Tag Archives: class

Reading I, Daniel Blake: Screenplay and Film

I, Daniel Blake was my first screenplay, I found it quite a fascinating read after watching the film and reading lots of interviews and watching lots of Loach’s other films and writing a film review (another thing done! Whew). I might have done all of this in the wrong order, but I liked seeing where things started and comparing that to where things ended up. I liked seeing where they had stuck tightly to the script, and where actors had improvised lines. I liked how Laverty wrote their lines, disjointed, like speech actually comes. I liked seeing the sections cut, and the pieces added. You get a much better sense of the process of making a film, the collaboration involved — the extras in here, interviews and bios, add even more insight. And of course, as I always love most about reading, you can linger, go at your own pace. Sometimes I resent how films hurtle you through space and time, or like this one, drag you towards an ending you know will momentarily blot out your sun.

And of course, it was as powerful, though I didn’t cry quite as much because I find words a kind of buffer between events and my tear ducts though not my emotions. I liked that too. Still, this ending…it gets me.

Katie

They call this a “pauper’s funeral” because it’s the cheapest slot, at 9:00. But Dan wasn’t a pauper to us. He gave us things that money can’t buy. When he died, I found this on him. He always used to write in pencil. And he wanted to read it at his appeal but he never got the chance to. And I swear that this lovely man, had so much more to give, and that the State drove him to an early grave.

And this is what he wrote.

“I am not a client, a customer, nor a service user…. I am not a shirker, a scrounger, a beggar, nor a thief… I’m not a National Insurance Number or blip on a screen… I paid my dues, never a penny short, and proud to do so. I don’t tug the forelock, but look my neighbour in the eye and help him if I can. I don’t accept or seek charity. My name is Daniel Blake. I am a man, not a dog. As such, I demand my rights. I demand you treat me with respect. I, Daniel Blake, am a citizen, nothing more and nothing less. Thank you.

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Conflict and Controversy: The Genius of Saul Alinksy I

Don’t get me wrong, I have a hardcore critique of Saul Alinsky, but I forgot just how good and smart and hell of committed he was — Rules for Radicals is an important thing to read I think. There is still a lot of room for some of these old school tactics and organizing basics, though maybe not so much for the super-hero profligate organizer and thank god we have some a long way in thinking about intersections of class, race, gender and sexuality…

But damn, is he still a lightening rod for right-wing vitriol or what. My internet search for images turned up some fairly crazy shit. Do we care if he slept with Hilary Clinton? No.

But anyway, I had forgotten just how much Alinsky’s work speaks to its times–it speaks to ours as well of course, but in such a different way. Makes me nostalgic for times I never got to live really, written in 1971, it opens:

The revolutionary force today has two targets, moral as well as material. Its young protagonists are one moment reminiscent of the idealistic early Christians, yet they also urge violence and cry, “Burn the system down!” They have no illusions about the system, but plenty of illusions about the way to change our world. it is this point that I have written this book. these words are written in desperation, partly because it is what they do and will do that will give meaning to what I and the radicals of my generation have done with their lives.

They are now the vanguard, and they had to start almost from scratch. Few of us survived the Joe McCarthy holocaust of the early 1950s and of those there were even fewer whose understandings and insights had developed beyond the dialectical materialism of orthodox Marxism. My fellow radicals who were supposed to pass on the torch of experience and insights to a new generation were just not there. (xii-xiv)

This is perhaps the tragedy of the McCarthy period —  Alinsky himself owes a whole lot to the organizers of the 1930s when he got his start. But the history of struggle in the UK has actually convinced me that it was perhaps not entirely a bad thing to be allowed to reinvent ourselves from the bottom up. But that’s a whole other argument. For now, Rules for Radicals. This first post looks at the big picture, the second looks at the nitty gritty.

The Purpose

What follows is for those who want to change the world from what it is to what they believe it should be. The Prince was written by Machiavelli for the Haves on how to hold power. Rules for Radicals is written for the Have-Nots on how to take it away. (1)

Sweet enough, right? He quotes from the Spanish Civil War — better to die on your feet than to live on your knees. Nothing more true in life or death, but of course, it was Zapata who said that. The Mexican Civil War did come first, but never mind.

Alinsky always claimed he was steadfastly non-ideological. The more I read about the communist party in the US, their show trials  (I can think of nothing I’d hate more), the great move as dictated by Russia away from what brilliant neighbourhood and tenant and anti-racism organising they did sponsor to the popular front and all of that followed by Stalin and Hungary and…well. I can’t rightly blame him. None of that history sits well with me and he lived it blow by blow.  It’s left its mark, he writes:

We have permitted a suicidal situation to unfold wherein revolution and communism have become one. These pages are committed to splitting this political atom… (9)

and also

This is not an ideological book except insofar as argument for change, rather than for the status quo, can be called an ideology; and different times will construct their own solution and symbol of salvation… I detest and fear dogma. I know that all revolutions must have ideologies to spur them on. (4)

I question this definition of ideology, but like this practical adaptability. Seems like Marx would have wanted it more that way. In truth, this reads something like Clausewitz or Sun Tzu’s Art of War. This is about tactics and strategy (never enough on the long game).

Radicals must be resilient, adaptable to shifting political circumstances, and sensitive enough to the process of action and reaction to avoid being trapped by their own tactics and forced to travel a road not of their choosing. In short, radicals must have a degree of control over the flow of events. (6-7)

Funny how Alinsky becomes the perfect postmodernist. I never see him credited though. I do like his list of characteristic belonging to an organizer, it’s repeated several times.

An organizer…does not have a fixed truth–truth to him is relative and changing, everything to him is relative and changing. He is a political relativist. … Irreverence, essential to questioning, is requisite. Curiosity becomes compulsive. His most frequent word is “why?” … To the extent that he is free from the shackles of dogma, he can respond to the realities of the widely different situations our society presents. In the end he has one conviction–a belief that if people have the power to act, in the long run they will, most of the time, reach the right decisions. (11)

I don’t think all is relative, but building on such community organizing as one strand of work in combination with a revolutionary process of conscientização as outlined by Freire or Horton will get us where we need to go I think. Horton knew Alinksy, discussed some of these issues, you can read more here.

The world operates on multiple levels, you bring in a deeper understanding of hegemony, of intersectionality, of micro-power then you start seeing a very different picture than that painted by Alinsky. But much of the world does actually operate on this basic level, and these kinds of tactics are often most useful.

It is painful to accept fully the simple fact that one begins from where one is, that one must break free of the web of illusions one spins about life. Most of us view the world not as it is but as we would like it to be.

Political realists see the world as it is: an arena of power politics moved primarily by perceived immediate self-interests, were morality is rhetorical rationale for expedient action and self-interest. (12-13)

The strides in community organizing since his time have been incorporating all of this into a broader framework. I had forgotten that Alinksy himself had recognised some of the dangers of his style. He notes that the folks from the back of the yards organized under

equality for all races, job security, and a decent life for all. With their power they fought and won. Today, as part of the middle class, they are also part of our racist, discriminatory culture. (16)

This is the heartbreak, this the thing we have to work to transcend. I think it goes deeper than

It is the universal tale of revolution and reaction. (17)

Moving from how this fails to address race, I think class is more complex too, but this is an interesting way to cut it (and there is always a strategic usefulness in making complex things more simple):

The setting for the drama of change has never varied. Mankind has been and is divided into three parts: the Haves, the Have-Nots, and the Have-a-Little, Want Mores. (18)

We have to reach the second two, he argues. If only everyone knew in their very bones that this was true, how much better the world would be:

A major revolution to be won in the immediate future is the dissipation of man’s illusion that his own welfare can be separate from that of all other’s. (23)

For Alinksy, even so, it all comes down to self-interest. I think this works for some, not all — I don’t think the low road is ever to be found in the great swells of movement and sacrifice that rise from time to time. To not see beyond it feels like a weakness, but this remains a good point for some people among us, and after all, what else is Keynsian economics really?:

I believe that man is about to learn that the most practical life is the moral life and that the moral life is the only road to survival. He is beginning to learn that he will either share part of his material wealth or lose all of it; that he will respect and learn to live with other political ideologies if he wants civilization to go on. This is the kind of argument that man’s actual experience equips him to understand and accept. This is the low road to morality. There is no other. (23)

Of Means and Ends

I find it funny that Alinsky would have seen eye to eye with Trotsky as well as Bismarck on this. We don’t really have fights about this any more in the US or the UK, do we? Except perhaps in the very smallest of groups. This seems so dated, but I realise only because we have given up on revolution in a way, and for all Alinsky’s faults he hadn’t.

That perennial question, “Does the end justify the means?” is meaningless as it stands; the real and only question regarding the ethics of means and ends is, and always has been, “Does this particular end justify this particular means?”

He goes on to quote Goethe — at the end I have collected a list of all the literature Alinsky quotes, and I swear it will surprise you.

The practical revolutionary will understand Goethe’s “conscience is the virtue of observers and not of agents of action”… (25)

I haven’t thought about means and ends for a long time, but this is challenging, and I think true. I think about Palestinians fighting and fighting for any recognition of their rights, and decades of nothing and I think so much of this holds true.

The most unethical of all means is the non-use of any means… (26)

As do Alinsky’s eleven rules for the ethics of means and ends (he promised us rules in the title, and he always delivers. He also uses a lot of italics):

  1. one’s concerns with the ethics of ends and means varies inversely with one’s personal interest in the issue.
  2. the judgement of the ethics of means is dependent upon the political position of those sitting in judgment. (26)
  3. in war the end justifies almost any means. (29)
  4. judgment must be made in the context of the times in which the action occurred and not from any other chronological vantage point. (30)
  5. concern with ethics increases with the number of means available and vice versa.
  6. the less important the end to be desired, the more one can afford to engage in ethical evaluations of means.
  7. generally success or failure is a mighty determinant of ethics.
  8. the morality of a means depends upon whether the means is being employed at a time of imminent defeat or imminent victory. (34)
  9. any effective means is automatically judged by the opposition as being unethical. (35)
  10. you do what you can with what you have and clothe it with moral arguments.
  11. goals must be phrased in general terms like “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity,” “Of the Common Welfare,” “Pursuit of Happiness,” or “Bread and Peace.” (45)

This is a philosophical question most current discussions of community organizing aren’t entering into at all, and maybe we should. Similarly, Alinksy devotes a whole chapter to how we use certain words, and the battle over them that needs to take place.

A Word About Words

He talks about words that are ‘loaded with popular opprobrium’ … words prevalent in the language of politics, words like power, self-interest, compromise, and conflict. (48) This isn’t Voloshinov getting into how we fight for meanings in the most awesome of ways, but it is a level of awareness of how our use or avoidance of certain words shapes our movement. For that very reason I don’t know that I agree with all of his analysis of these words, but I love that he includes this argument with the prominence of a chapter.

Power is a good word though. This may be a bit simplistic in its analysis, but worth thinking about.

Striving to avoid the force, vigor, and simplicity of the word “power,” we soon become averse to thinking in vigorous, simple, honest terms. We strive to invent sterilized synonyms, cleansed of the opprobrium of the word power–but the new words mean something different, so they tranquilize us, begin to shepherd our mental processes off the main, conflict-ridden, grimy, and realistic power-paved highway of life. (50)

Disagreeing with his analysis of self-interest, I rather disagree with this, though I love the style of that last sentence. But the idea that how we speak truth to power is as much about the form as the content (I know, I know, you shouldn’t separate them) is important, and is often lost. I like this too:

To know power and not fear it is essential to its constructive use and control. (53)

The next post is on the nitty gritty of being an organizer and actually digging into the process of community organizing.

But first, a look at the books and authors that Alinsky draws from. I don’t know when this man had time to read, but he was no small-time intellectual.

Machiavelli
Bible
Upton Sinclair
Whitehead
Alice in Wonderland
de Tocqueville
Goethe
Henry James
La Rochefoucauld
Founding Fathers (ALL of them)
George Bernard Shaw
Lincoln
Mark Twain
Trotsky writing about Lenin
Gandhi
Rousseau
Whitman
Koestler
Bertrand Russell
Nietzsche
Pascal
St Ignatius
Freud
Clarence Darrow
Thoreau
Shakespeare

[Alinsky, Saul ([1971] 1989) Rules for Radicals: A pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals. New York: Vintage Books.]

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Shirley Baker: a splendour of community amidst the slum clearances

I loved the Shirley Baker exhibition, found it moving and inspiring both. ‘Women and Children; and Loitering Men’ at the Manchester Art Gallery. Her photographs are vibrant, beautifully composed, full of life, provocative–everything photographs should be–and at the same time her subject is the one closest to my heart: everyday life and working-class community.

From the Manchester Art Gallery Website:

Pioneering British photographer Shirley Baker (1932-2014) is thought to be the only woman practicing street photography in Britain during the post-war era. Baker’s humanist documentary work received little attention throughout her sixty-five years career. This exhibition includes previously unseen colour photographs by Baker alongside black and white images and ephemera such as magazine spreads, contact sheets and various sketches. It specifically focuses on her depictions of the urban clearance programmes of inner city Manchester and Salford. This intense period of study, spanning from 1961 – 1981, documents what Baker saw as the needless destruction of working class communities.

This is an exhibition put together by Anna Douglas, first shown in London (of course, already I am feeling this North-South injustice)

For an amateur photographer and an urbanist and with a lifetime devoted to building power and community, these photographs sing. They document this structural period of demolition, the hope of better lives and council housing, the children my god the children everywhere and you love every one of them. Mothers everywhere too (and all my fears of being like that, like them, that joy vanished from them though I know often it is still there and it is my own fear speaking still, it seems visible only in the children and some of the old men).

The old men, the unemployed, the laundry, the cats and the dogs, the hope and despair, beauty and laughter and oppression and a hard working life all painted in black and white and glorious colour.

Maybe I loved most sharing this space with others, it felt like these rooms were filled with unusual suspects for a gallery, and a couple of older men were reminiscing behind me for a while about these days I was staring at captured with such compassion and immediacy it was altogether beautiful.

Some pictures from the website dedicated to her. There was another picture with a cat that was my favourite. I cannot find it. The unexpected heartbreak of denial in an internet age. Reminds me of my own poverty-stricken youth. Nothing like this though.    The kids above — I imagine this was a day that all of them have remembered all their lives. The kids below — those faces too old and wary. I knew so many kids like that, love this country because seems like they are rare now. Nothing sad about this kid though.  There is so little about Shirley Baker and I want to know all of it, devour all of her photographs. The book cost £30 — impossible at the end of the month. The other books from the handful of times her work has been shown all over £100. Luckily there is a website dedicated to her, it states:

Shirley Baker (1932 – 2014) was one of Britain’s most compelling yet underexposed social documentary photographers. Her street photography of the working-class inner-city areas, taken from 1960 until 1981, would come to define her humanist vision.

“It has always astonished me how quickly things can disappear without a trace.”

Hampered by union restrictions on female press photographers, she abandoned plans to work for the Manchester Guardian…. it is her empathetic but unsentimental photographs of inner-city working-class communities in Salford and Manchester as they experienced years of ‘slum’ clearance that has come to define her distinct vision.

“My sympathies lay with the people who were forced to exist miserably, often for months on end, sometimes years, whilst demolition went on all around them.” (Shirley Baker, on the slum clearances of inner Manchester and Salford)

Portrait of the photographer Shirley Baker (1932-2014), kneeling down to take a picture with her Rolleiflex camera. circa 1980s

Look at these incredible visions of the city and the life that filled it and spilled over it as the face of it was being transformed.

They are incredible, I wanted to see all of them. I wanted to know more of how she thought about them. I loved too, the exhibition’s integration of oral histories from people in these neighbourhoods, though I kind of hate the technology so I didn’t listen to all of them.

I will be patient, I suppose, and wait for more.

In looking for some of my favourite photographs I found this one online, an older Shirley Baker in front of this building I love and have long wondered about as I walk past it all the time on my way home, now a Chinese Restaurant on Plymouth Grove. It’s somehow so warming to think of her here, in my own place.

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Barbara Fields on Class, Race and Racism

A classic and groundbreaking piece from Barbara Fields, ‘Ideology and Race in American History’ is such a brilliant piece of work, a foundation that made so much other work possible on the concrete and changing historical formations of socially constructed ideas of race. A fight that still needs fighting because this is still true:

It is my intention to suggest that Americans, including many historians, tend to accord race a transhistorical, almost metaphysical, status that removes it from all possibility of analysis and understanding. Ideologies, including those of race, can be properly analyzed only at a safe distance from their terrain. To assume, by intention or default, that race is a phenomenon outside history is to take up a position within the terrain of racialist ideology and to become its unknowing-and therefore uncontesting-victim.

The first false move in this direction is the easiest: the assumption that race is an observable physical fact, a thing, rather than a notion that is profoundly and in its very essence ideological.(144)

Thus the construction of race must be studied in its social and ideological context.

Race is a product of history, not of nature. And as an element of ideology, it is best understood in connection with other elements of ideology and not as a phenomenon sui generis. Only when set next to contemporary ideas having nothing to do with race can ideas about race be placed in the context of the ideological ensemble of which they form a part.(152)

I am still not as familiar with this early period as I should be. Fields looks at Walter Rodney’s study of the Portuguese, and the complex relationships between Europeans and the people along upper Guinea Coast:

They were capable, as are all human beings, of believing things that in strict logic are not compatible. No trader who had to confront and learn to placate the power of an African chief could in practice believe that Africans were docile, childlike, or primitive. The practical circumstances in which Europeans confronted Africans in Africa make nonsense of any attempt to encompass Europeans’ reactions to Africans within the literary stereotypes that scholars have traced through the ages as discrete racial attitudes. (148)

I think this is a key point, and one that bears repeating because I still find it shocks me every time I see anew the extent to which human beings are capable of being perfectly at ease with a common sense view of the world that incorporates completely conflicting views.

The idea one people has of another, even when the difference between them is embodied in the most striking physical characteristics, is always mediated by the social context within which the two come into contact. This remains true even when time-honored tradition provides a vocabulary for thinking and talking about the other people that runs counter to immediate experience. In that case, the vocabulary and the experience simply exist side by side … An understanding of how groups of people see other groups in relation to themselves must begin by analyzing the pattern of their social relations-not by enumerating “attitudes” which, endowed with independent life, are supposed to act upon the historical process from outside, passing through it like neutrinos to emerge unchanged at the other end.

The view that race is a biological fact, a physical attribute of
individuals, is no longer tenable. (148-49)

The sarcasm in here is something to relish. She later writes:

Precisely because ideologies consist of contradictory and inconsistent elements, they can undergo fundamental change simply through the reshuffling of those elements into a different hierarchy. (154)

This echoes Stuart Hall’s idea of articulation, and how formations change over time. Similar also, perhaps, to his focus on understanding the work that changing, and highly conflicted constructions of race performs is this:

In the end we cannot resolve the problem quantitatively, by the addition of example and counterexample. We can resolve it only by posing the question “What kind of social reality is reflected-or refracted – in an ideology built on a unity of these particular opposites?” … If ideology is a vocabulary for interpreting social experience, and thus both shapes and is shaped by that experience, it follows that even the “same” ideology must convey different. meanings to people having different social experiences.(155)

But this argues a more complex understanding I think, where very different understandings and experiences of race exist  depending on personal history, experience and positionality — which opens up room in thinking about alliances and where change can happen. I wrestle so much with the relationship between class and race, the pitfalls and possibilities of solidarity along class lines rather than the continuous fracturing along lines of race, and so found her views on their nature and articulation particularly interesting:

Class and race are concepts of a different order; they do not occupy the same analytical space, and thus cannot constitute explanatory alternatives to each other.15

class is a concept that we can locate both at the level of objective reality and at the level of social appearances. Race is a concept that we can locate at the level of appearances only. A material reality underlies it all right, as must be true of any ideology; but the underlying reality is not the one that the language of racial ideology addresses. … because class and race are not equivalent concepts, it is erroneous to offer them as alternatives to each other; and because any thorough social analysis must move simultaneously at the level of objective reality and at that of appearances, it is self-defeating to attempt to do so.(151)

This creates a very different view of white supremacy — not in the totality of its effects but in how it is understood and…er…practiced (?) by different groups. She writes:

White supremacy is a slogan, not a belief.29 And it is a slogan that cannot have meant the same to all white people. Those who invoke it as a way of minimizing the importance of class diversity in the South overlook this simple but basic point….

But white supremacy was not simply a summary of color prejudices. It was also a set of political programs, differing according to the social position of their proponents. Prejudices fed into them, naturally; but so far from providing a unifying element, they were as likely as not to accentuate the latent possibilities for discord. (156)

This is actually a rather hopeful understanding of white supremacy perhaps, one that can be levered apart, maybe dismantled little by little. Maybe. Though it’s complicated, right? A holistic view also shows how multiple aspects of life prop up understandings of white supremacy, and even life experience does not necessarily challenge that.

But racial ideology constituted only one element of the whole ideology of each class. And it is the totality of the elements and their relation to each other that gives the whole its form and direction; not the content of one isolated element, which in any case is bound to be contradictory. (158)

Thus:

Racial prejudice is sufficiently fluid and at home with contrariety to be able to precede and survive dramatic instances of interracial unity in action.37

Pretty depressing. It highlights the necessity of work in the Freirean tradition where action is always followed by reflection. But how better to describe some of those who have brought Trump to power and continue to support him in face of everything:

The racialism of the black-belt elite, after all, carried with it the luster of victory. That of the white common people became ever more tightly bound up with the rancor of hard blows and final defeat, as they watched the basis of their proud independence eroded by economic and social forces with which they were finally unable to cope. Their rancor became pervasive in the cultural atmosphere of the South and lent itself to demagogic manipulation by politicians seeking to turn it to electoral advantage. But it could never be fully assuaged; quite the contrary. Arising from a bleak day-to-day experience to which the slogans and rituals of white supremacy offered no material solution, that rancor only grew larger the more it was fed. (159)

This kind of gives me chills it makes so much sense — especially the extra-chill factor of the bolded bit.

A racialist ideology harnessed to a ruling-class will, intention, and capacity to dominate both blacks and whites may be characterized by a patronizing tolerance, while that of a rednecks’ movement to unseat their white masters may be virulent and homicidal.38 … Historical analysis cannot distinguish these positions as “more” and “less” racist. Rather, they represent the different shape of the space occupied by racialism in different ideological ensembles. To think of them as different quantities of the same ideological substance is fundamentally mistaken. (160)

Academia and the non-profit world are both rife with examples of ‘patronising tolerance’, I find so useful this understanding of the distinction between the two. We have to look to history to understand the shapes of these ‘spaces occupied by racialism’, always a key to US politics from its beginnings with slavery.

Slavery thus became a “racial” question, and spawned an endless variety of “racial” problems. Race became the ideological medium through which people posed and apprehended basic questions of power and dominance, sovereignty and citizenship, justice and right. (162)

This is echoed in Roediger, who has done some of the best work in understanding how this space has been shaped. His work also supports Fields’ argument that it just didn’t have to turn out this way, that this was not in fact what most people wanted.

While the freedmen were being hustled into the market economy at the well-intentioned (though not always disinterested) initiative of various groups of Yankees, the white yeomanry was also being drawn into that economy: in their case, through a combination of indebtedness and complex changes in law and social usage that followed in the wake of the Civil War. Both groups, as more and more studies make clear, would have preferred a different outcome.52 Secure tenure of land and peace in which to pursue essentially self-sufficient farming, with only incidental resort to the market, would have suited their desires more than conscription willy-nilly into the world of commercialized agriculture, with its ginners, merchants, storekeepers, moneylenders, and crop liens. There never was much chance that they would get the kind of world they wanted. (166)

Fucking capitalism. Zombie capitalism even. I don’t think she gets the credit for the term, and I am not sure this is dialectical enough for me, but I love this imagery:

It is not that ideas have a life of their own, but rather that they have a boundless facility for usurping the lives of men and women. In this they resemble those creatures of horror fiction who, having neither body nor life of their own, take over the bodies and lives of human beings. The history of racialist ideologies provides excellent examples. (153)

I will end where Field ends:

Race is neither the reflex of primordial attitudes nor a tragically
recurring central theme. It became the ideological medium through which Americans confronted questions of sovereignty and power because the enslavement of Africans and their descendants constituted a massive exception to the rules of sovereignty and power that were increasingly taken for granted. And, despite the changes it has undergone along the way, race has remained a predominant ideological medium because the manner of slavery’s unraveling had lasting consequences for the relations of whites to other whites, no less than for those of whites to blacks. There are no tragic flaws or central themes in which to take shelter, however reluctantly. There are only acts and decisions of men and women in a society now past, and a responsibility which, because the outcome remains provisional, we are obliged to share with them. (168-169)

Barbara Fields, “Ideology and Race in American History,” in Region, Race, and Reconstruction: Essays in Honor of C. Vann Woodward. Ed. Morgan J. Koussar and James McPherson (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982, 143-177)

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John Berger on Ways of Seeing

John Berger Ways of SeeingWays of Seeing by John Berger is a most wonderful wonderful book. Told both in words and pictures, what follows is a lopsided collection of sentences that does some violence to the whole I confess. I was particularly interested in photography, but found myself swept away into other places and didn’t mind at all. It is a book I look forward to reading many more times — and hunting down the series as well. I so wish I had been lucky enough to have been given this to read in the high school Art History class that has remained with me all through my years. Better late than never.

It is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world; we explain that world with words, but words can never undo the fact that we are surrounded by it. The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled. (7)

Nothing is ever settled. I love this unsettling. Love this sense of history:

The past is never there waiting to be discovered, to be recognized for exactly what it is. History always constitutes the relation between a present and its past. Consequently, fear of the present leads to mystification of the past. The past is not for living in; it is a well of conclusions from which we draw in order to act. (11)

Just a sentence and then off he goes in another direction. I want to think more about this alongside Trouillot and the erasings and the silences, but later perhaps.

Because we are off to Frans Hals, always one of my favourites:

Hals was the first portraitist to pain the new characters and expressions created by capitalism. He did in pictorial terms what Balzac did two centuries later in literature. (16)

The regentesses of Haarlem’s almshouse, such an unforgettable picture but never had I thought of it this way:

Frans Hals — Portrait of The Regentesses of the Old Men’s Almshouse Haarlem, 1640s?

And this, my favourite statement of the power that images hold, the potential they carry, a statement that makes me think of things quite differently though I have for a long time been thinking about this — like the wonderful obsessions of Otto Neurath and his isotypes:

If the new language of images were used differently, it would, through its use, confer a new kind of power. Within it we could begin to define our experiences more precisely in areas where words are inadequate. (Seeing comes before words.) Not only personal experience, but also the essential historical experience of our relation to the past: that is to say the experience of seeking to give meaning to our lives, of trying to understand the history of which we can become the active agents.

The art of the past no longer exists as it once did. Its authority is lost. In its place there is a language of images. What matters now is who uses that language for what purpose. (33)

I don’t know why Berger’s passages on oil painting struck me as they did, I think because they represent what a profoundly different way this is of understanding painting as it sits within its context — I love it.

Oil painting did to appearances what capital did to social relations. It reduced everything to the equality of objects. Everything became exchangeable because everything became a commodity. All reality was mechanically measured by its materiality. … Oil painting conveyed a feeling of total exteriority. (87)

I can see this exteriority, feel the velvets and silks under my fingers in these paintings. That always struck me, the incredible details. I think there was such a love of these sumptuous textures in themselves, but yes, also this:

Works of art in earlier traditions celebrated wealth. But wealth was then a symbol of a fixed social or divine order. Oil painting celebrated a new kind of wealth — which was dynamic and which found its only sanction in the supreme buying power of money. Thus painting itself had to be able to demonstrate the desirability of what money could buy. (90)

And then there is the section on advertising, the co-optation of art (not that that was anything new, as can be seen in the quote above) and this unapologetic reading that made me happy:

The pursuit of individual happiness has been acknowledged as a universal right. Yet the existing social conditions make the individual feel powerless. He lives in the contradiction between what he is and what he would like to be. Either he then becomes fully conscious of the contradiction and its causes, and so joins the political struggle for a full democracy which entails, among other things, the overthrow of capitalism; or else he lives, continually subject to an envy which, compounded with his sense of powerlessness, dissolves into recurrent day dreams. (148)

So to end with photography, which sent me here in the first place and of which I found but little, though I did not care in the slightest.

First, something that seems so simple, and yet… before thinking about it I might have said as a reflex that photography was somehow more ‘objective’, I might still lapse into that feeling. But really,

The photographer’s way of seeing is reflected in his choice of subject.  (10)

On the other hand, I had not before thought through how the camera changes our perspective, how it differs from painting, how it decentres us from time and space:

The camera isolated momentary appearances and in so doing destroyed the idea that images were timeless. Or, to put it another way, the camera showed that the notion of time passing was inseparable from the experience of the visual (except in paintings)….

This is not to say that before the invention of the camera men believed everyone could see everything. But perspective organized the visual field as though that were indeed the ideal. Every drawing or painting that used perspective proposed to the spectator that he was the unique centre of the world. The camera — and more particularly the movie camera — demonstrated that there was no centre.

The invention of the camera changed the way that we saw. The invisible came to mean something different to them. This was immediately reflected in painting. (18)

This is something I need to think much more about. It’s interesting how this is one of the major differences between Western and non-Western art, it doesn’t surprise me at all that it is Western art of a certain period that put human beings always at the centre. It must be a good thing to destabilise that, but I’m not sure I entirely grasp how photography and film do that. Our own private viewings into the world of others.

But there is so much joy in art and pleasure in thinking about it here…

Robert F. Williams on White Racism

While the bulk of Negroes With Guns deals with self-defense and the story of trying to organise for political, racial and economic equality in Monroe, North Carolina, Robert F. Williams also gives some real thought to the problem of white racism. Know your enemy. He writes:

What has happened and continues to happen in Monroe,
N.C., illustrates an old truth: that words used in common
by all men do not always have a meaning common to
all men. Men have engaged in life-or-death struggles because
of differences of meaning in a commonly-used word. The
white racist believes in “freedom,” he believes in “fair trial,”
he believes in “justice.” He sincerely believes in these words
and can use them with great emotion because to the white
racist they mean his freedom to deprive Negroes of their
basic human rights and his courts where a “fair trial” is that
procedure and “justice” that decision which upholds the
racist’s mad ideal of white supremacy. On many desperate
occasions when our constitutional rights were denied and
our lives were in danger, we called on the Justice Department
and the FBI to investigate the Monroe situation, to protect
our lives and to restore our constitutional rights-in
other words, to administer justice. And they always refused
our request. (54)

It can still shock me, I realise, to read those words written decades ago and realise how true they still are. These words still ring with emotion in the mouths of Trump supporters, don’t they. Without understanding this dissonance, there is no other way to explain patriotic white discourse around ‘rights’ and ‘freedoms’ and ‘justice’, when at the same time children are being shot dead and nothing happens to their uniformed (or even non-uniformed) killers. When the NRA can defend to the death the right to carry any kind of arms whatsoever with no controls at all ever. Unless you are Black.

An aside to say that Robert F. Williams actually formed a chapter of the NRA while they were training with guns. That has a sweet taste to it, though some bitterness too.

I appreciate a section with the title:

Minds Warped by Racism

Because you can see it, and it is not pretty. Williams continues:

We have come to comprehend the nature of racism. It is a mass psychosis. When I have described racial conditions in the United States to audiences of foreign newsmen, Cubans and other Latin Americans, they have been shocked to learn of the depths of American race hatred. (72)

I, too, am still continuously shocked. Stretching from the hatred directed at Sandra Bland or Trayvon Martin to those gloating white faces over bodies that had been lynched and burned, it can only be a kind of psychosis. That is too easy a word really, it needs more unpacking from the likes of Fromm and others. But it begs the question of an adequate strategy in its murderous face. Williams asks:

Why do the white liberals ask us to be non-violent? We are not the aggressors; we have been victimized for over 300 years! Yet nobody spends money to go into the South and ask the racists to be martyrs or pacifists. But they always come to the downtrodden Negroes, who are already oppressed and too submissive as a group, and ask them not to fight back. There seems to be a pattern of some sort of strange coincidence of interest when whites preach a special doctrine to Negroes. Like the choice of theology when the plantation-owners saw to the Christianization of the slaves. Instead of the doctrines which produced the rugged aggressively independent and justice-seeking spirit that we associate with Colonial America as the New England Conscience, the slaves were indoctrinated in the most submissive “trust-your-master,” “pie-in-the-sky after-you-die” form of Christianity. (75)

Even Martin Luther King would tire of this liberal refrain. Nor did he have an entirely easy relationship to strict non-violence. The very real threat of violence meant that many communities he visited armed themselves and sat watch to protect him, as they did for the youth of CORE and SNCC — Cobb writes of this across the South. Williams was not alone in his assessment of white violence, and the means to prevent it.

This is one of the more eloquent statements on self-defense, and the challenge even this poses to white liberals, that I have read:

This fear of extermination is a myth which we have exposed in Monroe. We did this because we came to an active understanding of the racist system and grasped the relationship between violence and racism. The existence of violence is at the very heart of a racist system. The Afro-American militant is a “militant” because he defends himself, his family, his home and his dignity. He does not introduce violence into a racist social system-the violence is already there and has always been there. It is precisely this unchallenged violence that allows a racist social system to perpetuate itself. When people say that they are opposed to Negroes “resorting to violence” what they really mean is that they are opposed to Negroes defending themselves and challenging the exclusive monopoly of violence practiced by white racists. We have shown in Monroe that with violence working both ways constituted law will be more inclined to keep the peace. (76)

I put my favourite part in bold, but I like all of it. I like the acknowledgment that it is through lack of challenge that the system perpetuates itself, which means all of it needs to be challenged. I like the questions this raises for piecemeal change — not that we don’t need small steps to move forward, but that we should understand that they are steps. I feel that he understood both the potential and the limits of the Montgomery bus boycott before most commentators and civil rights leaders did (Ella Baker is one clear exception to this of course, I know there were others):

The Montgomery bus boycott was a victory-but it was limited. It did not raise the Negro standard of living. It did not mean better education for Negro children, it did not mean economic advances. Just what was the issue at hand for the white racists? What sacrifice? Remember that in Montgomery most white Americans have automobiles and are not dependent on the buses. It is just like our own experience in Monroe when we integrated the library. I called the chairman of the board in my county. I told him that I represented the NAACP, that we wanted to integrate the library, and that our own library had burned down. And he said, “Well, I don’t see any reason why you can’t use the same library that our people use. It won’t make any difference. After all, I don’t read anyway.” Now, this is the attitude of a lot of white Southerners about the Montgomery bus boycott. The white people who control the city didn’t ride the buses anyway. They had their own private cars, so it didn’t make any difference to them. But when Afro-Americans get into the struggle for the right to live as human beings and the right to earn the same amount of money, then they’ll meet the greatest amount of resistance, and out of it will come police-condoned or inspired violence. (77-78)

The limits came from how little it challenged the true structures of Black oppression — though it is terrifying really, even now, just how hard they had to fight for such a small change.

An inspirational chapter title:

“The Future Belongs to Today’s Oppressed”

And finally, the fact that Williams never did give up on the struggle, nor on white people. His theory, that they needed an honest look at themselves:

Whenever I speak on the English-language radio station in Havana (which broadcasts for an audience in the United States) I hope in some way to penetrate the mental barriers and introduce new disturbing elements into the consciousness of white America. I hope to make them aware of the monstrous evil that they are party to by oppressing the Negro. Somehow, I must manage to clearly reflect the image of evil that is inherent in a racist society so that white Americans will be able to honestly and fully see themselves as they really are. To see themselves with the same clarity as foreigners see them and to recognize that they are not champions of democracy. To understand that today they do not really even believe in democracy. To understand that the world is changing regardless of whether they think they like it or not. For I know that if they had a glimpse of their own reality the shock would be of great therapeutic value. (85)

An honest look is still what is needed. Wendell Berry too talks about the need for a double consciousness required from this level of injustice inflicted on another groups of human beings, the illusion-building needed and the distortions that it has caused. But instead of taking a hard look, those who most need it have elected, and continue to support a president handing out nothing but lies.

Not that we all don’t need a good long look in the mirror on a regular basis.

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Summer Solstice

I hated summer today. Sunburns everywhere like bruises. So hot, but unlike lazy Tucson days it felt as though here someone had picked the town up and shaken it so everyone clinging by threads or riding along any kind of edge had fallen out twitching and needing a fix. Men wandered the streets whip thin, shirts off and ribs sticking through badly tattooed skin. Excited with an edge of anger, voices raised even when they were just talking about haircuts, bicycles. Nowhere lives and early deaths marking their gaunt stubbled faces. Visible addiction here belongs only to them. Mass unemployment here now for a good few generations, the closing of pits and factories. My heart hurt and I wanted a drink, still, I wouldn’t be going round the Wetherspoons today. It opened at 8 am. It snapped and snarled and soppily swore at full capacity and anything could have kicked off.

Instead I felt like spending the cool of the evening going to throw rocks at the original captain-of-industry’s ‘castle’, raging against the violence of this wealth extraction and abandonment — its chemical decimation of generations and its blight upon the earth.

Tomorrow I get to go home.

House as a Mirror of Self: Clare Cooper-Marcus

I quite loved Clare Cooper-Marcus’s book House as a Mirror of Self. I loved the uniqueness of its approach; its fearlessness in connecting the material, the social, the psychological and the spiritual; and the very real insights it develops around the intertwining of our sense of self and our sense of place. Using Jungian therapy is such an interesting methodology for exploring our connections to place, how this is formed in our childhood and how this plays out through our lives. It is a way to get more to the centre of what place really means to us as human beings.

A core theme of this book and the stories within it is the notion that we are all — throughout our lives–striving toward a state of wholeness, of being wholly ourselves. Whether we are conscious of it or not, every relationship, event, mishap, or good fortune in our lives can be preserved as a “teaching,” guiding us toward being more and more fully who we are. Although this has been widely written about, especially by Jungians, what this book adds to the debate is the suggestion that the places we live in are reflections of that process, and indeed the places themselves have a powerful effect on our journey toward wholeness. (10)

In this aspect of the book, it is reminiscent of Bachelard’s work on The Poetics of Space, particularly as Bachelard also attempts it from within a Jungian framework. It helps that Jung built his own house and tied it so explicitly in his work to his own psychological development. I can’t believe I haven’t read it yet. it is trying to get at the same thing Yi-Fu Tuan writes about from the anthropological side of things, which also makes me slightly uncomfortable, though just as interesting.

Anyway, like all good psychoanalysts, Clare Cooper-marcus begins at the beginning.

“First houses are the grounds of our first experiences,” writes Australian novelist David Malouf. “Crawling about at floor level, room by room, we discover laws that we will apply later to the world at large: and who is to say if our notions of space and dimension are not determined for all time by what we encounter there.” (19-20)

I always get a bit uncomfortable on this territory, don’t really like edging towards the psyche — and at the same time I am driven there, recognising that it is only there that many answers can be found in thinking about belonging, as well as things like violence that I have been wrestling with. I felt this way reading Fromm, and I am sure I shall continue to feel this way…

But of course it feels true that most would regard childhood as a sacred period in our lives, and that it is formative in so much of who we are:

We hold the childhood memories of certain places as a kind of psychic anchor, reminding us of where we come from, of what we once were, or of how the physical environment perhaps nurtured us when family dynamics were strained or the context of our lives fraught with uncertainty. (20)

I love this sense of place-making as deeply embedded in our lives and childhoods, think of the desert where I grew up where all of us had places named after us, and we had names for many others…

The designation of special names is an important component of childhood appropriation of space, the beginnings of a lifetime experience with place-making. (25)

She later writes:

To appropriate space, to order and mold it into a form that pleases us and affirms who we are, is a universal need. (68)

So back to the book. Cooper-Marcus qualified as a therapist, worked with people to examine their living spaces as a way of examining their lives. For this reason it was a self-selected group of the middle-class edging upwards — I realise I have no real sense of where middle- and upper-class meet. For so long I thought anyone was rich who had a car they could depend on or pop-tarts for breakfast. Some of the people she interviewed challenged my more mature understandings of middle-classness and sent it skyrocketing upwards. But she is honest and open about this, as well as the ways in which she met people at conferences and through presentations, the nature of her snowball sample in primarily the Oakland Hills, and the limitations of all of that.

The limitations of the well-off talking about housing still really annoyed me at times, but the book was worth it all and engaged with the co-constitutive natures of self and place in a way few other books do, or even could. So a few quotes — though given my interest is in how this intersects with more structural aspects of house and home means I won’t quote quite as extensively as my usual absurd standard. Still, there’s a great quote from Kim Dovey on how some fo these layers come together, and broad meanings of home and belonging:

Home can be a room inside a house, a house within a neighborhood, a neighborhood within a city, and a city within a nation. At each level the meaning of home gains in intensity and depth from the dialectical interaction between the two poles of experience — the place and its context at a larger scale…. Yet the dialectics of home involve more than inside versus outside. Home is a place of security within an insecure world, a place of certainty within doubt, a familiar place in it strange world, a sacred place in a profane world. It is a place of autonomy and power in an increasingly heteronomous world where others make the rules. (“Home and homelessness”, 191)

I loved this on the difference between being able to huild a home and shape it over the years, and not just because this is how I grew up and what I rather long to have now:

…the house is me. Because I built it and because it’s everything I wanted it to be; I think of it really as an extension of our family. It is not an object you buy in a showroom, like a car or a piece of furniture. It’s us. Its imperfections are as revealing to me as its satisfactions, like a friend or member of the family whose imperfections we can see… I don’t think we change our habits to suit the house…we change the house to suit our habits, so it’s constantly evolving. We live it, we don’t live in it. (54)

Cooper-Marcus notes that our desire to have control over our home spaces are more significant when we don’t have control over other aspects of our lives. Hell of true.

Also coming out so strongly through these interviews — almost makes me sorry for rich people — was the gendered differences in how people experience place and how they are limited or freed by it. Cooper-Marcus notes the studies that show the ways in which women are much more affected by the location of the home than men — particularly access to services, This is particularly visible in studies of suburbs where distance separates home from services and services from each other.

One study of over 200 couples in upper-middle-class sections of Stamford, Connecticut and NYC found ‘the most satisfied group was suburban men.’ These men spent significantly less time with their children and spouse. (199) That floored me, while at the same time, am I honestly surprised? Susan Saegert summarises another study that sheds additional light on this:

it appears that men prefer residential environments that reinforce the public-private distinction. This may be an inadvertent consequence of the bonuses of suburban life–retreat, outdoor activities, home ownership,relief from the pace of the city– or it many be partially motivated by the perhaps unconscious desire in many men to assure their home will be taken care of by a woman with few other options. (200)

I wonder how much this is shifting, and how this is working with other factors such as the return to city centres and resulting gentrification I wonder all of this in relation to suburban people, mostly white people, this is not a book that examines the kind of neighbourhoods I have long worked in, care most about, at all. But it certainly points towards a very interesting and rewarding way of looking at such neighbourhoods, building on work done by Mindy Fullilove and others.

The real importance of understanding and grappling with this is the way that this creates patterns over the course of our lives and down the generations — particularly in view of generations of segregation. Cooper-Marcus writes:

Research suggests that though few of us remain living in the same specific locale throughout our lives, many of us have a tendency to prefer living in the same type of setting…we each have a ‘settlement identity.’ (201)

This is an identity bound up in whether we prefer, and how we feel while we are in, the city, the suburbs etc… This tends to form in our childhood — whose setting often becomes our ideal, though if a childhood is unhappy people will often chose a contrasting setting. This isn’t a simple thing, but important to understand as taste in home and neighbourhood can be ‘significant indicators of group identity’, particularly socioeconomic identity.

Whether by choice or not, where you live and what you see around you are a reflection of who you are–or who society says you are. Making neighborhoods safe, secure, beautiful, and socially nurturing is not just some pie-in-the-sky aesthetic dream. It needs to be an essential component of urban policy, a high-priority expenditure of tax dollars. If the place where you grew up is as critical to your psychological development as I have tried to communicate in this book, imagine the damage to the next generation of youngsters who cannot freely play outside of their homes for fear of being shot? (213)

The crux of why this matters.

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Piri Thomas on Harlem’s Mean Streets

I enjoyed Piri Thomas writing about growing up Down These Mean Streets of Spanish Harlem, though for a little while I thought it would be too much, too close to all those boys I knew. The ones I admired but were always too cool for a shy little school girl like me when I was a teenager, the ones that when I was older and wiser just infuriated me and broke my heart as I watched them break the hearts of their families when I was working in LA. I love that they got heart and style, but this hustler roll where it is always ‘me first’, well, I never did get that. I watched them steal from their mothers, cheat on and steal from their girlfriends. Saw their privilege to sleep with anyone (and I mean anyone) alongside that clear division of the pure, ‘good’ girls they might marry and all the rest who are just putas. Saw girls fighting each other over them, not fighting them Came to hate all of that and I still do. I was hoping this might help explain where that comes from, but I still don’t know. Something about city streets, because sure seems there ain’t much difference between LA and NY. Yet I knew other kids this age immigrated somehow from El Salvador or Mexico to work and working like hell to send money home to their moms instead of constantly asking for more or stealing some more from her.

Anyway, enough about all that. What I loved — the way that this is a bit of a love song to Harlem, for all its flaws.

Man! How many times have I stood on the rooftop of my broken-down building at night and watched the bulb-lit world below.

Like somehow it’s different at night, this my Harlem. There ain’t no bright sunlight to reveal the stark naked truth of garbage-lepered streets.

Gone is the drabness and hurt, covered by friendly night.

It makes clean the dirty-faced kids. (vii)

I loved to the feel of walking a while down Lexington Avenue in his shoes:

I’d walk on Lexington Avenue, where a lot of things were going on, and hear the long, strung-out voice of a junkie, “Hey, man, you got a couple charlies you can lend me?”

“Sorry, man, I wish I did have two bucks, but here’s half a man,” and I really wouldn’t hear the the “Thanks, man,” as I slid half a dollar into a hand that somehow would convert that change into a fix of heroin that would drive away for a while whatever needed driving away.

The blocks would fall back, and without feeling the distance I would have gone twenty blocks. At Ortiz’ funeral Parlor there would be a wreath of white flowers indicating that death had copped another customer. I’d try not to become involved in all the sorrow sounds that loved ones made for someone that was beyond their loving.

I’d turn and head for my block, noticing the overflow wash strung out on front fire escapes and thinking about the people who complain that clothes on front-side dire escapes make the block look cheap, that people who do that have no sense of values and destroy the worth of the neighborhood. But I liked it; I thought it gave class to the front fire escapes to be dressed up with underwear, panties, and scrubbed work clothes. (106)

Crazy how even in Spanish Harlem this stupid fight over whether hanging laundry is low class or not was happening. I’m all for hanging laundry.

He continues — and here is the joy and companionship of the street, the experience I’ll only ever be reading about.

I’d meet my boys, and all the other hearing and seeing suddenly became unimportant. only my boys were the important kick, and for good reasons — if I had boys, I had respect and no other clique would make me open game. Besides, they gave me a feeling of belonging, of prestige, of accomplishment; I felt grande and bad. Sometimes the thoughts would start flapping around inside of me about the three worlds I lived in — the world of home, the world of school (no more of that, though), and the world of street. The street was the best damn one. (107)

I like this sense of three worlds, I think especially when you’re a kid you got so little choice over things — school is school with its rules and those same kids you got to deal with year after year and you just have to get through it, your family the same. The street is the only place you really can make your own unless there are some other options for you. Only thing is with the street you got to belong somewhere or you are fair game. I hate that too.

Some real interesting stuff here around race, the difficulties in understanding what it meant to be a Puerto Rican, but one who looks black when your mom and siblings look white. The difficulty in understanding where you fit in US racial hierarchies, especially because no one else seems to know. The lure of maybe being able to choose to be white, or at least not an American black man, because then you are not at the very bottom.

So there’s a whole lot in here about the complications of this social construction we call race, and how it breaks down. How speaking Spanish somehow complicates the Black white binary, but no one knows quite how. how this gets fought out between fathers and sons, between brothers. How this could send a NY puertoriqueño onto a boat headed down South to see what this race thing is all about, and not really finding any answers just a lot more anger.

Because this is mostly about New York this all works a bit different, it was so funny to read how whites are usually referred to by Piri and his crew as paddies. I find that a bit crazy, especially given how long it took the Irish to become ‘white.’ But on reflection I suppose it is exactly because of that — part of that whole process was a lot of violence against people of colour as part of the work to draw that line more powerfully than ever, but with the Irish on the white side of it. They shared these neighborhoods due to their poverty, but race trumped class and so they became the personification of whiteness:

“Look, Piri,” interrupted Brew, “everybody got some kinda pain goin’ on inside him. I know yuh a li’l fucked up with some kind of hate called ‘white.’ It’s that special kind with the ‘no Mr.’ in front of it. Dig it, man; say it like it is, out loud — like you hate all paddies.”

“Just their fuckin’ color, Brew,” I said bitterly. “Just their color — their damn claim that white is the national anthem of the world. You know?”

“Yeah.” (122)

I like though, the recognition that the real hate is for the claim made for a color, a claim that continues to fuck us all up.

Environmentalism and Economic Justice in the Southwest: Laura Pulido

Laura Pulido is one of my heroes, and returning to Environmentalism and Economic Justice now that I have some disposable income to buy it…well. It’s brilliant. (Though actually I am realising I don’t actually have any real disposable income at all. Breaks my heart).  It brings together the theory that I believe most needs to be brought together, using the postcolonial and subaltern theory to look at struggles in the US and knocking apart some of the most frustrating aspects of writing around ‘new social movements’ and social movement in general. Then rebuilding it of course, in ways I find particularly useful and illuminating.

Subalternity is not often used in relation to the U.S. — this is how Pulido describes the economic structures and the role of racism in creating conditions of subalternity:

…subaltern environmentalism is embedded in material and power struggles, as well as questions of identity and quality of life. Dominated communities engaged in environmental struggles do not disaggregate their various identities and needs. Although they may engage in strategic essentialism, the practice of reifying aspects of one’s identity for political purposes, they recognize the multiple identities and the various lines of domination and power that need to be resisted and challenged. They build complex movements which simultaneously address issues of identity as well as a wide range of economic issues (production, distribution, and uneven development), thereby defying the various models and paradigms social scientists have created to impose meaning on collective action, in particular, environmentalism. (xv)

This is because for some communities, environmental problems are not just simple quality of life issues, rather:

From the perspective of marginalized communities, environmental problems reflect, and may intensify, larger existing inequalities and uneven power relations. (xv)

While Pulido celebrates the new, postmodern opening up to struggles beyond production such as identity, I love her argument against ditching political economy. Love that she looks to Watts as well as to Arturo Escobar to bring the two together. Because poor people of color experience a complex reality in which resistance is required along lines of both class and race among other things. We need to understand

how multiple forces interact in creating inequality and oppression, and how complex struggles form to overcome it. (xviii)

Elsewhere she writes this intersectionality:

Even though their struggles may be categorized as class conflict, racism, or patriarchal resistance, what is usually at stake are multiple forms of domination, exploitation, and resistance, that narrow applications of class may prevent us from appreciating. (5)

The two studies featured in this volume were chosen to complement the principal focus of environmental justice work at the time, on toxics primarily in urban areas. I like how this expands the focus — though of course, so much work has been done in the past eleven years to further develop this, as can be seen in The Colors of Nature or The Environmental Justice Reader.

A final ingredient is the focus on struggle, and that of course, it recognises that oppression also helps create the conditions for its resistance:

For oppressed communities, a dignified life means being able to live free of cultural oppression and racial and ethnic inequality. Hence, while culture and racism are critical to understanding oppression, they are also essential to illuminating the process of mobilization (xx).

So a good summary of the subaltern nature of environmental justice struggles:

This new form of environmentalism goes by a variety of headings: grassroots, popular, livelihood, resistance, environmental justice, and resource struggles. What they all share is a counterhegemonic, or subaltern, location — they exist in opposition to prevailing powers. (4)

New Social Movements (NSMs)

For NSM researchers, identity has emerged as as a key area of focus…understanding how individuals coalesce and fashion new collective identities is the crucial question in understanding the emergence of social movements.

I understand why she has to engage with this literature more broadly, it was the thing after all. But still I am frustrated with its limitations. Of course Pulido also brings in old favourites — on the transition to post-fordism, she looks to Stuart Hall (1991) to understand the new decentring of self and identity, and how we are made up multiple identities and positions, identify in multiple different ways. Gilroy is in here too on the complexities of it all.

Useful.

The claim that NSMs are only about quality of life issues, or the disagreement over whether racial struggles are NSMs or should be catagorised among older movements? Not so useful. Pulido writes:

The concept of NSMs has become problematic precisely because it has been so widely applied. In reality, its true value is in helping us see what is unique about a limited number of movements. (12)

The idea that some people have to struggle on multiple fronts? Obvious I would have thought, and yet…apparently not to everyone. But it is to subaltern scholars:

Subaltern movements are simultaneously about both material concerns and systems of meaning, thereby challenging the notion that identity issues are not of concern to those struggling to survive.

She quotes Arturo Escobar rather extensively (I love Escobar, haven’t managed to write about him yet, and will find it difficult precisely because of the desire to quote him even more extensively than I usually quote people, his book is full full full of underlining)

It is essential to recognize the importance of economic factors and their structural determinants. But just as crucial as the reconstruction of economies — and indelibly linked to it — is the reconstitution of meanings at all levels, from everyday life to national development. Social movements must be seen equally and inseparably as struggles over meanings as well as material conditions, that is, as cultural struggles…  Contemporary social movements in Latin America have a multiple character, as economic, social, political and cultural struggles.(Escobar 1992b)

She continues:

I would argue that the same could be said for the environmental struggles of the subaltern, regardless of their location. (13)

It works well, I think, to see the struggles of people in the colour and potentially the poor more broadly in the US in these terms, and I like the opportunities it opens up for broader alliances across race and nationality and particularly across national borders. I also think there is still a lot of work to be done here:

Activists are acutely aware that racism is manifest in every corner of society and that racist attitudes are deeply entrenched and institutionalized, but they have not developed a textured understanding of how racism interacts with various economic forces and hegemonic forms of cultural life. Instead, they have emphasized overt forms of discrimination… (17)

At the same time I think this is worth saying (and so eloquently):

It could be argued that for racially oppressed groups, racism is the primary axis of domination. All encounters of the oppressed–whether in the job market, at school, at home, or as a consumer–are experienced through racial subordination. Conversely, the racialized structure of the United States results in a benefit to whites. White privilege is so hegemonic that few whites are even cognizant of it. (18)

This stuff is… really hard, and I think people are all over the place in terms of how clearly they understand it and how well they are able to articulate it. It certainly shapes struggle though, and where communities are at. Pulido quotes Robert Bullard’s insight that African Americans really came to understand the importance of environmental issues only after linking them to civil rights and inequality.

The key to …  inclusion rest on linking environmental issues with the social justice concerns of minority communities… (Bullard 1993a)

I’m wondering for how many other issues this might be true, and what this means for white consciousness. But the point is well made:

This is critical to understanding the dominant discourse of subaltern environmental struggles in the United States. Racism and the struggle for equality are the entry point for marginalized groups in the United States; livelihood is the entry point for Third World communities. (19)

Positionality

I found Pulido’s thinking here so so useful in thinking about positionality in a robust and useful way, something I feel like I’ve been stumbling around my whole life with gradually increasing clarity:

I argue that the issue of positionality is most important in distinguishing mainstream and subaltern environmentalism. Activists of all sorts may be involved in the same environmental issue and even have the same political line, but mainstream and subaltern actors hold different positions within the socioeconomic structure that, in turn, frame their struggles differently. It is important to realize that positionality does not refer to a specific person or group per se but is rather a position that can be filled by any individual.

Contrary to mainstream efforts are the actions of subaltern environmental movement who, because of their position, are not in control of the economy and, in general, do not benefit from a continuation of the status quo. For these individuals, environmental issues are important in that they affect their livelihood or impact their health and physical well-being. Consequently, not only are they more physically and socially vulnerable, but they may require a change in the prevailing social relations tor each a satisfactory solution. Hence, on a very fundamental level, participants in subaltern struggles encounter environmental concerns not only from a different perspective, but also from a different structural position that may entail entirely different solutions and course of action. (28)

It emerged so clearly in both our organising and my own research the ways that these structural positions demand recognition in both strategy and goals in ways that people outside the struggle often do not understand:

Due to their position, the subaltern are not able to distance themselves from the political or economic consequences of either the problem or the proposed solutions. (29)

I think the key here is, does someone, do you benefit from the maintenance of the status quo? If you do, better said where you do because almost all of us have aspects of our identity that do not, then it is certain you’ll have some blindspots. It is nice to see it so clearly explained why there cannot just be one axis. But also the way Pulido grounds her work in economic relations, so she is also able to:

recognize how economic relations are mutually constituted by racism and issues of identity. A materialist analysis is crucial in identifying the structures and forces leading to the formation of subaltern environmental struggles. (31)

And highlights some of the key questions in looking at movement and thinking about resistance:

The task is to identify the ways in which racism, cultural oppression and identity interact with economic forces to create unique forms of domination and exploitation. (32)

Above all this book explores how important culture is to these positions — and the ability to find strength there:

For subaltern groups, quality-of-life issues are expressed within their economic projects. “People fight not only for more but for the possibility of defining a way of life expressive of deeply held values” (Plotke 1990, 93)

Given the development of white supremacy, these values are often key both to imagining alternatives, and to challenging the constantly promoted superiority of whiteness.

Racism must be challenged in the economic, social and cultural spheres.

Consequently, while the UFWOC’s [United Farm Worker of California] movement is a class conflict, it was also an antiracist struggle. It was antiracist in its efforts to counter the racialized division of labor, a racist class structure, as well as the larger racist ideology which rendered rural Chicanos as a despised population. (32)

Again this is part of identifying the multiple modes of oppression, of fighting on all fronts:

When poverty, racism, and culture come together to oppress people, they also interact to create unique forms of oppression that become the basis of resistance. Each of these factors must be countered individually and collectively, and one of the first steps in attempting to do so is the creation of an affirming, collective identity. (33)

Some axes, some definitions

Gender

I struggled a lot with why I have not focused on gender in my own work, and again Pulido nailed exactly why I did not and why I was uncomfortable with doing so artificially — in the struggles she studied gender was not articulated as an axis of domination and resistance, so she chose not to include gender as its own axis as it were. While ever present as an issue, Pulido writes:

Emphasizing this line of inquiry, however, would have take the analysis in a different direction, emphasizing unspoken forms of consciousness and interaction. … the fact remains that gender was not strategically used by the organizations in either understanding their oppression or mobilizing against it. For this reason I did not make it a separate category. Instead, it us interwoven throughout the discussion and reflects not only individual gender consciousness, but its intersection with other dynamics that create fully textured lives. (33)

Poverty

The definitions found here are great, especially in the ways that they build on — while also moving beyond — traditional Marxist understandings:

In short, there are many ways to be poor and economically marginal which are beyond the bounds of class. Understanding the specific conditions and relationships which give rise to poverty and inequality is essential in order to analyze them and ascertain the motivating force of struggles. (34)

Looking at Northern New Mexico, and its underdevelopment it becomes more clear just how this works, and how this is connected to space and place:

Because they have been relatively exempt from the homogenizing forces of modernity, such communities often carry the illusion of a traditional lifestyle…

It is imperative to understand the role of capital in the creation of places. (35)

This does not discount the importance of class, or the division of labour as an important analytical category in all advanced economies, but it explores the complexity of this as it intersects, or too often overlaps far too perfectly, with race. While there may be contradictions, too often

there may be an almost perfect fit, leading to a racialized division of labor. Nowhere is this seen more clearly than among California farmworkers. (37)

Like Harvey’s more flexible reading of Marx, Pulido emphsasis the relational aspect of class, an individual can occupy more than one class position. At the same time there is often a collective relationship rather than just an individual one.

Of course, neither poor people nor workers automatically constitute a class. Only when people unite to struggle on issues related to production, the appropriation of surplus value, and domination — only when they exist in opposition — do they then become a class. (39)

This raises the question of domination and power, and resistance to it.

Racism

Race is socially constructed. Of course. She uses Peter Jackson’s definition of racism (1987) which I hadn’t come across before (I don’t think?)

…a set of interrelated ideologies and practices that have grave material effects, severely effecting black people’s life chances and threatening their present and future well-being (1987, p 3)

But expanded beyond the Black/white binary of course. I like this definition very much. Another key:

In order to be effective, a racist ideology must become so pervasive and natural that it becomes hegemonic, and therefore, rarely questioned. (43)

Interesting too, how this becomes transferred to behaviours:

Although much of our racial discourse centers on the words “color” and “skin” — and although many people continue to be racist based solely on the idea of phenotype — skin color has essentially become a signifier for behavior considered objectionable by the dominant group. (44)

and both become tied up with neighbourhood and place, as described by Charles Mills.

Identity

As NSM literature demonstrates, the formation of a collective identity is a necessary first step in building a movement. People, regardless of how oppressed they might be, do not inevitably have a common identity. A shared identity must be cultivated and refined through interaction and struggle with other groups. (46) … while an affirmative identity will not necessarily lead to mobilization, it is, at the least, crucial to retaining one’s dignity in the face of oppression. (47)

The point is how to make it an affirming, positive identity, and as inclusive as possible…it would be good to think more about that and I think some people are. Strategic essentialism is part of this perhaps. For those who complain endlessly about identity politics:

Obviously, the creation of an affirmative identity can never be fully distinguished from resistance because the action and consciousness required to build such an identity, even if it simply allows one to live with a shred of dignity, is an act of resistance and an exercise of power in itself. It is the power of self that is the crucial first step in imagining the possibility of resistance or another reality. In my study of subaltern Chicano environmental struggles, ethnicity was the primary form of identification, and culture provided much of the raw material for that identity. (47)

The question, as I say, is how this is developed through struggle and conscientização so that it builds towards alliances, solidarity, broadening of movement.

Ethnicity

Quotes Aldrich, Carter, Hone and McEvoy (48):

Ethnicity is the identity which members of the group place upon themselves, race is a label foisted on to them by non-members… While racial identity may be a crippling disability, ethnicity acts as a positive force for the protection and promotions of group interests.

I never thought of it like this… I have so much more reading to do I know. I still think of it as defined on the immigration forms I helped people fill out long ago.

Anyway. To end. Without getting much into the struggles themselves, whose inspiration fills the bulk of the book and I loved and might find time to write more about.

Bringing it all together?

So how does Pulido connect political economy to these concepts, these axes of domination and subordination? She describes three cultural concepts that are helpful:

  1. Bauman’s concepts of differential and hierarchical culture (1973).  Anglo-American culture is regularly seen, described, taught as better than others, part of the necessary struggle is that subaltern cultures turn this on its head.
  2. Values, beliefs and material culture… different cultural forms exist in subaltern struggles which can become outward symbols and expressions of cultural differences and ways of proclaiming that there is an alternative. Examples are UFWOC’s use of La Virgen de Guadalupe, or Ganados anchoring their economic development project in wool and weaving.
  3. Praxis. She defines this in a unique way (to me, I am wonderig if this is how it is used in postcolonial studies) and I like how it brings together resistance, culture and material struggle:

Praxis is action. It is the social relations that actually create a culture. It is the stuff of which culture (and life) is made. Praxis usually refers to practices of which people are not overtly conscious but which appear to be the natural way of doing things. An illustration of praxis is how people organize their family life. Praxis is critical to understanding domination, mobilization and resistance. … In order for a movement to be successful, it must begin where people are. It must begin with the familiar and everyday. One reason that both of these case studies were successful was the emphasis on praxis, which allowed people to feel comfortable in new experiences and situations. (55)

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