More Following Up

I feel like my last post was kind of a cop out. I definitely have a lot of thoughts about the election and our current moment, but it feels a bit like a minefield right now, with everyone so raw. It feels like after 9/11 when I was all “U.S. FOREIGN POLICY BROUGHT THIS UPON US” and everyone was like “SO YOU ARE GLAD ALL THOSE INNOCENT PEOPLE DIED.” It was an unprofitable time for nuanced convos and right now feels similar within intimate spheres.

But I wanted to share some ideas for reformulating our thinking and our ideas about coalition-building as we move forward. On the off chance this is helpful to anyone, here are some small but concrete things I have done in the wake of the election, to begin reorienting myself toward activism and change. I would love more suggestions for things to do to stop being complacent and start ACTING:

Joined the Democratic Socialists of America. This is an organization with branches all over the country; when you sign up and pay your dues, you will be hooked up with the chapter closest to where you live. DSA has an awesome Google group where people share ideas, plan events, etc.

And here is a good primer on democratic socialism itself. I know some people are into full anarchy and I love that but in the meantime maybe democratic socialism is a cool way forward.

Subscribed to Jacobin magazine, a leftist publication with very readable articles about current events, good framing of those events, many good calls to action. VERY helpful in formulating arguments with racist relatives e.g.

Unfollowed most celebrities/comedians on Twitter; replaced them with activists and left intellectuals who will tell me what to do, who will circulate good info and commentary, e.g. Deray McKesson, Black Lives Matter, Cornell West, Naomi Klein, Ezekiel Kweku, DSA, Democracy Now! etc. etc.

Listen to Democracy Now instead of or in addition to NPR. Much more radical activist takes on current events. Amy Goodman is a national hero. I actually don’t listen to either Democracy Now or NPR very often; I am challenged in this by my desire to listen only to comedy podcasts during my brief daily listening free time. I need to challenge myself on this.

Set up monthly donations to the ACLU and Planned Parenthood. There are several entities that need our monthly donations (Southern Poverty Law Center, NAACP, etc.), do what you can. Monthly donations is better than one-time or periodic donations.

I also strongly feel that the only viable way forward, for us, is away from capitalist models for structuring society, or, at the VERY LEAST, away from the totally unregulated free market hellscape so many politicians (Republican and Democrat) have been promoting over the past few decades. So, in light of this, I also think we all have the responsibility to educate ourselves, and to start (or continue) journeys of intellectual change during which we challenge preconceived notions, biases, prejudices, and assumptions, and challenge ourselves to envision radically alternative ways of organizing society. This is a journey I am on, and my own brain is always evolving on these issues. I believe all our current ills are profoundly linked together—racism, nationalism, misogyny, inequality, climate change—and that working to understand underlying structures and histories will help us see these interlocking issues more clearly, which in turn will make us much better, more effective activists. I also think that engaging with actual serious critical thought is good for our brains, and good for our citizenship skills. It is so easy to swallow received wisdom and poorly-formulated New York Times articles; it is harder to read a book about capitalist logic, but struggling through the book is better for you. I have come to this realization only relatively recently but I believe in it very much. Critical thought ITSELF is a form of resistance, now more than ever I think.

Along those lines, a couple of people have over the months asked me for reading recommendations, specifically about capitalism because that’s what I’ve been ceaselessly thinking about for the past five years. I feel sort of hesitant about sharing my reading lists/ideas about this stuff because I myself am still learning, still struggling to get a handle on so many of these topics and issues. There are many things we could be reading right now that would help us formulate our thoughts and reconstruct our notions of citizenship; these are just readings I happen to know and like.

On reading difficult texts: Whenever I read something from a field I don’t know very well, I always read with a notebook to hand, and when I get to a term, concept, or history that I don’t know, I do a quick wikipedia break, and write down a little summary in the notebook. Slowly, you get smarter, and it gets faster and easier to read. It feels great.

So anyway. The following is a highly personal list of things you might enjoy reading, if you are interested in understanding and thinking about the underlying structures (primarily but not exclusively economic structures) of our currently shitty world. Right now lots of “Trump syllabi” are circulating; consider this the start of mine. Maybe we can have an informal reading group. If you read any of these, or start reading them, and want to discuss or ask questions, please comment or email me, and maybe we can have some sort of weird online dialogue. I would LOVE to know your thoughts. Other reading suggestions are also very welcome-—please leave them in the comments.

I don’t even know if anyone really wants reading suggestions but I feel like this is all I really have to offer to the world right now, so here goes:

On the infiltration of capitalist logic into regular ol’ common-sense ideas about life and the bad effects of this

Harvey, David. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. This is the first book I read, four years ago, that set me on my new research path. When I first read it, I knew next to nothing about capitalism, how the economy actually functions, etc. It took me a long time to get through the book the first time I read it, thus, because I had to stop and take so many extra research breaks—sometimes for something as simple as just reading the wikipedia entry on The World Bank or on Keynesianism, other times for more extensive research—but if you stick with it, and actually do all that extra research, then by the end of this book you will have a good foundational knowledge for reading everything else on this list, and for generally having some understanding/thoughts about contemporary economic issues.

Brown, Wendy. Edgework: Critical Essays on Knowledge and Politics. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005.

This book is in some respects “easier” to read than the Harvey, because it is less concerned with the brutal concrete realities—the facts, figures, and dates—of capitalism’s recent history, and is more concerned with cultural stuff. How we live, why we hold certain values. In other ways, though, it’s much more difficult to read, because it is a book very much in dialogue with a specific academic discipline, where Harvey’s is meant to be more widely readable. Brown is engaging in a field of study called “critical theory,” which has a long history. Like I said, dig into it, look up stuff you don’t understand, keep notes in a notebook. One thing this book has going for it is that it is a collection of essays, and you don’t have to read them all (or read them in order) if you don’t want to. I suggest starting with “Neoliberalism and the End of Liberal Democracy.” Also read the introduction (always), as it sets up who the author is talking to and what their goals are.

Silvia Federici. Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle. Oakland: PM Press, 2012.

This is also a collection of essays, but one that is meant as kind of an anthology—it spans Federici’s whole career. So it starts out with lots of second-wavey stuff in the 70s and it goes up to the present; you can see her ideas develop across her life. Federici is a feminist Italian Marxist who works on women and race in capitalism. She argues that misogyny and racism are not regrettable side effects of capitalism but actually that they are REQUIREMENTS of capitalism, at every stage, in every country. Brutal stuff. Her essays on housework and social reproduction—particularly her more recent ones—are devastating; every privileged white American woman should read them. I find Federici very “readable,” in comparison with other academics. No jargon, no bullshit. She really wants you to understand her argument and be compelled by it.

If you’re up for it you should also read Adorno. He is wonderful. He was warning us about all this stuff 100 years ago. He is very difficult to read; definitely get a recent edited collection with a LONG introduction written by someone else, and read it (the introduction).

Read Marx?? I have no idea

More specific case studies of the infiltration of capitalist logic into our daily lives

Hochschild, Arlie Russell. The Commercialization of Intimate Life: Notes from Home and Work. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.

In this book, also a collection of essays, Hochschild examines the way market logic infiltrates intimate relationships. Increasingly, she argues, traditional ideas about loyalty, committment, and care for others are replaced by conceptions of relationships as short-term “investments” from which we expect “returns.” She digs into the outsourcing of childcare and elder care, and the global social effects of such outsourcing. I thought this book was very easy to read/understand. She performs awesome discourse analysis of self-help books for women, personal ads, etc.

Mylonas, Yiannis, “Amateur Creation and Entrepreneurialism: A Critical Study of Artistic Production in Post-Fordist Structures.” tripleC: Communication, Capitalism, and Critique 10/1 (Jan. 2012): 1-11.

Deeper Marxist critique of the ideology of entrepreneurialism, specifically the ways it is changing cultural perceptions of art and artists. SO EPIC!!! You will probably have to do some wikipedia breaks on this one unless you know a lot of Marxist theory. I love this article.

Slee, Tom. What’s Yours is Mine: Against the Sharing Economy. New York: OR Books, 2015.

I just started this book, which I bought during OR books’ post-election sale in which they were offering tons of recent activist works for $1. This is just a book-length screed against the sharing economy; just reading the introduction got me pumped. I would not call this “academic” writing—I really think this is a book any reasonably intelligent person could sit down and read without needing much pre-existing knowledge. If you’re a strong proponent of Uber or Air BnB, please read!! Also provides great fodder for arguing about Uber or Air BnB with loved ones.

Mukherjee, Roopali, and Sarah Banet-Weiser, eds. Commodity Activism: Cultural Resistance in Neoliberal Times. New York: New York University Press, 2012.

More essays. I have been thinking a lot about how posting on instagram or twitter seems to stand in for activism, for a lot of people, even for me. And about how committed we are to the idea that what we purchase and consume is a vehicle for political activism, as though buying mass-marketed products marked “eco-friendly” does fuck-all for actually saving the environment. I’m starting to read more about how democratic action is becoming identified with consumer action, and the ramifications that slippage has for notions of citizenship. If our citizenship is defined by our consumer habits, I think that is bad. However, some of the essays in this book present a more nuanced argument that has helped me question some of my knee-jerk ideas while adding nuance to others.

Here are some selected works dealing specifically with race, racism, and “multiculturalism” as a type of racism that supports capitalism.
This is a particularly important topic right now, I think, as the mushy marketable multiculturalism that has been propagated by mainstream “liberals” for so long is simply no match for the kind of virulent racialized hatred Donald Trump has made mainstream. We need to be way more critical in thinking about how to combat racism. POC activists have been talking about this stuff for decades; maybe now is the time white liberals will start listening. The following books really transformed the way I understand race and antiracism within capitalist culture.

Gordon, Avery F. and Christopher Newfield, eds. Mapping Multiculturalism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996.

Wonderful collection of essays examining various case studies and repercussions of the heightened focus on “multiculturalism” in mainstream American culture since the 1970s. Multiculturalism began as a grassroots attempt to eradicate racism in society by indoctrinating schoolchildren with counter-cultural ideas about society and togetherness; during the 1980s, though, it was co-opted as a corporate goal and as propaganda for the U.S. government (i.e. U.S. free market imperialism abroad can be sold as “spreading freedom and tolerance for diversity” to “intolerant” and/or “monocultural” nations). Angela Davis’s essay (“Re-thinking ‘Race’ Politics”) on performing diversity in corporate settings is particularly brutal and excellent, also very short and very readable. I think about this essay probably once every day. I wish every single administator at my institution would read it.

Jodi Melamed. Represent and Destroy: Rationalizing Violence in the New Racial Capitalism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011.

Book-length examination of multiculturalism as U.S. corporate propaganda. She specifically focuses on how the university study of literature has taken on the goal of teaching “tolerance,” which has had the effect of indoctrinating students with deeply troubling ideas about race and racism. Totally epic. Exhilarating and infuriating to read! Really caused me to think critically about some assumptions I make in my pedagogy. This book is probably more on the “difficult” side, in terms of reading. She uses lots of inside-baseball terms and concepts. But just an excellent, incisive critique; I love this book.

Ahmed, Sara. On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. Durham: Duke University Press, 2012.

I haven’t finished it yet, but this is a book that is, in part, about the pernicious work that mainstream discourses of “diversity” can perform, in corporate manifestos as well as in nation-building. Ahmed is a very precise, clear writer; here is a great representative paragraph: “When diversity becomes a form of hospitality, perhaps the organization is the host who receives as guests those who embody diversity. Whiteness is produced as host, as that which is already in place or at home. To be welcomed is to be positioned as the one who is not at home. Conditional hospitality is when you are welcomed on condition that you give something back in return. The multicultural nation functions this way: the nation offers hospitality and even love to would-be citizens as long as they return this hospitality by integrating, or by identifying with the nation. People of color in white organizations are treated as guests, temporary residents in someone else’s home. People of color are welcomed on condition they return that hospitality by integrating into a common organizational culture, or by ‘being’ diverse, and allowing institutions to celebrate their diversity.”

Taylor, Dorceta. Toxic Communities: Environmental Racism, Industrial Pollution, and Residential Mobility. New York: New York University Press, 2014.

ROUGH STUFF. The way racism is woven into urban planning and municipal decision-making in American history is absolutely devastating. Gentrification is a much longer-term process than most people believe; this stuff goes way, way back.

When you get tired of all this critical theory and political economy and radical feminism and whatever, I honestly also recommend that you read/watch/listen to feminist science fiction, Afro-futurism, etc. So much experimental fiction by marginalized people interpolates so well with the above readings! Octavia Butler, Ursula Le Guin, Sun Ra, etc. The best sci-fi is engaged in thought experiments—what would society look like if this contemporary tendency were taken to its logical conclusion? What would it be like if this one fundamental feature were radically different? Etc.—and I truly believe thought experiments are what we need more of right now. Instead of accepting things basically as they are, which means making incremental adjustments to a fundamentally shitty and unequal system, why don’t we at least TRY to envision different ideas altogether? Le Guin has a great early novel called The Disposessed, which is about a communist society founded on the moon. What would functional communism look like 150 years later? How would it conceive of Old Earth? What kinds of tensions would arise, under true communism? She also writes often of worlds that have no gender, or multiple genders, or worlds where marriages are between four people instead of two, etc. etc. Dig into Sun Ra’s incredible oeuvre, think about what music is and could be, how people relate to each other, how they could relate to each other if certain circumstances were different. Expose yourself to experimental art and avant-garde writing. There are all these ways to challenge habitual ways of thinking, ways of seeing, ways of being. Listen to atonal music.

Ha ha ha ha maybe read the Platonic Dialogues?? LOL I’m kind of serious

Okay, what else should we be reading/thinking about/doing?

I’ll tell you what I’m doing right now and that’s going home and drinking a beer


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8 Responses to More Following Up

  1. K says:

    Thank you for this!

  2. Elise says:

    You rock. I’m going to the library today.
    So much of this is what I’ve been thinking about: how liberals are intellectually ill-equipped to make good arguments, that we spend too much time on Facebook, swirling in eddies of unsubstantiated surface-level thought, that we need to move toward more education and not give up and sink to the level of the stubbornly pop-educated. But I look at my own students, many of whom I know don’t read a newspaper (even the ole’ NYT) and I ask myself where should THEY start? Well, I guess reading a newspaper.

  3. Meg says:

    Thank you thank you thank you! I know it takes time to compile a list like this, especially with all of these personal comments added, and it’s very much appreciated! I would LOVE an online book club, but also I understand that I am a true beginner and maybe there should be a beginner’s book club and a more “advanced academics” book club so you well-researched folks don’t have to spend your time catching me up. I’ll admit, though – when I started reading “Edgework” I thought to myself, “I wish I could ask YT about this, and this, and this and this and this.” :) (Maybe I just want to go back to school?)

  4. Eileen says:

    I was just coming in here to ask what you thought about _Jacobin_ and _Dissent_, and which other journals to look at. It feels like not only full-on books but also more frequently published work is important, considering the speed of change. I find academic reading difficult at this point in my life (as though it were easy in college, ha ha) and think a reading group is a really good idea!

  5. Katie says:

    I always play Sun Ra for my students (legit he is one of my favorite people to ever walk this earth) and they lose their minds. In good and bad ways. I was thinking about him hardcore after the election, especially amongst others: “I’m sitting in front of the white house, looking across the street but I don’t see a black house.”

  6. Nicki says:

    Thank you so much for this. I shared it with my coworkers, and we’re starting a book club to read some of these works — starting with Federici and Mapping Multiculturalism. Take care of yourself, sending good thoughts from Texas. xoxoxox

  7. Mary R says:

    Latecomer to this post, but felt like it was worth adding that a lot of these texts are academic and can sometimes be hard to find at bookstores. However, they can easily be procured with a local library card through Interlibrary Loans. Thanks for the list.

  8. erin says:

    Many thanks for this.

    I’m only commenting now, but I’m in the midst of reading the Hochschild and the Mapping Multiculturalism essays based on your recommendations here. I also agree that the Federici essay collection is very “readable” and a great place to start.

    I too work at a large university (though not teaching) and there’s been a lot of talk about diversity and inclusion post-election. The quote you give above by Ahmed really struck a chord with me. Committees are being created across campus with good intentions (perhaps), but I also find myself wary of them for some of the same reasons she describes.

    Also, yes to libraries and ILL!

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