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.