Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Notes near the end of the year

      I haven't been posting much this month for a number of reasons, notably because of travel, research, and other distractions.  Happily, this brief exodus has translated into a full if fairly rough draft of another chapter, books read, and two trips undertaken, one to Minneapolis and one to San Francisco.  Not much of this has translated into the sort of material that I could easily translate into blog postings.  (No doubt, other writers would have produced a number of excellent posts, but not me.)  However, I've been driven back into writing by my brief reading of Samuel R. Delany's 7 Essays, 4 Letters, and 5 Interviews About Writing,  which might be titled 7 Essays, 4 Letters, and 5 Interviews About Why You're Probably Not a Writer. While neither Delany's primary message nor the main point that I gained from the text, it was a good reminder that I had set up this blog in order to do more day to day writing, and the fact that this day to day writing has translated into much stronger writing on my part in other situations.

      The result is what you are seeing now, a slightly stream of consciousness effort taken up in order to start the creative process.  I suspect that I will be writing another piece about the current problems with the Progressive Labor Party, but I suspect that I will need to check in with folks to get a better sense of the current situation.  (The organization has written a defensive and not terribly coherent response to the demands that they deal with the rapist in their organization, but I'm not sure what they have been doing on the ground.)  Similarly, I want to return to some of the questions about science fiction that have been a thread through the publication, but the last book I read, John Scalzi's Old Man's War, while enjoyable, didn't really translate into a desire to write about it.  Perhaps, I should visit Uncle Hugo's while I'm in town.  Finally, I'm tempted to write about Kathi Weeks' new text, The Problem With Work, but I haven't completed reading it.  It does deal with the ways that work has been increasingly marked as private, a current political interest of my own.

      Moving on, the question of generic convention has been on my mind a considerable amount recently, most likely because of the sheer amount of time that I have spent reading, thinking, and writing about women's magazine.  The work of Lauren Berlant has played a significant role in shaping the way that I read those publications, and the ways that they attempt to construct particular types of subjects through their pedagogical efforts.  However, Delany's work also brings up the issue of convention and genre in his work, emphasizing the ways that writing must rigorously engage with a set of generic conventions and reader expectations in order to operate as successful writing, even if that work is designed to unsettle or transgress those infrastructure.  The thread that runs through this is the way that each conceptualizes generic convention not as restriction or censorship, but a constitutive of a set of social relations, whether producing the housewife installed in the matrix of unpaid reproductive labor or the novel that is recognizable as successful by both reader and writer.

      Perhaps at some point I'll take another point that has interested me, the pleasure in generic familiarity, whether in the form of the enjoyment of a piece of literature that fulfills these familiar expectations or the ways that we attempt to shape our social relations based on a series of conventions.  This question has been an implicit one through a number of my short essays, whether in the exploration of how anarchist activists attempted to take Boots Riley's critique of particular forms of property destruction and transform it into a very familiar set of debates about the divisions between anarchists and communists, or the ways that both critics and advocates of the Occupy phenomena refuse to recognize the multiplicity and immense contradictions in the emergent form.  Perhaps my position is increasingly close to the positions taken by Delany because of our common influences through marxism, formalism, and a sort of structuralism.  For Delany, the question of ethics and aesthetics are distinctly related, and the construction of richer and thicker literary conventions gestures towards the ability to produce a more ethical society.  (It would take a long time to work through how this remains faithful to a sort of materialist analysis, but I think you can.)

      It's significant that this position doesn't argue for the end of conventions as either a desired outcome or even as a possibility.  Instead, the goal is to produce an aesthetic that deals with the complexity, contradictions, and conflict that defines what might be called the real, the immense complexity of the world.  To turn briefly to my examples, each response refuses to engage with the emergent properties of the social phenomena, or to use Ernst Bloch's term, it's function as novum or novelty.  Conversation becomes repetitive and ultimately futile, but in such a way as to reinforce the positions of both parties through a series of mechanisms of pleasure.  I don't deny the functionality of this approach at times.  Offering substantial and thoughtful criticism to racist and sexist internet trolls is exhausting in a not terribly productive manner.  But there's a danger in attempting to take every utterance and place it into a familiar and repetitive category, and perhaps more significantly in the desire to only engage with the modes of communication that fall into this terrain, which is stasis,stasis not understood as a sort of immobility but as a sort of unending and repetitive civil war.  If those sorts of engagement are unavoidable, and I do believe that they are, we need to find other forms of engagement in order to escape being fully defined by their terms....  somehow that ties into the aesthetic novum.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

a short piece on sexual assault and activism in Southern California

      It's been a while since I've put anything on the blog.  I've been caught up in the process of putting together a draft for the dissertation, along with the stuff of everyday life, but I thought I would put that aside to deal with a fairly significant issue within radical politics in Southern California, although it has national implications.  A recent campaign was started by a small number of activists in the area in response to the sexual assault of an anarchist activist by a Progressive Labor Party (PLP) member, Seth Miller in 2006.  In the succeeding years, a number of attempts have been made to confront Miller and to get the PLP to take action and hold Miller accountable for his actions.  The party did nothing at the time, and it continued to stall when another group tried to bring up these issues six years later in the summer of 2012.  At this point, Miller is still an active member of the party in New York, and the party has demanded the silence of those who are still seeking his accountability.  You can read a brief description of this process, as well as a call to action here.  The program that they ask to implement is, in fact, fairly minimal, requesting that the PLP be excluded from the institutions, structures, and spaces of the activist community as long as they continue to protect Miller, and refuse to take the issue of sexual violence seriously as a political, rather than private issue.

      Unfortunately, these issues don't come as a surprise to many of the activists that I have been in conversation with.  The Progressive Labor Party has a reputation for not taking issues of sexism seriously within its own structures, and has been more than willing to overlook the poor behavior of its activists.  Although I have heard nothing specific, from the sounds of activist conversations, it sounds like this incident is not isolated within the structures of the party.  This issue becomes apparent in its treatment of the situation with Miller, as it has refused to engage with activists on the issue, and has engaged in a series of victim blaming.  Just as notably, as the necessary means posting notes, "The party has, however, asked that the activist and her allies stop spreading “gossip” about Seth because they see the activist’s rape as a private matter rather than a political matter."  The party has, in effect, dismissed decades of work on the part of feminists, and is attempting to enforce a set of divisions between the public and the private, the political and the personal, that has largely been rejected by even bourgeois social structures.  Those structures of division go back to the party's reactionary investment in the nuclear family, a position that is derived from a limited and problematic reading of Friedrich Engels's The Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State, which falls into a similar defense of the nuclear family, despite its recognition of the structural linkage between state domination, private property, and the construction of the patriarchal family.   It's also worth noting that Miller is the son of significant party members, giving him additional protection from the implications of his actions.

        The party's refusal to act then has to be understood within a nexus of a set of problematic theoretical positions, along with a selfish desire to protect its cadres at the expense of the larger activist community.  This situation is the danger of the kind of cadre and vanguard structure that is created by organizations like the Progressive Labor Party, placing the care of their members above the social justice and needs of the community, particularly those who are privileged members, ensconced within its multi-generational structures.  Additionally, these benefits don't seem to be given merely on the basis of seniority, and are far more frequently granted to men.  Within this context, it's hard to take the PLP seriously as an organization committed to the fight for social justice.  It's members and fellow travelers need to be challenged in this regard, and those who continue to participate in its structures and defend its policies need to be excluded from activist spaces.  Social justice cannot function as long as there are princes in its midst, along with the patriarchal structures that go along with those figures.  As long as we allow the organization to engage in the forms of obfuscation and dissemblance that it is involved in, because of their commitment and meaningful contributions to other struggles, we become complicit in the organizations refusal to confront sexism and reinforce the contemporary sex/gender system.  To put it simply, we become complicit in the injustice of the world.

        It's also important not to make this a sectarian issue, for a number of reasons. To begin, the issues that we see in PLP are neither restricted to it as an individual organization, nor are they restricted to cadre organizations as a particular type of organization.  I've seen sexist men allowed to get away with atrocious sexist behavior because of their prestige within the informal networks of anarchist activism, for instance, and within other progressive structures.  If this generational defense of Miller is an issue of a particular type of cadre and vanguard organization, we see other forms of the defense of men who commit acts of sexual violence and contribute to the sexism of our society as a whole.  Far too often, criticisms of other types of organization become a way of refusing to deal with the real problems in their own organizations.  As the call for action in Necessary Means notes, this moment should be a point for reflecting on our own informal and formal organizational behavior, to confront the sexist and patriarchal behavior that exists within ourselves, collectively and individually.  Additionally, making the issue sectarian offers the Progressive Labor Party far too many easy narratives out of the issue, transforming it into an issue of red-baiting, or other distractions.  We need to focus our attention on the ways that this situation is symptomatic of larger, structural issues within our communities, rather than transforming it into another petty anarchist vs. marxist turf battle.  Along with this, there is something deeply problematic in the way that women's struggles are instrumentalized in service of these sectarian fights, a way that those fights are no longer understood within their own terms, but only in the service of another type of struggle.

      To stick to the kind of critical self-reflection that I am insisting that others engage in, these issues certainly have their analogues in Irvine.  The kinds of sexist structures within that context tended to be informal, tied into the networks of friends and allies that made decisions about the structure and nature of demonstrations in the early part of the protest movement.  It was notable that these networks were dominated by men, and were nearly exclusively made up of men.  Some of the folks who made up those networks had ties to PL, but the anarchist networks had very similar issues.  It's notable that in my time in Irvine that no one has set up lessons on how to facilitate a meeting, network, or set up an action.  These issues have gotten better over the years.  I don't think that we see the same issues that defined the years of 2009-2010, but I think we have a long way to go.  Within that context, I feel it's worth noting that I didn't do enough to challenge those problematic structures of the early period of mass protest, all too often trying to establish myself in those circles, and contributed to the problems of creating activist structures that were not open to the participation and contributions of women.  I've never been terribly fond of the confessional, and have often agreed with Spinoza that those who repent are twice wretched.  But for the very little that it means, I apologize for my mistakes and contributions to the often problematic and sexist environment of UCI activism.  Perhaps more significantly, I will try to avoid these pitfalls in the future.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Good Housekeeping and WWII: a short analysis of an editorial

      In my continued research on U.S. domestic publications during World War II and the early post war period, I came across an interesting editorial in the February issue from 1942.  The editors wanted to explain their role within the war effort, to offer a legitimization of the publication within the context of the rationing and shortages in materials that would eventually define the domestic front during the war years.  Their explanations are worth a few remarks.             

                “Because it is the important home magazine in America, with the largest personnel and the most extensive mechanical and laboratory facilities for studying and analyzing the foods we eat and the things families live by, Good Housekeeping organized itself on Monday the eighth of last December in order to carry out the peculiar responsibilities which naturally fall to it.

                Every item of our apparatus and every operator there-of is now at our Government’s command.  Cheerfully we set aside our routine duties to undertake such emergency tasks as are assigned to us.

               There is another obligation that we will recognize: that of being anti-hysterical: of serving to the utmost of our means the daily requirements of the millions of women who will continue to seek from us the simple, intelligent ways of family existence.  We’ll take for granted that we are in for a long, hard war.  We expect temporary reverses.  We will know every second of the way what the outcome is to be.

               We will try to remember that entertainment and instruction and homely advice must continue as long as families are families, though they live through a war they did not seek, but which, being forced upon them by a staggeringly ruthless aggression, they will resolve in absolute victory.

                Toward that ultimate victory we pledge our every last resource.  We shall win—of that there is no remotest doubt.  And while we are fighting to win, we shall try to know that love will stay in our world: that little children will look each month for Mr. Disney’s cartoons; that mothers-to-be will seek each month the solid advice of Dr. Kenyon; that the poems Mr. Malone selects each month will satisfy an emotional longing; that life in American homes must go on and will go on; and that for the sake of the generations to come we must not lose sight of that—never, not for a single day, because it is that home life, and all it implies, that we are now defending.”  The Editors

      The short article immediately attempts to establish the publication as a technical and technocratic asset to the war effort.  Good Housekeeping can provide mechanical and laboratory facilities for the analysis of food and daily life.  It promises to take those resources and dedicate them to the war effort, presumably to come up with alternatives to materials that must be rationed, and to develop techniques that will come in handy for both the war front and the domestic front.  The rhetoric behind that shift of the work of the magazine from the private to the public sphere is curious.  It erases entirely the move to a consciously public identity through the naturalization of the tasks it plans to take on, "which naturally fall to it."  Rather than presenting this convergence of corporate and state interests as a shift to a wartime mode, it masks this shift within the private sphere, the magazine playing the role of domestic labor, of the sacrificial labor that normatively defines that sphere.

      The next paragraph is more interesting, continuing in the spirit of self-justification that defined the first paragraph, but moving from the technocratic space of abstract consumption and production to the intersubjective space of everyday life.  At the most immediate level, the publication offers itself as a solution to the hysteria  of women.  We shouldn't ignore the immediate sexism contained in that statement.  Its casual contempt and dismissal of the the emotional and intellectual capacities of women, but if we remain at that level, we miss out on the broader implications of the statement, which are just as troubling if more interesting.  Effectively, the publication is arguing that it plays a sort of regulatory and pedagogical role for the private sphere, teaching women how to handle any number of technical requirements of the household, and perhaps more significantly, how to negotiate the forms of affective labor that are necessary for the maintenance and reproduction of the household.  In effect, it acknowledges the necessity for the modes of unpaid labor in the household for the success of the war effort, the maintenance and reproduction of the economic system, while masking that importance in the language of simplicity and the naturalization of the family and sex/gender system.

      The double work of that recognition and obfuscation continues with the next paragraph.  Family life is placed in both sentimental and banal terms.  The publication provides structures of regulation for all aspects of daily life, from the raising of children, courtship and marriage, and the fulfillment of a variety of emotional needs.  Sentimentality becomes the primary pedagogical mode of the publication, producing a generically accessible mode of instruction, naturalizing its structures, and making those forms pleasurable (to take a page from Ellen McCracken's Decoding Women's Magazines.)  The editors, in effect, argue that the structure of the nation is founded in the family, which in turn is structured and regulated by the work of Good Housekeeping.  The hubris is a little breath taking, but perhaps we should take it seriously, if only as a metonym for the larger public and private structures structuring and regulating the ostensibly private realm of the household.  The sentimental stories of the melodramas contained in the publication within this context are not simply fluff.  They become a regulatory mechanism, training and naturalizing an entire set of hierarchical expectations contained in the nuclear family of the middle class.  The stories construct a set of normative expectations, constructing the preconditions for identification through its forms.  

        A story, "Powder Room Blues" from the pages becomes an interesting example of this.  The narrative contrasts two women, one who accepts the conventions of domesticity, the other look to Hollywood and the public sphere for satisfaction.  The narrative is from the perspective of the first woman, who observes the trajectory of the second woman, as she leaves her successful marriage to become a part of the Hollywood publicity machine. The description of the collapse of the relationship gives a good sense of the narrative.  “It wasn’t hard to understand what was happening to Fred. He saw the rest of us building our lives around our husbands, working for a common good, and he couldn’t understand why he couldn’t elicit the same sort of cooperation from Dee."  The expectations for the housewife to sacrifice her ambitions is naturalized under the name of cooperation, and breaking those expectations is coded as a form of selfishness.  The narrative then links that act of selfishness to loneliness, artificiality, and failure.  Dee abandons her husband, her child, and the safety of her suburban life, only to become a threat to other marriages as the other woman.  In contrast, the narrator successfully creates the conditions for her husband's immense success, playing the role of a genuine Hollywood mover and shaker in contrast to the forms of deception that Dee engages in.

       Any alternative to the feminine mystique becomes pathologized, and the cost of that pathology is spelled out in painful detail.  In a curious sense, the painful sense of restriction contained in this form has an analogy to the proscribed actions of the workers on an assembly line, and that harsh discipline plays the same productive role, to contribute to and expand the regime of the accumulation of wealth. 

Friday, November 9, 2012

On the industrialization of Housework

     Ruth Schwarz Cowan's More Work for Mother plays a significant role in thinking about the radical shifts in domesticity, particularly looking at the process of industrialization in the household.  She argues that our understanding of those shifts have been a 'victim of cultural obfuscation' due to the sort of popular romanticism of the home, which places it in opposition to the outside public sphere, a romantic notion embraced by conservatives and progressives for different ends.  Cowan proposes exploring this radical transformation, making the following argument.

    "Households did not become industrialized in the same way that other workplaces did; there are striking differences between housework and other forms of industrialized labor.  Most of the people who do housework do not get paid for it, despite the fact that it is, for many of them, a full-time job.  They do not have job descriptions or time clocks or contractual arrangements; indeed, they cannot fairly be said even to have employers.  Most of their work is performed in isolation, whereas most of their contemporaries work in the company of hundreds, perhaps even thousands of other adults.  Over the years, market labor has become increasingly specialized, and the division of labor has become increasingly more minute; but housework has not been affected by this process.  The housewife is the last jane-of-all-trades in a world in which the jacks-of-all-trades have more or less disappeared; she is expected to perform work that ranges from the most menial physical labor to the most abstract of mental manipulations and to do it all without any specialized training.  These various characteristics of household work have led some analysts to suggest that housework (or the household economy) is the last dying gasp of feudalism, a remnant of precapitalist conditions somehow (miraculously) vaulting the centuries unimpaired, the last surviving indicator of what the Western world was before the market economy reared its ugly head.

     Perhaps this is true, but there are other sides to the coin; industrialized housework resembles industrialized market labor in significant ways.  Modern housework depends upon nonhuman energy sources, just as advanced industrialized systems do....

     Thus, even if the household is an isolated work environment, it is also a part of a larger economic and social system; and if it did not constantly interact with this system, it could not function at all--making it no different from the manufacturing plant outside the city or the supermarket down the street....

     Finally, both household labor and market labor are today performed with tools that can be neither manufacture nor understood by the workers who use them....

     In sum, we can say that there are three significant senses in which housework differs from market work (in being--most commonly--unpaid labor, performed in isolated workplaces, by unspecialized workers) and three significant senses in which the two forms of work resemble each other (in utilizing nonhuman--or non-animal--energy sources, which create dependency on a network of social and economic institutions and are accompanied by alienation from the tools that make labor possible).  If we take all six of these criteria and group them together, we will have a good definition of industrialization.  Then we might be able to see that, in the West over the last two hundred years, women's work has been differentiated from men's by being incompletely industrialized or by being industrialized in a somewhat different manner. (Cowan 6-7)

     Before we work through the productive aspects of the quote, I want to point to out the most significant problem of the passage, the binary between the commercial space of men and the household space of women.  On one hand, the industrialized workplace certainly hasn't excluded women.  One can look at the factories Lowell in the 19th century, the wartime workplaces of the United States, amongst other examples.  On the other hand, the isolated space of the household has contained substantial amounts of commercial, particularly in the form of home work, piece work taken up by immigrant wives to supplement income.  Perhaps to put another way, the farther we move away from white, middle-class households, the less this split between the public and the private works.  It works best during the 1950's, precisely because of the explosion of white middle class households.  (As many note, the post war period coagulates a white, middle class identity, at the expense of the African American portion of the population.)

     Once we move beyond these problems, the text provides some provocative approaches to understanding the structures of domesticity and consumption that increasingly dominates industrialized, mass production through the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  Cowan provides some useful evidence to critique the notion taken up by a set of conventional marxist thinkers and feminists like Charlotte Perkins Gilman.  Despite the fact that household labor doesn't mirror the structures of mass labor found in the Fordist factory, it is in fact modern, industrialized work that appears radically different than previous household labor.  In effect, the structure of the household is radically transformed by the structures of industrialization as much as any other form of work.  Just as significantly, the entire process of industrialization cannot be understood without thinking about the role of the household as an aspect of that process.  We can think about this in a couple ways.  The first way of thinking about this relates to the question of consumption, one not fully taken up by Cowan, but dealt with in depth by Stuart Ewen in his critical work.   The household becomes the place that legitimates mass production through the consumption of what is produced, and by acting as a place of solace, providing a substitute to any meaningful voice in the space of production.  What Cowan makes us see is that it also shapes the way that reproductive labor occurs.  Although she gestures towards the critiques that label this form of work as 'primitive' or non-modern, the reality is that it is intensely tied into the forms of industrialization that were occurring throughout the system.  Just as the work of carpenters and other craft workers was being deeply reshaped, the work of the housewife was just as significantly transformed, operating in isolation, but, at the same time, deeply shaped by the social structures of industrialization.  We might even say that the feminist movement played a class role in bringing out the common experience of this isolated socialization. 

     What I want to bring to this conversation might be understood in a two fold process.  1.  I want to argue that despite what Cowan argues, there existed deeply embedded structures of pedagogy for this newly industrialized labor.  Most obviously, this training occurred in a variety of classes for immigrant mothers and wives, in classrooms focused on home economics and other disciplines, but that could be expanded to the informal space of domestic and women's magazines, which became the prime location to popularize the academic discourses of home economics and other engagements with the home.  It also produced a heavily edited and monitored collective space in which women could discuss techniques and approaches to child care, gardening, and other activities.  Housework could only be understood as untrained labor if these spaces as well as other formal and informal spaces are ignored.  2.  In some sense, the types of labor discussed by Cowan, rather than being primitive gesture towards the forms of labor found in the contemporary forms of post-Fordism.  As Paulo Virno notes, this era is defined precisely by the expectation that workers can operate within a variety of rules systems, take on a multiplicity of tasks, and most notably, invest themselves passionately in each of them.  Perhaps, instead of thinking of the walls of the factory falling down to envelope society, we can see the reproductive structures of the household falling down with the fights brought on by feminism, and that fight and more notably, its reaction, leading to a generalization of the reproductive role of the household throughout social structures.  This obviously needs more thought, and I probably will need to deal with the question of the counter-revolution within this process, but I think I will leave my thoughts here for now.  Hopefully, this isn't too repetitive. 

Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Propositions in California: Revised

     After my foray into presidential politics, I thought I should continue this trend with some thoughts on the current propositions that are up for election in California.  Unlike the presidential election, those propositions have a much more direct influence on my life, and attempt to accomplish very concrete goals, both good and bad.  My positions aren't going to be that startling to anyone who knows me, and frankly don't stray very far from the positions taken by other groups, but, nonetheless, I thought it would be worth spelling out my thoughts in these matters.

     Proposition 30 is a compromise between Governor Jerry Brown's proposition to refund the state government and the proposition being brought up by labor unions and other progressive groups, called the millionaire's tax.  In effect, it took some of the regressive taxation proposed by the governor and combined it with the progressive taxation proposed by the millionaire's tax.  It's certainly not the proposition I would have wanted to see.  The notion that those who have hurt by the crisis should have to pay along with those who have benefited seems a little obscene to me.  However, our ability to freeze the cost of university and college education is on the line with this proposition.  Moreover, most of the taxation is progressive.  I have difficulty seeing anyone interpret the failure of this proposition link it to the sales tax, setting back attempt to reintroduce progressive taxation in the state.  Within that context, I think folks should get out and vote for this measure.  However, we shouldn't be deluded into thinking this will solve the crisis.  We need to also pressure the governor and the regents to prioritize public education.

     Proposition 31 is a little baroque.  No position

     Proposition 32 basically is a way to take away any political influence of unions from the political process, while continuing to allow the immense expenditures on the part of corporations.  The prop attempts to disguise this by stating it will equally disqualify union and business spending, but the truth is that it removes the funding mechanism that unions use to make political donations, while not challenging the main forms of corporate funding.  It should also be noted that union political donations are made voluntarily and aren't taken out of union dues.  As much as I get annoyed at the unions love of the democratic party, the big unions have been some of the biggest advocates for public education and the social safety net in the state.  Obviously, you should vote no on this.

    Proposition 33 is basically an auto insurance industry scam, one that they keep on trying to pass.  Don't vote for this.

    Proposition 34 abolishes the death penalty in California, while creating the conditions to put a lot more money in law enforcement.  It also changes the labor expectations of prisoners found guilty of murder, giving them the same labor expectations as other prisoners, expanding prison labor.  This reinforces a set of policies connected to the prison labor industrial complex, but it's not a substantial transformation.  Here's an article discussing why many death row prisoners are opposed, along with some prisoners' rights groups.  No position  (This is revised from a reserved yes for the measure.)

     Proposition 35 focuses on the question of human trafficking, imposing larger penalties on those who engage in these practices.  Sounds good, but the definitions presented in the proposition threaten to place these onerous penalties on sex workers and those who were victims of trafficking.  It also continues the erasure of the majority of those affected by trafficking, those who were transported for labor purposes.  Here's a decent article on some of the severe problems with the proposition.  Vote no.

      Proposition 36 is an attempt to modify California's three strikes laws, setting it up that one can only be imprisoned for life when the final accusation is a serious felony.  All the polling seems to show that this is not going to pass, which is unfortunate because the only problem with the proposition is that it doesn't go as far as to get rid of the entire edifice of the three strikes law, which has contributed to the explosion of prisons in California.  Voting for this won't get rid of the racist prison system, but it is a significant small step in challenging it.  Vote yes.

     Proposition 37 would require that the use of genetically modified organisms (gmo) must be labelled when used in food products.  I don't have the passion about this issue that other folks do, but it seems to make sense that folks can make informed decisions on what they eat.  I suggest folks vote yes.

     Proposition 38 is a competing tax proposal with prop 30.  It focuses its funding for K-12 education, with some money going to early education and some going to debt reduction, basically leaving us out in the cold.  It operates by increasing the income tax on everyone but those in the lowest tax brackets.  Basically, it takes the same perspective of prop 30, but taking a more regressive stance.  Folks should vote this down, and support 30.

      Proposition 39 basically cuts a bunch of loopholes for business who operate in a multi-state context, and sets up new sales tax expectations on how out of state businesses calculate sales taxes.  That money will go to clean energy stuff, specifically tied into creating new jobs.  Folks should vote for this one too.

Proposition 40 is another in a long line of redistricting proposals.  I don't have a position on this.

      In any case, I hope to move away from this shameful act of reformist deviation to discuss more meaningful radical organizing, but there seem to be a lot of folks wondering about this stuff.  I thought I would toss out my two cents on this.  To put it simply, you should go out and vote, but none of these propositions respond to the structural issues that have created this.  In order to do that we need organize a historical bloc that would begin to undo the last 500 years of exploitation and domination created by the world capitalist system.  No ballot measure will solve that.  Radical expectations met.  I'll leave it there.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

a short response to debates on Occupy

       At the height of the set of encampments and actions that made up the phenomenon called Occupy, there was an immense outpouring of celebratory articles and essays.  Occupy was the long needed response to the crisis, whether in terms of fiance capitalism, inequality, or a number of other social phenomenon.  At last the dam broke, and 'we' were finally acting.  Politics as usual was dead, or at least dying.  Several months later, with the collapse of the encampments and the shattering of the political alliances that produced the encampments into dozens of smaller projects as well as a lot of folks dropping out, we see the opposite response, a blistering attack on the phenomenon, most notably from Alexander Cockburn shortly before his death, and most recently from Thomas Frank, in the revived Baffler.  The same set of techniques and approaches to the political so often celebrated in those earlier essays and response now become the focus of attack, leaderlessness, the emphasis on process, critical theory, etc.  Frank, in particular, demands that the 'movement' look like the social movements of the past, movements that were not abject failures in the way that Occupy was.

       Both celebratory gestures and withering critique contain a common error of analysis, the homogenous Occupy movement never existed in the way that they imagined it.  Instead, Occupy was at best a structure of feeling, a resentment and the spark of hope that brought together a fairly strange assemblage of disappointed Obama voters, marxists, anarchists, Ron Paul supporters, conspiracy theorists, and others.  The movement not only divided on those ideological concerns, but substantially divided on regional concerns.  The movement in Los Angeles looked nothing like the movement in Oakland, which looked nothing like the movement in New York.  Different encampments formed and succeeded or failed depending a radically contingent set of circumstances, ranging from who formed the original groups to organize the actions to the responses of the police.  Furthermore, the most successful encampments were linked to earlier struggles, adding to the distinctions between the various actions.  Moreover, the inclusion of supporters of Ron Paul, David Icke, and others created antagonisms that made the typical divisions between radicals and liberals or anarchists and marxists seem fairly tame.  Those divisions within the multiplicity both made the phenomenon look so appealing, but also created the inevitable divisions that we now seen in the shattered projects of the aftermath.

     Ultimately, Occupy is better understood as a set of constitutive possibilities and limitations within the various fragments and groupings of counter-systemic movements within the United States, rather than as a movement in any meaningful sense.  To put it differently, it gestures towards a movement through a number of useful and problematic potential symbolic forms, rather than being that movement.  In a curious sense, we can see the history of our movements running through the vast horizontal network of assemblages that linked and broke apart within the past year.  Our ability to produce what Gramsci calls a historical bloc is dependent on our ability to recognize and negotiate this long and complex history of revolt and complicity, of resistance and compliance.  Mike Ely from the Kasama project has a useful way of thinking about this.  He notes that earlier socialist projects were often built on the notion of the new man, the subjectivity built out of the furnace of socialist struggle.  What we need to conceptualize now is the way that we can build a radically new society with the people that exist and the here and now.  Although I'm not sure that Ely would go as far as this, I think this means rejecting the notion of the revolutionary 'subject' altogether.  Radical transformation occurs through the creation of new assemblages, new organizations, new collectivities, not the fantasy of a sort of collective subject.  Those formations will be both remarkably new to us and very familiar because they will arise as a result of people who have been formed in the old social formations that map the terrain of struggle we live within.

     Our engagement with those phenomena should be less concerned with the notion of victory or defeat than the social possibilities and limitations that exist in our attempts to produce some sort of more substantial counter-systemic project.  That means getting a sense of the vast multiplicity of projects that occurred under the Occupy umbrella, from legal actions to home defense to occupations of space.  My suspicion is that there was a lot more going on than what has been reported.  It means talking about what succeeded, what didn't, and perhaps more significantly, how those various tactics and strategies can be built upon.  I largely agree with the analyses presented by Jodi Dean and other about the question of representation, and the political.  There needs to be more thought given to the question of representation that escapes the easy formulation of a refusal of the question altogether.  (This deserves a longer conversation, but I would recommend Jodi Dean and Jason Jones essay discussing the question here.)  At the same time, it would be a pretty substantial mistake to imagine Occupy in some sense constitutes the only spaces of resistance within the country,  As a lot of anti-racist activists pointed out, there were distinct limitations to who was represented in the movement, and how questions of racialization were approached in the movement.  We also need to recognize the need to keep the Ron Paul supporters, the conspiracy theorists, and weird monetarists out of the movement.  To draw on Dean's analysis, we need to draw divisions between our radical project and the racism and quackery of the right.  But all of this is contingent on recognizing the fissures and contradictions within the multiple formations under the umbrella of Occupy.  Until we do that, our understanding of the movement will be fundamentally mystified.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Fall Joint Council: Some Notes

       Although the recent joint council meeting lacked the drama and conflict that has defined a lot of our recent union meetings, I thought I should still write up a brief description of the process, in order to continue to report back on what we have been up to recently.  In many ways, this shift from the drama of the past to the relative boredom of today is a positive transformation, gesturing towards an acceptance of the shifts that were introduced into the local over a year ago.  We still have a long way to go in terms of creating a participatory democratic culture in the local, but our local has at least largely accepted that as a goal.  I suspect that we're going to see some fights in the upcoming contract negotiations, but those fights should primarily be with management, will hopefully avoid becoming internal issues.

      The day of the meeting was extremely busy, consisting of two union meetings, along with an internal AWDU meeting to deal with some internal political issues.  The first meeting focused on the upcoming contract campaign, and was the first time that the larger bargaining committee met together.  It was primarily a conversation about the future plans of bargaining, focusing on the various structural deadlines of the process, along with the directions that we want to take. We decided to set up bargaining training for later in the year, and some other issues that we will be discussing with the membership later in the year.  The committee has largely accepted the need to both expand the contract fight to deal with social justice issues, and the need to produce a more participatory contract negotiation process. The Berkeley campus presented some of the new approaches that they are taking to bargaining, notably the creation of Contract Action Teams.  These teams will be made up of rank and file members who are willing to spend a few hours every months passing on information about bargaining and getting folks to events in support of the contract struggle, while meeting up every other week to talk about the progress.  It's a really exciting idea, and we're planning on stealing it shamelessly on the Irvine campus.

     The larger meeting remained positive, spending a substantial amount of time covering the issues of the upcoming contract negotiations and the process of getting folks into the union over orientations.  We saw an upsurge in membership over the past couple months, which shows that we're beginning to get used to being formal union representatives, and coming up with new ways of getting folks involved.  We also agreed to support the larger framework of bargaining that we came up with.  The threatened longer debate about endorsing the president didn't occur.  I suspect that the Santa Barbara folks realized that it wasn't going to go anywhere, and when Obama is up by double digits in California, there was no real reason to have that conversation.  I would have liked to revisit our conversation about Prop 30, but we wound up avoiding that conversation as well.  Instead, a vaguely defined political committee has been created, which I'm not sure of what its role is going to be.  From there, we moved into discussing bylaws, which allowed us to pass the reforms that we had introduced in the spring, formalizing our earlier decision of allow campuses to have access to the email lists without state interference, insisting that northern and southern vice presidents should come from the regions that they represented, and a couple issues.  Additionally, new bylaws on elections are were introduced as well.  Unfortunately, our attempt to change the presidential succession was blocked due to the international constitution, which means that we will still only have presidential elections every three years, rather than during vacancy elections.  We still have more work to do in limiting the power of the president and the eboard, but I think we're going to get to that with the next JC meetings.

      All in all it was a fairly successful set of meetings.  We have a lot of work to do to get ready for contract negotiations in the spring and summer, but we're beginning to function as a collective body in a much more healthier manner.  We still have some pretty fundamental differences in approach in the body, but at least our every action isn't defined by the hostility of the election.  In many ways, I think the upcoming contract negotiations are going to be the real test of the union reforms.  I think we're going in the right direction. 

     As a last note, I haven't dealt with the AWDU aspect of the day, which dealt with internal issues.  We wound up having a very productive conversation about feminist practices, but it would be far too drawn out and painful to explain the origins of the conversation.  I'm hoping that those conversations will continue, and we will develop more productive ways of working with each other.  The immediate danger of USEJ is largely over, but the kinds of business union practice that they represent still often define the day to day life of our union, and perhaps as significantly, the expectations that our rank and file have for us as a union.  I still believe our caucus is deeply important to transforming the structures of the union to democratic and participatory principles from the top down model of old.  I'm hoping we will finally have the conversations about organizing that we need to have.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Presidential Endorsement

       Given the nature of the current presidential election, I thought I would break away from the typical focus and perspective of this blog in order to make an intervention into presidential politics with an endorsement.  No doubt, the 10-30 readers will make the difference at the polls, marking who will win and who will lose the election.  It's a heavy burden.  With that in mind, Work Resumed on the Tower formally endorses.... Dinesh D'Souza's racist caricature of Barack Obama.  The racist caricature of Barack Obama has the most consistently anti-racist, anti-imperialist, and anti-capitalist positions of all nationally viable candidates, including the third parties.  He has recognized that we need to challenge the fundamental structures of the capitalist world system, from the informal and formal structures of racism and sexism that define that system to the legacy of imperialism and conquest that played a foundational role in the construction of our current regime of accumulation, which has benefited the very few at the expense of the many.  In addition,he recognizes the perhaps central role that white supremacy plays in the continuing legitimization of this system.  Most notably, Dinesh D'Souza's racist caricature of Obama has recognized that the predominant role of the United States plays a significant role in the reproduction of the forms of domination and exploitation existing in the world today.  He recognizes that our nation has taken the place of the United Kingdom in this role, and has creatively linked the two imperial systems in order to critique our current role in preserving a world system that systemically evacuates resources to a small group of metropolitan centers, and extracts the labor from billions in order to let a small group of primarily white men live like gods.  In response, he proposes to radically transform both the role of United States in the current world system, and therefore create the opportunity to create a world system based on radically different principles, the principles of taking what one needs and giving what one can.  He advocates, in short, the destruction of the legacy of the past 500 years of domination in the name of a common humanity.

       It's unfortunate that the only coherent statement in support of these policies, policies that would link the United States to the broad masses of humanity that make up this planet to create a world based on the principles of mutual aid and solidarity, is found in a racist caricature of a mainstream, bourgeois politician.  It is perhaps even more unfortunate that anyone outside of the small group of the very wealthy would vote against a candidate for expressing these principles.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

More thoughts on privilege: a reading of John Scalzi's Redshirts

       I found myself returning to the question of privilege as I read John Scalzi's Redshirts over the past few days.  Scalzi's novel can be largely understood as a satire on the tropes and conventions of Star Trek, and the many shows that it influenced.  The novel begins with the growing recognition on the part of a number of junior officers on a number of away missions, and follows their efforts to understand the reasons for that phenomenon.  The novel is clearly premised on the well recognized trope in the show in which a junior, red-shirted officer will inevitably die on the away missions, in order to create tension and drama in the show without sacrificing any major members of the crew.  Scalzi's narrative moves on from this premise to begin to explore a number of ideas, notably around intertextuality and the function and role of the author.  Without dismissing the larger telos of the narrative, I want to read the novel as a remarkably sensitive engagement with the role of privilege in the interactions of the crew of the ship, and the ways that it isolates individuals through a combination of fear and consent, to use Machiavelli's classic categories of governance.  Scalzi both invites a significant critical rereading of the Star Trek franchise, and allows for a further exploration of the ways that privilege naturalizes and perpetuates structures of domination and exploitation.

      Early in the narrative, the text establishes the privileges of rank through the ability or inability to speak, as we can see in this early interaction between the protagonist, Dahl, and the Chief Science Officer, Q'eeng, in  a brief interaction about foreign languages.

      "I understand you spent several years on Forshan, and that you speak the language," Q'eeng said. "All four dialects."
      "Yes, sir," Dahl said.
      "I studied it briefly at the academy," Q'eeng said, and then cleared his throat.  "Aaachka, faaachklalhach ghalall chkalalal."
     Dahl kept his face very still. Q'eeng had just attempted in the third dialect the traditional rightward schism greeting of "I offer you the bread of life," but his phrasing and accent had transmuted the statement into "Let us violate cakes together."  Leaving aside the fact it would be highly unusual for a member of the rightward schism to voluntarily speak the third dialect, it being the native dialect of the  founder of the leftward schism and therefore traditionally eschewed, mutual cake violation was not an accepted practice anywhere on Forshan.
     "Asschkla faaachklalhalu faadalalu chkalalal," Dahl said, returning the correct traditional response of "I break the bread of life with you" in the third dialect."
     "Did I say that correctly?" Q'eeng asked.
     "Your accent is very unusual, sir," Dahl said.
     "Indeed," Q'eeng said, "Then perhaps I will leave any necessary Forshan speaking to you."
     "Yes, sir," Dahl said.

      Within this brief interaction, the formal structure of rank also translates into an informal series of privileges of speech, of who can correct an error, of who can act without sufficient expertise, etc.  Rank not only allows for formal decision making, but it also gives those who have it the ability to claim a whole series of skills and abilities that they clearly don't have.  Subordinates have to pretend that the types of incompetence occurring in front of their eyes, simply didn't occur.  The interaction depends on an incredible degree of self-consciousness on the part of Dahl, while Q'eeng remains oblivious.  The social labor of the entire conversation is thereby put onto one party, rather than the other.  In many ways, the micro-structures of power exemplified by privilege is tied into these inequalities in affective labor.  It also invites a certain rereading of the the hobbies and casual interests of Star Trek: The Next Generation.  Instead of figures such as Picard and others being extraordinarily versatile and skilled figures, the crew of the ship simply could not comment on their immense incompetence.

      However, the politics of privilege doesn't stop at the relationships between the senior officers and the subalterns, it also ties into the relationships of the subaltern structures of the staff itself.  The text carefully maps out how the crew itself interacts collectively.  The older members of the crew have begun to recognize the mysterious deaths happening on the ship, but attempt to keep that information to themselves, in order to sacrifice new crew members so that the older crew will not be put at risk.  In effect, rather than challenging the structure that unnecessarily kills so many crew members, they take advantage of their relative status within that system to preserve themselves, which also, in effect, preserves the system.  Moreover, they are willing to take actions that will lead to crew deaths to reinforce that system, and respond with anger when those perceived systems of privilege are broken by the protagonist.  These actions also preserve the larger structure of the ship, a structure that puts all of the subaltern staff of the ship at risk, it acts as an implicit form of consent for those structures, an act of voluntary preservation.  The micro-structures of privilege divide the interests of the crew, constructing small factions who implicitly accept the rules of the game. 

      The text moves away from this exploration of the life of the ship to a set of an exploration of the author function, but it's worth lingering on this early section of the text, which offers such a useful analysis of the functioning of privilege, at a multiplicity of levels.  Probably most significantly, Scalzi creates a narrative that both recognizes the ways that these informal and formal structures of privilege help to reproduce structures of domination and exploitation that may not have their origins in any of the parties involved.  After all, neither the crew nor the officers ultimately created the narrative shifts that affect the crew, but they all acted to preserve that system, despite that fact. I'll leave it there.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Activism and Siege Mentality: A Critique of the Critics of Boots Riley.

      Recently, Boots Riley placed a pair of political critiques of the recent actions coming out of the extra-parliamentary and primarily anarchist milieu of a set of subcultural formations within Oakland.  He notably argued that the forms of property destruction used by the Black Bloc as a political formation were making it difficult to bring folks not already a part of those subcultures into the movement, often because of their lack of direction, but also because they were occasionally directed against working class property.  There are certainly problems with Riley's initial posting, particularly in the the way that it often reproduced some of the assumptions about insiders and outsiders, authentic and inauthentic community members that echo to an extent the earlier criticisms presented by city officials to legitimate violence against the movement.  But Riley's intervention can't be simply limited to that mistake.  He is making a significant and substantial intervention, noting the alienation that he is picking up on in his day to day organizing, as well as the increasing isolation of the various political formations operating under and near the "Occupy" banner.  I want to offer a critical reading of the various refusals to recognize that criticism, refusals based in a 'siege mentality' that shuts down critical engagement and dialogue to protect a political line in the name of security, solidarity, and an overlapping series of demands for political loyalty.  Before I move into this critique, I want to acknowledge that the events that Riley describe involve a great deal of violence on the part of the police, and the need to provide support financially and otherwise for those who were arrested.  It's also very frustrating to receive critical input when you have put time, pain, and labor into a political project, from perceived outsiders.  However, critique is crucial to radical politics.  Riley's critique, while pointed, remains principled.  The responses, however fall into a number of substantial political errors.

      As I have already noted, the most immediate error was the refusal to recognize the need or even validity of producing a radical critique of the contemporary moment.  Despite the fact that Riley didn't identify individuals or provide any evidence for future prosecution, a number of folks claimed that his response would legitimate state prosecution.  All too often, the discourse of security is used to secure and legitimate a particular political position through the invocation of security culture, a point I made in an earlier essay.  As Riley notes in a later response, "I would also say that many of the folks who are conflating my critique of folks doing bb tactics in a certain situation in Oakland- with the idea that I’m not showing solidarity to the folks who WEREN’T doing bb in SF and were arrested- are misleading and it speaks more to other issues than this one. Two separate issues. My post actually implies that the folks who get arrested for bb aren’t the ones doing it. Most times bb is done at actions in the bay area, somebody gets arrested. So using this logic no critique should be put out about the planning until the media aren’t talking about it."  As Riley notes, the demand that one cannot critique the tactics of an action while folks are under arrest, effectively infinitely defers the ability to present that critique.  It transforms critique into a sort of treason, a refusal of a sort of political loyalty.  Open critical speech is then limited to a very small and private set of spaces, effectively limiting broader conversations about political activity to small interpersonal groups, keeping those critiques isolated and scattered, while leaving large swathes of the population of the conversation.

      The second notable error in the responses to Riley is the continual attempts to take Riley's unique critique of a particular set of tactics in a particular situation and transform them into a series of very familiar discourses.  A set of respondents immediately tried to associate Riley's critiques of the tactics with the critiques made by Mayor Quan earlier in the year.  Another set attempted to match up Riley's critiques with the highly problematic statements made by Chris Hedges on the Black Block.  Still another group attempted to translate Riley's critiques into a series of predictable anarchist vs. marxist debates, and a final set of groups attempted to reduce the political options for action to a binary opposition between the sorts of random property destruction and either inaction or minimal symbolic action.  In many of the responses to Riley, we saw a return to a number of forms of redbaiting, generally framed in a manner that accused Riley of opposing anarchism to some sort of marxist orthodoxy.  In each case, the respondents substantially refused to engage with the argument that Riley had presented, instead making a easy set of straw man arguments, in response.  Cliche becomes a way of enforcing a set of normative practices, of refusing to challenge the categories of thought that define a conservative form of common sense.  I don't want to exclude the possibility of criticizing Riley.  After all, it would fall back into the same set of bad habits and errors that I'm criticizing, but criticism should work towards breaking up these forms of cliche, either through gesturing towards new categories, new forms of knowledge and action, etc. or towards showing the limitations of our present.

      Which leads me to a third notable error in the responses, the demand that those who criticize immediately have a solution for the problems that they have brought up.  At an immediate level, this criticism doesn't fall into the same immediate fallacies that the other categories have fallen into.  After all, Riley doesn't offer a positive solution.  However, the demand for immediate answers leads to a far more significant problem, the inability to pose fundamental questions, questions that don't simply challenge a small aspect of the current framework of the world.  At a fundamental level, it erases the ability to pose a radical critique.  After all, all current approaches to anti-capitalism have failed.  It's likely that a successful approach to creating a radical anti-capitalist social formation is going to take a form of organization and structure that is currently unrecognizable.  The way to that formation is going to need voices to point to the limitations of current forms of organization, along with the points that we step into the marshes of disorganization, even when we can't identify the road to create new forms, to complete Lenin's metaphor.  Let's create the possibilities of accomplishing that. 

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Joanna Russ and Genre: Reading Wolfe and James on Joanna Russ

     The first two essays in the collection of essays On Joanna Russ, edited by Farah Mendlesohn, are written by more traditional science fiction critics, Gary K. Wolfe and Edward James. Each of these text aims to focus on Russ' intense intertextual engagement with the genre, effectively arguing that Russ' work was deeply invested in the literary tradition of science fiction and fantasy writing, and didn't simply appropriate the genres for political purposes. Wolf polemically notes at the begin of his essay, "My apologies for beginning such a litany of bibliographical detail, but it's crucial to the intent of this essay, which is in part to reclaim and recognize Russ's identity as a science fiction writer--not simply a writer who used science fiction towards other ends--and to establish the extent to which Russ's work was deeply connected to the mainstream dialogue of genre SF prior to and concurrent with her most famous "breakout" works, the Nebula-winning "When It Changed" in 1972 and the now-classic The Female Man in 1975." ( Wolfe 4) Wolfe wants to break out of a number of feminist readings of Russ, that both erase the linkages that her work has with the dominant structures of the genre, as well as the tendency to read those texts instrumentally, that is to read it for its political aims, rather than engaging in the formal structures of the text. We'll return to some of the flaws contained in those assumptions, which in some sense reproduce the form/content divide, but let's begin by exploring what the essays contribute to our understanding of Russ' work. Gary Wolfe's essay, 'Alyx among the Genres' closely reads the Alyx stories for their dense engagement with 'a wide spectrum of science fiction and fantasy traditions." (Wolfe 5) Wolfe then offers a detailed analysis of the stories, showing deliberate intertextual references to Fritz Leiber, Robert E. Howard, C.L. Moore, Isaac Asimov, Poul Anderson, and others. For Wolfe, this work needs to be read not simply as prequel to the serious work of later novels, but as a serious commitment to the form and history of the genre, per se.

     Edward James continues this argument through his reading of the history of Russ's review of science fiction novels, written for the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction between the years 1966 and 1980. James is also concerned with linking Russ to the subcultural and generic norms of the science fiction community, noting, "What can the reader of Russ's science fiction learn from a study of her reviews of science fiction novels? First, that she is in many ways a very old-fashioned reader of science fiction. That she should write in praise, in her very last review, in 1979, of “as-if speculation which produces medical and technological advances,” swhows that she is a true daughter of Gernsback and Campbell, and apparently far removed from the reaction against the Old Guard by the New Wave. She enjoys schlock; she admits the importance of entertainment; she extols the value of scientific accuracy.” (James 30) For James, Russ is a faithful science fiction traditionalist, only demanding a revision in the genre to conform to her radical feminist critiques of the genres sexism, a claim that James implicitly endorses, as well. James is certainly correct in perceiving both a love of the genre in Russ’s writing, along with a willingness to celebrate a number of generic traditions that were challenged by the New Wave. Indeed, not only Russ’s reviews show this intense interest in the history of the genre, but her writing does as well, as shown in Wolfe’s intervention. But James doesn’t take into account the generic limitations contained in the format that Russ was writing in, the book review. When one begins to read the critical essays produced by Russ in the same era, we begin to see a greater demand for formal experimentation, one that links her work to the New Wave in a manner that James attempts to deny, which both refuses to recognize a critical engagement with the New Wave with the older traditions of science fiction, and the ways that both Russ and the New Wave are engaged in a substantial formal rewriting of those traditions.

      To return to the issue of form and content, brought up earlier in the essay, both Wolfe and James contribute useful material to the understanding of Joanna Russ as a science fiction author, as an author that both contributes to the generic form of science fiction, but also as an author who can only be understood through a critical engagement with that genre.  However, they don't allow that Russ's engagement with the form of the genre might be driven by a feminist politic, not from an instrumental perspective, but from the perspective of a politics of form, what Darko Suvin might call a 'social formalism.'  In this sense, Wolfe and James produce a mirror image of the critic who attempts to extract a political critique from the science fictional form, one that is designed to popularize and make accessible the radical feminist politics of her time.  Both perspectives erase the ability for literature to produce their own theoretical structures through a formal engagement, one built on a substantial engagement with the history as well as the radical possibilities contained in the science fictional form.  Russ points to radically alternative understanding of the social symbolic, one that escapes the psychoanalytical framework that dominated radical and cultural feminism.  We need a social formalist approach to engage with that work.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Informal Thoughts on Privilege

      I've been giving the concept of privilege a lot of thought recently, primarily in response to some of the criticisms that have been made recently from a number of perspectives.  Rather than taking my usual approach of close reading and critique, I thought I would put my thoughts down on the concept with a slightly more informal approach.  The usefulness of the concept of privilege largely comes out of its ability to provide a sort of conceptual lens to understand the often personal and informal problems that arise in groups of ostensible peers, particularly within radical and progressive activist circles.  After all, the framework of privilege largely arises out of W.E.B. DuBois' effort to understand the inability to produce inter-racial forms of working class solidarity within his analysis of the reconstruction period in his 1930's text Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880.  DuBois argues that these alliances collapse due to the formal and informal privileges offered to white workers in order to keep them committed to the cross-class white nationalist formation of the United States, or to use David Roediger's later term developed out of this framework, white workers are offered a kind of psychic wage to compensate for other modes of inequality, a sort of wage of whiteness, to use his vocabulary.

     The concept of privilege then has its origins in the attempt to understand the inability to produce radical political assemblages within the United States.  However, it would be possible to draw other genealogies of the concept.  For instance, a history of privilege could be created out the long and multiple feminist analyses, produced over the past century, starting with Charlotte Perkins Gilman's analysis of the treatment of boys and girls for instance, or earlier thoughts.  We can see the need for this analysis arise out of most movements responding to a multiplicity of oppressions.  In each case, the analysis points out the unthought benefits assumed by a dominant group, or structure.  In many cases, such as the sex/gender system or structures of race, these forms of inequality were deliberately created in order to resist counter-systemic politics from forming, and some cases which those structures tie into modes of normalization such as homophobia, but in other cases, such as disability issues, the slights were unintended.  What a lens of privilege allowed for an ethical critique of those practices of inequality, in effect creating an analysis and framework of micro-power in the everyday structures of communal life.

     However, as the concept of privilege has become increasingly institutionalized, a number of intellectuals have tried to transform privilege into a lens that explains larger political phenomenon, the larger structures of capitalist accumulation, for instance.  The simple problem is that the notion of privilege does not explain the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, and structures of violence and brutality associated with it, nor the institutional structures of white supremacy, or the structures of domination within our sex/gender system.  Attempts to do so produce a sort of atomism, assuming that the larger structures of our society are a sort of expansion of the small interpersonal relationships that exist in social movements and daily life.  They miss the obvious fact that these relationships are an effect of those larger structures, and a reinforcing mechanism, not an explanation for them.  By doing this, they often prescribe highly personalized and individualistic methods of solving structural problems, ignoring the social movement work that is necessary to actually solve such problems.  This is not to say that our ability to cooperate and work together isn't significant, or dismissing the implicit argument that those of us who benefit from those systems need to be the ones who shift our practices for the sake of the community, but to simply point out that the analytic of privilege is insufficient, although necessary, for a radical politic. 

     Within this context, it's not surprising that the analytic plays a significant role within non-profit politics.  As a number of folks have pointed out, the non-profit structure largely exists as a mediator within structures of inequality and domination, not as entities that exist to challenge or destroy those structures.  Communist philosopher Antonio Negri notably compares them to the Benedictine monks of the middle ages, an institution that often worked to ameliorate poverty, but in order to preserve the larger system.  I don't think that this fact in and of itself neutralizes the value of the institutions that produce this kind of work, but it does mean that we as radicals need to look at these institutional structures, whether in university activism or other movement organizing, with a skeptical and critical eye.  There is no way of returning to a pure form of radical analysis of privilege.  After all, the non-profit institutions are far too intertwined with genuine counter-systemic movements, but we can rework them into a new approach to radical politics, preferably one that translates into a new historical bloc far larger than previously seen.  The analytic of privilege answer to many significant questions to inter-subjective problems to every be fully erased, for all that they symptomatize a sort of neo-liberal subjectivity and collectivity.  A new radical assemblage can only be created through an engagement with these forms, not by avoiding them.