Sunday, January 20, 2019

A Short Comment on the Protest of Tucker Carlson's House

            The protest of Tucker Carlson’s house on the evening of November 7th created a sensation throughout the media. It was reported that a gang of anti-fa organizers protested the personal dwelling of the media personality in a manner that more resembled a home invasion than a traditional protest. Carlson’s wife reported an attempt to break into the house and the house was vandalized. Various media personalities across the political spectrum condemned this attack from Fox News to liberal figures such as Michael Moore and Stephen Colbert. 

            It was only after protestors responded to the media coverage days later that it became apparent how flawed the initial coverage of the protest was. Instead of a home invasion, the protestors were at the house for a matter of ten minutes, briefly knocking on the door, and taking part in a series of ordinary chants. Far from being a danger, the march and protest was substantially monitored by the police and the protestors had no real interest in much other than engaging in conventional protest action. There was an action of vandalism taken on by a masked individual, but that action wasn’t supported by the rest of the group. In effect, Carlson effectively was able to use this event to present himself as a victim, papering over his effective support for white nationalism over the past year.

            The question then becomes: how did this happen, and could it have been avoided? An initial criticism might be the chosen venue of the protestors. After all, pro choice activists did a pretty good job of making anti-choice activists look bad by exposing their protests of private homes. But to focus on this angle of the protest ignores some of the productive use of the protest of the private homes of individuals. The Detroit Newspaper strikers took their contract complaints to the Gross Pointe home of the owner of the papers in the mid-90’s and Anti-Racist Action activists successfully targeted a home of fascist activists in Minneapolis around the same time. So, targeting a private home doesn’t itself immediately lead to failure and there are moments where the tactic makes a lot of sense. After all, it makes sense to target the owner of a business to settle a strike and it makes a lot of sense to challenge the effort of Nazis to create a foothold in a neighborhood.

            But even more than these aspects, the largest difference between those protests and the Carlson protest was the existence of a set of focused and tangible goals and a real media strategy, both of which seemed to be missing in the Carlson protest. To point to a contrast, the far more militant protests of the Milo Yiannopoulos talk in Berkeley received far more positive attention in the press. Despite literally storming the venue with fireworks, the activists managed to get their point of view expressed across the media. The action itself was guaranteed to be controversial, but the logic of the protest was expressed to the media and there was far more sympathy with those actions despite their obviously controversial nature. In contrast, we only heard about the reality of the Carlson protest several days after the controversy erupted and after a media narrative had taken shape. It was clear that the protestors had not thought about the media.

            In a certain sense, the protest should be understood within the context of the series of protests that lead up to the action. For the past few months, individuals associated with the Trump Administration had been targeted for protest as they attended events or went to the restaurant. For the most part, these were protests of opportunity. Somebody saw that an official was at an event or a restaurant and there was an effort to get enough people together to embarrass them. As such, these events were spontaneous and there was little ability to put together a media plan. The Carlson protest felt very similar. However, there are a couple notable distinctions.  To begin, almost all the protests were in response to public officials who were directly responsible for very controversial and draconian public policy. In addition, there was no real ability to plan in those situations. Neither point was true in the case of Carlson, who certainly has expounded a white nationalist politic, but is not directly responsible. Also, Carlson’s house wasn’t in danger of moving any time soon.

            In effect, the protestors took a set of tactics that were applicable to a political conjuncture and applied them to one that did not fit the same criteria. By doing so, they allowed a political demagogue to define the narrative of the protest, a demagogue who was being protested for his manipulation of the news. They did so in a context where real planning was entirely possible. The results were unfortunately predictable and, to an extent, closed real possibilities of protest.  To be clear, these mistakes are not unique to the activists behind this protest. We have seen similar mistakes made frequently in the name of a ‘spontaneous’ framework protest, and to be clear, I have certainly been involved in some of those protests. Some of the choices to target the chancellor’s house in Berkeley during the tuition protests in 2009 and 2010 had a similar effect, for instance, and our protest of our own Chancellor at the UCI radio station had a similar backlash effect.

            My point isn’t that any of those events were irredeemable failures or that they fully destroyed the ability for movements to flourish, but that they were avoidable. Confrontational politics are both necessary and productive, but they also required some basic planning, most notably to challenge the inevitable narratives created by the dominant media and to plan for likely contingencies. I really don’t get the sense that the organizers took the time to think through the goals of the protest or the possible problems that could have occurred as a result of such a protest. To be clear, I don’t think that the protestors could have planned in a manner that could have stopped the act of vandalism, but they could have planned in a manner that got their point of view across to the media, even if it was the alternative media. They could have provided a real dossier of the affect of the kind of journalism embodied by Carlson and they could have provided a narrative of the event that was playful and joyful, rather than confrontational, a frankly more accurate portrayal of the event.

            I’m not interested in condemning the activists who organized the failed Carlson protest. I respect and admire the effort despite the problems. Instead, I want to use the moment to reflect on the practices of organizing and more significantly our efforts to critically assess our own actions. Organizers and activists inevitably fail. We fail a lot. Some of those failures have little to no impact. Some of those failures are immensely destructive. It would be a mistake to try to create organizing efforts without failure because it would result in no action at all, but we can do a lot more to identify and learn from our failures. More significantly, to treat those failures as an ordinary part of discussion. We should do so not to avoid failure per se, but to avoid falling into precisely the same kind of failures and to fail in more interesting and productive ways.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

A Utopian Trace in Charles Dickens' Hard Times: A Utopian Studies Conference Paper

      Charles Dickens’ Hard Times is not traditionally read within a utopian framework. The scholarship on the novel tends to focus on the generic conventions of realism and representations of the working class. The only reference to utopia in the scholarship comes from Leona Toker, who reads the novel as a critique of utopia, placing utilitarianism into the camp of utopia. I want to pose a counter-reading that places its focus on a series of liminal moments in the text. The novel continually gestures towards the fantastic, whether in the form of imagery on carpeting or the pulp literature consumed by the working classes. These traces of the fantastic are a threat to the advocates of utilitarianism, who attempt to suppress them from the school room and daily life. These attempts are shown in a comic light, revealing a narrow-minded literalism on the part of school teachers, but these liminal forms of art and literature also gesture towards the possibility of a world that operates on a different logic than the ‘hard facts’ of the factory town. I read these moments in the text as a utopian trace in the text, gesturing towards the forms of cooperation between working people that life in the industrial town depends on even as the dominant structures of the town attempt to suppress it. The traces of the fantastic take the form of a series of novum in the Blochian sense disrupting the daily life of the instrumental life of the factory town with a range of fantastic alternatives.

      It would be a mistake to see the utopian impulse as a central feature. Instead, the novel provides a sharp critique of the narrow instrumental reason of utilitarianism through a contrast of the many foibles of the middle-class citizens of the city of Coketown, contrasting them with the quiet dignity of the working-class victims of the industrial city and the carnival performers who try to avoid that life. The narrative follows the utilitarian Mr. Gradgrind as he moves from the reform school of the beginning of the novel to the upper reaches of parliament by the end of the novel. At the same time, it maps the effects of his education reform by showing the foundering of his children as they attempt to create lives for themselves without any real moral or ethical compass. It mirrors those problems by following the life of factory hand, Stephen Blackpool, who is unable to escape from his unfortunate marriage to his alcoholic wife, who shows no interest in either her husband or escaping from her condition, to marry his love, the devoted Rachel. In each case, the ‘muddle’ of family relations stands in for the ‘muddle’ of social relations that define Coketown as a whole.

       Leona Toker’s essay “Hard Times and a critique of Utopia: A Typological Study” attempts to frame this discussion as precisely a critique of utopianism by framing the reform work of Thomas Gradgrind as a kind of utopian schema of improvement. Within this context, Thomas Gradgrind is presented as a principled reformer, one that allows his schema of improvement to blind him to the complexity of human existence. Because of that, his utopian schema becomes a dystopian reality for those who must live within it. Toker then places the book within a long tradition of anti-utopian literature that present the utopian and dystopian as two sides of the same coin, looking particularly at the work of Adolous Huxley and George Orwell. Utilitarianism in this context stands in for any program built on a set of abstract principles that are placed in effect within a society. However, while the text emphasizes Gradrind’s obsession with calculation and abstraction, there is little sense of Gradgrind as an individual who has any real interest in the improvement of the society that he lives within. Instead, Gradgrind’s work is continually focused on improving the efficiency of the system as it exists. Rather than showing an obsession for creating a new set of abstractions designed to create a better world, Thomas Gradgrind accepts the world as it is and refuses to imagine any possibility of it working differently. Gradgrind is certainly engaged in a project of the kind of reductionism that defines what James C Scott would identify as a high modernist impulse, but that impulse isn’t directed towards social transformation which is at the heart of the utopian project.

      Katherine Kearn’s “A Tropology of Realism in Hard Times” might be a better place to begin an examination of the utopian impulse within the work of the novel. Her text argues that Thomas Gradgrind’s demand for a world based on facts and his desire to suppress a web of activities placed under the term ‘Fancy.’ For Kearns, Fancy then stands in for sexual pleasure and a constellation of other activities tied to the pleasure of the text, a continual excess of language that spills over and challenges the narrow logic of realism. For her, it represents ‘an opposition between the Hard Times consistently brings the reader to share in the deconstruction of its stated "realism," whose utilitarian surface yields throughout to those alternative and ineffable truths produced by the artist's "mute Hands," which do not tell but only feel and make’ (Kearn 859). The text continually exceeds the conventions of realism linked to the instrumental reason of capital, delving into the terrain of unconscious desire, which is ‘felt but not told’ through its figurative languge. Even though, Kearns’ analysis is framed within the trajectory of a deconstructive approach to the text, the analysis is not unreconcilable with Bloch’s theory of the utopian trace. The critique of utilitarianism opens an abundance of small possibilities, traces of the possibility of another world, another logic, and created by drives that are exogenous to the logic of the system that they live under.

      The utopian trace is initially gestured towards through the interaction between the daughter of a circus performer, Sissy Jupe and her future guardian, Mr. Gradgrind at the school that Mr. Gradgrind had organized to enact his utilitarian principles.

      ‘Girl number twenty,’ said the gentleman, smiling in the calm strength of knowledge.
       Sissy blushed, and stood up
      ‘So you would carpet your room—or your husband’s room, if you were a grown woman, and had a husband—with representations of flowers, would you?’ said the gentleman. ‘Why would you?’
       ‘If you please, sir, I am very fond of flowers,’ returned the girl
       ‘And is that why you would put tables and chairs upon them, and have people walking over them with heavy boots?’
       ‘It wouldn’t hurt them, sir. They wouldn’t crush and wither, if you please, sir. They would be the pictures of what was very pretty and pleasant, and I would fancy—’
       ‘Ay, ay, ay! But you mustn’t fancy,’ cried the gentleman, quite elated by coming so happily to his point. ‘That’s it! You are never to fancy.’
       ‘You are not, Cecilia Jupe,’ Thomas Gradgrind solemnly repeated, ‘to do anything of that kind.’
       ‘Fact, fact, fact!’ said the gentleman. And ‘Fact, fact, fact!’ repeated Thomas Gradgrind.
       ‘You are to be in all things regulated and governed,’ said the gentleman, ‘by fact. We hope to have, before long, a board of fact, composed of commissioners of fact, who will force the people to be a people of fact, and of nothing but fact. You must discard the word Fancy altogether. You have nothing to do with it. You are not to have, in any object of use or ornament, what would be a contradiction in fact. You don’t walk upon flowers in fact; you cannot be allowed to walk upon flowers in carpets. You don’t find that foreign birds and butterflies come and perch upon your crockery; you cannot be permitted to paint foreign birds and butterflies upon your crockery. You never meet with quadrupeds going up and down walls; you must not have quadrupeds represented upon walls. You must use,’ said the gentleman, ‘for all these purposes, combinations and modifications (in primary colours) of mathematical figures which are susceptible of proof and demonstration. This is the new discovery. This is fact. This is taste.’ (Dickens 13-14)

       At its most immediate level, the passage is a critique of the utilitarian classroom and its desire to reduce the complexity of human life into a table of facts and figures. The classroom is immediately marked as a disciplinary space, a space that both demands obedience from its subjects and transforms the complexity of life to a series of rote answers. Earlier in the novel, the space is referred to as dictatorial. Within Dickens’ own sentimental economy, the utilitarian reform school takes the form of a bully that destroys, rather than builds the subjectivity of the children who enter its classrooms. The disciplinary lesson takes the form of a rather one-sided debate over how one should decorate one’s home. The two instructors fail to bully young Cissy Jupe into rejecting the representation of flowers as an acceptable decoration for one’s living room carpet for the simple fact that actual flowers would not be found on a living room floor. It’s hard not to see Dickens’ satirical tendencies within this exercise of reductio ad absurdium. Articles of daily life are suddenly presented as threats to the very fabric of reality as a virtual form of madness that could turn the world upside down.

       At the same time, the passage introduces a significant opposition that defines the rest of the novel. The reductivist world of facts is place in opposition to the world of ‘fancy’, a world that must be destroyed. The world of ‘fancy’ disrupts the world of facts by contradicting them. It points to a world where ‘foreign birds and butterflies come and perch upon your crockery’ and random quadrupeds roam the walls of suburban living rooms. ‘Fancy’ within this context points obliquely to a world where the facts of utilitarian life are contravened, and the possibility of another life is pointed to. This opposition is only intensified when the book turns to the education of the children of Mr. Gradgrind and the term fancy which creates the conditions for another world is then connected to the world of the fantastic, whether in the form of folk or fairy tales or in the figures of a variety of monsters. The narrow and reductionist nature of their education, one that focused on the world as it exist and requires the exclusion of monsters who disrupt the inevitability of Coketown.

       The question of fancy is then picked up several pages later in one of the many authorial interjections in the novel, framing its qualities in relationship to the working life of the many hands who produce the abundant wealth of the community.

       Is it possible, I wonder, that there was any analogy between the case of the Coketown population and the case of the little Gradgrinds? Surely, none of us in our sober senses and acquainted with figures, are to be told at this time of day, that one of the foremost elements in the existence of the Coketown working-people had been for scores of years, deliberately set at nought? That there was any Fancy in them demanding to be brought into healthy existence instead of struggling on in convulsions? That exactly in the ratio as they worked long and monotonously, the craving grew within them for some physical relief—some relaxation, encouraging good humour and good spirits, and giving them a vent—some recognized holiday, though it were but for an honest dance to a stirring band of music—some occasional light pie in which even M’Choakumchild had no finger—which craving must and would be satisfied aright, or must and would inevitably go wrong, until the laws of the Creation were repealed? (Dickens 30)

       Fancy within this context takes on another shape, one of simple relief and relaxation. It becomes an escape from the ordinary monotony of daily life, an escape from toil and monotony of factory life. The drive towards also powerfully reflects the fact that the life of utilitarian reason, while producing so much for the middle classes has produced ‘nought’ for the masses of workers who have produced that wealth. Fancy not only represents a form of escape, but a demand as well. It represents an attempt to create a meaningful life within a life that is primarily defined by rote repetition. That meaningful life is then constructed out of the detritus of industrial production, forms of popular music, what would in the future become pulp literature, and dives and dancehalls of the city. It would be easy to reduce these pleasures to simply a precursor to the forms of mass entertainment that would define the era of Fordist production, and to an extent, this material does presage that moment, but it also represents a powerful demand, a demand for a world that focuses on use rather than exchange and the desire for a life that is meaningful for its participants. These two points continually exceed the commodity forms associated with them.

       The novel then interweaves this critique throughout the novel, returning to it in its interstices, frequent authorial interjections, and pronouncements that differentiate the novel from most of his work for many critics. The novel pairs the search for pleasure with the search for a meaningful life. The search for pulp literature doubles with the search for genuine meaning at the library, a preoccupation that continually flummoxes the Thomas Gradrinds and Josiah Bounderby’s of the world. At the same time, Dickens respect for the demands of the hands, the working people of the imagined Coketown does not extend to political organization. If the ascendant bourgeoisie are rebuked through the paired figures of Josiah Bounderby and Thomas Gradrind, the novel equally rebukes the attempts on the part of radical workers to organize through the figure of Slackbridge, who mirrors the bombastic rhetoric of Josiah Bounderby as a sort of debased copy of the first figure. The novel is committed to the dignity of the hands but rejects collective political action as the product of demagoguery that matches or even exceeds the demagoguery of the factory owners such as Josiah Bounderby. The novel oscillates between the quiet commitment of the hands to a collective dignity and mutual aid and a political discourse that only manipulates them.

       Even as Dickens repeatedly rejects the self-organization of the hands as a meaningful solution to the muddle that is identified by Stephen Blackpool, the text refuses to resolve the contradiction through traditional devices of reconciliation such as marriage. The narrative ends with the betterment of two of the characters, but it also ends in the mutual death of Josiah Bounderby and his laborer, Stephen Blackpool without resolution. The satirical tone of the rest of the novel takes on a rather different tone with the death of Mrs. Gradgrind, the long-ignored wife and mother of the Gradgrind family, a lightly comical character up until this point. Mrs. Gradgrind’s final speech immediately expresses a submerged critique of the philosophy of her husband. She asks for pen and paper to write to him, to tell him that there is something that has been left out of his system of knowledge. She notes, “‘But there is something—not an Ology at all—that your father has missed, or forgotten, Louisa. I don’t know what it is. I have often sat with Sissy near me, and thought about it. I shall never get its name now. But your father may” (Dickens 194). The speech returns to the earlier opposition in the novel, between the na├»ve ethical system of Sissy and the systematic knowledge of Thomas Gradgrind. Returning to that opposition, Mrs. Gradgrind affirms that Sissy’s beliefs contains something in excess of what is contained in Thomas Gradgrind’s narrow worlds of facts, but she can’t put a name to it. At the same time, she recognizes that the organized knowledge might be able to provide that name.

      Mrs. Gradgrind then makes a final attempt to put down this knowledge in the form of a letter. The effort fails, but the language describing that failure is highly evocative. The passage reads, “It matters little what figures of wonderful no-meaning she began to trace upon her wrappers. The hand soon stopped in the midst of them; the light that had always been feeble and dim behind the weak transparency, went out; and even Mrs. Gradgrind, emerged from the shadow in which man walketh and disquieteth himself in vain, took upon her the dread solemnity of the sages and patriarchs” (Dickens 194). The message takes the form of a trace of ‘figures of wonderful no-meaning’ that take a form that ‘matters little.’ That trace in turn gestures towards a set of possibilities that were always ‘feeble and dim behind the weak transparency.’ But nonetheless, they constitute a trace of a possibility of another life, one that must be gestured towards, even as it. That sentimentalized trace mirrors the death of Stephen Blackpool who similarly gestures towards other possibilities even as those possibilities are not grounded in the conventional notion of marriage and reproductive futurity. They constitute a refusal of closure or reconciliation even as that refusal is grounded in the figure of the muddle rather than any political formation.

       That trace is in a sense a product of the tension between the novel’s desire to recognize the inner life of the working people of England in the novel, to ‘give them a little more play’ to draw on the language of the novel and the phobic response to worker self-organization. However, rather than reading this tension as a failure of the novel, the tension produces a rich sense of symptoms in the series of authorial intrusions and side comments identified by Katherine Kearn. That tension is not resolved and unlike so many industrial novels, there is no effort to suture together the class division through the act of marriage. That lack of resolution also refuses to accept the illusion that the social problems of the novel are somehow resolvable within the confines of the society as it existed. Fancy or Fantasy become a sort of gesture towards a different world, even as it draws from the detritus of the old. Its ineffable nature exposes the limits of that vision even as it gestures towards a novum that cannot be reincorporated into the existing system.