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.