Friday, April 21, 2017

planting a tree as metaphor for long term organizing

    I recently read a most likely apocryphal story about Hegel during the period of the French Revolution.  The story isn't terribly complicated; Hegel, Holderlin, and Schelling took the time from their studies to plant a tree of liberty.  Despite the very different directions the three thinkers took, the fictional act gestured towards a commitment to the radical possibilities embodied by the revolution.  The act of planting a tree doesn't strike me as the worst metaphor for a radical political project.  It gestures towards three substantial aspects of any political project committed to radical and systemic transformation, the fact that any such project will take time, the care that needs to be put into such  a project, and finally, the immense contingency implicit in such a project.

      Time:  The act of planting of tree implicitly has a fairly long period of time in mind.  It's going to take most trees at least twenty of thirty years to develop any significant growth, and even fast growing trees take a few years to take hold.   Most radical or progressive reformist groups work within a considerably shorter period of time, often only thinking about the next rally or, if the group is particularly ambitious, the next year long campaign.  Even NGOs tend to think within a shorter timeline, developing, at most, five year plans.  In this sense, we can think of the activities of most radical or reformist organizations as being profoundly opportunist in their organizational practices, if not their rhetoric, in the framework that is implicit in both the work of Paulo Virno and V.I. Lenin .  Within both thinkers' frameworks, opportunism operates on the premise of accepting the rules set of the existing system without challenging the rules and structures of that system.  By refusing to or perhaps more significantly being unable to create long term goals and projects, radical and reformist projects find themselves playing by the rules of the systems that they ostensibly oppose.  I think this opportunist framework is an effect, rather than a cause of the profound destruction of the counter-systemic movements of the second half of the twentieth century.  However, it's difficult to imagine escaping this situation without having the resources and foresight to begin the process of developing meaningfully long future projects.

      It's notable that the thirty year time period that it takes for a tree to grow is remarkably close the the medium time-frame that Immanuel Wallerstein posits as the length of the medium term project that is largely ignored by the counter-systemic movements of the present within the United States. Wallerstein opposes this medium time frame to a set of long term goals, which take the form of large, global projects that take the form of abstract concepts such as communism, the end of exploitation, etc.  Short term goals take the form of an organizing campaign such as organizing a workplace, a campaign to end a particular practice at an institution such as using sweat shop labor, or often in the case of subcultural activism, simply organizing a demonstration or an action.  This work involves immediate goals.  How do we get people to the rally?  Can we get media attention?  Can we disrupt the actions of decision makers in a way that causes them to change their behavior?  These are all important questions, but they don't lead to giving any meaningful thought to the larger goals that the movements ostensibly have.  Instead, their framework is largely negative.  How can we disrupt?  How can we translate that disruption into policy makers changing their actions?  I'm not saying that these are irrelevant questions, but they abandon the element of planning to the structures we ostensibly oppose.  They also abandon the question of how we form new forms of social structure and create new modes of governance within those forms of social structure, and what kinds of representation will define new forms of democratic practice.

Care:  To return to the metaphor of the tree, it takes quite a bit of care to get a tree to take root and adjust to the environment in which you have place it.  This is notably true for Southern California because of the lack of rain and its poor soil.  However, it's a metaphor that works elsewhere.  At the most obvious level, the creation of any social structure is dependent on formal and informal structures of social reproduction.  You need to not only bring new people into an organization or movement, but you need to create social spaces that cause those people to stay in those structures, to allow them a sense of meaning and participation in those organizations and movements, and to create structures of care.  These are questions that are taken quite seriously at the most immediate level by anarchists, particularly the focus on self care.  However, those same organizations have difficulty imagining how you might participate in these movements when you're thirty or forty, rather than twenty, or how to be a part of a movement when you have children or you have a disability.  I don't think these are problems that can be solved through a movement that continues to operate as a subculture, that is as a community largely produced through voluntary and informal labor.  It should be additionally noted that those informal structures tend to unduly burden women with the 'traditional' tasks of reproductive labor, leaving them unpaid and undervalued.  We need structures and institutions that we can plug into, and that is going to involve getting people money to do those jobs.  There's a real question of how we do this and continue to hold onto forms of democratic governance and representation, but refusing to pose those questions by refusing to create any kind of formal structure has clearly not translated into either sustainability or equality.

Contingency:  There is quite a bit of contingency implicit in the act of planting the tree.  The most obvious contingency is the fact that trees can die, even with all the care of the world that is put into the project.  Analogously, projects fail, even with the best intentions and plans.  However, at a more modest level, even when a tree lives and grows, it doesn't grow in precisely the way you plan it to grow.  That is to say, there is a need to recognize that as a plan develops and perhaps even progresses, the means and even the ends of that plan are going to change.  That doesn't mean that you don't plan, but that you recognize that your plans are going to change.  We're good at dealing with that kind of contingency at the level of the event, and even the campaign, but we don't spend a lot of time thinking beyond that. At the level of a lot of subcultural activism, we rarely even spend much time discussing what succeeded or failed within an individual event afterwards, often leaving events as isolated and unrelated events.  When criticism does occur, it often spirals out of control becoming a circle of mutual incrimination.  We lack the mechanisms for a form of collective and individual assessment that operates constructively, rather than disastrously destructively, a mechanism that would teach organizers better practices and encourage them to engage in those practices. At some level, we need forms of self-criticism primarily for organizations, but also for individuals, but in a manner that somehow escapes from the logic of the confessional within which that mode was initially created.  Just as significantly, we need forms of institutional knowledge that will preserve that knowledge to direct future campaigns and future actions, and we need to be able to think about what the successes and failures of those actions say about our longer term plans.

To draw off the example of an old friend, we might look at the anarchist project in Spain.  We think about the high point of anarchism in the mid to late 1930's, but in doing so, we miss out on the fact that it took decades of organizing, starting withing the middle part of the nineteenth century for this wave of militancy to occur.  It involved engaging in and creating institutional and educational structures, and involved creating forms of engagement that were not simply accessible to the young. When we simply look back nostalgically at the height of a moment of struggle without recognizing the conditions that produced that struggle, we're going to lack any ability of how to advance our own goals of creating similar or more successful movements.  We have to see those movements with the context of the long duree of time, and the day to day work that occurred in that time frame.  The question is how to return to that form of longer term thinking.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

The Labor of Academic Writing

     Our analysis of academic life is curious.  We have increasingly recognized that most aspects of academic life can be understood through the category of labor, whether in the form of grading, our interactions with students or colleagues, or in the construction  of courses.  We've been forced to recognize this fact because of the privatization of the university, a process that has taken away our job security, increased our workload, and has decreased the time to accomplish that work.  Although rarely explicitly recognized, we might note that embedded in this shift is precisely the logic of the panopticon, the process of constructing hierarchies, of individuating subjects, and of making grids of intelligibility.   Through that process, we have also considerably lost our academic freedom, or ability to teach and engage in research as we see fit, even if that right has been, at best, never fully in place, and at times, an illusion.  The figure of the adjunct has come to stand in for this process, although that process has impacted all but a very few in academic life, albeit unevenly.

      However, when we begin to discuss academic writing, our tone changes.  We are suddenly shifted from the world of disciplinarity and precarity, to curiously sovereign space, one in which our production can only be understood individually, as our own burden.  Academic writing operates as a sort of empire within an empire, to borrow a phrase from Spinoza, an arena that operates outside the logic of the university, of capital, and squarely returns us to a fantasy of the sovereign individual.  We lose touch of the world that this writing is produced in, its structures, institutions, and the collective life that is embedded within it.  And through that erasure, we are offered a curious construct, a writer that has far more control over that process of literary production that we would ever recognize in or field of analysis, and yet a sovereign who inevitably fails or betrays us.  We are poor stylists.  We fail to engage the multitudes.  Often, we even fail in saying anything of significance in our dense, jargon-laden prose. In a sense, this mystification is understandable.  Our writing is only connected to our position within the academy indirectly.  After all, we are generally not directly paid for this work, either as writers or as editors or proofreaders.  Instead, we are paid by the opportunity to enter into a sort of lottery, the prize being a tenure track position, which can itself only be guaranteed through publication. One might say that we do know, but we act.

     I don't doubt that there is a lot of bad academic writing, and no doubt, I have done as much as anyone else to contribute to that problem.  But what if we moved away from the myth of the sovereign academic writer, the god who must inevitably fail, to an understanding of academic writing as an ordinary process.  That is to say, what happens if we understand academic writing a collective material process, produced in institutions, by subjects who are at least in part themselves produced by those institutions, operating within the terrain of the processes of capitalist accumulation, and the struggles that act as the engine of that process.  This is not to say our role in that system has as direct connection to the processes of accumulation as say a worker in an auto plant or a cashier at a grocery store or even a commercial engineer, but that our role must be understood in the reproduction of that system, both in the production of educated subjects that can work in that system, and in the production of forms of knowledge for that system.  Increasingly, we are demanded to reproduce the cultural logic of that system of accumulation through a regime of instrumental reason and immediate results.  In crude terms, we are facing a speed up of the production process, and an externalization of the costs of social reproduction.  Whether willingly or grudgingly, we are required to enact this grotesque pageant in order to gain a foothold in this process.

      Not surprisingly, I'm not in a position to develop this point with the sort of depth it deserves, which would involve something like the scholarly investigation of the public university produced by Christopher Newfield.  However, I will try to produce a rough sketch of some of the points that produce the sort of writing that is so often and understandably criticized.  We might start our investigation at the point that we enter into the university as potential scholars, that is when we become graduate students.  Our coursework spends a great deal of time developing our skills as writers, but rarely do we discuss the process of writing in such detail.  Instead, we push the process of writing to the last weeks of the class, to be produced in hurry isolation, and to produce essays to which we rarely return.  Often, we get very little in the way of response about this writing from our faculty, who are, after all, producing their own work. Once we move out of course work, we frequently lose any collective working environment, beyond those fragile ones we set up for ourselves, often in the form of small groups that are occasionally recognized and sanctioned by the university.  But more often, we write alone with the interventions of our advisers and committees.  I'm not attempting to criticize the individuals in this system, but if we want to prioritize writing, perhaps it would make sense to construct a system of instruction that incorporating developing those processes into it, of recognizing and incorporating the collective process of writing into grad school itself.

      By all descriptions, the process only becomes worse when you leave graduate school.  To begin, you're expected to produce published work in order to both enter into the tenure process, and to receive tenure.  David Harvey once noted that it used to be exciting if you put out a book, even more so if you put out two, but people started wondering if you were neglecting your students with the third book.  We've replaced this more modest system with a far greater demand for publishing, making the publication of a book as the precondition for tenure, and increasingly, the publication of material, a precondition for being hired at one of the increasingly dwindling tenure track jobs.  This demand has led to a glut in publishing, and frequently translates into us pushing out material that is insufficiently developed and hasn't gone through the editing process that it needed.  It's also led to a hyper-specialization that has led to more and more materials that are not of much interest except for a very small audience.  Moreover, non-specialized knowledge production, particularly for popular audiences is not terribly valued in the tenure process. In addition, the labor that allows for the publication, the process of editing, of the peer evaluation process, etc. is extraordinarily undervalorized, and is viewed as a voluntary labor that generally is the understandably last concern of those involved in the process.  Often, even established academic presses will demand that authors pay for the basic costs of indexing and books, rather than taking on those costs themselves.  At a basic level, we might say that the basic social processes of producing an interesting and readable text have been externalized, and placed back on the authors, who are patently ill equipped to deal with that process.

      In a sense, our former illusion perhaps becomes a bit more understandable.  After all, if the figure of the sovereign writer must inevitably fail, it still offers a fantasy of control that becomes impossible when begin to explore the process as ordinary labor.  We can harbor the illusion of choice.  We can choose not to be this bad subject, or perhaps more honestly, there will be a time when we will choose not to be this bad subject.  But when we turn to the material and collective process of writing, we have to face a system that shows no interest in putting in the necessary money to produce quality writing, to create the social structures that would allow for us to write differently.  Each of the problems I mention earlier in the essay is easily solvable, but it would require the funding that is increasingly being taken away from the humanities and social sciences, and has never really existed in the STEM fields.  We have to face a capitalist system that no longer sees our labor as central to its reproduction.  Therefore, our ability to produce quality writing feels very impossible, as that the precondition for creating the social tools needed to produce a different form of academic writing would involve a profound social transformation, one that would probably not be simply limited to refunding the humanities, the social sciences, or creating other writing opportunities for the STEM fields.  It's a transformation that I must confess that I find difficult to imagine at this point, but even with that difficulty, I prefer posing that as a project than continuing down a moralistic path of mutual incrmination.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

On the Hugo Award finalists

     I thought I would write a very brief update to the comments that I posted on Tuesday, March 21st, while on spring break.  Within that post, I noted that I planned on writing about the upcoming Hugo Awards, notably discussing my voting process.  I also expressed my hopes that the award finalists would not be as affected by the chicanery of the Sad and Rabid Puppies, two groups of conservative fans who had previously attempted to manipulate the nomination process through slate voting.  Both groups attempted to present their manipulation as an effort to bring forgotten and suppressed works back on the finalists list, either in the name of traditional science fiction or in the name of a suppressed politically conservative science fiction, but both groups tended to create their lists based on group identity, nominating friends of the primary organizers of both groups.  The work itself ranged from mediocrity to abject failure with a small number of exceptions.

      I was fairly optimistic that we weren't going to see the same kind of influence that we saw in the past couple years.  The Sad Puppies had abandoned the slate process last year and embraced a largely ineffectual and unpromoted recommendation list  They even abandoned that pretense this year, and presented no recommendations.  The Rabid Puppies didn't entirely abandon the fight, but presented a list of recommendations that only included one or two recommendations per category.  With both groups ending their efforts to choose the entire slate of finalists, it was fairly probable that, barring some secret and highly unlikely cabal of slate organization, we were going to see a list of candidates that more faithfully represented the interests of science fiction fans and readers.  Now that the finalists have finally been released, we can see that the influence of the puppies is fairly minimal.  Only sixteen of the list of twenty-two Rabid Puppy nominees were nominated, and three of those were disqualified. (look here for a more thorough analysis)  Additionally, it would be easy to imagine that the work of a number of the endorsed nominees (for instance, China Mieville and Neil Gaiman) would have received nomination without the influence of the slate, which further reduces the impact of the slate.  A number of people have given credited the recent reforms in the voting process for the reduced impact of the slates, but if there was an impact, it was more in its encouragement to abandon the practice of slating than in its actual impact on the vote totals.

     The resulting list of finalists is fairly exciting, and I'm looking forward to the process of reading the works.  For the most part, it's material that I have not read yet, although I read N.K. Jemisin's The Fifth Season, which her recent nomination, The Obelisk Gate is a sequel, along with the first two books in the series by Cixin Liu.  I've also seen all of the nominated films, except Hidden Figures, and have been a fairly faithful reader of Ms. Marvel, which received another nomination. However, it's material that seems to have received primarily positive critical attention, and looks like a distinct step away from the tedium that defined too much of the last couple years of nominations.  I'm currently in process of placing the novels available at the library on hold.  Additionally, I'm hoping that this breadth of quality works will also translate into a more interesting competition.  My voting choices over the past year were also largely chosen by the majority of other Hugo voters.  I think that this is less a sign that my views are representative of that majority, and more a sign of the lack of meaningful choice among the nominees.  I suspect that the introduction of some real competition will lead to much less predictability in the winners, which will also make the process more interesting.

     You can still get involved in the voting process if you are interested.  You just need to get a supporting membership for $40 and you can vote.  Recently, voters have received electronic packets with some of the nominated material, a process which will probably be repeated this year.  You can find information here.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

A Short Essay on Decline of Western Civilization, Three

           If one thing immediately stands out about the third installation of Penelope Spheeris's The Decline of Western Civilization series, it is the lack of innovation in the music.  Final Conflict sounds good, but are playing music they composed a decade earlier, from their 1987 lp, Ashes to Ashes.  The rest of the acts, Litmus Green, Naked Aggression, and The Resistance, who are perhaps even more obscure than the other bands, largely produce music that similarly could have been written a decade ago, or perhaps even earlier. This lack of innovation also really stands out when you look at the kid's t shirts. Everyone is wearing band shirts from groups that started in the late 70s or the 80s, Conflict, Misfits, Rudimentary Peni, etc. It's as if the whole thing had hit a dead end.  This, for lack of a better term, retrograde dimension places a gulf between the music of the film and the earlier two films, both of which represent both far diverse aesthetic streams in their respective subcultures, and represent music that it would be impossible to imagine as having been produced at any earlier time.  In the first film, we find ourselves immersed in the 'year zero' world of punk rock, exploring its various branches, from the art world of Catholic Discipline to the suburban hardcore of The Circle Jerks.  In the second film, we find ourselves in a far older world, defined by the newer stream of glam metal that dominated the strip at the time, along with the rising stream of thrash, but that world was supplemented with interviews with older acts in the genre, from Ozzy to Lemmy and a couple members of KISS.  In both cases, we are being introduced to aesthetic novelty, new forms of art, new forms of subjectivity.  The third film represents a subculture that no longer is creating something new, and a subculture that was on its way out, representing the endpoint of a musical moment, the punk revival, that began in the late 1980's and was in the process of closing.

            However, the film is worth watching because of its shift in focus.  Rather than focusing on the bands, which are the almost exclusive focus of the first film, and the dominant focus of the second film, the third film focuses on the primarily homeless punk kids who were the backbone of that scene.  We can already see a shift to a kind of ethnographic gaze with the second film, which brings in a bunch of kids who imagine themselves becoming the next big thing, but that engagement is far more limited.  We don't get a sense of how those kids live, and we don't get a real sense of their individuality.  Instead, we're offered a set of remarkably thought-free clich├ęs, an exploration of the spontaneous ideology of Reaganism, really.  Spheeris really spends a lot of time with the punks in the third film, though.  We see how they live, make money, find places to sleep, etc.  There's a real sense of trying to create that sort of ethnographic engagement, of exploring an unknown way of life, of trying to understand its social mechanisms and driving motivations.  The film also explores some of the causal mechanisms of why these kids wound up on the street, which aren't terribly surprising, and involve a lot of issues around abuse and abandonment.  Just as significantly, through this engagement, we meet a group of young punks who are far more thoughtful, politically engaged, and sympathetic than the participants in the first two films.  The film series effectively moves from a focus on interviews and live footage of the bands to a film that focused on the daily lives of the subculture.  It also shifts from what can effectively be called a participant-observer document to a document from the perspective of an outsider.[1]

            And in a sense, it's that sense of estrangement that produces such a rich engagement with the scene, and effectively communicates why such an fascinating subculture produced such formulaic music.  Embedded in the film, are a number of short interviews with participants in the original LA punk scene, who are there to create a sense of change over the years.  One of the most significant interviews is with Flea, who talks about how the city had changed from his time as a homeless punk in the early eighties.  He noted that he was a kid in the scene there was so much more of an infrastructure to support him, from art venues to places to sleep.  The kids that were living on their own in the mid to late nineties had so much less to support their survival.  It was at that point that the lack of creativity made so much more sense.  Despite its fantasy of a 'year zero', the original punk scenes had a scaffolding of the counter-culture of the 1960's and 1970's to create itself within.  Veterans of those scenes helped provide venues for kids, found funding for them, and contributed to the cultural and political educations of the new folks involved in the scene.  Perhaps even more significantly, the welfare infrastructure that had been produced by the Johnson administration in the mid-century effort on the part of the political class to create what might be called a capitalism with a human face had not been entirely eviscerated by the Reagan, Bush, and Clinton administrations.   

          The punks in the third film are left with only the dregs of both that counter-culture and the mechanisms of support that so many of the subculture could depend on in the first film.  Within such a situation, it's not surprising that the art that got produced within that scene didn't have the vibrancy and creativity of the earlier scenes.  The participants had to focus so much more on survival. The film deliberately creates this effect through its focus on the mechanisms of survival, eating, sleeping, drinking, and raising the money for those activities, contrasting those activities with the memories of the memories of participants in the earlier formation of the subculture.  The film further reveals the precarity of the life of its subjects through the depiction of two tragedies: the murder of one of its primary interview subjects, Squid, who was allegedly killed by his girlfriend, and the tragic death by another interview subject in a squat fire. If the first film points to a new sense of self-destructiveness, and the second film is largely about decadence and thoughtlessness, the final film is a film of exhaustion, the exhaustion of the subcultural formation, of the participants, trying to survive, and perhaps even a whole series of social reproduction.  Within that exhaustion, we find a rich cultural life, and actually a thoughtfulness lacking from the first two films, but it's so much harder to imagine transformation in that world.

[1] Watching the first film for the second time, it's fairly obvious that Spheeris is effectively translating the formal structure of the fanzine for film.