Tuesday, February 21, 2012

An Interview with Edward Said

     Throughout the late 1990's cultural studies scholar, Sut Jhally was involved in the production of  a series of videos engaging with significant figures in the field, most notably Edward Said and Stuart Hall.  I don't know much about Jhally's own work, but his attempt to make some of the most significant ideas in the field of cultural studies available to a broad swath of the public, at least those who would take an introductory women's studies or critical theory course is extraordinarily valuable.  I think I will always associate Jhally with the short introduction to these videos, which manage to capture compex theoretical engagements in a matter of minutes, giving new audiences a valuable road-map to the complexities that would follow.  It's a skill that is often taken for granted, but one that is central to any critical pedagogy.  

      However, it would be a mistake to give Jhally exclusive credit for the thoughtful accessibility.  Edward Said himself shows why he played such a central role in understanding the question of Palestine through his political and theoretical work.  He easily translates the complex questions of representation and power contained in discourses of Orientalism into a language that is both personal and links to the culture and politics of the politics.  We can simultaneously see the kind of self-reflexivity contained in Said's memoir, Out of Place, and his ability to speak to a broad popular audience.  I don't think that we can measure the profound loss that the solidarity struggles against the occupation of Palestine suffered with the loss of Said.  His powerful political interventions from the 1970's until his death in 2003 significantly contributed to the shift from what Norman Finkelstein calls the 'Exodus narrative' of the rise of the Israeli state to one that understands its rise as a form of settler colonialism, drawing on and expanding his analysis of Orientalism.  At the same time, Said's critical lens continually refuses any easy nationalist narrative, moving from his call for a two state solution in the 1970's to his increasing suspicion of the actually existing so-called peace talks of the 1990's.  Said brought together the ethical call for action and the critical lens that continually called into question the 'common sense' categories of the present, taking on the role of the popular or organic intellectual par excellence.  I remember going to the bookstore weekly to buy the U.S. edition of Al-Ahram for his occasional columns (those are now on line here.)

     At this point, I'm beginning to bore myself with my own official memorial to the man, but before I finish these brief thoughts and turn you to the video, I'd like to recognize Said's influence on myself.  I first became acquainted with Said's work as I was trying to understand what was exactly going on in the occupied territories.  I found myself in Mayday Books, a local Minneapolis radical bookstore, looking in the Middle East section, and I came to the conclusion that this Edward Said guy seemed to have written a lot about the subject.  On that somewhat dubious conclusion, I picked up a collection of his essays, The Politics of Dispossession: The Politics of Palestinian Self-Determination: 1969-1994.  That book was a transformative experience for me, causing me to reflect on the violence and domination of colonialism for the first time.  Years later, I found myself in a class with subaltern studies scholar Ajay Skaria, a class that introduced me to Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and the notion of critical theory itself, on the strength of Edward Said's name alone.  In a strange sense, my intellectual trajectory as an anti-humanist post-structural marxist scholar was launched through my engagement with Said.  Despite the fact that Said would probably find most of my theoretical positions distasteful, I still feel a deep political and theoretical allegiance with his work.  Here's the interview. 

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Four versions of Paint It Black

      There's not much to say in regards to this posting.  I recently came across the Marc Almond recording of the song, and was reminded of some of the other remarkable covers of the old Rolling Stones classic.  What's remarkable about this set of songs is their ability to bring out different elements of the song that are implicit in the original song, and reveal a number of different ways of listening to the song.  Needless to say, the original is one of my favorite songs by The Rolling Stones, one of a select set of singles by the band that I can listen to repeatedly.  The first cover of the song that I heard was The Avengers cover.  It increased the tempo of the song, taking the paranoiac and self-destructive anger of the original even farther.  The Penelope Houston vocal is also really great.  The Firewater version reverses that, slowing down the tempo, and bringing the sitar to the front.  Rather than frenetic energy, the slowness of the song is used to create tension, which is relieved by the shift in tempo at the end of the cover.  Curiously enough, the only reason I bought the single was because I mistakenly confused Firewater with the alternative country band Freakwater, who I heard through the Rough Trade country compilation.  As accidents go, it was one of my better purchases.  Finally, the Marc Almond version, put together by Mike Batt with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra brings out a dimension of the song that I hadn't previously considered until I heard this cover, a kind of cinematic grandeur contained in the song.  It's really remarkable how well the song translates to orchestral arrangement.  While credit is certainly due to the work of the Orchestra and Batt, who I presume arranged it, the song also seems to invite this interpretation.  Almond's vocal is also good.  I might write something on his work sometime in the future, work that is considerably more interesting and varied than his official status as a one hit wonder with the Soft Cell cover of "Tainted Love" might indicate.  In any case, enjoy.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Vacancy elections, February 14-15

      We're approaching another union election in a few days.  Unlike the election that occurred last year, only a few positions are up for grabs, positions that were resigned by their previous occupants.  There are a couple contested head steward elections, but the only contested statewide contest is the election for Southern Vice President. That election is between the AWDU (Academic Workers for a Democratic Union) candidate, Erin Conley, a rank and file member from UCLA, and the USEJ (United for Social and Economic Justice) candidate, Robert Ackermann, a head steward from Santa Barbara.  I don't think anyone is going to be surprised that I am endorsing Erin Conley, but that endorsement seems to be useful space to further explore some of my critiques of USEJ that I put together here, along with some reason why I think that Erin Conley is a strong candidate.  My basic argument is that the election is fundamentally between two types of organizing style, one that is engaged in the contemporary struggles for public education with Erin, and one that represents a very old and dated notion of union representation with Ackermann.

       Before I make that argument, I want to make something very clear, my critique of Ackermann isn't a personal one.  I've had a number of formal and informal interactions with Ackermann, going back to the vote count last year, and for the most part, those interactions have been pleasant.  Unlike most of the Santa Barbara contingent, he doesn't make every interaction with him as emotionally and intellectually painful as possible.  In a lot of ways, he represents what probably is the best side of a fairly unimpressive group of people.  However, this fact allows us to bring the significant political differences between the two candidates to the forefront.  The problem with USEJ (United for Social and Equal Justice) is not, ultimately, a personality issue, one of pleasantness or unpleasantness, but of two very different models for thinking about the union.

      When we look at Rob Ackermann's candidate statement, we find a number of claims about the work that he has done for the union.  The first set of claims focus on involvement in the bread and butter campaigns of the union, contract enforcement, and the campaign to organize Graduate Student Researchers (for those who don't know, for some strange reason, the California legislature decided to allow for teaching assistants to form a union as workers, while researchers were classified as apprentices, and therefore, are not workers, and cannot organize a union.  The union has been trying to change that law, allowing for GSR organizing.)  The issues referenced here are significant, but we find a number of problems in the approach of the Santa Barbara campus in approaching these issues.  That campus is still operating within the old service union perspective of the UAW, a top down model built on the centralization of decision-making and communication.  Barry Eidlin offers a fairly good description of the goals of this earlier organizing model in his analysis of the UAW international,

     "The goal is to reproduce the existing leadership as much as possible while minimizing the possibility for independent initiatives that might lead the union astray (since they don’t emanate from the leadership, which alone has the true interests of the union at heart).  In terms of information, this is why we see the reluctance to make basic information about the union available in writing, whether that be executive board minutes, financial reports, etc.  It also is why the union leadership is very reluctant to pursue any kind of communications strategy beyond what they call “one--to--one organizing,” where a trusted key leader, usually a paid staffer, interacts one--on--one with a specific member.  To the extent that they disseminate information, they want it to be in one direction: from them to the membership, preferably in a carefully scripted form.  Thus the almost exclusive preference for phone banking and department walks over leafleting, e--mail campaigns, or even department--level meetings not organized by the top leadership."

      The continued investment of the Santa Barbara leadership has been clear through both the language that they use to describe organizing, and in their practices as well.  While in the Joint Council meeting, Ackermann described union work as a 'job', in which we 'provide services.'  The Santa Barbara leadership, including Ackermann, continued to speak in this manner throughout the meeting, most notably in their description of their approaches to grievances, which entirely left out any thoughts on how to create horizontal structures of solidarity through this work. Instead, the entire model was built on transforming the elected leadership into a mediator between worker and management.  These issues have also been fairly apparent in the behavior of the local leadership, as well, making every effort to isolate the campus from any inter-campus influence, informally keeping rank and file members out of membership meetings, and focusing on the isolating organizational forms discussed above, particularly one on one organizing.  We also a dismally small amount of rank and file participation at the last meeting, despite the fact it was supposed to be a statewide membership meeting.  Rather than seeing an 'organizing campaign' at Santa Barbara, we've seen a lot of cards signed.  I'm not dismissing that, but a card is only a small step in creating a strong member based union.  In effect, we can see that Ackermann within the Santa Barbara context represents returning to the organizing models that were rejected by the union rank and file last year, a model that we should not return to.  

     The second part of Ackermann's claims become increasingly problematic.  He makes reference to the protests around the UC system, in defense of public education and in response to the increased inequality of the state and the nation.  In particular, he references the protest that occurred in UC Riverside, claiming that it 'inspired' him.  The problem is that neither Ackermann nor the Santa Barbara leadership has been seriously involved in the has not been seriously involved in the organizing work of the protests in Riverside and other schools.  That work has been done by AWDU activists, with the AWDU candidate, Erin Conley, playing a central role in the organizing of the ReFund protests in Southern California.  Rather than standing in the background with the Santa Barbara leadership, Conley was in the front ranks of the fight at the regents meeting.  She helped create the conditions for the success of the Riverside action through her organizing and she put herself on the line when folks were challenging the regents expulsion of students and workers from the meeting.  The work she has done has built bridges across the campuses, and has contributed to making a stronger public education movement in the region.

     At the same time, Erin Conley has been committed to the day to day organizing work of the union, organizing training sessions for rank and file and officer alike.  Rather than accepting the top down model of the UAW International, a model that has increasingly failed both at the local and international levels, we can see possibilities of another approach to creating workplace solidarity and power.  Ackermann is absolutely correct in bringing up the issues of defending the contract and organizing members, but the model he working from isn't working.  We need to use contract defense and membership organizing to produce membership empowerment, and forms of collectivity that use those documents to genuinely defend public education for all.  The old ways, based on the wisdom of a centralized leadership and the quiescence of the rank and file, cannot produce those results.  Erin Conley, on the other hand, has shown through her leadership at the local level in her work in the union and Occupy UCLA, as well as through her work at the state level, that she can play an effective role in creating the kinds of collective power that can reinvent this union.  My hope is that folks will get out and vote for her.  You can find links for polling information here, along with links for the two candidate statements

      I will also state that if folks want to have conversations on these issues, they need to put their name to their comments.  Otherwise, I'm erasing them.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Interlude (5): Conversations involving Samuel R. Delany

      I recently realized that I had abandoned an earlier structure of the blog, the interlude.  I'm returning to that structure by offering a number of conversations with Samuel Delany.  The first piece is a conversation in a classroom setting, and the second piece is set in a typical science fiction convention panel setting.  I would love to see some material of Delany in a more academic setting, engaged in conversations as a critic, rather than as an author and fan community participant, but I haven't come across that material yet.  Still, this is fairly interesting stuff.  I might follow up on this in the somewhat distant future.