Friday, May 12, 2017

Some Thoughts About The Response to a Controversial Everyday Feminism Article

A think-piece by the website, Everyday Feminism, has produced quite a bit of criticism on a variety of platforms, from Facebook to a variety of blogs. The criticism shouldn’t have been terribly surprising. After all, the blog managed to write an entire post about the proper way for employers to respond to food insecurity without suggesting the possibility of paying the person a living wage. In response to the criticism, the site has pulled the essay, and issued what can fairly be called a substantial apology. Within that context, I suspect that the whole issue is going to disappear relatively quickly, and will be overtaken by some other controversy.

However, I thought it might make sense to return to the controversy from an analytical, rather than polemical framework, and attempt to read the posting as a symptom of the present moment. While there are some real reasons to criticize the website, and its approach to understanding social phenomenon, I want to avoid focusing on its particular foibles and think about the way that the response stands in for a wide swath of behaviors. In order to do that, I propose to look at the initial attempt an apology, instead of the original article or the more substantial apology that followed.

The initial apology attempted to frame the problems of the essay as a failure of rhetorical context, simultaneously apologizing for the rhetorical failure, and attempting to defend the larger message of the think-piece.

We've received a lot of pushback on this piece and we appreciate all of the critical perspectives you brought to the table.

We agree with you that raising wages and pursuing economic justice is, first and foremost, what's needed to alleviate food insecurity.

For the author (who commented numerous times here), sometimes our survival can't wait for raised wages, and in some places (like non-profits), wages can't be raised at all. Sometimes meeting people where they are, while also pursuing other avenues for justice, is what sustains us in the immediate moment.

However, that nuance was lost, which is on us. Our editorial team is discussing the best way to move forward and we will keep you posted.

Thank you for always pushing us to do better – we are the platform we are because of the amazing community that surrounds us.

The message begins by acknowledging the need for economic justice, but then argues that the demand for higher wages is in some sense out of reach, either in the short term or completely out of reach, when referring to non-profit employment. It then tries to retrospectively reframe the article as one that operated under this assumption, one that took for granted both the need for higher wages, and the inaccessibility of those wages in the short term. They effectively accomplish this shift through the phrase, “that nuance was lost’ which then shifts the substantive argument to a rhetorical one. While I think there is a reason to be skeptical of this reformatting, I’m going to accept it for the sake of the more significant assumptions that are embedded in that argument.

That more significant issue is the way a wage increase is framed as a political demand, one that is either a distant goal or completely inaccessible. Small, informal and interpersonal forms of activism are the only forms of change that are possible. We see a profound shift in the terrain of possibility. Practical political work is no longer incremental reform, but the act of scraping by to survive, or the facilitation of that contingent survival. The idea of a wage increase, previously a modest and incremental political goal, has become remote and almost utopian in nature. Lest we think that this shift is an exceptional one, we can look at the common-sense response on the part of many rank and file liberals to the Sanders campaign. The fairly modest suggestions of an expansion of Medicare and the subsidy of public education were derided as utopian delusions.

There are a number of legitimate reasons to be skeptical of our ability to accomplish these modest, incremental goals at both the micro and macro levels. After all, we have seen the power of unions gutted, and the wholesale destruction and neutralization of any number of social movements. At the macro level, we can see a series of concentrated efforts to increase the political power of capital, and to neutralize the strength of poor people’s movements. But efforts such as the one under discussion never frame these limitations within the framework of political defeat. Such a framework is pessimistic, but it nonetheless understands the present moment as one that is constructed, for the lack of a better phrase, within the terrain of a wide swath of social struggles. It would provide an analysis that would mark the present moment as one that was constructed through a lens of contingent political struggle, and point to ways in which that present could transformed.

Instead of this mode of analysis, we are offered an analysis that operates within the generic logic of ‘realism.’ This generic logic is signaled within the piece with the following language, “Sometimes meeting people where they are, while also pursuing other avenues for justice, is what sustains us in the immediate moment.” The ‘immediate moment’ is the moment of reality, while ‘the other avenues of justice’ are never given thought beyond the gesture. Through that process, the ‘immediate moment is reified and the social relations of the present are effectively naturalized. We might think of this as the moment where social movements embrace the logic embedded in Margaret Thatcher’s famous phrase, “There is no alternative.”

The political theorist Jacques Ranciere provides a useful framework for understanding the framework operating within the aesthetics of this realism. He notes, “Realism claims to be that sane attitude of the mind that sticks to observable realities. It is in fact something quite different: it is the police logic of order, which asserts, in all circumstances, that it is only doing the only thing possible to do." (Ranciere 132) Realism is, in effect, the aesthetic logic of Thatcher’s phrase. It justifies the existing order by positing its existence as natural and inevitable. It effaces the possibility of transformation, and marks it off as impossible, as utopian. Through such an engagement, it becomes a form of enforcing that order, of operating within the logic of the police, as Ranciere and Foucault understand that term, as defenders of the hierarchical structures of a particular society.

It’s perhaps unsurprising that we find the expression of this sort of logic even among those who are ostensibly trying to transform the world. After all, we operate within a world that is constructed through those modes of policing, in opposition to a long history of social movements. Those modes are articulated through a dense grid of institutions, social practices, and media representations that are enmeshed in our daily lives. It’s easy to understand why we might begin to naturalize these projects; after all, they all but constitute our grid of intelligibility. In many ways, it’s very difficult to imagine meaningfully transforming it. But that has been true of every dominant order. We have seen profound challenges to those previous orders that imagine profoundly different social structures, and have managed to change or destroy those previous systems, even if they frequently fail themselves. That engagement depends on a continual process of estrangement, a process of denaturalizing the categories of daily life, recognizing their historicity, their contradictions, and their possibility of change.

What comes after that moment of tarrying with the negative? I’m not sure.  

No comments:

Post a Comment