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Authority and failure

2 Oct

I have come to realise the crucial role of authority. The point is not to have authority over others so as to dominate them, but rather authority over yourself, your decisions, your production, your thinking. Unless you assume a position of authority over your life, others will do it for you and use your time and effort for their own purposes, at your disadvantage and at the cost of your integrity and, possibly, your dignity. This happened to me and my work recently, and is particularly difficult to handle when the attack comes from people who have institutionalized power over my work and, by extension, over me. This is why, according to Mictlantecuhtli, “You have to have a resistance identity”. Failing an important stage of my academic work was a major blow. I’ve been reflecting on the experience over the last two weeks and, after talking to trustworthy friends and academics, I have come to the following conclusions:

1) The main cause of my failure is institutional. It is due to internal tensions and power games in my department, as well as to defective supervision.

2) The efforts I made with my work in order to patch things up, fulfill partly unspoken expectations, and obey impossible demands only made matters worse. I lost the authority I had over my work and omitted to give strong, clear direction to the project at large.

It is very difficult for me to believe in these conclusions. My immediate context is telling me that I have failed because my work was defective and I therefore deserved to fail. Failure is making me feel like an outsider, thereby further damaging my research identity and creating a pressing need for the development of a “resistance identity” to counter the process. Mictlantecuhtli writes that “Standard academic advice is designed to interdict the creation of such a thing. It says you have to work harder, work “smarter” and so on; it alleges that everything is under your control and anything that goes wrong, went wrong because you did not follow instructions.” The analysis is apt because it points out the covertly abusive nature of much of the advice we get, which only serves to reinforce the ideology of the institution. Basically, the system is right, and if you fail, you aren’t worthy of the system and must make amends (or the system may be wrong but it is what it is, so deal with it – which amounts to the same thing: subservience/compliance).

Authority must become my priority. It is not an authority that I will use to dominate others but an authority I will exercize over myself in order to become more assertive, protect my needs, and develop my project. Instead of trusting other authorities with the direction of my work, I will become self-reliant. I will no longer passively nurture the thoughts that:

– I do not have a strong enough sense of authority in the project AND I do not realize this
– I do not think of myself as the person in charge, but as a worker on the line
– I do not think of myself as the person with expertise, but as the implementer

I will make a conscious effort in order to determine why my work has value. Instead of following doubtful advice and attempting to work through distrust, I will use authority in order to define, shape and, when the time comes, defend my project against external attacks.

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!

Substitute teaching

3 Sep

I am currently switching jobs, leaving a private school to become a substitute teacher at state shools. As a substitute teacher, it has been made very clear that I am expected to follow instructions without challenging them in any way. I’ve also been told that if, years from now, I decide to become a full teacher and prove to be competent enough for a school to hire me and keep me, I will have the right to start voicing my opinion and express disagreement. The way I see this is that by the time you have worked long enough and hard enough, you will be unwilling to lose the respect and influence you’ve gained. You’ve fought too hard to risk losing your job and, though you may voice your critical opinion, you are unlikely to act on it if the results are too confrontational. According to Paulo Freire, “Any situation in which some individuals prevent others from engaging in the process of inquiry is one of violence. The means used are not important; to alienate human beings from their own decision-making is to change them into objects”.

In my teaching job, not only am I alienated from my own inquiry and decision-making, but I must impose the same limitations on students. I have to spend our time following a method that many students consider boring, inefficient, and too easy (which is absolutely true). However, the fact that I must comply with the curriculum has been expressly stated to me by the school, and the rythm required to complete these mindless exercises leaves very little time for other endeavours. When a student told me that he would be willing to work if only the subject matter was more challenging and he knew he could learn something, I told him we had no choice but to work on this book, but I also said that we would do something different during the next lesson. This will be a small act of resistance: each week, I will prepare some extra-curricular activities and make them as participative and stimulating as possible. As things stand, although I secretly respect the ones who resist automatic obedience, the fact that the curriculum bores students forces me to be very authoritarian to maintain order in the classroom. This so-called professional attitude makes no sense to me since I want to be a radical teacher. Only, being a substitute teacher puts me at risk – I can be fired at any time and/or never hired again. I wish students resisted. I wish more established colleagues resisted. The real question is: how can I resist in the present circumstances, and how much do I risk for it?

Anarchism Gathering 4 – Lecturing and participation

21 Aug

Following up on an older post, Xavier Renou did make some mistakes. Earlier in the day, he had led an interactive workshop in which he asked participants to signal their opinion about particular acts of civil disobedience by positioning themselves in a room divided into four intersecting poles: “violent”, or “non-violent”, and “would do” or “would not do”. He then used participants’ interventions in order to articulate the politics adopted by his collective. The approach was constructive in that it helped us understand how the approach of non-violent direct action works in relation to our own personal standpoints and to discern clearly which issues it is aimed to address. However, the workshop was not meant to enable the exploration of alternative strategies together but only to affirm Xavier’s experience with civil disobedience as valid. A woman interrupted his demonstration of the way one can wriggle around policemen to slow down arrest and expressed her concern with the technique presented. She said that while it might be useful in Western countries where police violence is seldom used, it does little to help activists who experience serious confrontation with armed forces. Xavier’s reply was that his approach entails that by the time direct action is taken, mainstream media will be present and popular opinion won, so that police will avoid using violence. While this is a valid response within Xavier’s own framework, it did not encourage discussion and effectively silenced the woman and her friends, who left as soon as he resumed his demonstration.

The discrepancy between Xavier’s intention – to introduce us to civil disobedience as defined by his collective – and participants’ expectations – to create a space in which tactics of violence and non-violence in direct action could be discussed – led to very tangible tensions the same evening when Xavier lectured about his politics of civil disobedience with the help of a powerpoint presentation. By postponing the possibility of discussion to the end of his talk, he tried to make sure not only that he would not be interrupted, but also that his position could be voiced in priority and then by reaffirmed during the question session. This unequality between a speaker placed in a position of power and listeners placed in a position of passivity is not caused by Xavier in particular but by lecturing in general. The lecturer necessarily endorses an authoritative role and knowledge is imposed on the audience rather than constructed by the people present. Perhaps it was a little naive to assume that a bunch of anarchists would be willing to sit and listen (also some of us certainly were). But more importantly, anarchists need to reflect on what knowledge means and in what conditions learning can take place, and then give speakers the means to attain these goals.

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.

Anarchism Gathering 2 – anarcha-feminism

14 Aug

One of the first things I did when I arrived was to attend a meeting on anarcha-feminism. Although the programme called it a round table it was really an assembly. I soon understood that there were many problems with misogynistic behaviour at the camp, which is why a women-only meeting had been called to discuss a chart which we hoped to distribute at the gathering to draw attention to pressing gender-related issues. It was a bit of a shock to realize that there is such a thing as macho anarchists (I will come back to this in a future post), but the assembly I took part in was extremely interesting since it was my first direct experience of anarchist decision making. First, translators volunteered for four languages and a moderator was appointed. Then, the chart prepared by a work group was presented and discussed, using a few hand signals in order to facilitate consensual decision making without any interuption. A microphone was passed to women who wished to contribute to the discussion. We were sitting in a half circle, which made it fairly easy to see what was happening among us and react to it. Once it was clear that we were going to print out the chart as it stood, someone volunteered to translate it into Spanish and money was collected to cover the costs. Then, at the request of a group of women who had encountered problems the previous night – and with the support and concern from other women in the group – the discussion turned to their experience. Finally, another meeting was scheduled for the same day as a follow-up.

The organization of the anarcha-feminist meeting was far from perfect: the topic jumped back and forth at times, everyone couldn’t see everyone else, I volunteered to translate into English but never found out for whom I was supposed to translate, and some hands were raised longer than others before receiving a microphone. The meeting was effective but far from seamless. Still, it showed me exactly how a consensual decision is reached in a large group, how everyone can get heard, and how to make the most of the resources at hand. More importantly, I realized how willing I am to take part when I feel truly included. I had only just arrived and didn’t know anyone, and yet I was able not only to sit and understand but to participate actively in the process. It gave me faith that self-management is very effective when it is properly structured, and that everyone can be involved in decision-making.

Anarchism Gathering 1 – inclusiveness

13 Aug

On Saturday I went to St-Imier in the Swiss Jura to take part in the first international anarchism gathering in almost 30 years, which took place in the region where the very first Internationale was hosted by Bakounine in 1872. I wanted to see the principles of anarchism in practice, test some of my ideas on reality, and observe where the movement is heading. The crowd was varied in terms of age, gender, race, and nationality, the small town was quiet and the weather beautiful. It was fun to see anarchists everywhere on the streets, more numerous than the inhabitants venturing outside. I walked around town, saw an arts exhibition, bought zines at the book fair, read outside by the river, listened to traditional anarchist songs, went to a workshop on civil disobedience, participated in an anarcha-feminist assembly, attended a lecture on non-violent action, and chatted with an Austrian who has recently discovered anarchist politics.

Like other alternative gatherings I have been to (such as BiCon), it was both extremely stimulating and a little overwhelming. You get to see an alternative world in action: free prices, vegan food, cooperation, creativity and plans for a revolution become the norm. For a short time, society follows a different set of principles and organises itself around other values according to self-management. Instead of wondering if I’m competent, I found myself volunteering. Instead of asking someone for permission or confirmation, I realized I could enact what I wish to see. I forgot to wonder whether I fit in and started taking an active part in the event. Personal boundaries and assumptions were thus questioned and sometimes directly challenged. I hope that the experience will inform my daily life in the future so I can keep this alive. If you have been to the gathering, I would love to hear from you!