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Power and spirit

28 Oct

I watched Heather Rae’s documentary on the Native American artist and activist John Trudell yesterday, and it never fails to inspire me. At some point Trudell says that authority is not the same thing as power. We confuse them when we think that the government or corporations have power, when what they have is only authority. Power is about our relationship to life, or the development of what Trudell calls the “human spirit”.

I’ve been thinking about postmodern theory and the issues that I have with relativism. Trudell seems to believe in the existence of an essence, an irreducible substance that defines spirit. I see postmodernism, on the other hand, as a disembodied theory which tends to obscure human experience. I sometimes wonder what a theory of the sensible world would look like. I like Lisa Brooks’s analysis in The Native Critics Collective’s Reasoning Together when she argues that “the concern to which we should turn is the need for thought that acknowledges its embeddedness in experience, which cultivates and expresses an intimate relationship with the world in which it thinks.”


FallenLeaf zine#1 – RISING STAR

27 Sep

I have created a zine to go with the blog – you can learn more about it on We Make Zines. I love punk DIY aesthetics, the riot grrrl movement, and zine culture, which is why I chose to make a small cut-and-paste zine that reads like a personal anarchist manifesto. I think that playfulness is an important part of zine making and blogs do not cover the tactile, material aspect of the creation process. It’s great to be able to make things without having to outsource the tools we use or the product that emerges from our efforts. If you would like to get a copy of RISING STAR, send me an email at foxandsnakezine(at)gmail(dot)com. Don’t expect a polished work of art: it’s all about gritty black and white photocopies and simple folded paper!

Academic freedom?

6 Sep

When I was a student at university, I idealized academe in spite of all the inconsistencies I saw. I believed that it was possible to be a free spirit within that institution and pursue vital, personal interests in a stimulating context of exchange. The idea that such a freedom exists is part of academia’s founding myths. Although it may look like tenure professors have the liberty to think and act freely, they can only be critical as long as they do not apply their ideas to the workplace, as long as they do not directly threaten the dominance hierarchy that constitutes the university. Jeff Schmidt says that “Academic freedom is given to those who will be least likely to use it”. You have it “to the extent that you can express views that your employer would not otherwise allow you to express”. But According to this definition, the few who dare challenge the institution stand out: “That’s what activists do: things that they weren’t hired to do”. Which is why some of them get fired.

The idealism I used to nurture also made me believe that I could sublimate my need for action by investing it into theory or that “ideas can change the world”. Rancourt points out that “truth and research are not threatening to power in a culture of subservience and obedience. In such a culture, radical-in-thought academics only stabilize the system by neutralizing the more action-minded youth”. In short, it is not enough to be a radical intellectual, you also need to engage in radical praxis. All too often, universities (as well as other institutions in my experience – when you’re lucky) promote discourse as a safe substitute for action. I have learned that I can express ideas if I lay them out in the appropriate format, carefully back them up with established sources, and cut myself off from the practical implications of the theories I develop. It seems that my credibility as a scholar depends on it. Now I increasingly wonder: is there a space for free thinkers? The more I examine the institution, the less I believe that university provides such an environment. Is academic freedom only a façade?

Anarchism Gathering 3 – tensions

17 Aug

In the evening, we crammed ourselves into a small, unventilated room to hear Xavier Renou talk about civil disobedience and violence/non-violence. Given the title of the talk, some participants were clearly expecting a debate on the use of violence versus non-violence in activism, when instead they found Xavier standing next to his Powerpoint slides to advocate the practices of his collective, “Les Désobéissants“. When it became clear that there wasn’t going to be any interaction until the question and answer session scheduled for the end of the talk, some started to protest. In front of the roomful of anarchists asking whether they could participate, Xavier said something like “I am going to explain what I mean by civil disobedience first and then we will have a discussion”. Tension started to mount ostensibly: interruptions manifesting discontent became more frequent, participants who wanted to hear the presentation were irritated, and Xavier became more anxious since the remarks he had to address lengthened his talk, thus leaving less room for discussion at the end. When he did finish, the situation was a mess: some wanted to have the discussion out of doors so that other people could join, others were already voicing their discontent right there. All constructive talk became impossible, and unsurprisingly the few individuals who were heard were white males, because they shouted louder than others and knew how to take control of the space. It was just my idea of the popular stereotype of anarchism as chaos.

Before that, there had been intelligent interventions, but they were not taken into account. Someone suggested that since this talk was clearly not intended as a conversation, and since it had been pointed out that there was no space to discuss violence at the gathering, an assembly could be organized the following day in order to remedy the situation. Another participant asked why this presentation had to be interrupted when many such talks had been allowed to be conducted before. But their words were lost, partly because the space was crowded and consensual decision-making would have required a moderator, and mainly because, as a result, a few individuals managed to impose on the conversation and voluntarily made it escalate. I left soon after that: there was no way I could have made myself heard and I no longer felt safe.

In order to work, anarchism needs flexible structures of organisation, but more than anything it requires that all types of domination be acknowledged and addressed, especially within the movement. According to Uri Gordon in Anarchy Alive!, the movement is not impervious to the dominant structures of power: “patterns of domination in society are imprinted on interactions within it – uncovering dynamics of racist, sexist, ageist or homophobic behaviour” (52). If anarchist politics promote the adequation between the means of the revolution and its desired outcome, then challenging unspoken assumptions of unequality must become a priority. Otherwise we’ll only be fighting one another.

Reimagining queer community

15 Aug

“What makes the so-called queer community so incredibly exclusive that almost nobody ever seems to feel as though they belong? I was […] curious as to what exactly everybody in my group was looking for in the ideal queer community.” Rachel

I read Rachel’s perzine on the train to the anarchist gathering last Saturday, and it helped me reflect on the notion of alternative communities as home over the day. Queer communities, but also other subcultural communities in my experience, nurture the ideas that a deep sense of connection unites their members and regularly use the words “home” or even “family” to describe such ties. However, like Rachel, I have often felt like I wasn’t elligible for this particular kind of belonging, or perhaps that I didn’t know the proper code for entry. I have sometimes attributed this failure to the fact that I am part of a bisexual group which occasionally has trouble being acknowledged as viably “queer” by other LGBTIQ people. However, Rachel questions the very foundations of these assumptions by asking: “If this so-called queer community were accessible, why do all the queer-identified people in my life keep telling me that they don’t feel as though they are a part of it?” Interestingly, she admits that what has helped her develop a sense of validation in such spaces was to write and distribute zines that give her a voice and provide recognition. Further, what I understand from the rest of the zine is that by the same logic, leaving aside identity politics in order to resist assimilation into corporate culture makes us more powerful and leads queer communities out of their self-referential questioning. “Our Pride is NOTE for sale”, she claims, and I take it to mean that fighting side by side brings a stronger sense of solidarity which, perhaps, could redifine queer participants as comrades struggling together rather than as brothers and sisters in an idealized family controlled by corporations or the state.

Can intellectuals be activists?

31 Jul

At university one learns that thought prevails upon action, that intellectual work has at least as much value as organizing. However, the principle that radicalism is to be discussed rather that enacted protects the interests of the institution. Paulo Freire said that you can only fight your own oppression. Only yesterday I wrote that “Privilege should imply responsibility” – doesn’t this suggest that responsibility is reserved to an elite which could “teach” others how to be free? At the very least, it implies that the so-called privileged in our society are free themselves, which is far from true. What is too often defined as activism can simply serve to maintain one’s rank by avoiding risks since, as Denis Rancourt points out, “There are a million elaborate and slogan-supported rationalizations to not be an activist and most involve re-definitions of activism in terms of actions that present no significant risk to one’s socio-economic status.” Rancourt’s definition of activism detaches itself from “dogmatically non-violent” forms of organizing and instead privileges direct action, and he denounces anyone who does not directly confront power as complicit with the oppressor (post). In this light, activities such as building community or political blogging do not qualify as activism, and theorizing is only”Useful as an aid to reflection for those practicing a praxis of liberation.” Intellectual thought, then, needs to serve action and reflect on it but should never stand on its own. At the theoretical level, ideas not only have limited reach but tend to maintain (and justify) the status quo.

Teachers as activists

30 Jul

“Dans ces conditions, accepter d’entrer dans le jeu des prix et des récompenses serait aussi donner ma caution à un esprit et une évolution, dans le monde scientifique, que je reconnais comme profondément malsains, et d’ailleurs condamnés à disparaître à brève échéance tant ils sont suicidaires spirituellement, et même intellectuellement et matériellement.” -Alexandre Grothendieck, declining the Crafoord prize in 1988

I remember my father saying that it isn’t teachers’ role to be politically involved (he may have changed his mind since). While teachers have no right to impose their opinions on students and should let them learn to articulate theirs instead, I do no see why this should be true. Although teachers may take risks by getting involved in radical political activities since they cannot afford to have a police record, I cannot imagine how an apolitical teacher could teach critical thinking because there is no such thing as apolotical: you either have learned to construct your own opinion or you merely convey the dominant discourse to your students without challenging it while calling it a “neutral” position. I believe that teaching how to think can only be done by people who practice critical thinking themselves.

Another aspect of this issue is that an overwhelming majority of teachers, especially in higher levels, come from a middle-class, bourgeois background and are thus members of a privileged section of the population. Too often, their attitude towards teaching aims to maintain and reproduce that privilege rather than to challenge discrimination within the institution. Privilege should imply responsibility. Neglecting to question the power that derives from privilege means that knowledge will be available only to a select few and denied to those who do not, or cannot, conform to the models already in place due to class, gender or race.

Activist teachers are working towards a better education system, one that fights against injustices and allows learning to take place by giving students more agency instead of training them to be passive employees and mindless citizens. See, for instance, Denis Rancourt‘s advocacy of radical pedagogy and the way in which his critique of the academic institution had him banned from campus. He writes that “There emerges the notion that risk is a necessary component of activism, without which one can be certain that one is not changing anything.” His is not an isolated effort to challenge institutional power or dismantle authoritarian practices in and out of the classroom. Education cannot be allowed to become the training ground of capitalism. Instead, it should aim to deconstruct systemic discrimination and encourage critical thinking. Transgression, then, may well be a necessary tool for teachers.