Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Some thoughts in response to a fragment of a dream

A number of months ago, I found myself woken from sleep early in the morning at perhaps five or six in the morning, possibly by a disagreeable dream, possibly by something else.  In either case, I found myself recalling a fairly familiar passage in Walter Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” the often quoted ninth section of the essay, in that hazy space that creates a sort of barrier between sleep and wakefulness.

“A Klee painting named “Angelus Novus” shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating.  His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread.  This is how one pictures the angel of history.  His face is turned toward the past.  Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet.  The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed.  But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught under his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them.  This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward.  This storm is what we call progress.” (Benjamin 258)

It was perhaps less than surprising that I would think of this passage.  After all, I had read the essay that it was contained in numerous times, have read even more references to the passage in other works, and even have written about the various sections of the essay.  But in that hazy semi-conscious space, the more immediate connection was made to the sense of disconnection that seems to define my present moment as I pass my second year out of graduate school and the interconnected ethical communities of which I was a part.  In their absence, I’ve felt a sort of void, a lack of what Hegel would call “Sittlichkeit” or the connection to the ethical life or community that is created by being embedded in a meaningful community life.  That isn’t to say that the past two years have been without meaning or social life, or that my time in graduate school wasn’t without its significant frustrations, but those frustrations were always linked to a communal life, even if it was marked by tensions, contradictions, and problems.  The temporariness of adjunct lecturing, which operates as a sort of waiting room between one’s life as a student and some potential future career, doesn’t help this sense of disconnection.

Through that process, I’ve found myself thinking about various moments in my past, whether in my roles in the anti-sanctions campaign, the anti-globalization movement, the anti-war movement, and the efforts to reform our local union or in my personal life.  I’ve found myself thinking back to dozens of moments where I wish I had handled a decision, a process, or how engaged with people differently.  At a basic level, I find myself being much more skeptical of my motivations in those past conflicts, and of the positions that I took in those conflicts.  But like the angel, I can’t go back to resolve those catastrophes, to avoid conflicts, to respond more generously, to fix what has been smashed.  To turn directly to the passage, the memories that make up that ‘pile of debris’ are a tied to a series of incomplete and failed activist projects, a variety of temporary successes, to projects that continue without me, often without even a substantial memory that I had participated in them.  The memory of those moments wind up lingering in my thoughts, perhaps haunting me, for the lack of a better word, particularly in that space between consciousness and unconsciousness.  They are, for the most part, unresolvable, not because of their significance, but frequently because of their insignificance, or because the people are out of my life, sometimes for reasons to do with the conflict, often for a reason that is completely unconnected.

To be honest, I don’t know what to do with this often unresolvable assemblage of memories.  After all, like the Angel, I find myself being blown into the future, one that remains occluded.  But it felt like it made sense to perhaps write it down, to express it, even if perhaps its own value is only of marginal and therapeutic value.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Some thoughts on the present moment

            In the proliferation of such a massive amount of political action within the past year, particularly around the Black Lives Matter movement, I found myself thinking of a passage within Rosa Luxemburg's treatise on the Russian revolution of 1905, titled "The Mass Strike".  Luxemburg exams the phenomenon of the mass strike within the revolution as both a critique of the top down notions of struggle as developed by mainstream of the main intellectual of the SPD, Karl Kautsky, along with the ahistorical concept of the mass strike as developed by anarchists.  In opposition to both, Luxemburg emphasizes the mass strike as a phenomenon that arises out of the self-development of the proletariat through the process of the class struggle.  Through that engagement, Luxemburg emphasizes both the multiplicity of the struggle, along with intensity of the struggles.  She notes:

            The mass strike, as the Russian Revolution shows it to us, is such a changeable phenomenon that it reflects all the phases of the political and economic struggle, all stages and factors of the revolution. Its adaptability, its efficiency, the factors of its origin are constantly changing. It suddenly opens new and wide perspectives of the revolution when it appears to have already arrived in a narrow pass and where it is impossible for anyone to reckon upon it with any degree of certainty. It flows now like a broad billow over the whole kingdom, and now divides into a gigantic network of narrow streams; now it bubbles forth from under the ground like a fresh spring and now is completely lost under the earth. Political and economic strikes, mass strikes and partial strikes, demonstrative strikes and fighting strikes, general strikes of individual branches of industry and general strikes in individual towns, peaceful wage struggles and street massacres, barricade fighting – all these run through one another, run side by side, cross one another, flow in and over one another – it is a ceaselessly moving, changing sea of phenomena. And the law of motion of these phenomena is clear: it does not lie in the mass strike itself nor in its technical details, but in the political and social proportions of the forces of the revolution. (Luxemburg, The Mass Strike)

            At the most immediate level, we can see that Luxemburg recognizes what Louis Althusser might later refer to as a moment of revolutionary fusion as occurring within the years of her analysis.  An almost infinite array of discrete and concrete struggles or contradictions came together, aligned themselves in a manner to challenge the very nature of the empire.  But her insight moves beyond that initial insight.  If we see a moment of revolutionary fusion, it does not take the form of a synthesis.  Instead the struggles maintain their multiplicity, their inability to form a whole.  At the same time, the struggles are marked by a form of indistinction, of mutation, 'peaceful wage struggles' become 'street massacres, barricade fighting'.  Through this description, we can see an embrace of what Hobbes phobically linked to the figure of the multitude, a disjointed and militant mob that refuses to become a people and refuses to be governed.  Luxemburg draws on the naturalistic metaphor of the sea to describe the pervasiveness of the social movements of the time and their ability to adapt and mutate themselves in the face of a multiplicity of efforts to repress that refusal.  The movements ‘bubble forth’ ‘ceaselessly’ move, and constitute a ‘changing sea of phenomena.’  She ties that movement to the strength of the revolutionary forces in the country, to the logic running counter to capital.  One one hand, these movements reflect the multiplicity that is at the heart of the concept of use value, the multiplicity of needs that continually exists exogenously to the logic of exchange, even as exchange is absolutely dependent on that multiplicity.  On the other hand, the movements constitute a kind of counter flow to the flows of labor and commodities that define capitalist accumulation.  It’s a flow that refuses the coagulation into the logic of exploited dead labor, the infinite exchangeability of labor time.  Inasmuch, these movements point to an alterity always present within capital, the potential for another way of life.

            In the past year, we have been seeing a similar moment in our own country, albeit with a smaller magnitude than the one that Luxemburg discusses, largely, but not exclusively around the phenomenon labelled Black Lives Matter[1].[2]  To rehearse material that is undoubtedly familiar to the audience, we have seen an explosion of demonstrations in response to police violence.[3]  That violence has become a focal point to challenge the ever-changing structures of white supremacy that at are so significant in structuring the logic of capitalist accumulation, both at the present moment and through the entire history of the country.  It’s taken the form of insurrectionary violence[4] in Ferguson and other cities, objects hurled at police officers, freeway occupations around the country, peaceful marches of school children, lock-downs of police stations, demands made to Democratic presidential candidates, and a variety of other conventional protest.  The truth is that any effort to document the rich variety of protest will necessarily fail in capturing the rich diversity of activities that has occurred in the past year, and any effort to demarcate these protests as being a part of a particular moment is necessarily going to erase the histories that feed into these protests and inform their logic.  At the same time, we can see a particular language of action, slogans, and social formations that are particular to this moment. And we can see the impact of those movements on the presidential campaign through the disruption of the Sanders and Clinton campaigns, through explosive protests against the racist authoritarian nature of the Trump Campaign.[5] Through those actions, it has introduced a genuinely democratic and agonistic dimension to the stage managed theatrics of the presidential campaign.  The movement has also challenged the connections between the traditional trade union movement and police unions, and has succeeded in creating a meaningful wedge between these formations.  It has also formed alliances with elements of those traditional structures.  But perhaps most significantly, it has transformed the freeway, that representation of the flow of labor, of commodities, into a representation of a profound refusal, through its blockage.  We’ve seen this tactic not only employed in cities traditionally associated with protest, but across the country.[6]

            Within this web of activity, we can see the possibility of a new form of live, although perhaps only in a negative form, through the refusal of so many to be governed by the same oppressive institutions that have committed such violence.  We can perhaps see the capacities of such a movement in its spectral form, in the phobic descriptions of the movement by the recent comments by Milwaukee Sheriff David Clarke at the Republican National Convention.  Clarke marks the organization, along with the Occupy movements, as breaking an unspoken and unwritten code of conduct for the country, and therefore standing outside the respectable conventions of protest, and representing anarchy.  It’s initially difficult to negotiate this description with the often quite modest political reforms called for by the official representatives of the movements, but it makes sense when we look at the protests themselves, which have pushed far beyond these official demands in their radicality.  It also makes sense when we see the refusal of even the reform branch of the movement to be formally incorporated into the political system.[7]  If anything, we have seen an intensification of this refusal in the continuation of street protest, despite the calls for official calls for calm after sniper attack in Dallas.  Through such actions, we see a movement that is increasingly unconcerned with the preservation of the forces of the status quo.  At the same time, it would be a mistake to ignore the precarity of the contingent web of alliances that created this potential historic bloc.  At the most obvious level, there is the threat of the opportunistic incorporation of this formation into the Democratic Party, a threat that is most notably media personality and former mayoral candidate, DeRay Mckesson.  However, the conflicts that defined the freeway occupation in Minneapolis between activists seem like a greater threat.  Without getting into the details, the arguments represent long historical divisions that intersect questions of identity and tactics.  They represent the profoundly divided nature of the proletariat itself, and aren’t easily resolved through simple slogans.  The question the movement and those who wish to see it succeed have in front of them is how to make this multiplicity productive and grow.  We can see the violence of the backlash beginning to grow.

[1] Although it may actually involve more people than were involved in the insurrectionary activities in the Russian Empire at the time.
[2] Given some of the confusions around the slogan, I should note that I am referring to the larger movement that has congealed around the term, rather than the specific network that has named itself Black Lives Matter.  The distinction is important since the movement is far larger than the network and contains both elements far more insurrectionary than the network, along with highly opportunist individuals and groupings tied to the Democratic Party and Teach For America.
[3] There is a need more a more intense engagement with the logic of policing, one that could be informed by the work of Ruth Wilson Gilmore, who draws from the earlier work of Marx and Foucault amongst others.  There is also a larger conversation within the Black Radical Tradition, as well.
[4] It’s important to note that this has been largely limited to property damage, but not exclusively.
[5] Which was produced by a large intersection of actors, but this could be said about the broad phenomenon, as well.
[6] The tactic itself deserves more discussion than provided here, and it would be a mistake to think of the action as a unified.  Instead, we have seen very different approaches to taking over freeways.  Some have been mass actions, while others have been controlled protests by small groups.  Some are deliberately designed as acts of civil disobedience, while others are taken up by parties who are not interested in being arrested. 
[7] Once again, we definitely see some opportunist exceptions, but the network has largely refused this incorporation.

Friday, September 11, 2015

thoughts on the language of fandom....

      I've found myself reading quite a bit of fan discussion during the recent conflict over the Hugo awards.  The pages of File 770 have become my lunch time reading for the past few months.  That process of reading has really reminding me of the very subcultural behaviors of the group, particularly around the construction of language.  It struck me that a dictionary of fandom might be a very interesting literary and sociological project.  Not surprisingly, there are a number of efforts already in existence on the internet, and I suspect probably quite a few in book or magazine form as well.  Most of these efforts cover both the types of short hand developed in fan circles, such as the now fairly ubiquitous fanfic and slash, as well as specifically fannish language such as ghu and fugghead.  Additionally, such publications will often give definitions for the often obscure acronyms such as SMOF (Secret Master of Fandom).

       Clearly, this is relevant and interesting work if you want to develop an understanding of the fractured and conflictual subgenre, but, for me, it misses out on another dimension of language that you find in fannish conversations, which is not found in specific words or terms, but in conventional turns of phrase.  One clear example that I have found over these last months is the phrase, "It bounced off of me."  The phrase is designed to accomplish a couple things.  1.  It indicates that the commenter didn't particularly like the book or film. and 2.  It makes that dislike a matter of personal preference, one that indicates more about the particular tastes of the reader, rather than the quality of the book or film.  At an immediate level, the phrase is an indication of the commitment to pluralism and relativism within fandom.  It insists that one's personal taste is not universal, and that a book may have qualities that are simply not appreciated because of the limitations of the reader or viewer.  This set of particular commitments is often expressed sentiments, such as "We are all fandom" and the Vulcan phrase, "infinite diversity in infinite combinations."

     I don't want to dismiss that commitment, but it is a commitment that is often undermined by the frequently explosively agonistic nature of fandom.  After all, we are talking about an archipelago of people who enjoy argument and frequently get into explosive conflicts that lead to the splitting of organizations, and to long standing enmities.  Fandom is certainly pluralistic, but that pluralism is fraught with rivalries, rants, insults, arguments, and lengthy diatribes that define the lay of the land.  Rather than being a recent phenomenon, we can find these fights at the origins of the formal existence of fandom, and in the Amateur Press Association, which is probably the closest antecedent to that formation.   In this sense, we see a second pole to the structure of pluralism so celebrated by fandom, one that is already implicit the word 'fan' itself, which simply shortens the term 'fanatic'.  While on the surface, this may seem like the unpleasant underbelly of fandom, it's important remember that the forms of intolerance found within this pole often challenge deeply disturbing aspects of the subculture, such as the forms of racism and sexism found in the genre.  Tolerance, after all, often becomes a form of complacency within the context of an unjust system.

      It also adds a second and unspoken dimension to the statement, "It bounced off of me."  Within the context of a subcultural group that so often descends into futile and bombastic argument, the phrase becomes a way of avoiding such conflict.  That is to say, the pluralism and relativism of fandom becomes a way of both regulating and temporarily avoiding the stasis that lays at the heart of its formation.  In a curious sense, fandom is defined by stasis, precisely because so little as at stake.  It is, after all, not a form of citizenship, an ethical system, or anything other than groups of people who share nothing in common but to enjoy a literary form, an act of enjoyment that millions engage in without any need for a subculture or even a community to do so.  Perhaps, within that context, we can give a third definition to the term, and see it as a form of deferment.  "I bounced off of it" becomes a way of say, "We're not going to agree on this one, but rather than getting into a heated discussion, let's wait and see if there is something to discuss that we will both find amenable."  The statement then becomes a sort of rhetorical border, a way of marking what is open for discussion, and what is not, as well.  In a curious manner, the process then mirrors the production of genre that is its reason for existence.

Friday, May 15, 2015

a short set of thoughts on fan criticism, and recent academic science fiction criticism

       In the years that I have studied science fiction, I have read a fairly large amount of criticism produced either by fans of the genre, or authors who regularly engage with fans.  It's not surprising.  After all, some of the first literary criticism of the genre arises from fanzine publications and other texts produced within the subculture of fandom.  I've read the work of Damon Knight, Judith Merril, H.P. Lovecraft, and various fanzines such as Khatru, to name a few sources. 

      Through that engagement, I've found that fan criticism most often produces taxonomic criticism, that is, it creates categories to group texts together in order to see thematic and occasionally formal connections between texts in the genre.  I've always had a mixed response to these critical texts.  One one hand, I find myself wanting the sort of rigorous, formal engagement that one gets out of academic literary criticism produced after the structuralist moment, and on the other hand, I always enjoy the interesting thematic connections that these authors produce, and, just as significantly, frequently find myself using these critical endeavors to expand what I read. 
     To be honest, it's a set of benefits that I really didn't give much thought to until recently.  I took it as an inadvertent result of reading the comments of a thoughtful and well read person who is engaged in the genre.  But I've been rethinking that unthought assumption as I work through Farah Mendlesohn's relatively recent book, Rhetorics of Fantasy.  It would be a mistake to understand Mendlesohn's text as simply operating within the same critical framework as those texts.  It brings in a critical vocabulary from the structuralist literary criticism of Todorov, amongst others, and brings in art criticism, as well.  At the same time, it produces a similar chain of associations and connections through rhetorical categories that you find in those texts. 

      What I've finally realized is that this chain of texts is consciously designed to put its readers in touch with a chain of texts that the reader might find similarly interesting, to open up the reader to new worlds of reading through this critical apparatus.  In effect, it's a structure that is not that dissimilar from the book reviews that are also published in such publications, although they offer a broader evaluation of the genre.  At the same time, it points to a criticism that goes beyond that form, through the production of a critical archive, and the production of a series of connections that can be developed further.  But in both cases, the central focus of the engagement is the pleasure of the text.  The works are deeply normative, in this regard, asking what texts might be enjoyable to its readers, as well as why they might enjoy these texts.  Writers such as James Blish and Damon Knight go further as to identify what qualities might produce better fiction. 

      Through that engagement, they remain much more connected to the genre, refusing the separation of critic and writer that is produced by post-structuralist critics such as Pierre Macherey.  Instead, the critic operates more as guide to consumption, a critical archivist, rather than producer of knowledge.  However, we're seeing a synthesis of this older form of criticism with academic criticism recently.  We can see this with Farah Mendlesohn's Rhetorics of Fiction, along with Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr's The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction, and the Parabolas of Science Fiction collection edited by Brian Attebery and Victoria Hollinger. Each of the texts take a pluralistic approach to the reading, while simultaneously engaging in a pluralistic disciplinary approach, combining the structuralist tendencies of Todorov, Suvin, and Delany with the taxonomic approaches that one traditionally finds in the fan and authorial critical writing of any number of writers. It's an interesting approach.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Opening Post

     So, I have decided to start another blog to get back to writing on a more regular basis.  I found myself writing less and less for the last blog, Work Resumed on the Tower, largely, because I had found myself at the end of two major projects that animated my writing during that period, my work as a graduate student, and my work within the reform movement of the graduate student union, Academic Workers for a Democratic Union.  With those projects finished, it made increasingly less sense to continue working on the blog.  I was also in a position where I was fairly substantially underemployed, and at a loss what I would do next with my life without those projects.  I initially considered creating a blog that would focus on my work on science fiction, but I don't feel focused enough to create that blog, and I'm not entirely convinced that I want to get involved in the fights of science fiction fan community.  Perhaps, I will come up with a way to engage with the genre that will avoid the kerfuffles and focus on the formal structures of the genre, but that will have to wait.

     Instead, I'm going to put together a blog that will let me write about any particular topic that comes to mind.  Not surprisingly, I'm probably going to cover a lot of the same things that I covered in the earlier blog, politics, culture, and theory.  You're not going to get the same sort of inside baseball coverage of the union, and the activist and academic politics of the University of California-Irvine, but those were issues that were of interest to a very small group of readers, in any case. On the other hand, I'm not sure what is going to be the focus of the blog because, despite getting some relatively stable employment, I'm not entirely sure what I'm going to be doing with my life.  I'm still in the process of trying to find a tenure track job, but that search is not terribly promising given the state of the humanities.  Additionally, I'm interested in getting involved in political activism again, hopefully outside the subcultural activism that I was previously involved in, but I'm not sure what direction that might take.  In any case, the structure of the blog remains open.

     The title of the blog is taken from a brief inter-title within Jean-Luc Godard's film, Masculin/Feminin, where Godard notes that, if he were to rename this film, hew would call it The Children of Marx and Coca-Cola.  The name always appealed to me because it gestured towards the dual influence of radical politics and popular commodity culture on the new left and counter-culture, which largely still influence the radical politics of the United States today, even if that social formation lies in ruins.  It also allows me to recognize two streams within my work, the first being the substantial influence of Marxist theory and practice on my work as both an intellectual and an activist, and the second being my interest in popular culture in a variety of forms, most notably in the form of science fiction, but also music and film.  In any case, the title provides quite a bit of latitude in what I can discuss in the forum, while remaining within the rubric of the title.  Let's see where we go from here...