Sunday, July 24, 2011

A Joint Council Meeting That Wasn't Like Being Tortured By Monkeys

     Remarkably enough, there was very little strife at the last Joint Council meeting.  We managed to meet for over six hours, engage in a number of brainstorming exercises about the future of the union, and collaborate in decision making processes.  We even managed to discuss possible bylaws changes, and pass a tentative budget.  If we manage to make this meeting a precedent, the Joint Council might actually become a functioning decision making body.  Most of the work that we accomplished yesterday constituted a set of beginning conversations, and will require a lot of continued effort to put into effect.  We discussed the initial conversations from a set of committees created during the statewide meeting, and solidified their membership.  These committees ranged from issues around internal organizing, the creation of alliances with other social movements and unions, communications, and the need to rebuild the public education movement.  Additionally, we're going to work on producing a statement of vision for the next three years that should be discussed and revised by the various units of the union.  We also committed money and energy for the upcoming orientation meetings, as well as for activist trainings.  In effect, we have created a set of potentialities, which may lead to something remarkable, but those potentialities are dependent on both the focused energies of the JC and our ability to convince the rank and file of the union that they should move from their current disengagement to an active and participatory collective engagement.  It's easy to be skeptical of the ability of grad students to make this great shift in collective political behavior, but the Berkeley unit has managed to construct a strong and cohesive presence on campus only after a few years of work, and moved from a campus with almost no union presence to a strong and thriving participatory union culture.  We should learn from them and work to translate their success on to our own campuses.
      Perhaps, some of my optimism comes from the behavior of the USEJ members of the council.  As some might remember, my last comments about that particular formation were not exactly positive.  However, aside from a few mean spirited off hand comments from one member, their activists contributed in a largely positive manner to the proceedings.  In all fairness, the opposition was outnumbered in the proceedings by almost two to one throughout the meeting, which meant that they didn't have a great deal of power in voting terms, even within the context of Robert's Rules of Order, but a similar situation in the Statewide meeting didn't stop their attempt to disrupt the meeting.  The difference in the group's approach at the meetings was startling, moving from wildly oppositional and monolithic approach to a more constructive, if detached approach.  Perhaps more significantly, the group didn't vote as a block, and there were a number of moments when a number of USEJ folks supported our motions and contributed to their revision.  Although their caucus began the meeting in the back of the room, a number of individuals began to move up to participate more fully in decisions, breaking away from the older leadership sitting in back.  One could still see differences in approach in the meeting, as the opposition was happy with some of the open ended conversations that were held in the meeting and were unhappy with a couple financial decisions, but it would be wildly unfair to criticize any of that opposition.  My hope is that as we go through the year the USEJ folks will get used to some of the messiness involved in deliberative democracy, and they will continue to provide the type of opposition at this meeting. 
       Before a Labor Notes discussion earlier in the year, I had commented to a colleague that the title of the panel, Fighting Unions, had applied to our ability to fight each other, but that we had not shown much ability to actually fight the boss.  Perhaps, the last meeting gestures to the possibility that we will learn that skill as well.  I hope so.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

It's Her Factory

     An earlier version of my effort to conceptualize my academic project.  I'm still convinced by a lot of the basic framework, although the draft doesn't approach the consolidation of white supremacy that occurs  after the second world war.  If I were to rewrite this, it would bring the structures of racialization that are at the center of the division of labor and the regimes of accumulation that define capitalist modernity.

            I am interested in a complex knot of problems, which on the surface may look unconnected, but when one investigates further there is strong linkage.  To begin with I am interested in provincializing the claims of the second wave feminist movement.  I am not interested in this activity in order to show that the claims are wrong in a name of a feminism to come.  Instead, my desire of provincialization is to understand second wave feminism as a particular response to a particular set of uneven relationships within a particular moment of capitalist modernity.  That is to say, while the claim for a universal patriarchy may be problematic in a set of ways explicated in any number of ways, it might be useful in understanding certain concrete modes of resistance on the part of particular people.  After all, it is important to remember the size and strength of the movement as well as the very important critiques.
            So what do I mean by that?  To begin with, we need to put the movement into a context of a broader history of the United States and its class struggles.  The feminist movement comes after two particularly important events.  The first is the labor peace.  This implicit agreement operates on two axes and constitutes the terrain of post-War Fordist production.  The first is an acceptance of capitalist management.  That is to say, the most radical demands of the workers movement, workers’ control over the decision-making processes of production itself would be dropped.  The second part of the agreement is more important for this conversation.  This is the reciprocal promise on the part of management (in the name of the bourgeoisie) to offer much better pay for that work.  The corollary to this element is 1.) suburbanization and 2.) the creation of a working class that can operate through the one paycheck family and the introduction of working class women into the household and domestic labor.
            I want to understand that induction in a couple contexts.  The first is the question of the commodification of the household.  Broadly what I am pointing to here is the shift in the focus of economic production and the ways that Fordism tries to shore up capitalism by specific means of consumption.  The common narrative of the Great Depression emphasizes the inability of workers to purchase the products they purchase.  This also became an important rallying cry of the radical left of the period.  This promise was met by dominant society, but not as a promise of a new society, but as a mode of pacification.  The story of this linkage of the working classes to the economy of the commodity is told by a number of theorists from many perspectives, from Marcuse to Debord and Castoriadis, but they leave out the question of the role of gender within this economy.
            The second frame I would like to understand this problem is within the framework of sexuality provided by Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality Vol. 1.  Foucault makes some interesting arguments abut class and the deployment of sexuality.  Foucault argues against the traditional narrative of class and sexuality, the repressive hypothesis.  This narrative reads sexuality as something that is repressed in order to make the working classes productive in one way or another.  Foucault argues against this narrative, pointing out that the questions of sexuality pointed out by this narrative are primarily focused on the middle classes, and that the working class is left out of the narrative for some time.  He argues that this deployment of sexuality instead becomes the way the bourgeoisie makes a claim to take the place of the aristocracy and its logic of blood.  Foucault then argues that this analytic of sexuality then slowly permeates the rest of society in an uneven manner.  My argument is that it is the Fordist economy that brings large sections of the white working class into this economy.
            The vehicle that brings the question of the commodity and the question of the disciplining of sexuality together is the women’s magazine.  The women’s magazines become an important site for the shifting economics structures of the United States.  As the war ended, the United States government began to place articles in these magazines emphasizing the need for women to return to the domestic realm.  These articles both offered a set of idealized disciplinary techniques for the household and linked this with a set of commodities containing the promise of a sort of domestic utopia.  Betty Friedan becomes an interesting figure within this economy as she both played a role in the labor organizing of the earlier period and wrote for the Women’s magazines during the end of the war.  She also plays out this shift, moving into married life, but eventually becoming disillusioned with this.
            The feminist movement is simultaneously constituted by this moment and is unable to see the constitutive force that produced it, the backlash politics of the 1950’s.  Feminism is in many ways the product of the neutralization of the political crisis of capital in the era before.  The household becomes the center of this activity, both as the place to reproduce a willing citizenry, the place in which the political does not enter, etc.  This also places women in the place of unvalorized, unpaid, repetitive labor with the only outlet to the public sphere through the purchase of commodities.  Feminism then becomes a protest against this alienated, exploited position, but also reads history in a peculiar manner in which it finds itself everywhere…. 
            However, it is important to simultaneously remember the power of the movement as well.  It offered a savage critique of the normative structures of a society that had legitimated an extensive set of structures of domination through the modes of neutralization created through domestication.  It also re-imagined the modes of labor and solidarity created within this sphere through as set of political practices ranging from conscious raising to collective child-care and more conventional modes of political activism.  Within this context, it also offered ways of imagining different societies.  This can be found in the work of any number of writers, including the work of Adrienne Rich and her notions of the lesbian continuum.  For the sake of this piece however, the focus will be on the question of science fiction.
            The 1960’s and 1970’s found a flurry of feminist utopias in the Science Fiction genre.  It would be wrong to state that this is the origin of the genre.  After all, one could point to the work of Cavendish, Gilman, and a few others.  However, the amount and the quality of the production had increased a great deal.  One got texts from LeGuin, Russ, Sargent, Piercy, etc. within this time period.  The texts that I will focus on are those of Joanna Russ.  Russ becomes an interesting author because of the emphasis on estrangement in her texts and the critical texts that she produced along side the novels.  Those texts produce a set of arguments that intersect remarkably well with critic Darko Suvin’s conceptualization of science fiction.  Both emphasize the element of cognitive estrangement, the ability of the science fiction text to allow for its reader to look at the world that she operates in through a new critical light.  Suvin draws this concept from Brecht and the formalists.  For Russ, science fiction can challenge structures of gender normativity that are naturalized in conventional texts as well as pointing to the possibilities of another world.
            The text I intend to look at, The Female Man, tries to do precisely this.  The premise of the text is a set of four women, who are in fact the same woman within four different worlds with considerably different social structures, “Jeannine, a librarian, is waiting to be married.  Joanna a 1970’s feminist is trying to succeed in a man’s world.  Janet is from Whileaway, a utopian earth where only women exist.  And Jael is from an earth in the not-so-distant future, with separate—and warring—female and make societies.” (Russ)  This opens up two possibilities, 1. To examine the social constructedness of gendered subjectivity and denaturalize certain contemporary norms and 2. To point to alternative imaginations of what the world could be.
            It is the second point that will be my emphasis in linking the book with the reimagination of the feminist project.  It will be my ultimate argument that this utopian element appointment points to the critical anti-capitalist aspect of the project, the element that attacks the alienating structure of the commodity and the drudgery of household labor.  It offers a radically different image of social relationship, that both destroys the commodity form, produces a new set of social relations around both labor and sexuality, and does away with men as both sign and enforcer of the old society.  This places the project as one of many lines of flight against the domination of capital.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Subculture through the lens of Sarah Schulman's People In Trouble, Part 1

     Now that I finally wrote the second part in my analysis of different versions of the Tower of Babel story, I thought that I would finally complete my comments on subculture, through the Pet Shop Boys, turning my attention to the reading of the ACT-UP movement provided by Sarah Schulman's novel, People in Trouble.  (You can find the earlier essay, here.)  Since I opened the last section with a quote from Schulman in my reading of the Pet Shop Boys' 'In the Night', I thought I would open my analysis of Schulman with the  coda from the Pet Shop Boys' hit song, 'Opportunities.'  "All the love that we had/ and the love that we hide/ Who will bury us/ when we die?"  The quote radically reverses the mood of the track, flipping from the glib cynicism of the track to a more elegiac form.  The ironic celebration of consumerism crashes to a halt with the reality of the effects of death.  It's difficult not to hear those lines in direct relation to the AIDS crisis, and the profound sense of loss as the pandemic took its toll.  The disease opened the closet doors of stars and celebrities through the obituaries page, and challenged the dubious forms of privilege afforded some wealthy white gay men by the closet.  Much of the first activism around AIDS focused on the care of the dying and the dead, providing food, housing, and nursing.  We might think of this responsibility to the dying as a sort of ethical core to the activist formations around AIDS.  Returning to the lyrics, the final lines of the song pose the fear of dying alone, of being forgotten.  The lyrics link that fear, the fear of dying alone, of remaining unburied with 'the love that we hide', the logic of the closet.

     Schulman's novel is not well known in its own right, but her narrative got a considerable amount of attention due to its relationship to the musical, Rent.  Rent effectively stole its narrative structure from Schulman's work.  However, as Schulman notes in her critiques of the musical, the narrative of Rent shifted the ethical center of the work, making the protagonist straight, rather than gay.  (For a larger conversation on this subject, read Sarah Schulman's longer work on the topic, Stagestruck: Theatre, AIDS, and the Marketing of Gay America.)  Schulman's narrative focuses on a small set of characters, linked directly or indirectly to the arts community of New York.   The narrative begins by focusing on the lives of lives of the married couple Kate and Peter, an artist and a scene designer, respectively, but it moves away from that focus as it follows Kate's trajectory into the radical political subculture of AIDS activism, a trajectory created by Kate's relationship with the activist, Molly.  The narrative then shifts from a focus on Kate and Peter to move into Molly's milieu of activism as she moves away from Kate and the art world she represents.

      As I previously noted, Schulman's novel opens with the same combination of death and the banality of everyday life, opening with the lines, "It was the beginning of the end of the world but not everyone noticed right away.  Some people were dying.  Some people were busy.  Some people were cleaning their houses while the war movie played on television." (Schulman 1)  Daily life is defined by distraction, either in the form of dying or in the form of the business of everyday life, whether in the banality of housework or other activities that remain unnamed.  The first scene of the novel involves shopping, notably a purchase of lingerie by Kate for her lover Molly.  The narrative enters into the lives of the characters through the banal ephemera of everyday life, shopping bowling, affairs, and casual racist assumption on the part of the characters.  At the same time the narrative marks its own historical time, with references to the crack epidemic, AIDS, and the growing conservatism of the country.

      Perhaps more significantly for our conversation, Schulman presents a world that is dominated by subcultural formations, gesturing to their cultural domination.  Rather than creating the sort of subversion that was expected by the various Birmingham cultural studies theorists of the 1970's, Schulman placed them comfortably within the neo-liberal city of the 1980's.  Punks, skinheads, piercings, and faded signifiers of the old counter-culture define the background of the narrative, mixing with the extensive description of commodities through the narrative.  Subculture no longer operates as an intrinsically subversive force, operating as one of many potential commodities.  At the same time, subculture is not irrelevant to the question of political struggle, rather one could think of it as constituting the terrain of the struggle, constituting its raw materials.  Subcultural forces are both implicated in the gentrification of the city, as well as the resistance to that force of gentrification.  That struggle is defined by the profound inequality that was beginning to mark the city, the separation between those thriving or surviving in the neo-liberal city, and those who are the dead and the dying.  Justice, the thinly veiled reference to ACT-UP, can only be understood within the nexus of these forces.

      I'll work through those issues in a second post, and leave the discussion for now.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Documentary "Ways of Seeing"...

here is the entirety of John Berger's Ways of Seeing. You can also see it on youtube.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Two Cities

      In a talk given by anthropologist AbouMaliq Simone given a couple of years ago, Simone distinguished between the experience of the city in the cities of the periphery that he was focused on and the cities of the core.  The chief difference that he discussed was the ability of the people living in the cities to change the physical structure of the cities they lived in, to place their mark on the city space.  I've been thinking about this recently because of the differences in living in the Twin Cities as opposed to Irvine.  While one may not have the ability to radically transform the city in the ways that Simone discussed, there is still a difference between the ability to transform the city space of Minneapolis as opposed to Irvine.  The former is marked by the small and minute everyday transformations of those who live there, as opposed to Irvine, which is very difficult to change, because of its building codes, its high rents, and the privatized structures that define the space.  For me, the limitations of the later continually make the experience of living their deeply alienating, and perhaps more specifically, hostile.  I may not have had the change to deeply impact the terrain of the Twin Cities, but I can still see the collective transformations of the space created by others.  There's something about that experience that allows me to feel at home in a way that I have never felt at home in Irvine.  I don't want to transform Minneapolis and Saint Paul into some sort of utopian space.  Throughout the city, the kind of structures that I hate so much in Irvine can be seen in much of the recent construction in the cities, gesturing towards a similar logic.  Downtown, in particular, has become a fairly reprehensible collection of expensive bars, restaurants, and  shopping areas.

      The difference between the two cities seems to be defined by the intensity at which the logic of capital has managed to colonize the logic of each of the cities.  The Twin Cities ties back to a long history of class struggle that is linked back to a set of struggles in the 1930's, most notably defined by the Minneapolis General Strike of 1934, while Irvine has no such history, allowing for the privatizing logic of late capitalism.  I think that we can link these three points, connecting our ability to feel at home in the city both with our ability to transform that city and with the modes of resistance to the colonization of the logic of capital.  We can link both the particularity and the multiplicity of these actions to the concept of use value itself, and it's worth noting that these acts of making use are not outside of the commercial logic of late capitalism.  Indeed, the first examples that come to mind are the decorations in small shops such as children's drawings or the store cat of a book store, although one can point to public structures such as parks and libraries to gesture towards a broader logic of the public.  (Irvine technically has public parks, but those parks feel remarkably privatized.)  Use-value is simultaneously embedded within the structures of accumulation that define contemporary capitalism and gestures towards a logic exterior to the the logic that defines capital.

     At the same time, one can see the slow collapse of the social democratic project throughout the city through the loss of services and public resources.  The state is currently closed due to a budget conflict between the Republican legislature and the Democratic governor, which can be tied to a long refusal to continue the social contract produced in the crisis of capital of the 1930's.  In this sense, the experience of the city has a strain of tragedy contained in it.  If the city has value, the qualities that give it that value are being slowly consumed in acts of gentrification and suburbanization.  With very few exceptions, change is defined as change for the worse.

question about critical theory....

       I find myself in the fairly good position of having my first formal academic publication out today.  Admittedly, it's limited to a short review of a recent book of literary criticism on contemporary science fiction, but I'm still excited.  For those who have access to academic servers, the review is contained in the latest edition of Postmodern Culture.  Another aside, it's nice to be back in Minneapolis, even if briefly, particularly when you can order a mock duck pizza at midnight.

      I've been thinking about academic writing, or perhaps more specifically, about the academic writing produced within the context of critical theory.  Most of the contemporary material that has been produced in the past couple years has struck me as remarkably unimpressive.  I am particularly  uninterested in the work produced by perhaps the most popular academic leftist thinkers, Slavoj Zizek and Alain Badiou.  Zizek strikes me as neither a radical nor a rigorous thinker, and has always seemed like a bit of a charlatan.  Badiou, on the other hand, doesn't slip into Zizek's obvious faults.  At the same time, his work strikes me as an abandonment of the historical materialist tradition, in its commitment to philosophical idealism and the strange reversion to an obsession with universalism.  Aside from those two figures, there is a larger tendency to refuse the overdetermination of the historical materialist tradition, returning to modes of expressivist causality.  Although it hasn't worked before, I would be curious if there are any contemporary theorists working within the broad historical materialist tradition that are worth exploring.  I'm looking for material that is more contemporary than the material from the 1970's and 1980's that I have been reading.  Please make some suggestions, and also bring up blog suggestions as well....

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Terry Bisson's Fire on the Mountain, opened with a couple other thoughts

       I've been caught up with the second of my reviews for more formal publication.  Hopefully, it will get accepted without much in the way of revision.  I feel a curious lack of focus right now concerning the blog.  I have a set of formal issues that relate to the dissertation, but not much that can translate into a set of interesting short postings.  Additionally, my current readings are focused on material for the upcoming budget cuts fights, which might translate into future posting, but the entire topic feels extremely distant despite the fact we will be entering into this fight in less than three months.  Finally, the factional conflicts that defined a lot of my focus on the blog over the past couple months have reduced significantly without getting rid of the basic dimensions of the post-election stalemate, nor leading to the substantial transformation of the parties involved.  There might be something to write about after the next Joint Council meeting, but until that date later in the month, there isn't much to discuss on that front either... despite the fact that we still need to put a great deal of intellectual energy as well as ground work before we begin the school year.

       Perhaps the only other thing worth mentioning despite this long series of negatives is the recent alternative history that I just read.  Terry Bisson's Fire on the Mountain was originally published in 1988, and recently republished by leftist publishers, PM Press.  Bisson's alternative history operates on the premise that John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry succeeded because of the aid given to him by Harriet Tubman, who missed the actual raid due to illness.  The success of the raid radically transforms the history of the country leading to a series of revolution that begins with the formation of the south as a separate history, Nova Africa, and the eventual transformation of it and the rest of the country into a set of socialist republics.  Reminiscent of the two alternative histories constructed by Steven Barnes, Lion's Blood and Zulu Heart, the novel offers an alternative Afrocentric  history of the nation, defined by living shoes, structures of collectivization, and fast Egyptian cars, albeit with a far more utopian tone than the Barnes novels.

      The narrative is divided between the time period of 1959, where the socialist nation of Nova Africa is about to launch a successful space flight to Mars, and the twin narratives of a young slave who joined Brown in the insurrection as a memoir later in life, and the letters of a northern doctor who joins the struggle due to his abolitionist views.  The two narratives are stitched together by the journey made by the great-granddaughter of the former in order to deliver the papers to a museum of the relatively recently formed USSA.  The split narrative allows for the exploration of the complexities and ambiguities of the revolutionary process, gesturing to a long history of conflict, continued issues of sexism, as well as the ordinary issues of loss and alienation.  The recently formed second socialist nation is still haunted by the poverty created by the long revolutionary struggle, and the revolutionaries are still negotiating the long legacy of white supremacy that defined the earlier era.  In this sense, despite its later publication, the novel strongly aligns with the 'ambiguous utopias' of the 1970's such as The Female Man and The Dispossessed.

     In spite of that, the narrative is more deeply haunted by the double catastrophe contained in the collapse of the project of the reconstruction, as well as the implicit second reconstruction of the civil rights era.  The narrative imagines a radical alliance of abolitionists, Jacobins, Haitian and Italian revolutionaries, as well as the red republican supporters of Marx.  If this gestures to the ability to resist the historical collapse of the revolutionary movement of the mid-19th century, which Marx sees the fight against slavery as central to  that narrative, it also gestures towards a different future for the New Left coalitions that had recently collapsed under the weight of neo-liberalism, backlash, as well as their own contradictions.  Which was, it should be noted, a movement that Bisson played a role in.  The act of mourning contained in the novel becomes most evident within the description of the underground white supremacist and dystopian novel, John Brown's Body.   The narrative of our present is returned to us as a grotesque and unrealistic fantasy, a cheap and despicable reactionary pulp novel.  The utopian narrative reminds us more the catastrophe of our present, defined by the domination and exploitation of imperialism and capitalism, and perhaps more bluntly, the driving force of white supremacy a contributing structural factor for both.

     In this sense, Bisson's novel sits comfortably besides the historical novels of Luther Blissett and Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, novels that invert the historical teleology of the historical novels explored by Georg Luxacs.  These novels explore the transition of history, not as progress, but as catastrophe.  The narratives attempt to explore the revolutionary trace contained within that wreckage, a trace always contained in the failed possibilities of those times.