Aaron Swartz’s death has unleashed a massive amounts of sentiment. Some from his friends (some of whom are also my friends), some from people who didn’t know him but knew his work, and others condemning his persecution, widely attributed as one cause to his suicide. All of which, is very heartfelt, and the emotion of which is a bit overwhelming to me, and has made me think a lot about suicide in general, a reoccurring theme in my life, and no doubt many others.
There is one thing nagging at me currently (I’m sure others will come up as I continue to reflect on this, as they tend to do), about the criticism of his persecution. Apart from the quite reasonable and warranted outrage at the charges that were levi ed against him for such an insignificant transgression (if there was a transgression at all), the critique of intellectual property I’ve heard surround this tragedy seems to be missing something.
While the rentier class who pushes the harsh penalties for intellectual property violation are certainly to blame, and as any purely capitalist force are completely deserving of critique, this forgets the fact that Aaron himself was, in a way, part of this class, having made quite a bit of money when Reddit sold out to Conde-Nast.
First of all, this is in no way to suggest that Aaron, his life, or his work was in any way hypocritical. On the contrary, from all accounts he was a remarkable person who strove to promote equity and justice in the world without exception, committing all of his financial resources to his work of liberating information, and people themselves by giving them access to this information. So much so, that as Lawrence Lessig suggests, he had few resources left for defending himself. I can think of few examples of lives lived in recent times, in which it sounds as if someone so selflessly devoted themselves to what is right, as opposed to what is popular or lucrative. And in general, I see absolutely nothing wrong with taking money from capitalist interests in order to fund the fight against them. This is an unfortunate fact of the extent of the capitalist economy in contemporary times–it is impossible to fight against them without holding property, using resources, and laboring under the auspices of the system.
What this points out, I think, is the contradictions of the system that Aaron was coming up against.
For all the activist technologists out there in the world fighting the good fight, there is very little recognition that the system itself that they are utilizing is broken. This path, of cashing in on a clever invention so that then, one has the resources to spend on the frivolous luxury of doing good, is viewed as the best and most noble path. Business, itself, is the primary tool that many technologists point to, as the weapon with which to undo the negative effects of capitalism. Start a business, make a fortune, start a non-profit, give a TED talk, everyone applauds. But if you do something as forward as plugging in a computer and start downloading public information, you have a prison cell to look forward to.
If we are actually trying to confront the rentier class, then we have to see the way that technology itself is the rent system. I don’t say that we should condemn technology. I say that we need to realize that the entire spectrum of “good” and “evil”, our entire conception of justice and how to achieve it, is wholly owned by this rentier class, and leased back to us, in pieces, in platforms, and in apps.
From everything I’ve read of Aaron’s writings about his life and work, it sounds like it was creativity and curiosity that drove him to accomplish everything he did, and I can only imagine, this is what led him to allegedly set a computer up to download those public files. Curiosity took him to thwart the rules of how to do “good” in the world, and to pursue a sort of good that has been criminalized. If I am correct in this assessment, the lesson I take from this is that our creativity must find ways to take back this sense of justice.
I don’t know what this means. I don’t know how to take back this sense of justice. But as we celebrate the amazing technological things that Aaron did, I can’t help but feel that he was set up, not just by the US attorneys who persecuted him, but by all of the technological wonders that make our world. I feel like the bad guys in this situation are not just the government, the music industry, and the institutions supposedly existing to spread knowledge that sought to restrict it, but also start-up culture, TED talks, what we know as “innovation”, business, and every piece of property, from restricted PDFs to office space, to every dollar and every cent.
I’m an unrepentant anti-capitalist, but if you are a person who thinks what happened to Aaron was wrong, I don’t know how it could be any other way. It was the technological property that Aaron worked with, that he was trying to liberate, that turned was against him; and I can’t help but think that every one of us benefiting by that property is in some way culpable.
This year I’ve been thinking about being Jewish during Christmas time more than the last few years, so I thought I would share a bit.
It’s something that is impossible not to think about, but I try to ignore it mostly. It isn’t extraordinarily pleasant, and not something I like to dwell on, anyway.
I would call myself completely atheist, but in a Northwestern United States New-Chaos-Animism sort of way, or at the very least, not the sort of atheist who feels the need to paint his lack of belief on the side of buses. Except of course, in the marxist-anarchist “no gods no masters” sort of way, which is a statement that makes me smile, except that I’m still not painting it on the side of anything.
All of which is to say, I’m not Jewish in the sense of my religion, so I wouldn’t like to step into the role of speaking “as a Jew”–whatever that means. At the same time, I am decidedly Jewish in the sense of culture, because the complicated atheist/anamist/anarchist syncretism I practice in every day life does have a certain historical precedent.
The joke I use to explain what this means, told by one of my grad school professors in NYC, who was also a practicing psychoanalyst (and this context matters, of course), goes like this.
A secular Jewish couple on the Upper West Side decides to send their son to a Catholic school, because it is the best school that is close to where they live. So the son goes to school, comes home, and the father asks him, “what did you learn in school today?”
The son says, “I learned that god is actually a trinity. There’s the father, the son, and the holy ghost.”
The father gets outraged, his face turns red, and he stands and speaks to his son in a stern voice. “Son, listen well, and listen good. There is only one god. And we don’t believe in him.”
If you have lived in New York you get the joke, just as easily as you understand the difference between a kosher deli and a synagogue. A secular Jew and a religious Jew are not the same thing, even though they are both Jewish in certain ways. Religion, ethnicity, nationality, and race are all different categories. Religion is what you believe and practice, ethnicity has to do with cultural heritage, nationality is about nation-states and legality, and race is a made up category that lumps a bunch of unrelated visually observable genetic signifiers into an believed-amalgam that could stand in interchangeably for any or all of the former three. I’m an ethnic Jew. I call myself Jewish, even though it is not my religion, it could hardly be a race at all (when people try and “race” Jews they are talking about only a particular subset of Jews… omg did you know there are black jews?) and it sure as shit has nothing to do with Israel.
If you got the joke, you probably understand the difference between these four categories, but not everyone does. I’m reminded of this every so often now that I live in the Northwest, where Jews are less common than on the East coast, and certain people don’t get it. A friend of ours, upon learning that I was Jewish (the fact that she had to “learn” that a hairy guy with a good-looking nose and a German last name is Jewish speaks its own truth) asked sincerely, “if he is Jewish, why doesn’t he wear the hat?” She had never known a Jew, let alone a secular Jew, and so had never understood the difference.
But there is a problem with understanding Jewish as only an ethnicity, that is especially apparent around Christmas. There is a tendency to minimize this difference. If it is “just” ethnicity, and not religion, then we are really all equal, right? After all, there are plenty of ethnically Christian people who aren’t religious. As we are all secular, united by science, reason, humanity, etc, we must be the same, right?
My mother was Christian until she married my father, and then she did the “secular Jewish conversion” in which we celebrated Jewish holidays but had a Christmas tree once my brother and I entered high school, because the tree was pretty and ornaments are fun. My own partner, from a secular Catholic ethnicity, did the same thing when we began cohabitating, of her own accord. I’m not going to speculate on their motivations for doing this, even though I have some ideas as to why. The important thing is that this is a thing. There is a conversion process, in terms of “formally” adopting the religion that you do not believe in. There’s no ceremony, no oath. Just a personally understood choice that one-is-this, different-than-that. This is the difference in ethnicity.
I never had a Bar Mitzvah, so I am not “really” Jewish, under some technical religious definitions (the variety of which is its own interesting discussion). But this ethnic-not-religion difference is not an ambivalence–it was something that I specifically did not do, because my family made the conscious choice to not go to synagogue. We had Jewish friends and family who went to synagogue. But we did not. In the same way as my mother and my partner, I had a not-Bar-Mitzvah: the secular Jewish conversion of choosing to not participate. There was no moment at which I had to decide to be or not to be a religious Jew (there was a momentary teenage rebellion, but we’ll set that aside), and yet I could have chosen the opposite.
My relationship to Jesus was never ambivalent, but this was a different sort of ambivalence. This was never going to be my god. Not from idle lapse, but because whatever Jesus is, it is as alien as Ganesha, as Baron Samedi, as a Thetan, and so it was not a matter of simply opting out, but of rejecting every reason to opt-in. I read plenty about all of these ghosty things, because I was curious (it always cracks me up when evangelicals approach me as if they know nothing about Jesus, because man, I have heard that sales pitch, believe it or not.) But unlike how as a secular Jew my secularness was always a choice of rejection, my rejection of other faiths was always a choice of non-subscription.
This gets to the heart of what being ethnically Jewish is. It is always a decision in the context of the larger culture that is not ethnically Jewish. I never felt any pressure to choose a religion or be religious. But my entire spiritual existence (or lack thereof) exists in having a very small, textually odd religion as my rejected heritage, while around me, there is a majoritarian mass of “major world religions” that are very much used to being that majority.
This means (and is the point I am getting at) that to be ethnically Jewish in the United States is always to be Other.
It’s not such a bad Other to be, all things considered. Being this sort of Other in the United States is a far less worse experience than to have dark skin, to be a woman, to visibly perform a non-heterosexual sexuality or non-cis gender, and so on and so forth. But it is still Other, in its own way.
When I was in elementary school, I lived in a town in rural Connecticut for a time. We were one of two Jewish families in town, and so you can imagine that there was pretty short shrift dedicated to alternate holidays in those socialization zones. I somehow still learned the awful Hanukkah songs invented as alternate socialization mode, played dreidel with my cousins, and ate latkahs–all that was fine. But here is what I remember. I remember a conversation with my parents, sometime when I was probably around six or seven. We were talking about the fact that Santa was going to visit all these other kids and bring them presents, but not going to visit us. We got Hanukkah presents in spades, but of course, I was curious about the idea of receiving all gifts on one morning, rather than over eight nights. Did the other kids net more gifts than I did? Were they bigger? These are things that a kid that age is concerned about. But then comes the rub–I knew that my gifts came from my parents. But the other kids thought their gifts came from Santa. The issue came up. My parents assured me that Santa did not exist, and Christmas gifts came from essentially the same place as Hanukkah gifts. But why did they pretend that there was Santa? It’s fun for them, said my parents. We didn’t play that game, they said, because we were Jewish and our family did things differently. But if the other kids play pretend by believing in Santa, I shouldn’t ruin their fun by telling them they were wrong.
Think about the pressure this puts on a kid that age. The truth is revealed to me: the biggest holiday of the year for kids is based upon a lie. (Notice that this all about belief in Santa, not Jesus. But we all know who the real deity is on this holiday.) To a six year old, this is the equivalent of telling them that the Illuminati runs the world. The Christmas De Vinci Code was being entrusted to me. But then: I’m told that I should keep this mind-blowing secret to myself, in order to ensure the opiated pleasure of all the other children.
So it makes sense that a kid given this tremendous burden to protect the fantasy of others might grow up to study religious studies, psychoanalysis, philosophy, and make a lifestyle out of rejecting ideologies, to hack together some sort of pragmatic spiritual practice from rocks, tree bark, black clothing, and fire, because at least objects cannot lie, and practice that requires no belief cannot be a delusion. Despite what labels might be more appropriate or accurate for describing whatever it is that I do (all those A-words), for me it is linked to my Jewish ethnicity. Sure, I’ve seen a lot of other things, experienced direct bigotry, and had other things effect my Jewish ethnicity as well. Being Jewish in Connecticut was a far cry from being Jewish in Georgia, where one is likely to be confronted with a look of horror upon Christian faces. I got called “a Jew” in the street a couple weeks ago, which I have to say was a fairly new experience for me. But there is something about this secular experience Christmas, and the holiday’s wide-spread, ecumenical “goodwill” that makes it just so pernicious.
Every time I hear someone say “Merry Christmas”, see an ad for a Christmas sale, have someone ask me if “I’m ready for the holidays” long after my holidays are over, or give me a funny look when I don’t get a reference to one of their quasi-religious songs, I remember that I am not like other people. And it isn’t just that I don’t believe, or don’t like Christmas. It is that those around me just assume I merely don’t like Christmas, that I’m obsessed with some sort of agnostic political correctness, or just because I don’t go to church. Why the hell would someone ask me if I go to church? How is that a question I should have to answer? I don’t celebrate Christmas or go to church because I have always been something Other than Christian. I never gave up Christmas. It was never mine. It belongs to someone else. Being a secular Jew is not like being lactose intolerant. I am not Christmas-deficient. I am something else entirely, and other people’s failure to even imagine that could be possible is the greatest insult of all. This “holiday-blindness” piles on to everything that I have experienced in terms of the winter holidays since the time I was six years old, and reminds me, time and time again, while I will never accept the majoritarian bias of secular Christianity as anything related to my culture.
It sounds as if I’m bitter. Why wouldn’t I want to just enjoy the holiday, rather than make a big thing about it? Surely a secular, ethically Jewish person would have no opposition to gathering around a Charlie Brown Humanist Miracle, because the “real” meaning of the holiday is friendship, togetherness, so on and so forth. But that is just it: that is not what the holiday is about. The holiday, in the United States, is about celebrating the false inclusiveness of Christian capitalism–a peaceful unity that anyone can enjoy, provided that their reject their own heritage and beliefs, and join the morass. Even if we leave Jesus out of it entirely, Christmas still asks a secular Jew to reject his/her ethnicity and accept secular Christianity. Every Christmas-themed TV show plot, every green and red sweater, every red-nosed reindeer and every speaker whispering Christmas music in the background is a missionary text. It reads: “Christmas is normal”. The argument is: “Sure, you can opt out. But remember that by doing so, you are irrevocably different.”
And I’m not bitter (though I am a little bitter that it is necessary for me to prove that I’m not). I’ve been to many Christmas celebrations, and I’ll go to many more. They are unavoidable. I like any feasting holiday, so I make the most of it and enjoy a day off. And as I said in the beginning, this is not an extraordinarily pleasant line of thought, so I try to not brood on it. I have another drink instead.
But many Jews of all categories like to teach others about their traditions. Even though I know more than I at time I’d ever like to know about Christianity, I don’t expect people to know that about me. I’m serious. Consider this my gift–a look into my conficted, spiritual soul, where I don’t go very often, let alone let others tour at will. And so on this Christmas, I hope I can teach you a little bit about how we secular, ethnic Jews celebrate your Christmas holiday. Booze, blog posts, and a bit of that old existential confusion. Have a happy holiday, to all my friends of Christian heritage. And to my friends of all the other heritages in the world, thank goodness it’ll be another year until we’ll have to go through this again.
Do you still listen to podcasts? I do. I’m still trying to figure it out, but I think my fascination stems from a combination of the packaged, finished product, but the relatively open means of distribution. Podcasts go out over RSS feed, but they are more orderly and substantial in content than most blog posts. It’s kind of like TV on demand, except for audio. There are some video podcasts, but most people who do cyclical video put it on Youtube, from which is very difficult to get a functional RSS feed and download the episodes for offline play. (I’ve only been able to do it manually, episode by episode, which is tedious.)
I’ve been thinking more about audio as a medium lately, because of the things I like about podcast’s distribution. It seems to have a lot of advantages over the most common means of print distribution. I also worked at my college radio station, and I’m kind of nostalgic for the idea of having a radio show.
Here are some podcasts I like, for various reasons. Sorry no links, but you can find them easily enough.
DJ Rupture’s Mudd Up, from WMFU Nice mixture of interviews and music, always stuff I hear here first.
The Fader, and XLR8R My version of pop music, without commercials (though the occasional sponsor nag). An hour mixtape is a perfect dose of pop music for me.
The Economist Week Ahead, and PBS News Hour Daily Updates Short bites of news, read in nice voices. Again, no commercials, so just the part of the radio I want to hear when I want it.
Radiolab, Science Friday, SciAm’s Science Talk Deeper discussion, interesting topics, and in the case of Radiolab especially, exquisite production. Ira Flatow’s constant station IDs are annoying (because it actually is a radio show) but I can deal. I like that SciFri breaks up their hour-long shows into segments, so I only listen to the ones I’m interested in.
New York Review of Books podcast This was one of my favorites, but they seem to be putting them out far less often. They would mix it up–sometimes an interview, sometimes a recorded lecture, sometimes an “essay” of sorts. And the day I stumbled across Charles Simic reading his poetry on this podcast was probably the best podcast day ever. I still go back and listen to that one. His voice is fantastic, and gives a new life to his poetry.
What else? What podcasts do you listen to, and what about them is good? What do you think about podcasts as a medium?
My partner, Rosalynn, is not only a senior dispatcher and calltaker at the Bureau of Emergency Communications [BOEC] here in Portland, but she is finishing up her Master’s Thesis as a candidate for her MA in Folklore, which is about the narrative structures in her workplace and the impact of multi-modal forms of communication on narrative in the workplace. We’ve had several conversations to record her own thoughts about the workplace, and for me to provide a point of perspective about certain technological aspects. This conversation is part of her forthcoming thesis, and with her permission, I’m publishing it here, because I think the things we are discussing about the unavailability of technologically distinct narratives for important strategic and emergency positions are very important.
Interview with Adam Rothstein
33:15 to 43:00
October 8th, 2012
Location: The Nighthawk, North Portland
A: (33:15) (Unknown song playing in the background, sounds of other patrons at the bar talking) But it is sort of the same thing for suffering. You were wounded and you lost your limb. You fought over a long time in physical therapy to earn it back, you know? That is a discourse we have. That is a narrative we have come to accept as a way that things work, that is a way that suffering works.
R: You persevered over physical disability?
A: Yeah. You put it behind you. Something happened to you. You were damaged. And you put in the work and effort and through that [you put it behind you] you become whole again, you regain that part that was broken.
R: And in that way there is no real language for us to talk about that. We are not the people who get ejected from the car and have to be transported in three different pieces to the hospital and put back together. We don’t experience the one time severe trauma, it is daily bullshit that becomes overwhelming at times. But then too, I sit here now and have this conversation and I think of new [BOEC] trainees. It is basically two years of your life, ruined. Not like I still don’t get that… I had that today, I woke up today with my heart racing having a nightmare about dispatch and felt fucked up. But that is the difference between now, when it happens sometimes, and sometimes I get overwhelming anger I can’t control–and the beginning where I couldn’t sleep and woke up screaming and shit like that. But it is that day in and day out. It is not like it happens once when something is really bad and then you move on it through like perseverance… everyday that you go to work it happens.
A: I wonder if it is because [pause] so historically… that is a relatively new sort of thing to have happen. (Music switching to Madonna’s Material Girl) So here is a thing where it is kind of interesting it is new. There is not, a situation, a role in human history where you have to vicariously hear a very short, detail-oriented account of somebody else’s horrible trauma. And then you don’t have time to reflect on it, because your whole position is based upon you being able to deal with these quickly in succession.
R: It has existed for like thirty five years.
A: Yeah, so [pause] this is like a brand sort of new human experience that we have. We have narratives of heroes that go back thousands and thousands of years, but whatever it is that you do, whatever it is that we want to call that role, it has only existed for thirty five years. Fuck, we don’t have a narrative about it. We don’t even know what it is called, you know?
R: (36:40) Well and no one has bothered to study how it effects you, until like four months ago.
A: It makes you wonder, how long did it take us to develop our concept of heroism. So you have like the concept of the Homeric hero developing in 2000 B.C. or whatever. But clearly those weren’t the first wars. There were thousands of years to get to that point. So here we are, developing these new roles that we are throwing people into, in which they are having to deal with trauma in ways for which they don’t have a narrative pattern, and who knows if they will ever develop one before technology and society changes so that position disappears. It is something completely different. Maybe it is totally conceivable that in twenty years your job will be done by, like uhh… voice responsive algorithms. Totally possible. They just have a computer that listens to someone shout until it gets the address. It dispatches the car and that is all. There is no question, no answer, no human involved.
R: Except for the fact that I think, they will do a lot more other stuff like that before they do our job like that.
A: Well you know, that is neither here nor there.
R: After you insult me. [Adam coughs and drinks from a glass.] I am basically a computer.
A: Well, nobody’s job is safe.
R: Maybe drones will tweet themselves in thirty years.
A: That is what I am saying. Drones will see the accident in progress and just respond. Who are you gonna call? The drones are already watching. [Mutual laughter.] I am seeing my job out sourced in ten. Computers writing bullshit essays for blogs, you know. Fuck. Let alone for pay. A human will do it for free, don’t need to pay anybody. [pause] But anyway, back to the point. That calltaker/dispatcher position could disappear from human history before anybody has even named it, let alone developed a sort of narrative to cope with physiological discourse, cultural discourse. In that sense it is awesome that you are doing the project you are doing, because it is not like, “oh 911 operators, you know, Cicero wrote about 911 operators,” [laughter] we have heard that story. No this is a relatively new part of human history that is too new to be studied and, who knows what technology will bring, what history will bring in the next twenty years. Being replaced by computers is just one particular option. It could be like…
R: Apocalypse happens?
A: It could be that one quarter of Americans are basically taking 911 phone calls as they try and dispatch drones to solve all the problems we have created for ourselves.
R: (40:30) We could all be dead.
A: That is what I am saying. Eventually what your position will do is fly a drone. So you will be controlling the drone and responding to the callers at the same time. And then dispatching drones to the location to find out what exactly is going on. Then, dispatching the police. So drones will work on the dispatch end, and then they will have tactical handheld drones that police can launch for their own purposes. Police helicopters will basically be phased out and…
R: We will have the non-tactical drones, like the video camera drones.
A: Well no, you guys will fire kill shots from drones. They will adapt the military model which is where soldiers on the ground request support from the drones.
R: They will never. Culturally speaking, there would have to be a huge cultural change to imagine us being the ones… I like can’t even conceive that in the next twenty years.
A: It will be like a skill set. Cause just like cops can’t run their MDTs [mobile data terminal] now, they won’t be able to fired a heat-seeking missile from a drone.
R: This is horrifying.
A: This is…
R: Well did I tell you about the mental health desk or whatever? They are supposed to get a mental health desk at the dispatch center.
A: Is this because of the whole DOJ [the Department of Justice was investigating the use of force in the Portland Police Bureau] thing?
R: DOJ, yeah.
[REDACTED FOR PRIVACY REASONS]
A: Well, there is a lot more money in studying PTSD in drone pilots, [than 911 dispatching] so hopefully when your career syncs up with that you will be set.
R: Hmm. [long pause. KC and The Sunshine Band’s Get Down Tonight starts playing]
Had a little Twitter tiff with @ekstasis and @nils_gilman yesterday which I think suffered largely from poor definition of terms, that I thought I’d write a short note to try and clarify (the wonders that more that 140 can do).
I often find myself defending post-modernism, not because I particularly love post-modern theory (we’re called post-structuralists, please) but because it is so frequently maligned from what seems to me to be misunderstanding. And now that most post-modern theorists have gone on to other things, the haters feel free to continue whipping their straw men, and we’re slowly cementing a revisionist history of what post-modernism really was (ironic, no?).
To me, post-modernism stands for two different things that are important to keep straight.
1- The historical epoch that came after modernism.
2- A particular approach to theorizing the nature of thought in that historical epoch.
The difference is huge–the first is shorthand for a period of time that we are attempting to discuss as relevant. The second is a particular theory with pros and cons that can be debated. As I was trying to make clear yesterday, treating a historical epoch as “reactionary” is ridiculous. To begin with, time passes of its own accord, and our identification of historical epochs as succeeding one another is not due to one’s particular “overthrow” of another, but the inevitable turning of the pages of our calendar. You might as well accuse 2011 of being stupid, or Tuesdays of laziness. What a pejorative statement against a historical time period could mean, I have no idea. Maybe this stems from our tendency to treat cultural nebulae as if they were solid masses, as in “hiphop died in ’93″, or “kids these days are doing it wrong”, but all of that seems to be on the relative-losing side of the Culture Wars, again, ironically.
The point of my calling this out is that I don’t want to fall in the trap of criticizing any person who published a book in the post-modern era, and think that we are levying a charge against post-modern theory. Anyone displaying a set of characteristics in their work that seems particular to the post-modern era, we might call an example of post-modern thought, but we should keep this separate from people actually attempting post-modern theory. @nils_gilman said in one of his later tweets, “You need to judge theory by both its high and vulgar forms. The latter often reveals something telling about the former.” And while I would say there is some truth to that, you really cannot judge a person by others who are lumped with them for specious reasons of misidentification. This is the reason that people can be futurists today, and we know they have nothing to do with the pro-war, proto-fascist writers of the Futurist Manifesto. This is how you can have something like the “New Aesthetic” and know that it doesn’t merely apply to anything at all that we might call new. Sure, there is a relation between post-modern thought and post-modern theory. Post-modern theory was largely done in the post-modern era, and as such would qualify as post-modern thought. But this does not and cannot mean that all post-modern thought is post-modern theory.
The simple reason for this, is that post-modern theory extends both before and after the post-modern era. Any undergrad philosophy student could tell you that Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud were the “Masters of Suspicion”, from the work of whom stems the entire intellectual tradition of post-modern theory. This was work that was published starting in the first half of the 19th Century. And today, we see post-modern ideas continuing under new guises, such as queer theory, network theory, and other particular attempts to name a defined “theory”.
So what is particularly post-modern about post-modern theory? In my estimation, it identifies and promotes a set of suspicions about a foundational set of cultural “known truths”, and is able to show convincingly that these truths have very real effect in human life, but their reality stems from a set of factors that could be shifted. It is not a debunking of the “real”, it is a debunking of the “natural”, as a nature of things that is implicit and immutable.
1867, Marx publishes Capital, Volume One and argues convincingly that value is not our attempt to judge the inherent worth of an object, but that value is something that we instill in an object via our labor.
1887, Nietzsche publishes The Geneaology of Morals, and shows that morality does not come from what is permanently “right and true” in the world as in Aristotelian tradition, but from our own individual hang ups about value and punishment.
1900, Freud publishes The Interpretation of Dreams and theorizes a part of the mind that is not directly accessible to human consciousness, and yet can affect our consciousness. The detail of this split and how it functions obsoletes the Cartesian cogito.
In my opinion, perhaps the greatest post-modern document of all time is the American Anthropological Association’s “Statement on Race”, published in 1998. In this very short publication, the largest group of anthropologists, for once and for all, destroy the scientific underpinnings of hundreds of years of cultural, imperial, economic, and sexual oppression. This is not a relativistic statement. It is a statement of fact, that what is described as “race” simply does not exist from a genetic standpoint.
None of these documents call themselves post-modern, or even were published in the post-modern epoch. But these are singular examples for the basis of questioning “Grand Narratives” that Lyotard pronounced dead in his book The Post-Modern Condition. All of these critiqued narratives were once taken as fact, and by the 1950s, when the theories of these modernist Masters of Suspicion are widely known and accepted, it seems that everything true is potentially suspect. Which of course, it is. There is nothing fundamental to Truth that makes it self-evident. This has always been the case. Lies that masquerade as truth have been told since the beginning of human history. The fact that a majority of people believe a lie does not make it factual. And yet, that is a fact. Truth is dead, but facts are still numerous. Post-modern theory simply makes it its business to identify this trend, and to push it, to see how far it goes. As for this general observation by which we might identify a general theory of what post-modern theory is (I always use Lyotard for the definition myself), I don’t know that this is debateable. That there is a post-modern theory, relating to a post-modern trend in thought, does not seem to be the question here. The question posed, as I understand it, is whether this trend of identifying weaknesses in grand narratives is a good thing or not.
When people start digging up one’s lawn, accusing it of not necessarily being Truth, one starts to get edgy. And hence the reactionary kickback against those working with post-modern theory. When I say “lawn”, what I really mean is “class”, of course (being the good Marxist I am). If you start making the case that urban riots might have a point, that women are not necessarily subservient to men, that governments rule by tyranny rather than democracy, that morality is a better description of sexual power regimes than of goodness, that theology is used to extract more labor from workers, that science can be used to hurt people as much as help them, and that human history can be read as one long trail of tears in which these facts are covered over and rejected–well, those are pretty dangerous things to say. They are not dangerous because they threaten the Great Books. They are dangerous because they threaten the Great Corporations, the Great Nation-States, the Great Religions, and the Great Men of History.
The Great Men of History, to counter this threat of facts against their own narratives which keep them firmly and logically in control, do not paint these theories as disputes against their version of the facts. They portray them as against “fact” in general. These college professors! They claim that they are politically-minded but they are full of their own ideas, stoned into nihilism with their Hasan-i Sabbah “nothing is true, everything is permitted” Eastern mystic hashish garbage! Reject this islamo-fascism and return to your Christian heritage, the defender of truth for thousands of years! They would love the assertion that intellectuals are replacing “‘strong readings of society’ with ‘weaker ones’”. Since when was “strong” preferable to “correct”? As if this was the 1950s, and jocks are beating nerds outside of their fraternity house before graduating to go shape the world at Dow Chemical.
And we’ve internalized this reactionary narrative, to the point where we are blaming those who wrote about this epochal shift in thought for causing it! As if Lyotard, by writing his book in 1979, somehow was responsible for Nietzsche’s popularity. We are supposed to reject these upstarts, that inspired students to protest in the streets (many of the professors were in fact against it, ironic again) and stoke the fires of nostalgia for the time period of “true beliefs”, for the Greatest Generation. If only we had fascism rampant in the world, so we could be so morally steeled in our fight against it! If only we had a specter of atheistic communism to oppose, to be the rationale behind our military-industrial complex! Then we would not live in this world of doubt, fear, and calamity that these professors caused with their books. This is the narrative of the GOP, not relativism and historical hermeneutics. Professors and theorists are at once irrelevant, and poisoning our water supply. Islamists are both fascist and communist. Black presidents are at once socialist and elitist. The GOP does not seek to replace truth with fact. It seeks to replace fact with anything that will help it win its political struggles. It seeks to build a false history of the past as Whiggish rationale for American exceptionalism. It seeks to supplant real politics with nationalism and oligarchy, and send resisters to poverty, if not to prision (as does the DNC, in case my opinions on American politics weren’t clear).
The 1950s may have been great if you were a white, male, American with an industrial job. But we forget that the unfolding of history since that time has been filled with multitudes of struggles of the people who were not those chosen few, as they attempt to live something like a decent life, and establish some facts of their own. And the fact that some things have gotten better for some of those people shows that this has not been the wrong course to take.
It could be better, but that is history. If there is a post-modern universal truth of history, it is that there is no universal truth of history, and history will never finally turn sunny side up, like a quarter flipped into the air. But to heavily paraphrase general semantics theorist Alfred Korzybski, history is never depressing, people only become depressed because of history. Thankfully, regardless of what the theory is called, and however people feel about it, no one is done fighting yet.
While history continues to sort itself out, blaming a particular trend of theory (which on the whole, is really a pretty small fraction of culture) for the trials of the world seems silly. Now, if the article wanted to quibble with a particular theorist, I’m all ears for that. But given that the original article summed up the entirety of Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism as ‘destroying all space between men and pressing men against each other’ I’m thinking that nuance was not particularly the goal here, so much as polemic. But hey, absorbing that ire is all in a day’s work for a theory that attempts to rethink some of the most entrenched misunderstandings of Western society.
Woke up this morning to a banging on my door, and a package wrapped in DHS “This parcel has been inspected by US Customs” tape, with a Dubai return address. I always expect unexpected parcels, and was just going to go back to bed, but then I figured out what it was. It was my contributor’s copies of The State’s Volume Two: Speculative Geographies.
Rahel and Ahmad put together something absolutely crazy and wonderful. Despite the rough handling given to the issues by DHS, I found one of the most innovative print issues I’ve seen. Inside a dust cover, is a hard-backed folio containing a wallet-sized map fold of each article, with color photos. If my thrill at being included as an author in such a beautiful thing isn’t already clear, I took unboxing photos, which I never have done before.
Behold, the beauty of a magnificent print object, captured through a crappy cell phone camera, on my bed room floor.
I’m unsure of exactly how to say this, so I’m going to just say it.
I’ve noticed more than a couple instances recently, in which a blog post decrying rape culture was beset by comments in the comment thread, supporting rape culture. That’s putting it mildly, of course. And unsurprisingly, indignation followed as people saw how horrible their fellow humans really can be.
While people have every reason to be angry about people supporting rape and rape culture in blog comment threads, I sincerely wish that the “shock” that people express about this would stop. This surprise, to me, is akin to surprise that one would be unable to have a productive discussion about rape culture on the wall of a bathroom stall at a rest area. This is the internet. There is child porn on the internet. Prostitution. If not physical rape, certainly sexual harassment, and the precursors to rape. A blog comment thread is an uncontrollable, pseudo-anonymous, short-text medium. To think that the internet would respond to the awfulness of rape culture with uniform sensitivity, courage, and understanding is naive.
The fact of rape culture is that one in four college age women have survived rape or attempted rape. 8% of men admit to committing rape. (These and other statistics here.) Do we believe that these 8% of men don’t use the internet? Where do we think these men are? That they live in dark alleys, or in some “backward, ignorant” place far away from us?
I don’t bring this up just to feel pleased with myself by calling bullshit on people claiming to be “shocked, just shocked” at verbal abuse in comment threads. I’m actively concerned by this, because it perpetuates a belief that the world is a reasonable, generally kind place. We should never “expect” to see examples of rape culture, or dismiss it as “normal”. Nor should we be “surprised” that rape culture exists. Holding up blog comment threads as if they were anything less than the detritus of the internet skews the way which we confront rape culture, and keeps us off balance. It’s already generally agreed by both blog authors and readers that the comment threads are often devoid of most critical value. Why, suddenly, are we shocked?
This is not the equivalent of suggesting that “if people don’t like rape culture, they should not bring it up on blogs”, or otherwise avoid the internet, or stop wearing short skirts. Far from it. There should be many, many more posts pointing out egregious instances of rape culture. Anyone who, even as a joke, decides it is okay to tolerate rape culture or others who do should be called out, and forced to recant. But as for pseudo-anonymous blog comment threads? Maybe if we had DHS’ resources we could track down every asshole with a keyboard, half a brain, and 15 seconds of free time (if only the surveillance state were on our side, no?). But as we don’t, we should close the comment thread, or be prepared to be confronted with a direct example of what we are up against. Consider it simply prudent, like putting up storm shutters.
I’m reminded of people who would attend various Occupy meetings, and make the, apparently, sincere suggestion that we get bankers, police officers, and government officials to attend the GA. Similarly, people would voice the idea that the 1% might be alienated by the slogan 99%, and this was bad, since we wanted everyone to be on the same side. In fact, any time an idea was proposed that might just be unpopular with a measurable amount of people, the 99% slogan was rolled out again, in some sort of dogmatic and extreme notion of populism. Not only did I find these positions idiotic, I found the incredibly insulting to people who had been fighting the banks, war, and the government for years, often receiving blows from the police for their trouble.
It is an extreme form of class privilege to believe that people will do the right thing, simply because it is the right thing. This is a fight against late capitalism. One of the main reasons we are against this capitalism, is because it will go to nearly any length in order to defend itself and increase its profit. There are literally trillions of dollars being made via this system. To think that it will give up and die, that it will give up these profits, and that it will do so without committing extreme violence in the effort to defend itself is not just naive, but reflects a vulnerable misunderstanding of what the enemy is. Don’t think for a second that the CEOs of investment banks misunderstand this. Don’t think for one second that surprisingly low levels of police authority know exactly when they will fire a gun into the face of an unarmed protester to protect bank property. This is not an apocalyptic eventuality, this unfolds every day. If you have not seen the violence already occurring against non-violent people, with the aim of simply making more money for someone with already a large amount of money, then you are willfully ignoring it.
The worst part of this was not having to sit through asinine comments at Occupy meetings, but it was in the street, when suddenly the police would turn on people, and the crowd would either flee, or panic. It was inconceivable to the majority that someone would actually try to stop them from protesting with force, and when this inconceivability actually happened, they crumbled.
Not that it is my role to tell anyone what to do, or when to stand up to blows, or when to run away. And I don’t want to argue that we all must become scarred, jaded people who think the worst of the world, in order to do any good.
But all the same, obsessing that a blog comment thread, which is really only an IP log away from being equivalent to 4chan, is showing signs of the same rape culture that leaves one out of four college-aged women raped, is probably not. While getting angry about it is natural, spending all our time trying to purify the comment thread of signs of rape culture is like trying to fix a stalled car by washing the windows. Fighting capitalism or rape culture is not easy. It is long, hard, filled with minor defeats, and horrible mental wounds (if not physical). Burning out on washing the windows doesn’t help anyone.
If there was no other way to fight rape culture than in comment threads, that would be one thing. But it is just as easy to close the comment thread. That is what BoingBoing eventually did on the post at the top of this essay. No sense not to start out that way. (Comments on this post are closed. If you want to discuss this, I’d be happy to, but reach me through another means.)
On a more positive note, you know who is awesome? This woman, who punched a guy in the face after hearing him make “rape jokes” (rape threats) in the street. She didn’t waste any time with dickheads in the comment thread. In the link above, even the Jezebel writer is forced to backpedal from violence (actually, self-defense to legitimate threats) because violence is never the best answer, goodness knows, and rationality ought to prevail. No, as a matter of fact–rationality does not often prevail. That is what the writer’s “irrepressible little voice in my head” knows, and why it is telling her to thank this woman for doing what needed to be done.
Weird-Shit Con was a proposal for a Twitter meet-up that has generated some definite interest, and so it is now a thing.
The meet-up will, of course, define itself. In the planning stages it is being organized with the intention of being a multi-day meeting in order to talk face-to-face about a bunch of weird, generally-futurist, very compelling topics, and to generate a record of the conversations so that “progress can be made” outside of the constraints of 140 characters.
Spatial referents in cascading relevance: Portland, Oregon, Cascadia, Western Standard Time, United States, North America, Earth.
I have realized that, via Twitter and other networks, I have come to have some very interesting acquaintances, who do very interesting things either as their hobby or their job, or some combination of the two. The distributed nature of the networks was the means by which we all came to know each other. But it occurs to me, that if somehow, we were able to get all of these people into the same physical space at the same time, we might just be able to throw the Twittersphere a bit off-orbit. Whether this power would be used for good or bad, or if it even exists at all remains to be seen. But there is no way to find out other than to try it. So this is the first attempt to call everyone in for a meeting. Not just a social gathering, but a meeting of people who are already waist deep in it, to see what, together, we might accomplish over a very short amount of time, without planning ahead, without any commitment whatsoever.
So, for now, this is what WSC2012 is. Please share this as you like, and fill out the survey if you are interested in being part of it, and let’s make something happen.
I haven’t seen Prometheus yet. I actually plan to, which is rare for me. I don’t think I’ve seen a new release film in the theater for over two years. I have a hype allergy–if someone is excited about a film, in such a way that it might convince me to see it, it actually kills the experience, because I’m afraid that the film won’t live up to the hype, and therefore my low expectations become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
This odd cultural auto-immune disorder notwithstanding, this is the Alien saga, and so I know I’m going to see it one way or another, so I might as well go eat some overpriced popcorn while I do it.
However, until I can overcome my self-preserving inertia, I am fascinated by the Twitter conversations about it.
This is the way I normally judge whether or not I want to see a film. Rather than read reviews written by people with movie tastes based on who-knows-what, I listen to my Twitter feed. My Twitter feed is already filled with an amalgam of folks who I think have interesting opinions, but whom I don’t necessarily agree with perfectly. I set my feed up as a spectrum, shining out into the world of subjectivity with a wide frequency of light, and looking for what is reflected back. Of course, I don’t want everything reflected back, as the sea of popular opinion is a vacuous wasteland, absorbing light, rather than twinkling it back to me. But I get a good image to guide me, fine-tuned over the years.
Except, that with Prometheus, I am getting a glitched out radar image that doesn’t make any sense. Naturally, my Twitter feed never agrees on anything. There is the range of spectrum that responds well to comicbook-oriented films, there is the spectrum set that reflects on art films. There is the SF spectrum, with all its various hues. And there is the “dark art” set, that shines with a UV intensity against anything cryptic or alien. In this case, everything was coming back awry. No particular color of light was resolving into a clear image.
This is not a bad thing, it’s just weird. I have no idea what to think of this film, because I’m getting glitchy results that don’t match how the correlated data I’ve analyzed in the past.
I have a theory as to why, but not having seen the film yet, it’s just a theory. Think of people you may have met who really like Harry Potter, or Twilight, or Lord of the Rings, or something like that. When the film comes out, they most likely love it, because it is the film of the thing they love. It’s like planting a sunflower, and then, what do you know, a sunflower blooms! Everything is awesome.
Alien, in many ways, is the “film of the thing they love” for me and many other people. However, there was no book that is simply adapted into a film. It is adapting something more bizarre, more diverse and cultural diffuse, and attempting to make a film of it. Blade Runner is also a film of it. William Gibson sometimes writes books of it. There are dozens and dozens of blogs and Tumblrs about it. I follow many Twitter accounts that tweet about it. But what it is, is the hard part to explain. Again, depending on the light with which you are trying to view it, it will look differently. And yet, Alien was most definitely a film of it. We know that. That’s why for many people, it’s a classic film.
As to whether Prometheus is a film of it, that remains to be seen. What is confusing right now is that some people think that it is, some people think that it isn’t. Additionally, we are trying to resolve those feelings with the idea that it most certainly is a film related to Alien, which was part of it, and yet the prequel might not be part of it, or at least we are definitely not sure.
I wish there was a way to quantify this subjective dissonance, because I would love to compare it to the Twitter Vision glitching that happens when/if a Blade Runner sequel comes out. Perhaps there will be more consternation–or maybe, if Blade Runner is much more foundational than even Alien, perhaps there will simply be more univocal dislike.
This is something that I’ve been sitting on for a couple months, and so I thought I would post it. It seems related to the question of politics and the New Aesthetic, but at the moment I’m not quite sure how. Something to do with the relationship between what we are actually doing, and how we talk about what we are doing. At any rate, I think there is some good language in here that I wanted to put out there.
Douglas Rushkoff doesn’t really understand Occupy. At least in this talk, his words don’t understand Occupy. He might understand it, but he just doesn’t talk about in during this video. That might not be his fault, of course. There are many things that are more complex than words easily impart, especially in the limited time frame and audience of a keynote talk. I’m going to try here, but I won’t necessarily do any better.
But nevertheless, this talk doesn’t get Occupy. Occupy isn’t a fully distributed movement. It is not the commons. It isn’t hyperlinks. It isn’t Twitter, where everyone gets 140 characters, and then what they do with that becomes integrated into some Klout curve of follow counts and RT quotients. As a friend told me, “Occupy is not a platform.” I know this, but it took the friend to remind me. I wish it was these things, because I get social media. I really like using Twitter, and my use of that platform is fulfilling to me. I wish Occupy could be the same.
Everyone says “Occupy is this, Occupy is that, Occupy is everything” and you start to believe it, because if social media was some sort of metaphor for Occupy, then by occupying I wouldn’t be doing anything different than my normal life (if you’re me, and like to chat on Twitter all day). I live half my life on half a dozen networks, I work and Occupy on networks, my friends are networked. So yeah, it’s fractals, it’s rhizomes, it’s the music of the spheres. Why not? I’ve used drugs. I read Deleuze. It all sounds good.
But that’s just the spectacle of Occupy, according to the people that need to keep reminding themselves and re-viewing the spectacle to remind themselves that it exists (i.e. they’re not living it every day so they have to talk about it). The spectacle of Occupy is a “Non-Demand-Based” political occupation of public space. Their emphasis. The weird thing to most people is the lack of demands, and they need to name this as a platform. “Well, if you’re doing something I don’t get, and it’s got a lot of people and it’s distributed, there’s a mess of computers and maybe drones, then it must be the internet.”
No. Occupy is the public street. The Street is just like it always has been. The street is dirty, messy, stretches your understanding of what is and isn’t violent, and is nuts. There are many different streets, and they each have their own character. But there are certain streets that we are starting to pay attention to again. It’s not just a square in the Middle East somewhere, and its not just the National Mall. It isn’t even Main Street, USA. The Street that all of a sudden we are forced to pay attention to is a weird strip of land that we saw everyday for years, that we ignored as innocuous green space. It is a college campus, that is supposed to just be a frisbee park, or a background in Admissions brochures. The Street is in a different place, but it’s still The Street.
There’s a temporal difference as well. The Street is still The Street, but now the smart people are back out in the street, and so The Street is actually doing something “interesting”, and not just being blocked by peasantry standing in the way of JP Morgan’s car. The bourgeoisie are in the street, either because they’ve been forced there, or because the interesting things are going on out there. The Street is relatively safe, despite what the media will tell you. The media refuses to use history as a comparison. But they’re just another vendor with a product to sell, and history is not it.
If you don’t think that people build homes in The Street all the time; if you don’t think that riots happen all the time; if you think that people aren’t protesting capitalism outside of the mall every day of the week; if you don’t think that people are always capable of defending themselves against the police if they choose to do so; then you are merely more interested in a different narrative that is not the narrative of The Street, and so you’ve been choosing to ignore it. What Occupy is, is that The Street had a good old fashioned flash mob, and decided to all show up in the same place at the same time, and then people actually showed up, and we’re repulsed by The Street, but actually kind of got into it. And then the Media noticed. It was a word, it was capitalized, and because of a number of pictures that happened at the right time, the word got capitalized, and then the Media could use it to sell advertisements.
This happened in Portland on October 6th, when I met people that I’ve been working with for the last six months. Best flash mob ever. Since then, it’s been business as usual, and that means The Street, as usual. Fighting the narrative that refuses to recognize The Street. Every few weeks we take over The Street, and remind the consolidated forces of power and capital that it isn’t just a roadway. We keep thinking about it, planning it, coming up with better ideas, breaking down bad ideas, and solidify the organization of The Street in the process.
This isn’t a popular movement, it never was, and it never will be. The world is just too multiplicitous of a place for everyone to ever be captivated by anything in particular. We struggle to understand voter disengagement. But can you ever get everyone to do anything? Can’t even get half the population of a supposed “American Culture” to all watch the Super Bowl. Can’t you imagine if you were a popular speaker, but couldn’t even get half of a room to all listen to you at the same time? There will never be a majority of people. A majority of a sample set, maybe. If you force everyone you ask to answer a question as either yes or no.
But The Street keeps doing it’s thing, which is lots of things, each and everyone doing their own thing. The interesting thing about The Street, at least the Occupied street, is that there is still, after six months, a critical mass of really smart people willing to join in this particular sample set. And not just to answer yes or no, but to start working on some really difficult projects.
My personal project is that I’m trying to destroy mainstream media as a capitalist business model, and make it a form of political history. Yeah, we could use some help. It’s not easy to deconstruct a hierarchical system of publishing that relies upon selling marketing material, and remake it into an anarchist media organization. But we’re working on it, and getting a lot better. We don’t have a platform. We couldn’t use one. Facebook is not going to solve this problem, because that is not what the platform will let you do. Twitter won’t solve the problem. No one tool is going to make The Street function better. It’s going to take a whole lot of tools, that will have to be begged, borrowed, and stolen. How is Facebook going to help me when a cop tries to smash my camera with a baton? How is Facebook going to help me when a rogue hacker feels personally insulted by something on our website and threatens to attack us? Who is going to help us? What former institution, what State platform, is going to guarantee a nice, fair, distributed lifestyle for the street? The Police as Platform? Our education system as Platform? Representative Democracy as Platform? Occupy as Platform? Fuck that. It’s not just leaders that have failed us. It’s the systems that anyone with a famous name has tried to sell us. Jordan, Clinton, Jobs, Lin, Obama, Zuckerberg. Fuck ‘em all. We’re going to need a solid crew of real experts who want to keep working in the street, not just some flashy apps, and “platforms”, and the assholes who are going to collect money from us for the privilege of attempting to get on board.
The General Assembly is not platform. It’s not the point, anymore than your homepage is the Internet. It’s just how you start. It’s how you learn about consensus, which is the point. Everyone works on a modified consensus, anyway. The real work goes on in Committees and working groups, in the affinity groups that we use to take The Street for public use and shut down corporations. It’s about how you stay in The Street, not about how you got there, or when and why you decide to leave. Many people think that if we can just get the people to the streets, then everything will take care of itself. But it’s getting the people into the streets, and giving them the tools to figure out what they are doing there, and what they are going to do next. There’s no platform for that. Seen any good Occupy apps? Of course you haven’t.
And here’s what is going on in The Streets.
Learning programming; figuring out how to print things without wasting quite so much material; figuring out what sort of music helps you stay awake on a 40 hour drive because there was no other way; the fine art of quitting smoking, starting again, and quitting again; pre-protest yoga; studying drone silhouettes; sleeping in office buildings; sleeping in cars; sleeping on concrete; sleeping while standing; SEO and social media (yeah it’s in there); dodging bill collectors; ducking the cops, cooking for people with gluten intolerances plus lactose allergies; making a business model to keep a storefront to use it as a place to have meetings; helping a store owner with his/her business model to keep the storefront to use it as a place to have meetings; man/zone defense theories of police brutality media coverage; conveying opinion in meetings by hand signals alone to save time; trying to stay married; trying not to wonder about whether or not to have kids; arguing about whether or not broken windows are violence; healing from wounds; learning how to type on a laptop while running from armed men; picking a collaborative editing platform and sticking with it for the benefit of the people who can’t adopt to new software so quickly; arguing with drunks; de-escalation training; union negotiation; the fine art of threatening people in a non-criminal way over the internet; consensus process; conspiracy theory literacy; and, if there’s any money, getting drunk every now and again to forget all the things you can’t plan or skill out of the equation and remain huge, angst-ridden empty variables, like the inside of a prison, or death.
And it’s a little bit romantic, at least when you sum it up in one long run-on sentence. That’s a privilege of being on The Streets in this country, as opposed to somewhere else where they would be no time or place to glorify it in such ways. And when you’ve been doing it for six months and you’ve already realized that this is what the rest of your life is going to look like, it doesn’t really seem that romantic anyway. It certainly doesn’t seem like you’ve happened upon a new renaissance paradigm. It seems more like you’re fighting a war, but it’s a war that everyone else refuses to believe exists. You start to wonder if maybe if you died from it, that would prove that you’re not crazy. Or maybe it would only prove that you are.
And that’s not the Internet. It has the internet in it, but only as part. It’s life.
Here’s where I start: politics is the elephant in the room. In the portrait of New Aesthetics painted by Bruce Sterling, the glitch-captivation is a worldview. As a way of seeing the world, it has its own political aspects. But there is more than needs to be said.
The New Aesthetic reeks of power relations. Drones, surveillance, media, networks, digital photography, algorithms. This is largely about the technology of “seeing”, and how we see this new technology of seeing. But the technology is also for watching. The ability to watch someone is a form of power. It controls the flow of information. “I know everything about you, but you know nothing about me.” Or, “I know everything about you, and all you can do is make art about the means by which I know things.”
photo via Demilit Tumblr
In some ways, Bruce’s article makes mention of this problem, by noting the difference between the aesthetic appeal of certain technologies, and their actual function.
“Modern creatives who want to work in good faith will have to fully disengage from the older generation’s mythos of phantoms, and masterfully grasp the genuine nature of their own creative tools and platforms. Otherwise, they will lack comprehension and command of what they are doing and creating, and they will remain reduced to the freak-show position of most twentieth century tech art. That’s what is at stake.”
But this is more than hand-wringing over giving up our freedom, life, and death, to machines. The real danger that technology poses is precisely why we can’t “debunk” the aesthetic appeal and pretend that it doesn’t exist. You can ignore a work of art, but a drone or a surveillance array won’t be ignored. Not for long. Our consciousness is invaded and controlled via real space.
Our semiotic interest in these technologies is real. As real as the technologies themselves. So what do we do with it? What sort of actions ought we to take in response to seeing glitch-art from satellite cameras that uses not an anonymous landscape for background, but live images of our own homes? I’m not sure yet. Meanwhile, we continue to be watched.
Drones fire missiles, watching inquisitively for the flash of light. They have no sense of aesthetics. And they continue to fire, until their racks are empty. Then they reload.
This isn’t a criticism of New Aesthetics. It is wondering what the political module is that we will plug into New Aesthetics. These “Theory Objects” are made to network. They are consumer tech, and Theory Objects are as real as your smart phone and its own terrible eco-history. We are obsolete without networking in a politics, as yet uninvented.
We’re going to have to design-fiction a political module quickly. And then, worse: we must fab it, and get it into the field.
If you have ideas, do share. We need to work on this together.
1. The clear, obvious reason that the company that did this does not have the best intentions is in the name. “Homeless”. What does that even mean in this context? Did they check to make sure the people they gave hotspots to don’t have a place to sleep at night? Or did they have to be people who are not only houseless, but hang around downtown, too (as if there are no homeless people in the suburbs)? What was the criteria? How does “homeless” factor in at all to the required task at hand? If this was just a job, or just charity, they could have taken out a Craiglist Ad. “Wanted: people without anything to do, to earn tips for providing Wifi to conference goers.” Just like a hundred other low-paid, sub-work gigs that are advertised and taken by people who need cash, every day of the year, in every city on earth. Not a mention of “homelessness” in that ad. And yet, we have the name: “Homeless Hotspots”. Their choice of an alliterative title for this start-up is the calling card of insensitivity and mockery. They might as well have called it “Bum Spots”, or something just as painfully derogatory.
2. All of which is to say, this is endemic of a huge perception problem regarding houselessness. One of the reasons that I use the corrected term “houseless” is that it points back to the actual problem. It hasn’t been converted into a class of untouchable people, “the homeless”. In American culture, “homeless” is something that you can “look like”. Something that you can “talk like”. It neglects to be aware of the facts of the issue of houselessness, which is that all kinds of people are without a place to take shelter at night. People with jobs, people without jobs, families, children, the elderly, students, and yes, people with mental health and substance abuse problems. All of these people are houseless; they are united by their lack of shelter, not, that they need to pick up some cash tips or find something to do with their lives. Of course, when we say “homeless”, we think of that class, of that particularly unwanted set of transients that cause problems in front of the the grocery store, block the sidewalk in the shopping district, or that we have to come uncomfortably close to on public transit. This lame hotspot idea does everything to reinforce that perception of an untouchable class, and nothing to alleviate the problem of a lack of affordable housing.
3. Houseless people don’t need cash. They need shelter. Of course, we all need cash, and those who are houseless often have a number of precarities. But the term defines the need, and it defines the specific problem. Houseless people do not need jobs, per se. They need a place to sleep at night, so they can be well rested in the morning to go to a job, or look for one. Houselessness does not define a state of “needing something to do”, it defines needing a place to go when one is doing what one does during the day.
3B. You know what people who are hard up really need? Transportation. Even when there are services available, they are often spread out across the city. And if you are houseless and forced to carry all your possessions with you all day long, that makes life pretty difficult. How do you get to the doctor? To a job interview? To a court date? Someone should point a start-up towards that problem. Oh yeah–not real profitable, probably.
4. There are start-ups to help the houseless. Here’s one in Portland: Right to Dream 2. Of course, it’s not trying to make money, it’s trying to overturn laws that make it illegal for people to sleep outside in the city. Their catchy slogan? “Sleep is a human right.” If you are concerned about houselessness, you should call your city government and ask them to make sure that tent cities are given permits.
5. I already complained on Twitter that a big stupid aspect of the Homeless Hotspots is that it gives a lot of bleeding hearts the right to sound self-righteous about houselessness, because now they can talk about houselessness in the same sentence as SXSW and 4G internet. I won’t really repeat that, because it doesn’t make me feel any better to complain about it, and just kind of annoyed. But, I do wish that the internet didn’t have to use annoying knee-jerk reactions to viral social media stories as the opportunity to actually educate people about social justice issues (cf. Uganda) but here we are. I guess no opportunity is a bad opportunity. So, just one more time: estimates guess that 3.5 million people experience homelessness in a given year in the United States. That is over 1% of the population. Almost none of them have Wifi hotspots.
6. So let’s say that this was just a program that paid people (any people willing to do so) to carry a Wifi hotspot. Okay, kind of interesting. Now, let’s say that the company trying this service created a pilot program to help people who are often on the streets (who may indeed by houseless) to get the first place in line for these programs. Okay, that’s more interesting. Then, let’s pretend that the company also started a bunch of on-the-street tech solutions, like quick cell phone charging, SIM card re-ups, Google Search Service, or single-use phone calls and phone cards, all provided by these foot-traffic retailers. Give them a Symbol device, and I bet you can have them trained in an hour. Now we’re talking. That is potentially a sustainable business model that would not only provide real jobs and provide a service. As the saying goes, the street finds a use for things, at that would be letting the street sell its own tech. Every single one of those services I just mentioned are not useful, but they are things that people on the street actively need, and are currently ripped off for by larger businesses, for whom it is not profitable to maintain a pay phone, or a public computer, etc. But this so-called start up is not letting the street find its own uses for things, it’s forcing the street to adopt to the needs of a tech conference.
Smashwords is trying to fight Paypal on the censorship issue. Good for them! What follows is clipped without internal edits from an email from Smashwords (I’m a Smashwords author, though none of my books are threatened by Paypal’s attempt at censorship.)
In case you haven’t heard, about two weeks ago, PayPal contacted Smashwords and
gave us a surprise ultimatum: Remove all titles containing bestiality, rape
or incest, otherwise they threatened to deactivate our PayPal account. We engaged
them in discussions and on Monday they gave us a temporary reprieve as we continue
to work in good faith to find a suitable solution.
PayPal tells us that their crackdown is necessary so that they can remain in
compliance with the requirements of the banks and credit card associations (likely
Visa, MasterCard, Discover, American Express, though they didn’t mention them
Last Friday, I sent the following email to our erotica authors and publishers:
https://www.smashwords.com/press/release/27 Then on Monday, I issued an update,
and announced we would delay enforcement of PayPal’s guidelines so we and PayPal
could continue our discussions: https://www.smashwords.com/press/release/28
PayPal is asking us to censor legal fiction. Regardless of how one views topics
of rape, bestiality and incest, these topics are pervasive in mainstream fiction.
We believe this crackdown is really targeting erotica writers. This is unfair,
and it marks a slippery slope. We don’t want credit card companies or financial
institutions telling our authors what they can write and what readers can read.
Fiction is fantasy. It’s not real. It’s legal.
There’s no easy solution. Legally, PayPal and the credit card companies probably
have the right to decide how their services are used. Unfortunately, since they’re
the moneyrunners, they control the oxygen that feeds digital commerce.
Many Smashwords authors have suggested we find a different payment processor.
That’s not a good long term solution, because if credit card companies are behind
this, they’ll eventually force crackdowns elsewhere. PayPal works well for us.
In addition to running all credit card processing at the Smashwords.com store,
PayPal is how we pay all our authors outside the U.S. My conversations with
PayPal are ongoing and have been productive, yet I have no illusion that the
road ahead will be simple, or that the outcome will be favorable.
BUILDING A COALITION OF SUPPORT:
Independent advocacy groups are considering taking on the PayPal censorship case.
I’m supporting the development of this loose-knit coalition of like-minded groups
who believe that censorship of legal fiction should not be allowed. We will grow
the coalition. Each group will have its own voice and tactics I’m working with
them because we share a common cause to protect books from censorship. Earlier
today I had conversations with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), The
American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression (ABFFE) and the National
Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC). I briefed them on the Smashwords/PayPal
situation, explained the adverse affect this crackdown will have on some of our
authors and customers, and shared my intention to continue working with PayPal
in a positive manner to move the discussion forward.
The EFF blogged about the issue a few days ago: https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2012/02/legal-censorship-paypal-makes-habit-deciding-what-users-can-read
Today, ABFFE and NCAC issued a press release: http://www.scribd.com/doc/83549049/NCAC-ABFFE-Letter-To-PayPal-eBay-re-Ebook-Refusal-2012
I will not be on the streets with torch in hand calling for PayPal’s head, but
I will encourage interested parties to get involved and speak their piece. This
is where you come in…
HOW YOU CAN HELP:
Although erotica authors are being targeted, this is an issue that should concern
all indie authors. It affects indies disproportionately because indies are the
ones pushing the boundaries of fiction. Indies are the ones out there publishing
without the (fading) protective patina of a “traditional publisher” to lend them
legitimacy. We indies only have each other.
Several Smashwords authors have contacted me to stress that this censorship affects
women disproportionately. Women write a lot of the erotica, and they’re also
the primary consumers of erotica. They’re also the primary consumers of mainstream
romance, which could also come under threat if PayPal and the credit card companies
were to overly enforce their too-broad and too-nebulous obsenity clauses (I think
this is unlikely, but at the same time, why would dubious consent be okay in
mainstream romance but not okay in erotica? If your write paranormal, can your
were-creatures not get it on with one another, or is that bestiality? The insanity
needs to stop here. These are not questions an author, publisher or distributor
of legal fiction should have to answer.).
All writers and their readers should stand up and voice their opposition to financial
services companies censoring books. Authors should have the freedom to publish
legal fiction, and readers should have the freedom to read what they want.
These corporations need to hear from you. Pick up the phone and call them.
Email them. Start petitions. Sign petitions. Blog your opposition to censorship.
Encourage your readers to do the same. Pass the word among your social networks.
Contact your favorite bloggers and encourage them to follow this story. Contact
your local newspaper and offer to let them interview you so they can hear a local
author’s perspective on this story of international significance. If you have
connections to mainstream media, encourage them to pick up on the story. Encourage
them to call the credit card companies and pose this simple question, “PayPal
says they’re trying to enforce the policies of credit card companies. Why are
you censoring legal fiction?”
Below are links to the companies waiting to hear from you. Click the link and
you’ll find their phone numbers, executive names and postal mailing addresses.
Be polite, respectful and professional, and encourage your friends and followers
to do the same. Let them know you want them out of the business of censoring
Tell the credit card companies you want them to give PayPal permission to sell
your ebooks without censorship or discrimination. Let them know that PayPal’s
policies are out of step with the major online ebook retailers who already accept
your books as they are. Address your calls, emails (if you can find the email)
and paper letters (yes paper!) to the executives. Post open letters to them
on your blog, then tweet and Facebook hyperlinks to your letters. Force the
credit card companies to join the discussion about censorship. And yes, express
your feelings and opinions to PayPal as well. Don’t scream at them. Ask them
to work on your behalf to protect you and your readers from censorship. Tell
them how their proposed censorship will harm you and your fellow writers.
Ebay (owns PayPal):
Starting Sunday, if our email systems can handle it, we will send out an email
to several hundred thousand registered Smashwords members who are opted in to
receive occasional Smashwords service updates. The email will combine Read an
Ebook Week with the censorship call to action. Let’s start a little fire, shall
Thank you for your continuing support of Smashwords. With your help, we can
We need a plural noun for drones. Cows are a herd, sheep are a flock, fish are a school: what are drones?
The need for a term is dire, because it is becoming quite obvious that while one drone is interesting, several drones are uncanny. Especially if there is the potential that they are networked together.
I’ve called this uncanny the “drone swarm“. But this term is more of the conceptual idea of a swarm, drone edition. One bee isn’t something to worrying about, but a swarm is. One bird isn’t something to make a horror film about, but… you get the idea.
So what is it? Perhaps something from the animal kingdom? Justin Pickard suggests “murder”, which is used for crows, and has a quite delectable sound to it. But drones are different than other flocking beasts.
Tim Maly has used “panoptiswarm“, but while this could be applicable to drones with cameras, it doesn’t really apply to drones without cameras. Also, equally applies to large groups of cameras, without drones.
Tim also suggested “argus”, which was the name of a mythological giant with a hundred eyes, as well as numerous instances of military and security hardware and corporations throughout the more recent years. I am a bit partial to this one because it is short, and original.
Something I think is crucial to the decision, however, is the behavior of the group of drones. If it is just a group of drones sitting on an airstrip, this is not very interesting. However, the idea that a number of drones, aloft, are possible networked together, communicating, and enabled with some sort of swarm intelligence responsible for group decision making… now that is something. Chris Arkenberg’s recent design-fiction piece revolves around the idea of a “murmuration” of drones. A murmuration is the word used for that aesthetically pleasing flocking motion of birds (see above photo, taken from Chris’ article). It seems that drones that are engaged in some sort of communicative behavior are much more along the lines of “murder” and other animal-esque plural nouns–because a flock of sheep is not just sheep in proximity, but sheep that act in a particular way, because of other sheep in the same space.
One more data point: Ryan Oakley suggests that “arcade” might be used to describe, if not the drones themselves, a group of people who are controlling or piloting drones. This throws in a wrinkle. We are near the technological point at which multiple drones might be controlled by a single person. Does this mean that each drone is an individual thing? Or ought we to refer to the entire group of in-flight robots as a single entity, and what really matters is how many people are controlling them? Which nodes are more important for our standard of naming?
I have no clear answers, only more questions. Please–let’s take the conversation to the comments. And if you have more instances of proposed naming conventions or alternate concepts that might complicate this development of a standard, do suggest them and I’ll add them to this list.
Edit: Chris also notes that “Locals in North and South Waziristan refer to the drones as ‘Bangana’ – a Pashto word for wasp.” Perhaps the drone theorists are not the best to name these things, and we need to hear more about people on the receiving end of drones in the field.
I’ve been re-adjusting my life to unplugging from the network. This is not one of those techno-isolation trips, done in some latter-day Christian mystic Transcendentalist notion of re-establishing balance to one’s informational life by means of putting one’s devices in a plastic bag for a week and walking in the park. This is, instead, an unwanted divorce from the network for economic reasons. Having an iPhone has become too expensive for me, and so I have downgraded to a pay-per-month regular cell phone (it’s a RAZR, which is amusing for its last-generation cutting edgeness). With no internet at home (thanks, Century Link for having an unacceptable service level causing me to embargo your requests to pay the double-charged bill you will not adjust correctly), and temporarily being forestalled from getting a planned mobile broadband hotspot by T-Mobile’s insipid economic red-lining (i.e. a $400 deposit due to my credit), this means I only have a few hours a day online, when I’m at the coffee shop or other work space.
Which is a harsh adjustment, for a person who has already migrated to the cloud, and quite liked it. I’ve been using an iPhone for the past three and a half years. I use a Chromebook. The cloud made me portable, light-weight, and completely flexible. I was online near-constantly, writing, reporting, and managing various other Occupy Portland tasks, communicating with friends and colleagues all across the world in many time zones. This is the extent of the plug that has been pulled.
But I’m finding ways of adjusting. One does adapt to economic straits. The interesting thing is that it is doable. There are ways. Here’s how I’ve been doing it so far.
Apps that sync is the key. After ignoring ScratchPad, a little Chrome OS app that came with my ChromeBook, I’ve discovered that it now allows you to write a Google Doc fully offline, including a certain amount of formatting, and then sync this Doc when your computer re-connects to the internet.
Instapaper is, as always, truly one of the best iOS apps around. (I still have the iPhone, but no SIM card, so it is basically a fat iPod Touch.) When I am near a Wifi zone, I open up the app to let it sync its read/unread tallies and download fresh articles. Off network, it functions as normal.
Net News Wire does the same thing for my Google Reader feed. The trouble is being able to share articles back and forth between my RSS feed and Instapaper, and then from either of these to Twitter, all of which requires a live network connection. For these tasks, email is the key. Email–that most defunct of network activities! Emailing a link to my private Instapaper email address will sync that article as soon as I re-connect to the network, and my email Outbox sends all those messages that were composed while offline. I haven’t found a way to send an email that converts into a Tweet yet.
As far as email goes, handling it once a day is something that many efficiency tips recommend, and so far it is working for me. Email Time is the first 30 minutes after I re-connect with the network. Frankly, I’m kind of surprised I ever gave it much more time than that.
I do miss being able to be on Twitter at odd times of the night, when sitting at home with nothing to do. However, I’ve enabled the ability to send a message to Twitter via SMS, and so now I tweet blindly into the night, carefully tapping out 140 character messages on my RAZR. I don’t receive any tweets that way, as that would be disastrous for my SMS plan. It’s kind of fun this way, more like graffiti. I leave messages, and don’t get feedback until I re-connect to the network, sometimes twenty-four hours later. And if you want to talk about “Old Twitter”, well, this is how the service was originally designed to be used.
I’ve also hooked up Google Voice, though I’m not sure exactly how that benefits me off-network. There isn’t any way to receive chats or emails via SMS or phone yet. However, from a schematic point of view, it does serve to remind me that my regular old cell phone is a tiny funnel for communication when I am offline. When I’m back on the network, suddenly my phone becomes superfluous, as the computer is my phone; I call and text straight from the browser. The phone is merely a handset, and the network is the main channel of communication. I don’t know if, like the email efficiencies I’m forced to apply, this will end up being a benefit or not. But, at least it seems to be all part of the process, which I’m forced to accept whether I like it or not.
All of this seems to break down the networked communication I’ve come to expect into its basic components. I’ve been so used to App-For-That thinking, and user-friendly API integration, that I forgot what the basic components of networked communication is all about. It’s about the information: either short bits of communicative text, or a link that will take you to more information later. Emails and hyperlinks. I’m restoring the mental schematic of packets to my networked communication. Each email, link, and SMS is a packet. If I can work out how to make sure the packets arrive where they are supposed to, even if it is delayed, then the network continues to flow.
Okay, a quick word. Alexis Madrigal, whose opinion I very much respect, wrote this piece not exactly defending the police officer who pepper sprayed a bunch of absolutely peaceful students at UC Davis. Not defending, but sort of giving him a bit of sympathy by way of drawing blame to the institution that allowed the event to take place, rather than the individual (though Alexis clarified that he does not consider the officer blameless).
I call bullshit. Absolutely. As an Occupier committed to non-violence, I cannot and will not excuse the actions of this police officer under any condition.
First, go find the video on Youtube if you haven’t seen it. (You’ll have no trouble finding it.)
It is brutality, plain and simple. This is brutal violence. Those people were sitting on the ground, and a person used a large amount of poisonous chemicals to cause them immense pain, to the point that they vomited, and a number were hospitalized. THEY WERE CHEMICALLY INDUCED TO VOMIT PAINFULLY, each and every one of them on purpose, by one person.
We MUST blame the individual. The system of policing in this country is broken, simply because we cannot blame the individuals. They are allowed to hide behind their badge, their authority, our respect for the hard job that they do, and the vast bureaucracy that goes into reinforcing these things. Policing is a tough job, with unimaginable stress. But in this job we allow sadists to serve, and it damages what authority such a dangerous job deserves.
I would make Arendt’s argument about little Eichmanns, but it’s been made it before. Instead, let me relay my own anecdote.
At Portland’s occupation, just a couple of weeks ago, I witnessed an ugly scene. The Safety Committee was stressed beyond anything you can imagine. There had been threats, fights, weapons in camp. The actual police force was doing very little to help remove the violent element that had come into the camp (they excuses varied, but mostly they circulated around the claim that they couldn’t arrest anyone without witnesses).
On this day, the Safety Committee called an emergency meeting in the center of camp. The meeting was started under the best intentions: to determine once and for all how we were going to deal with safety issues. We had to do something, and the Safety Committee, despite all their incredibly hard work and dedication, were not making headway.
There was a lot of emotion at that meeting. It started off angry. The Safety Committee said that they refused to let things go on as they were, without a plan for going forward. Others echoed this anger, as they were fed up with the troublemakers in camp, too. Things started to turn ugly fast. Someone suggested rounding all the troublemakers, the drug users, the people who weren’t helping out, and running them all out of camp. Some people, who represented a much more aggressive element at the camp (not on the Safety Committee officially), carried large sticks and poles. There was aggressive, sexist, homophobic language. Eventually, a fight did break out at the meeting, between these new, self-appointed “peace makers” and a random person who didn’t do anything.
I’m not going to spend time describing it in full, but let me just say: it got real. I’ve been in some sketchy situations in my life. I’ve been in riots, and in the middle of brawls, and it crowds of drunk, angry, bored, aggressive people. I’ve been threatened by people I believed were capable of following through. But I’ve never seen a situation like this. The danger was palpable. For a period of five minutes, I could have seen this angry crowd do just about anything. That’s not an exaggeration.
Afterwards, people said a great many things. They said that it wasn’t the Safety Committee that upped the aggression level at that meeting (and it’s true, it wasn’t). They said that people were angry, tired, and emotional (and it’s true, they were). But there is nothing that anyone could say to me that excuses what happened.
Being committed to non-violence means this to me:
I will not be part of a society that uses wild, uncontrolled aggression to manage its problems. I will not be part of a society that includes sexist and homophobic language in its vocabulary for engaging its community. I will not be part of a society that allows people who do these things to take the lead, and to define these behaviors as the norm, or even merely excusable in the worst of times. I will take a zero tolerance approach towards anyone or anything bringing these things into my society.
This is not just a moral pledge; this is an ethical promise. I was prepared, after seeing this meeting, to walk away from the occupation and not look back. If I couldn’t stay and make things better, then I would leave, and hope others would too.
Luckily, things calmed down greatly after that day. There were still safety problems, but the aggression level calmed down, and I personally did not witness anyone acting in that way again. Now, our camp has been cleared out by the police, and the issues we’re dealing with at Portland’s Occupation are entirely different.
The fact that we are willing to tolerate violent individuals in society is not the reason that we have violence. But it prevents us from getting a foothold in the fight to stop violence. As Occupiers, we are not just conscientious rejectors of a violent society; we must quash the violence of individuals in the new society we are trying to make, and we must do it with our own non-violent action.
This is how this works: The minute someone suggests violence against other people as a strategy of improving society, they are removed from the conversation. If we can engage them in argument, and bring them around to a better understanding of why violence is not considered, then excellent. But if we are to create a strategy to ethically reject violent behavior against other people, we cannot ethically consider violent behavior as part of that strategy. The moment that someone in our society takes a violent step towards another person, we make it clear that they are no longer part of our society. And again, and again, and again. We won’t accept it. If we hold firm in this ethical action, we will find we are on the side of the overwhelming majority. Given the option, most people will choose to be part of the side that is always peaceful. The reason why is obvious.
The police, just like the Safety Committee, do a hard job that few want to do. They often have to defend themselves. But the fact that they do a hard job is no excuse for any one of them to commit violence against another person. That they are part of an institution with little effective means for accountability is no reason to excuse a violent act. That they are wielded as weapons by certain powerful forces in society, is no excuse for any one person to be the person who commits a violent act against another person. Until an individual does such a thing, they are just like me, and they are part of my society. But the minute they decide to do that thing that I find inexcusable, they are on their own. I will welcome them back, as soon as they reject that violence, now and forever.
Once Lt. Pike has rejected violence, and made steps to convince our society that he is committed to this rejection, we’ll welcome him back. But until that time, there is no one else to blame for those students’ suffering other than Lt. Pike, and the other officers that pulled the trigger.
You might think it is easy for me to say this, but it’s not. It’s a supremely difficult thing to say, and to mean it. It means setting yourself against the majority of society that is willing to excuse such behavior, because they think it can be excusable. But this is the fight we’re fighting. All of us who have decided to non-violently occupy, are making this new non-violent society ourselves, only by our commitment to that non-violence, one day at a time. Mistakes will be made, and strategies will be improved. But not a single act of violence will be excused or justified.
And the number of us committed to this grows every day.
Occupy Portland continues to evolve, as the various committees find more “permanent” shelters and locations, and infrastructure acclimatizes itself to what endless street-siege really means.
There’s lots of thinks to discuss; far more than there is time to discuss them, as there are toilets to be cleaned, and over in Sanitation (where I seem to be finding my more regular home, except for today and tomorrow, which I am taking off) the compost is always piling up. But I want to devote a moment to a topic that keeps cropping up, about which I had a Twitter conversation this morning. That is: radical inclusivity facing off against exclusivity.
The conversation was prompted by this tale of a border-fascist group (the exact organization of which is disputed, but I feel comfortable calling what smells like it, it) showing up Occupy Phoenix, and how the confrontation went down.
The subject of the conversation that proceeded was whether or not the writer of the account took more time to berate allies than condemning the fascists, and whether this was an alienating, divisive act or not, of a kind that might splinter or fracture the growing occupation movement.
Setting aside the fact that the written account seemed to be aimed at confronting the movement itself after the fact for it’s lackluster response to fascism, whereas the actual confrontation with the fascists occurred at the event; I think this is a good cautionary tale not only for dealing with fascists, but also for dealing with a certain passive dynamic of human groups.
Note I’m saying “human groups”, not liberals, sheeple, or any degradatory term for any particular sub-culture of leftists I don’t happen to agree with. Because all of us feel the impetus for general peacefulness and calm in the face of any aggression (I hope). But, it is also appropriate to set passivity aside and raise ones voice at times. That’s the whole point of protest, after all.
I myself have encountered this necessity in Portland, thankfully not in the presence of armed paramilitaries, but to counter the force of what I’d call “passive exclusivity”, as opposed to the active kind that carried assault rifles.
Several motions have been raised both in the GA and other assemblies, proposing some form of “exclusivity”. Mostly, in terms of kicking out “certain elements” from the occupation camp. The term “riff raff” has actually been used. I think we all know what is being referred to here. There are people at the occupation who, for whatever reason, are not comfortable with the look of some of their fellow occupiers. For the time being, we’ll just pretend this is an unfortunate, unconscious bias, and not read it as a symptom of any form of class or race antagonism, just because that’s not really the point of what I’m writing (though we should get into that at another time).
Often this exclusivity crops up in discussion of work. While working in the dish line the other night, a guy came up to us and thanked us for our hard work. Then, he preceded to tell us how we shouldn’t serve food to people who don’t volunteer. Regardless of the fact that I’ve never seen that individual doing anything around the camp, I am proud to say we working Sanitation at the time sent him away with an earful.
While it might seem, according to the sort of common sense logic that gives the 53% people a position of ego on which to stand, that “work ought to be a prerequisite for reward”, it is also the beginning of the capitalist exchange, the end point of which is class-based division of labor, and exuberant salaries based on the so-called “importance” of the work being done.
There is only one reason to work, in the Occupation camp, or elsewhere: that is because there are tasks to be done. And there are only tasks that support a single (though, admittedly loosely construed) goal: to make sure everyone is taken care of. The alternative is social Darwinism of a lethal kind. And as long as I work as part of the Occupation, it will be an occupation that includes everyone willing to take part, even if the way in which they take part is only showing up to be fed. When we say this is a leaderless movement, i hope we also mean this is a classless movement. There is no privileged working class above an unemployable class–there is only all of us, part of the same humanity.
To a lesser but no less real extent, I’m also seeing a similar exclusivity occurring between different committees, among individuals who haven’t fully grasped the radical class conception of the occupation. Last night a medic told me he didn’t have time to sort his committee’s garbage because “he had to get back to work.” I asked him what he thought we at Sanitation were busy doing, if it was not work? I obliged him with the favor of sorting his recycling, because he truly was in a hurry, but I think this language slip shows a sort of passive exclusivity, a division of thought that slips back in to our way of thinking, if we don’t unlearn what capitalism has taught us to believe as axiomatic truths, and take it upon ourselves to gently but vociferously correct our fellows when they slip up.
Another big way this exclusivity crops up at the Portland occupation is on the subject of “safety”. Last night a proposal was brought to the GA that would give the Safety Committee (a great, historically-aware name, no? It shouldn’t surprise that this committee is often mis-named as “Security Committee” in practice) the ability to escort people consuming drugs or alcohol out of camp. Safety is an issue at the Portland occupation; we’re fortunate enough to not have to deal with police on an hour-by-hour basis, but the flip side of this is that there have been aggressive incidents with individuals we’ve had to deal with ourselves.
However, the wording of the proposal makes it an easy way to roust undesired members of the community at the will of others. There are many people dealing with addiction that are enjoying the safe space of our camp. There are also those with disabilities who make look unpleasant to some, and speak as if intoxicated, but are productive members of the community. Any of these people might be kicked out of camp by this proposal at the whim of a more articulate person.
I offered an amendment to change the proposal to deal with the actual concern: violent, aggressive behavior by those who are intoxicated. I’m still uncomfortable that I had to offer this amendment. It seems obvious to me how a security procedure might be abused. And yet, the crafters of the proposal, as honest and concerned as their intentions may have been, were unconscious of the way this proposal might be used to segregate our community. (The GA ran out of time on this proposal, so it will be recrafted to accommodate my and others’ concerns, and offered to the GA anew.)
All of this is to make a point: sometimes it is easy to see those that would introduce oppression and exclusivity into a community, and other times it is not. But to keep a community inclusive, especially a community such as our that is building and rebuilding itself daily, it takes the radical step of confronting this exclusivity, regardless of the intention and the source. We need people to speak up and remind us of our privileges, and how they affect our self-governance. We need people to openly reject those who consider it “isn’t an important issue”, or pass it off as a potentially divisive issue. What is far more divisive than speaking to people displaying passive exclusivity openly and honestly, and defending our community against fascism is allowing it to sleep peacefully within our nascent movement.
We’ve made a start that is very inclusive. Part of our hard work will be keeping it so, as we grow.
There are many things that ought to be said about the Occupations that are not being said.
Or, perhaps it is more accurate to say that there are many things about the Occupations that are being said; though, those I believe are most important are not being said within range of the human microphone. Neither the human microphone of the GA, nor the human microphone of the blogosphere, which sees generally agreeable sentiments by writers and thoughtful people echoed and rebounded off of this claimed, political public space, much like the one out there in the street.
If only it was so simple that what I mean is that I am the one with things to say that I’m not hearing said. Then I could compose an essay, yell it out to the world on my blog, and then wait to hear if there was any echo at all. But it is not just me, but many other people who are saying things under their breath, or only to their fellows in the dish washing line, or to a crowd of only fifteen or twenty half-interested people just waiting for their turn to speak. And I can’t speak for them. They can’t necessarily speak for themselves. They could speak at the GA, and many of them do–but the substance of what is said would necessarily change.
There is the sort of speaking one does when one is addressing a crowd, and there is the sort of speaking one does when one is cleaning a bathroom used by over 500 people. There is discussion, and there is consensus, and there are demands. And then there is work, and sweat, and fatigue. There is enabling of subaltern voices. And then there is un-thanked volunteerism.
There is no doubt in my mind that the latter is what makes a revolution. A protest is a raising of the voice, but a revolution is a made with the hands. And that is why Occupy Portland, the occupation in my hometown, is certainly a revolution. And this revolution is a revolution of problems.
I’ve heard a lot of talk about “direction”, both on the internet and off. It’s what I’ve pejoratively begun calling “directionalitarianism”. Everyone is “concerned” about the lack of direction in the “movement”. Well, yes. Lack of direction is all of our concern, and it is why we’re in the streets. We’re concerned about the lack of direction facing our generation, and people of the majority class. The direction we’ve proposed is occupation. You want to see coherent demands? Look at the occupation camp. That is the demand. The demand is to make something, by volunteerism alone, with only contributions: not loans, constituent-rights granting donations, share-holders, parties, or voting blocs. This is a revolution about problems. The problems are debt, corruption, exploitation, and so forth. As well as lazy hangers-on, co-opting political elements, the moralizing effect of “mainstream society” and its government and police force, personal addiction, mental health, the cold, the wet, and sheer fatigue from working so hard without tangible reward. The revolution is combating these problems ourselves, with nothing but what we have, and have together. This is the only direction we need, because it is what we are dealing with. And if you look at the people working, you can see this direction inside of each of their muscles. In each of these hard-working hands, is more phalanxes of bristling riot cops than any public budget could throw at us.
But enough of these words. Let me relate to you some of the things being said through hard work, and some of the problems being confronted by our revolution here in Portland. I won’t be able to speak these voices–you’ll have to go down to the camp yourself to see it. But I can at least show you a few pictures. And maybe, you can see the scope of the problem we’re facing, and how we might begin to tackle it.
Brief intro: the GA has empowered certain committees to work under their own guidance for certain goals. I’ll start my little tour with these committees, because they are the most obvious locations of work and progress at the camp, and also excellent starting points for anyone arriving at the camp, and wanting to know where to pitch in.
The kitchen is the biggest area of the camp. I estimate it serves at least one thousand meals a day, for free. Most of the contributions dropped off at the camp are food, and these are distributed, prepared, and served here. They kitchen staff are all registered Food Handlers in the state of Oregon (a requirement for any food service establishment) and they are following all best-practice regulations about serving, sterilization, and hand-washing, in the attempt to not attract the ire of authorities on the basis of a technicality. Dish washing is perhaps the easiest way to help at the occupation camp, as people are always jumping in and out of the line.
The kitchen is also probably the biggest area of interaction for the camp as well, because while there are many people who don’t go to the GA (more about that later), everyone shows up for food. I’ve heard some ire about this, and some grumbled suggestions of closing the kitchen to people not volunteering, but I’ve also heard this loudly rebuked. Right now, there is plenty of food, and I personally see no reason to not give food away for free.
Contributions needed: Food. Raw materials, sauces, and spices, especially.
Work needed: dishwashers, servers and cooks with valid food-handlers cards.
Sanitation is not sexy. But it is very important, and only recognized when it is not getting done. This is why I’m listing it second. Adjacent to the kitchen is the recycling sorting area, where recyclables and compost are sorted, and trash is bagged to be hauled out. Sanitation is also responsible for camp clean-up and bathrooms (there are public restrooms at either end of the park, and also two porta-potties, contributed from I don’t know where). They also seem to fill the water tanks at the fountain, when needed.
Last night, the one woman in charge of sanitation was very overwhelmed. She had just finished cleaning the bathroom at 11 PM, and then someone bitched at her about the state of the porta-potties. I could have yelled at that person complaining. I told the woman doing sanitation how I thought she was doing a great job, especially for doing an unwanted task that no one was volunteering for. She asked me if I wanted to help pick up trash, which I did :) I actually swept and sorted two bags of garbage yesterday, which felt really good, not least of which because as I bent down to pick up cigarette butts and soggy newspaper around the park, I got more “thanks” from other occupiers than even washing dishes during dinner time. In fact, right now I feel guilty that I’m sitting in a wifi cafe writing this essay, rather than being down there picking up trash. That is the first thing I’m going to do when I get down there is afternoon.
Contributions needed: trash bags, and large buckets. ALSO: help hauling out garbage, but I believe there is a separate transportation committee organizing volunteers for this.
Work needed: cleaning, gathering, sorting, hauling. Wear a pair of rubber gloves, and you’ll be fine. There is plenty of hand sanitizer around for you to use afterward.
The coffeshop is called “Rumors and Miss-Information Cafe”. And of course there is one, because it is Portland. There is plenty of coffee, but the main commodity needed right now is hot water. They were relying on donations of hot water from nearby restaurants, but are trying to rig up a system to boil water off-site. They have plenty of propane, but they don’t want to run afoul of regulations against open flames in the park.
Contributions needed: hot water, if you’re nearby. Maybe cold-brewed coffee?
Work needed: I’m sure you could speak to someone about helping with the off-site boiling process.
They have the coolest sign, are working on the most impressive projects, and are probably the sexiest committee, even though I did not see a single female working with them, and that should be fixed. These are the makers of the occupation. They’re working on solar panels, bicycle power generation (one is working, more on the way), and other energy needs. The kitchen is working all on electricity, I believe, and they’ve run generators and battery backups for media and info tents.
They’re also working on tarping the whole camp, and in places, organizing the tent city with “Burning Man like” spoke roads, to ease emergency access. This is actually a bigger challenge than power, because they aren’t laying out roads ahead of time, but trying to consensually organize a city already laid out, without telling anyone what to do. Also, it’s been raining heavily, so drainage is a problem. It’s been a mostly catch-up game so far, making sure tarps don’t collect water, and sweeping up flooded sidewalks as they occur.
I wanted to volunteer with Engineering initially, but I think what they really need, besides materials, is people with very strong technical know-how, perhaps already assembled into a small team. Plans are in the works for a common build-area, and a bike repair workshop (naturally).
Contributions needed: check the website for current needs regarding power generation, but they need gas, pallets, tarps, and rope. They also have an oxy torch, but no gas.
Work needed: strong technical knowledge, or strong technical will to see projects through despite challenges.
Another sexy committee. They have a nice little hut/yurt, with a growing library, organized, as they will tell you, according to the Dewey Decimal System. (Sexy!) Check out is free, of course. They also organize the sign-ups for teach-ins and lectures.
One of the most impressive aspects of this committee is that they are archiving the occupation. All the minutes of the GAs, notes taken by committees, letters, statements, handouts, photos, and anything else that is donated is being scanned. The scans are being stored digitally, and also printed and sorted into folders, so anyone can come into the library and peruse them. They are not currently available online, but I’m hoping to personally talk to them about at least setting up a Dropbox or something, so this is not lost.
Contributions needed: books and magazines, non-fiction especially. Fiction is good, but they’d rather have a more usable research library, and not just a dumping ground for old paperbacks. ALSO: bookshelves, and watertight containers for storing papers and books, folders, and other office-supply type stuff.
Work needed: People to sort and organize, and if you can offer printing services.
Info is the first stop for people looking to contribute and volunteer. They are also, apparently, where most complains are delivered. I think there’s obviously a good duality there. If you have a problem, you should probably volunteer.
Volunteering seems to be a little confused. There are several lists you can put your name on, and no indication that these really followed up. However, this is a good place to see what committees are needing, because they report daily on what they need to Info. Then, you can go to that individual committee’s members, and see about contributing directly (most have contact info on file at Info). For example, there is a dishwashing list and schedule at Info, that has some scattered email addresses, and lots of blank spaces. But, if you simply go over to the dishwashing station they will put you in line, or tell you they are good right now, but check back in ten minutes. Volunteering is more about initiative, than signing up.
Info also runs the Post service, which are basically runners going around and spreading info to the various committees, and bringing it back. They also seem to have a good supply of tarps, rope, and tape, which they are distributing.
Contributions needed: tarps, rope, tape. Especially duct tape. And markers, both permanent and whiteboard. They also take cash contributions here. (Not “donations” though. A tax thing.)
Work needed: If you want to work with them, ask. Or, tell them what you can do or contribute, and they’ll point you in the right direction.
I couldn’t get around to every committee yesterday, and things are evolving so fast I don’t feel comfortable detailing the status of every committee. But here is a list of other committees that exist, and you can probably guess what sort of stuff they need. Or, check the website, OccupyPdx.org, for latest requests. Or even better, go down and ask!
First-aid, etc. Medical training would be a great thing to contribute, as well as supplies. I know they are working on getting mental health facilitation up and running.
A new committee, launched yesterday.
From what I can tell, it’s one coordinator organizing people who can drive vehicles for pickups and deliveries. THEY VERY MUCH NEED VEHICLES AND DRIVERS! See Info booth to learn how to help.
They update the website (such that they can) and also include the video collective. They don’t speak for the occupation, but release statements in solidarity with the occupation. I know they very much need Mobile Data hotspots and modems.
- Police Liaison
Just one person, who is empowered by the GA to communicate with the police, reporting back to the GA on what the police have to say, though not to negotiate, make statements, or reveal information without the explicit approval of the GA. I imagine she might want a break, now and then, though only she personally was approved by the GA.
People who have volunteered to be on the front lines to observe and passively-resist (though I’m not sure that’s the properly approved terminology) in case of physical conflict with the police. Also, people trained to generally assist with in-camp safety. This means making sure no one is intoxicated or incapacitated, or suffering a health issue. I don’t believe they have any mandate to do anything though, other than offer advice, and notify medical if needed.
- Sexual Assault Working Group
Available for advice or consult. I know they need folks, especially those with training.
- Short Term Tactics
A brainstorming and proposal-crafting committee. All well and good, but I personally am of the opinion that Sanitation needs more volunteers. :)
- Long Term Goals
My comments are the same as above.
* * * * *
With so many people working so hard to craft this occupation from nothing, with almost no plan, frustration is inevitable. Many people have strong, differing opinions, of course. And when we’ve all been standing on our feet in the rain for three hours, trying to decide together whether or not we’ve been following the GA process that we’ve agreed upon, in order to make a serious decision that could decide the future direction of the occupation and could result in everyone’s arrest… well, you can imagine it’s a challenge to keep it civil. And then you get back into the center of camp from an only barely-satisfying GA, and see the same half-drunk guy banging on a bucket with sticks is still going, just as off-beat and un-syncopated as he was four hours ago, and suddenly you can feel that pounding inside your brain…
But this is what society is. This is what democracy looks like. What I’ve learned in the four and a half years since I left academia is that the democratic system, as advertised, is a sham. There is no honor or glamour in working for a minimum-wage, because there is no boot-strap to pull on in the vast majority of cases. The economic system treats all of us, the hard-workers and the layabouts, precisely the same. We’re expendable. We’re certainly not worth anything. And we’re all dumped in the streets together. So I say, let’s not reach for boot straps, but let’s reach for the lamp posts. Let’s rewire them, put in outlets and USB charge ports, and convert them to solar.
For my part, I’m going to contribute my hard-working efforts towards raising us all up, to build a new society from the street. There are enough of us to do it. And it doesn’t have to be the walled garden, the gated community that the so-called 53% strive to build. Because that is built from steel and cinder block. The architecture of safety and security is the architecture of a prison. I look around myself, and I am in the streets. So the streets will be the model for my home and society. And the streets are crowded with people.
So let the problems rain down, both literally, in terms of the weather and mud, and figuratively. As I tweeted earlier this week, I’m not intimidated by much. This generation watches Al Jazeera. This revolution will be a revolution of solving problems. And if that is a problem for anyone, then they can either take it to the GA, or it can become a problem for them.
The water fountain in Chapman Park. While some doubt the usefulness of the Portland Water Works’ constantly bubbling fountains, this one is now primary water source to a city of 1000 people.
The first priority near term goal of the Portland Occupation has been achieved. The police have said there will be no arrests or harassment as long as the occupation can share the space with the marathon to everyone’s satisfaction. As of 11 AM last night, it appeared there was consensus to do so, and the police have been true to their word, with no arrests at the encampment, although there was one incident off-site in which two people were arrested for graffiti. The first priority of any occupation–the defense of the space–has been achieved.
Of course, this presents the next short-to-medium term problem: what’s next? This is an occupation without firm demands, but still, a community must have goals. Dealing with imminent issues of a threat towards it’s existence is a good rally point for a community, but after that’s been secured, what will continue to define the space and people?
The occupation swelled on friday night, and there is hardly room for more tents. The occupation needs room to grow, and proposals for off-shoot locations or new locations were being suggested in the GA. While long-term goals might not yet be on the table, this is an occupation that is going somewhere, or evolving into something. It would behoove us all to look ahead. Many detractors use the lack of forward plans as a criticism. I don’t think a roadmap to anything is necessary; but all the same, we should be sure our driving skills are up to the challenge.
In a tweet earlier today, Alexis Madrigal suggested (apologies for no link, but I’m blogging by phone again) that a leaderless, consensus movement would not look strange to anyone familiar with open-source tech. I think there is such a relationship. There is something of “Maker-dom” here, and perhaps that is the key.
It’s already there, of course, in the craftspersonship that anyone clever can display on a camping trip when the wind starts to blow the tarp away, or when your trying to cook dinner even though you forgot to buy several items. Both those examples are in fact occurring at the occupation. And for those who are taking part in the consensus groups, there is certainly a volunteer spirit in play.
But I think we need to dig deeper. The occupation needs projects. Something needs to be built. The crazy suggestion, “let’s build a giant airship!” keeps coming back to me. I think everyone could agree that a protest airship would be awesome, just as everyone would agree that it would be near impossible. Where would we get helium? We would would face opposition not just from the police, but from the FAA. There would be a serious risk of people getting hurt. And what if the Oregon Tea Party deploys anti-aircraft gun batteries?
I don’t like the idea because it is “just so crazy”, and because I think the occupation should “aim for the moon and hit the stars.”. I like it because people built airships a hundred years ago, and they did it without computers. People build their own drones now, and control them with their cell phones. People build amazing things, just for fun. We can and do amazing things all day long. The question is, how do these amazing things become not just amazing, but part of the occupation?
I hope that the occupation transforms into a Maker Fair, but one without a permit or venue, that never ends. I hope we build amazing shit. Protester in Iceland are rewriting their constitution. Clearly we can do something as big, or bigger. What if your hobby was not only fun, but built a city? This is what we have the opportunity to do now Occupy Portland has the initiative now, of all the occupations in this country. What are we going to do with it?