Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Suspension of Fear: A Conversation With Sailor Holladay

By Matt Dineen
There's something oddly alluring to me about college towns. Perhaps surrounding myself in such an environment provides an illusion that my college years will forever live on and allow me to deflect the cold permanence of the so-called real world. Moving from one transient community to another, I found myself in Northampton, MA in 2005 looking for a cheap place to live after a few months of apartment-hopping. This was when I first met my new roommate Sailor Holladay, who like most people in this area, moved here for school. We lived together for the remainder of Sailor's time at UMass-Amherst. The following interview was conducted on my radio show "Passions and Survival" in May of 2007, just before thousands of diplomas were handed out, summer plans were actualized, and the population of this peculiar valley turned over once again. Our conversation covered the politics of debt and academia, traveler culture, the desire to desire, and the forging of practical ways to create and support radical projects.

Matt Dineen: Let’s start by talking about the de-politicization of the academy. Can you talk about how the Social Justice Education program at UMass-Amherst has differed from other higher education environments you have participated in?

Sailor Holladay: Yeah. What’s been interesting is, that while I’ve been cradled in this program within Higher Ed., I’m still in this huge research university that’s continually getting more and more elite. They say the average family income of UMass-Amherst undergrads at this point is $100,000 a year. So UMass is getting more conservative, more economically oppressive, however you want to put it. On the one hand I’ve been around some really radical, really amazing people in my program, but I’ve also been situated in the larger university and taken classes outside of my program. I didn’t come to the realization until maybe four months ago, in my third semester, that one of the functions of educational institutions, is two fold: Quarantine a small minority of radical or potentially radical intellectuals into tenured positions and push them farther and farther away from communities struggling towards a more desirable system; while the rest of us, public intellectuals—people who don’t need buildings to think—many of us who have fought to get here, we get saddled with debt, huge amounts of debt. I have undergrad students that I work with who are three years into their education with $60,000 of debt. So we internalize the belief that we have to get a job. You know, “there aren’t any other options.” That’s what we’re told. “What would you do other than get a job out of college?” And this process—getting the job, paying off the debt—serves to estrange us from the communities that we may have been connected to in struggle before we became indebted, or prevents us from being able to connect with those communities. That is why I’m so excited about the notion of having passions at all, of being in an incubator enough to figure out what my passions are amidst the system. To be able to survive in the system with our passions is one thing, but many of us don’t know what we want to begin with. So these processes, the miseducation and the debt that comes with them, is one complex way to keep us from even figuring out what we want, let alone act on those desires.

MD: Speaking from my experience, being out of school for four years now and avoiding this route of going back into academia, it’s been a political decision on some level. It’s the challenge of self-education, continuing to talk about ideas and create change outside of these academic institutions is a challenge because of these structures you’re talking about.

SH: Also, it’s not something that’s possible alone. We need other humans to do that with. There’s also the issue of fear. There are systems in place that are selling fear to us and when we buy into that we go down roads that may be comfortable to us, but they’re not things that are creating new alternatives.

MD: Well, let’s talk about the suspension of fear. After college there is this social pressure to go out and use your education to get a well paid job, to reap the material rewards. I think most of us who have been in this situation have realized that it’s not that easy, but there are also some of us who reject those values.

SH: In terms of the ease, both of us come from poor and working class backgrounds. Without the institutional connections it’s that much more challenging.

MD: That’s something we should get into: the privilege it takes to suspend fear. For me, coming from a working class background that privilege hasn’t come in terms of material abundance. It hasn’t come in terms of capital, or financial wealth, but by first taking the risk of applying to college. Most of my friends in high school who came from similar class backgrounds didn’t even bother applying, thinking, “Oh, I can’t afford that.” But I took the risk to go for it. I got financial aid, went to school, and jumping into it I accrued what some call social capital or cultural capital. And I think getting out of college I had that sort of privilege which helped me really suspend some of these fears, enabling me to not have a job for a while, leaving to travel and acquiring more cultural capital through experiences that I brought back with me and then figured things out.
And there have been so many challenges and struggles, but at the same time there’s been a lot of privilege involved with those decisions. But let’s talk about the present moment in our lives. We’re both at sort of a crossroads. Let’s look forward. Let’s talk about the trajectory that we may or may not be following. [Laughs]

SH: Yeah, I think that looking forward is possible when we suspend fear. I have a want to notice how much of those messages are coming from all over, at least in my world. They’re coming from the system but also from people that I care about, who deeply care about me and care about my wellbeing, who are locked in, who are afraid. They are afraid for me. They’re afraid for themselves. They’ve seen the ways in which people who don’t conform are ravaged in some way—economically, emotionally—by the current system. So it’s tricky. I guess, for me, the suspension of fear becomes possible when I’m in an environment where I’m surrounded by people who are interested in that, interested in suspending fear. That’s what I appreciate about having you as a roommate, Matt Dineen. [Laughs]

This is where identity becomes messy. Just because I share certain identities or backgrounds with folks, doesn’t mean that we’re going to be launching into the future together in a way that is more desirable. In fact, so much of these fear recordings are implanted specifically around identity—poor folks, LGBT folks, for different groups that I’m a part of, fear is a huge piece of keeping that identity in place. Choosing to mobilize around identity, and only identity, is something that I’m not interested in at this point. Mobilizing across identity, around desire, and the mutual desire to desire is what I find fun and worthwhile. Because these kinds of conversations are not encouraged in the current system they become challenging to have if we have the fear piece. So if we can shake it off or suspend it then we can get somewhere.

MD: Well here we are. [Laughs] Let’s talk about desire. In terms of incorporating my desires into this trajectory of what I’m doing with my life, I left a job and have been traveling off and on the last two months but am now committing myself back to this area, coming back to this piece of geography. So now for the first time since I’ve lived here I feel grounded and I want to stay here, but then it’s: what do I do with that? I do have a potential job opportunity that I’m pursuing right now that could lead me to financial stability for the first time in my life. I’ve been playing around with that idea and want to be very conscious of it. I’m not lusting after the material success. I’m more focused on getting rid of my debt and maybe saving some money, but most importantly doing what I truly want to be doing with my life. I want to be around people who are talking about these issues and this potential job could also help me incorporate my desire for participatory democratic organizing. I’ve been thinking about these possibilities.

You know, there’s that term “disposable income” and I think that term is rooted in this culture of disposability, and I don’t want income that I’m just disposing of. Any surplus income I have, I want to be redistributing to projects that I support. For example, the Catalyst Project in San Francisco working for collective liberation across these identity lines that you mentioned. Supporting them, supporting various organizations that are doing really important work that need the financial support of people who can afford to support them because of the system we’re living in. And I think a lot of people who are working toward social change don’t have the privilege of supporting them monetarily and that perpetuates the system. These projects that are trying to create fissures within this structure, they’re struggling too and their effect is limited.

So for you, what are your thoughts about finishing school and leaving this area soon?

SH: It’s funny because I have spent many years being angry at young people who I perceive as coming from middle-class backgrounds, who I perceive as “living simply.” I’ve had rage towards folks who have made choices to not work, who have made choices to travel around and eat freely or cheaply. You know, eat my food and take showers in my shower…but now I’m turning into one of those people! [Laughs] So right now I’m trying to suspend the fear. I plan to spend the summer, as much of it as possible, traveling to conferences and gatherings. I came to the realization just a couple weeks ago that I don’t actually have to get a job as soon as I graduate. One of the things I’m interested in is the notion of—and this comes from Heinz Von Foerster—acting so as to always increase the number of alternatives. I come from a place where if you have one choice that’s good, to have at least one choice. But what I’m learning is that if I don’t have at least three choices it’s not a choice, whatever I’m choosing. So I want to act always as to increase my number of alternatives. So for me to say, I don’t have to work…Sure, I could say that I have to work, that I’ve got $48,000 of debt that I'm graduating with and that my choice, my one choice is to work. But as a way to move towards self-actualizing my own liberation I’m making a language choice to say that I don’t have to get a job when I graduate and to state that in language is to create another alternative for me. So yeah, I’m working against my internal patterns and also my external environment that tells me that my only option is to get a job. One of the other things about that is that in the last couple years, especially in the last year, I’ve placed so much emphasis on personal relationships and the idea creation that comes out of them. It seems as though, I’m learning, that when we place value upon relationships other things fall into place. If I am only placing value on, say my job and my housing situation—the things that get my needs met—I don’t leave as much time for relationships and those don’t automatically come into place. I’m noticing that I’m actually an inspiration for folks. I see people shake off their ties to the current system around me, just by simply existing and thinking in different ways, encouraging thoughts that happen with me and around me to be other than patterned thoughts.

MD: That’s definitely inspiring to me and I’ve been thinking about all of this over the past two and half months of not working myself. There’s this assumption in our society that if you’re not working a paid job then you’re lazy, but a lot of us our involved with many different projects. I think that some people can’t even imagine what their lives would be like if they didn’t have school to go to and than after school straight to a job. So there’s the politics of boredom, because without these structures to mold us, “what could we possibly do with our lives?” Part of it is realizing that desire, to go beyond this structure and remain productive in our own ways, doing a lot of work that’s not necessarily defined as a job.

SH: Yeah, it’s also pointing towards when we get ourselves out of the hierarchical structure. The idea isn’t to not have a structure. The idea is that look, we can create our own together. By creating our own structures we become accountable, not responsible, to them and ourselves. The more people that we can get to take a second glance at the structures we all find ourselves in, in those moments we can begin to create our own temporary structures together. That’s what I’m off to do. And those begin in conversation…Another thing that has come up for me lately is noticing that I have a new feeling of being able to receive. I definitely got it real young that I was to be valued based upon my labor, whatever I could produce. It’s been interesting to receive and be open to the potential of future receptions. And it’s funny because those folks who are making offers are people who are working really hard to survive in the current system. So, how can I support those people? One thing I’ve been interested in lately is acting without fear of future funding and actually recruiting funders into projects as collaborators—knowing that there will always be funders, but that we need more makers. We need more artists. We need more thinkers, more project participants. And so if we can act without fear of funding than those folks who typically see themselves as funders of projects can become co-conspirators creatively with what is being made.

MD: And that fear is often what brings us back to these jobs that steal so much of our time away from us, and prevent us from engaging in those projects. That’s also related to what I mentioned before: if we do find ourselves in a situation where we have surplus income, to really seek out who is doing important work that truly needs that funding. It’s what some people have called social change philanthropy—so not just these large nonprofit organizations, but really grassroots folks who are doing radical stuff.

SH: As opposed to, you know, “Well, I haven’t had a car in six years so I’m gonna go get that Prius now.”

MD: Yeah, exactly. Trying this mental exercise: What would I do with four times the income that I lived on last year? This is a similar exercise that people go through when they fantasize about winning the lottery, and oftentimes the response to that question is: more stuff. The term I thought of for this is acceleration of lifestyle. I’m interested in injecting into this mental exercise, or if I ever find myself in this situation, the challenge to resist that acceleration of lifestyle materially.

SH: And how much of the acceleration of lifestyle is brought on by the deep sadness that we feel as individuals when we are pushed away from our communities that we were a part of or never got to get in touch with? It’s what Kathleen Cleaver calls the ‘personal aggrandizement’ that happens: My community is left back here suffering and somehow I figured out how to do this thing. And so now I’m going to comfort myself with X, Y or Z… I like this notion of actually figuring out practical ways of “giving back,” supporting projects from the communities we have solidarity with.

MD: Yeah, it’s working towards a redistribution of wealth on that level too.
Matt Dineen did not get hired for the job that would have paid him a living wage, but he still lives in Northampton, MA. Dineen serves on the Board of Directors of Valley Free Radio, the low-power community radio station in which he also hosts "Passions and Survival." This show is part of a project exploring the dilemma of following our passions while surviving in a capitalist society. Dineen also books tours for radical activists and artists with Aid and Abet Booking. Write to him at: passionsandsurvival@gmail.com

Sailor Holladay spent all of Summer 2007 travelling and conversing and is currently living in Urbana, Illinois participating at the School for Designing a Society.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Call for Submissions: Enough

Dean and Tyrone met at the Building a Queer Left meeting that preceded the US Social Forum this summer, and began a conversation about the politics of wealth, poverty, being an anti-capitalist while living within capitalism, and more that is beautifully blossoming into a very special and potentially transformative web project. Perhaps you'd like to participate?
What is the difference between financial security and hoarding wealth?

What are some ways we can share resources to support community and movement-building?

How can we talk to each other about personal money issues and politics without guilt, shame, and judgment?

What does a politics of wealth redistribution look like in the day-to-day, and what are the
obstacles to developing conversations about this in political communities we belong to?

These are some questions we've been thinking about, and we're interested in jumpstarting conversations about how we conceive of and live a politics of wealth redistribution. We'd like to invite you to contribute some writing to a website we're creating to explore this topic, called Enough.

The ubiquity of capitalism in the U.S. can limit our ability, even in radical communities, to conceptualize creative responses to oppression and injustice. This can manifest both in how we build movements (reproducing bureaucratic, hierarchical, business-type models; packaging and "selling" social justice work to foundations in exchange for grants), and in how we deal with personal finances in our own lives (defaulting to patterns like hoarding, excessive consumerism, and individualism in how we conceptualize our lives and futures and economic security).

We'd like to address some of the ways that class privilege and capitalist dynamics function even within communities and within the lives of individuals working to fight oppression and economic injustice. It can feel taboo to share details about things like income, inheritance, class background, debt, and spending. Silence and secrecy about money make it difficult for us to challenge ourselves and each other when classist dynamics arise. Social conditioning trains us to hoard money rather than share it and build community. We want to get people talking about building shared values and practices around wealth redistribution, because we think figuring out how much is enough, and when to give away money, are key under-discussed questions in anti-capitalist politics.

Some examples of the kinds of things we're looking for:

-Pieces about how your class position has changed over the course of your life, and how that has affected feelings of responsibility about wealth redistribution.
-Stories about cool methods of figuring out what is "enough" when it comes to making/saving money.
-How do class background, class conditioning, fear, guilt, and other factors influence how you think about this question?
-How do you figure out what you need versus what you want when it comes to consuming?
-Examples of (or ideas for) community-based support systems that serve as alternatives to individualistic models of taking care of ourselves.
-Strategies for redistributing wealth in your community, or to support social justice work.
-Discussion of how ideas about wealth, security, scarcity get reproduced in families.
-Diatribes on the politics of inheritance.
-Discussions of professionalism and salaries.
-Exciting models of people dealing with money ethically in activist spaces and organizations.
-Strategies for overcoming immobilizing guilt about class or money.
-Anti-capitalist/anti-racist/anti-imperialist analysis of personal choices about saving for retirement, buying real estate, taking certain jobs, supporting our community, etc.
-Diagnostic worksheets to help people figure out any of the following: My place in the economy (local, domestic, global) Am I rich? What sources of security do I have that I may not be aware of? How do I know if I need something or just want it? What are my resources besides money?

The two of us come from very different class backgrounds (Tyrone grew up in a first- generation owning-class family, and Dean grew up on welfare) and we're hoping for a specifically cross-class conversation about these issues. We think that the anxiety that can arise when talking about these things among folks with different experiences of class can be useful and productive, and we hope to create a space where we can learn by sharing our experiences and challenging each other.

Please send us an email if you have an idea you'd like to write about, a resource you think we should know about, existing writing you think we should post in this conversation. Your piece can be short or long, written in any style. Please send submissions to: tyronius.samson@gmail.com and/or deanspade@gmail.com.
Reposted from The Bilerico Project by Jessica Hoffmann.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

On Passion and Jobs

...If you are part of the corporate world, theres a constant refrain that is heard "I don't love my job" or "I would rather be doing something else". The corollary is "My job doesn't pay me enough" or "I am in this job for money" or "I wish I could sing/dance/teach for a living but it does not pay me as much as my job does."

Sitting in a cubicle trapped by three moulded walls and a boss, it is easy to take a judgement call on ones job. But the fact is that it really is your bread and butter (or chappati or idli). Most of us view our passion as an escapist route to get out of our routine mundane jobs. The sentences start with, It would be great if I could...

There are many who love their job - research, project management, accountancy, central excise (one of our old profs said central excise is his hobby), software maintenance, traffic policeman or even printing invoices day in and day out. For them their job is their passion. Every ounce of their energy they put in their work counts for them as an achievement. I have met people who can rave about the latest flexfield in Oracle apps or those who can look at a new software program and work spellbound until they crack the ultimate details of it. Look around you. There are quite a few of them. This is not to say that they are dull outside work. Usually they are not. They have interests outside of work and they cultivate it too.

There is a second set of people who have a great passion for something. Writing or music or driving or cooking or quizzing. They are the ones who quit their day jobs to be their own boss. Remember it is tough for someone who is passionate about, say, music to work for someone else. Because passion for music is an outlet of ones own creativity, it is difficult to alter some notes because your boss doesn't like it. Likewise, if I write something, I don't want an editor to come and prune my prose to a bonsai - I write it because thats how I want it to be, warts and all. These are the people who take the path less trodden and work on their own, for their passion. They work because they love it - the money is a byproduct and it usually happens. The road can be long or hard or both and many do make it - the gains in satisfaction are immense. Needless to say, this road is not easy and it involves a steep climb till you make it.

The majority of people see their jobs and passion as distinct. Out of these are people who do their jobs sincerely - accept it for what it is and do a sincere job of it. "My job brings me the money and I will do justice to it". If they do work on a passion or an art and craft, it is separate from their work. Some of them continue to work on their passion, while for a lot many it is lost along the way - while some expect their children to work on their own unfulfilled passion!

The last set of people are those who want someone else to infuse passion into their jobs. That, unfortunately, will never happen. Either you are passionate about your job or you seek your passion outside of work or you yourself go out and convert your passion into your work. There is no fourth option. No Robinhood or talent scout is ever going to discover you if you don't do anything. If you are a writer, you better write. If you are a singer, you better keep singing. Out of the mountains of paragraphs (or songs), one (or a few) could be diamonds (out of the mountains of coal) - the rest is just a process of discovery. As in cricket, you gotta keep scoring the boring singles, wait for the chances to hit the sixes and all of it totals to the magic figure of a century. All those boring singles and the big hits create a career.So what is the point of this post? Keep doing what you like, regardless of your job and as Raamdeo Aggarwal once told me, "If you are a star, keep working and you will be discovered" and I must add, if not by someone else, you will surely discover yourself.
Originally posted by Neelakantan on Interim Thoughts.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Time Without Work Revisited

By Matt Dineen

For the past four months I have been unemployed. During this time I have intimately revisited the dilemma of time without work in a work-obsessed culture. Part of this obsession is the survival piece--under capitalism we are obligated to sell our labor in order to meet our needs, to "make a living." This makes it difficult and often impossible to live without a job. We need to earn money in order to pay for food, housing, and the less essential items that help us get through each day. Without a wage job one needs to be creative about fulfilling these needs, often relying on the kindness and generosity of others, or by carving out non-capitalist forms of cooperatively sharing resources.

The other dominant aspect of this phenomenon is the way this culture defines people by their jobs. What you do to make money may not be the most important thing in your life but it serves as a reflection of your social status when you inform people "what you do." You are defined by your work. So what does this mean for those of us who are unemployed? Because of the economic challenges of not working it is rare that people can joyously revel in this moment. Even if we are enjoying this time without work it is socially unacceptable to admit this. Rather, we have to defensively explain that this is a transitional period in our life and that we are vigorously looking for work--even if we are not.

Unemployment is also associated with laziness and irresponsibility. Many of us who are not working paid jobs, however, still stay busy with things that we are passionate about. Of course these things are devalued in a culture that emphasizes profit and power over happiness. I could spend a day writing articles, producing a radio show, going for a bike ride, interviewing a friend, cooking food, playing music, and dancing. None of these are contributing much to the GNP, but they make me feel alive.
Contact Matt Dineen at: passionsandsurvival@gmail.com

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Wonders of the World: An Interview with the Missoula Oblongata

By Matt Dineen

You may not know it yet but the Pioneer Valley is home to a self-sufficient, experimental theater company. It’s called the Missoula Oblongata and it is run by Northampton residents Madeline Ffitch and Donna Sellinger. They proudly declare that their self-sufficiency means that, “the artists who write the scripts also perform, design, build, and light the play themselves.” I had a chance to speak with Madeline and Donna before they left for a nationwide summer tour with their new show, “The Most Mysterious Day of the Year,” a story revolving around a community boxing ring, the imminent demise of the Morse code, and a kaleidoscope convention.

Let’s start with the origin of your name and the route from Montana to Northampton where you’re now based.
Madeline: Well, Donna had been making theater on the East Coast for a long time, but I was living and going to school and writing in Montana. I really loved it there and when we decided to start collaborating, Donna moved there and we made our first show, “Wonders of the World: Recite” in Missoula, Montana.

Do you want to talk about that show?

Donna: Sure. I had just finished a tour that was from September through December [2005] and it ended in Idaho so I was able to move to Montana. We spent about three or four months building the show. We wrote it in about two or three weeks and then rehearsed it in a dark basement, just the two of us. And then we invited our friend Leo Gephardt to write the music and we had our friend Sarah Lowry, who is now the third member of the Missoula Oblongata, come up from Denver to direct it. And then we toured it all summer from May to August and then moved here and got a lot of invites and requests to come perform it again which we had not really anticipated. We did a January tour and some shows in February.

What brought you to Western Massachusetts?

M: We were really happy in Montana and we had a really wonderful community there. It’s a very regionally-specific area of the country where there are some true originals.

D: We miss it very much.

M: Yeah, we’re pretty homesick. But I got into grad school here in the MFA program at UMass for fiction writing. And so I decided to move here and since Donna’s family is from the Northeast it made sense for her to move back and for us to keep making theater based out of Northampton.

Donna, can you talk about what you’re doing in Northampton in addition to this theater group?

D: Actually, this theater group is all I do, and I’m very happy about that. It’s all I really want to do. It’s my ambition so I’m glad to just be living somewhere and having a life where I can spend all my time working on creating theater with my very favorite people and realizing all of our artistic dreams. It’s really fun.

So, has this been a balance for you, Madeline, being in this graduate program and doing the Missoula Oblongata? Has that been challenging for you in terms of time?
M: Well, I’m lucky because the program here is very supportive. So far, the faculty seems to just want and expect that you’ll be doing your own artistic work, and you have some pretty structured goals of your own and they try not to interfere. If they do have to interfere they’re usually pretty apologetic. They expect that you’ll spend most of your time working on your own things and for me that’s really true. Also, it’s all connected. Being in graduate school definitely gives me support, some time, and a little bit of extra money to be able to just work fulltime on creative work and that includes writing and also theater for me. So it’s pretty complimentary…Donna and I write together and the theater company is a fulltime job for us. We work on it everyday, sometimes all day and sometimes have to remind each other to have fun and go dancing, [laughs] and not just talk shop all the time. And actually this semester I’m doing an independent study which is making the new show. So I prioritize the Missoula Oblongata and I find a way to spend almost all of my time doing that.

D: There’s no part of what we do as a little theater company that is peripheral to any of us. We’ve really worked to simultaneously prioritize this and dedicate ourselves to it quite single-mindedly, to the point of pathology, and yet have our own lives where we can do other things.

You’ve mentioned this really great community in Missoula and I’m curious how this area has compared.

D: It’s a really interesting question because we spend a lot of our time here missing Missoula and wondering, “Is there even a niche for us here? What are we doing?” We’ve struggled a little bit to find a community here that we can feel really connected to and to make ourselves feel like an integral part in whatever scene is going on. But at the same time, the shows that we’ve had here were extremely well attended to the point of people having to leave because there wasn’t enough room. We’re really well received and it seems like people want more things to happen. All of the feedback that we’ve gotten from people in this community has been like, “Thank you for making things happen!” So that is a real blessing because though in Missoula we had a great time and people we’re really supportive of experimental performance, I would be lying if I said things were as well attended there. It seemed like people there were happy to have us and excited about it, but so far the reception here has been really warm.

M: Yeah, it was a little slow going at first, especially since I was the pioneer coming out here in September and Donna joined me in October. I really had just met people in my program, but now we’ve met other people in the community who we really admire as performers and seem to be doing some pretty experimental, interdisciplinary things. That’s exciting. So, I think it’s easy to move somewhere and just feel like, “Oh, there’s nothing going on. Remember how it used to be where we lived before?” But I think that just has to do with being on the periphery and then learning how to get involved, and find community and respect the groundwork that other people have been laying to create a scene. There’s some pretty amazing and gutsy experimental work going on here.

For more information and tour dates visit: http://www.themissoulaoblongata.com/

Matt Dineen is a writer and activist based in Northampton. Contact him at: passionsandsurvival@gmail.com

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Intellectual Work and Economic Survival

By Ellen Willis

On the crudest level, the lives of American intellectuals and artists are defined by one basic problem: how to reconcile intellectual or creative autonomy with making a living. They must either get someone to support their work--whether by selling it on the open market, or by getting the backing of some public or private institution--or find something to do that somebody is willing to pay for that will still leave them time to do their "real work." How hard it is to accomplish this at any given time, and what kinds of opportunities are available, not only affect the individual person struggling for a workable life, but the state of the culture itself. This tension between intellectual work and economic survival is thoroughly mundane and generally taken for granted by those who negotiate it every day; but to look at the history of the past thirty years or so is to be struck by the degree to which the social, cultural, and political trajectory of American life is bound up with this most ordinary of conflicts.
Exerpted from "The Writer's Voice: Intellectual Work in the Culture of Austerity," in Post-Work: The Wages of Cybernation (Routledge, 1998).

Monday, April 30, 2007

More for Everybody: An Interview with James Tracy

By Matt Dineen

It was a warm summer night in Western Massachusetts when I first met anti-poverty activist James Tracy. He was on tour at the time, performing with the Molotov Mouths Outspoken Word Troupe. On the road from San Francisco, Tracy and his poetic comrades filled a kitchen with words of political intensity and inspiring visions. Soon after that night I came across “The Civil Disobedience Handbook” which he edited as tool for “the Politically Disenchanted.” Tracy’s dedicated community organizing work adds yet another dimension to a life deeply committed to the struggle for social change. I spoke with him earlier this year at the Left Forum in New York City where he participated in a panel on “Non-Reformist Reforms,” or what he simply calls “reforms worth fighting for.”

Let’s start with living in San Francisco and the evolution of your time there in the past 10 years or so, in terms of incorporating your politics into everyday life and the challenges of living in that area amidst all the dramatic changes that have taken place.
In San Francisco, really up until about 1993, it used to be a place where people could come and create counter-institutions. The rent was low enough that somebody with a dream about doing an infoshop or alternative health stuff could do it and the jobs were plentiful enough that you could work part-time, for your wages. You didn’t have to be a trust fund kid to get cool projects going. Building counter-institutions goes all the way back to the sixties with the newspapers and things like that. So now because of the sky-rocketing cost of housing it’s a lot harder to do those things. People don’t have the time to just take off. Some people I know do a really good job at working minimally for wage work. But those tend to be people who either have access to highly specialized skills where they can work two or three days out of the week with web design or what not. Or they have a lot of money. Or they’re just really, really good and highly skilled at living in a way that doesn’t consume much.

And I’m not really any of those. I work for a living. I’m an adult-ed teacher, in a way that’s increasingly political. I’ve always had a job and done politics on the side. Part of that is just financial. You know, you just gotta pay your rent. And then part of it is even though the sacrifice of working and doing your politics and following your creative passions is hard, it’s hard to manage your time, I’ve always felt that not divorcing myself from everybody else definitely enriches those things. My politics are enriched by the fact that I’ve driven trucks and wiped butts and bussed tables instead of kind of going the alternative lifestyle route. I’m not dissing the alternative lifestyle people it just hasn’t been my thing.

Can you talk more about how those experiences working jobs that have enriched your politics?
Yeah, like when I was a truck driver, I was already political, but I picked up sofas and delivered sofas all over the place and noticed how the city was laid out. It was right when the dot-com eviction boom was happening and my coworker and I just started noticing that we were doing a lot of pick ups for these landlords. People who they evicted had left some stuff behind so they donated it to the thrift store we were working at. So even though there’s a lot of theory behind the economics of housing and cities that are important to learn, it wasn’t theoretical—we were seeing it everyday, and hearing people’s stories saying, “Hey, that’s my sofa! Can you drive over here instead of donating it?” So it was a school. I’ve always felt that work was a form of the academy. It just helps with staying connected more than a lifestyle approach.

With your community organizing work have you had jobs where you’re a full-time, paid organizer?


Can you talk about that experience more and how it differed from those times in your life when you were working another job and doing politics on the side?
Yeah, my one full-time paid organizing job was at the Coalition on Homelessness and it was fun. I got to help them build their Right to a Roof program and we got a lot of really tangible things done. It was very enriching. I mean, the wages were shit. So it’s not like I was working for a labor union or something where you’re starting at 40 [thousand] and might be pulling down 60 in a few years. We were always laying ourselves off and things like that, but technically it was paid and I got to do it full-time. And I got to really build up a project that I was then able to turn back over to folks that had been homeless and at some point it was healthy. So that was nice because it allowed me the time to build something really quickly and do it well because that’s what I was suppose to do from 9 to 5.

And before that I had been part of a group that I helped found called the Eviction Defense Network where we only got paid stipends. The idea was that everyone that was getting a stipend would still be a worker. But your stipend would either allow you to work a little bit less out in the rest of the world and dedicate a little bit more time to the group, or it would just allow you to make up for the sacrifice of coming to meetings and outreaches and stuff that was really fucking tiring. I think we were getting paid like a 250 bucks stipend.

I actually like that model a lot. The core community organizers should get a little stipend. You shouldn’t necessarily be getting a full-time thing because when you’re a paid organizer full-time, even if you’re getting paid shit wages like we did at the coalition, you forget things like scheduling meetings when people can actually make them and things like that. When you’re scheduling around the 9 to 5 your sensitivity to those things tend to go down over time. It’s around your busy schedule not the busy schedule of people trying to form a tenants union or whatever you’re supposed to be there for. And I’m not against paid, full-time organizing. I’m just against it as a religion, as the only one model of social change. And there’s tons of problems with it, but it’s necessary at times.

In that job organizing tenants how did these questions differ for the people you were organizing compared with your experiences and that of other activists in terms of their survival and trying to identify what they really wanted to be doing with their lives despite the economic realities limiting that. Or did it differ at all?

Oh, it really differed—especially now with the conversation on the Left around the “non-profit industrial complex,” and questioning the coordinator class and who’s in it and who ain’t and all that. You know, we can sit around and talk about this shit forever, and talk in circles, and only on alternative Tuesdays actually get to something that’s productive and useful. But when I was organizing tenants they all had jobs. They didn’t want to be a paid organizer. They wanted to do what they had done. And they were glad that there was somebody who was being paid to be able to help them collectivize their energies, because it’s a big sacrifice to have somebody have to come out to a demo or a meeting after work. They were glad that someone was transcribing the notes and stuff like that.

I’m mainly thinking of these two buildings I helped organize—and I don’t like to think of organizing in terms of “I organize” and “they are organized,” because that sounds too much like colonizer and colonize. But if it’s a healthy situation where it’s transparent and you’re accountable, people definitely liked having a resource. It was almost like being their secretary, to make their self-activity more effective. The ideal model is: you build organizations where folks from whatever base take over all the positions and all the decision-making. But in real life, sometimes people are like, “I’m happy being a teacher. I’m a janitor. I don’t want your job.” It’s just a gray area thing. If you do it well and if you do it in an accountable way many people are glad to have the resource, if you’re actually just being a resource for folks.

Can you talk about the relationship between your politics and the more creative, artistic projects you’re involved with and the struggle to put time and energy into that in addition to political organizing and working to pay the bills?

Art is something I do because it makes my head feel better. You know, I can get really, really stressed out doing this stuff and writing, story telling is a part of mental health for me. I think I would be a really cynical sectarian bastard without it, so it’s something I gotta do. But luckily for the most part, if I’m writing poetry, it’s something I can do on the bus. I have a little notebook that I can scribble things down in. Of course there’s a revision process because I’m very much into craft, but I don’t have to buy a canvass for it. I don’t build fighting robots as my artistic expression. [Laughs] I can write on the back of a napkin, you know, so it fits in really well. But it’s hard.

The creative process is really nice, but everybody wishes they had more time for it. Without really listening to all the people I’m inspired by and getting to know them, my poetry would probably just be some kind of weird Baudelaire type of stuff. Which is fine—I like that stuff too—but it would be a lot less rich if I didn’t have the insights of folks. And hopefully I can amplify their voices and their stuff in a non-exploitative way. It goes up and down. Right now, a project I’m working on that’s nonfiction is a lot harder. Sometimes I get really aggravated and wish that I had all this access to the academy just to write. But if I had that access and fellowships, I’d probably end up being divorced from my real passion. And the real source of creative passion for me is the political work, the community work.

Well, you mentioned the academy. Have you ever thought about going in that direction more as a way to sort of solve these issues on some level? Would you plug into academia so you wouldn’t have to worry as much about financial security?

Well, it wouldn’t work right now, but in the future who knows? There’s a lot of good models—like Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz is a wonderful model of a down, amazing public intellectual who uses her resources. But the thing that gets me about the academy and organizing and privilege is that a lot of professors are making a shittier salary than a lot of janitors these days, but their privilege comes in different ways other than finance. The people who got in a long time ago are making real good money and they have all these resources. But the people who are being hired now into the academy—it’s not guaranteed that you’re gonna have any resources. You used to be able to get the college to pay for speakers and now you can give them a little 25 bucks, like Roxanne has talked about. So it’s not guaranteed...It’s a possibility but it’s not where I’m going right now.

Is there anything else you want to add about this whole issue of passions and survival?

I just really think, as the great dub reggae poet Linton Kwesi Johnson said, we need more time. There’s all these great campaigns going on and most of them are completely worthy of our support. Certainly before we start thinking about agitating for the 30 hour week we need to put an end to this murderous fucking war. But we also have to think about, as we’re talking about economic justice and racial justice, reclaiming time so we can develop our capacity to participate more fully in the world and enrich ourselves as human beings that live in communities. We’ve had the 40 hour work week for a hundred and something years. So now it’s time to go for the 30. We need more of just about everything. I mean, I condemn consumerism but I’m really skeptical of the folks that are saying the only solution is this individualistic: “consume less, consume less.” I think we should be talking about more for everybody. Not more mindless consumer shit, but more resources and more money. But most of all more time because that’s where you can create more pleasure and more happiness. And that’s a reform worth working for.
Matt Dineen is a writer and activist based in Northampton, MA. Contact him at passionsandsurvival@gmail.com

Monday, March 19, 2007

Beyond Available Alternatives: An Interview with Rob Scott

By Matt Dineen

"What are you for?" Variations of that question were constantly hurled at the early global justice movement that erupted, in the U.S. at least, in Seattle during the actions which shut down the WTO meetings in 1999. This was often an attempt by the corporate media to discredit the movement as a group of aimless idealists protesting just for the sake of protesting. But in recent years, particularly with the rise of global and regional social forums, activists within the movement have taken that question seriously by prioritizing the need for visions of the kind of worlds that we want to live in.

Nearly a decade before the Seattle uprising, a school opened in Urbana, IL dedicated to making those worlds a reality. The School for Designing a Society invites its students to ask the question: "What would I consider a desirable society?" and spend an entire semester designing projects toward realizing that desire. Recently I had a chance to sit down with Rob Scott who is one of the School's full-time instructor's specializing in cybernetics and ecological design. He came on my radio program "Passions and Survival" where we discussed what it would be like to live in a society beyond the one we have now.

Let’s start with the School for Designing a Society. Can you describe what it is and how you got involved with it?

The School for Designing a Society is a project started by activists and artists, composers, poets, people interested in language, politics, economics, and social change. It is aimed at trying to create a space for people to talk about the world as they would like it to be rather than only talk about it as it currently is. So it was taken as a point of departure that people already have a critique of the current society and that’s well known. Just because one has an articulate critique there’s no evidence, that I’ve seen, that one can go directly from the critique of the existing society to one that they prefer. Some space, some time, some environment has to be set up where people can speak with each other about, “What would we put in the place of the system that we disapprove of?”

So we get students that are interested in living in a different society. And rather than start off commiserating with each other about what we don’t like, we try to put a temporary suspension on the discourse of criticism and complaint and encourage people to make proposals as to how they’d like to see the world be otherwise. And to that, the semester unrolls itself in a set of classes, seminars, often discussions and readings, aimed at generating projects, generating activities, works of art, political campaigns—whatever it is that would meet the desires of the women and men who come to the school hoping that society could be otherwise. And looking to generate evidence, because the society we prefer doesn’t sit before us and ask us to simply just hit a button on it. You actually have to sort of make up the language to talk to about it. So that’s mainly what the discussions are aimed at.
Some people frame this challenge in terms of vision and it seems like this is a very visionary project. At a talk that I saw Michael Albert give about radical visions for radical change he discussed how in the past thirty or forty years, if you piled up the manifestations of the critique of existing structures it would go miles into the sky. But then if you made another pile of visionary work dedicated to productively contributing toward alternatives it wouldn’t go past his knee. So it seems like what you guys are doing is very urgent in that sense.

Yeah, it’s precisely that. And it’s not meant as a slander or negation of those that make life work of trying to simply put language to describing the oppression that occurs in the current society and trying to give a voice to those that have always been oppressed by the structure of society as it currently exists. Rather it’s to say that, we do that too and we want in addition to that—not as a substitution or a deletion—but in addition, we want to have this other type of discussion. We would also like it to be that somewhere in the world there’s a time that we say: No, now critique, we check it at the door with our coat, and maybe along with our ego too, and that we don’t know what society it is that want; and that if somebody has got some idea or some starting point we take it seriously. And I could say, in response to Albert’s thing, I’ve at least got a file cabinet that comes up to my neck. So, we do generate quite a bit of stuff in Urbana.
I’m curious about your response to people who are uncomfortable with this idea in general, in terms of trying to map out alternatives. I think there’s this hesitancy towards it as people are afraid of it becoming a so-called “blueprint” for a new society that is too rigid. How do you respond to people who are hesitant to even engage with this sort of project?

Well, I agree. Certainly there’s a lot of people who are hesitant if somebody uses a word like blueprint because there are so many manifestations of that from the Twentieth Century that have so many awful consequences—social engineering projects that one wouldn’t find so savory to talk about first thing in the morning. I suspect that the main reason people get uncomfortable when they hear about the school is that it comes up in an environment in the current society. And in the current society, often times people are trying to keep their job, are trying to survive. So if one goes into, say, an academic department that’s basically making its living off of running a discourse of critique of the current system it can be pretty uncomfortable to hear someone come in and say: “Okay, but if we all already agree that we don’t want the current society when are we going to have a discussion about what would we prefer instead?” And that’s, to a large extent, why we wish to have a school that is separate because it’s not fair to our comrades who work in academia who are trying to have a critique of the current system to bring that discussion there. In a way, it’s already in the job description. It’s already built into the structure of the buildings that are there. You have libraries filled with books about the current system. If you’re talking about a system that doesn’t yet exist you’re in this little part called fiction or maybe somewhere in the English department, I don’t know.
But yeah, defenses against it—there are two types. There are people who really do want the current system. That’s another issue. There are people that, even miserable, will defend the current system, it won’t defend them. And they’ll sit there and they’ll get in your way and they’ll get upset. It might not make any sense in language, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t make bodily sense to the person. And no insult against people who think and have adjusted their bodies to the current society because I suspect a lot of it comes from childhood conditioning, the necessity of safety. And most people on the planet Earth are brought up with the threat of violence if they challenge the status quo from a very early age. So it’s really, really weird that you could have a school for designing a society and not be burned at the stake. Go back a hundred years ago—this would not be in existence. A full-fledged, year-long school aimed at nothing else but proposing that society could be otherwise and doing whatever we can to bring that into existence. That’s not every era of history that you could get away with that. It’s a pretty unique moment right now. And so, people are shocked by it. They don’t know how to respond to it. This has never existed before. So no malice against people for being scandalized—in fact it’s probably invited.

Well, maybe we can get into more of the details about this project. The way we’ve been discussing it so far is rather vague. A “new society” could mean something potentially worse, to some people’s perceptions, than what we have now. What are some of the guiding values that are leading this project?
Well, that’s a good question. I’m not sure that I would wish to give a prescription. One of the main issues is that we are not sectarian, [believing] we already know which society we want. We’re mainly taking a departure from the arts and inviting people, especially people who haven’t had time in the arts. If you haven’t been in a performance department or studied performance you don’t know that people ask you to change your behavior, change your language, change the way you speak on the stage in front of a room full of people and say, “Just act differently.” And you have to act differently on the spot right then. It’s basically instant social change. And the people who are interested in fighting poverty or racism or any of the other oppressions that we live in our daily lives, whether it be on the bus or in our schools, families and so forth, that you can simply change the way you talk on the spot and the whole social environment changes on the spot. That’s mainly what we wish to get across—that that already is a step in the direction of freedom and not some specific program of, “Here’s how it should be…”

We want to illicit desire. I mean, the only extent to which I would say we have some values that we could put upon as a sort of requirement of being in the School is nonviolence: You’re not welcome to come to the school and use violence or oppress anyone. Beyond that, if you say you want it, if you’ve got desires—and by desire I mean something that’s not available in the current society that you’d like to see tried—if it’s nonviolent, non-oppressive and other people in the room feel that way; if you’ve got something you’d like to try in terms of a new social relationship, or just, “I’ve got this new word I’d like to try out,” or “I want to try a project, I think the way eat dinner together is fascist and I’d like to reorganize that,” go ahead. If Matt came to the School for Designing a Society, the invitation would be, “Let’s find out what Matt wants that would not be in the social world if not for Matt.” And not so much the very old fashioned image of school where you sort of pour knowledge into the heads of students and therefore they have it and that presumably helps things. I would say instead that, contrary to all the evidence, we’re hoping that discussion and human intelligence could be useful humans. And that’s not really a program.
Let’s get more into the issue of desire. I know that part of the goal of the School is to work toward creating a more desirable society. Can you make the distinction between desires versus wants or needs?
That’s a good way of putting it. I think of want as very general word. We use it in our daily lives in a colloquial way, which means casually, and we can say everything from, “I want a sip of water,” to “I want a different society.” And they’re two different things because having a sip of water isn’t hard. That’s an available alternative in the current society—for me at least, maybe not for everyone. Even if I say I want everyone to have access to water I’m starting to break the boundary of what’s possible in the current society because it’s structurally set up to make it not so. So I use the word desire when looking at available alternatives within the current society and [seeing] this is not on the plate of alternatives I already got. Or you could think of it as a range almost: To what extent would it be possible that the thing I’m asking for could be satisfied in the current society? And the extent to which it couldn’t be satisfied, that’s the extent to which I would say that’s a desirer taking place and not just a preferer. I think of it in terms of preference versus desire. Meaning, if you are just selectively agreeing with what the world already gives you, you have a preference and you aren’t actually calling anything into question or pushing for change.

Maybe to be a little more provocative, a lot of things that people say when they come to the School for Designing a Society initially, I would say, are preferences. Including: “I want a low-power FM radio station in town, I want community, I want a potluck every night, I want…” These are basic things. And again, no slander or critique against available alternatives, especially those ones. I mean I do those things—I’m on low-power radio right now! But the point is that in addition to that we can have this discussion of: Let’s see where that beginning of preference that we sort of get from our current society…where it starts to become desire is the extent to which it starts to challenge the structure of what already exists. “I want a low-power radio station in every single town.” Alright, that’s actually not available and the whole society might tremble a little bit if that became true. If I actually had that desire satisfied we might already be inching toward a different system. “I want everyone to have all their basic needs met.” That’s actually structurally out of wack with a planet in which 2 billion people have to spend most of their day walking to retrieve water. And you’re right to say, “How is it different than needs?” because needs are just about as far opposite as you can get from desires. Not only do they already exist in the current society but they’re proper to your body and…at least the way I talk about it.

When I use the word needs I’m talking about biological, body will break down and die if these conditions are not met. And that’s, I would argue, something that has to be considered if you’re interested in designing a society and doing it in a nonviolent and non-oppressive way.

The issue of needs is the survival piece of the passions and survival dilemma. What basic human needs do we have to fulfill and at what costs in the current society? I’ve been talking with a lot of people about how those needs affect their situations in terms of having to sell their hours at wage jobs and how that conflicts with the true passions that they want to be able to follow and the challenges of doing that. Maybe you could address this dilemma.
Yeah, I think I could. I would add though one term to what you’re bringing up. When I speak of needs I’m actually speaking of something proper to my body. And when I speak of, for instance jobs and money and quote-unquote, “I need a car” and all of that way of talking, I actually want to say that’s a property of the system we’re in but not a property of my body and therefore I’m going to use the word necessity. In the current system it’s a necessity that I have a car to get to work. When someone says that I’ll say, “Okay, I agree with that sentence.” But, “I need a car” is…I would claim that it is an undesirable way of speaking and we become victims of capitalism when we speak in terms of, “I need money to eat.” It’s actually grammatically absurd if you think about it. You don’t need money to eat. No one eats money. But in the current society I agree with you if you say that, “It’s of the utmost necessity that I have money in order to meet my need for nourishment.” I could steal, I could try to do other things, try finding fruit on trees or something. In the current system it will catch up with me and stop me from doing that at some point. So for me necessity is something where there’s usually a trace of some past system. Someone in the past desired something. There’s no need or requirement that society go in the direction of capitalism where all the necessities are owned. But it’s gone there. So now we’re left living in the traces of paradigms past and we speak with a language that’s supported institutional oppression and systemic violence. When we say these things we’re either aware of it or not aware of it. And what I want is that we begin to have a conversation to try to use that distinction: You’ve got desires and that’s something that’s not already on the menu of available alternatives. And then you’ve got needs and those never go away—I’m talking about nourishment, water, shelter from the elements, and I want to add things like touch. I almost want to add language and interaction—and those are proper to my body.

And in between those two zones, the zone of completely constructed stuff, just made up, you can have a society without radios. You can have a society without stop signs. All this stuff is traces of the fact that people decided to add something to the world that wasn’t already an alternative at some time in the past. In between there’s the necessities, the things that were wanted and somehow directly meet our needs for survival. I would like to live in a world in which the variety of ways in which the needs are met is an expanding variety, that there’s actually more alternatives there, that there would be more alternative necessities if you will. And it wouldn’t be that it all comes through the one channel. If you wanted to design a system—social engineering or controlling people—making it so there’s one way is an excellent control mechanism because every need gets met through the same chute and if you want to interfere with the whole society and how their needs are met you can interfere with that one chute. Especially if you speak of countries that import most of their food, they’re really just completely at the whims of the international market structures. And we might not experience it so much in our daily lives in this country but I would argue that in the next 50 years we probably will with respect to water and even certain other things because it’s inconceivable that any Americans I’ve met, U.S. citizens, would have access to the basic necessities that they meet their needs with without the petroleum economy and that’s going to be an issue. So the needs sort of clash in contradistinction to the desires, but they also have plenty of edge space in which you can make those kinds of connections.
Matt Dineen is a writer and activist based in Northampton, MA. He is currently on tour with Ben Dangl, the author of The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia (AK Press, 2007).

For more information about the School for Designing a Society visit their website: designingasociety.org

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Who Stole My Time?

By Lilly Moss

Never enough time.

I spend two hours commuting each day and eight and a half hours daily at work. Consider how much additional time most people spend on shopping, watching television, and other passive entertainments. It's no wonder that life seems to pass us quickly by.

In prehistoric times, it's estimated that the daily chores, including food acquisition and preparation and other necessities, used about four hours daily, and those four hours were also social time.

When I was a kid in the late 50s and 60s, there was talk of the coming era of leisure time, of four day work weeks and extended vacations, of hobbies and do it yourselfing.

Our contemporary spiritually-ill culture demands that we move faster all the time, valuing speed for its own sake; that we spend the best hours of our day working for others for pay, often in personally meaningless tasks; that we see time doing nothing as lazy time and that we fill every unworking moment with passive entertainments.

In despair for time, I carefully apportion my weekends: this much time for art. This much time for loving play. This much for baking a cake or wandering along the frozen creek.

Who stole my time? I worked and drove my car and shopped and worried and did what I had to what I had to what I had to for 53 years and now I look back and mourn for the book I didn't write and the sunny days I was stuck inside at a job and the art school I never attended and the sledding expeditions with the kids I put off until the free time that never came.

Who stole my life?

Every day's pay I put away for the time when I will have enough to buy back my life from the Dominators.

Reposted from Lilly's blog The Good Earth.