago -- she uses this idea mostly to talk about racialized relations of power among women, and there is something specific about the connection between dominant notions of white femininity and the idea of "innocence." But I think it's also a useful way to think about a lot of really common ways that white Canadians in general talk about ourselves and act in the world. I think it has been central to a lot of the reactions to this week's tragic events, and I think it is an important part of preventing us from finding more politically constructive ways of reacting.
I'm not going to try to be exhaustive, but I want to talk about two things I've noticed. I'm far from alone in noting the kinds of things of which these are examples, and I only notice them because I have observed wiser and more perceptive friends, comrades, and writers notice similar things in other contexts, so I'm not claiming great insight. But I find them infuriating, so I'm writing about them.
The First Thing
I think I could probably write a longer, more involved piece about how patterns of sharing things on social media are actually a really useful way to learn about the social organization of knowledge and about the social organization of emotion, but I'll stick to the specifics here. In a moment like we've been in over the last few days, people who rarely share links on social media that are about "issues" tend to do so, and people who have a certain set pattern of issues that they share links about often break out of those patterns in ways related to the crisis of the moment. This is, of course, perfectly understandable. It's an awful event that grabs people's attention, so they share news reports as the events are unfolding and immediately after. And there is a fairly significant outpouring of public emotion, so various expressions of shock and sorrow and grief, as well as sympathy for the family and loved ones of the young man who died, and respect and thanks for any who played a role in resolving the acute crisis, are shared as well.
The problem, of course, is not that people are shocked and horrified by violence, or that they express empathy and grief in response to the young man who was killed. What I find gut-wrenching is the way that this sharing casts in stark relief all the violence, suffering, and death that most of us don't emote about publically and share things about on social media. What does that say about what violence we actually see as violence, whose suffering we think matters, and whose lives we see as important?
Now, there's lots going on in that massive non-reaction. One awful element is that what is legible as violence depends a lot on who has been harmed and who has been doing the harming. There's a reason, for instance, that one of the powerful slogans coming out of the resistance by the Black community in Ferguson in the aftermath of the police murder of Michael Brown is "Black Lives Matter!" -- that is, for centuries, the dominant white supremacist society (and I'm talking here about the one we live in, not trying to push it off onto the US alone) has been very clear about acting as if they don't. There's something specific about Black experience in this regard, of course, but there are other axes as well along which certain people are automatically and always treated as full members of humanity, and other people have a much more tenuous admittance, or no admittance at all. Tragically, this has everything to do with the presence or absence, and the shape, of public responses to instances of harm, violence, and death.
That's not all that's going on, though. Another factor at play (that, admittedly, intersects with what I just said in ways I'm not going to fully explore here) is our sense of connection with the violence at hand. A lot of people feel a lot of really intense connection to the events in Ottawa -- an individual committing a series of deeply anti-social acts that involved killing one individual and attempting to kill lots more -- when they might not to similarly anti-social acts in other circumstances because both the acts themselves and the post-act media hype have tied them very deeply to this thing called "Canada". One part of that is what Benedict Andersen calls the "imagined community" of the nation, where various factors work together to give us a sense of having a connection with millions of strangers we will never meet. Now, I think that's a kind of peculiar thing, and often a very troubling one, but getting into why I think that and what we might want to do differently is at the very least another post, and probably more like a book or two. So we'll just note that part of why people were reacting to this particular instance of violence is because of a sense of connection that an immense amount of social work has gone into creating.
It also follows that if there is some other violent incident -- say a shooting where an individual commits a series of deeply anti-social acts that involve killing one individual and attempting to kill lots more -- that happens halfway around the world, well, there isn't that same sense of connection for most of us, so probably if we hear about it, we note disapproval and sadness in a very perfunctory way, and move on. Again, this seems reasonable.
To bring this back to the race to innocence, though, there's a whole other category of violence that we usually do our best to forget exists. And that is that the Canadian state is an immense source of violence. I'm hardly alone in noting this, even just in the last couple of days. Canada bombs people, it deprives people of resources, it legislates people into the violence of poverty, it kills people through policing, it causes immense harm via prisons, it has done and continues to do incredibly amounts of colonial (often gendered) harm in the very claiming of the land it claims, it pushes global trade and investment agreements that quite predictably cause various sorts of direct and indirect harms, it pushes resource extraction activities at home and abroad that are huge sources of violence to the earth and to people, and on, and on, and on. Of course I recognize that making the case that all of these things do in fact count as violence to people who don't already understand them in that way would take much more than a list, and I don't have time or space for more than that, so you may now have moved into a mode of "Pfft, he's ridiculous" or "But...but...but...but...". As I said, I'm not going to try to convince you, but I'll restate the claim more directly: There are many, many forms of violence that we are connected to through "Canada" because of people and institutions connected with "Canada" committing that violence. But because Canadianess presumes a sort of liberal innocence, none of this registers, so there is no sense of being connected to this violence, so links aren't shared, and there is no public affect to circulate or process...except perhaps resentment at people who point out this violence and its connection to us.
The Second Thing
The other thing I want to comment on has to do with a certain category of link and tweet and story that I've seen lots of people sharing. I saw, for instance, quite a number of people shared a tweet about how even in the midst of the crisis the Ottawa police had sent a message to Muslim community leaders in the city that if people in their communities felt unsafe, they should call the police and the police would respond. And I've seen lots of non-Muslims sharing links about how various Muslim organizations and communities in Canada have condemned the attack and expressed their sympathies about the death of the young man at the War Memorial. And lots of people have been circulating, with all due and appropriate horror, word of the violation of the mosque that happened in Cold Lake, Alberta. And not only have they been sharing news of the violation, they have also been sharing news of the rapid and seemingly spontaneous community response by non-Muslims in the town to help clean up the mosque and show some solidarity with their Muslim neighbours.
In some ways, not only are the decisions to share this material understandable, they are also useful. They help to circulate a sense that acts of direct hate against Muslims are not acceptable, and they encourage further acts of support. They work against the white supremacist, colonial tendency to blame Muslims, en bloc. Certainly there are limits to what such general circulation of sentiment will accomplish, but we shouldn't underestimate it either.
There is more to it, however. Often, part of the work done in the circulation of these kinds of stories is an active distancing of overt hostility and violence towards Muslims from "us" and from the idea of "Canada." It is a way of saying, look, our cops are being supportive, we actively know not to blame Muslims, the nasty hate crimes are from people who are not-us, and the "us" gets together to help in the aftermath. It is a kind of pro-active pushing of badness out of any association with "us." It is an example of racing to innocence.
So if my first example of the race to innocence was evidence of how the presumption of innocence seriously impairs our ability to understand our place in the world, this one feels to me like a much more active (though by that I don't necessarily mean conscious) sort of performance. It feels a bit like a pointed comment directed at the United States, in the vein of the perpetual Canadian liberal smugness that I have always found both irritating and largely unwarranted. And I can't help but think it is an active attempt to deny or repress the fact that people and institutions associated with "Canada" have been committing horrid acts of violence against Muslims in very open ways for a long, long time. This includes Canadian complicity in the sanctions that killed in excess of a million Iraqi civilians in the 1990s. It includes the long Canadian involvement in the conquest and recolonization of Afghanistan, the somewhat-reduced-by-protest but still extant participation (notwithstanding Liberal mythology) in the conquest and recolonization of Iraq, and the participation in the bombing of Libya, all of which have resulted in a great many civilian deaths and, by and large, have made things immeasurably worse for the people who live in those countries. Then there is the utter devotion of our current government to supporting the occupation of Palestine, including the brutal siege and even more brutal assaults on Gaza. And then you have the utterly horrid ways that the Canadian national security state has treated Muslim communities here on Turtle Island, from instances of indefinite detention without charge or trial, to intimidation, to blackmail. To quote the subtitle of a different book by Sherene Razack, Canada has been an active and enthusiastic participant in "The eviction of Muslims from Western law and politics." And now, of course, we have committed to participating in the latest Western imperial venture in West Asia.
Again, this is not meant to blame individuals for sharing the kinds of things described in the first paragraph of this section, or for participating in the circulation of knowledge and emotion of which doing so is an element. The point, rather, is to note that these stories about how this thing we call "Canada" relates to people who are Muslim make us feel good about ourselves and we feel a social impetus to participate in their circulation. But other kinds of stores, other kinds of knowledge, other kinds of feelings get erased or squelched or recategorized into not being relevant or worth mentioning. These are generally ones that refuse to erase the awful violence against Muslims that all of us are connected to through our association with "Canada". And that happens for a reason: "the race to innocence."
Okay, So Now What?
I don't have any particularly satisfying calls to action in response. I think we need to be collectively active and vocal in opposing the ways in which this tragedy is already being used to strengthen the oppressive powers of the Canadian national security state as well as to generate enthusiasm for Canadian participation in the latest invasion of Iraq and Syria. I think such activity is important, but it doesn't really get at the underlying organization of knowledge and feeling that I've been writing about, and I'm not sure how to respond to that. I suppose refusing the pressure to be silent under the banner of "civility", which in this case means that the dominant political readings of tragedy (a la Harper and Mansbridge and co.) are treated as acceptable and supposedly apolitical, while actually pointing out the political content and context of tragedies themselves and of the dominant narratives about them is verboten, ill-mannered, wrong. But I also wonder if there is something to be learned from Sara Ahmed's observation that we tend to construct our immediate environments to maximize our own comfort, and the proximity thus constructed shapes how we know the world and what we know about the world. So, while it sounds painfully individualized, perhaps there is value to encouraging people to adopt a discipline of working against the kinds of avoidance of discomfort that I think are a central mechanism in how we sustain and reproduce the association between "Canada" and "innocence."
Saturday, September 27, 2014
[Rebecca Solnit. A Field Guide to Getting Lost. New York: Penguin Books, 2005.]
Before I talk about this book, I want to talk a little bit more than I usually do about why and how I read it.
So. A couple of years ago, I published two books of history starting from differently situated stories of long-time activists. These stories were contextualized in ways that worked to be responsive to the standpoints of the those who told them to me, and I used the stories as entry points and building blocks to at least begin the process of exploring the historical trajectory of the social world that shapes all of our lives, and that does so in ways that mean our lives are impacted in vastly different ways by power, privilege, oppression, and exploitation. Though the books didn't necessarily attempt to rigorously or exhaustively do this, the idea was that if I start with my story, and your story, and that other person's story -- listening deeply and honestly to all three -- and then I try to figure out how those three are connected in terms of the material social world that shapes and is shaped by all three of us, then I can learn some interesting and politically useful things.
Over the last year, I've occasionally alluded to a Next Big Project that I originally envisioned as historical but (though I didn't exactly recognize this for quite some time) much less dialogical than that one. That vision lasted through quite an extended period of reading and writing towards/around the NBP, but did not endure very long after I finished another piece or work early this past summer and immersed myself in earnest in figuring out what this new thing could be. It's all still in flux, but it is feeling quite a bit less historical and quite a bit more dialogical than my original plan, which I think is a positive development. I won't go into more detail on that at the moment, but one conclusion that I came to in this re-visioning process is that, along with some rather tedious research that is necessary to set the initial stage for some of the more interesting things I hope to do later on in the document, I also need to further develop my practices around the sort of knowing the world (and writing about the world, a related but non-identical field of activity) through encounter and relation that I hope will make this project both dialogical and interesting (primarily to me, and if I'm lucky to readers at some point in the future). I want to do some reading in the next little while of books that enact ways of knowing the world that are in some way connected to my own still-hazy notions of doing so through encounter and relation, as well as books that explicitly and analytically think through how that might work. (If you have any suggestions for things I should read, leave me a comment! :) ) I asked contacts on Facebook for suggestions, and this book was one. I've read some of Solnit's essays online before and very much like her writing, so I jumped at this opportunity to sink some time into reading one of her books.
A Field Guide to Getting Lost is a collection of essays. They are unified by a sensibility and by the somewhat abstracted theme identified in the title, though the specific content of each varies considerably. They are essays that weave together writing grounded in memoir and writing grounded in research -- a combination that may not be directly relevant to my current NBP, but that may be more central to a NNBP currently simmering on a burner farther back. And the essays are wonderfully written, thoughtful, and very much relevant to my current priority of knowing the world through encounter and relation, in the sense that they enact an approach that, at least in my reading of it, counts as an example of doing so (albeit a rather different one than I am working towards, I think). My reaction to the specifics of the writing and the ideas in the book are actually quite mixed, as I'll talk about below, but I want to make sure it's clear before I get into that that I am no less enthusiastic about Solnit's flair and craft than I was before, and I give this book a great amount of respect for how much it got me thinking.
The writing in this book is, as I expected, vivid and clever and done with a keen eye to evoking place and detail and mood in ways that are very effective at moving a flow of more abstract ideas forward. Despite that great skill, those more abstracted flows of connection and meaning were sometimes so abstracted, and sometimes took such seemingly arbitrary turns, that even with her skill at weaving them together, it still felt a little disjunctive. I'm not saying that this made me dislike it or that it was poorly done, but it was a little distracting at points, and I suspect some readers might be more put off by it than I was.
My other main concern about the writing was that, as skillful as I found her use of detail and lush description, it sometimes felt like a bit much. And I should hasten to add that I don't mean this in the sense that it was overreaching what she could deliver -- there is a prominent teacher of writing and creativity whose books I enjoy and find useful in some ways, but who makes me roll my eyes in other ways, and one of those other ways is the emphasis she puts on well chosen detail and description to make writing sing despite the fact that often when she does that herself it falls flat and feels forced. I had no such experience in reading this book. Rather, here, it was more a matter of a surfeit of the excellently done. This is perhaps reducible to taste -- mine and the author's differ, and that's fine.
In terms of the approach to knowledge production that this book embodies, I'm glad to have encountered it and I definitely learned from it, but ultimately it's not exactly what I want to be doing. Because of the very personal and sometimes apparently arbitrary twists and turns that it took, reading this book with an eye to the epistemological and craft questions I started with was a really important reminder of the inevitably idiosyncratic character of meaning-making for all of us, all the time. When we actively make meaning from some new experience, yes we are doing so based on the accumulated knowledge we already have, the overall shape of which is a product of how socially organized standpoint has produced our experiences and practices of meaning-making to date. But we are also doing so based both on the random and the arbitrary parts of our experience that aren't particularly reflective of deeper aspects of social organization and also on the many conceptual practices that all of us have that are produced through relationships among meanings that exist in our heads at a remove from the socially organized practices and meanings in which we are embedded. It felt like this book really drew on those aspects of meaning-making, and there's no reason that it shouldn't, if for no other reason than that is an important part of how we each experience our journey through the world -- and, I suppose, in the default liberal-democratic understanding of the social that permeates our culture, it is the part of our experience and meaning-making that really gets emphasized. So, like I said, reading this was a good reminder, and I need to think more about its implications for what I want to do. But I know that I ultimately want to end up with rather a different way of relating to both the more idiosyncratic and more clearly socially produced aspects of how our experiences are shaped and how we make meaning from them.
Another aspect of the substance of this book that I had mixed feelings about was the way in which indigenous peoples weaved in and out of what it had to say. This initially seems unconnected to my point in the paragraph above, but I think they're actually related. Now, on a certain level, the fact that there are multiple points in this book where histories and (to a much lesser extent) present day realities of indigenous peoples are addressed is actually quite a positive thing. It's not something that happens nearly enough in contemporary North American nonfiction by non-indigenous authors, even when it is a book like this which pays a lot of attention to place and land and history. So, in some ways, "yay". But there is something about how the book does it that doesn't sit right with me, and even after spending considerable time reflecting on it, I'm still not sure I fully understand why. On a certain level, I suspect that part of my reaction can be attributed to cultural difference -- the author and I are both white settlers, but my own sensibility around these things comes out of an evolving set of understandings and practices among a mostly Canadian, mostly rad-left, mostly non-indigenous political niche. I've seen it pop up in US contexts in social media, but not so much. I've seen it reflected outside of rad-left circles, but not so much. And it certainly tries to be informed by indigenous anti-colonial sensibilities, but I think it would be foolish to claim that there aren't contradictions and hypocrisies and problems in how those of us who are in one way or another connected with the white-settler-dominated, Canada-based far left take these things up. But, to circle back to my point, Solnit is a product of a much different political niche, and so it's no surprise that her ways of engaging with the colonial past and present of Turtle Island are quite different, and I'm sure there are lots of things wrong with my own ways, so who am I to judge.
But even so, there were things that bothered me enough and on the right sort of grounds that I don't think it's only about difference in political sensibility; there is actually a problem there. For instance, one essay recounted lots of narratives from the earlier centuries of colonization from settlers who became lost to their origins and to their original selves in one way or another, and who became part of indigenous nations. While the essay certainly acknowledged this was part of an overall horrific historical trajectory of colonization and genocide, there were some key points related to that history and the kind of story the essay recounts that it, to my great surprise, didn't take up. It had less than I expected to say about how indigenous folks might have felt in those moments about both the larger attacks on their nations and the act of bringing settlers into those nations. It had nothing to say about the ubiquitous forced assimilation in the other direction, past and present. And the obvious connection between the theme of loss of self and diverse indigenous experiences of the many tentacles of colonial attack did not get made. Or to take an example from elsewhere in the book, a later essay spent an extended passage (pp. 161-9) talking about "terra incognita" on old maps and, again, relating that to the book's theme of getting lost, but it noted only in passing at the end that "those old maps were tools of empire and capital" rather than allowing that insight to inform the preceding eight pages. Or, despite in some places mentioning the ongoing existence of indigenous nations on Turtle Island, there were other places where the book talked about them only in the past tense despite current practices, voices, and experiences of those nations seemingly being relevant to the point at hand. Or the more general failure to connect the overall theme of self and of being lost and of exploration to realities of colonization, not just on Turtle Island but to the ways that postcolonial authors and scholars whose lives have been shaped by colonial trajectories elsewhere in the world have written about it.
And, yes, I know I'm drifting there into complaining that this book was a certain project rather than a different project, which quickly becomes unfair. But in the midst of all of that, there is a core that I think is legitimately politically troubling, whatever the intent of the project.
I think that relates to my earlier points about how the knowledge production that underlies the book isn't quite what I want to be doing. It is a reminder that knowledge production based in encounter isn't intrinsically a path to politically useful knowledge. After all, a core point in Edward Said's scholarship on orientalism is that the West has been producing knowledge (via literature and otherwise) based on encounter with the world beyond Europe for centuries, but it has all along encoded within it systematic distortion, exoticization, othering, oppression, and silencing. And one remedy he suggests is deliberately juxtaposing literature produced on both sides of the colonial divide, and seeking understanding from the ways that they do and don't relate to each other -- an approach that, really, has a similar basis to the quite differently applied one that I talked about at the start of this review, which involves listening to my story and your story and that other person's story and seeing what we can learn about the social relations that have produced all three of us from figuring out how our very different experiences exist in socially organized relation to each other. That doesn't guarantee that we won't still reproduce troubling tendencies in the knowledge we produce, but it's at least a better place to start.
So in reading this book, I enjoyed and learned from its focus on a very idiosyncratic journey of meaning-making, but its ability to combine lots of content about the broader social world with a seeming detachment of that from the actual process of meaning-making, at least in places, was a warning to me. As was its tendency, even when its meaning-making did seem to reflect explicitly on and connect directly to the social the social, to reflect much less on power and social organization than I want to. And I don't dismiss its copious use of the social as imagery, allegory, or analogy -- I think those things can be useful too, as devices for writing. But whatever I do, I hope also to foreground not only social as source of device for illustrating self, but social as producing and produced by self. And however I make knowledge from encounter and relation in the work ahead, I want to be very sure that I do so in ways that are substantively dialogical, and not just sporadically so.
[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]
Sunday, September 14, 2014
[The Kino-nda-niimi Collective. The Winter We Danced: Voices from the Past, the Future, and the Idle No More Movement. Winnipeg MB: ARP Books, 2014.]
I'm not sure I have a lot to say about this important book beyond giving it an emphatic thumbs-up. It is a collection of dozens of short pieces by dozens of authors, most of which were written during and shortly after the height of the Idle No More movement in late 2012 and early 2013. Many of them were widely circulated online at that time, so I had read some and seen more go past my eyes on news feeds without actually having the time to read them. Still, in reading this book I encountered lots that I hadn't seen, and there was also something powerful about reading them all together.
There are lots of things about this book that make me happy it exists. It is, for one thing, an impressive example of a movement attending to memory, which is something I think all of our movements need to do more of. It also captures, in a way that was at points quite affecting for me, something about the specific moment that was those few months -- a spirit, a feel, a sensibility. But more than that, it captures something about what underlay that moment, something that far surpasses one narrow band of time to embody, even if only in the limited way that text is capable of, a kind of multivocal, grounded, persistent spirit that (to my settler senses, at least) is central to the little glimpses I've been lucky enough to catch, here and there, of mostly-hidden-from-settler-view Indigenous resurgence going on before, during, and after Idle No More in spaces across Turtle Island.
This book is ideal for teaching: There are so many voices, the pieces are almost to a one so accessible, and the specific focus on Idle No More is such a topical way of getting students to begin thinking about these five century-old issues and struggles. And if some guilty settler billionaire wanted to donate a copy to every public and school library in the country, I think that would be a good thing.
Mostly, though, this book is a valuable challenge. Or, at least, that's how I experienced it. At least two of the contributors to the book -- Naomi Klein and Leanne Betasamosake Simpson -- wrote of Chief Theresa Spence's fast in those terms, as an act that pushed each of them (and many others), as people who weren't themselves fasting, to make sure they were doing as much as they possibly could in other ways. In a sense, this book is a vessel carrying reminders not only of Chief Spence's brave stand but also so many other acts of bravery and determination. Which means that not only is it a terrific tool for learning, it is also a great way for those of us who benefit from settler colonialism to re-encounter that challenge and re-focus our attention on the great amounts of work that need to be done on our side of the relationship if the visions of a just, decolonial future underlying Idle No More are ever to become a reality.
[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]
Monday, September 01, 2014
[Dian Million. Therapeutic Nations: Healing in an Age of Indigenous Human Rights. Tuscon AZ: University of Arizona Press, 2013.]
This fascinating book brings together indigenous feminism, Foucault, and affect theory. As book-as-object it may not be the most easily accessible in the world -- it's from a US-based university press that I personally haven't encountered much, and it's not a cheap book -- but as book-as-text I think it's a great example of making use of the tools of the academy in ways that illuminate questions that are very relevant to peoples' struggles on the ground. In the book, Million talks about both that part of the continent currently called "Canada" and that part currently called "the United States," but with more focus on the former.
The book's argument is pretty nuanced, and I'm sure I won't do it justice in going over it quickly, but I'll do my best. She begins from the centrality of gendered and sexual colonial violence to how colonization happened (and continues to happen) on Turtle Island, through its impact on kinship, gender, and sexual practices in diverse indigenous nations and through its role in imposing European patriarchy and compulsory heterosexuality. This isn't a new-to-me idea, but I definitely encountered new angles to this awful history and present-day reality that I hadn't thought about before. In addition, she also talks about how this process instilled a deep well of shame (and other painful, negative affect) in many people, communities, and peoples thus targeted.
In the aftermath of the Second World War and the Jewish Holocaust, a set of practices and discourses and institutions came together under the banner of "international human rights." This has always been a highly contested field, and no doubt there are ways in which the powerful states of the West use it as a screen to pursue imperial agendas around the world as well as to respond to domestic exclusions in ways that manage to at least sometimes combine significant substance with a refusal to really deal with the root of the exclusions in question. But it also was a field which included space for the emergence of (and was pushed to shift and change by) indigenism, and the various forms of struggle against colonization that erupted into such powerful visibility in the middle of the 20th century.
Part of human rights discourse that coincided with the experiences of colonized people was the centrality of speaking one's emotional truth of pain and hurt and oppression -- of trauma. Million traces some of the earliest textual examples of such speaking by indigenous women from various parts of Turtle Island, which included not just analysis but the affective weight of acknowledged and shared experiences of colonial trauma. This was part of the emergence of a potent, complicated mix of personal healing and struggles for collective self-determination that erupted in reserve and urban communities starting in the 1960s and 1970s.
Million argues that this process was absolutely essential. However, the growing shift towards neoliberalism beginning in the 1970s meant that the tight connection between personal healing and national self-determination as articulated by many indigenous women and by many communities, particularly earlier in this period, was taken up by more mainstream institutions that emphasized healing but torqued that in a way that erased the context of national self-determination. The recognition of trauma and the importance of healing have been crucial, and have been part of mobilizing indigenous resurgence and in pushing a recognition of injustice and various kinds of grudging responses from the settler mainstream and from the settler state, but they have also been taken up by that mainstream and state in neoliberal and colonial ways. Settlers get to feel good about ourselves for seeing and responding, while completely missing that the ways in which the majority of that response is happening in a mode that refuses to engage with questions of collective indigenous self-determination whose answers would require us (settlers) to change in much more than token ways.
Today, Million identifies a tension within indigenous nations between a truly holistic version of healing that sees how indigenous nations function at the everyday level and how they are governed as absolutely crucial and that foregrounds a non-state understanding of national self-determination, versus a neoliberal version of healing that emphasizes human capital, human development, neoliberal self-management, and shallowly culturally-specific integration into capitalist development. It is important that this is a tension -- that the former remains alive in the actions and lives of many grassroots indigenous people across the continent, particularly women. Nonetheless, Million argues that the various techniques of self that have been incorporated into many indigenous communities since the 1970s have on the one hand been useful tools in responding to colonial trauma but have also often become a part of neoliberal biopolitical governance that seeks to reconstruct indigenous people in ways amenable to capitalism and the settler state. As such, there are very real ways in which concern with historical trauma and with gendered violence experienced by indigenous women are being mobilized by the settler state to serve colonial ends through the implementation of such techniques of biopolitical governance in the name of "healing." The book argues not against healing per se, of course, but rather in favour of seeing the tension that exists and of pushing for a focus on strengthening (the often women-led) rich, thick, embodied indigenous epistemologies and lifeways, and an understanding of culture as encompassing all everyday practices, to lead towards a resurgence that is grounded in tradition as living, future-oriented possibility rather than as dead, rigid, or only symbolic.
I'm obviously limited in my capacity to assess certain key elements of the book, as someone who benefits from settler colonialism and white supremacy. To the extent that I am able to assess it, it feels like it is capturing something really important about the trajectories of settler colonialism and white supremacist patriarchal capitalism over the last few decades. In addition, I appreciate its recognition that we make hard choices from within the moments we are in, and that those often have complicated and unintended consequences. I appreciate how it manages to both be hopeful but also unflinching in its analysis of how the colonial violence of the settler state is being continually reconfigured. I really appreciate the conversations of epistemology at the beginning and end of the book, which I haven't described in this review but which feed into one of my most consistent ongoing preoccupations: How can we know the world? Also, I think the book speaks to some things that I have sensed for awhile in the progressive side of the settler response to indigenous struggles -- a reservoir of sympathy that I think is deeply felt and genuine but that is also often pretty clueless, particularly as to what a politically sufficient response to indigenous resurgence would really look like in terms of reconfiguring settler society. And I think the trajectories traced in this book, and the ways in which the affective power mobilized by shared truths of colonial trauma get divorced from collective political demands in how they are taken up by mainstream settler discourses and institutions explain a lot of that.
In any case, an important and very interesting book.
[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]
Thursday, August 07, 2014
There was a period in the not too distant past when Sudburians could be forgiven for not realizing that the city has a community- and campus-focused radio station. But CKLU 96.7 FM has overcome the technical challenges that made it hard to find and hard to hear, and now -- in its 30th year of operation -- it is more committed than ever to bringing voices and music to the airwaves that you otherwise would not be able to hear in Sudbury.
According station manager Rob Straughan, at the low point a couple of years ago the station "had a lot of trouble staying on the air." A series of lightning strikes at the broadcast tower one summer not only repeatedly knocked the broadcast out directly but also took a heavy toll on equipment that was already old and worn, leading to subsequent failures and more dead air.
"It deteriorated to a point within the last year or two where, if you turned [CKLU] on, if it wasn't staticky, you were lucky," he continued. As well, "The sound level ... was way down, so if you were listening to another station and went to us on the dial, you'd have to turn your volume up very loudly to hear it. And that's if it was on the air."
This was a particular loss to the Sudbury community, as CKLU is the only station of its type in the area. As with most community stations, CKLU's mandate emphasizes local, original programming. Much of its schedule is filled with niche music shows hosted and produced by both students and people from the broader community with interests that range from jazz to hip-hop to classical to electronica. It also features a handful of locally-produced spoken word shows on a range of topics, and a small number of syndicated shows, such as widely acclaimed alternative news source Democracy Now!.
According to Mélanie Tremblay, a professor of Journalism Studies at the University of Sudbury, stations like CKLU are... [For the full story, go here.]
Monday, July 21, 2014
In this post, I want to address a certain subset of people who have progressive politics of one sort or another, and I want to make one fairly narrow point about the police and affiliated institutions and challenge you to think about what implications it might have.
Before I make that point, I want to stress that I am not making it with reference to any one context or incident. Certainly I have encountered various contexts, local and not, to which this might be relevant, plus endless articles, posts, and analyses found online, and more than a few conversations in a wide range of settings. If you think what I have to say is relevant to some specific context, by all means take it up, apply it to that context, and see if it's useful. But that's not what I'm doing here. Also, I'm specifically addressing progressives, but that's not at all to deny that there's also lots critical that could be said about different ways that (privileged) people with more radical visions for change relate to policing, but that generally plays out a bit differently and I want to stay focused on one key point.
And the point is this: The subset of progressive folks I'm talking to are the many of you who, in your daily lives, experience the police as an institution you mostly don't think about at all, or one that you think about only when something ranging from unfortunate to awful has happened and you want or need their intervention, at which point you feel reasonably confident that they will do things to address whatever your need is. As a middle-class, cis, white guy, this is the experience that I grew up with too. A lot of people, though, don't share that experience of police, courts, and so on. For a lot of people, their experience of police is as a source of potential or actual violence.
I'm raising this because in writing and talking about the world, and in orienting, planning, and executing political interventions in the world, the subset of people with progressive politics whom I'm addressing in this post often treat the former sort of experience in the paragraph above as the only one that exists or perhaps the only one that matters, and erase or ignore the latter sort of experience. I want to challenge that subset of progressive folks to stop erasing and ignoring that reality -- the reality that the police are in large part experienced as a source of violence by a lot of people -- and really start to think about what that has to mean for how you think society should respond to various issues, for how people should organize events and actions, and for how people should envision efforts to create social change.
And, really, the rest of this post is just caveats and provisos.
Denying that this point is true is not an acceptable response. Educate yourself. There is endless writing, from first-hand accounts to journalism to scholarly work, that you can use to do this. And if you stick to the "this isn't a real thing" response, you are taking a stand that the experiences of lots of marginalized people really do deserve to be erased and ignored.
Claiming it is because of "a few bad apples" on the police side does not make the issue go away. Certainly, different officers do their work in different ways, and nothing in this post is meant as a comment on the virtues or vices of any individual police officer. As well, there is some variation in organizational culture across different police organizations. But it goes back to "educate yourself" -- this is too widespread and systemic to be dismissed as a few incidents of bad behaviour by a few bad individuals that have been blown out of proportion.
Claiming that to the extent that such violence does happen, it is a result of problems in the communities that are thus marginalized and not anything wrong with the social organization of policing, is taking an awful, victim-blaming stance that should exclude you summarily from any legitimacy in talking about things like "social justice."
Saying, "Well I have this friend X who is part of group Y and s/he has never had any problems with the police" does not make this go away either. Experiences vary, ways of navigating them vary, and that's fine, but it is not reasonable to hold up one person's testimony to dismiss massive evidence of a systemic problem.
And of course exactly how this plays out varies with time and place. For instance, I think it was Bonita Lawrence's book 'Real' Indians and Others that drove home for me that indigenous experiences of racialization in Canada, including experiences of systemic violence from police and the so-called 'justice' system, vary a great deal in different parts of the country. And I don't know as much about it as I should, but it is my sense that struggles by Black communities and allies in Toronto in the '80s and '90s won some reforms that made at least certain kinds of improvements, though not nearly enough, and I believe that at least some of those were wiped out by subsequent governments. And I know that the experience of, say, middle-class white cis gay men with police is, on average, vastly different today than 30 or 40 years ago. So, yes, there is variation, and struggle can accomplish a great deal, but using that to segue into a superficial acknowledgement of the problem followed by "we're working on it" is not an adequate answer either -- diverse indigenous and Black and Latino/a communities across North America, people experiencing extreme poverty and homelessness, and sex workers, among others, have been engaged in related struggles for centuries, and progressive people who do not have this experience of police have been expressing shock and concern and a hope it will all be better soon for just as long, yet it persists. Struggle on these issues is crucial, but it is something that is deeply enough rooted that failure to see it as a fundamental feature of policing is just another form of erasure.
And in presenting this challenge, I'm not saying there is only one answer, and I'm not saying that it's not complicated. Any useful conversation about how exactly to respond to this reality has to be grounded in a real context and has to foreground the voices of those most affected. And it must be a conversation, because people who experience the police to a significant degree as a source of violence have a range of different ways of navigating that at the individual level, and have had a range of different approaches to challenging it collectively. I have my own thoughts on the different impacts that different approaches might make, and in the right contexts I don't shy away from expressing those thoughts, but I also recognize that it's not my place to try and pre-empt on-the-ground decision-making about it or to act like I know more than I do.
And so: Systemic violence from police is a fact of life for many people across North America. It has been for centuries, and it continues to be so today. Yet in lots of progressive contexts, police are treated as mostly or entirely positive -- as an institution that may sometimes be somewhat offputting, but that is a way to address certain kinds of problems and meet certain kinds of needs. Police are physically invited into lots of progressive spaces, and are invited to partner in various sorts of progressive initiatives. Conversations that might touch on policing, either directly or indirectly, are often organized such that there is simply no room for people to share experiences of or analysis based on this reality of ongoing systemic police violence -- or that go beyond "no room" to being actively unsafe. Sometimes, there is a certain recognition of why some people might have misgivings about the police, but that is often kept carefully separate from consideration of the implications of various progressive policy positions and their relationship to policing and broader forms of state violence, of who gets invited into what spaces (and who is thereby excluded), of how organizing happens, and of how conversations about various issues are organized (and, again, what and who is thereby excluded).
I'm not saying never engage with police if it seems like a way to make people's lives more liveable. I'm not saying such choices are obvious or easy or straightforward. But very often, the practices in the paragraph just above end up excluding and silencing. They often reinforce marginalization and even violence. Even if they are (or seem to be) doing good things in other ways.
So at the very least -- and there is lots more to say about what kinds of responses might actually be adequate -- people who are privileged enough in our everyday lives not to relate to the police as being a significant source of violence need to start doing the work to figure out what it really means that lots of people do experience the police that way. Listen carefully. Find things to read and educate ourselves. Be willing to question our existing political assumptions. (For me, things written by radical indigenous women and women of colour who work to hold state violence as central while figuring out how to organize around various other issues as well has been very important to thinking through these things, though I can't lay any claim to how much of that I've really absorbed or how effectively I've translated it into everyday or collective political practices, so you should go directly to the sources and wrestle with what they have to say.)
What should it all mean for movements and organizations, both progressive and radical? What would it mean to refuse to be complicit in reproducing that marginalization, silencing, erasure, and -- yes -- violence?
It's only once we've admitted and begun to internalize its implications that we can start to ask deeper questions that go far beyond this post -- not only dealing with the fact that another core police function is (in some circumstances) using coercion and violence to respond to struggles for social justice, but also things like thinking through the ways in which our everyday experience not only avoids systemic violence from police, courts, and other elements of the Canadian state, but actually depends on others (and Others) being targeted by exactly that violence. But those are topics for another day.
Saturday, July 12, 2014
I am ashamed to admit it, but I am about to subject any readers who dare to a post that contains the words "Rob" and "Ford" in close proximity. My apologies. I am doing this less out of interest in talking about him, though, than because I think the shape of the reaction to his most recent antics provides a window into some larger issues that are quite disturbing.
I'm not going to rehearse all of his backstory, as that would be tedious both for me and for you, but the key element of his behaviour that I'm concerned with here is his longstanding tendency to say and do very blatantly oppressive things -- racist things, homophobic things, misogynist things, and so on. Earlier this week, Desmond Cole published a very sharp piece talking about Ford's bigotry, including some well-deserved derision of the mayor's ridiculous attempts to excuse all of his past oppressive behaviour by blaming it on his addictions, as in this CBC interview.
The ever-obliging Ford decided this week -- post rehab -- to add to his impressive anti-queer credentials. On one day, he refused to join the rest of city council in giving a standing ovation to the organizers of World Pride in Toronto. Another day, he cast the lone vote against doing a feasibility study of allocating a quarter of existing beds in a youth homeless shelter to queer and trans youth, who make up a huge proportion of homeless youth but who are not at all adequately served by the shelter system in Toronto. And not only was he the only "no" vote to doing this study, but instead of just letting this fairly ordinary bit of administrative approval go ahead by default as it normally would have, he put what's called a 'hold' on it specifically so it would have to be raised in council and voted on, so he could have his 'no' publically recorded.
In watching people react to this in various corners of the internet -- both people I know, and people whose opinions the tides and currents of social media have brought to my attention; both queer folks and hetero folks -- it has been fascinating and kind of disturbing to see how people frame the exasperation, disapproval, and disgust they have with this situation. In some ways, what interests me is related to the point that Cole makes in his piece about too much attention going to the bigot and his motivations and not enough to the impacts on the victims of said bigotry, but I want to explore it in a bit of a different way.
So. "Homophobia" in general is a word that has the potential to be pretty limiting. As other writers have explored much more knowledgeably than I, it emerged at a particular moment as a way of taking the dominant image of queers at that time as "sick" and "deviant" and torquing it, insisting that intense anti-queer hositility from hetero people was the deep-seated psychological flaw we should really be concerned about. But as a way to recognize that the violence, harm, and exclusion experienced by people who engage in sexual and/or romantic relations with people of the same gender is about much more than individual hostility, activists and writers came up with other words to name what was going on, like Adrienne Rich and "compulsory heterosexuality" and Charlotte Bunch (and others, I think) with "heterosexism." That is, words that were explicitly social in how they explained things, not purely individual. But the meanings of words change over time, and the way that "homophobia" sometimes gets used to name obviously social (and not personal, psychological) phenomena today is not, I think, an error, but a shift in usage, and that's fine -- it may not always on its own be adequate to really get at the substance of what's happening in a given situation, to the what and the how of things, but no single word ever is.
All of which is to say that in thinking about people reacting to Ford's behaviour this week and the very frequent use of the word "homophobia" in those reactions, I'm not making a pedantic, etymological point that refuses to recognize that words shift in how they get used. Rather, it seemed very clear from what I was reading and hearing that people really were associating the emotional vehemence they were feeling in this situation with something individual in or about Ford. Whatever larger forces or structures or social relations might be involved, this particular moment was horrifying, it seems, because of one powerful bigot going out of his way, for his own individual reasons, to do anti-queer things. And that interested me. It got me to wondering what that fixation on an inner flaw in one person was doing in this situation.
Of course there is lots going on in this situation that is in and about Ford. He has addictions, which must be a tremendously difficult thing for him and his family. And he is also, above and beyond his addictions, a bigot and a bully who shouldn't hold an executive-at-large position in the local Lion's Club let alone be the mayor of a city of 3 million people. And for reasons intertwined both with the fact that he is a man who is sick and the fact that he is a man who is quite simply bad, he makes a lot of really dubious decisions, many of them in very public ways.
But why, in this week's situation and in the Rob Ford saga more generally, is this what so much of our attention gets attached to?
I think the answer to that has to do with the fact that what we pay attention to and how we react emotionally are not purely individual phenomena, but rather happen in a socially organized landscape of attention and affect. Moreover, this landscape changes. When people who experience a particular form of marginalization struggle against it and succeed in winning a relatively rapid shift for the better, part of what they succeed in doing is changing that mainstream landscape. But a key point in how that has tended to happen in liberal-democratic, capitalist societies is that when struggles, even quite radical struggles, have had an impact on dominant ways of talking about whatever form of marginalization is their focus, and on the related socially organized landscape of attention and affect, that impact has usually been taken up in the mainstream in an almost exclusively liberal mode.
I think you could trace a similar shift in mainstream discourse about a number of kinds of struggles that have happened over the years, but it is the case of mainstream discourse about LGBTQ rights that is of relevance here. In the case of queer struggles, you can trace a shift in mainstream discourse from conflict over whether such marginalization should be considered wrong at all, to a general acceptance that it is wrong and it needs to be changed, to a sense that it is wrong but we're changing it, and it all ultimately points towards an endpoint of "it was wrong and now we've changed it".
This may sound like a pretty decent trajectory. Certainly this shift in mainstream discourse is associated with lots of material improvements in people's everyday lives, though I think it is the on-the-ground organizing that should properly be seen as the cause of those improvements. That said, though, this shift in mainstream ways of talking about the issue has a normative aspect to it -- a kind of social pressure to adhere to the mainstream story -- and that certainly plays a role in opening certain kinds of space and mobilizing certain kinds of sentiment for change once the whole process has reached a certain critical mass. But there are features to it that are pretty concerning, too. For one thing, because the mainstream story takes up these struggles in a liberal mode, it creates this normative discursive environment about and for a limited liberal understanding of what marginalization is about and what equality means. It also tends to be pretty disconnected from, uninterested in, and uninformed by the actual everyday lives of marginalized people. And that, combined with the normative force of this mainstream story, means that when you reach the later stages of this liberal trajectory in mainstream discourse (as we have in Canada around LGB, though not yet T, struggles), this discursive notion that a liberal version of equality has been or soon will be achieved tends to push out any possibility for recognition that the benefits of change are vastly unequally distributed and that landscapes of everyday harm and violence continue to pervade the lives of many people. (It also makes it hard for straight folks to grasp that there's a lot of awesomeness in queerness, too, but that's a separate topic.) When instances of harm and violence along that axis do become publically visible, they are most often framed as a deviation from the new, equal norm. Such deviations are to be deplored and opposed, but it is to be understood that they do not have any greater meaning than the flaws in the heart of an individual bigot.
All of this, as I said, socially organizes our attention and our reactions to things. This doesn't make us bad people or political failures -- it's larger than us as individuals -- but it is something we need to think critically about and figure out how to challenge.
So back to Rob Ford. Let's be perfectly clear about what his vote this week meant. He voted for more queer kids to die. He wanted, moreover, to be publically seen as not caring about queer kids dying.
And let's also be clear about the socially organized attention and affect in response: It was not about the harm and violence to queer kids. I mean, I'm sure lots of people condeming Ford do actually care about the welfare of queer and trans kids, but the energy behind the widely circulating public attention and affect was not about that harm and violence, which happens all the time and usually gets ignored in mainstream discourse. No, the socially organized attention and affect were focused on an elite man (and, for many, a political opponent) flouting the discursive norm of liberal equality describe above -- which mostly boils down to being boorish, being a jerk, being uncivil. In fact, I would bet that for many people -- and I'm thinking particularly of many straight people -- the powerful hold of the mainstream story of liberal equality almost achieved, and of deviation from it as individual flaw, is such that even in responding to a story that has ongoing systemic marginalization of queer kids at what should be its centre, the reality of pervasive everyday harm and violence and vastly unequal distribution of the benefits of struggle mostly don't register.
It's tempting to rationalize this away, to make it an "of course" -- of course a colourful, powerful figure behaving badly will grab attention, of course a diffuse "social issue" will be harder to mobilize to sell papers, and so on and so forth. But I think it's important to resist that urge.
It is all about norms and about whose lives matter. Rob Ford is the focus of socially organized attention and affect because he is an elite man who flouts established, mainstream social norms. Queer kids dying on the streets is -- tragically -- entirely ordinary and consistent with dominant norms, such that even among folks who deplore the fact that it's a norm, the publically available structure of feeling for responding to it is very different than for responding to bigoted mayoral buffoonery. The bottom line is that underneath the veneer of liberal equality, landscapes of harm and violence don't just exist, they are the norm and therefore are largely unremarkable in mainstream discourse.
And the reaction to Ford isn't even about politicians augmenting that harm and violence -- they do that all the time without so much as the batting of an eyelash in the mainstream. Rob Ford's violation of mainstream norms is the way he goes about it. To illustrate, here's a thought experiment: How many of the people heaping scorn on His Homophobic Honour this week are supporters of the Liberal government in Queen's Park that recently announced an escalation of attacks on disabled people, in line with international trends towards this in the UK, New Zealand, and elsewhere? The thing is, the Liberals are doing this in a way that carefully observes the norms of mainstream stories of equality, that follows the rules that manage to make it portrayable as not an attack at all or as just a sad thing that has to happen in the name of belt-tightening, while obscuring that it is a massive infusion of harm and violence into the lives of disabled people.
And let's face it, "austerity" is nothing more than a fancy word for doing harm to poor and marginalized people. It is happening all around us, it is expounded by all major political parties, it is endorsed by most mainstream newspapers. If the socially organized attention and affect in response to Rob Ford's most recent actions were really about the harm and violence to marginalized people, that would imply an environment in which it is relatively easy to make the massive harm and violence that is austerity legible as such in mainstream discourse. Which of course is not the case at all -- it can in fact be pretty difficult to do that, and in part that is because of the ongoing prominence of ways of talking about marginalization and harm and violence that either erase them completely in the name of dominant discourses of liberal equality, or that portray them as frightful aberrations by flawed individuals, rather than recognizing that they are constitutive of our social world at a very basic level.
As I said, this isn't about blame for how we as individuals react to things. It isn't about saying we shouldn't condemn Rob Ford, because he deserves every bit of it. But maybe as we do it, we can do our bit on our Facebook walls, in our Twitter feeds, in our blog posts, and in our conversations to nudge that attention and affect away from the flaws of an elite individual and towards the underlying, endemic harm and violence that myths of liberal equality so often obscure.
Friday, July 04, 2014
I'm not used to feeling blocked, as a writer. It's not that I find writing always and only easy -- sometimes I'm fast, sometimes I'm slow; sometimes it is joyous, other times painful. But part of the benefit of putting pen to page and fingertips to keys, week in and week out in a whole bunch of different forms for approaching two decades -- of having the privilege to be able to do that -- is that even if the stress and the pain and the slow never go away, you learn better how to manage them. When I have a task and a deadline, there's rarely any doubt in my mind that the former will be done by the latter, and that I'll feel its quality to be somewhere between "tolerable" and "actually quite good, thankyouverymuch." And when I have a glimmer of inspiration and a block of time, odds are I can harness the former to make use of the latter. The end results may or may not be something I would ever share, but either way I usually feel like I've learned something and advanced down some kind of path in some kind of direction. So there are ups and downs, but the downs don't generally fit my understanding of the word "blocked."
For the last few days of June and the first few days of July, I was out of town. It was a trip that marked something of a transition. It was the occasion of the last main piece of work (other than a day or so of loose-end tying that had to wait until I was home) for a contract that has filled a non-trivial minority of my hours over the last six months or so. And then the trip involved several days of visiting and of doing not-so-much, which often for me boils down to time for reading and writing. I read uncharacterisitically little, and wrote...well, I'm not sure the ratio of staring at the page to writing was actually any different than usual, and I certainly spent a fair chunk of time doing it, but it felt very much like the engine was revving but the car was in neutral, or maybe the clutch was engaged but the ice was too slick, or the rowers were straining but the boat remained tied to the dock, or some other metaphor of energy fruitlessly expended. That is, it felt more like something I would describe as "blocked" than the harder moments usually do.
I'm still not entirely sure what it's all about. I mentioned above that I'm at a transition between this contract and whatever comes next, but the contract was only ever a part of my time, and in the kind of self-directed stuff-making work that I'm lucky enough to get to do, such transitions aren't all that unusual. They rarely worry me and sometimes excite me, and I've been feeling moderate but consistent anticipation of this one.
Another factor could be that part of the "after" with which I will replace the "before" that has been this research contract could well involve moving forward with a new book project. That is a bigger deal, no doubt, and it could explain part of my flummoxed reaction to the page. But, really, I'm not in a position to have to commit to anything yet. It will be more a matter of slipping into a somewhat more active engagement with something I've been reading and thinking (and indirectly writing) my way towards for a year and a half. I even have a good idea of how to approach the first chapter, and am not feeling super fussed about either that approach or about the project as a whole -- if I try it and it isn't working, I'll change it up, start again, work on something else, whatever. I mean, I'm not quite that blasé about it, but it feels like it's in a reasonably good place, and I know (kind of) where I'm going, (kind of) what I'm doing, and (approximately) what my decision points will be. I just need to get to it. (That said, if you know me, don't ask me about it. :) )
So what's going on, then?
In reflecting on it further tonight, I've realized that what I'm really feeling knotted up about boils down to grasping for what might be called "sensibility" or "stance" -- not for this possibly-maybe book project, but for my writing-related activities in general over the next while. Whenever you write -- and I'm thinking mainly about nonfiction, because I've don it a lot more -- there are a lot of different factors that you can combine in a lot of different ways that will shape what you write and how, and even if there is a deliberate, conscious component to arriving at the precise combination, making it real always ends up being about implementing a gestalt rather than a measuring out of specifics one by one. This whole is a synthesis of considerations of voice, audience, self, agenda (for the piece), analysis (of the world), larger writerly goals, the contours of interest and passion, and probably a bunch of other things that would take a separate post to sort out and do justice. Any given instance of such a synthesis doesn't really doesn't need to have a lifespan longer than one piece of writing, and there is no reason you can't be working on several things based in very different sensibilities at the same time or in close succession. Certainly I have had intervals in the past when the spectrum of sensibilities spanned by my work has been reasonably cohesive, and others when it has been an eclectic hodge-podge. One isn't better than the other. Nonetheless, I'm feeling a need for a bit of cohesion at the moment.
Now, I'm not looking for some single sensibility to inform everything, but rather a range that is broad enough to flexibly guide what I'm doing in projects large and small (or to be what I'm deviating from when it doesn't). And I think the part of that whole that is stumping me at the moment is that I want it to have a certain kind of groundedness in my experience and in the world around me, broadly understood -- not in a confessional way and not necessarily in an obvious way, but at least potentially in a vulnerable way and definitely in a way that makes sense to me. This might, at times, be directly about the content of what I'm writing, and be visible to others, but it may just as easily only really be visible to me, and show up under the surface in things like how I choose topic and focus, in the epistemological underpinning -- what I claim to know and how I claim to know it -- and in considerations of craft.
So obviously I'm not at a complete loss, here. I have some pretty good ideas of what I want, at least on a propositional level. But, though writing this post has helped, it still hasn't gelled for me. It's still a tangle of conflicting impulses rather than a shape clearly outlining a set of productive tensions brought together into a cohesive whole. And I have next week's episode of Talking Radical Radio to finish for Sunday night and the last bit of contract-related work to complete, if I can, for a lunch meeting on Tuesday, so it's not like I can submerge myself in it and come up with an answer in the immediate term. But hopefully the angst-inducing, wheel-spinning portion of the process of synthesizing that whole is over, and I can get on to working out the kinks in a more practical, experimental way...in projects both big and little.
Friday, June 13, 2014
[Diana Coole and Samantha Frost, editors. New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2010.]
It will come as no surprise to anyone who regularly reads this blog that I read some pretty dense nonfiction for fun. Oh, I'm no "theoryhead" -- those people who have devoted so much of themselves to such learning that rhyming it off not only effortlessly but accurately and well in pint-side conversations is an everyday occurrence. And I still come at such reading as something of an outsider, not only in the institutional sense that the intellectual and political work that I do is not housed at a university, but also in the epistemological sense that I try (with no particular claims to success, admittedly) to ground my work in the needs of movements and communities-in-struggle rather than primarily in the discourses I encounter in such reading. I do not think that such dense, theoretical writing (or those willing and able to engage with it) should necessarily be anywhere near the centre of our struggles, and I fully admit that a big part of why I engage with it, even if I sometimes deflect this by saying things like "it's for future writing projects," is about pleasure. I like reading this stuff, at least sometimes.
With all that said, though, I also engage with such writing because I think it is useful to do so. Having been written in a university for university reasons does not necessarily preclude that. Being written in ways that are more responsive to other university-produced discourse than to lived realities of struggle doesn't rule it out. Being obscure or hard to understand or awkward or off-putting in how it is written doesn't make it intrinsically dismissal-worthy -- as others much cleverer than I have observed, part of how oppressive and exploitative social relations work is by stealing the concepts and language we need to name our realities, so developing them anew will sometimes feel awkward and hard.
This particular book of university-produced theorizing is one that I quite enjoyed and one that I think, as these things go, is quite worth reading. Lots of critical scholarship over the last few decades has amounted to a rejection of earlier materialist approaches -- that is, approaches that treat some sort of external material reality as a bedrock for thinking about the world -- and an exploration of the roles that language and culture play. This collection features the work of a number of scholars who are part of a new trend to turn back to materialism, but no longer the naive materialism of half a century ago but one that works seriously to learn from the intervening insights produced by writers who have focused on the linguistic and the otherwise less materially social (as well, interestingly, the much more complex picture of the material world that has emerged from multiple scientific disciplines in the last century). This turn is still fairly new, so there are lots of different approaches and no real consensus about how to do it, and that is evident here.
There are a number of reasons why I think this sort of back-to-fundamentals rethinking of how the world exists and how we might know the world is important. Partly, this is because I think the dominant culture and the movements organizing within-and-against it are permeated by two broad sorts of commonsense about the world that are quite different from each other but that are both troubling. These commonsenses are part of the foundation upon which discussions about the state of the world and how to change it are inevitably based, though often that is not made visible. One of these broad flavour of commonsense is a version of the naive materialism shared by 19th century physics, orthodox marxism, and many versions of classical and contemporary liberalism. The other is a spectrum of different-seeming but essentially similar approaches that reject materialism -- sometimes explicitly, more often implicitly, and sometimes along with perverse and laughable claims to be more materialist (and its close cousin, empirical) than thou. These two broad stances (which often happily exist side-by-side in the same spaces and people) are socially rooted and need to be considered as part of the larger ways in which movements are always partly struggles to transform how we can and do know the world, so I don't expect individualized suggestions to go away and read and think about them to be very politically useful. Nonetheless, doing so can't hurt.
I also think such reading and reflection is useful because of the role it has played in my own journey. I generally date the beginning of my politicized, intentional thinking and acting in the world to a specific period of time, albeit with earlier roots. Until I was reading this book, I hadn't realized that a big element, not so much in the fact of my politicization but in the course of it once it began, was that in the years preceding it I had read a bunch of popularized but thoughtful and reasonably rigorous books coming out of scientific fields that presented different ways that the "natural" world and its systems at various scales don't really work at all in the 19th century, mechanistic ways that are still popularly believed to be "science" -- James Gleick's Chaos, the wonderful Godel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstader, and Stephen Hawking's Brief History of Time, to name a few. There were plenty of social-scale political reasons as well, but I think such reading helped make it more likely that I would not be satisfied with approaches to thinking about and acting in the world dependent on the understandings of the material world these books displaced, and would be open to approaches dependent on a more complex and less intuitive materialism.
Now, for all that I enjoyed this book and think it's a useful thing to read and reflect on, it did make me roll my eyes in a few places. That is largely related to the fact that I agree with contributor Sara Ahmed -- the only one of the contributors whom I had read before, and a scholar whose work I really like -- that none of this is really as "new" as the title and framing of the book claim. She points out that this claim of novelty relies on mis-identifying a lot of scholarship that happened during the cultural turn, particularly much feminist scholarship, as rejecting the material in ways that it just didn't. I would add to that my own experience in my own quirky little niche of political work and writing, where it is nothing new at all to be committed to materialism yet to learn from and build on work that is conventionally understood as not being materialist (even though much of it really is, at heart). That's not to say that the specific things done in these essays aren't original -- to my knowledge, they are -- but rather that the sensibility of seeking an eclectic synthesis of diverse strands of scholarship that can still be responsive to the needs of movements and communities-in-struggle in material ways is not new; what's new here, I think, is who is speaking about these things and who they think they are speaking to. I found that particularly stark in the final essay of the book, which is one of the few to engage directly with the marxist tradition. It says useful things, more or less, but what it extracts from Marx to point towards a living engagement with the world rather than a set of dead and deadening rules of orthodoxy, as well as its consideration but ultimate rejection of Hardt and Negri as the answer, are things lots of other people have done before. Particularly when it comes to the former, there are long histories of autonomist, open, feminist, and other heterodox thinkers that engage in one way or another with the marxist tradition to do exactly the kinds of things that this writer recommends, but very little of that is even acknowledged let alone explored in the essay. For me, none of this makes the book less interesting, it just makes it more obvious that it is produced from a specific place and speaking to a specific audience.
As for the essays themselves, I'm not going to try and do each one justice in this review, as it would just take too much time and space. There was really only one that I didn't get -- Pheng Cheah's "Non-Dialectical Materialism" was an effort to extract a different approach to materialism from Derrida and from Deleuze, who are not conventionally understood as materialist. Unfortunately, I got about 20% of what the essay had to say about Derrida, and maybe 60% of what it had to say about Deleuze. I really enjoyed and found useful the several essays that drew on phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty, many of which were focused on putting his work in conversation with later social constructionist and scientific scholarhip. William Connolly's engagement with the latest science of how we perceive and experience the world was fascinating. Rosi Braidotti's reflections on re-thinking biopower in relation to practices of dying was interesting, particularly what she had to say about regulation/production of selves and how we inevitably overflow that, but I'm not sure that I see how her interest in going from ontology to ethics could really be convincing. Samantha Frost's consideration of Thomas Hobbes' account of fear as the basis for political order felt like a bit of a stretch -- it actually felt to me a lot like my objections to how psychoanalysis often gets used in social theory, in that it seemed to depend on homogenizing how the affective experience of fear actually operates in people's lives in order to be able to jump from that to social consequences. I appreciated Melissa Orlie's use of Nietzshe to try to develop an "impersonal materialism" (116). And I really liked Sara Ahmed's piece on the ways in which "orientations matter" (236) -- how our proximity and orientations to that which surround us can profoundly shape our experience and knowledge of the world.
Anyway, this has become a long, cumbersome review, so I will wrap it up. This is not a book that rocked my world, and it isn't going to be one that rocks yours. But in its breadth, and in its push to reexamine fundamental questions about how the world -- the material world that is at least in part beyond the social world, but that is deeply intertwined with and shaped by the social world -- works, I think it could provide lots of different readers with lots of different openings to take your own thinking down new paths.
[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]