Category Archives: Role of the intellectual

Robert Fisher on Community Organizing in America — 1886 through 1946

I read Robert Fisher’s Let the People Decide years ago now, and after all I’ve read in the meantime appreciated it more and more this time around. I love the long view of historical struggle, the historical framework it is set into. The importance of contextualising the massive influence of Alinsky — taking him in the round and not as a kind of straw man — while developing our understanding of how things need to grow and change, and where they have done so. It’s an interesting timeline, there is so so much in here I didn’t know, had not even heard of. I suppose my own research has thrown up other vibrant traditions of grassroots community-based organizing through the 1930s and the war years, primarily in the African American Community that I missed a bit, but this begins to open up the deep histories of struggle we can look to in the US. I particularly love the drawing out of lessons for contemporary struggle…

I’ve based my posts around his periodisations, so we start in the 1880s up through the Great Depression

Social Welfare Neighborhood Organizing, 1886-1929

This connects to the Social Settlement movement in the UK — 1884 saw the founding of Toynbee House in East London by two students at Oxford (and still standing as a community space and centre today, though it has changed with the times). It promoted the need for those who wished to work with a community to actually live — usually embracing some level of poverty — within it. Still a problematic and often patronising idea, but a step up from mandating improvements from comfort in stately surroundings miles away. It  inspiring similar settlements across the UK and in the US. Most famous is probably Hull House, founded by Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr. I’ve been meaning to read more about Hull House but not worked myself up to it, precisely because this is my general view of those participating in this movement:

Settlement workers got involved in neighborhood organizations out of a mixed bag of sympathy, fear, guilt, social concern, and a desire to give purpose to their own lives. (8)

And also for this reason:

They sought harmony within an unjust economic framework — liberal reformers not ready to challenge the economic roots of poverty (10)

They still, for the most part, blamed the poor for their own poverty and worked around programmes of skills trainings, moral uplift, birth control in the way that leaves you feeling disgusted because it’s more about preventing mucky poor people from reproducing, rather than supporting capable women to take control of their lives and choices.

Seeing only deficits, such models were often insensitive to existing networks — yet Fisher notes how poor communities continued to be organized outside of these top-down elitist structures.  Churches, synagogues, mutual benefit associations, and ethnic, labor and political organizations continued to thrive alongside informal networks of support. (13)

Out of and in response to the Settlement Movement, which I knew of, came the Community Center Movement, which I did not.  It was driven by people who wanted something more effective and widespread and with more bottom-up from local communities. It reached its peak between 1907-1915, yet still struggled with top-down programming, and it remained primarily managed by the elite. As WWI started, many such community centre’s actually began to drive patriotism and work with the government to track ‘subversives’ among ethnic and radical populations, effectively bringing the whole thing to a halt. (21)

I very much loved the deep look at the Cincinnati Social Unit Plan — a unique community-based child welfare program created by Wilbur and Elsie Phillips under a Socialist mayor (!). It attempted to put real power in the hands of mothers for deciding priorities and support needs, and showed real success in improving health and making concrete changes in people’s lives. However, the fall of the mayor meant the programme was defunded and fell apart.

This happened despite the Phillips’ ongoing attempt to distance themselves from the mayor’s socialism in claiming that that their work was not political. Fisher also notes despite the successes of the programme, they still failed to fully escape elitism, which ensured they were not able to sink deep enough roots in the community they were working in, preventing the community from feeling a full sense of ownership of the programme that could have led to a fight to preserve it under a new mayor.

Lesson, this shit is political and you will need people’s support to keep it going through hard times.

Radical Neighborhood Organizing 1929-1946

Starts with Langston Hughes’ poem to a landlord — few better places to start:

Landlord, landlord,
My roof has sprung a leak.
Don’t you ‘member I told you about it
Way last week?

Landlord, landlord,
These steps is broken down.
When you come up yourself
It’s a wonder you don’t fall down.

Ten Bucks you say I owe you?
Ten Bucks you say is due?
Well, that’s Ten Bucks more’n I’l pay you
Till you fix this house up new.

What? You gonna get eviction orders?
You gonna cut off my heat?
You gonna take my furniture and
Throw it in the street?

Um-huh! You talking high and mighty.
Talk on-till you get through.
You ain’t gonna be able to say a word
If I land my fist on you.

Police! Police!
Come and get this man!
He’s trying to ruin the government
And overturn the land!

Copper’s whistle!
Patrol bell!
Arrest.
Precinct Station.
Iron cell.
Headlines in press:
MAN THREATENS LANDLORD
TENANT HELD NO BAIL
JUDGE GIVES NEGRO 90 DAYS IN COUNTY JAIL!

Some things never change. But the 1930s were some time to be alive. Fisher writes:

Neighborhood organizing in the 1930s was characterized not only by its radicalism but by this dual concern of building an insurgent movement at both the national and local levels. (38)

I think perhaps we’re approaching this level again. There is a long, very interesting discussion of the radical work of the Communist Party at this time — a small proportion of community organizing but a very visible one, and quite influential in tactics and strategy. But this difference is key between the Party’s organizing of the period and what would come to be known as community organizing:

Most activists now see the primary goal of neighborhood organizing as awakening people to a sense of their own power. the Communists saw neighborhood work as a means of recruiting people into a national organization. (39)

But still, the Unemployed Councils? They would divide up a city or rural area into sections and then send organizers there to get to it, build a council that began to organize and implement direct actions, stop evictions, face down bailiffs, force up relief centres. They did some amazing things. But always controlled by the Comintern. Underground for a long time, the party came out in the open in late 1920s to organize the unemployed and racial minorities until the 1935 switch to popular front. But until then they did some brilliant things. In 1930, they decided on a:

four-pronged “bread and  butter” strategy focused on relief, housing, race, and “translocal” issues…issues outside the community which would concern neighborhood residents. (43)

Key issues basic to life itself, but tied into wider struggle through the ‘translocal’ aspect — in Harlem, for example, support for the Scottsboro boys was just one of these, along with anti-lynching legislation, and opposition to Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia. They had tremendous successes in the early days across the country. Fisher notes that in Detroit, the unemployed councils succeeded in stopping practically all evictions through direct action.

I also love the party’s insistence on complete equality between whites and people of colour in these years, with the party line being:

…the struggle of white workers would never succeed unless workers of all races were included as equal participants (45)

In some ways the shift to the Popular Front strategy and new focus on anti-fascist struggle and union organising was important, but it left hanging all of the work already started. Above all, eradicating racism was left to the side, and members were ordered to abandon work on the councils by 1939. But while it lasted, Fisher argues the CPUSA was successful because it:

emphasized organizational discipline, defined local issues in a national and international context, linked community struggles with those in the workplace, developed alliances between black and white workers, and offered a thorough political analysis of the problems community people faced. Such accomplishments by radicals had rarely been seen before in this country. (49)

Errors? Lots:

political opportunism, its interest in the needs of the Soviet Union over those of American workers, and its autocratic organizational structure, which quashed the type of criticism necessary to prevent ideological and tactical errors… abandonment of African Americans… (49)

There was, however, a developing understanding of organizing and movement. Fisher writes:

There is a complementary relationship between social movement and community organizing. Local organizing oriented to social change can exist without a movement, but it will not thrive for very long. When a movement develops, however, community organizations often ride the wave of mass support. (52)

Out of this ferment Saul Alinsky would emerge, already organising with the CIO through these radical 1930s, already grappling with these connections (more in Alinsky’s own words can be found here). Fisher emphasises the continuities in struggle — Alinsky would apply his work with the CIO to the Back of the Yards neighborhood in a way that Fisher describes as ‘a kind of “trade union in the social factory”‘. While he would later describe himself as an “urban populist”, Alinsky started out in his student days involved in the CP ‘in typical Popular Front terms, as a “professional antifascist.”‘ (56)

As I say, I really like how this contextualises Alinsky’s insights into, and codification of, community organizing. This particularly draws out how the weaknesses of the communist party’s work in its accountability to Moscow rather than to local people almost certainly influenced Alinsky’s move towards a ‘non-ideological’ standpoint which is now where much critique of his methodologies is pointed.

Fisher describes what he believes to be the five essential elements to ‘Alinskyism’, recognizing of course that this simplifies it all a bit, always dangerous:

  1. The professional organizer is the catalyst for social change. They need to be well-trained, creative, help to make democracy happen.
  2. The task is to build a democratic community-based organization. Democracy as self-determination, people make the decisions about the things that effect them. The organizer is catalyst for this, not the leader.
  3. The goal is to win power. ‘Power is the sine qua non of Alinsky organizing. … Neighborhood organizations are seen as the interest groups of the powerless and unorganized.’ (53) This is ultimately based on self-interest.
  4. Any tactics necessary should be used. I like Fisher’s list: ‘Negotiation, arbitration, protests and demonstrations; boycotts, strikes, and mass meetings; picketing, raising hell, being diplomatic, and being willing to use anything that might work… (54)
  5. A people’s organization must be pragmatic and nonideological. Alinsky believed ideological organizations were undermined because ‘their organizers came with preconceived ideals, goals and strategies; they did not let neighborhood people make decisions… Only the progressive ideology that people developed themselves would last.’ (55)

Fisher continues:

Alinsky grounded his pragmatism in the promise of pluralism. He believed that the economic and political system could work for working-class people if they could reach the bargaining-tables of power. (55)

You know that idea’s come in for a lot of critique.

His Back of the Yards campaigning was pretty impressive, and out of it developed some lessons I recognize well: do your homework before the community meeting (you’ll have already talked to everyone to know where they stand, you don’t want no surprises), build the organization by winning victories, use service delivery if you need it but the primary goal is social change.

Of course you also have the Alinsky signature, conflict:

which raised strategy and tactics to paramount importance in community organizing, above and beyond questions of ideology, goals, and even democratic structure. (61)

And beautiful as the Back of the Yards struggle was, it became racist and reactionary, and Alinsky himself came to call this community a hell hole of hate as they fought to keep African Americans out. This perhaps highlights the weaknesses of an organization that puts process over goals, and only discusses tactical questions. Such a strategy only makes sense if the only problem is a lack of power, rather than deeper issues around capitalism itself and how that articulates with race, class, gender and etc. Fisher describes the older Alinsky as essentially cool with liberal capitalism, someone who loved FDR, believed in this ‘interest-group model of democracy’ and did not question capitalism itself. (64) Arguably the lesson here, is that we do need to grapple with ideological understandings, while also some practical focus on building movement and winning things. We can’t forget how important — and how possible — winning things actually is. The struggle is how to tie that into a programme for truly radical transformative social change that can only take place over the long-term.

[Fisher, Robert (1994) Let the People Decide: Neighborhood Organizing in America. New York: Maxwell Macmillan International.]

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

The Scholar Denied: Aldon Morris on W.E.B. Du Bois

Du Bois The Scholar DeniedI read this not long after seeing Aldon Morris himself talking about both Du Bois and The Scholar Denied, a wonderful evening. He gave us a taste then of his background, what brought him to this project. In reading the book, this is the autobiographical phrase that stuck with me:

I am a member of what sociologist and freedom fighter Joyce Ladner coined the “Emmett Till Generation,” blacks traumatized by by the lynching, which left a lasting imprint. (x)

#BLM show what little distance we have come. Also these shared questions, the way he was always moved by social movement:

What stirred in the souls of black people to cause them to be swept into the vortex of a powerful social movement? What changed in these people who had been taught to obey racists or face the awful consequences? Would they be able to overthrow Jim Crow? I was consumed with issues social scientists would come to conceptualize as human agency and the ways oppressed people could use it to generate change. (xi)

This is what social movement studies should be asking, no? Instead they have such a different feeling and I think much of that is driven by the same dynamics that led to Du Bois being marginalised, to the extent that Morris found him entirely absent from his sociology classes (as did I in undergrad):

My purpose in writing The Scholar Denied: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Birth of American Sociology is an ambitious one, namely, to shift our perspective on the founding, a hundred years ago, of one of the social sciences in America. …  I show that such intellectual schools are not merely the products of intellectual networks and original, meritorious ideas but are deeply entangled with power, ruling ideologies, and economics. … I lay bare the racism and power of dominant whites responsible for suppressing a seminal body of social scientific thought. (xvi-xvii)

And in spite of all this, such a body of work may still flourish. Because this flourishing is demonstrated here as well. This is a book of inspiration as much as anything, and always a book belonging to movement. You can see it in the acknowledgment that Du Bois was not an isolated genius, but flourished in institutions — there’s Du Bois kicking it in Germany where he was treated as an equal, studying under Weber himself and his later friendship with Boas who helped him see for the first time the greatness of African civilization — as well as in collaboration with black (and some white) intellectuals in Atlanta: Monroe Work, Richard R. Wright Jr, George Edmund Haynes. Two women were also instrumental in the Atlanta School, Lucy Craft Laney and Mary White Ovington. It was an uphill battle, however, and not just against white racism.

The Scholar Denied documents clearly the ways Booker T Washington and Robert E Park ‘conspired to obstruct and silence Du Bois politically, and how their actions imperiled Du Bois’s influence as a founder of American Sociology’ (xviii). The ways that Du Bois’s work was suppressed by scholars subscribing to white supremacy, ‘because it concluded that there were no scientific grounds on which to justify racial oppression and because they could not view Du Bois as an exemplary scholar who pioneered scientific sociology.’ (4)

A note here on this use of the word scientific — I was always a bit conflicted about that because it rings of positivism, of ‘objectivity’ but this is not the sense in which wither Morris or Du Bois use it. It stands, rather, for critical study. Rigorous and scholarly investigation based on interviews and actual fieldwork (still revolutionary for the time really, even after Booth). Du Bois was one of the first to get out of the proverbial armchair.  Of course The Philadelphia Negro (1899) is the primary example…and hell yes it should be. What an impressive, incredible book. It attempted, as I have written before, to turn the whole white-crafted question of the ‘the negro problem’ on its head.

Because of stiff white resistance to black aspirations, Du Bois, at the beginning of the twentieth century, concluded that the major unasked question of whites regarding blacks was: How does it feel to be a problem? (7)

Oh Sociology

Sociology has gone on to some great things, but has a rather ugly past. I suppose even so they were no worse than Geography — and possibly better for all their multiple sins. Still, the 1st issues of the 1st American Sociological journal — The American Journal of Sociology, founded by Chicago sociologist Albion Small in 1904 — contained a lead article by Galton, father of eugenics, on (wait for it) ‘Eugenics: Its Definition, Scope, and Aims’. This was no fluke or passing fad, the article was reprinted in the 1921 sociology textbook ‘Introduction to the Science of Sociology’ edited by Park and Burgess. So popular in curricula across the country it was known for decades as the “Green Bible”, it established sociology as an ‘abstract science’  (19, 138) and thus eugenics as a valid field of that study I suppose. But it helped define Du Bois right out of the field.

Park and Burgess drew upon Du Bois’s work, as almost certainly did the rest of the Chicago school, though they did not credit him. his voluminous papers were not included in these or other edited collections, not was he invited to key conferences of the field. All this despite the fact that Max Weber himself ’embraced Du Bois’s scholarship and declared him to be one of the greatest sociologists in America.’ (149)

Weber’s respect had much to do with his pioneering of methodologies, especially with The Philadelphia Negro. Interviews, participant observation, surveys, data crunching, spatial analysis. The manner in which Du Bois studied North AND South, urban AND rural and all over time and all rooted in their historical context because he saw all of this as deeply connected. Also Du Bois’s engagement with social problems and concerns that Weber also saw as important though it was eschewed by the Chicago school as unscientific and unobjective.

Upon returning to “‘nigger’-hating America,” Du Bois embraced his life’s work: the production of careful sociological studies of African Americans steeped in empirical data that could be used to discredit the dominant sociological and popular doctrine that blacks were forever stuck at the bottom of human civilizations because nature made them inferior. (22)

The Philadelphia Negro was written while an assistant instructor at UPenn — where Du Bois felt utterly marginalized as he was not allowed to teach white students. Morris quotes him writing:

It goes without saying that I did no instructing save once to pilot a pack of idiots through the Negro slum. (56)

After The Philadephia Negro‘s publication, Du Bois hoped to be able to establish a research program to study the black community. White universities refused to host such a program, white scholars refused to collaborate. So the scholar denied went down to Atlanta University, which segregated neither faculty nor its ‘sprinkling’ of white students. Du Bois and his students began quite an incredible project, collecting data on black urban life in Atlanta year by year, year after year. Their goal was to hold a conference at the end of each year to sift through it, analyse and publish it, maybe change the world with it…because they probed at its deep roots.

The Du Bois-Atlanta school of sociology was guided by a scholarly principle: sociological and economic factors were hypothesized to be the main causes of racial inequality… (58)

Du Bois created a ‘Laboratory in Sociology’ (75),  his goal was to do these yearly studies every year for 100 years…can you imagine? The wealth of information that would have generated. All this even as Jim Crow was ramping up. Although their work, just like The Philadelphia Negro, was officially ignored it clearly had an impact on the field (as did Jane Addams’ publication of the Hull House Maps and Papers in 1895). Yet it was The Polish Peasant in Europe and America (1918-1920) that is cited as the 1st great empirical study of American sociology (68). A fairly incredible fact after reading Du Bois’s work, or looking at the reproductions of some of Du Bois and his students’ incredible hand-drawn and coloured charts (many of which can be seen here in this incredible collection on public domain review).

So it would be bad enough if it were just the Chicago School ignoring an uppity black scholar, but this story is so much more involved than that. I never liked Booker T,  I really hated Up From Slavery as much as I allowed myself to judge (because, you know, I haven’t all that much right to judge). But damn, Morris is right in this damning praise:

Just seven months after Douglas’s death, white Americans, and European powers involved in colonizing Africa received a wonderful gift of black leadership — Booker T. Washington. (9)

Washington preached that inequality was driven by the fundamental inequality of blacks themselves and a lack of black civilization. This was picked up and echoed by the Chicago school of sociology (12), because you know why (apart from its convenience?) I never knew Robert E. Park took a job at Tuskegee, as director of public relations and a ghostwriter for Booker T himself. Du Bois had rejected the position.

Bloody hell. The insult of such an offer.

So it becomes oh so clear where Park’s ideas are founded, how they were sustained in this view of blacks as rural, simple, safest away from cities and their temptations. Above all the necessity of extremely gradual (we’re talking centuries), rate of changing race relations. Of course Washington saw Du Bois and his colleagues proving full equality and demanding full rights as a threat and a challenge. Park joined him in this view, retaining an intense loyalty to Washington through the years after leaving Tuskegee, catapulted as he was into leadership at Chicago. His utter lack of qualification in comparison with Du Bois is painfully obvious. By 1905, Booker T was on the warpath, threatening Atalanta University and its funding if it continued down the path laid out by Du Bois (he wrote openly that Du Bois’s work at Atlanta University wished to destroy Tuskegee — extraordinary and vile). Funding did dry up at his word, though Du Bois managed to eke it out for another 10 years. This explains a lot I think, about the Chicago School.

The Chicago School

The Chicago school was guided by two major theoretical principles formulated mainly by Park. The first was that sociology was an objective science whose mission was to formulate natural laws determining human behavior. The second was a unique social Darwinism that combined evolutionary principles with social interaction analyses. (112)

There is so much packed into the book on the subject of Park’s opinions and writings that you can see threading through future scholarship like a malignant spirit. A call for objectivity, a ‘ridiculing of reform-oriented sociologists’ in a quest to uncover ‘universal social natural laws.’ (114) A belief in racial hierarchy, whites at top and blacks at bottom. Park drew on Simmel, whose student he had been, in theorizing basic social forms: competition, conflict, accommodation, assimilation. (115) He believed in ‘racial temperaments’ transmitted biologically and that blacks would be forever both culturally and biologically inferior (117). Terms used to describe them were ‘primitives, folk people, aliens, and savages‘ (119) despite the claim that they had lost all cultural ties during the middle passage.  Always an emphasis on blacks remaining rural and South as cities required ‘civilized’ persons to inhabit them. (120)

It’s awful reading — and recognizing — the litany.

Park wrote an utterly vile piece on ‘Negro’ music, describing how the songs show them to be sunny tempered and optimistic. He somehow managed to find in them no trace of Africa. He describes leading authority on Black spirituals to be a white Colonel who collected them from black soldiers. Madness.

But also bad scholarship. You can see the devastating impact of racist views on any shred of intellectual validity. I mean, as a scholar all he had to do to know better was read the incredibly well researched work of Du Bois.

Du Bois himself debunked and warned against all of it, particularly the use of natural sciences to understand society. He was able to see how it was being used to maintain white supremacy. I suppose it is small wonder that Washington and Park together worked to marginalise Du Bois’s contribution to sociology, ‘render [his] scholarship invisible’. (137)

Engaged Scholarship

There follows a discussion of Du Bois as engaged scholar, he would of course go on to play a pivotal role at the head of the NAACP and the publisher (editor, writer) of The Crisis. This could be found in households across the country, unlike, say possibly, The Phildelphia Negro.

Part of this is Morris’s exploration of the role of intellectual schools and the importance of networks in developing ‘greatness’. Here is where engaged scholarship comes to the fore — as Du Bois was excluded from white networks (funding, position, publication in certain journals or collections, invitations to conferences and etc) and given his refusal to accept black inferiority, he found his own way through:

He developed counterhegemonic networks and a counterhegemonic form of capital that have not been identified or analyzed in the literature. (187)

Morris describes this as ‘liberation capital’, donations of time and money that sustained a counterhegemonic institution and its research. This underlay the Du Bois – Atalanta school and its impressive body of research, showing that that:

Merton and Collins are right to argue that intellectual networks and scientific settings such as universities are crucial to producing excellent science, Yet networks and institutional theory err in the assumptions that great science can be produced only in elite institutions… (192)

And this is the achievement of the Du Bois-Atlanta school, a large measure of the inspiration alongside and in addition to the awesomeness of their scholarship and the ways that they blazed a trail in the ways urban studies could be done. Not only are these historic achievements now slowly being recognized, but they remain of great theoretical importance. Just one example:

As Decker states, “The rereading of Du Bois’s works became the stating poin for critical whiteness in the United States in the late 1980s.” (220)

And of course, the question remains haunting academia and its continued embeddedness in a white elite setting despite the increase in diversity (and you just have to read Patricia Hill Collins or Angela Davis or bell hooks or any other number of scholars of colour to see just how difficult and precarious their situations remain)

To what extent do progressive white scholars of today unwittingly interject racist biases in their science even while believing they stand above prescientific racial assumptions? (221)

Beginning Postcolonialism: John McLeod

Beginning PostcolonialismBeginning Postcolonialism by John McLeod was quite good as a starting place for understanding major currents of thought, major debates, and the principal theorists as well as literary figures. For a long time I’ve always felt a bit of disdain for these kinds of introductory books, I’m not sure where that comes from. I think from auto-didactically reading some of the ‘classics’ and finding them so very different from how they were taught me in my early years in school. But as a place to begin, not end, in developing my understanding this was very helpful indeed, and will be worth going back to once I’m a little further along. In terms of learning on one’s own, I actually quite appreciated its format of exposition interspersed with sections highlighting key questions for consideration, and the way it walked the reader through a couple of key theoretical and fictional texts to better illustrate the methodologies used.

Postcolonial Basics

I also really appreciate clarity. Perhaps a little too much, but it’s nice to start with the basics. Like this explanation of the debate over using postcolonial versus post-colonial:

the hyphenated term… seems better suited to denote a historical period or epoch, like those suggested by phrases such as ‘after colonialism’ (5)

Without a hyphen?

referring to forms of representation, reading practices, attitudes and values…. postcolonialism does not refer to something which tangibly is, but rather it denotes something which one does: it can describe a way of thinking, a mode of perception, a line of inquiry, and aesthetic practice, a method of investigation. (6)

Ah. Useful, right? This also explained the trajectory, especially within academia, from ‘Commonwealth’ to ‘Postcolonial’ studies — something I’d never quite known about. Another distinction was in the difference between colonialism and imperialism — McLeod cites Peter Childs and Patrick Williams as they argue that imperialism:

is an ideological project which upholds the legitimacy of the economic and military control of one nation by another. They define imperialism as “the extension and expansion of trade and commerce under the protection of political, legal, and military controls.* Colonialism, however, is only one form of practice, one modality of control which results from the ideology of imperialism, and it specifically concerns the settlement of people in a new location. (9)

Again, that is such a nice encapsulation of something I’ve been thinking about a while. Other things are very new indeed, such as the difference between new ‘postcolonial’ critics from earlier literary studies:

…their insistence that historical, geographical and cultural specifics are vital to both the writing and reading of a text, and cannot be so easily bracketed as secondary colouring or background. (18)

Said, orientalism and literary studies

There is the key role that ‘representations’ and ‘modes of perception’ play — these aren’t terms thrown around a great deal across a large portion of the social sciences. In theorising colonial discourses, McLeod draws out the ways that Fanon and Said, for all their differences:

explore the ways that representations and modes of perception are used as fundamental weapons of colonial power to keep colonised peoples subservient to colonial rule. (19)

What together they brought to postcolonial studies was the idea that:

Overturning colonialism, then, is not just about handing land back to its dispossessed people. relinquishing power to those who were once ruled by Empire. It is also a process of overturning the dominant ways of seeing the world, and representing reality in ways which do not replicate colonialist values.(25)

This is slightly different from what I myself pulled from Said or Fanon, coming from a different tradition, so it’s interesting to read more of  how Said’s Orientalism has been developed further in literary studies, with three main strands of textual analysis prominent:

  1. re-reading canonical English literature in order to examine if past representations perpetuated or questioned the latent assumption of colonial discourses.. (26)

  2. examining ‘the representations of colonized subjects across a variety of colonial texts’ drawing on Derrida, Foucault, Lacan — Spivak and Bhaba (27)

  3. A look at how ‘literatures were primarily concerned with writing back to the centre, actively engage din a process of questioning and travestying colonial discourses in their work.’ (28)

This included the forming of new ‘englishes’, which I quite love, and am very familiar with having grown up along the border. I find them quite subversive, but think the debate around language is so important — to write in the coloniser’s language, to write in your own, to write the creative hybrids that tend to flourish…

I like the focus on change, on struggle (and the self-reflective debate about the efficacy of postcolonial theory in doing either):

‘postcolonialism’ recognises both historical continuity and change. On the one hand, it acknowledges that the material realities and discursive modes of representation established through colonialism are still very much with us today, even if the political map of the world has altered through decolonisation. But on the other hand, it prizes the promise, the possibility and the continuing necessity of change… (39)

Returning to Fanon, it shows the ways that others have built on his insight that, for the person who is colonised:

Ideology assigns him a role and an identity which he is meant to internalise as proper and true, and he is made subject to its iniquitous and disempowering effects, both psychologically and socially.

McLeod argues that Foucault expands this understanding — and I like this explanation of Foucault’s understanding of power (though I don’t think he cites Fanon, I don’t know if he ever read him):

Although the example of Fanon soberly highlights the pain of being represented pejoratively by other people, Foucault argues that power also worked through gratification. Power is not simply punitive; if it was, it could not function so successfully, gain so much day-to-day support nor ultimately maintain its authority. … Indeed, we might consider that colonial discourses have been successful because they are so productive: they enable some colonisers to feel important, superior, noble and benign, as well as gaining the complicity of the colonised by enabling some people to derive a sense of self-worth and material benefit through their participation in the business of Empire. (45)

More useful summaries of the activities outside my own field — what colonial discourse analysis does:

‘first…refuses the humanist assumption that literary texts exist above and beyond their historical contexts. (46)

‘second…is caught up in the sordid history of colonial exploitation and dispossession…’

third, the attention to the machinery of colonial discourses in the past can act as a means of resourcing resistance to the continuation of colonial representations and realities…. (46)

Texts such as Mansfield Park or Jane Eyre have been as much a part of this analysis as those by writers like Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o or Chinua Achebe. Another key distinction that is nice to just read clearly stated:

‘Orientalism’ and colonial discourse do not amount to the same thing. They are not interchangeable terms. (47)

Just as I found this a very useful summary of Said’s work in headings:

  • Orientalism constructs binary oppositions

  • Orientalism is a Western fantasy

  • Orientalism is institutional

  • Orientalism is literary and creative

  • Orientalism is legitimating and self-perpetuating

  • There is a distinction between ‘latent’ and ‘manifest’ Orientalism

Of course McLeod also summarises the critiques of Said: that Orientalism is ahistorical, that it ignores resistance by the colonised, that it ignores resistance in the West, that it ignores the significance of gender.

But what a foundation to build from. It does feel very contained however. I liked thinking about how Bhaba looks at why the two aspects of orientalism never quite work as they are pulling in two different directions, in his own words:

colonial discourse produces the colonised as a social reality which is at once “other” and yet entirely knowable and visible.’ (63)

So of course there is room here to maneuver.

Bhaba argues that within colonialist representations the colonised subject is always in motion, sliding ambivalently between the polarities of similarity and difference, rationality and fantasy. He or she will simply not stand still. hence the prevalence for stereotypes in colonialist discourses: stereotypes are an attempt to arrest this motion and fix the colonised once and for all. (64-65)

All fail to achieve to fixity, but it is interesting to think of stereotypes in this way.

I haven’t read enough Bhaba, I will fix that.  The above insights I find useful and hope to work more with, others I find interesting and am still thinking about, such as his descriptions of the threat of ‘mimicry’:

Hearing their language coming through the mouths of the colonised, the colonisers are faced with the worrying threat of resemblance between coloniser and colonised. This threatens to collapse the Orientalist structure of knowledge… (66)

What I do love, though, is his focus on struggle. For example, Bhaba critiques Said in not seeing

how colonial discourses generate the possibilities of their own critique. (67)

Nationalism and nationalist discourses

There is another chapter on nationalism and nationalist representation, ie negritude and how important these came to be for struggles for independence. This is followed by a chapter of the  discussion and critiques that this inspired. Impossible to summarise it, I shall just focus on bits and pieces that jumped out at me, like Gilroy’s lovely definition of race from After Empire:

“race” refers primarily to an impersonal, discursive arrangement, the brutal result of the raciological ordering of the world, not its cause. (132)

The there is Balibar writing about the way that

nationalism always has a reciprocal relation with racism (although the nature of that relation can take many different forms): where one is found, the other is never far away. Therefore, in using nationalist, it is claimed that decolonising peoples are in danger of perpetuating a concept which tends t support divisive processes of racialisation. (133-134)

Again returning to Bhaba’s work, where

nationalist discourses are ultimately illiberal and must always be challenged. (142)

With a quote from Robert Young, McLeod also notes that it is not simply race at play in these discourses:

nationalism is frequently a gendered discourse; it traffics in representations of men and women which serve to reinforce patriarchal inequalities between them. (136)

Gender

I wish intersectionality was woven into this discussion, that people like Patricia Hill Collins or bell hooks were quoted and part fo these theoretical discussions. But there is a chapter on feminism, that opens up with a definition from June Hannam that I hadn’t seen before and that I think I like:

a set of ideas that recognize in an explicit way that women are subordinate to men and seek to address imbalances of power between the sexes. Central to feminism is the view that women’s condition is socially constructed, and therefore open to change. At its heart is the belief that women’s voices should be heard — that they should represent themselves, put forward their own view of the words and achieve autonomy in their lives. (Feminism, 2006, 3-4, quoted p 198)

This is where we really start to come to grips with Spivak. McLeod discusses some of the debates and difficulties around naming, the problems that surround the use of ‘first-world’ and ‘third-world’ and yet a need to have some way to mark identities in recognition of power differentials etc. To get around this to some extent — acknowledging its flaws but hoping to salvage what is useful, McLeod writes…

So, although such phrases will be used in this chapter, they remain provisional categories of convenience rather than factual denotations of fixed and stable groups. (200)

I like that way of managing it. Some of the starting points for Spivak…

As poststructuralism would have it, human consciousness is constructed discursively. Our subjectivity and consciousness are constituted by the shifting discourses of power which endlessly ‘speak through’ us, situating us here and there in particular positions and relations. In these terms we are not the authors of ourselves. We do not simply construct our own identities but have them written for us; the subject cannot be wholly ‘sovereign’ over the construction of selfhood. Instead, the subject is ‘de-centred’ in that its consciousness is always being constructed from positions outside itself. (218)

Spivak argues that this is as true for colonial or working class subjects, but Foucault and Deleuze both wrongly often fall into speaking of them as essentialised and centred subjects. I found McLeod’s interpretation of ‘Can the Subaltern Speak’, which I tried to read too long ago and found very difficult, so can’t judge if this is fair but regardless it is quite interesting:

Rather than making the subaltern as female seem to speak, intellectuals must bring to crisis the representation systems which rendered her mute in the first place, challenging the very forms of knowledge that are complicit in her silencing. (221)

I also like Spivak’s idea of ‘strategic essentialism’, which he explains:

involves us in actively choosing to use a concept which we know is flawed, often as a way of challenging the very system which has fashioned that concept in the first place, (222).

I like this mix of theoretical rigor and bowing to practicality, I’ve always meant to try reading Spivak again. I like how much of the postcolonial debate is about how we move forward without erasing the past, about finding the points of hope without turning away from past points of despair.

Moving forward: borders, hybridisation, collective difference

I like how often these involve ideas of borders, though possibly just because I am from one…

In Bhaba’s thinking, the disruption of received totalising narratives of individual and group identity made possible at the ‘border’ can be described as an ‘uncanny’ moment, where all those forgotten in he construction of, say, national groups return to disturb and haunt such holistic ways of thinking. This uncanny disruption brings with it trauma and anxiety. It serves as a reminder that exclusive, exclusionary systems of meaning are forever haunted by those who are written out and erased. (254)

This is trying to tackle at one of the key questions of our times, I think. How to we come together made stronger by our differences to find justice? McLeod writes:

The problem posed in ‘New Ethnicities’ by Stuart Hall has remained: how are new communities forged which do not homogenise people or ignore the differences between them; communities based on crossings, interactions, partial identifications? Can there be ‘solidarity thorough difference’? (264)

Which is part of why I love Stuart Hall. I love Paul Gilroy’s idea of conviviality as well, though still find it slippery:

Gilroy’s answer lies in the ways in which different cultural practices circulate in the black Atlantic between groups in different locations, creating contingent transnational forms of community. ‘Solidarity through difference’ can be built by plotting the ways in which diaspora peoples in any one location draw upon the resources and ideas of other peoples in different times and places in order to contest the continuing agency of colonialist, nationalist or racist discourses at various sites(267).

This is the hope for the future, this, and as the conclusion emphasises, the habit of ongoing dialogue and reflexivity within the discipline.

[McLeod, John (2010) Beginning Postcolonialism. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press]

*An Introduction to Post-Colonial Theory, Peter Childs and Patrick Williams, Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1997, p 227

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Patricia Hill Collins: Academia, Education and Speaking to Power

Patricia Hill Collins is brilliant not just on intersectionality ‘out there’ a safe distance in the wider world, but with how we ourselves deal with it, particularly within academia. I thought writing this blog today would help me face a little better the prospect of tomorrow when Trump is sworn in, when I am far from the U.S. and all of my friends most at risk and deep in the struggle for survival. This is the long game we are playing.

For myself, so much of what she wrote seemed so obvious, yet it felt so good to see it named, to see the conflicts laid out, to benefit from her view on these issues all of us with some level of outsider status face within the academy from a perspective and positionality I have much to learn from.

Many of the themes in Black Feminist Thought reflect my sustained effort to reconcile my independent view of the world with my devalued place in it. (8)

More that rings so true:

Living one’s life as a person on the bottom involves listening for lies all the time. The challenge lies in thinking critically about race, class, gender, and sexuality without driving yourself and your loved ones crazy. When oppressed groups embrace their own experience to challenge dominant curricular offerings and classroom practices, they create space for their own self-defined view of the world. (132)

This is why being in the position of academic is so difficult:

As individuals, each of us occupies a dual location: included in some groups, yet excluded from others. The issue for most of us lies in being a pure insider or outsider than in terms of our participation within all of the venues to which we belong… Negotiating the contemporary politics of knowledge production from “outsider within” social locations raises some fundamental dilemmas. (xi)

That whether or not we think about these dilemmas, they still affect us. Seeing them transforms us, and that is no easy thing. A wonderful quote from James Baldwin:

One of the problems of education is that “precisely at the point when you begin to develop a conscience, you must find yourself at war with your society. it is your responsibility to change society, if you think of yourself as an educated person. (132)

In academia any fiery stance in this war is flattened by crushing hierarchy, feels like a series of endless hoops through which we move, and the undeniable derogation of work seen as too ‘popular’, work that’s too ‘political’ and thus not seen as academic, and in a world where institutions claim monopoly on knowledge production. We ourselves have to assert our claims on knowledge production as part of that, and so all that is co-produced or collectively created is seen as inferior.

We are groomed in very distinct ways, but we can choose a different path:

My lengthy educational training was designed to equip me to wield the language of power to serve the interests of the gatekeepers who granted me legitimacy. My teachers did not consider that I might choose to use those same weapons to challenge much of what I learned… (xii)

So how do we challenge? There are a number of ways, working on a number of levels — and I love that the essential knowledge that we must fight remains, while the complexities of how we conduct that fight are explored.  I can’t tell you how reassuring it is to think that maybe this doctorate wasn’t a huge mistake, that actually truth to power can be — needs to be — spoken from this position.

Much of my academic writing strives to speak the truth to power, namely, to develop alternative analyses about social injustices that scholarly audiences will find credible… Speaking the truth to power in ways that undermine and challenge that power can often best be done as an insider. … Challenging power structures from the inside working the cracks within the system, however, requires learning to speak multiple languages of power convincingly. (xiii)

Broadening the cracks in the system… That is one way. Another:

A second strategy of intellectual activism aims to speak the truth directly to the people. (xiii)

Both of these are necessary, and both must subvert the dominant understandings of intelligence, scholarship and value. It isn’t often I throw around words like epistemology, but this is so key:

How do power relationships shape who is believed, who is disbelieved, and why? These questions lie at the heart of epistemology, a theory of knowledge that examines the standards used to assess what we know or why we believe what we believe. (24)

At this level perhaps we have the chance to shape these larger frames, while holding ourselves to this standard she lays out in the form of three questions to :

help us navigate new paths for engaged scholarship:

  1. does engaged scholarship like Black feminist thought speak the truth to people about the reality of their lives?

  2. does engaged scholarship like Black feminist thought equip people to resist oppression?

  3. does engaged scholarship move people to struggle in favor of social justice? (26)

I like too, the emphasis on our accountability:

In this sense, there is an important distinction between scholarship in support of social justice and scholarship in service to social justice. scholarship in support of social justice implies a lack of accountability on the part of the scholar…In contrast, scholarship in service to social justice invokes the responsibilities that are associated with the idea of service itself… (43)

This means as committed academics we have to work on multiple levels. That of concrete action:

The overarching goal of scholarship in service to social justice is not to explain social inequality or social injustice, but to foster social justice, to bring about some sort of change. (42)

But that it is okay that not all of our work is at that level. I also appreciate more every day this distinction between ourselves, our struggle, and our job within the institution:

I’ve always recognized that one can do intellectual production in many different locations. When it comes to my scholarship, I have survived by reminding myself that I always have a choice. I never mistake my job as being synonymous with intellectual activism or my own life’s work. I also remind myself that, despite the fact that intellectual work remains devalued within U.S. society, I know that the power of ideas matters. (110)

I also appreciate more every day the necessity to find others, to do this collectively, to support one another:

There are so many different kinds of people from all walks of life who care deeply about building a better future. We need to develop better ways of recognizing and finding one another. Continuing to do social justice work, including intellectual activism within sociology, requires building communities of practice of people who value social justice work, especially if they look quite different than us. (111)

The importance of drawing sustenance from unexpected places — although given my shyness growing up, I always had this kind of relationship with authors I loved. Which is why I am an author now myself. It is hard in life to find like souls:

In the course of investigating the absence, I found a nurturing political community among people I could not meet face to face. Many of them were dead, were unknown to the rest of academia, or were not considered to be intellectuals or theorists. Yet, their ideas spoke so strongly to my experiences. (112)

We can look to other forms of pedagogical practice, like those of Paolo Freire and Myles Horton, educational processes for liberation. Substantively? She lays out a good list of what we still don’t quite know how to do in moving the struggle forward.

These judgments by category must be replaced with fully human relationships that transcend the legitimate differences created by race, class, and gender as categories of analysis. We require new categories of connection, new visions of what our relationships with one another can be.

Our task is immense. We must first recognize race, class, and gender as interlocking categories of analysis that together cultivate profound differences in our personal biographies. But then we must transcend these very difference by conceptualizing race, class, and gender to create new categories of connection. (215)

That means:

…we must shift our discourse away from additive analyses of oppression. (215)

That means we must find new, mutually respectful and supportive ways to come together, build stronger, better, broader coalitions to achieve fundamental changes. We need to be better.

Sharing a common cause assists individuals and groups in maintaining relationships that transcend these differences. Building effective coalitions involves struggling to hear one another and developing empathy for the other points of view. The coalitions that I have been involved in that lasted and last and that worked have been those where commitment to a specific issue mandated collaboration as the best strategy for addressing the issue at hand (225)

and of course, individual accountability…developing empathy and finding respect. She writes

Deconstructive politics may seem radical in the moment of destroying the walls of segregation that separate people from one another. The pile of rubble left behind holds the promise of a new society, yet it cannot be a new society until we build something new with the pieces. (235)

But I believe with her, that still today one of the essential questions in our world structured as it is continues to be:

Over and over again this question, ‘What will it take for Black women to be free?’ (50)

Save

Save

Patricia Hill Collins: Space, Identity, Intersectionality

Patricia Hill Collins blew me away the first time I read her in any depth, and continues to do so every time I return. She is someone who helps me get through every time I despair of academic and intellectual endeavours, and On Intellectual Activism is full of both inspiration and knowledge, spanning he wide range of her work and thought.

A book to treasure. Especially given we face the inauguration of Donald Trump. It still seems unreal.

I’ve been working through some of the main ideas that jumped out at me this time around, some felt new and others, like intersectionality, felt solidified. In introducing the collection of essays and extracts, Collins writes:

Two main ideas are at work here, both of which focus on social structural sources of power….developed throughout my scholarship, I have used the thesis of intersectionality and the idea of the matrix of domination as interrelated constructs to describe social structures of domination. Intersectional thinking suggests that race, class, gender, nation, sexuality, ethnicity, age, and other forms of social hierarchy structure one another. My goal has been to conceptualize intersectionality and study its manifestations in a matrix of domination from one social setting to the next. (xvi)

I am working on organising my thoughts a little more on how this structuring takes place, how this conceptualisation sits alongside and works together with Stuart Hall’s ideas of articulation. So that will come later. Today just a collection of thoughts really. While these notes are from a very long time ago, I started giving them some kind of structure on Martin Luther King Jr day, so it was nice to come across this — a good place to start in thinking about Collins and her contributions to struggle because it starts with a goal and a vision — Martin Luther King Jr’s Beloved Community ():

The idea of Beloved Community envisions a public space that is heterogeneous and participatory, and where we each see how we are responsible for bringing it about. (145, from ‘Making Space for Public Conversations: An Interview, 2011)

she further writes:

I envision the Beloved Community as a social group that embraces all of its members. Yet, within the space of Beloved Community, with its ethos of social justice, there is also space for disagreement. People seem to assume that communities are happy places where no one disagrees. But to construct a vision of Beloved Community, there must be conflict and dialogue, and not running away from the conflict that might come from dialogue across differences. Communities negotiate power relations across differences. What makes a community a “beloved” community is that people within it are committed to working through these differences in power in ways that make communities fair for everyone. (148)

This kind of sums up in a most beautiful way what she is trying to accomplish — to not shy away from disagreement, from hard truths as we see them, but to communicate them respectfully. To explore them. To find strength in differences. To fix what is broken. And so much is broken, not least how we often conduct our justice struggles. Collins reflects:

Many of the themes in Black Feminist Thought reflect my sustained effort to reconcile my independent view of the world with my devalued place in it. (8, from ‘Why Black Feminist Thought’ presented 1990-93)

This helps explain why King, much as I love him, is the civil rights figure celebrated with a public holiday and to whom many not down with the struggle will point, rather than Ella Baker, Septima Clark, Jo Ann Robinson or Rosa Parks in her role as secretary of the NAACP and the many others working for justice. Why feminism has been so important, why the LGBTQI struggle has been so important — and Patricia Hill Collins has been central in thinking how to create a politics that works against all aspects of oppression rather than just one. I love her critical thinking on the differences between collective and individual “identity politics”:

the Collective advanced a powerful theory of action, one grounded in analysis and experience with “identity politics” as the phrase that captures these complex relationships. In contrast, contemporary approaches to identity politics rely on an individualist notion of identity: identity as freedom from social constructions, no matter the power relations. (54, from ‘Still Brave? Black Feminism as a Social Justice Project’)

The erasure of an understanding of power here is key to the problem:

Social structures of intersecting systems of power disappear, to be replaced with by an endlessly changing flow of individuals, each trying to understand him- or herself. (68, from ‘Learning from the Outsider Within Revisited’)

The erasure of the collective is as problematic as well, like Freire, Horton and Baker, Collins sees work and theory as needing to be collectively created through struggle. The goal for her?

Black girls would not be consumers of Black feminism–instead they would create it (66).

This creation is central to a liberatory practice, because it matters where you stand, as she writes:

…the social location of being on the edge mattered. (66)

Taken all together, we have to understand power and identity in new ways:

I don’t see racism as a cardboard, one-dimensional filter…Instead, I see racism as an ever-changing system of power relations that works with and through gender, class, sexuality, age, ethnicity, citizenship, and other similarly structured systems of power. (178, from ‘Are We Living in a Post-Racial World?’)

Working on segregation and privatisation as I do, this viewpoint brings valuable insights into both:

The logic of segregation says: Separate people into boxes (e.g., categories of race, gender, class, and sexuality), keep the boxes separate from each other, and rank each box’s worth. Racial segregation is the most visible, yet it is only the tip of the iceberg. The logic of segregation affects all aspects of U.S. society and global politics that carve up the world’s people into nation-states. The whole notion of borders, boundaries, and segregation has been a very important cognitive frame for American perceptions of its peoples and the world. (33, from ‘Black Sexual Politics 101’)

This remains, despite the new rhetoric of colourblindness, their new geographic codes:

One distinguishing feature of the new racism is how it continues to rely on a logic of segregation that remains powerful yet masks its own operation. … not the stark either/or kind of the past…but a more genteel  version coded through euphemisms of “good” and “bad” neighborhoods…(34)

Their new social codes:

overt racial language is replaced by covert racial euphamisms that reference the same phenomena–talk of “niggers” and “ghettos” becomes replaced by phrases such as “urban,” “welfare mothers,” and “street crime.” Everyone knows what these terms mean, and if they don’t, they quickly figure it out. (35)

It is also described, justified, sanctified in terms of family values:

Family values are everywhere, motivating behaviors concerning race, class, and national priorities. For example, whites are told that the decision to move into a white neighborhood is not about upholding racism, but rather constitutes a personal choice to protect the interests of their children and provide them with a “good” education. (202)

She makes the connection between privatization and race, looking at academies and the white flight from public schools as changing other institutions as well so that

…the public sphere becomes a curiously confined, yet visible location that increases the value of private services and privacy itself. Public places become devalued spaces containing Latinos, poor people, African Americans, the homeless, and anyone else who cannot afford to escape. In this context, privacy signals safety; control over one’s home, family and community space; and racial homogeneity–all qualities that can be purchased if one can afford it. This version of privatization dovetails with Guinier and Torres’ notion of the privatization of power. If private spaces are better, then shouldn’t private entities run the public itself? (83, from ‘Going Public: Doing the Sociology That Had No Name’)

And of course, she ties it all back in to our history, to a global context

I see segregation as a metaphor for a broader set of social relations stemming from colonialism and nationalism. These political systems required drawing strict boundaries to determine citizenship, status, and the benefits and costs of belonging. Historically, sociology was uncomfortable with itself because it was a border discipline during a period of separation where, to know who you were, you had to pick a side…(108, from ‘Rethinking Knowledge, Community and Empowerment’)

These were just a few of the highlights of her wisdom around what we face, I’m still working through more on intersectionality and power, theorisations of violence, and the role of the intellectual…

Save

Save

Erich Fromm: On Choosing Life

Erich Fromm The Heart of ManThe person who fully loves life is attracted by the process of growth in all spheres. He prefers to construct rather than to retain. He is capable of wondering, and he prefers to see something new to the security of finding confirmation of the old. He loves the adventure of living more than he does certainty. His approach to life is functional rather than mechanical. He sees the whole rather than only the parts, structures rather than summations. He wants to mold and to influence by love, reason, by his example: not by force, by cutting things apart, by the bureaucratic manner of administering people as if they were things. He enjoys life in all its manifestations rather than mere excitement. (47)

I love this. I am also sorry in a way that I separated it from the discussion of pathology and evil, because Fromm is no motivational poster writer. But I love that he puts as much thought into what a good life is like as he does a bad one — drawing out both sides of the dialectic. Like a good Marxist, too, Fromm looks beyond our inner psyche to the physical, material conditions needed for what he calls biophilia  or the love of life, both those that emerge from the material and emotional conditions of our relationships:

warm, affectionate contact with others during infancy; freedom, and absence of threats; teaching — by example rather than preaching — of the principles conducive to inner harmony and strength; guidance in the “art of living”; stimulating influence of and response to others; a way of life that is genuinely interesting. (51)

And those emerging from the material conditions of our society:

Abundance versus scarcity …. abolition of injusticefreedomsecurity in the sense that the basic material conditions for a dignified life are not threatened, justice in the sense that nobody can be an end for the purposes of another, and freedom in the sense that each man has the possibility to be an active and responsible member of society. (52-53)

Fromm sees a (Marxist) humanism as counter to both individual and group narcissism. He describes the Thirty Years War (I confess, I almost never think of the Thirty Years War) as a blow to humanism that Europe has still not recovered from — on the one side philosophers like Spinoza, Leibniz, Rousseau, Herder, Kant, Goethe, Marx —

the thought developed that mankind is one, that each individual carries within himself all of humanity, that they must be no privileged groups claiming that their privileges are based on their intrinsic superiority. (83)

Though I’ve just finished Mills’ A Racial Contract, and that adds a n interesting, and necessary, twist in the ways this has primarily been a white humanism.

As I mentioned in the last post, for Fromm the great humanist religions also, most radically in Buddhism

It is the goal of man to overcome one’s narcissism. (88)

He is hopeful:

…the idea of the equality of all men, hence of their freedom and dignity, has conquered the world, and it is unthinkable that mankind could ever return to the concepts which dominated civilized history until only a short time ago. (91)

To ‘cure’ narcissism is to transfer it from individual or group to humankind as a whole

man has the possibility to create the material conditions for a dignified life for everybody… The development of technique will do away with the need for one group to enslave and exploit another; it has already made war obsolete as an economically rational action; man will for the first time emerge from his half-animal state to a fully human one, and hence not need narcissistic satisfaction to compensate for his material and cultural poverty. (92)

Again, I think Mills demonstrates convincingly the ways that racism and white supremacy have twisted the wider notion of full humanity,

Our own awareness is usually confined to that the society of which we are members permits us to be aware. Those human experiences which do not fit into this picture are repressed. Hence our consciousness represents mainly our own society and culture, while our unconscious represents the universal man in each of us. (93)

Freedom, Determinism, Alternativism

This chart sums up beautifully the aspects of Fromm’s argument, and the psychoanalytic threads that I have left to one side to focus on narcissism.
Erich Fromm

There are long discussions about the nature of (hu)man, the essence of (hu)man (there is the relentless male pronoun in Fromm which I don’t like, but is of its time). Fromm argues that it

can be solved by defining the essence of man not as a given quality or substance, but as a contradiction inherent in human existence.(116)

He continues:

man is both body and soul… it is not enough to see this conflict as the essence of man…and that by virtue of which man is man. It is necessary to go beyond… and to recognize  that the very conflict in man demands a solution. … What can man do to cope with this fright inherent in his existence? What can man do to find a harmony to liberate him from the torture of aloneness, and to permit him to be at home in the world, to find a sense of unity?

I quite love this:

There are a number of answers … I want to stress again that none of these answers as such constitutes the essence of man; what constitutes the essence is the question and the need for an answer… (117)

There may be many answers, but only two directions:

The regressive answer … he can try to return to where he came from — to nature, to animal life… He can try and do away with that which makes him human and yet tortures him: his reason and self-awareness. (117)

the progressive solution, that of finding a new harmony not by regression but by the full development of all human forces, of the humanity within oneself. (118)

Thus there is a choice all of us have to make, a power we hold over our own lives — which brings forth the question of just how much choice do we actually have? How much power?

Whether we apply determinism to social groups and classes or to individuals, have not Freudian and Marxist analysis shown how weak man is in his battle against determining instinctive and social forces? … Yet neither Marx nor Freud were determinists in the sense of believing in an irreversibility of causal determination. They both believed in the possibility that a course already initiated can be altered. They both saw this possibility of change rooted in man’s capacity for becoming aware of the forces which move him behind his back, so to speak, and thus enabling him to regain his freedom. Both were – like Spinoza, by whom Marx was influenced considerably – determinists and indeterminists, or neither determinists nor indeterminists. Both proposed that man is determined by the laws of cause and effect, but that by awareness and right action he can create and enlarge the realm of freedom. It is up to him to gain an optimum of freedom and to extricate himself from the chains of necessity. For Freud the awareness of the un-conscious, for Marx the awareness of socioeconomic forces and class interests, were the conditions for liberation; for both, in addition to awareness, an active will and struggle were necessary conditions for liberation. (126-127)

This…we liberate ourselves. Yet still weighted down with the circumstances we are born into and the history of our times. When we make a miss-step, it is corrected through owning the mistake and then right action rather than guilt (if only liberals could learn that, it seems a very valuable post-election lesson)

“Responsibility” is mostly used to denote that I am punishable or accusable … There is another concept of responsibility, however, which has no connection with punishment or “guilt.” In this sense responsibility only means “I am aware that I did it.” In fact, as soon as my deed is experienced as “sin” or “guilt” it becomes alienated. It is not I who did this, but “the sinner,” “the bad one,” that “other person” who now needs to be punished; not to speak of the fact that the feeling of guilt and self-accusation creates sadness, self-loathing, and loathing of life. This point has been beautifully expressed by one of the great Hasidic teachers, Isaac Meier of Ger:

“Whoever talks about and reflects upon an evil thing he has done, is thinking the vileness he has perpetrated, and what one thinks therein is one caught – with one’s whole soul – one is caught utterly in what one thinks, and so he is still caught in vileness. And he will surely not be able to turn, for his spirit will coarsen and his heart rot, and besides this, a sad mood may come upon him. What would you? Stir filth this way and that, and it is still filth. To have sinned or not to have sinned – what does it profit us in heaven? In the time I am brooding on this, I could be stringing pearls for the joy of heaven. That is why it is written: “Depart from evil, and do good” – turn wholly from evil, do not brood in its way, and do good. You have done wrong? Then balance it by doing right.”

It is in the same spirit that the Old Testament word chatah, usually translated as meaning “sin,” actually means “to miss” (the road); it lacks the quality of condemnation which the words “sin” and “sinner” have. Similarly, the Hebrew word for “repentence” is teschubah, meaning “return” (to God, to oneself, to the right way), and it also lacks the implication of self-condemnation… (128-129)

This is the point I think — it is good action that counterbalances bad action, rather than meditations on responsibility and long sessions of I’m sorry.

Freedom is not a constant attribute which we either “have” or “have not.” In fact, there is no such thing as “freedom” except as a word and an abstract concept. There is only one reality: the act of freeing ourselves in the process of making choices. In this process the degree of our capacity to make choices varies with each act, with our practice of life. Each step in life which increases my self-confidence, my integrity, my courage, my conviction also increases my capacity to choose the desirable alternative… (136)

I will end with this, and the hope that we all recognise the forks in the road when we face them…

most people fail in the art of living not because they are inherently bad or so without will that they cannot live a better life; they fail because they do not wake up and see when they stand at a fork in the road and have to decide. (138)

[Fromm, Erich (1964) The Heart of Man: Its Genius for Good and Evil. NY: Harper & Row.]

Save

Save

Save

Save

Erich Fromm: Evil in the Heart of Man

8860483Paolo Freire refers to Erich Fromm’s The Heart of Man a number of times in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, how could I not read it? He wrote it while teaching at UNAM in Mexico City. I remember too, the only time I have heard a living person refer to him spontaneously it was walking through a London night with my friend Demetrio, as he exhorted me to read him on ethics, on good and evil. Fromm was the favourite philosopher of Demetrio’s grandfather, himself a philosopher in Reggio, who had helped raise him. His grandfather was one of the best men in the world, he said. Given the kind of person Demetrio has turned out to be, he is undoubtedly right.

I read this over the summer…I think my next few posts will either be yay Malta or the oh.my.god kind of struggling to come to terms with the election. This is in the second category, a look at good and evil via Freud and Marx seems appropriate, especially when focused on human liberation in a way that I really wish postcolonial and critical thought had taken up. Rather than Freud via Lacan.

From the preface:

I try to show that love of life, independence, and the overcoming of narcissism form a “syndrome of growth” as against the “syndrome of decay” formed by love of death, incestuous symbiosis, and malignant narcissism. (13)

I: Man — Wolf or Sheep?

That is a question/ statement I have often heard in various forms. We are both, neither, really we can choose to move towards growth or decay, life or death. This is always the great choice we make, the great distinction in our actions and our pathologies. Towards life or towards death… So this does not shy away from any of the darkness inside, rather tries to grapple with its nature, and the springs of violence within us.

II: Forms of Violence

Fromm distinguishes between violences, they sit along a spectrum.

playful violence …. those forms in which violence is exercised in the pursuit of displaying skill, not in the pursuit of destruction, not motivated by hate or destructiveness. (24)

reactive violence … that violence which is employed in the defense of life, freedom, dignity, property — one’s own or that of others. It is rooted in fear, and for this reason it is probably the most frequent form of violence… This type of violence is in service of life, not death; its aim is preservation, not destruction. (25)

frustration, envy and jealousy are aspects of this, and while it can be twisted, ultimately it still is towards life.

revengeful violence … the injury has already been done, and hence the violence has no function of defense  (27) … all these forms of violence are still in the service of life realistically, magically, or at least as a the result of damage to or disappointment in life… (30)

On to the violence in service of death….

compensatory violence … violence as a substitute for productive activity occurring in an impotent person. (30) … If, for reason of weakness, anxiety, incompetence, etc., man is not able to act, if he is impotent, he suffers …

how is this overcome? In rather frightening ways:

One way is to submit to and identify with a person or group having power … The other way … is man’s power to destroy. (31)

Reading this is seems so simple, yet terrifying.

To create life requires certain qualities which the impotent person lacks. To destroy life requires only one quality — the use of force. (31)

This is also present in all of us:

Only if one has fully experienced the intensity and frequency of destructive and sadistic violence in individuals and in masses can one understand that compensatory violence is not something superficial, the result of evil influences, bad habits, and so on. It is a power in man as intense and strong as his wish to live. It is so strong precisely because it constitutes the revolt of life against its being crippled; man has a potential for destructive and sadistic violence  because he is human, because he is not a thing, and because he must try to destroy life if he cannot create it. (32)

Always through my life I have been haunted by such destructive, sadistic violence, brought alive through my relationships with survivors of civil war, kidnapping, rape, torture…and the occasional encounters with torturers themselves. These occasional encounters that were harder to understand than anything else. But this book makes more sense of them than anything else I have yet read, and I don’t think that’s just because I seek for hope…

Compensatory violence … indicates the crippling and emptiness of life. But in its very negation of life it still demonstrates man’s need to be alive and not to be a cripple. (33)

This in fact makes sense of so much. I love Fromm in that he does not just focus on the violence, but on its opposite — the kind of person we can strive to be as opposed to the kind of person who lives in fear, who wants to shut things down, the fear in people I have tried and failed to work with, the fear I see splashed across the news.

But I thought perhaps in this post I would focus on violence and evil, because there is too much here. So in the next post I look at biophilia, and the material conditions that make it possible (as a good Marxist should). Also like a good Marxist, the ways in which Fromm argues that a wish for life and for death are always in relationship to each other, a contradiction that is not resolved:

The contradiction between Eros and destruction, between the affinity to life and the affinity to death is, indeed, the most fundamental contradiction which exists in man. This duality, however, is not one of two biologically inherent instincts, relatively constant and always battling with each other until the final victory of the death instinct, but it is one between the primary and most fundamental tendency of life–to persevere in life–and its contradiction, which comes into being when man fails in this goal. (50)

One example — and I like how Fromm anchors these more abstract explorations of the mind to that which makes no sense in the world yet that could destroy us all. Fromm asks, for example, how can we understand the lack of more widespread protest of nuclear weapons?

There are many answers; yet none of them gives a satisfactory explanation unless we include the following: that people are not afraid of total destruction because they do not love life; or because they are indifferent to life, or even because many are attracted to death. (56)

III – Individual and Social Narcissism

Fromm writes:

One of the most fruitful and far-reaching of Freud’s discoveries is his concept of narcissism. (62)

Fromm further develops this concept to understand violence and war — to do so he removes it from where Freud has ‘forced his concept into the frame of his libido theory.’ (62) Instead, Fromm argues the concept comes ‘to its full fruition…if one uses a concept of psychic energy which is not identical with the energy of the sexual drive’ (64), as described by Jung (and Freud moved towards this in his later years). It is an energy that Fromm argues

binds, unifies, and holds together the individual within himself as well as the individual in his relationship to the world outside. (64)

All of us have a degree of narcissism, it helps us survive and so again, there are a spectrum of behaviours (and a curious list of behaviour that offer clues to the narcissistic individual, one that delights me as a novelist) explored by Fromm. These range from the simply self-preoccupied with the self, to the narcissism focused on ones children, to the psychopath.

Narcissism is a passion the intensity of which in many individuals can only be compared with sexual desire and the desire to stay alive. In fact, many times it proves to be stronger than either. (72)

It’s dangers:

The essential point…is that the narcissistic person cannot perceive the reality within another person as distinct from his own. (68)

In a different form:

The most dangerous result of narcissistic attachment is the distortion of rational judgement… He and his are overevaluated. Everything outside is underevaluated. …

An ever more dangerous pathological element in narcissism is the emotional reaction to any criticism…(73-74)

Both explosive anger or depression are reactions — a depression often deflected by turning on purpose to anger. A third reaction? The attempt to make reality itself conform to a narcissistic image of self or the loved one. Hitler being the best example of such a course. There is the extreme narcissism of the infant, and of the insane. And then the particular instance of narcissism on the borderline between sanity and insanity — Ceasers, Borgias, Hitler, Stalin:

They have attained absolute power; their word is the ultimate judgment of everything, including life and death; there seems to be no limit to their capacity to do what they want. They are gods, limited only by illness, age and death.  (66)

It only occurred to me reading this that these are the beliefs of insane people, and yet for this small group such beliefs actually were true in reality. This made them even more isolated, their feelings of paranoia buttressed by people actually trying to kill them, all of which ensured they remained borderline sane — they had not actually lost all touch with reality, whereas

Psychosis is a state of absolute narcissism, one in which the person has broken all connection with reality outside, and has made his own person the substitute for reality.  (166)

It becomes clear how this could be the root of so much evil. From individual cases, Fromm moves on to look at group narcissism, primarily racial narcissism as seen in the American South and Hitler’s Germany, and Jesus does this ring true in thinking both about the recent US election and Brexit:

In both instances the core of the racial superiority was, and still is, the lower middle class; this backward class; which in Germany as well as in the American South has been economically and culturally deprived, without any realistic hope of changing its situation… has only one satisfaction: the inflated image of itself as the most admirable group in the world, and of being superior to another racial group that is singled out as inferior.

Group narcissism is less easy to recognize than individual narcissism. (79)

Side note in parentheses here

(What the majority of people consider to be “reasonable” is that about which there is agreement, if not among all, at least among a substantial number of people: “reasonable,” for most people, has nothing to do with reason, but with consensus.) (79-80)

God, narcissism explains so much, and most of the world’s religions and philosophies actually work to curb narcissism in multiple ways — Fromm sees it as the goal of (hu)man to overcome narcissism, but more on that next post.

The rest…

There is another chapter on incestuous ties…which did not speak to me, but the more postcolonial theory I am reading the more I wish I had paid more attention here, grappled with Fromm to counter Lacan. So I may come back to this. Later. For now I will end on Fromm’s own summation of evil, before going on to look at how he thinks we should fight for good:

1. Evilness is a specifically human phenomenon. It is the attempt to regress to the pre-human state and to eliminate that which is specifically human: reason, love, freedom. …. Evil is man’s loss of himself in the tragic attempt to escape the burden of his humanity. And the potential of evil is all the greater because man is endowed with an imagination that enables him to imagine all the possibilities for evil and thus to desire and act on them… (148)

2. The degrees of evilness are at the same time the degrees of regression. The greatest evil is those strivings which are most directed against life; the love for death, the incestuous-symbiotic striving to return to the womb, to the soil, to the inorganic; the narcissistic self-immolation which makes a man an enemy of life, precisely because he can’t leave the prison of his own ego.

3. There is lesser evil, according to the lesser degree of regression. There is lack of love, lack of reason, lack of interest, lack of courage.

4. Man is inclined to regress and to move forward; this is another way of saying he is inclined to good and to evil.

5. Man is responsible up to the point where he is free to (149) choose for his own action [and see the next post on the material constraints on freedom, which are vital to remember here]. But responsibility is nothing but an ethical postulate… Precisely because evil is human…it is inside every one of us. The more we are aware of it, the less are we able to set ourselves up as judges of others.

6. Man’s heart can harden; it can become inhuman, yet never nonhuman. … We must not rely on anyone’s saving us, but be very aware that wrong choices make us incapable of saving ourselves. (150)

I rather like this description of evil, I think it is something we must think about but in the West, liberal academia is a little too removed from their own wars and the death and destruction and torture and poverty that surround them to find this an important subject. But look at our world. What else should we be talking about, and in what other way than one well-grounded both in our psyche and the material conditions in which we live and struggle?

[Fromm, Erich (1964) The Heart of Man: Its Genius for Good and Evil. NY: Harper & Row.]

Save

Save

Save

Aldon Morris bringing W.E.B. Du Bois to life at the LSE

On Thursday I had the opportunity to go to a most powerful and inspiring lecture from Aldon Morris on W.E.B. Du Bois — a lecture in the language and rolling alliterative cadences of civil rights struggle which was such a pleasure and inspiration to listen to. It was wonderful to feel how language and subject can transform a space, bring a sense of history and movement to fill the air and the soul. Even better that it should be as the ‘British Journal of Sociology 2016 Annual Public Lecture’, best of all to find it in a place become as corporate as LSE.

A shame, as the LSE is no stranger to movement, and still has a number of vibrant scholars.

22493Aldon Morris wrote what may be my favourite book looking at the Civil Rights Movement — it’s hard to limit myself given how much good work is out there, but it may well be true. I have been working through another collection he co-edited on social movement, and I am looking forward to reading more about Du Bois (whose book on Philadelphia published in 1899 made me question everything I knew about the field of urban studies — but not deeply enough I realise) and the men and women who forged an engaged and meaningful sociology with him at Atlanta University — all highlighted in Morris’s latest work The Scholar Denied.

23493879I will save a deep engagement with Morris’s argument for the happy time when I manage to read my newly-signed copy ( I got a hug too! As if my evening were not already awesome). I just wanted to remember the things that most remained with me from the lecture.  First how it struck me that this book is not just about granting Du Bois his rightful place in the canon — important as that is. That alone would surely be too little too late.  The importance of returning to Du Bois lies in his continuing significance in both the substance and method of our own thought and scholarship, primarily — and to paraphrase — in the ways he was about challenging paradigms, disrupting narratives, and illuminating truths. There was such a clarity about the ways in which the dismissal of Du Bois and the importance of his work has led to an impoverished sociology from its beginnings. This is what needs to be challenged so that it is never forgotten — and of course the challenge continues as part of the struggle to increase a diversity of background and experience within sociology — the key to avoiding similar impoverishment today.

What Du Bois did in his own time was to challenge the prevailing, and sloppy, car-window sociology and theorisations based upon the unchallenged fallacies of Jim Crow racism. He set out to challenge and prove that these unquestioned beliefs were in fact myth. I had forgotten that he was a trained historian rather than sociologist, and so he always contextualised his work within the history of the rise of racist mythologies (more and more I think this historical contextualisation is the key to understanding all injustice). To do so he chose to live and work within Black communities, to interview people to bring their voices to bear on these questions, to understand their experiences, and in that way to create a body of evidence through fieldwork to support the absolute destruction of a biological basis for white supremacy in Black inferiority.

Three of Du Bois’s many contributions:

  • the theorisation of the global colour line — not just in the US but as a global phenomenon emerging out of colonialism
  • Idea of double-consciousness, and a prefiguring of intersectionality
  • the importance of standpoint — he turned the whole formulation of the ‘Negro’ problem (still being asked by Myrdal and others decades later) upside down, asking people ‘how does it feel to be a ‘problem?’ He worked to challenge the construction of such ideas and the privileging, the normalising, of the white viewpoint. Such unquestioned normalisation is the essence of shoddy scholarship, is it not?

Then, of course, there is his work for the NAACP, his continuing engagement in social justice movement, his support of students in radical struggle, and their right to be radical and fight as they felt called — the way he continues to be a model for scholars in how they understand and change the world.

This hardly does justice to either the content or the kind of inspiration to be gained that evening — but the podcast from LSE can be found here. The evening came as a crown to a truly lovely, if very long day, and I shared those final hours with Ules, still finishing his PhD on migrants and their relationships with charity. Both of us felt a similar happiness, I think, in hearing a Black scholar reclaim the radical righteousness of Du Bois in LSE’s Old Building. Even if we were shafted in a rather disgraceful organisational breakdown that meant the reception scheduled to take place after the lecture was unexpectedly cancelled at the end of the talk.

I was tired, though. That morning had started with a few hours on the train from Bristol, then a very long coffee then lunch then pastries in Russell Square with friends-who-are-really-family, Geoffrey and Heather from The Circle Works. Some talking about space and community building and care. Then a quick walk up to the British Library to meet with the wonderful Debbie Humphrey for the first time. She was interviewing me for City‘s website and made me feel like my stories and articles had some real value, it was such an honour and a pleasure though I was incredibly long-winded. Next time, of course, I shall have to be the one interviewing her, because her photographs are spectacular and her work fascinating and full of insight on the lived experience of housing and struggle. Some of my favourite things. There is much I miss about London, if only it weren’t eating itself.

Save

Save

The questions we ask: environmental justice and ecocriticism

51PGPTD2KZL._SX313_BO1,204,203,200_I’ve been working on research proposals and job applications, along with working on articles, and slowly growing into how I think theoretically about my many years as a community worker and organiser, and how I can work in my new role to make this world better. Whatever my new role comes to be exactly, given how few jobs exist, and without ceasing to be an activist as a volunteer for this, that and the other of course. So much of our work and thought is driven by the kinds of questions we ask, and nowhere have I found more difference than in the kinds of questions people ask and think are worth finding answers to.

In a large project, few things are as important as your research question.

So the fact that within the wonderful Environmental Justice Reader (mostly blogged here) someone sat down, and wrote out typical questions for the different areas of ecocriticism was wonderful, and impossibly useful to me. I think this should be done for every field. Not as a way of limiting our questions, but as way to help you position yourself, of knowing who you most want to be in conversation with. Of not judging others unfairly, because they never started off knowing what you wanted to know.

Then of course, there is the whole question of knowing what other people want to know, and how your own questions fit into that, so you can get funding. But that just drags a whole exciting world of curiosity and possibility into the dust, and there’s no need to do that in a blog post. I will save that for my paralyzing moments of existential questioning.

img_7437

img_7438Reed, T.V. ‘Toward an Environmental Justice Ecocriticism’ (145-162)

Save

Save

Save

Save

Linda Hogan: Dwellings

3592266A beautiful meditation through a series of essays on the world and our place in it from Linda Hogan…our place as part of it, and our place sharing it with a host of other things full of wonder. A world that is greater than our comprehension, though dominant ideology attempts to constrain it within words and models of profit and loss.

Even wilderness is seen as having value only as it enhances and serves our human lives, our human world. While most of us agree that wilderness is necessary to our spiritual and psychological well-being, it is a container of far more, of mystery, of a life apart from ours. It is not only where we go to escape who we have become and what we have done, but it is also part of the natural laws, the workings of a world of beauty and depth we do not yet understand. it is something beyond us something that does not need our hand in it. As one of our Indian elders has said, there are laws beyond our human laws, and ways above ours. We have no words for this in our language, or even for our experience of being there. Ours is a language of commerce and trade, of laws that can be bent in order that treaties might be broken, land wounded beyond healing. It is a language that is limited, emotionally and spiritually, as if it can’t accommodate such magical strength and power. (45-46)

The world continues to be greater than our small understandings.

There is so much here that resonates with the very theoretical work emerging around the crisis we face, the working through in academic ways of the meaning of the anthropocene. Dwellings emerges from the bottom up, from earth and people and out of a tradition whose attempted destruction demanded the rationalisations emerging from immense intellectual work. The theorising that justified genocide, that continues to justify the world’s destruction, shares much the same abstracted kind of language as that of academics now working in their own ways to understand this moment of crisis we are in. This is not entirely a critique, people speak in the language that they know. I love some of this work. It is just a dissonance I always feel, an alienation that is always there. Because in many ways, academic language cannot really cope with what matters, and what it learns it hides away behind an impenetrable wall of words in books as heavy as bricks.

We are looking for a tongue that speaks with reverence for life, searching for an ecology of mind. Without it, we have no home, have no place of our own within the creation. (60)

I’m not sure English can cope at all, the way we have stripped it. Funny how words that try to grapple with meaning and emotion too often just sound cheesy, like Hallmark cards packaging things for slick consumption. This should not damage the quality of those meanings, but our language seems to try.

We have no home, have no place.

Hogan quotes Lynda Sexson from the article ‘What do Stars Eat?’ in Left Bank, which expresses so much of the barrenness I find in the imagination, that works like Andrea Hairston’s Mindscape highlight through their rich textures and hopes, no coincidence that language should also be a focal point of her work.

We are so accustomed to myths (sacred stories) of extinction, that we are not as practical at imagining that greater gap–continuation. . . .  Would the earth or our existence be in such peril if we did not harbor a profound desire for extinction? “They lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick,” resonates Isaiah. The crisis of Western culture is ecological. The source of that crisis is in Western culture’s own version of reality; the myth of the urge to eradicate: earth and images of earth, body and song. (94)

Everywhere we see the smoking charred proofs of this urge to eradicate.

It manifests partially, I think, in simple arrogance, so deeply ingrained people don’t even know its there. I guess centuries of Colonialism, Imperialism, Slave-owning and genocide haven’t been too good even for those at the top of the chain. Academics especially always need to be discovering, inventing. Need to be owning, taking credit. The establishment demands it, we are caught up in a system just as Marx described manufacturers, and so too many of them (us) bluster through the world not listening, but extracting and abstracting and generating money and status from what other people already know, when they are not busy working on things that probably don’t much matter.  A poem by Jimmie Durham, Cherokee writer: The Teachings of my Grandmother

In a magazine too expensive to buy I read about
How, with scientific devices of great complexity,
U.S. scientists have discovered that if a rat
Is placed in cage in which it has previously
Been given an electrical shock, it starts crying.

I told my grandmother about that and she said,
“We probably knew that would be true.” (55)

all these things that are ‘discovered’, and  — we probably knew that would be true. There are meditations here on Cortez, conquistadores, and I think that’s a big part of where all of this started. That attempt to completely destroy other ways of knowing, other ways of being. In an article on Ishi (last of his tribe), Linda Hogan writes:

A change is required of us, a healing of the betrayed trust between humans and earth. Caretaking is the utmost spiritual and physical responsibility of our time, and perhaps that stewardship is finally our place in the web of life, our work, the solution to the mystery of what we are. There are already so many holes in the universe that will never again be filled, and each of them forces us to question why we permitted such loss, such tearing away at the fabric of life, and how we will live with our planet in the future. (115)

On the opposite side of a culture that creates holes in the universe is one that celebrates people, strangers, potential, and welcomes them inside:

The lands around my dwelling
Are more beautiful
From the day
When it is given me to see
Faces I have never seen before.
All is more beautiful.
All is more beautiful.
And life is thankfulness.
These guests of mine
Make my house grand.
–Eskimo song

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save