Why polemic? Why now? It seems that I’ve been belaboring my thesis proposal for a week now. It isn’t because I don’t know what to write. Nah. That sucker is as good as written. My problem is that I have to write the proposal and have it passed by the graduate committee first, which stipulates that I fit my composition into a specific academic genre. How I resist fitting into genres. I break genres; I don’t fit in them. My dear mentor (who I love unconditionally) also told me that I need to refrain from pulling the polemic in my thesis. Apparently my current views and participation in them may come across to the committee as a bias—a negative bias. Huhm. This made me hesitant to write. But then I thought about what I’m doing with the thesis, and though I am very interested and invested in my topic (to the point of sheer excitement every time I talk about it), I am still very much coming from an ethnographic stance. This is because I am not that which I write (unless you count the Derridean sense, and, well…). Therefore, I can and shall write that thing.
But what about a polemic?! I want to be argumentative about something. It is damn healthy. And I’m good at arguing.
Oh, yea, I’m talking Marx and Harry Denny tonite. Yup. There’s a theme with this.
I had this short, but enjoyable conversation with someone a few days ago about what makes for lasting change in activism, and in what ways we can participate in making such change. I’ve been reading Harry Denny’s Facing the Center for a class, found this, and sent part of it to that person:
“A new language and ways of thinking were turning me into a new kind of activist, not one who touted placards or bumper stickers, not one who would march on offices, but one who would discover everyday teaching and learning moments led to change every bit as important and sustainable as the more dramatic forms of protest in the streets or speeches from podiums. During those undergraduate years, I was discovering my own identity as a working-class person, as a queer, as someone who never viewed the world without being attuned to the lenses that constituted my ability to see. I would not have a self-awareness of this intellectual growth and change in me until much, much later in life when I moved from advocating for change in often abstract terms, removed from local tangibility…I would finally learn that consciousness-raising, advocating self-empowerment and fostering critical awareness of social, cultural, economic, and political forces on institutions, communities and individuals, might reap rewards in ways material and beyond. I came to realize identity wasn’t merely about self-discovery; I also began to understand its rhetorical dimensions, that how identity was invoked (its presentation) mattered and that, when well-executed, could make social change happen, maybe not monumental change, but local shifts or micro-successes, that might culminate in a tipping point.” (Denny 7-8)
Denny is a good man and thinker, I say. I also say that there is a lot going on here. Denny subverts common assumptions about the activist identity, one who didn’t fit in the “norm” during the 80s and 90s because he is a white, queer man. The assumption then was that he didn’t know oppression.
Polemic #1: We all experience oppression. All of us do. If we accept that every human hurts, feels slighted, loses out on enjoyment of experience because someone else imposes ideology upon them, we’ll be much more conscious of how we participate in encouraging acts of everyday oppressions.
So, yea, back to Denny. This is what is at stake, always: identity. This person responded to the first part of this quote with a statement about how this is one way for an activist to show their maturity. I was intrigued and enlightened by this person’s statement. What does it mean to be a mature activist?
In the normalized sense, it could mean that one fits under middle class values as Denny goes on to discuss later in his book. Here:
“Respectability is the assumption that students should not display attitudes that transgress mainstream beliefs, whether radical leftist or conservative ideas (Bloom 659). The goal is to always be polite. Connected with not offending any audience’s sensibilities is the importance placed on moderation, to appreciate a reasonable range of perspectives on any given topic. Thrift and efficiency connect with both labor—working quickly—and financial mindsets—saving for a rainy day.” (74)
Sure, to be a normal, respectable activist could mean being polite and not challenging too fiercely the status quo. Wait, what? That seems like an oxymoron. I struggled with this when I thought of it. Are we more effective as activists if we challenge authority with in their face austerity (I suppose this could relate to the “anarchist” actions on May 1st), or is it better to work within the social confines of behavior associated with middle class values? Yea, I don’t know quite yet. What I think, though, is that both are necessary and effective in certain circumstances.
During a protest, it is perfectly reasonable to be respectable to our comrades also participating in this speech act. It is also productive not to incite violence on the police. That is, until, they become violent themselves. Then what? Now that I’ve seen this first hand, it is invaluable to react in specific ways to violence of the police. Collectively shaming them for their actions is one. Filming them is another. (they sure don’t like that.) There are more.
Polemic #2: the most effective and affectively mature activist knows when and how to act depending upon the circumstance. A mature activist is literate of all rhetorical forms of subversive behavior. (we can teach these :D)
However, sometimes it is absolutely necessary to be subversive to each other. Sometimes we need to adopt oppositional stances with one another in this revolutionary movement/moment to show care for them.
You may wonder why I say such a thing—how I can say such a thing?! I did, and I believe in it (for now). Do challenge me if you have ideas.
Polemic #3: there are times when we have to tell someone else that things are not quite the way that person may think they are. Given that our lives are made up of many truths, it is imperative that we cross, contradict, oppose, challenge, flat out fight one another to get to knowledge and/or change.
We can do this with care. Taking into account of 1 and 2, we can approach one another in an oppositional stance to say “No” (or whatever needs to be said) respectfully, while still remaining focused on the bigger picture: our petition to the governments for our grievances. It is ethical to take care when we disagree, but it can also be ethical to simply disagree. I bid you all take care when you do. Yet, if strife need occur, remember that person may feel oppressed for some reason, and keep that in mind. We can ask them about this before getting angry, maybe. Or we can fight, and know that in the end we are just feeling strong emotions that have little to do with each other and everything to do with our situation. Just ideas here—more than happy if you all have suggestions.
Where the heck is Marx? Oh, he’s here. First, let’s look again at Denny’s comment: “I would finally learn that consciousness-raising, advocating self-empowerment and fostering critical awareness of social, cultural, economic, and political forces on institutions, communities and individuals, might reap rewards in ways material and beyond” (7). Denny is focusing on how learning these things challenges material production. This is important. This is also what we rhetors and compies call powerful, critical literacy. To him, learning these things gave him the type of social awareness that allows him to teach his students how to critique their surroundings and initiate change. This is change-meaning-making! I also argue that Denny is operating in a realm of mature activism.
Polemic #4: Approach every conversation and interaction as a possible moment in which to discuss and instruct (or subvert) critical literacy. We gift empowerment by doing this, so do it. Simple. (maybe not always, we are human; we do get tired; but be aware that these opportunities are everywhere all the time).
Alright, I needed to bring up materiality because here comes Marx talking bout it all kinds of specific. The man, himself:
“The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form was, on the contrary the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed , fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profained, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life and his relations with his kind.” (10)
Umm, boom. No-but-really, this is Marx as Marx does best: artistic rhetoric. We can see here how I’m attempting to relate several ideas. To subvert the material production of identity, we can take Denny and add Marx for spice. I’m suggesting that we start looking at how those middle class proponents of culture work to consistently subvert themselves to keep them in normalized power. We can attend to Adorno, Althussier, and those Frankfurt schoolers to do that. But we can also just think about Marx.
Polemic #5: To hell with the “middle class” ideology. Change does not belong to them. It does not belong to Obama’s false polemics either. Change is revolution. It is ours for the making.
The material production of our culture is outside of itself; it is in a constant state of flux already because of our ever-growing adaption and adoption of technology. No one can own it. Therefore, we need to start acting and incorporating our uses of technology in ways that belong to us as a whole society. The use of technological materialism is less limited to class than ever. We can give this change a push.
Polemic #6: since our governments are not going to figure out methods to fix the state of our world, we need to do it ourselves. One way to do this is by bringing technology to people that do not have access to it without the imposition of debt-ridden promises of democracy; but, rather, with true liberation. We need to gift technological literacy to each other in non-hierarchical ways. We need to teach them ways of using it—literacy. I don’t completely know how to do this. Yet this is what we need to figure out. Bring forth your own polemics here, fill in the blank!
Once upon a time young, antagonist Marx—the revolutionary—grew up. He saw his lovely revolution fail. He was humbled, and forced to face his idealistic tendencies with maturity. Sweet, bearded Marx. This is an example of what mature Marx had to say in The Eighteenth Brumaire:
“Now picture to yourself the French bourgeois, how in the throes of this business panic his trade-crazy brain is tortured, set in a whirl and stunned by rumours of coups d’état and the restoration of universal suffrage, by the struggle between parliament and the executive power…by the communist conspiracies in the south of France, by alleged Jacqqueries* in the Departments of Niévre and Cher, by the advertisements of the different candidates for the presidency, by the cheapjack solutions offered by the journals, by the threats of the republicans to uphold the Constitution and universal suffrage by force of arms, by the gospel-preaching émigré, heroes in partibus, who announced the world would come to an end on the second Sunday in May 1852—think of all this and you will comprehend why in this unspeakable, deafening chaos of fusion, revision, prorogation, constitutions, conspiration, coalition, emigration, usurpation and revolution, the bourgeois madly snorts at his parliamentary republic: “Rather an end with terror than terror without end!”
Sweet, recursive history. I bid you all see how similar this piece of Marx is to our times now. I bid you all attend to the fact that this was written by a man who had, essentially, given up his revolutionary ways. And look what happened. Look at where we all are. This wasn’t just France. It isn’t just the US or any other country you lovely readers are living in at the moment. Ahhhh, that is it. I have global readers. We are already aware that our spaces are more than individual countries. We are all in this together. Thus:
Polemic #7: know your dialectics! Our history shows us how revolutions go. But history is an institution. It is written by those “winners”. So it is up to us to make history what it can be one day.
I don’t want you reading this and thinking I know what I’m saying, taking my words for granted. Nope. Take this text and polemicize the heck out of it. Negotiate your world for yourself. It is ours, after all. Oh yea, and be mature about it. Or not. Whatever works best ;-) I’m here for a fight if you want one.