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.