Dialogue sans (most of) the other #1: You could have it the other way

July 2, 2013 § Leave a comment

Aaaagh no, stop it already. You write:

At first I wasn’t quite sure what had made you think of it; at about halfway it made more sense. It’s the recursiveness, no? The return. So change is possible–martyrdom leading to change is possible–hence Somni and the downfall of the corporate state–and yet the state of non-Kona Hawaiian tribes is like the state of the Moriori, enslaved by those with more power; which is also in a more totalistic way the state of the fabricants. Society as ladder and certain strata necessarily at the bottom, oppressed by those above.

No, you could have it the other way, and that is why I referenced Cloud Atlas when you started your fatalistic murmurings in your last email. Why Somni and yet non-Kona Hawaiians are like the Moriori? Why not non-Kona Hawaiians are like the Moriori and yet Somni? And then you talk about this film director who overawes you with the overpowering power of power:

She shows lots of unremarkable landscapes that become remarkable only for the horror living underneath them, the callous cruelty. That’s what keeps recurring in Cloud Atlas too, the unstoppable cruel force of power. I wish I had more within me to act against it instead of sprawling on my couch in a stupor before it.

Now you sound like Pierre Bourdieu, and again, you could have it another way. Or rather, the director sounds like Bourdieu. “What lies beneath this quiet landscape is cruelty.” No, that’s not true. One of the things in the landscape is that cruelty. There is also within it generosity, solidarity, refusal to lay down and die without a fight and, sometimes, hope. Why do you see only the cruelty? And, more importantly, what does seeing only the cruelty do to you? It disempowers you. It makes you lie down and give up hope. This is a problem many people have with Bourdieu. Most recently I have been reading Ranciere’s The Ignorant Schoolmaster and J.K. Gibson-Graham’s The End of Capitalism (As we knew it) and A Postcapitalist Politics. All of them are ripping into Bourdieu’s disempowering vision of power. Drop the fiction for a moment, it’s obviously not doing it for you (but that’s not necessarily the fault of the fiction, as I will explain briefly below). Check out one of these books. Or Latour’s Reassembling the Social, where he writes:

It does not require enormous skill or political acumen to realise that if you have to fight against a force that is invisible, untraceable, ubiquitous, and total, you will be powerless and roundly defeated. It’s only if forces are made of smaller ties, whose resistance can be tested one by one, that you might have a chance to modify a given state of affairs. (Latour 2005: 250)

You have read Cloud Atlas through your fatalistic lens. Change your lens, and return to the last page of the book. What is going on there? Certainly no fatalism; rather a decision, on the part of Adam (the man who started out more or less accepting the fate of the Moriori as inevitable and natural) to shape his life according to two key ideas which I wholeheartedly endorse:

A life spent shaping a world I want [my son] Jackson to inherit, not one I fear Jackson shall inherit, this strikes me as a life worth the living.

I hear my father-in-law’s response… “Naïve, dreaming Adam. He who would do battle with the many-headed hydra of human nature must pay a world of pain & his family must pay it along with him! & only as you gasp your dying breath shall you understand, your life amounted to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean!” Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?

A multitude of drops…ok, but then what does it mean to make your life a drop in an ocean? J.K. Gibson-Graham point to second-wave feminism as a model for change. They write:

Feminism linked feminists emotionally and semiotically rather than primarily through organisational ties. Without rejecting the familiar politics of organising and networking within groups and across space, individual women and collectivities pursued paths and strategies that were based on avowedly feminist visions and values, but were not otherwise connected…if women are everywhere, a woman is always somewhere, and those places of women are transformed as women transform themselves…

The achievements of second-wave feminism provide, for us, the impetus for theorising a new global form of economic politics. Its remapping of political space and possibility suggests the ever-present opportunity for local transformation that does not require (though it does not preclude and indeed promotes) transformation at larger scales. Its focus on the subject prompts us to think about ways of cultivating economic subjects with different desires and capacities and greater openness to change and uncertainty. Its practice of seeing and speaking differently encourages us to make visible the hidden and alternative economic activities that everywhere abound, and to connect them through a language of economic difference. If we begin to see noncapitalist activities as prevalent and viable, we may be encouraged here and now to actively build on them to transform our local economies. (A Postcapitalist Politics, page xxiv)

Change your lens, change your view of power. You don’t actually need to be a Somni, you don’t need to be the martyr, Adam’s father-in-law is wrong about the inevitability of a world of pain for the one who tries to change things, and the final lines of your email are – I think – also wrong-headed. You write:

But even when action might be possible I feel crippled, torn by the unknown that is the future. I think I mentioned Egypt before–even now I’m suspended in an extremely low-grade anxiety, wondering if it isn’t better to work within a system than to summarily reject it. Wondering what sort of thing the birth pangs will lead to. But at least it’s probably better to embrace the leap into the unknown rather than embracing the imperfect out of fear alone.

No, that’s not what it’s about. It is not about this either/or, this capitalism or uncertainty, this better the devil you know (which is really the conclusion your last sentence implies, despite claiming to defend the opposite).

If it’s not about that, then what is it about? I’m not going to try to answer that question fully here. Look at one of the books I’ve suggested for ideas. And then start from where you are. And realise that change is possible, that you can contribute to it, that change does not require you to be a martyr or even an activist or party member, that change is not a leap into the unknown it is something that people are already working towards all around you, that all that is required for you to participate in change is trying to move your relationships with those around you in your life towards the sort of relationships you would like to see more widely in society, that contributing to change feels better than fatalism, that a drop in the ocean is worth dropping in the ocean.

Can I post this on my blog without mentioning your name?


In response to which I received the following reply:

You are a natural born didact (I mean this as a compliment), and of course it’s true that I didn’t even mention Adam Ewing and the last passages. I will at least add a book or two to my upcoming reading list; at one of my old jobs I had pinned up a fortune cookie message that read ‘one cannot do everything at once, but one can do something at once’, to calm me when I felt overwhelmed, to encourage chunking big tasks into smaller ones, and as in the workplace so in the world is it so. Go ahead and use your reply for your blog but oh I do hope you get that university job so that your new students can give you another and vaster outlet for your teachings!

I want to add a final endnote to this, which is to draw on comments emerging from conversations with two friends of mine; G, who told me “You need to be an activist in your own life,” and W, with whom I had a long conversation about activism this morning, leading us to the conclusion that rather than activism, what is needed is DIYism.



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