Not A Happy Birthday Post

This is the day I turn thirty-five. Thirty-five is also the age my big brother, Tim, was when he died. In fact, he died only 19 days after his 35th birthday. It’s a fact I can’t forget on this day that is supposed to be a celebration.

Whenever someone dies “before their time,” they become frozen in time. We don’t have the benefit of seeing the arc of their life and the many changes they might have gone through. Instead our image of them remains forever frozen on the moment of their death. My brother is forever thirty-five to me. I can remember him as a rambunctious child, a rebellious teen, an energetic and artistic twenty-something, but thirty-five – the time when he was just beginning to figure himself out and settle into a life – is how I will always remember him. Today is the day I turn thirty-five, and from now on I will always be the older (but never the big) brother.

This is also the day – the date, really – that marks the mid-point between the anniversary of his birth (Feb 4) and that of his death (Feb 23). I don’t know if someday my feelings about it will change – if the impact of his loss will grow softer over the years – but it’s something I can’t help but remember today. It’s a period of mourning for me, but in the midst of mourning there is this celebration of my own life and existence. I don’t know how to feel about it, and so my feelings are a little confused and mixed.

I don’t mean for this to be a sad day, and it won’t! But these are the things I grapple with in the wake of the loss of one of the most important people in my life. It’s these things that make me continually undone – to borrow Judith Butler’s idea – by his loss, but only, as Butler points out, because I was – we all were – completely undone by his presence.

The Moral Repugnance of Wage Labor

There are a lot of discussions to be had about the value and purpose of moral standards, and I could go on and on about the problems inherent in most moral systems. However, even starting from a baseline Western, Judeo-Christian morality, there is something repugnant about wage labor.

It suggests that people are worthless unless they do some kind of work – and specifically, some kind of work that someone else deems valuable enough to pay for. In essence, it suggests that those who do not or cannot work – or, more likely, who can’t find someone to pay them for their work – do not even deserve to live, since money is needed to buy food, health care, shelter, etc. In other words, people who don’t work for a wage deserve to die.

I could see a case for wage labor if all of the necessities of life were provided outright – if food, shelter, health care, maybe education, etc. were free. “You get the basics, but then anything else you have to work for anything extra.” That I could understand within a classical moral framework. But that’s not the case. In fact, it’s specifically those things that many conservatives reject when we discuss welfare or social programs to help the poor. I cannot understand how, within a classical moral framework, anyone could suggest that those who do not work deserve to die.

I don’t think anyone deserves to die… I think that’s a simple moral assumption that most people can accept, and I think it’s one we need to start using to interrogate our social systems.

Contact, Friction, Work

I’ve kind of written about this in the past, but since I’ve been writing my early dissertation chapters it’s come up again and I want to re-explore some of those ideas. This will be done much more in-depth in the dissertation itself, but here I want to offer a general outline of the framework I’ve been thinking with.

The overarching theme of my dissertation is continuity – there is a continuity of time, space, and processes that shape the production of the world in which we live. It’s not that everything is the same – one homogeneous thing undergoing the same homogeneous processes – but that understanding the continuities, we can begin to imagine a way out of the messes we’ve made and alternative pathways along which things could develop. We can not only imagine these alternatives, but know what it will take to produce them, even if their production is never guaranteed. In other words, it’s a kind of uniformitarianism for natural and social processes.

The problem, of course, is that such continuities have been attempted before (cf. E.O. Wilson’s consilience) with less than compelling results. What I’m suggesting is not that everything operates by the same set of rules, but that, through a process of detournement (drawing from McKenzie Wark’s discussion of Bogdanov’s tectology), we can understand continuity metaphorically. That is, it’s not the same processes at work in every domain, but by looking metaphorically at disparate processes, we might find some similarities that help us frame our understanding in a more effective way.

In my research – and drawing from other scholarship – I’m following three key processes of production: Contact, friction, and work. It’s these three processes – metaphorically applied – that can help us understand the production of the Chesapeake Bay watershed as it exists today.

Contact

I’m drawing for this on Samuel Delany’s analysis of the infrastructural changes that took place in Times Square in the 1990s. In the second part of Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, Delany explores the concept of “contact” and argues that life is easier, better, etc. when there is a greater amount of “cross-class contact.” Contact, for Delany, is any non-institutionally organized interaction between people. He contrasts it with “networking” which is the institutionally-mediated interaction with which we are all familiar (the conference, the workshop, the university meeting, etc.). Delany describes contact:

Contact is the conversation that starts in the line at the grocery counter with the person behind you while the clerk is changing the paper roll in the cash regis- ter. It is the pleasantries exchanged with a neighbor who has brought her chair out to take some air on the stoop. It is the discussion that begins with the person next to you at a bar. It can be the conversation that starts with any number of semi-officials or service persons—mailman, policeman, librarian, store clerk or counter person (p. 123).

In a queering move, he goes on to add that contact also includes instances of “casual” sexual relationships at bars, nightclubs, adult theaters, etc. It’s this kind of contact, he argues, that has been diminished by the infrastructural changes to Times Square (intended to make the area more “safe” and welcoming to tourists and families).

I’m using the concept similarly, except that I want to extend it beyond social interactions. My understanding of contact is any kind of interaction across difference. Importantly, Delany suggests that contact can be of two types – inter-class and intra-class. He advocates for more inter-class conflict, but I would argue that the difference is one of degree rather than kind. There is always difference involved in contact (otherwise there would be no need for contact), it’s just a question of how much contact. I certainly agree that more contact across greater degrees of difference is being diminished in our society (as people isolate themselves more and more, and seek out like-minded others with whom to interact and engage), and that a purposeful attempt to increase it would be potentially beneficial (also potentially disastrous depending on the circumstances… something to keep in mind – Delany does discuss safety in the book).

So contact could mean unstructured encounters between people or it could mean encounters between people and other organisms, people and the landscape, or it could mean encounters between things other than people entirely – the predator-prey relationship, for example. In order for something to be produced, whether it’s a relationship, an object, a place, an organism, etc., there has to be contact across some difference. Delany essentially stops there – and in the case of his analysis, nothing more is necessarily needed. Contact – and inter-class contact in particular – is a good thing and we should make efforts to increase it. But if we want to understand how the world is produced and how we can develop alternative futures, I think we need more than contact. It is necessary, but not sufficient.

 

Friction

That’s where friction comes in. Here I’m drawing mainly on Anna Tsing’s work in her book Friction and her latest book The Mushroom at the End of the World, but also from the notion of computational friction that Paul Edwards discusses in A Vast Machine. Conveniently, these two have already done the metaphorical extension of the concept for me, so there’s not much more for me to add. Friction, for Tsing (I won’t go into Edwards’s notion here, but I suggest you read his book), is “the awkward, unequal, unstable, and creative qualities of interconnection across difference” (p. 4). Notice we are already starting from difference – contact. For me, then, friction is the difference between any beings making contact.

According to Tsing, Friction is productive – the wheel cannot move without the friction between it and the road. Similarly, the frictions between people can be productive as well. She shows how by describing a scenario where it was as a result of their differences that three groups of people – indigenous people inhabiting a forest region, national environmental activist groups in Bali, and environmental management agencies – were able to protect an important region of forest from logging. I think, generally, that there will always be differences to work through in any given contact scenario, but some differences will be greater than others, and the particular quality of those differences influences and informs the process of working through them as well as the products that could emerge. A rubber tire against asphalt will produce something different from a metal wheel against ice. A good example of this can be seen in Sarah Whatmore’s examination of different modeling “performances” and how they are shaped by the “obstacles and affordances” in every different scenario. Attempts to erase or eradicate friction could be seen to be either apolitical or harmful.

But Friction is not productive in itself. In fact, friction can often be counterproductive. A tire against asphalt doesn’t move itself, and, similarly, people encountering one another may simply ignore  or interact in a way that doesn’t affect either of them significantly. So, again, something else is needed to explain what’s going on.

 

Work

That’s why I’ve always talked about the concept of work. It’s arguable that I’m drawing from Pickering’s notion of the mangle here, but not directly or specifically. Work, for me, is the process of interacting and engaging across difference. It’s through this process that change takes place, and new things, relationships, or ways of living are produced.

Work is not necessarily intentional, but can be (in fact, I’ve argued that the “struggle” in struggle forever is a subset of work that involves intentionally engaging with difference). This process takes different forms depending on the circumstances, but essentially some energy must be applied in order to overcome the differences inherent in friction. The engine drives the wheel, or people negotiate to come up with a solution to whatever problems they face. This isn’t to say that the difference is eliminated – the tire doesn’t become asphalt or vice versa – but that some change takes place and the difference is used to make something new. In addition, all of the entities involved are changed in the process. Not entirely, but in some small way – the asphalt and tire are worn down, for example – and occasionally in significant ways as well.

 

These three concepts – contact, friction, and work – help us to understand the processes that shape our world both socially and naturally. Applying them metaphorically, it’s possible to see continuity across these different domains and to think through the possible alternative paths along which things could develop. There’s a lot more to the overall framework than this. For example, contact-friction-work is always productive, but not always in ways that benefit anyone involved. An ungreased axel allows contact between the axel and the frame, which causes friction, and as the engine works to resolve the friction, the car flips and harms the people inside. This is an aspect that we have to think through – simply because they are productive does not mean that they are good, valuable, or beneficial. Also, there are times when the encounter is uneven – the burden of work falls on one side or the other, or one being is more affected by the process than another. This is where notions of power, vulnerability, and precarity come in. It may not matter in the case of natural phenomena like the collision of tectonic plates, but it becomes an important consideration in social encounters. As I said, all of this will be developed further in my dissertation, but hopefully this general outline provides some insight into where I might be going. I think in the case of modeling, we can see the construction of models as opportunities for contact that produce frictions and require various kinds of work to overcome. This kind of analysis can help us understand how the watershed came to be the way it is now, and might help us think of alternative ways that we can produce models or use them to produce different kinds of outcomes.

*As I wrote this, Levi Bryant published this blog post, which offers another way of framing similar processes.

My Favorite Books of 2015

Since it’s getting close to the end of the year, I thought I’d try my hand at one of those click-bait end of the year round-up articles that everyone loves so much. Really, I just want people to pay attention to me and also give a minuscule little bit of notice to some really great books that I’ve had the pleasure to read recently – not that they need it. So here are my favorite books of 2015. Unfortunately, I haven’t read many full books this year, but of the few I’ve read, these were the best.

Fiction

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Lagoon is the story of an alien invasion like no other alien invasion story I’ve read before. The aliens seem to take pleasure in just diving in and transforming everything they touch just to see what happens and revel in the ensuing chaos. In that sense, they are neither malignant nor benign – they will fulfill your dreams as well as those of everyone else, which can lead to a really big mess. Navigating this are a group of people who have been touched by the aliens in some way as they attempt to keep things from falling apart completely. There is a wonderfully non-human (as in humans are decentered in many ways) element, and also non-western aspect (the aliens first make contact off the coast of Nigeria rather than the usual Washington DC or New York or other bastion of global Western dominance). It’s not a perfect story – at times it runs a little too fast and loose with the details and character development – but overall it leaves the reader with something new to contemplate, a world transformed.

Runner up: Although not published in 2015, I’m counting it because I read it in 2015 and it’s my blog so I can make the rules. Station Eleven is a unique post-apocalyptic novel that tacks back and forth between the last days of civilization and a time 15 years later when much of that world has been forgotten. All of the people remaining are products of the world that existed before the plague, and the story is an exploration of the way that much of that world persists – both good and bad elements – long after its demise.

 

Non-Fiction

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With The Mushroom at the End of the World, Anna Tsing is back with more brilliant ethnographic theory (the way ethnographic theory ought to be). Her previous book, Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection, has been an inspiration for my dissertation research, and this book extends the concepts formulated in Friction and grounds them in an ethnographic study of the global matsutake trade. Mushroom leads the reader through a mycelial journey from the Pacific Northwest where Laotian, Hmong, Latino, Euro-American and other pickers wander woodland landscapes in search of the precious matsutake through the elaborate processes whereby these fungi are translated and transformed into commodities and then back into Non-Capitalist values. On the way we learn not only about the process of salvage accumulation upon which contemporary Capitalism thrives, but also about the lives of these people, working to survive in the ruins. Despite the heavy theory embedded in this book, it is extremely readable – helped by the brevity of each chapter which are meant to reflect the sporadicity of the fruiting bodies Tsing describes. Tsing’s work has transformed my way of thinking and given me a new framework for my own research as well as a new outlook on the world. I have no doubt it will do the same for others as well.

Runner Up: Those of you who follow this blog and know me closely know that I also loved Molecular Red – I could not stop talking about it for the period during which I was reading it and immediately after. It was a hard choice between Mushroom and Red, but Mushroom won out in the end in part because it is exactly the kind of “molecular theory” that McKenzie Wark describes. Ethnography is perfectly situated to do this kind of on-the-ground, emergent theoretical work, and it’s not done nearly enough despite the fact that we have a journal explicitly formed around the idea. Nevertheless, I think Molecular Red is worthwhile reading for everyone to get a general sense of some of the theoretical approaches necessary for dealing with the problems we face in the Anthropocene.

RATS 2016: Radical Ontologies for the Contemporary Past

Binghamton University’s Anthropology department will be organizing their Radical Archaeologies Conference this coming Spring. The CFP is below – should be an interesting conference.

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Radical Archaeology Theory Symposium 2016 Radical Ontologies for the Contemporary Past Binghamton University
3-6 March 2016
Abstract deadline: January 15th 2015

Recently, anthropologists have been trying to challenge Western practices of knowledge production and understandings of existence. The theoretical oppositions at the core of Western thinking gave way to relational and new materialist endeavors.
 The so-called “ontological turn” has opened doors to investigate the ways social scientists perform, produce, and disseminate their research. For instance, many archaeologists saw this process as an opportunity to go back to things and rethink archaeology as an ontological practice in itself, in which the reassembling of objects defines forms of being and becoming. However, very little has been discussed about its political implications and what seems to be a fethishization of the word “ontology”. These recent debates encourage scholars working with the materialities of the recent past to think about their responsibilities in the quest for alternative forms of being.

The Radical Archaeology Theory Symposium (R.A.T.S.) 2016 is intended as a forum to discuss the politics and ethics of the “ontological turn” and its impacts on the archaeologies of the contemporary past. We invite participants to discuss archaeology as a practice of becoming, and how it can trigger larger social engagements with the politics and ethics of the contemporary past. Issues to be addressed may include, among others:

– The relevance of ontological-oriented analyses of the contemporary past – Politics of ontology as practical ethics

– Activist and community-based archaeologies.
Papers presenting case studies, and from intersecting fields are particularly welcomed.

Submit your abstract up to 250 words, along with your name, contact, institutional

affiliation and three keywords, by January 15th 2015. The selection of papers will be announced during the first week of February 2016.

 

Keynote speakers:

Maria Theresia Starzmann

McGill University, Canada

Ruth Van Dyke

Binghamton University, New York

Severin Fowles

Columbia University, New York

Þóra Pétursdóttir

University of Tromsø, Norway

Organization committee:

Maura Bainbridge

Rui Gomes Coelho

radicalarchaeology@gmail.com

Salvage Accumulation: The Peripheries of Capitalism

The Mushroom at the End of the World is far more than a book about mushrooms and the exotic pleasures of matsutake. Like Anna Tsing’s previous work Friction, this is a book about our world and the Capitalist system in which we are all confined. I can’t speak to the entirety of the book yet, since I haven’t finished it, but I can say that, as far as I have read, it has stunned me at every turn with both beautifully worked prose and valuable intellectual material despite the seemingly parochial nature of its subject.

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Few anthropology books or articles I’ve read actually deserve the identification – which Hau Journal has attempted to revive – of “ethnographic theory,” but with this Tsing has produced her second such volume. What exactly is “ethnographic theory”? Judging by the essays and articles filling the pages of Hau – many of which are very interesting – it’s simply ethnography that immerses itself in theoretical discourse. Tsing’s books, on the other hand, uses ethnography to draw out theoretical concepts that reach beyond the immediate topic that can be applied in many different scenarios, but which grow out of the “molecular” activity of ethnography and tracing the work of people out in the world.

One example of a concept that emerges from her ethnographic work is the notion of salvage accumulation and pericapitalism. Capitalism, Tsing argues, is built upon the translation of value created on its periphery – in the matsutake picker camps, for example – into inventory that can be transported and transposed into a variety of economic contexts. Drawing on J.K. Gibson-Graham’s work on the heterogeneity of capitalism, she argues that these peripheries, rather than posing possible alternatives or lines-of-flight from Capitalism, are in part constitutive of capitalism itself. They are not pure, not innocent, not free, not truly different. Capitalism requires these peripheries, thrives on drawing resources from them, and cannot exist without them.

Tsing is not proposing a “folk politics” looking to restore the simplicity of a pure way of life or the unproblematic embrace of precarity. She recognizes that Capitalism creates ruins, and that the matsutake worlds are deeply embedded and implicated in those ruins. However, she sees in the matsutake the possibility of life within the ruins. Not necessarily a post-capitalist utopia, but life, survival. And, as Trish recently reminded me, survival itself can be a form of resistance.

The University in the Community

On Monday, I joined Trish and her fellow graduate students at Binghamton University to protest an administrative decision that would increase pay for incoming graduate assistants while keeping current graduate assistantship pay the same. It’s all part of a plan to attract a “higher caliber” of graduate student by increasing stipends to levels similar to premier universities around the country, which is great, but, in order to save money, the university is refusing to give its current students the same pay increase, thus creating a massive wage gap (between $2000 and $7000 per year depending on the department) between students doing the exact same jobs. It’s another example of the corporatization of the university, in which higher-paid faculty positions are on the decline, existing faculty are asked to do more for less, and low-paid graduate students and adjuncts are used to make up the difference. If we value education – and I think most people do – then we should be treating it as a public benefit, and making sure that the faculty and graduate assistants (not to mention all of the support staff) are being paid enough that they can do their work without having to worry about debt, health care, paying rent, buying food, etc. This fight for equal pay is one part of the struggle for comprehensive higher education reform.

Photo credit Trish Markert
Photo credit Trish Markert

Taking part in the protest yesterday and reading some of the comments (I know, just don’t) on an article posted to the local news station, I’m realizing how little the general public actually knows about what universities do and how they are run. I’m afraid this makes any kind of university reform a serious uphill battle. This highlights to me the need for all of us to be more engaged with the communities in which we live and work. Not to place the blame on faculty and students – it is certainly the responsibility of the administration to ensure that universities have a good public image and do their part within these communities – and I don’t want to undermine the excellent work that faculty and students already do. But too often, I think, we just think of these communities as temporary residences where we have to live for a few years while we get our degrees – whatever level of degree that might be. Having lived in college towns almost my entire life, I know that universities bring a lot of benefits to the cities and towns in which they live, but these benefits are often invisible to the people who live there whereas the costs are often explicit and highly publicized. This can create a tension between the university population and the general public. I think this is behind a lot of the anti-intellectualism we see in public discourse today – academics are seen as an elite, and any requests for reform look like privileged whining. This makes it all but impossible to convince members of the public that our concerns are valid and the dismantling of higher education affects them too. It’s something that will need to be addressed if there is ever going to be comprehensive higher education reform in this country.

As academics, I believe that we have a responsibility to use our knowledge and skills to work towards a better life for everyone. There’s no better place to start than in our local communities. Rather than using the resources we have access to (grants, university infrastructure, etc.) to go off and do research in remote and exotic places (something anthropologists are notorious for doing), let’s direct some of those resources to the people who live nearby and who often need help just as much as the people in those remote places. I don’t expect everyone to do this, and I don’t think it should be a mandate, but think of it as an ethical practice – something to do when planning research projects. Just ask yourself, how can I make this research involve people in the local community? How can I make it direct some of these resources to them? Obviously, there will be a lot more to addressing anti-intellectualism than this, but it’s part of the solution and something we can do now to build solidarity within our communities.

What if this is the best we can do?

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What if this is the best we can do? What if this is already the best world we can make? What if, after we’ve made amazing leaps in technology that enable us to explore space, cure illness, provide food and clean water for everyone; after we’ve dismantled all of the bombs and guns; after we’ve provided everyone with their basic needs; after we’ve ended racial, religious, gender, and nationalistic bigotry – after all of that, what if there are still people who want to hurt other people, still people who want to claim everything for themselves, still people who are brutal, violent, destructive? Worse, maybe, what if we can’t achieve all of those dreams?

The Paris attacks – and yes, I know there were attacks in Beirut too, and I feel for those people as well, but if it weren’t for Paris, I honestly probably would not have known about them, which is itself unfortunate, but also the truth – remind us that for all our advancement, all our technology, all our critical thought and striving for peace and justice, the world is still a violent place. The attacks hit home, and bring the violence that people around the world experience on a daily basis back into our own sheltered and secured lives. They remind us not only that the world is a violent place, but that, perhaps, our lives are peaceful because there is violence elsewhere.

Maybe it’s good – as my pessimist friends might point out – to remind ourselves of this, though preferably not in such violent and destructive ways. Maybe it’s good for those of us who care, those of us who struggle to make the world a better place, to remember that it’s possible – maybe even probable – that the world won’t or can’t be any better than it is. Maybe it’s good, not because it’s defeatist – I doubt anyone who really cares would be stopped – but because it reminds us that our dreams of a bright future of peace and justice are just that, dreams. Dreams alone cannot confront the brutality that permeates the world we live in today, and it’s possible that nothing will.

Maybe there will always be violence, and destruction. Maybe we can do no better than what we have right now. Maybe every victory is fragile, and limited. Maybe there’s no such thing as victory. So what if this is the best we can do? The struggle continues…

The Big and the Small, and the Work that Needs to Be Done

There has been a lot of interest in Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’s recent book Inventing the Future. I haven’t read it – only a handful of posts about it (from Steven Shaviro, McKenzie Wark, and Arran James) – but it sounds like an interesting analysis of our current situation and a worthwhile strategy for confronting Capitalism. I look forward to reading it when I have a chance. This post isn’t about the book per se, but about one of the common threads I’ve seen in the various posts about it. Since it’s an issue I’ve thought a lot about and is embedded within the philosophy of Struggle Forever, I want to share my own perspective.

The issue I’m talking about is the critique of what S+W call “horizontalist” approaches – or, in a less forgiving phrasing, “folk politics.” Over the last few decades, and largely because of the failures of grand vision and big organizing (e.g. unions, left-wing party politics, etc.) there has been a lot more attention among the left to localized politics and small-scale actions. Critics (and my sense is that S+W are among them) argue that these localist projects have been ineffective, and have essentially allowed the neoliberal global elite to run rampant with no globalized movement to confront them. It’s not a new critique – I would bet that something like it has been floating around and pops up periodically since the 1960s drop-out era. What sets these two apart is not the critique of “horizontalism” but the content of their vision.

In place of the valorization of “folk politics,” S+W propose a reclamation of the modernist project for leftists, and a new modernist – one might even say science fictional – leftist future. Arguing that the success of the left depends on a kind of seizure of the global economic system, they propose a four-fold platform on which to build a global movement:

  1. Full automation
  2. The reduction of the working week
  3. The provision of a basic income
  4. The diminishment of the work ethic.

Those all sound great to me, and I have no contention. It seems to me that success at any of them – assuming we can accomplish them while also reducing greenhouse gasses and other environmental destruction (the most common critique of S+W’s book is its failure to confront the realities of the anthropocene) – would bring a greater amount of freedom and agency to a significant amount of people. Success at all of them would be truly liberatory for the majority of the human population of the world. That said, there are things missing – the politics of race and gender, for example, which are often dismissed as “identity” politics, but are also material-social constructs that can’t necessarily be reduced to economic issues alone. Also, I would agree with Steven Shaviro that there’s no reason we can’t have both horizontalism and verticalism – both “folk” politics and “modernist” politics. It’s true that horizontalism has been insufficient in many ways, but that doesn’t mean we have to dismiss it – rather we need to supplement it with the grand and forward-looking visions that S+W advocate. Additionally, I think Zizek’s comment about Picketty might also apply – that if we had a system in which achieving these goals was possible, then we would have already won.

That’s all somewhat beside the point. I think S+W’s platform is good, and well worth fighting for however we can. However, what I want to address is the privileging of scale that’s sometimes embedded in these critiques (not necessarily in S+W’s approach). In developing the conceptual framework underlying Struggle Forever, I have advocated a kind of localist approach to politics. I’ve said that we need to work through political issues within our communities, and even that all politics is, ultimately, local. But I want to be clear – I don’t see this as claiming that we can only have small-scale politics solving small scale problems. I agree that that would be fundamentally ineffective. What I’m talking about is not an issue of scale – since scale, for me, is something that must be produced – but of recognizing the work that has to be done – the struggle that must be engaged – in order to effect any kind of social change. I think often what these grand visions want – and I’m not saying that S+W want this because I don’t know – is to bypass the work and move right to the revolutionary transformation.

What S+W have done is to begin the possible construction of a globalized movement – they’ve published a manifesto calling for people to take up their vision. Publishing the book, no doubt, took a lot of small acts and engagements. I don’t know how many copies have been produced, but as they are dispersed each one has the potential to influence people. Then there are electronic copies – the potential for distribution increases exponentially. And every time someone reads it and writes a review or a commentary – like those linked above and this post you’re reading now – that proliferates the ideas even further. Eventually, perhaps, the ideas will trickle out into social media, will be discussed at cocktail parties, in the local bars, or over a coffee. Maybe a large group of people will adopt S+W’s four pillars and start taking direct action to implement some of the changes needed. And finally, out of all of these proliferations and engagements, a movement might develop that will push for new policies, economic transformations, technological developments, and so on. Maybe – but without all of these localized processes, the globalized movement doesn’t happen, and with every engagement, new frictions emerge which people must work through, with, around, or despite. Making the process uncertain and tenuous, and the results fragile and inconsistent. As a result, even if we achieve all four of the pillars S+W promote and more, the struggle will continue – the hard-won gains will need to be defended, and there will, inevitably, be new problems that arise. Thus Struggle Forever.

So I agree with S+W that we need grand visions or as China Miéville put it that “we should utopia as hard as we can.” But let’s not forget about the work that has to be done to get us there, and let’s also not mistake achieving policy goals for the end-game. I’m on board for a global movement, but not if it tries to bypass the politics of struggle or the engagements that will be needed to construct it. Sign me up – let’s get to work.

AcWriMo

I’ve always wanted to do NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), which takes place every November. The goal is to write a 50,000 word novel over the course of the month – it’s meant to get writers over the mental blocks that keep them from writing and completing a project. I started it once with a few friends when I was a teenager, but didn’t finish. Now, since I’m in graduate school and trying to finish my dissertation in the next year, I can’t justify spending time writing a novel – even a short one. So this is where AcWriMo comes in.

AcWriMo is just like NaNoWriMo except that there are no word-length requirements, and it’s for academic writing (Academic Writing Month). I’m participating this year, with the encouragement of some friends and colleagues. I have two goals: 1) to finish a review that was due late October, but I’ve put off due to other important obligations, and 2) to finish an article that will also serve as a chapter of my dissertation.

The first I hope to have done by the end of the week, since it’s well past due. The second by the end of the month. And I plan to do it by writing consistently everyday except the days that I teach – Tuesdays and Thursdays (because I always have a ton of preparation to do those days). The point is not to have a perfect draft by the end of the month, but to have a very rough draft that can be refined over the next few months with feedback from my advisors and colleagues. The challenge will be overcoming the mental block I get every time I think about writing a dissertation chapter or full research article. It seems like such a big step and such a huge undertaking that I can’t imagine completing it – which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, because I usually don’t. Hopefully with a little perseverance, though, I will do it this time.

I’ll keep you updated on my progress… wish me luck!