The Contemporary Condition

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Anthropocene, Obama, and the Politics of Swarming

William E. Connolly
Author, The Fragility of Things: Self-Organizing Process, Neoliberal Fantasies, and Democratic Activism

We are bound to the era of the Anthropocene, the roughly two hundred year period during which human extractive, productive and consumption practices have exerted so much impact upon climate that it deserves to be distinguished from the Holocene, a much longer, partially self-amplifying system of climate warming. “The Great Acceleration” started in 1950 and continues today, with exponential increases in CO2 emissions accompanied by dramatic changes in ocean and terrestrial ecosystems, the amount of land for farming, drought, increased storm intensity, great use of pesticides and fertilizers, reductions in biodiversity, and global temperature increases. 

The new announcement of a Climate Deal between China and the United States is promising. It at least takes away the argument of climate deniers that the U.S cannot act because China won’t. It can be seen, in the U.S., as an Executive response to rising domestic pressure, particularly from younger and minority constituencies a future Democratic coalition will need. 
In China, it may reflect a response to the pervasive air pollution that threatens the health of the populace. Nonetheless, this notable agreement still falls far short, especially when you realize how Anthropocene concentrations of C02 and methane gases are both accumulating rapidly and deplete at slow rates. The most promising aspect of the agreement, perhaps, is that it places debates about climate on the front burner again.
The Anthropocene shows how natural changes can occur fast periodically and then persist for millennia. Until the 1980’s most biologists, geologists and paleontologists accepted the story of natural gradualism advanced by Charles Lyell and Darwin. But then the huge asteroid that wiped out dinosaurs and many other species sixty five million years ago was identified. This meant that the study of species evolution could no longer be seen as an internal enterprise. Shortly after that other mass extinction events were tracked, including one 250 million years ago that wiped out 90% of life on earth-- perhaps triggered by a series of huge methane bursts, another 450 million years ago and another yet 200 million years ago. Each time the recovery of life, following very different tracks than before, took millions of years. Not only that, there have also been rapid shifts in climate prior to the Anthropocene, several during the last 35000 years.






These periodic punctuations may encourage us to challenge alike variants of theo-providentialism, secular notions of human mastery of nature, and gradualism in geology, paleontology and geology. They may press us to confront the fragility of things for the human estate in its multiple entanglements with other species and climate processes, calling upon us to overcome drives to cultural internalism in the humanities, sociocentrism in the human sciences, and anxious tendencies to studied indifference in the populace at large. All three express an ethos of climate evasion that lends unconscious support to climate skeptics.
The Anthropocene, then, is that period during which a radical increase in industrial pollution and CO2 emissions enters into conjunction with numerous other nonhuman, self-organizing processes already in play which, even now, we do not understand that well. We are triggering a new era of climate warming with self-amplifying powers of its own that will continue to flood numerous low lying populated areas, increase drought and other weather extremes, weaken the capacity to produce food for 7 billion people, encourage migration attempts from low lying zones, spawn reactive pressures in extractive, military states to repress those who try to immigrate, and punish third world countries that press for radical changes in our modes of production and consumption to mitigate the effects of the Anthropocene.
It is wise to remember how Obama’s executive orders can be challenged in the courts or overturned by a Republican victory in 2016. So, how to energize climate politics under these conditions? The most promising way, out of a bad lot, is to multiply sites and scales of political action through swarming movements, moving back and forth between climate centered actions in churches, work, household consumption, locality, teaching and the like, organization of new worker collectives, participation in larger climate movements, and consolidation of cross-state citizen movements. Role adjustments in the domains of church life, vehicle purchase, farm to table practices, solar panels, readjustment of retirement funds, and blog activity make a cumulative difference on their own. Even more important, though, they also prime us existentially to participate in larger collective activities. 
What else, then? If and as relays between different scales of action accumulate a new event will surely erupt, such as a devastating hurricane, a severe drought, a crisis in water supply, a series of wild fires, radical protests in third world countries against the entitlements of rich countries that produce the most carbon emissions, a radical acceleration of glacier flows, vigilante violence from the right against peaceful protesters, a dangerous deceleration of the ocean conveyor system, or a marvelous new invention that enables the rapid advance of sustainable energy to dismantle an extractionist culture. Now, to the extent movements back and forth between actions at different scales have already been in play, the stage may be set to mobilize a Cross-Country Citizen Strike. However, if swarming critical movements have not crystallized, such an event could generate proto-fascist responses in several countries. The United States is particularly susceptible. So the stakes of a swarming approach are high. 
The task is to forge a militant pluralist assemblage across countries and regions in which a future disturbing event activates large minorities in a variety of subject positions (e.g., class, age, gender, ethnicity, religious faith) to organize a Cross-Country General Strike. A bracing event is probably needed to bump the abstract belief that climate change is real into such a live intensity of action. 
Such a strike will involve withdrawal from work and travel, joined to reductions of consumption above levels needed for subsistence. The action could be enacted for, say, a four day period on the first occasion, combined with a promise to renew it if states, churches, localities, corporations, universities, banks, international agencies and other institutions do not initiate a specified series of interim actions. The responses demanded could include rapid shifts in the eco-priorities of numerous non-state institutions, the introduction of massive state and local projects to redefine the power grid, a radical reorientation of state subsidies in the infrastructure of consumption, public support for worker collectives, and media publicity to help reorient the public ethos of investment and consumption. A Cross-Country General Strike thus draws upon the momentum of swarming movements to press states, corporations and numerous other institutions to redefine their priorities more rapidly and radically. It can draw selective inspiration from creative movements in the past such as that for women’s suffrage in the 1920s, the 1937 sit-down strike in Flint, Michigan that helped to consolidate the American labor movement, Tiannamen Square, several instantiations of the civil rights movement, multi-role experiments and institutional pressures emanating from the LGBT movement, the cross-country divestment movement against apartheid, the Gandhian drive to free India, the widespread student and faculty strikes after the Kent State shootings in May, 1970, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Arab Spring, and the Occupy movement. 
Multi-modal preparations, a dramatic event, a Cross-Country Citizen Strike, stringent interim demands. In the spring of 1972, 1300 students and faculty in western Massachusetts enacted an illegal sit down strike at Westover Air force base to protest a new escalation of the Vietnam War by Richard Nixon. Most participants had actively protested the war earlier, but the escalation inflamed us as it did numerous other constituencies inside and outside the United States. The question now was not whether to escalate our action but whether we were wise enough to do so in ways that would not backfire. The militant actions taken there and elsewhere rattled authorities and helped to turn the tide of public opinion against the war. 
With respect to the Anthropocene, such a strike will involve a host of loosely coordinated constituencies acting in several countries at the same time. If the combination of massive publicity about climate volatility, an escalation of social movements already underway, and a new event coalesce to set the stage, such loosely coordinated actions could hold considerable promise. If major states face critical action both inside and outside their borders that will help to weaken their punitive drives. The idea is to mobilize millions of people so that employers and states will have to think twice or three times before firing or imprisoning strikers. Work in advance to publicize how our side will avoid violence, remembering how many on the other side are eager to accuse you of violence to demoralize, isolate, arrest, beat or kill you. They have the guns, media, military, judges, and many university presidents to draw upon to defeat and demoralize you if your numbers are small and your strategy is unwise. Macho tactics are thus not the thing here, but concerted, inspired action to dramatize the issue, to press multiple institutions, and to move the undecided.
Let us agree in advance that a Cross-Country Strike is, well, improbable. The odds are low that a sufficient number of strategically located constituencies, institutions and individuals will heed the call in time. Nonetheless, it is wise to bypass crackpot realism on such a critical issue. The most pertinent question is whether a strike can become a live possibility that speaks to an urgent need of the time. The fact is that the need is sharp, time is short, and powerful drives to delay and deny are built into regular political processes. The task is thus to help people heed the danger, hear the call, and intensify ties to the future. If a swarming approach promotes the needed actions without a strike so much the better. But don’t bet too much on that.
 One problem with a multi-state, pluralizing, swarming approach is that it may take too long to issue in a General Strike. That is a severe danger in a world of tragic possibility in which nature is not providential and there is no guarantee that the need for action will be met in time. Moreover, if or when a Strike does become timely uncertainty will still remain high. Such uncertainty is essentially embedded in the nature of democratic tipping points, as the examples listed earlier indicate. Nonetheless, even those dangers and uncertainties are not as severe as the slow burn of unattended climate change, with its differential acceleration of suffering, forced migrations, border panic, and escalations of military violence. To paraphrase a great thinker, the task of life is to become worthy of the events we encounter. Ours is the Anthropocene.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Campus divestment: sports

Steven Johnston
Neal A. Maxwell Chair in Political Theory, Public Policy, and Public Service, University of Utah

In July Bill Connolly published a manifesto entitled “Toward an Eco-Egalitarian University.” I would like to complement his call for educational reinvention and resistance to the “neoliberal machine” by addressing selected aspects of the sports-violence-money-media-entertainment complex that governs and plagues so many of America’s colleges and universities.  There are a number of issues here.

1) Major men’s college football and basketball programs serve primarily as minor league training academies for the NFL and NBA. This self-selected subservient role, highly profitable to some schools, financially problematic to many more, comes at the expense of the academic and moral integrity of the institutions implicated. As recent events at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill indicate, schools will not hesitate to corrupt their basic academic functioning, including manufacturing imaginary courses and bogus grades, to keep mercenary athletes eligible and turnstiles rotating.
A UNC-Chapel Hill student athlete's paper.
2) These programs generate tens of billions of dollars in revenues for themselves and other dominant corporate players (broadcasters, apparel companies, the auto and beer industries, etc.) in the neoliberal capitalist arena while exploiting the non-union labor of (mostly) teenagers.  Thousands of students on athletic scholarships, so-called student athletes, are effectively the fulltime employees of colleges and universities who control their lives and can dismiss them at will.

3) Football and basketball coaches are often the highest paid employees at their institutions with compensation packages—totaling millions—exceeding even the most lavishly paid college and university presidents. This warped financial structure informs students, who incur unsustainable debt to pursue the American dream, and professors, who may never be able to afford retirement, of their value in the so-called academic world.


Source: nytimes.com.
4) Running a football program means, by definition, that colleges and universities are co-conspirators in a corrupt enterprise that sacrifices the short- and long-term health and well-being of its participants. Morally, if not legally, this amounts to felony assault and battery. Players may or may not be removed from games even when they are obviously damaged from routine plays. Statistically, the vast majority of college football players will never play at the professional level, which means they are sacrificing themselves for, at best, an illusion.



5) Major sports programs are commonly linked to a culture of privilege and entitlement, which includes violence against women, a seriously underreported phenomenon, as the Florida State examples demonstrate. It might be convenient to presume that this is the isolated conduct of a few malefactors with a disposition to violence they brought with them to college, though it’s perhaps just as likely that they cultivated and extended the pleasures of domination and violence the sport teaches them and celebrates.


6) When football players at Northwestern initiated a unionization drive in order to protect themselves and their interests against their employer, the university, aided and abetted by the head coach, and concerned about possible repercussions to its bottom line, waged a concerted campaign to defeat them. To my knowledge, not one college or university president spoke in favor of the players’ autonomy and self-determination. Rather, they were determined to keep them in their properly subjected position.



Still, let us suppose, against the evidence, that Trustees and Presidents are serious when they talk about student athletes and seek to really fold sports into the intellectual life of a college or university. Well, here are some things they would do with respect to basketball.

For programs it will mean:

  1. no athletic scholarships will be granted;
  2. practices will be conducted and games will be played in only one semester; they will no longer encompass both fall and spring;
  3. regular season schedules will be limited to 20 games, roughly 1 and 1/2 per week;
  4. conferences will be realigned so that no road trip covers more than 200 miles and no flight lasts longer than 2 hours;
  5. no post-season conference tournaments are to be allowed; they are designed not for competition in a conference race but the gratuitous generation of revenue;
  6. the NCAA tournament will be reduced to 32 teams, which means the tournament can be completed in just over one week, minimizing the disruption to the end of the semester and final exams;
  7. no coach will be paid—from any and all sources—more than the median salary of an associate professor. Comparisons to CEOs notwithstanding, a coach contributes nothing to the university as a university; a coach is merely parasitic upon student-athletes.
For students it will mean:


  1. no morning practices before the first scheduled on-campus class;
  2. no practicing on weekends, when there generally are no classes; this is the time to study and rest;
  3. if students are expected to put in roughly five to six hours of work outside class per week, per course, basketball players will be allowed to practice no more than five to six hours per week; after all, they are not employee-athletes;
  4. should student-athletes leave before graduating to pursue a professional career, they will redirect 10% of the value of any NBA or European league contract they sign to their alma mater’s general scholarship fund.
As for football, it is to be abolished—now. There is too much evidence that brain damage is a routine, predictable part of the sport to sanction its continuation. Colleges and universities can lead a nationwide campaign for the abolition of football, a commitment to which can be made a condition of (continued) employment for all top-level university officials. NCAA member institutions form one key link in a long chain of injury, abuse, and exploitation. Irreparable brain injury does not begin in college—or even high school. It begins when young children playfootball for the first time as pre-teenagers. Pop Warner starts with the Tiny-Mite division for ages 5 to 7 with a weight range of 35 to 75 pounds. It has 6 other divisions that extend to age 14 and noweight limit.The brain, always vulnerable to concussion from any head-on collision, is especially vulnerable during the early stages of its development. Parents who allow, let alone encourage their children to play football are arguably guilty of abuse. (Soccer parents may be guilty, too). Either way, colleges and universities cannot participate in a sporting culture and structure that inspires and implicitly rewards the systematic maltreatment of children. These young boys (and girls, too) are also students and they should not be repeatedly and irreversibly harmed before they can matriculate to the many colleges and universities waiting to welcome them. We in academia can best plan for this day by reining in the horrors of American sports that have either a limited place (at best) or no place at all on our campuses. Some might find these proposals utopian, but, following Bill Connolly, I would say that not only is this partly the point; the recommendations also reflect a catalytic, life-affirming utopianism as opposed to the self-destructive, death-laden utopianism of the neoliberal machine that aspires to consume the academic world.



Thursday, October 16, 2014

Orange is the New Black as a Risky Act of Consciousness-Raising

Michaele L. Ferguson
University of Colorado


By blurring the lines between entertainment and political advocacy, Orange is the New Black expresses a novel and risky form of mass political consciousness-raising. It simultaneously educates, outrages, and diverts its audience. In so doing, it has tremendous potential to generate empathy for the poor and the incarcerated among the complacent American middle-class, but it also risks undermining critique of our justice system through its use of melodrama and marketing. Whatever its ultimate impact on our culture, it is worth understanding how Orange simultaneously operates as entertainment and political incitement.



I contend that Orange engages in a kind of consciousness-raising through entertainment that is indirectly political. It focuses on stories about individuals, peppered with brief discussions of political issues: along the way the viewer is educated in questions about sentencing and prison justice, but the show does not make these issues the overt object of the action. It raises consciousness in a subtle fashion, without just telling us what to believe.

Precisely because its politics are so subtle, Orange has the radical potential to illuminate how our justice system works and the ways in which women prisoners are particularly disadvantaged within it. Yet this potential to raise awareness and even to mobilize viewers to take action is simultaneously undermined in four ways.

1) The Netflix series deploys melodrama in a way that keeps the storytelling light and satisfies viewers’ desire for justice, but may also keep viewers from reflecting on the actual injustices of the prison system. Consider this in contrast to what we see in a series like The Wire. Where The Wire is primarily dark and aims at portraying realistic characters and situations, Orange often exaggerates scenarios in a way that seems designed to satisfy viewers’ desires for some kind of justice in a prison world that is (in reality) unrelentingly unjust. The Wire’s deployment of the tragic form, I believe, makes it very difficult for viewers to treat it as mere entertainment, and to disengage from the political questions it brings to the forefront. The use of melodramatic forms in Orange, however, while perhaps it makes the show easier for a broader audience to enjoy, may also risk obscuring the real injustices of the prison system that the show serves to highlight.

Orange couches consciousness-raising in the more entertaining and palatable forms of hot lesbian prison sex, humor, and melodramatic justice in which bad people ultimately suffer for their misdeeds. While based on a memoir, the Netflix series takes creative license with reality in ways that may obscure or at least deflect serious attention from the injustices of the prison system.



2) My second worry about the potential effectiveness of Orange’s political consciousness-raising has to do with how Netflix blurs the lines between entertainment, marketing and political advocacy. When political advocacy is presented as marketing for entertainment, I worry that audiences may experience this either as confusing (i.e., they may not experience the political issues as issues), or as a turn-off (i.e., they may see the advocacy as self-interested rather than the result of more noble motivations).

For example, consider the “paid op-ed” that Netflix produced for The New York Times around the time Season 2 was released. Entitled “Women Inmates: Why the Male Model Doesn’t Work,” this op-ed presents a visually appealing graphic representation of the status of women in the American prison system, interspersed with video and audio interviews with women who are serving or have served time. It is an incredible act of political pedagogy: it educates readers about the specific issues faced by women in the justice system; it raises awareness about many of the injustices faced by women both leading up to, in, and after prison; and it offers a solution in the form of the Hawaii Women’s Community Correctional Center, which treats women prisoners as in need of sanctuary and a place to heal during their time in incarceration. At the very end, it provides some links to “additional resources,” including to some activist and service organizations addressing women prisoners in particular.




I find this ad intriguing because of how it blurs the lines between politics and marketing. Netflix may benefit reputationally from being seen as a corporation that is not merely making money from the show, but is advocating for the kind of women the show portrays. But I think the blurring of the lines here raises questions of motive that are difficult to dismiss. Is the Netflix leadership truly in favor of prison reform (in which case, why does this appear to be the only such effort at consciousness-raising sponsored by Netflix)? Does it hurt the cause of justice reform to have it associated with a media company that is profiting off of a fictional and melodramatic portrayal of the issues? Or does it help to have the corporate money to reach a broader audience with the political message?

3) Either way, neither the series nor the op-eds provides us with a viable model of what political action to change the system would look like. The op-ed references the women’s prison in Hawaii as a role model for other prisons, yet it does not give readers any sense of how this model could be taken up elsewhere. The resources listed at the end of the op-ed give readers a chance to learn more about the topics mentioned and to find ways to take action, but the organizations listed are lumped together with no additional information to distinguish between them, or to explain why they were included. There is no suggested political action to take, and no information given to encourage readers to find out more about the organizations listed. It is unclear how a reader would even get to more information about the Hawaii prison, the one that is upheld as a role model for reform.

Matters are even worse in the series itself. Those who have political convictions about justice are mocked in Season 2 with its hunger strike. The hunger strikers cannot agree on a meaningful platform, and ultimately their conviction weakens in the face of a mediocre pizza. Sister Ingalls encourages them to leave the movement saying, “Go ahead, girls. Take a break from your values” (Season 2, Episode 11: "Take a Break from Your Values"). The hunger strike serves primarily as comic relief – no one takes it seriously, least of all the prison staff.



So even as the marketing and the series urge us to see the injustices of the system, they offer no clear path to create change. In a culture in which the general population is largely depoliticized, and which often treats political activism as futile, self-aggrandizing, or naïve, this is an opportunity missed. What’s more, the deployment of consciousness-raising as a form of marketing reinforces the cynical view that political actors have hidden agendas.



4) Finally, because Netflix has chosen to release an entire season all at once, annually, the show enjoys only a brief media spotlight. Women in prison get a big boost of attention in June, which subsides by the end of July when many viewers have finished binge-watching. This limits the impact that Netflix’s advertising campaign, and news articles about the show can have in terms of raising awareness and keeping the issue of prison justice in the forefront of media attention. Except for the occasional award show or guest appearance on a talk show, there is no real occasion to bring up Orange in the media until we are approaching the release of the next season. The spotlight on prison reform is intermittent, as a consequence. Again, I worry that this means that sustained attention on reform is unlikely to result from the show.


Sunday, September 28, 2014

Hands Up Dont Shoot: Democracy's Casualties, Democracy's Heroes

Steven Johnston 
Neal A. Maxwell Chair in Political Theory, Public Policy, and Public Service, University of Utah

Last month, when the citizens of Ferguson, Missouri, took to their own streets to protest the police killing of one of their own, would-be college student Michael Brown, they converted otherwise ordinary roads into public political spaces. One incarnation—necessarily imperfect—of the people themselves decided they must assemble, voice their outrage and indignation, and demand immediate redress from public officials. The people deployed on the streets in support of Michael Brown and his family, but more than Michaels Brown was at issue on the streets, as Ferguson, like many other small American towns around major cities, suffers from all manner of social, political, economic, and racial inequities and injustices. 
The shooting of Michael Brown thus functioned as both cause and occasion for politics. This is one example of American democracy at its best, the horrible circumstances notwithstanding. Democracy presupposes that citizens respond to questionable exercises of state power, especially the use of deadly violence. To remain silent in the face of state violence is to become mere subject, a Hobbesian creature who knows his place in the order of things and stays there. The police, accordingly, should have left Ferguson’s democratic citizens alone and remained in their barracks.
American police, of course, do not appreciate politics exercised on the streets, perhaps especially when it’s conducted by minorities—whether racial, economic, or otherwise. 

Since the late 1960s in Los Angeles, local police have created military-style assault forces to deal not only with all manner of crime, but also and more importantly with whatever political opposition, dissent, resistance, or tumult may be developing in the community. Los Angeles invented SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) teams in response to the urban uprisings in Watts in the mid-1960s. They were first deployed as part of an ongoing war against the Black Panther Party, one reason Los Angeles Police Chief Darryl Gates originally wanted to name his creation the Special Weapons Attack Team, a fitting moniker.
Given Los Angeles’s success it became the model for the country. America’s police forces have been thoroughly militarized in the decades since LAPD’s Frankensteinian creation, thanks first to the War on Drugs and later the War on Terror. American police resemble military units and act as occupation forces, treating citizens, as countless commentators have remarked, like enemies in need of surveillance, control, and subordination. There are critics of the militarization of America’s police forces who argue that SWAT originally served a legitimate purpose, to respond to extraordinary situations that standard police elements could not handle. The problem, they say, is mission creep. SWAT-style teams now handle routine police matters in which their equipment, training, tactics, and mindset are not only inappropriate but deadly inappropriate
Examples abound of SWAT teams entering the wrong home or the right home at the wrong time and wreaking great damage. Yet, as LAPD’s history reveals, the problem is not—or not just—mission creep. SWAT was a political instrument and expression from the get-go. It was a military response to a political condition. Rather than address and correct what engendered America’s urban uprisings in the 1960s, the American state at all levels assumed effective suppression was the appropriate response. 
Given this problematic history, it comes as no surprise that American police would be unleashed against democratic citizens enacting their civic responsibilities at national political conventions in New York (2004) and St. Paul (2008) or against democratic citizens calling attention to the cancerous, anti-democratic maldistribution of wealth in public spaces across the country as part of Occupy Wall Street (2011-2012). Darryl Gates’s vision of America has been largely realized.

The democratic resisters in Ferguson teach us not only that it is time to disarm and rehabilitate American police forces across the country, stripping them of their armored vehicles, riot gear, Kevlar vests, automatic weapons, sniper rifles, night vision goggles, assortment of gases, and military sensibility, but it is time to recover and revalue the art of democratic politics as forceful, militant resistance. When police fire tear gas at democratic citizens exercising their political rights and responsibilities, it is legitimate for those citizens to fire back those very same canisters. When the state imposes a curfew against democratic citizens mobilized on the streets to hold public officials accountable, they should refuse orders to disperse and hold their ground
If the police move against them with violence, their response is now a matter of legitimate self-defense—and the practices of nonviolence might be best. But they might not be. It is only because democratic citizens in Ferguson fought back that there is any prospect for further democratic—and democratizing—action in its aftermath. Barack Obama intoned, “There is never an excuse for violence against police or for those who would use this tragedy as a cover for vandalism and looting.” He then added: “There’s also no excuse for police to use excessive force against peaceful protests or to throw protestors in jail for lawfully exercising their First Amendment rights.” It’s not just that Obama is apparently blind to his own double standard, namely, that while citizens commit “violence against police,” police only exercise “excessive force” against citizens (of which throwing protestors into jail does not even seem to be an instance). It’s that Obama’s political reflex was to express concern for the police, not democratic citizens, reversing the order of priority in a democracy, where the people rule and police are their servants.
Obama, much like Missouri Governor Jay Nixon, was unduly concerned with the protection of private property. Looting and vandalism are also political phenomena, uncomfortable truths American politicians are largely unwilling to confront. Besides, denial allows for easy moralizing and excuses a resort to arms. Democracies should remember that tumults like the one in Ferguson are part and parcel of American history. Response should center on correcting the conditions that made them necessary in the first place, not slandering, discrediting, and suppressing them. If democracies, always feeling vulnerable from threats foreign and domestic, are willing to pay whatever sums of money national security requires (because you can’t put a price on safety), they should be willing to pay whatever sums of money the often unruly exercise of democratic politics requires—because you can’t put a price on freedom, equality, and justice. Some may suggest that this threatens to render democracy a suicide pact. Well, in many respects democracy is a suicide pact. Democracy’s enactment, as in Ferguson, does leave us vulnerable—which is precisely why we don’t need the police on the streets to exacerbate it. We’re fine on our own, even if it doesn’t always appear that way to some, to those allergic to and frightened by democratic politics.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Violette and Simone: Politics in the Encounter

Lori Marso
Union College

The biopic is most compelling when a strong narrative message is not imposed on a life. Life unfolds in response to the unpredictable, idiosyncratic occurrence tossed one’s way, and we, as individuals or collective, mobilize freedom or opportunity in the random events of life and politics. Violette, Martin Provost’s 2013 biopic about Violette Leduc and her encounter with Simone de Beauvoir, is a visceral and unnerving film about a difficult woman. The film reveals the anger, bitterness, rejection, sexual energy, and depression that saturated Violette’s emotional life, fueled her creativity, and dominated her writing. It not only illuminates an individual life in a non-narrative mode, it also tells the story of macro social forces. The complicated choices in presenting Violette’s life demonstrate how freedom is grasped and sustained. By the end, we see that the efforts of several people, most importantly Simone de Beauvoir, have combined to free Violette to live on her own terms. 



When we first see Violette she is smuggling black market goods at the end of World War II somewhere in rural France. She is living with the writer Maurice Sachs. When he abandons Violette for good, he sneaks out in the middle of the night hoping to avoid her desperate pleading. Maurice is depicted as a flamboyant gay man, and Violette experiences his lack of desire not as a rejection of her sex but a rejection of her specifically. When she hears him leaving and runs after him to claw at his back and beg him to love her, we get the feeling that this tawdry incident is but one in a long series of personal rejections. “Ugliness in a woman is a mortal sin,” she will write later, as well as remembering, “My mother never took my hand.”   

But Maurice Sachs did do one thing for Violette Leduc: he urged her to write. This is one of many encounters depicted in this gripping film that has no clear dramatic arc or formal structure. Unlike many biopics depicting the lives of women, Violette leaves almost every question unanswered.  Viewers themselves have to tease out the meaning and implications of Violette’s frustrated sexuality; whether she is depressed due to mental illness or what Ann Cvetkovich (2012) would call a “public feeling;” why she so urgently clings to every person she meets and demands that they love her; whether her ambivalent and confusing relationship with her difficult and narcissistic mother is the main or just one reason Violette sees herself only as ugly and unwanted, a bastard; whether her intense awareness of bodily sensation was her savior, awakening her to life’s pleasures and pains, or her curse, making her too sensitive, too easily harmed; whether writing was her true calling or merely a means for survival.  

At the heart of the film is Violette Leduc’s encounter with Simone de Beauvoir. Violette discovers Beauvoir’s writing by chance but subsequently seizes every opportunity to draw herself into Beauvoir’s orbit. Delivering black market goods to a bourgeois client, Violette discovers a book by Beauvoir on a table and slips it in her purse. The book is She Came to Stay, the bold story of a ménage à trois with a woman’s feelings, desires, anxieties, and emotions at the center. Seduced by this book and its author, Violette seems to feel she has found her everything in Beauvoir long before meeting her: soul mate, role model, lover, and friend.  

Several critics have noted that Beauvoir (Sandrine Kiberlain) is depicted as “stern” or “aloof:” Manohla Dargis (NY Times) says she comes off as “a cross between a dominatrix and a mother superior.” Beauvoir’s life and circumstances are indeed more orderly and disciplined, and one imagines that Violette would appear desperate and disheveled to her. After stalking Beauvoir, Violette shoves the manuscript for In the Prison of Her Skin into Beauvoir’s hands. Beauvoir firmly assures Leduc that she will indeed read it and such begins their relationship, and Beauvoir’s praise for Leduc’s writing: “You talk about female sexuality like no woman before you; with poetry, honesty, and more besides; Go further! Tell it all: trafficking, love lives, the abortion; you’ll be doing women a favor.”



To Leduc, Beauvoir is inscrutable. To Beauvoir, Leduc is an open book.  Beauvoir recognizes Leduc’s talent and the political and social significance of Leduc’s work for women and for the world (she promises that her own The Second Sex will appear with Leduc’s L'Asphyxie, or In the Prison of Her Skin, and people will see that the latter is the best example of the meaning of the former), while Leduc continues to flounder, complain, and rage against the world, seeing every single thing as a personal affront, especially the fact that Beauvoir doesn’t love her and nor does anyone else. Unrequited love and extreme poverty feed Violette’s insecurity and frustration. Never able to see society’s role, she understands her problems as personal idiosyncrasies. And indeed, she is difficult. Violette not only chooses the wrong partners; she also never seems to learn a lesson, to fully appreciate her benefactors, or to take anything in stride. In one scene, perhaps the best in the film, Leduc enters a bookstore to search for her book only to find a few copies hidden in the back. This is an amusing scene, one that resonates with every author as Violette surreptitiously places her book in a more prominent place. Rather than slink out of the store after asking about “Violette Leduc’s” book (pretending to be someone else), she exclaims that she certainly is “not a friend of Leduc” and screams at the clerk: “Come out and say it! It’s all Julien Green here!” 



Two things about the film are especially striking and original. One involves the centrality of the relationship between Beauvoir and Leduc and how it unfolded. No one except Beauvoir seems to understand or entirely sympathize with her. It is not even clear that Beauvoir sympathizes with her; she seems to find her exasperating, but still recognizes her brilliance as a writer and her experience as illuminating the lives of other women too. In short, Beauvoir sees the political in the personal. Leduc, too, with Beauvoir’s help, starts to see connections between her own and other women’s lives. Leduc comforts Beauvoir after Beauvoir confides that her mother has just died and she admits that though she felt only ambivalence towards her mother in life, her mother’s too-sudden death has affected her profoundly. Here we witness the risking of a dependent relationship between two women constituted by their ambivalence to their own mothers. It is to some extent a healing of prior wounds, and in another very different sense a manifestation not of the vertical mother-daughter bond but the horizontal sororal bond between two very differently situated women.  



Indeed, the themes of ambivalence, affinity, friendship, and bonds of situated oppression between women builds as one of the most affecting features in the film though it is never too obviously announced. The film also instances solidarity between women across class lines, something far from dogmatic to feminism although exemplary within it. It shows us how a comfortable woman allows herself to be drawn to one who is discomforting. We cannot know Beauvoir’s motives; regardless, the two women share an encounter, and their relationship changes history and each of them. The chosen episodes make it clear that Beauvoir’s influence on Leduc made her the writer that she was and helped Leduc to find the meaning in her work, her creative impulse, and even her afflictions. Because Leduc is always in the grip of extreme poverty, Beauvoir supported her with a monthly allowance; we feel the claustrophobia in Leduc’s apartment where she eats only potatoes, as contrasted with Beauvoir’s deep couches, good wine, and built in bookshelves. Beauvoir also read and edited all Leduc’s manuscripts; she encouraged her to travel, to feel and explore nature and the countryside; she paid for her stay in a mental hospital, visiting and sustaining her too; and always urged her to take up her pen: “Screaming and sobbing won’t get you anywhere; writing will!” In addition, Beauvoir wrote a preface to La Bâtarde (The Bastard), an act that may have been what finally propelled Leduc to fame in 1964. 

The film is also extraordinary insofar as the meaning Beauvoir gleans from Leduc’s writing, that a singular woman’s lived experience is important for all women, is felt as sensation revealed through language and image. Through Violette’s words we feel the physical sensation of love between young girls, of the sun on one’s face, of poverty, of her late term abortion and its aftermath, of having to fight and traffic for food during the War, of being unloved and unwanted, of never hearing god’s voice. We feel too, with Violette, how life is always too much, too volatile, too painful or pleasurable, simply too intense. The film makes one uncomfortable and yet it is deeply moving. The film’s techniques that depict sensations as lived through the body make it an experience to live through rather than a story to view and evaluate. 

Moreover, we understand each episode or encounter in Violette’s life as vitally open. We never know which way things will end up. If we are familiar with the life and work of Violette Leduc, we will already know she will find success rather than die in the mental hospital or kill herself in the countryside. Nevertheless, the film is able to keep each moment surprising and new. 



The film also resonates with several aspects of Beauvoir’s own depiction of how politics happens and how life unfolds. In The Second Sex and elsewhere, Beauvoir asks us to experience a singular life both as a singular life and as refracting social forces. At the same time that she illuminates and critiques structures, material conditions, and patriarchal fantasies that oppress women and deny freedom, she also affirms the struggle to live and thrive, the pleasures of nature or the beauty of a moment, and the surprising sources and locations of resistance. Beauvoir’s critical attention to affect, to bodily sensation, to the importance of feeling and emotions for politics, all are present, too, in Leduc’s account of her world—her experience of being female, lonely, and loveless. The film conveys not only how women’s lives are connected, but also how life and politics turns on the encounter—how we experience it, what we do with it, whether freedom is seized, affirmed, rejected, or simply missed. Violette Leduc encountered Beauvoir’s writing in She Came to Stay and seized onto it. Her reaction, to contact Beauvoir, and Beauvoir’s reaction to her, to acknowledge and encourage Leduc’s talent, made all the difference in Leduc’s life, and for the women who continue to read these women’s brilliant work. 

*Thank you to Tom Lobe, Bonnie Honig, Nancy Luxon, and Melissa Moskowitz for thoughtful comments on this essay.



Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Diasporic Politics Boomerang

Bonnie Honig
Brown University

Israel cultivates support from outside. The Jewish diaspora is its lifeline. Many North American Jews are raised to identify with Israel, many go visit or donate money, some even learn Hebrew! (What more proof of devotion could you need?) But -- then if we criticize their "policies", Israel says "wait, why such a double standard for Israel? Why don't you criticize Syria, Libya, Iran?" The answer is: “Syria, Libya, and Iran didn’t ask us to plant trees in their soil for tu b’shevat (the holiday of the trees, chag ha’elanot). They didn’t send us tree stamps to lick onto sheets of paper to illustrate how many trees would be planted with money we, as schoolchildren, raised in the diaspora. They did not ask us for money to help build hospitals to care for their wounded. They did not enlist us as their diasporic support community and they did not encourage us to personally identify with them. Their bloodshed is horrific but it feels less like it is on MY hands...."
When I was growing up I attended Hebrew Day School, and for a year or two our teacher for Jewish Laws, Norms, and Customs (I think) was a man named Aggassi, I think, or Agas. I remember because Agas means “pear” in Hebrew and the man had precisely that unfortunately shaped body. So he stuck in my (otherwise terrible) memory.
  I also remember one lesson he taught. He was describing Moses praying on the mountain and said Moses miraculously held his arms up in prayer for 40 days and 40 nights (or something like that). My seat in the class of 20 or so girls was in the back row. I surreptitiously held up my arms to see what was so hard about that? The teacher saw me and chuckled at my scepticism. He asked me to come to the front of the class. Did I not believe it was difficult? That holding one’s arms up like that was a miracle? He said I should stand in the corner in front of the classroom with my arms up to see how long I could last. It wasn’t long.

I think Mr. Aggas(si) was a shaliach. A shaliach is someone who is “sent,” an emissary. He was sent from Israel to us, as were others, usually for 2-year terms, to live in our Jewish community. Shlichim (the plural of shaliach) led our youth groups, taught in our Hebrew Schools, served as counselors in Jewish summer camps, and lent support in synagogues and after school activities.
There was in my youth, as now, a vast and diverse system of shlichim, sponsored by a variety of organizations with sometimes disparate goals and ideals. But they all overlapped in their aim and methods: Israelis cycled in and out of our communities, breathing their enthusiasm for Israel into us, inspiring and inspiriting us with love for that distant land. They secured our affective support, loyalty, identification, donations and, often, a commitment to one day move to Israel, to become part of this great Jewish nation that sent us these young men. (I only knew male shlichim. Perhaps there were also women – shlichot?)
All that work, all that infrastructure, created a web of communities with deep affective and intergenerational ties to the Land and – for a long time -- unflinching support for Israel and its security ‘needs’. We learned a lot about Israel, but we hardly heard anything about displacement, occupation, Palestinian refugees. When we did hear something, it was said their crisis was manufactured by the unwillingness of other Arab countries to take them in and that they had left voluntarily, in any case. Not “our” concern. Israel was always precarious, we learned, but it had a promising virility (personified for us, tween girls, by all those male shlichim in their 20’s and 30’s), and a will to survive. We learned that we needed Israel and that it needed us. (Well, “she” needed us, is what we were actually told). We were both surrounded by enemies, after all: Israel by hostile Arab nations, and we by a pervasive anti-semitism that may have gone underground since Nazism but was always waiting to spring back up. Sharing a precarious existence, we were told again and again, we had only ourselves to count on and we needed each other to survive.
The shlichim were just one part of a vast array of messagings and messengers that impressed us into the fate of the struggling Jewish democracy in the Middle East. In my middle school context, no one entertained the thought of a possible conflict between those terms – Jewish, ethno-national state and a democratic state. I had to go to college for that thought to become a thinkable thought.
Why do I suddenly recall all this now? Because the affective machinery has malfunctioned. Affect has a life of its own. Once installed, it does not always obey the law, norms and customs to which some try to harness it. Even corporeal lessons can have a variety of impacts. Being made to stand alone in front of a classroom can return a child to the fold. But it can also habituate children to stand alone in front of others when situations call for it. That very devotion to the “Land,” cultivated with such care and detail in my own youth, is what forces many of us to stand apart now, to recoil and protest. As families do when confronted with violence committed by one of their own, we members of the cultivated Jewish diaspora now find ourselves split into two: loyal members of the fold and shocked critics. And we look uncomprehendingly at each other. This is not something new. It has been going on for over thirty years, for me. For some more; for others less.
What I have described here is just a piece of the puzzle. It explains why some of us criticize, confront, protest, and boycott in particular in response to what is done by Israel because (even if we have not been to Israel for decades, or never at all) we know, we know – because we were taught so well – that all of this IS being done in our name. We know, because as children we licked those tree stamps onto those sheets of paper every year for tu b’shevat and I, anyway, can still taste them.