A couple of people have asked for the actual final copy of this piece – it came out in this great broadsheet published by the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, available in a pdf in an issue called “Bearing.” I’m revising it for the book I’m working on, but of course that takes forever.
University of Hamburg, Wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter
November 22, 2021
My core argument in this piece is: We should be in solidarity against straightness. I want to be on the side of straight people, against straightness as norm, institution, and system. While my own political orientation remains toward queerness of many sorts, I’ve come to think that my hazy earlier plan, to convince all my suffering straight friends that they should become queer, is both impractical and condescending. And I’ve become interested in the straightening of many non-heterosexual spaces, what my comrade Gary Kinsman is theorising as the “neoliberal queer”. In a moment when many young people no longer think of themselves as straight, where there is a certain proliferation of queer orientations, of ace sexualities and nonbinary genders, it is tempting to think that heteronormativity is dying a quiet death offstage. But, alongside these proliferations, straightness as a social relation of oppression and benefit weaves its way through our lives, a coproduction of eugenics, medicalisation, and neoliberal social structures organized around the monogamous, dyadic, reproductive family unit. How can we challenge straightness without recapitulating its core modalities?
I’m interested here and always in how the affect, practice, and fantasy of solidarity can offer something helpful to our work for collective liberation across and with difference. To get there, I’m going to try to lay out some diagnostic criteria for straightness and consider what it would mean to betray straightness. Here I think about betrayal in line with work on white people becoming treasonous to whiteness in the ways that Mab Segrest articulates that possibility, when one wants to abolish a social relation in which one is embedded and from which one benefits. Wherever we are placed in relation to straightness, we experience the torque of ways it distributes benefit and harm as a stabilizing social relation of oppression and benefit. So, wherever we are placed in relation to straightness we have traction for opposing it personally and politically.
(I’ve taken down the rest of this paper, since it’s still very much in process, but if you’re working on this stuff and would like to read it, you’re welcome to email me to get whatever is the current draft.)
Writing advice! I have given so much of it. As part of a general feeling of not knowing what the fuck I’m doing, I’ve been revisiting giving advice at all. In particular, I’ve been wondering if it’s ever good to give writing advice. This is because it is literally my job to teach people to write and to support student writers at all levels,
and so I’m interested in getting better at that. I’m also writing about diagnosis and spiritual crises right now and have found myself reading a lot of self-help books, and some of them are relevant to the whole question of advice and the more specific possibility of identifying writing typologies, ours and others’, with care.
Here’s the idea: We could be more deliberate in identifying what helps us write – and, just as important for those of us who mentor other writers, working with them in terms of what helps them write without believing that what helps us write will help them write. Maybe you’ve already got this figured out, but I’ve been teaching writing for twenty years now, and it feels like this month is the first time I’ve really understood this idea: Maybe the things that help me write won’t help anyone else write!
This shouldn’t really be a shocking thought. I was trained in writing composition in the mode of Peter Elbow’s injunction to support Writing Without Teachers – the idea that people have what they need and we can get out of their way while supporting their writing process, rather than imposing our own process on them. Much of my reading in the study of teaching and learning has been interested in what it means to support people in their own process. Still, for a long time I was a proponent of the view, advanced by Robert Boice, that the best way to write was in short daily units, despite the fact that this is not how I write. This view is helpfully demolished by Helen Sword’s article “Write every day!: a mantra dismantled”. Sword says:
“In this article, I call into question the Boicean premise – often preached, seldom challenged – that daily scheduled writing is the one true path to scholarly salvation. Based on an international study of 1323 academic staff, PhD students and post-doctoral researchers in fifteen countries, I offer evidence that the vast majority of successful academics do not in fact write every day; that the correlation between daily writing and high productivity is a tenuous one at best; and that academics who explicitly reject the ‘write every day’ formula can still be prolific writers. This is not to suggest that daily writing is a bad idea (quite the contrary) or that Boice’s strategies for increasing productivity are ineffectual or unwise (indeed, I practice many of them myself – dare I say ‘religiously’?) However, my research underlines the importance, particularly for academic developers, of treating with caution any prescriptive, one-size-fits-all advice that demands unquestioning obedience from its followers and imposes guilt and blame on those who stray” (Sword 312-313).
For two days last week, I was totally compelled by the book The Four Tendencies, a people-sorting modality by Happiness Project author Gretchen Rubin . This was captivating because it’s a book about akrasia – willing or wanting to do something but then not feeling able to follow through – and I’m really interested in akrasia, in myself and others. This book really helped me identify something about how I am motivated to write, so I’ll start with what was so helpful.
On Rubin’s account, there are four fundamental tendencies that people fall into as regards our motivation to act. She is careful to say that this is a diagnostic tool just for this action-motivation, not for, like, whether you’re a nice person. We could be UPHOLDERS, who are motivated reasonably equally by external and internal expectations – who respond to things others ask of them, or also they can set expectations for themselves and then do the things. As writers, these folks would find out what the comprehensive exam or tenure review process is in their department, decide how to fulfill it, and then do that. We could be QUESTIONERS, who are not at all motivated by external authorities or expectations but who are very motivated by their inner, self-motivated reasons. As writers they might ask many questions about things like why the exams or review process is like that and only do things if they can square them up with their inner motivations. Questioner academics might have a really hard time writing stuff that they know is bullshit, like grant applications, or that they’re doing to fulfill some nebulous professional obligation that they don’t believe in. We could be REBELS, who refuse to act in response to either external or internal motivations and who in fact can be pushed into full on resistance whenever anyone, including themselves, sets an expectation. Rebel academic writers might write prolifically and with ease about something that they find interesting or compelling – but as soon as their supervisor says that they really could turn it into a publishable paper get completely shut down about it. Maybe worse, as soon as they internally think that they should turn it into something in particular they might get blocked and resistant. Finally, we could be OBLIGERS, who are extremely motivated by external expectations but have a terribly difficult time actually doing anything if the only motivation is an inner expectation. Obliger writers would be people who really like writing with others, or who can write with some facility when there’s a deadline or specific task needed but totally fall apart when they – or, I should say “we,” I’m a textbook obliger – are turned out into a field to roam and graze with nothing required of us. Obliger writers might be able to get lots done if other people require it of us but have a terrible time when we’re on summer break or if we have an advisor who doesn’t expect us to submit stuff. If you don’t immediately know which is your writing style, you can take a quiz to find out what you are.
Now, as soon as I read this it helped me understand why I’ve always set up writing groups everywhere I’ve lived, why the main way I write is through submitting an abstract, then having to write the paper, then submitting the paper to a special issue, and like that. As a writer I set up external scaffolding to help me do things and to make me finish things. Sometimes this causes me lots of suffering (for my second book, because I didn’t have to have the whole thing done before having a contract, I complained about Past Alexis and what a pickle she’d put me in signing a contract; now I feel much more forgiving! I would never have written that book without that contract and a deadline). Having external expectations is really the only way I write the things I want to write. When my doctoral supervisor – a very kind and hands-off person – submitted a narrative evaluation of my progress the term after I’d finished my comprehensive exams that said “Alexis has not made any progress on her dissertation this term” I was completely horrified – and suddenly I started writing, a lot.
The other thing this typology right away helped me think about is the way I work with my thesis students. I often try to set clear expectations for them, to hold them accountable, to check in with them. I have a monthly thesis group, where people come together to talk about what they’re doing and to share work or practice for job talks. These are all things that work great – for writers who write the way I do! But reading with this typology I can look at my seven thesis students and pretty quickly identify them in likely clusters, and it’s even easier when I look back at all the grad students I’ve supervised over the last fifteen years: There are Upholders, who set goals internally and in conversation with me, and then plug along and meets them. When we set deadlines, work comes in, but also these students keep working along even if we haven’t been in touch for a few weeks. There are Questioners, who only do thesis work when they’ve figured out what their internal goals dictate – setting deadlines and expectations for them just slides right off them. There’re Rebels, who gets grumpy when given direction, including self-direction. And there are Obligers, who ask me to help build in some external accountability for their work and who turn stuff in if they believe I really require it (though it’s also clear that this only kind of works, since they also know I’m not going to be actually mad at them, nor do they believe that they will hurt me if they don’t turn in work – so they also set up structures with one another for meeting to write or share drafts where they feel they’ll let someone down if they don’t show, or do the work). So being able to think about my mentees in terms of what works for them instead of what works for me can be helpful, maybe even necessary. Applying my own writing medicine – escalating external motivations – to my Rebel students or my Questioner students might actively shut them down instead of facilitating their process! A lot of departmental graduate handbooks are written as though everyone is an Upholder, who just needs to identify their internal motivations, understand the external obligations put on them by the university, and do the work. But if you’re not that kind of writer, you’d need to backwards engineer your own motivation for doing that work – lining up what your own internal motivation is, understanding the choices you have and the consequences for them, or figuring out how to set up a scaffold to help meet your goals.
A lot of self-help books, The Four Tendencies included, have the helpful orientation that we’re not actually trying to change how we are – we’re trying to figure out ways to have less pain in relation to how we are. I think deliberately and carefully choosing how we narrate “what kind of writer” we are is helpful. Along the way we could trust that actually we do know something about ourselves. I have a friend who says that sometimes when she notices herself asking herself, in a mean way, “What’s wrong with you? Why can’t you do this?” she turns it around and asks that as a genuine question – “What’s wrong with you, dear one? Why can’t you do this?” Maybe some of the time what’s wrong is that we’re applying medicine for a different problem than we have; cranking up the expectations when expectations make us flee, lowering expectations when we need expectations to fulfill our own goals. It doesn’t have to be these modalities. I could narrate my tendencies through my Chinese lunar astrological sign – fire tiger – or my hippie North American astrological chart (I’m a Capricorn with a Virgo rising and a Taurus moon, and yes it is amazing that I can even walk with all that earth in my chart, you should see it) or my Enneagram type (I actually don’t know much about this but people tell me I’m a Nine) or my Buddhist five wisdoms orientation (Padma-Vajra, I know, it’s weird), or the Sorting Hat (actually I don’t know what my House would be).
Anyhow, here’s the more general point than this specific self-help modality. What if we who are supporting other writers consensually and collectively thought through the ways we talk about “what kind of writer?” they are, knowing our own tendencies and tuned our writing support accordingly? I think it might be good.
We often hear, or tell our students, not to just let quotes hang out in space. Sometimes we say that they should not end a paragraph with a quote, or that it’s important to explain why the quote is there, in the chapter or paper or whatever. This exercise is to warm up how to do that. So, pick a quote from something you’re working with – it could be an interview transcript or a text or a cultural artifact. Write the following four sentences in order. Don’t go back and fuss with each sentence after you’ve written it, just move forward.
1. The most obvious thing about this quote is (something that you think is really obvious)…
2. One could argue that (a contradiction or something that is not obvious about the quote)…
3. But what is really important to note/hear/understand in this quote …
4. And so/Thus/, “(Try to re-state a particularly poignant or important phrase from the quotation)”.
I think this is a useful exercise because it gives us some scaffolding for just getting an explanation out there about quotes we use – a subset of this exercise would be to look at several examples in your specific ongoing academic conversation and try to abstract out the general “moves” or implicit rules for unpacking quotes. When we feel like quotes are self-explanatory or just really brilliant, practicing laying out why they’re brilliant or what they’re saying is useful, because often we’re not conscious of just how much we’re bringing to the quote as writers. Bringing ourself to the quotes, and offering them to our readers, is really one of the things we’re trying to do as writers.
Against the Grain consistently offers incredible programming about social movements, history, books, ideas, and contemporary issues. They’ve been doing episodes on the politics of pandemics, including a number where they talked with experts who study pandemics and, latterly, people who more do analysis (like me). I was really happy to speak with Sasha Lilley last week about what I’ve learned from talking with long-term AIDS activists over the last six years. The episode is up in audio format, and because there’s a professor interested in including it in a class, my incredibly generous parents, who also happen to be speedy typists, transcribed the interview. I’ll paste that below. The episode aired May 4th, 2020.
Today on Against the Grain: The Coronavirus has laid bare the divisions and inequalities of our society. It has also exposed the stark differences and possible approaches to the pandemic. Radical scholar, Alexis Shotwell, argues that we need to frame our fight as one for collective care, rather than for containment and control.
SL: From the studios of KPFA in Berkeley, California, this is Against the Grain on Pacific Radio. I’m Sasha Lilley.
In the throes of the pandemic, it’s hard to see our way to the end of it, much less beyond, but my guest today argues that we need to be struggling for a better world in the future, as well as in the present. She points to how activists during the HIV/AIDS epidemic fought on behalf of the larger collective good, and that we should re-learn those lessons of solidarity. Alexis Shotwell is Professor in Carleton University’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology. She is also co-director of the AIDS Activist History Project.
It’s easy, Alexis, to think of the coronavirus simply as an infectious agent, to think of it simply in biological terms. But when we speak of what Covid-19 has wrought, we’re often actually talking about the political and social notions that have been created by human beings. What have you observed about how we are relating to the idea of the coronavirus?
AS: It’s a good question. So, one of the key things that I’ve learned about studying viruses, studying illness, thinking about how things manifest and what shape they take, comes out a lot in talking to people who do science and technology studies, that comes out in thinking about the social and political history of illnesses, and that’s to say that there isn’t a way to tell what an illness is or what a virus is without also telling a story about the social world that it comes out of and manifests. So this true when we look at historical examples, so thinking about even what it means to define a virus, to be able to put a boundary around it and know what it is, has always been a real question. One of the earliest kind of science and technology studies, books, was called “The Making of a Scientific Fact.” It looked at the ways that syphilis was something that was very hard to define, because it had lots of different manifestations, because of who it affected and how. So on the one hand, we want to be able to say: We know that this is a virus. We know that we can describe it. We can map it. But when we’re talking about it as a pandemic, maybe that’s an interesting way to make a distinction here—the difference between a virus and a pandemic, is largely about the social relations that come into being around what a virus is in practice.
SL: And you’ve written about how the notion of containment shapes our notion of the virus, but also shapes our notion of ourselves, of what policies should be taken, and of course we’ve seen this play out in pretty stark terms, in terms earlier on, with the notion that the coronavirus could be contained within the borders of nation-states.
AS: If we start thinking about viruses as relationships, then we can start seeing what kind of relationships are being practiced. And right away, when global responses to the coronavirus started, there was a tendency or pattern to say: We’re going to contain this virus in other places, in other countries. We’ll close our borders, and we’ll be safe if we do that. This is a reasonable, or we understand why that is a move. There’s this desire to be safe inside. Safe inside anywhere, really. Safe inside a country. Safe inside a neighborhood. Safe inside a house.
But the logic of containment has two problems. The first problem is that it doesn’t work forever and it maybe never really works, scientifically or in terms of transmission. So the practice of containment is never actually possible. It can have some good effects in terms of slowing down transmission of viruses, but pretty quickly, and certainly as soon as something becomes pandemic, it’s necessary to take on other approaches that mostly we talk about has harm reduction approaches, or approaches that look at what it means to say, given that this is here with us, how are we going to live with it, how are we going to try to protect as many people as possible from suffering and death. So the logic of containment, it never actually is possible to contain a virus through borders of countries.
The other problem with the logic of containment is it very quickly folds into policing practices, basically. So the idea that borders can be solid, that you can keep bad people out, and then good people won’t get hurt. And that logic of containment or policing the virus ends up moving through ongoing ways that people are practicing being in relation with this virus. So we see a turn using that same kind of approach toward asking people to police their neighbors, to call the cops on them if they are having parties, to put people in prison if they are endangering others.
So both of the ways that we think about the logic of containment as a sort of border guard or as a cop end up hurting the people who are already targeted by borders and policing. So both of those approaches, we can do much better than them, in terms of having different relationships with this coronavirus and with illness and viruses in general.
SL: So in terms of how we think of the actions we know we need to take, in terms of protecting each other, the kind of social distancing that is necessary, it is a complicated situation, of course. On the one hand, you’ve got people on the far right are saying no social distancing is necessary. Yet for us, the act of social distancing, which I think you could say is really an act of solidarity–I mean, it’s self-protection, but it is much more—also has other affects which are real and hard, and even have very direct health consequences, which is the kind of isolation that we need to take can be very harming to many people, or maybe to all of us. And how do you think about this question of social distancing as a collective action, because usually when we are acting on the Left collectively, it really means coming together physically, and we are, of course, doing the opposite.
AS: So the first, and I think the most important thing, is to really look at any of the times when we can be practicing social distancing as forms of community care. And absolutely, I think in North America that was really inspiring. Right? So right away, millions of people were substantially changing their lives, even before there were government orders to do this, in order to protect thousands of people. So a really profound and profoundly beautiful act of community care. That possibility is so clearly supported or disrupted by the kinds of social structures that are put in place as this pandemic goes on. So at this point, I think, and I’m speaking from Canada where things are not easy, but because of the money that the government is dispersing to people, they are substantially easier than things are there. And it also is substantially different that people have basic health care that is not tied to their workplace. So especially as this time continues, the question of what community care looks like past people able to do physical distancing, do so, is really something we need to think about and practice. A comrade in my political collective, Amanda Wilson, wrote one of the earliest pieces that I’ve seen about taking a harm reduction approach to physical distancing. There’s a number of ways we can hold this in mind if we say, we’re going to take an approach to this virus that is based on practice of community care, rather than a practice of containment and individualist, self-responsiblization to protect our own selves and our own family.
There’s a couple key things that I’ve seen coming out that feel really important and generative for us on the Left right now. The first I think is looking at the ways people like Sophie Lewis in her work on the abolition of the family. Michell O’Brian, as well, thinking about the abolition of the family form. And also Kim Tallbear who has been looking at the ways that structures of dyadic monogamy set up a perpetuation of settler-colonialism that is organized around the idea that you have a family unit who is protected in a single-family dwelling, and they’re going to be the unit at which all care will happen. In so many ways, we can recognize that this is a harmful lie. The idea that everyone will just suddenly be able to do everything for their kids, and people who are vulnerable or that people who live alone are going to be able to just manage—right away then it’s really clear that this is an impossible situation to maintain for very long. We need to have social worlds in which we take care of each other. We need that for people who are in situations of domestic violence that they cannot currently escape. We need that for kids to have social worlds that aren’t just adults who happen to be with them right now. We need that for elder people. These approaches to thinking about a world in which there’s the possibility of social and collective care for each other, it matters more than ever that we continue to claim those spaces and advocate for them, and imagine them. It’s really vital, especially as we look at how some, and it’s really been interesting to see how sort of disaggregated the Right is about the approach to coronavirus, but very strong tendencies, as the person’s sign said that was circulating on the news: Sacrifice the Weak. So the kind of eugenicist mode of let’s open up the country, let’s let the weak die.
The way we’re going to fight that is having a version of this world where it’s visible and palpable that we all want to take care of each other. And just because people don’t have jobs, they are not going to lose, they shouldn’t lose health care.
There’s a number of approaches of practicing being with each other against the kind of death regime that we’re always fighting. We’ve been fighting it before this virus came out. And that fight is just intensifying and getting more difficult, as we move further into this. But it’s not going to work for us to just say, we want everyone who can to stay home. We have actually need to start building networks of solidarity that support people that have to be working right, that support the people that are front-line care-givers. We just beginning to imagine that stuff now.
SL: I’m speaking with Alexis Shotwell. She’s Professor in Sociology at Carleton University, and her writings on the politics of the coronavirus can be found on our website againstthegrain.org. I’m Sasha Lilley.
Well, Alexis, you have been deeply involved in documenting the struggles of Canadian activists in the 1980s and 90s against the criminalization and stigmatization of people living with HIV/AIDS and it’s telling how little the experiences and lessons of AIDS and the struggle around HIV/AIDS has been referenced by the mainstream media during these months of the coronavirus. I wanted to ask you what differences and similarities strike you in thinking of the two?
AS: I think about the question everyday of how this virus is different from HIV and how the response to the coronavirus pandemic is different than the response to the AIDS epidemic. One thing that is really remarkable is that it’s really similar between these, is the idea that somehow, rich people or mainstream, so that some people would be unaffected and therefore not need to take any kind of action. During the early years of HIV, the pool of people who were disregarded, who were related to as not being worth fighting for or defending were gay men, mostly. Although there was also the equally horrifying tendency to say also people who are injection drug users and people who were, there was this period of time in the early days of the epidemic, they were called The Four H’s—homosexuals, Haitians, heroin-users, HIV-positive injection drug users, and then hemophiliacs were the sort of innocents who were ones who didn’t deserve to have HIV, as the narrative went at that time.
There was a health official in Ottawa, Ontario, who said, actually on-record said, I don’t see what the problem here is. There’s HIV and there’s gay men, and the problems are going to solve each other.
AS: So this overtly death-cult quality of neglect. One of the things I think we can say happened also with Covid-19 is that some of the early narratives said, “This is a very serious virus, but don’t worry, it only affects the old and people who already have pre-existing health conditions.” So there was a nearly identical, but of course with very different content, move to say, “We do not need to commit social resources to this because the people affected by it are disposable.” And so that similarity, for me, has been, has cued me to think that one of the things we can do on the left is to say, “Let’s look at who is considered disposable and let’s orient our political response around deciding that they are not disposable.” So let’s start with the people who are in jail right now, let’s start with the people who don’t have houses to self-isolate in, let’s start with the people who don’t have money to live.
So if we begin with the people that are considered disposable, my research with the history of AIDS activism teaches me that that is a good footing for us to fight the intensification of immiseration that pandemics open for people who want to take advantage of them. The next thing comes back to something I was saying earlier about harm reduction. So during these years, as it became evident through peoples’ attention to their social world what practices were transmitting HIV there was a space where it became clear that it’s like, “Look, everyone could be HIV positive, and here are the practices that will quite potentially transmit this virus.”
And at that point some people did just stop doing all these practices, but there were quite a lot of people who took this different orientation and practiced a form of community care. So they said, “We are not going to give up the collective practices of having sex, of using drugs, of living with cats [laughs], we’re just going to assume that everyone we’re interacting with, everyone we’re have sex with, everyone we live with, everyone we use drugs with, they’re all positive. And so we’re going to have harm reduction practices that mean that that’s a safe enough thing to do.” So that meant needle exchanges, that meant getting latex into prisons, recognizing that people would still have sex, that meant eroticizing latex. So it was a massive community transformation that meant that you could have a whole lot of practices that were safe enough, and that that meant you had a lot of people who could continue the kind of collective life world that was so massively disrupted by HIV and AIDS.
Now, it is a totally different situation for us here. It doesn’t make sense for us to say, “We want to barbecue,” or like, “I want a haircut,” because this is a different virus. So we can collectively be asking, “What are the practices of harm reduction and care we can take that will not destroy everything that makes our life good, and lively?” And so that’s probably going to mean having really good antibody testing that we actually can trust, increasingly, and who knows in a month what the science will look like, but it does seem increasingly that if everyone is wearing cloth masks, transmission goes down measurable amounts that actually can make this a community-level survivable situation.
SL: One of the things of course that makes Covid different than HIV/AIDS is that although initially, as you say, there was in both cases you heard the voicing of sentiment that it was OK if some people died. But with the Corona virus we are now in a situation where most of the economy is shut down, so quite a different reaction than with HIV/AIDS. Not that that would have benefitted people during that pandemic, but there was no equivalent action taken. And certainly the massive harnessing of scientific research and medicine toward finding a cure that’s going on now, or finding a vaccine or anti-virals, again, nothing equivalent during the HIV/AIDS epidemic, but you do, as you mentioned, have some populations who are really being left to be sacrificed.
And I’m particularly thinking here of prisoners, because there’s no way to social distance in prison, in the way that needs to happen, and the virus is spreading really rapidly. How do you see the plight of people in those kinds of circumstances, how people on the left should be addressing this, because obviously there has been work for many, many years around ending mass incarceration. But the fact is that that’s where we are right now and it’s quite difficult for us to protest and exert our collective power when we are all trying to socially distance.
AS: So thinking about the way that this moment can open space for us to transform social relations, which is one of things that I think is hopeful and that I want us to hold in view. Witnessing the ways that it has become more legible to people that right now prison is a death sentence really has been opening, I think, some spaces for people to say, Oh, mass incarceration doesn’t make any sense! So anyone who’s done work on this has been, Yeah, we need to de-carcerate massively. I feel like I’ve seen more people start to understand the absolute injustice and ridiculousness of people being stuck in prisons under conditions of this coronavirus, and seeing that actually open a window for them to contemplate that it was never okay that this many people were in these conditions in prisons. I’ve been heartened by that at the same time that it’s not, we’re not winning. The place that the prisons where the coronavirus is spreading so quickly and so terrifyingly, that didn’t have to happen. So looking at people like David Gilbert who was someone who did a lot of organizing around HIV and AIDS during the 90s and has now been working on how to protect people who are inside from the spread of Covid-19.
SL: And he’s a prisoner himself.
AS: He’s a prisoner himself, yes, sorry, I should have said that. He was involved in creating this very important project called PEPA, the prisoner’s education project on AIDS, which saved many lives inside. The difficult thing now is that this virus moves so much faster than any current institution is moving. Now, there have been some important wins on people getting out. But in the context of not a lot of social support, as they are moving to the outside and moving into where do you go? Where do you live? As you are transitioning out of jail or prison. So looking at what it means for us who are tracking who’s being made sacrificable, and how we can move on that when we can’t physically get together to protest? I feel like it’s one of these places where we can look at how we’re connected to the things that we care about, and that we can start leveraging and getting traction on some those things. So people who have lovers, friends, kids, parents in prison are really starting to amplify, I do not want this prison sentence to be a death sentence for them.
So some of the work that we can be doing is just starting to amplify where we are, but a lot of what we can be doing now is asking, What structures we can put in place that will build toward, as we move out of the current period into producing more collective care, less policing, more social support for one another. One of the things I heard a lot in doing this history of AIDS activism was this really important, amazing, brilliant man, George Smith, who was involved with a project called AIDS Action Now, his sort of tagline, which a lot of people took up, he said we need demonstrations and documents. So the demonstrations are how we manifest power, collective power. But we also want to move into any government office that’s making a decision about our lives and lay down for them the policy that we think they should put in place. So he was like, you can’t accomplish anything with just documents, but you can accomplish more with demonstrations if you also have the documents.
So I think that all of us are stressed out right now, so maybe it’s not the best time for us to be drafting policy and laying down plans for how things should go. But it is also not the worst time. It also is a time when we can set up some of the plans for the world that we want, so we’re ready. Because I think we know that people who make money off of other people’s misery, they are setting up plans for how to come out of the pandemic and make a profit. And I’d like us to come out of this as much as we can with plans for leaving the pandemic and changing the world, and making it a world where more of us can live and flourish. So we can’t do demonstrations, but I think we could work on some of the documents.
SL: This is Against the Grain on Pacifica Radio. I’m Sasha Lilley. I’m speaking with Alexis Shotwell. She’s co-director of the AIDS Activist History Project, which documents the struggles of Canadian activists in the 1980s and 90s against the stigmatization and criminalization of people living with HIV/AIDS. She’s the author of Knowing Otherwise and Against Purity: Living Ethically in Compromised Times. I’m Sasha Lilley. This is Against the Grain on Pacifica Radio.
The point that you were making about drafting visions for the future, it seems that if there is one clear lesson that can be drawn looking at the history of the Right over decades, it’s that they organized with the long view in mind. And it seems to me that there is the danger in the middle of this pandemic as we are documenting the horrors, as we are considering all the different dimensions of the pandemic, who it’s most affecting, the forms it’s taking, that we lose sight of what we should be demanding now. And also coming out of this pandemic, I think it’s instructive to know that following the 1918/1919 Spanish influenza which killed so many people, that in the 1920s many of the countries that we afflicted with the Spanish influenza ended up adopting universal healthcare. But none of that would have happened automatically. That obviously came out of the organization and activism of people. I think it’s easy to get caught up in pessimism in moment of crisis, I mean why not, on some level, things are dire. But that that can cloud the capacity to think about demands, start formulating them and figuring out how to make them. And I know that you’ve written about how we in some ways balance these personal struggles with our greater politics. Do you have any thoughts on how in the middle of crisis, in the depth of crisis, do we think about the long-term, and even think about things that are positive?
AS: I think this is so important because the pressure I think a lot of us feel is to protect ourselves or to become smaller and try to shield the people nearest us, the theoretical or technical word for a lot of what’s being suggested to us is, “healthism.” So this is, “healthism” is the term for when there’s a big social collective problem that individuals are made personally responsible for, where, like it’s morally your problem if you have diabetes and therefore you’re more vulnerable. There’s many interesting things that we could say about who is being named as vulnerable to Corona virus and therefore responsible in some ways for taxing our health system, or going to hospital, or all these things.
So, I think one thing that I’m finding useful is just to recognize that that mood that we might feel is a real feeling, and it’s coming from a neo-liberal approach that says, “Individuals are responsible for what are actually social problems.” So as soon as we feel that, like, “I’ve gotta have enough for my household,” we can actually name that as like, “Oh, this is a demobilizing, individualizing feeling that I’m having.” It’s a real feeling, but it’s just the beginning, because what we can turn to out of that feeling, instead of increased paranoia, self-protection, a feeling that we’re all alone against the world, we can say, “This is a terrible feeling. I want to be with other people in creating a different world, where no one feels this way.”
So there’s this, I think, it’s like a fractal situation, where every time we experience our own precariousness, vulnerability, fear, we can turn out of that toward asking what that says about the kind of collective world we would want to build. And I think I’m not alone in feeling so inspired by the incredible arising of a whole lot of mutual aid networks, both taking the form of Facebook care-mongering groups, endless Google Doc spreadsheets of places that people can get help, but also just like, people reaching out to each other. So again, that understanding that we’ve seen manifest over and over again and that I think Rebecca Solnit has been theorizing over a long time now. In another part of my academic work I go back to Peter Kropotkin’s work on mutual aid and the impulse help, the impulse to care, as a basic impulse.
And we can say look, in all of these places right now people are already dreaming of a world that is not this, and it’s not just a world that is not this in the sense of, “I don’t want to get this virus and die. I don’t want people near me to be sick and suffering.” It’s actually like, not this, but, “I don’t want to be in a society where we don’t have the resources to take care of people who need help.” So there is this fact, I think, of massive social devastation of the kind that we’re experiencing right now, that this is a traumatic experience, it’s an experience that is unbearably hard, that that hardness, that difficulty, is so massively and so obviously distributed along already-existing vectors of wealth and whiteness. But it shows us that there’s a lot of people who don’t want this world. And so the more of us that tune into and start thinking about what that means, right, like what the world is that we do want, there’s actually a lot of space here for something else to arise. I feel like the thing that I have learned most from studying AIDS activism, and I said this at the beginning, but maybe it’s worth repeating, is that it really does feel to me that centering the people who are most targeted or who are most rendered disposable in that future dreaming, allows us to be most adequate and most expansive toward what the kinds of social transformations we want would be. But it’s not something we have to imagine, in the sense that, it’s not like, let’s wait a year or three and then we’ll imagine what kind of social world we want. It’s actually like saying “no” to this one gives us already so much footing for what could be otherwise. And that feels very hopeful to me.
SL: And yet it also raises the question of when we come out the other side of this, whatever that looks like, whenever that is, whether those memories, those networks that have been built up between people to look after each other collectively, will endure when things go back to whatever we call normal. Obviously, that begs the question, What’s normal? But is there not the danger that anything that goes back to a time that feels like it’s before the virus is going to feel sufficiently better, that people won’t necessarily struggle for more?
AS: Yeah, I think that’s a real danger, and I think that’s one of the reasons that I’m so interested in us really paying attention to the difference between logics of containment which produce call for more policing, and logics of care which produce a call for more care, more connection. So I think as we’re, and again, as you’ve pointed out, it’s not clear what it means to say that we reject or accept something. But we can look at what the practices are that we’re participating in or supporting. So if we’re saying we want more policing, we can know that that will predict we’re setting in place more patterns or policing, more infrastructure for policing. If we say, here are some of the ways that we’re planning to build lateral relations of support, or we’re directing our energy during this time toward keeping alive the people who are most targeted for dismissal or being considered disposable, there’s some sense that those practices build the possibility for the pattern, a kind of different path.
We can’t predict what will happen as things get back for normal, but we can do a lot of things that set us up for various directions. So for example, if we are going to move toward systems like contact tracing for increased movement, the people who are setting up those systems can ask, How are we going to set up contact tracing in such a way that we’re not intensifying social control over people’s movements? We can be alert to the ways that various shifts that feel unusual, or this is just going to happen for right now, can end up producing more constraint or control. So it’s totally coherent to be very, very concerned about Covid-19 and very, very concerned about state repression and control of liberties, and very concerned about everyone, how they are doing. Are they just hanging on because this is so hard? We don’t have to cede the ground of feeling very concerned about government over-reach to the Right. We can continue to hold that in an ongoing way and in the moment.
In other words, I guess what I really feel is that in a long crisis, and I think this is a long crisis, and this is something else we can learn from HIV/AIDS activism. So hopefully, we’re not going to be waiting and struggling and watching our friends die as long as people who were AIDS activists were. They held the line for years. And what they held the line on was, refusing the logic that they were going to render anyone else disposable, and continuing always to advocate for more people living and better lives for them. Maybe I could tell you just one story about that?
SL: Yeah, please do.
AS: So, in Ontario, there was this group, AIDS ACTION NOW!, and they were fighting to get access to drug funding, because many of the drugs that were available and showed promise for treating HIV and AIDS were, they were off-label. They weren’t covered by the drug plans. And there was a system in place. There was a rarely used thing that would allow this to happen, and the government just wasn’t allowing them to use it. So there were various kinds of activist work that obviously we can’t do right now. They did things like disrupt the Legislature. They burned an effigy of the Health Minister. They did a whole lot of different things. And one of the stories that we heard about this time was the Premier came to the lead organizer (there were two of them chairing it at that time), and he said, Okay, we’re going to do it. We’re going to give you funding for AIDS drugs, and you win. And they said, Are you going to give this funding for everyone. not just for AIDS drugs? Is it going to be for people who don’t have money to buy drugs that they need for illnesses that are not HIV or AIDS related? And the government said, Well no, we are just offering this for you. And one of the people who was negotiating this was himself dying and didn’t have access to the drug that he needed because it was like a $10,000 a month drug. And they said, No. We’re not going to accept this just for the people who are HIV-positive. This needs to be accessible for anyone who can’t afford the drugs that they need to live. So they refused to back down, although it was very hard, because there were people in the group that needed this desperately and right then. And they won. And there’s still a program in Ontario, the province where I live, called Trillium, that gives funding for anyone who doesn’t have money for off-label drugs or drugs that are being used in an experimental way that show use for their illness. No one really remembers that that was AIDS activists that won that. What I find so moving about that is that it’s often people who are directly at the friction points who are targeted for death or who are just on the edges who know best what social transformations that can happen that will change how the whole world is happening. They are often not remembered when they take that kind of stand. I feel like if all of us take the orientation toward coming out of the coronavirus pandemic that we’re always going to hold in view the most vulnerable, we might end up, as I am in this province, 30 years later continuing to benefit from that activity, although hardly anyone knows where it came from.
So that’s what we want to set up. If at every point where we’re struggling, we’re orienting in that way. We’re not just going to take it for our own group, even though we matter. But we’re always going to be thinking together. That’s how we build this kind of thing that holds more and more people’s lives as though they are worth living. I think there are lots of stories like that, and lots of points of connection, that people have—decisions that are being made to go toward a more conservative, self-protectionist, individualist way, or toward a more collective, opening, keep more people alive and see what they might do, kind of way. If we hold that, it’s better anyway. I don’t know if it will totally win, but we have a better chance.
SL: Alexis Shotwell, let me end by asking you about broadening struggles as you just described HIV/AIDS activists did, to be more inclusive, more collective. You have a recent essay that’s titled, “Survival Will Always be Insufficient, but It’s a Good Place to Start.” In that essay, you reference the slogan, from 1912, the Labor slogan that we want not only bread, but we want roses. Can you tell us what that meant then, and what that means now in the midst of the coronavirus?
AS: We’ve heard echoes and versions of that slogan, We want bread, but we want roses too. It comes from 1912 in Laurence, Massachusetts. The cotton mill workers went on strike. There were a lot of mill strikes that were happening at that time. The Bread and Roses Strike that came about in response to employers trying to cut pay, was one of the places where people said we are not just looking for the basics, we’re not just looking for mere sustenance, mere subsistence. We actually want more and we deserve more. When I think about, and there’s so much to say about that strike that I’m not going to get into. But the thing that resonates down or that we can hold onto now, is that the tendency in times of crisis and deprivation is sometimes to settle for just surviving. We can also look back at labor struggles from that time and in ongoing ways. In that article, I also talk about the Black Panther Party’s survival pending revolution and the community programs they set up, to say when we start thinking about survival, we can always be also imagining or claiming so much more than survival. So the question, of Yes, we need to survive, and we need to direct support for the survival of the people who are targeted, people in jail, people who are living in poverty, people who don’t have houses to go to, people who have lost their job and health care, people who are declared killable, we should support and help them to survive. Thinking about roses means, we don’t just want to survive, we want to thrive, we want more, we deserve more. There’s this kind of rejection of a bare minimum as what we’re aiming for and what we’ll accept. It’s hopeful or it’s helpful for us to remember how long that struggle for roses too has been. How many years people have been working for more than just merely surviving?
SL: Alexis, thank you so much.
AS: Such a pleasure. Thank you so much for talking with me, Sasha.
SL: Alexis Shotwell is professor in Sociology and Anthropology at Carleton University. She’s co-director of the AIDS Activist History Project, and author of Against Purity: Living Ethically in Compromised Times and Knowing Otherwise. You can find links to some of her writings on our website Againstthegrain.org. And you’ve been listening to Against the Grain. I’m Sasha Lilley. Thanks so much for listening and please tune in again next time.
I think Peter Elbow’s great book Writing Without Teachers was the first place I encountered a rationale for freewriting. Freewriting’s a really useful technology for academic writers in particular.
The how of freewriting is very simple: You set a timer, usually for quite a short time (5-7 minutes) and write without stopping, editing, reading what you’ve written, or making any corrections. It’s useful to cover the screen of your computer so that you actually cannot see what you’re writing, or to experiment with writing long-hand, or writing long-hand with your non-dominant hand.
- The simplest form of freewriting is just to write whatever comes up for the set time, reading it afterwards gently and without judgement, and turning the page or deleting the file.
- The slightly more elaborated form is to take a word or phrase and repeat it over and over if nothing is coming to mind until you jump out of the groove you’re in: “I’m thinking about I’m thinking about I’m thinking about…”
- The more elaborated than that form is to take a key word or concept you’re working with our struggling on, and repeat it until something bumps up: “Bad kin is bad kin is bad kin is…”. With this form, you can go back, gently reading, and underline phrases that emerged that were interesting or generative and use them as key words or phrases that you repeat over and over for another freewrite.
When I’m guiding freewriting sessions in classes, I always start with the totally open, simplest version and then go into a more directed version. This seems important to the process. It’s also workable to do just the simplest version for five minutes and then go into regular writing.
The why of freewriting is more complex. I’ve seen a bunch of good effects of it, some of which make sense and others of which are kind of mysterious but real:
- It helps us disaggregate our creative self from our editorial self – both are really important, but because of the layers of pressure we academics have put on writing and ourselves as writers, we often try to edit at the same time as we’re writing. This shuts us down, and freewriting gives our creative self practice at saying to our editor self, “I really love you and think you’re important, but I need you to step back a bit so that I can generate some material for you to hone and refine. Could you stand over there for a while, and I promise I’ll bring you back in soon?”; it gives our editor self practice stepping back, based on affirmation that it is important and loved and that its care-giving in the form of critique and refinement is appreciated and trust that it will be invited back in when appropriate. Freewriting is like fighting with bamboo swords; you practice the moves and relationships in a safe-enough space.
- Freewriting is automatically successful. Did you write some gibberish for five minutes? You win! It’s a good productive procrastination strategy because it is a very low bar for doing some writing. You can almost always say, “I obviously can’t write my dissertation but I can ramble without editing for five minutes about my tea and my cat.”
- For some reason, even freewriting gibberish makes writing feel easier. This doesn’t really make sense but it’s true.
- Freewriting gives a palpable sense of the abundance of our writing. Usually we can write 200-500 words in seven minutes. They’re not, like, good sentences or very interesting, but there are a lot of them.
- Freewriting tunes us into a kind of vitality and directness that sometimes surprises us and allows us to see something about what we’re thinking that we didn’t know was there.
- Directed freewriting puts something on the page, so that you’re not writing into a blank sheet. This is very soothing, even if you just delete it later.
- It’s nice to have a form of writing that you don’t share with people – having this clarifies the difference between writing for ourselves and writing for others.
Anyhow, good old freewriting. I recommend it.
I read a piece somewhere. I can’t find it now but I think about it often enough that maybe some of what I think about it wasn’t actually there. Anyhow, I remember that it made an argument for Peter Schjeldahl as a significant critic in part because of a pedagogical mode in his critical writing. The piece argued that he enacted for the reader the possibility of careful attention through the way he wrote about experiencing an artwork with careful attention. This was quite lovely. Reading Schjeldahl’s reports from the art world, I think of that piece often, because it in its turn enacted a kind of loving and careful attention to Schjeldahl’s criticism. Such an approach models and offers a spiraling loop of appreciation and a deepening capacity to attend that seems to me to be at the hopeful heart of aesthetics. [ETA: Thanks to the glorious and generous C. Thi Nguyen, who knew about the original post, which is even better than I remembered (please go read it now!).] In my first book I was obsessed with the question, coming from marxist aesthetics, of how we combat alienation and deepen our love for the world, or our living entanglement with it – and this question turns out (in that tradition, anyhow) to have a lot to do with the capacity for play, for putting our solid sense of self up for grabs, for being or becoming available for transformation.
This week, as the novel coronavirus transforms the world, it feels ridiculous to think about how we appreciate the world. And yet, many people I know are thrown right now into the question of what use our work is, whether it’s a good time to write academic work at all. Some of us are answering those questions by deciding that we should write about the coronavirus, plunging ill-advisedly into writing hot takes about the pandemic. Another option is to write about things we love, or about things that are close to us. This is a long-standing feminist tradition, taking seriously the possibility that hobbies, domestic arrangements, various kinds of fandoms, and other perhaps small or particular things are worthy of serious attention. Some of my favorite philosophy comes out of such an approach, from Ladelle McWhorter’s incredible writing about subjectivity through understanding gardening and line-dancing as worthy of attention to Donna Haraway’s care for being with dog agility practice. And yet I’ve been practicing resistance, even before COVID-19, to writing about things I love.
Schjeldahl had a piece in a December 2019 issue of the New Yorker in which he reflects on his impending death, parts of his life, and his work as a critic. There are a number of lovely, heartbreaking, and incisive bits, often all of these at once, in it. I very much liked these paragraphs about how he selected art to write about:
I retain, but suspend, my personal taste to deal with the panoply of the art I see. I have a trick for doing justice to an uncongenial work: “What would I like about this if I liked it?” I may come around; I may not. Failing that, I wonder, What must the people who like this be like? Anthropology.
I assess art by quality and significance. The latter is most decisive for my choice of subjects, because I’m a journalist. There’s art I adore that I won’t write about, because I can’t imagine it mattering enough to general readers. It pertains to my private experience as a person, without which my activity as a critic would wither but which falls outside my critical mandate.
I’m fascinated by the idea of that which pertains to my private experience as a person but without which my activity as a critic would wither. It feels critically (ha) important that we critical theorists would have to maintain some conscious control over what we write about in order to maintain some reservoir that is not made available to others. Until reading this, I hadn’t had a way to think about the importance of having things in our lives, maybe lots of things, that we do not write about in our critical work, that doesn’t meet our critical mandate (however we have constituted it). Not everything should be written about because it is important to have a significant chunk of things that are personal experience – necessary to the liveliness of the critical work, but necessarily not included in it.
Schjeldahl is also generous here in offering a model of the critical endeavor as partially imagining that something could be otherwise, including our own response to a thing. I’m imagining now what would happen to my readerly attention if when I encounter theory I hate or disagree with I made a habit of asking “What would I like about this if I liked it?” Or what if I started asking about things I adore, what would I hate about this if I hated it? I know that this is pretty basic, but I’m finding these useful in the overall project of offering attention to that which is uncongenial, the world that should not now exist, which is so much of the world right now. Aside from the prospect of holding some things as personal, as not available for translation into academic or scholarly currency, the question of significance helps me think about clarifying the stakes of what we work on and why. Not everything should be written about, because the resources of attention are political. I think we could benefit from better being able to assess something both for quality and for significance, and from having having an account of what makes something significant.
Fred Moten thinks about conceptual and theoretical terms or moves as toys rather than tools, as ways we can put ourselves into play. He says,
“In the end what’s most important is that the thing is put in play. What’s most important about play is the interaction… If you pick them up you can move into some new thinking and into a new set of relations, a new way of being together, thinking together. In the end, it’s the new way of being together and thinking together that’s important, and not the tool, not the prop. Or, the prop is important only insofar as it allows you to enter; but once you’re there, it’s the relation and the activity that’s really what you want to emphasize.”
So the idea of the personal, of making space for not writing about what we love, also comes back to play, to de-alienating our work, or refusing to alienate our love through writing about everything we love in an academic register or in a way we can count as part of research productivity. Not everything significant to us needs to be shared, especially not in academic writing. For those of us working as academics right now, we could productively resist speed-up as a response to the pandemic, not write for publication, but think and notice a lot, just like Schjeldahl.
In my thesis writing class this term we discussed Joe Kadi’s brilliant piece “Stupidity ‘Deconstructed’,” which looks at the experience of working-class people in the university. I teach this piece alongside Eli Clare’s book Exile and Pride pretty much as often as I can, because I find them both incredibly nuanced, beautifully done, and useful for students in thinking about why they do what they do, as students. It’s useful to have such outstanding examples of what theory can do, if we think about theory as a technology for explaining something that matters to a life. Every class we had an “activity” part of the course, where we do some kind of exercise or skill-building thing, and this class about the uses of theory focused on articulating why we write. We talked about the difference between external and internal motivations for writing, which I find that sometimes we don’t think about enough in academia.
Questions of how to assess whether our academic writing is worth doing and why we do it are heightened during the coronavirus pandemic. I know a lot of people who are saying that their work feels meaningless, empty, parasitic, useless, or laughable in the face of the tragedies and hardships rolling down. As with many other things, before thinking about why we write I think it’s good to first think about whether we’re in a place to even think about thinking about academic work. While it isn’t news that a lot of academic work is irrelevant to transforming the injustice and suffering of this world, we might not be in a space to confront additional layers of existential doom right now. But it has been helping me as I consider whether the work of my life so far has been worth the life I’ve spent on it to think about external and internal motivations for the writing part of that work.
External writing motivations in academic spaces include credentialing (getting a degree or diploma), money (getting grants, merit raises, honoraria, prizes), and recognition (having someone like something you’ve written and acknowledge it in some way). Extrinsic motivations usually have some marker in the world and a yes/no answer: did you get or not get that grant, job, publication, conference invitation? Internal motivations include the felt sense of goodness or completeness – what Audre Lorde talked about as the erotic – that emerges through the difficulty of putting something down. There are craft pleasures of making a beautiful or effective sentence, and a particular satisfaction of formulating something new or documenting something that can offer information to the world. There are also kind of neurotic or repressed internal motivations, which usually don’t have such easy markers – proving to your fourth grade teacher that you aren’t in fact too stupid to go to school because look you got a PhD, or having a felt sense that you have done something well, or being present in office hours with a student having a hard time figuring out a knotty idea – these are not easy to measure from outside.
Intrinsic and extrinsic reasons for doing academic work are often conflated or cathected. This is only a problem when a disavowed intrinsic motivation, like proving to a disapproving parent that we are worthy of love, cannot be solved or met by the things we actually are dong, like trying to publish a paper. The editor is not our parent, so they cannot actually resolve the question of whether we’re worthy of love – and they may not be even able to adequately address whether we’ve written a paper worthy of publication. So, if we funnel all the feelings and needs associated with proving our worth to someone in the past, or trying to live a meaningful life in the present, into professional activities , there will be a misfit between what we need and what it is possible for the scholarly world to offer us. Extrinsic motivations, like getting a paper accepted at a conference, or getting a job, or getting tenure, will never perfectly address intrinsic motivations, like feeling that we’ve crafted a beautiful sentence, adequately articulated something important that one of our interviewees told us in our research, or taught a class in which students really understood something.
I think that academia as a structure and mode of being tends to shape us as people towards cathecting internal motivations onto external motivations – it’s a truism now that academics frequently tether our sense of self to our place in the university, and that universities extract quite a lot of labour from academics based on the idea that we are simply doing what we love. The extractive force of this pattern falls disproportionately, of course, on precarious workers in academia – contract instructors, adjuncts, graduate students. It is sometimes considered crass or opportunist to talk about money or a secure job as a motivation for academic work, and this makes it difficult for us to understand that thinking and writing is work, which deserves to be paid.
As with so many other things, it’s important to be rhetorically strategic about how we disclose our motivations. But we can reflect on what brings us to our writing in ways that can clarify what we can actually get out of it and perhaps that can allow more internal understanding of whether there are intrinsic motivations that will not be solved with the external rewards that are available to us. And internally at least, it can be useful to acknowledge without shame if we’re doing something simply to credential – such as getting an graduate degree. We can give credentialing (or needing to do work to fulfill the formal demands of our job) the dignity it deserves (because there are reasons to get credentials) without needing the degree or academic work to also bring meaning and beauty to our life or the world.
Existentially demanding self-inquiry aside, right now it’s also worth doing this delimiting work because most academics are in a triage situation, deciding what actually *has* to happen because we’re working at really low cognitive capacity. I am confident that the meaningful or useful or uselessly beautiful work we all were doing before the pandemic is still worth doing – but we might not need to do it right now.
An updated version of this was published in The Arrow.
Rereading Emily St. John Mandel’s novel Station Eleven last weekend was strangely reassuring. The book toggles between the onset of a global flu pandemic and the lives of people living twenty years later, and honestly I’m not sure I’d actually recommend reading it right now. But I’ve often found post-apocalyptic fiction helpful for affirming the ongoingness, or the possibility of continuing, past disaster, and Station Eleven is explicitly organized around the proposition that “Survival is insufficient.” This phrase (tattooed on a character’s arm and written on the side of the traveling theatre and musical troupe’s vehicle in the twenty-years-from-pandemic plotline) comes from a Star Trek episode (interestingly about collectivity and individuality). In the book, “because survival is insufficient” asserts that people deserve art, and music, and other useless things. It’s a conundrum, of course, to assert that we need not only bread, but roses too (to reprise the 1912 labour slogan): If we need useless things, are they not then useful?
And what does it mean for us to fight for roses, for more than survival, when so many people already are not surviving? Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s definition of racism as the “The state-sanctioned and/or extra-legal production and exploitation of group- differentiated vulnerabilities to premature death” (Golden Gulag, 28) echoes through the current distribution of sickness and death from COVID-19. We could say, “But look, bankers and tech bros just back from partying in Miami, not to mention Sophie Gregoire Trudeau and Tom Hanks, are contracting this virus! It doesn’t discriminate!” But people do discriminate, and group-differentiated vulnerabilities to sickness and death show how people in power prioritize some lives over others. Governments are not valuing or protecting the lives of people in jail, migrants, people who do not have houses in which to self-isolate, people who cannot stock up on food because they never have that kind of extra money, who lost their job, who never had a formal job, whose benefits got cut off, who are driving for Uber or Lyft, disabled people, people working in Amazon warehouses, stocking grocery shelves, health care workers forced to work without protective gear.
So we should always start with survival, and with fighting for the lives of the people targeted by the death-cult of capitalism. Many of the Black Panther Party’s community programs (the breakfast and health programs are now the best-known, but there were more than 60 of these*) were organized around the idea of “survival pending revolution.” They saw that this world needed a fundamental, to the roots, transformation. But along the way toward that transformation, and in order for it to happen, the people targeted for death, or declared killable to keep the markets running, need to survive.
There are so many lessons we can take from AIDS activism as we respond to COVID-19. When I was doing interviews for an oral history project about the history of AIDS activism, over and over again interviewees would pause as they told us about someone who died because of prejudice and government inaction. They would talk about how that person was amazing – an amazing organizer, poet, dancer, date, scientist, artist, parent, and so much more – and they would say, “This world would have been better if they hadn’t died of AIDS.” I am thinking about this now, about all the people who are dying who did not have to die, and how much we are losing with their deaths. The grief of this is overwhelming. The coronavirus is, as many people have pointed out, illuminating the social relations of oppression and benefit that were already animating this society – those distributions of suffering and death were already here. The mutual aid and caremongering groups in my city are full of posts from people who were already forced to the edge of survival, and all of them deserve good lives. The novel coronavirus is not only illuminating existing oppression; it is actively deepening it. Fighting for more people to survive this is necessary work if we care about fighting oppression.
Fighting oppression, as El Jones and Harsha Walia have been pointing out, means not increasing policing or the power of the state to monitor and control our movement. As we support work to survive, we can oppose practices that deepen inequality. Such opposition involves imagining all the ways that instead of going back to normal, we could change the baseline. The reconfiguring that the coronavirus has begun, in which many among the worst-paid and most exploited workers are being recognized as essential to the basics of our lives, affirms that they all always deserved more than mere subsistence. But capacity to work, and being a worker who is more important to daily life than the ruling class normally acknowledges, itself isn’t enough. In Ontario, ODSP and OW levels have been below subsistence for decades now. Everyone deserves bread.
But survival is insufficient. We deserve roses too. While we’re supporting workers going on wildcat strikes because their working conditions are unsafe, while we’re participating in or advocating for rent strikes, while we call for better health infrastructures, while we keep in view the ways the Canadian state is using COVID-19 as a screen to continue earth-killing oil infrastructure projects, while we work to collectively turn the tide and convince people to stay home and cut transmission chains, we do well to remember just how insufficient it is.
I don’t know what roses mean for you – sometimes I barely know what they mean for me. As I imagine what world might come after what is going to be terrible suffering and loss, I wonder what would happen if we all started with affirming that we want everyone to survive, and immediately alongside that, that we want so much more for them, too. What does a good life look like? What if we asserted that everyone deserved such a life? What if we started from the points of connection we have with anyone who is suffering right now because they do not have money, and worked to create a world in which money was not the thing that lessened suffering? Maybe one of the most generous things about the idea that survival is insufficient is that there isn’t a political program that can lay out what comes after survival, or that precisely describes what “roses” mean. We can begin to dream that for ourselves, because no one can do it for us.
Last fall at a science fiction convention, Jo Walton spoke about why we read SF. She said something like, We don’t read (or write) science fiction in order to imagine the future. We read it in order to imagine many possible futures. Imagining many possible futures builds our capacity to be more flexible and better able to meet the future that arrives, and thus we can be more intentional about what future we practice. I love this. I love it because, as we know, the billionaires and the fascists will take any crisis they can and try to use it to increase their death-grip on the world. This is a time for us, we who care for a world that can continue, to wrench their fingers off our planet and our lives. It’s a good time for us, we who do not align with capitalism, to take this crisis and open up to new futures, futures that we collectively orient towards, and that we work together to imagine.
Survival should be our starting point, always, but we deserve so much more.
*Here’s a scan of a book about the Service to the People Programs, opens as a pdf.
“Responding Ethically to Complicity and Complexity”
Association for Practical and Professional Ethics – February 20, 2020
Slides for this talk are available here
“If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
― Frederick Douglass (died February 20, 1895)
As I write this, the Canadian state has deployed military force against Indigenous people for practicing relationship with the land they care for, and police have moved against locked-out union members who voted to strike to defend their pensions. Of course, I could be writing those words about Canada at many different points in history, since Canada has done precisely these things many times in the past. One gets the sense, following journalist Jon Milton’s tweet,
Right now, the RCMP are simultaneously:
➡️Launching a militarized invasion of Wet’suwet’en territory to clear land for a pipeline
➡️ Repressing Coop oil workers who are fighting to keep their pensions
The entire Canadian state is just three oil company CEOs in a trenchcoat.
Canada’s relationship with oil is not complex, except in the sense that it is multiply connected and overdetermined; as a state, Canada relies on extractive industries and the colonial land-theft that sustains them. Canada seems to be committed to doing anything and violating anything in order to continue current practices around oil (not to mention trees, uranium, nickel, and many other substances rendered as extractible resources for profit). My relationship with oil, as an immigrant to Canada, is complex. I believe Canada should respect the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and thus Wet’suwet’en law, live up to our commitments to address global warming and thus not build new oil pipelines, fulfill the explicit and implicit treaty agreements that founded the nation, end military interventions in other nations (including within our borders), and much more. As a Canadian, I pay into an unregulated pension plan that invests heavily in oil futures, as well as tobacco advertising, and migrant detention facilities on the US-Mexico border; I cannot change this investment. My taxes pay for military interventions and fund the politicians who ignore treaty relationships. I drive a car, turn on heat and lights, and fly to conferences. I’m complicit in Canada’s protection of resource extraction from pretty much any angle I think of, simply in virtue of the complex web of relations through which I live and breathe. I benefit differentially as a white immigrant mortgage-owner from histories of and present social relations of land theft and colonial oppression. In complex situations like, let’s be honest, just being alive, we make all sorts of compromises and become complicit in all sorts of things we would like to wash our hands of. I’m complicit.
When people, scholars and non-scholars alike, charge someone with complicity frequently the result of that charge is a particular kind of immobility; when we, scholars and non-scholars alike, are charged with complicity we might tend to turn inwards with shame, or an overwhelmed feeling of how impossible it would be to extract ourselves from currently ubiquitous relations of extraction. Often feeling complicit means that we give up on action. Indeed, as I’ll investigate below, frequently the charge of complicity is meant precisely to claim that if you are complicit in something you do not have standing to oppose that thing. This is worth investigating, because if calling out complicity is meant to prompt effective ethical or political action but instead it derails precisely that action, the charge of complicity may itself produce further complicity – or at least not help precisely with furthering the goal of reducing the relevant harm or wrong. I am interested in whether identifying complicity can produce collective solidarity, the kind of struggle that causes power to hear demands, instead of individual immobilization.
I’ll begin with a short section on why complexity and complicity so often evoke moral immobilization, which I think comes down to some problems with individualism. I’ll lay out my sense of when it is coherent to say we are complicit, and when we should reject the language of complicity. In section two, I’ll offer Elizabeth Minnich’s distinction between intensive and extensive evil, putting it in conversation with Elizabeth Spelman’s account of repair as a creative form of destroying brokenness. In section three, I’ll outline practices of relationality that offer moral traction for choosing which side we’re on, recognizing that we are frequently complicit without our own will or intent, but resolving to act anyhow.
… As is my practice, I’ve taken down the rest of the access copy of this work in progress a week after putting it up; if you would like a copy of the current draft I’m happy to send it to you – please just email me!