Sunday, March 17, 2013

Book Review: Detroit - An American Autopsy by Charlie LeDuff

I wanted to like Charlie LeDuff's new book, Detroit: An American Autopsy. I really did. I learned about the book through the interview with LeDuff on Fresh Air. The interview made me hopeful because LeDuff seemed well aware of the difficulty of talking about Detroit.
"My work has to do with living, breathing people and the difficult task of getting through this moment — which we will — and building a future. So no, I don't look at it as ruin porn at all. This is a document of us getting ourselves back together."
So many Detroit narratives strip out the tales of people in the city, and LeDuff seemed ready to bring in the voices of people's lived realities instead of framing his story with the ruin porn/utopia narrative we so often read. LeDuff promised to follow not only his own narrative, but that of his sister, who died on the streets of Detroit. He promised a story about real people.

In part, LeDuff delivers on this promise. He introduces the readers to fire-fighters struggling to make do in a city that does not give them enough resources. He tells us about his sister, his brother and his mother, all of whom are in some way affected by the city's problem. LeDuff deserves credit for these narratives because they so often go untold. These are interesting, real and say something about how while people have hopes for the city, people also have to get by. And they very often do get by. He shows how people in the city are reslient and it is that reslience that gives LeDuff and the reader hope.

If only he had stuck to telling those stories. Perhaps the book's cover should have tipped me off:

LeDuff stands alone, looking like the Lone Ranger riding into Dodge City to clear up the riff-raff. From his American-Flag-patterned boots to the cigarette in his hand, LeDuff is the epitome of the rogue savior of Detroit. He'll get stuff done, but he may break some rules.

That one man could save Detroit with a book is problematic on its own. More problematic is the white savior complex that LeDuff cultivates. In the chapter titled, "From the Ashes," LeDuff tells the history of his family. Specifically the story of his grandfather, who when living in Louisiana was classified as mulatto (which made him black by default). Upon moving to Detroit, his grandfather quietly ticked the box that marked him as white, thus allowing his family the privilege that people of color do not enjoy in these United States.

This history in and of itself is interesting and illustrates the transformative power of Detroit. But it's rather mortifying when LeDuff uses the story to classify himself as, "The palest black man in Michigan (221)." Hey Charlie: that's not now how race works. In case you have any doubts as to LeDuff's assumptions about race, he later says, "So am I black? White? Mulatto? How much of anything am I? (227)."

Lovely. LeDuff has lived his whole live with the privilege of being white. But he discovers that there is a percentage of black running in his family history, and suddenly he claims association with the racial disparity of Detroit. If this book weren't getting read, this would just be embarrassing  But LeDuff is all over the place these days. It is his narrative and his interpretation of the city that is getting play.

This is a problem for a city that hasn't figured out how to understand the who, what, where and why of its story. With LeDuff's book, people will understand that Detroit's solutions lie in some great white savior, some Lone Ranger saving the city.

Remember, Tonto was smarter. But he was the butt of the jokes. The Lone Ranger got the glory (and the show). And let's not forget that a white man will soon play Tonto.

A book from a man claiming to be the lightest skinned black man in Detroit is the worst thing that could happen for the city. It is the embodiment of the worst of racial politics in Detroit and in the nation because it deletes an entire category of people from the discourse. I've sometimes thought that part of Detroit's problems have to do with the elimination of certain voices in the narrative, and LeDuff's book seems to confirm this.

I do believe the Internet has a response to this: Le Sigh.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Detropia: A Review

Let me tell you a story about Detroit. Once upon a time, cars were made in Detroit. Because of the cars, people had good jobs. They could afford a good lifestyle, with college for the kids and maybe a cottage up north. People flocked to Detroit from all corners of the US of A (and world) for these opportunities. And then the jobs left. They went to China or Mexico. The jobs that remained gave lower wages with fewer benefits so that no one had any money anymore. Buildings crumbled. A lot of people moved out of the city. Housing prices plummeted. Businesses suffered. 

Then people took notice of this post-industrial landscape. They came to take pictures of the buildings. They made expensive art books out of these photos. A few people started planting urban gardens. Artists moved to town. Some dude opened a barbecue restaurant called Slow’s, which I mention because every article about Detroit has to mention Phil Cooley and Slow’s despite the fact that many others have brought new and successful businesses to Detroit.

 That is the story everyone tells. Over and over again. As someone who has lived in Detroit, I’ve heard that story a million times and I’ve probably told it at least twice. Which is why I was excited for Detropia. These are, after all, the same film makers who gave us Jesus Camp, which is one of the better documentaries of the past decade.

But Detropia tells us nothing new. The narrative is the same narrative told over and over again, with a larger emphasis on art as the savior for the city than on urban farming. Indeed, urban farming as the way forward for Detroit and post-industrial American cities is given some serious side eye. Not that I don’t think urban farming shouldn’t be give some side eye (it is not the savior of Detroit), but the filmmakers present an equally high-minded solution for Detroit: art.

Art, of course, is important. Cities need art. But it is not the solution, and the way it is presented in the movie, art is presented as high-brow opera and “edgy” performance pieces featuring people in gold gas-masks. At the end of the movie, two artists LITERALLY put a bird on a building, which of course made me think of the sketch in Portlandia where two creative-types put a bird on everything as if that will add aesthetic thrill (and marketability) to objects. See this city’s economy and crumbling infrastructure? Put a bird on it!

Although Detropia does little to change the narrative of Detroit, it did attempt to highlight voices rarely heard when discussing the city. Generally, stories about Detroit are told with white voices, which is a worrying trend in a city that is predominantly African American. The filmmakers highlight the owner of a Detroit bar, a leader in the UAW, and a woman who explores buildings in Detroit: all of these people are black. Indeed, the few white voices come from the artists that will save the city (draw your own conclusions from that juxtaposition).

Also refreshing about Detropia was removing emphasis from the city’s experts. Indeed, experts are shown as not really having a helpful point of view: one cut to a city council meeting about right-sizing the city shows chaos because it is a concept that has been explored practically, with little interest given to how such a move is contextualized in terms of history and race. Statistics and facts pop up on the screen rarely. Most of the movie is given to people telling stories. Indeed, the disdain for the expert is most on display when the filmmakers record three Detroiters on their porch discussing urban farming. They conclude that it won’t work because that’s not what Detroit is.

The presence of voices from the city of Detroit is an aspect of this movie that other writers need to emulate. That said, the filmmakers never resolve the tension between the standard narrative we are given and the narrative that people within the city want to give. Indeed, they simply force the usual narrative over the voices they’ve chosen to feature so that the movie feels like a square peg trying to go into a round hole.

That said, I could have watched an entire movie of opera being sung in Michigan Central Station.

Don't forget to put a bird on it.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Fun With Google and Detroit

I'm working on something. A project. A paper. A something. But it requires me to look at what people are saying about Detroit. So let's break it down.

Off the top of my head, from hearsay and conversation, I get a two important adjectives, both beginning with "r": requiem and ruins. Requiem because there is a belief that Detroit and all it stands for has arrived at that fateful part in the Requiem mass, the part where the drums are beating and the trumpets herald the end. Dies Irae, Dies illa, solvet saeclum in favilla: Teste david cum Sibylla! The day is angry, heaven and earth, all is burning. So what is burning? More on that later.

Ruins enter the picture because things are falling apart. Much of the city is crumbling and it is easy for people to adopt that word. Blogger James Griffaoen of Sweet Juniper is very interested in this description of the city, writing about the Michigan Theatre Parking lot:
You've probably seen it in a movie or television commercial. It is arguably this ruined city’s most breathtaking ruin, beloved by photographers, journalists, and academics for the easy irony of Ford automobiles parking in a ruined theater on the site of the garage where Henry Ford built his first automobile. What's more interesting, I think, is how this building represents a sort of unintentional preservation. The thing about ruins is at least they're still there.
But if we are really doing some academicish evaluation of the city, then we ought to do something researchy. Let's go to Google. The reason why I choose Google for this high-level analysis is that Google puts a lot of time into trying to understand what people actually want to know about a specific subject. If organic Google search results are to be believed, individuals have very specific things in mind when they search for Detroit. Here's what my Google search produced as of May 1, 2012.
  • Known as the world's traditional automotive center, "Detroit" is a metonym for the American automobile industry and an important source of popular music legacies celebrated by the city's two familiar nicknames, the Motor City and Motown. (Wikipedia)
  • Once a thriving metropolis, no city in America more demonstrates urban decay than Detroit. (Source
  •  Delicious food, strolls along the water, architecture that transports you to a different time, thriving music scene, art ranging from folk to street to masters, and the history of a city that is inseparable from the history of this country. (New York Daily News
  • “This is coming to you,” declares Tommy Stevens, owner of a blues bar in Detroit. By that he means the decay, deflation, and defeat of the middle class that has comprised the last decade of Detroit’s history. (Slate
  • There’s something special about Detroit. It has always been a city of the future. (Slate
  • Detroit now owns a cityscape that is often described as post-apocalyptic. (New York Times)
  • Detroit is a city in terminal decline. (The Guardian)
  • Still at the forefront of the American Dream, Detroit is fast becoming the first "post-American" city. (The Guardian)
So here we learn what may be burning by the idea that Detroit is a stand-in for many things. To say Detroit does not just mean the geographical location, or even the traditional histories associated with the city. While wikipedia is not the encyclopedia of record, it's crowd-sourced editing style is incredibly important to any analysis that tries to get at how people actually describe something. And in this case, Detroit is called out as metonym. According to Wikipeda, the metonym is about the auto industry and music, but read on to the rest of the quotes and you get another picture of what Detroit stands for. 

Mainly, Detroit stands in for something that is not working any more. It may be, as The Guardian describes, the place that abandons the American Dream. Or it might be the place that represents the future decline of the middle class. Or perhaps it is the location for the impending zombie apocalypse.

While the destinations of these metonyms is different, the themes are similar: Detroit represents something that is on its way out. Something that isn't working. Something that is being consumed. And if something is going away, dying, passing out of our minds, then it is clearly something we need to to come to terms with. Perhaps to mourn? Or more positively, to find acceptance in.

Although words are important, so is the visual and I'd like to pause on this image:

Hocking describes creating his Zigurat made of 6,201 wooden blocks in Detroit's Fisher Body Plant 21. Soon, the installation was destroyed by the EPA, which was clearing out hazardous things. The site is now somewhat closed up, though people still sneak in.

The immediate interest of this photo is to have what is generally an archaeological artifact, a zigurat, be built by someone in the present in a plant that is an artifact in its own. I first saw this at an exhibition at hte Detroit Institue of the Arts and I still cannot get it out of my head. The idea of intentionally creating an object that is associated with the past in a city known to be in ruins suggests interesting avenues on which to explore how history and the present merge together. What's more, zigurats are associated with ancient Mesopotamia, what we learned in high school was the cradel of civilization.

One interpretation of this work is to say that it describes a place that produces the civilization of an ending American Dream. It is a city that is both historical and desperately trying to escape it's history, to not be an artifact, but becoming one all the same.

Whither, then this discussion of Detroit?

If I were to frame this as an introduction to something more formal, I might offer up a thesis paragraph that reads thusly:

If we were to choose one place in which one might explore the political implications of American capitalism, liberalism, and political ambition, Detroit would be a good place to locate that discussion. When you first start exploring how people discuss Detroit, you learn that it is often a metonym for many things, the most traditional being the auto industry and music. The newer metonyms include the fall of capitalism, the consequences of slavery and segregation, and post-Americanism.

Within each of these is a distinctly political question: has the capacity for our democratic liberal ideals shifted and how are those ideals located historically and geographically.

Let's explore.

Monday, February 13, 2012

We Need to Talk About the Lady Blogs

What a two weeks it has been for lady blogs. Holy crap. Between Jezebel's lovely reposting of a woman's rape (which I'm not linking to here because I frakking refuse to give them page-views for that bullshit) and n+1's musings on the recent developments in this rather insular blogging community, the lady blogosphere has shown its limitations.

In the interest of full-disclosure, I am a ladyblogger myself. I am a senior writer and copyeditor at Persephone Magazine, which is like the red-headed step-child of lady blogs. We never get invited to the lady blog party, but we're certainly crashing it. I've also been a (starred) commenter at Jezebel and was very active in that community (when it was a community). I'm a regular reader of other lady-blogging communities including Shakesville, Feministing, and The Hairpin. I have a passing familiarity with XOJane and The Rookie. Though to be honest, most of my reading and commenting time goes to Persephone and The Hairpin (and once-upon-a-time, Jezebel).

I call it the lady blogosphere rather than the feminist blogosphere because at some point, lady bloggers recognized that feminism is a word that shuts out many groups, including people of color and those who do not identify as cisgender. Though there are a few blogs that openly call themselves feminist, and that's cool too. Although many lady blogs do not adopt the term feminist, their approach is certainly critical of the patriarchy and the other systems that bind women in problematic ways. That said, most blogs are happy to adopt the term lady blog. As the NYMagazine article about the lady blogosphere notes, the blogs adopt the word lady thusly: '“lady” being the term of choice for many online writers, an ironized alternative to the earnest “woman” or problematic “girl.”'

Last week, Molly Fischer wrote a thoughtful article about the lady blogosphere in n + 1. The n+1 article deals mainly with the current lady blog ruling class:,,, and Jezebel is the one that points out the differences between photoshopped and unphotoshopped pictures, posts about politics, and also talks about dirty tampons. It never claims to be feminist, but at its start, it was definitely fed up with the way most women got portrayed in magazines like Cosmo.

The Hairpin, the child of The Awl, "was sort of about women, but really it was about editor Edith Zimmerman's sensibility: Internet-fluent and self-consciously eccentric, with a nostalgic streak for both childhood and history." In other words, twee. But unlike Jezebel, The Hairpin is more comfortable using the "F" word, but it would never say its a feminist blog.

And then we come to XOJane, which comes up because it is edited by Jane Pratt, who also edited that lady magazine that everyone in their late 20s to mid-to-late 30s worships and laments its passing: Sassy. And so we get XOJane. And it's. Um. Okay? As Fischer seems to note, XOJane is sort of like when mom decides to be the cool teenager: she did a lot of cool things in her youth, but she's having a hard time fitting the monster she created into the box it has become.

Fischer also talks about Rookie, which is great and makes me wish I was that fucking smart when I was a teenager, but I'm not going to talk about that here because it is the future (also, I really don't want to criticize teenagers - though they could do with a little attention to people of color, but that's all I'll say). I'm more concerned about the adult lady blogosphere, and I am most interested in sites like The Hairpin and Jezebel because they carry the most weight. Fischer laments that it's turned from having a definite feminist (or social justice) goal to "BFF-ship."

And then a week later, Jezebel did this: it published a picture of a woman's rape. This from the same blog that refused to publish pictures of Rihanna after she got beaten up by Chris Brown. In the terminology of the Internet: what is this. I can't even. Editor Jessica Coen wrote, after commentors raised a shitstorm about the rape photos, "We have since added additional pixelation to all of the images, including those of the attackers. This post is ultimately about the existance of a video, thus the images ARE the story-without them, there's nothing. To remove them would be, in effect, to un-report the stor. Which is not going to happen."

How the mighty have fallen. As commenters have noted, Jezebel used to be a place you could go if you were feminist (or sort-of-a-feminist) but still enjoyed watching Toddler & Tiaras. Under the direction of Anna Holmes, Jezebel was a refuge for those of us whose moms had taught us Gloria Steinam, but who thought porn was great and who had read far too much Judith Butler and bell hooks in college: this was a feminism that knew its problems and that dealt with them out in the open. And of course, Jezebel was a community. I've met many friends from Jez, many of whom have gone on to be IRL friends and intellectual collaborators. But then shit like this became more and more prevalent. People wondered, "Is Jezebel the safe space we thought it was?" And the answer is no.

n+1 didn't deal with this shitstorm or really any other problematic shitstorm on Jezebel, but there have been plenty in the past year they could have addressed. There was Trace Egan's barely concealed racist tendencies and that article by that guy who thought that women should let men jizz on their faces because of their feelings. Oh Jesus. The n+1 article seemed most concerned with the personality of the reader who pursued Jezebel and The Hairpin and whether they were engaging in too much fluff (which, brief aside, is insulting. Fluffy is just fine in the lady blogosphere. It's the focus on an identity that is white and heterosexual that is the problem. Ms. N+1 has clearly never gotten into a race-bending fantasy casting debate for Pride and Prejudice - talk about your fluff-that-leads-to-deep-discussions-about-race-and-gender.)

The more interesting question, I think, is whether a blog that purports to be pro-woman and if not feminist, then certainly comfortable with the terminology (I'm sure I've seen a few of their writers use hooks and Butler in the same blog post), has a responsibility to its unspoken values. The n+1 article harkens the fall of Jezebel to the unfortunate incident on "Thinking and Drinking," where Jezebel writers Tkacik and Egan got trashed and joked about rape. Fischer notes that Jezebel got more polite afterwards, but I disagree. If anything, Jezebel got more eager to please by falling in with the things that made its writers (and readers) seethe. Fischer may characterize this as more polite, I characterize it as a very impolite way of using your readers' trust that you'll stick to your guns to ride a wave of the status quo to money in the bank. Gawker owner Nick Denton's near-transparent pursuit of the almighty dollar at the cost of unique voices and a strong online community further speaks to this hideous dishonesty.

But here's some humbling information. On a day when everyone was upset with Jezebel over their publication of a woman's rape, it had a dozen posts with over 10K views and one with over 100K. Which, as one of my fellow editors noted, is why they don't care about shitstorms - they don't need to worry about keeping their commenters happy because their page views are enough to keep the advertisers satisfied. Le sigh.

The Hairpin, on the other hand, has managed to avoid shitstorms. The Hairpin is polite in a way Jezebel never could be. Early 20th century celebrity gossip and posts about estate jewelry are hardly going to raise an eyebrow. And while The Hairpin has paid lip-service to other identities with columns like their "Ask a Queer Chick" and has taken feminist stances on abortion, it is still a fairly white and heterosexual space. Which, let us remember, is the real problem with the lady blogosphere.

So where does that leave us, and by where, I mean where we are when you get enough page views that the point of view on which you initially wrote doesn't quite matter anymore. I don't know. It's such a sticky wicket. As Courtney E. Martin pointed out in The Nation, the lady blogosphere when you care about your ethics, is not very profitable. It's sort of sad that you can't really care about the ethics that founded you when it comes time to making a living wage. But what isn't sad is the whole range of lady bloggers who aren't making a buck, but who really give a shit. At Persephone, we don't define ourselves as feminist because we know plenty of pro-lady people aren't comfortable with that term, but we're also not going to post pictures of someone being raped nor are we going to blatantly be anti-woman. I mean, most of the editors are feminists, but we understand how problematic the term is, so we're not going to push it on ALL the people

What is great is that other blogs haven't bowed down. Sure The Hairpin is twee. Of course Feministing doesn't make any money (but writes some great articles), and Shakesville is equaly non-profitable, but I think what we as lady bloggers need to remember is that we do have certain ethics, and even if the blog doesn't use the "F" word, we still have values we want to hold on to.

Of course, there is a larger question here, a more pretentious one (if you will): how do you talk about these issues, these deep, abiding issues about what it is to be a woman in the world, while still being aware of all the bullshit that comes attached and still making a living. Because if anything, that's the pit that Jezebel with its rape apology, The Hairpin with it's twee focus and XOJane with its 90s magazine seal-of-aproval has fallen into: how do we make a living? The promise of Jezebel was that you could be critical and still popular, but at some point, popularity outweighed the critique. It was like if at the end of Mean Girls, Regina George didn't get hit by that bus and took over the school and LiLo's character never learned her lesson.

As an unpaid editor at a ladyblog that tries hard, I think it can be done. Though as a copywriter who sometimes has to lay aside fierce beliefs so that a product will sell, I also understand that compromise has to be made. Maybe, like The Hairpin, you become twee or like XOJane, you revel in nostalgia. Or maybe, just maybe, someone sees the merit in good, quality work that refuses to compromise.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Lemmee Explain Things That Are Not True

The stats on this website are fun to look at. I seem to own the SEO for people looking for pretentious blogs (oh yeah!) Occasionally I come across an interesting search that makes me wonder, so it was with today's most interesting Google search that brought someone here, "Liberalism ruined Detroit."

Is that person in my head? Because I've thought a lot about liberalism in the context of Detroit, but I don't think liberalism ruined Detroit. That's hyperbole, and I have a feeling that the person searching meant liberalism in terms of the left, and not liberalism in the sense of Hobbes, and Locke, and Rawls, and all of those folks.

And to say that one ideology ruined something is simply wrong. I've written before that Detroit is often representative of the collapse of something, whether it be the ideals of capitalism or liberalism, but to say that something ruined it is simply disingenuous.

I think we need a little background. I wrote about liberalism on Persephone Magazine. Please take a look at it and then come back. Done that? Good.

In case you didn't read that, here you go:
Put simply, liberalism puts the individual at the center of it all with the goal of having her live as she chooses. The obstacles to this can be laws and customs that block individual choice.
So did liberalism ruin Detroit? No. Hardly. That is a very, very wrong statement both logically and ideologically.

But what did? Why this downfall? Thomas Dumm writes to Laurie Anderson (a long quote, but this is important):
I am writing to you because your united states have intersected mine. From your vision of our power and disconnection I have learned something that I want to share with you. When we are apart we oppose power to freedom. But when we reach united states, we shout about the power of freedom, even as we whisper secrets about the variety of crimes that freedom requires of us. We have failed in many ways. But I have learned from you that our worst offenses against ourselves and one another have been imaginary. There is no health in us. Our united states are the result of strange combinations and fearful disruptions. Because we pretend that we can unite through freedom, we are actually free to unite. And when we are united, we have trouble imagining what it would be like to be apart. But united states--yours, mine, ours, theirs--are always temporary; we live in constant fear that we will separate. The moments we fear that we could never survive being alone are the moments we discover that we have always been separate and alone (8).
There is, of course, a pun here. When we reach united states we reach the states that are united but also United States, with capitals.  When we come together, there is something unnatural and fearful, because liberalism is so wed to the individual. united states are at once dangerous and full of freedom because they are on the edge.

Dumm says later of Laurie Anderson: "She is free to comment on it, because she is in-between, vacillating, a self-haunting ghost in the machine of digital meaning (Dumm, 178)."

For me, Laurie Anderson is the ghost in between in another way: she is the ghost in between the popular and highbrow. "O Superman," perhaps, pervades our knowledge, but it is a voice that has better than some, bridged the gap. She has said we are a country of in-betweens and I will take on that voice. A ghostly voice, as Dumm suggest, a voice that is united and separate.

Oh, but what does this have to do with Detroit? I have written about ghostly Detroit before. About the haunting of liberalism:
In Specters of Marx, Derrida delves into Fukuyama’s interpretation of politico-economic liberalism, saying: 
On the one hand, the gospel of politico-economic liberalism needs the event of the good news that consists in what has putatively actually happened (what has happened in this last quarter of the century, in particular, the supposed death of Marxism and the supposed realization of the State of liberal democracy). It cannot do without the recourse to the event; however since, on the other hand, actual history and so many other realities that have an empirical appearance contradict this advent of the perfect liberal democracy, one must at the same time post this perfection as simply a regulating and trans-historical idea (62). 
In other words: the liberal democracy that Fukuyama (and other theorists of his ilk, I’d like to add) promote requires two events: the one we anticipate and the one that has already arrived, and it’s best not to confuse the two. To put it in the context of Detroit: the ideal of politico-economic liberalism has arrived and is inscribed in the grand halls and beautiful architecture. The ideal, however, has also never arrived, hence the decay and the haunting of the specter of what everyone wishes had happened.
And what does this have to do with everything else? That liberalism ruined Detroit or that Dumm/Anderson have useful things to say with their discussions of power, freedom, and unity? To the first point, liberalism does not ruin Detroit so much as it haunts Detroit. The logical fallacies of the individual that is not united cast a ghostly pallor.

What's more, the ghosts suggest a way to get along with them. I would never ask us to exorcise them because I find too much that is useful in the anticipation and the arrival/non-arrival. That in-between is useful theoretical space. Detroit is useful theoretical space. The specter of what everyone wishes had happened: the individualism, the capitalism that helps that individual, the life that is perfect and happy and bright tells us that it is unachievable but it also asks us to welcome that which we invite: a system that works a litlte better, than takes these lessons, that, to put it in Dumm's terms, unites its ghostly states.

I don't think I've naswered much here. Firmly, liberalism did not ruin Detroit, but the critique of liberalism, the invitation of the ghosts and the united states, well, that could very well be our very own path to freedom.

united states by Thomas L. Dumm
Specters of Marx by Jacques Derrida

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Judith Shklar and Snobbery

Judith Shklar has a chapter in Ordinary Vices that is rather near and dear to my interests. It’s on snobbery and is titled, of course, “What is wrong with snobbery?”

 Shklar identifies snobbery as adaptable. It can be a symptom of class, something one is born into or works their way to achieve. It is a sign of pedigree, but is also criticized because it can make manifest sins like pride and selfishness.

In the United States, Shklar identifies what she calls “Secondary Snobbery,” which is seen as anti-democratic. She writes, “Somewhere, there had to be a line that marked off legitimate differences of wealth and talent from unacceptably undemocratic and unrepublican political manners and activities (101)."

She notes new breeds of snobbery in the United States, including the importance of people who work and make things with their hands, those who aspire to European class, and those in academia who have their own snobbery.

Of course, where I get most interested in Shklar’s writing is when she discusses snobbery in academia. Shklar remarks, “But in spite of appearances, snobbery is not built into academic work, and certainly not into learning. It just attached itself to them. The real university snob cares more about his society than about his knowledge. (127).”

In other words, if you’re an academic nerd and just love reading books, you’re not a snob, but if you’re all, “Oooooh, I go to Hah-vahd,” you’re a snob.

She continues later to describes why we shouldn’t be so hard on academics:

Academics must always become an excluding group, and even if they should never stoop to personal snobbery, they would still appear snobbish to suspicious outsiders. An actively self-humiliating stance of anti-elitism would hardly serve; it can only disrupt the inner life of learning without really altering the actual situation of the university, which is always visibly apart (132).

Shklar concludes her essay with an interesting point, which is that we should have many different groups so that everyone has an opportunity for inclusion and exclusion. What’s more, snobbery and the groups in which you can think (or make things) offer a certain type of freedom within them that is valuable to democracy (136).

So, to break it down: snobbery can be undemocratic because it excludes, but sometimes that exclusion can be beneficial because it allows a certain space to create handy dandy things.

Here’s where I agree with Shklar: having a group where you can share specific things and be separate so you can focus on your work is incredibly important. That is what working outside of academia has taught me. Working a full time job without having people to bounce ideas off of makes doing this work very difficult. And you also face a crap-ton of criticism about being, oh, well, a snob!

And of course, this blog’s name enters here. I’ve said before that I called it “The Most Pretentious Blog You Will Ever Read” in part to counter such criticism. Yes, I know most people don’t think this way. Yes, I know most people don’t read Shklar for fun, but I also know that the work that is done here (and in academia) is fucking important.

For example, I’ve been researching Joan Tronto recently because Minnesota would be one of those schools I might possibly want to put on my list if I possibly maybe someday decide to finish my PhD. One of the things that Tronto does that is important is to look at the concept of care and how if we rethink it, we come up with a more democratic society. It’s great work, and you only have the time and space for it from within academia (as far as I know, blogging about philosophy does not pay the bills, academia, however, does).

That said, I disagree with Shklar to a degree because there are so many barriers to academia, particularly political science, from being more usefully democratic. I think within certain disciplines, the good snobbery that Shklar advocates (as opposed to being a snob about, say, Harvard), is really detrimental. I‘ve often felt that if you are doing something like political science, which is so united with things like democracy and republican ideals, you ought to make it fairly accessible to people making political decisions.

There is a difference between the snobbish group that allows the freedom to think through important problems and the snobbery that creates an absolute division between those who are privileged to think about things and the people who make decisions. This is connected to what I have identified as No B.S. Discourse: which is talking clearly and not being prohibitively expensive. In other words, you can think from within the snobbish confines of academia, but you’d better be willing to make it expansive enough to include everyone else.

I agree with what Shklar is saying, but a caveat emptor should be attached because if you are writing within a discipline like political science that so affects others, you must think a bit more about how you can be less snobbish and more democratic. Or as Flavia Dzoden puts it (and I really must have this cross-stitched somewhere) my academic, snobbish, pretentious writing must be intersectional or it will be bullshit! But I’d like more space to think about all of this, and maybe it’ll be in academia.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Politics, Arts of the Self, and Mental Illness

Something's been bothering me lately. Something niggling at the back of my mind about a theoretical premise called the arts of the self. I generally take the concept to mean that in order to create more generous politics, every person should do things to open the mind. These arts of the self include anything from meditation to drugs and provide for a more expansive and generous politics.

But what has been bothering me is that the arts of the self come accross as a little sanctimonious and take a privileged position toward mental illness.

Two things I've read recently have brought up this concern. The first is a lovely piece on Tiger Beatdown about World Mental Health Day and depression. Emily Manuel notes that there are certain groups of people more likely to be depressed and that these groups align with marginalized categories: women, people of color, the unemployed, and so on. Manuel remarks:
The personal is the political has been a truism of feminism since the second wave, but we often forget what that truly means. All too frequently we create a false dichotomy between body and mind, forgetting that we are bodies and minds in space, bodies and minds in culture, bodies and minds constrained and disciplined by capitalism and the nation-state.
In other words, the fact that women and other groups are more depressed may have something to do with their position within that nation state. If their position were somehow modified or corrected or made more equal, depression rates in that group may decline. Of course, there is always biology, but the point is that there may be a percentage of people with mental illness who could be helped if the systems that marginalize them were changed.

The arts of the self never really account for this.When William Connolly talks about cinema in his book Neuropolitcs he mentions Vertigo and the various techniques that point to layered thinking and the argument for troubling our thinking by pointing out the many misconceptions precented in the film. If only, Connolly asks, we could have the benefit of Scottie's confusion, then we could all think more creatively (page 16).

Here's the elephant in the room about Vertigo: Scottie is mentally ill. The movie opens describing the terror of vertigo and his fear of heights. He suffers from a disease that freezes him. Even Connolly can admit this part, but only partially, "He [Hitchcock] infects us with a touch of vertigo. A little vertigo is indespensable to creative thinking, while a lot can freeze you into a zombie...(16)"

A little mental illness is great, a lot is bad. As someone who suffers from depression, that is a heck of a lot of bunk. Even a little depression makes working difficult and it does not improve how I see the world or make me think more creatively. Of course what does make me think more creatively is overcoming that illness. I feel it is disingenuous to call what I have to do to not be depressed the arts of the self because it relies on the diagnosis of the disease and on treatment. It relies on a necessity to be better. What comes after - having the energy to learn to run or the wherewithal to blog - those are my arts of the self. Everything before is an attempt to not be ill and Connolly would to well to differentiate between these two different concepts.

And there is another aspect of mental illness that the arts of the self ignores but that Manuel accurately recognizes (maybe it takes the mentally ill to recognize this?), and that is the political systems that cause illness.

Manuel's discription of our minds and bodies at play in the nation state is important because it acknowledges that which we cannot work on through ourselves. Not everyone can afford a pill. Not everyone can afford therapy. Not everyone has opportunities to break through the mental states that are created by marginzalition or shitty jobs or crappy pay, or the many opportunities to change our moods for the worse.

Of course, Connolly is thinking from within a sphere apart of the percentages of people with mental illness and the fact that they happen to come from marginalized groups. Instead, he is thinking in this sphere:
You can think of micropolitics, in the Deleuzian sense, as a cultural collectivization and politicization of arts of the self. Micropolitics applies tactics to multiple layers of intersubjective being. Because it is often practiced in competitive settings, it contains an agonistic element. The assemblage to which such micropolitical tactics are aplied might be a small group, a large constituency, or an interdependent constellation of people holding divergent positions on issues in need of general resolution (108). 
So if we all work on ourselves and get a little vertigo and then come together, politics will work on a micro scale that will be more expansive. I like this idea. I love it, in fact, because it acknowledges that we all come from different places and have things to contribute. It's highly democratic.

But it still does not conquer that thought I have that not everyone can work on themselves in the way that Conolly imagines because some of us are trapped. Manuel's closing to her article suggests to me that perhaps we could mix the macro, policy-centered politics with the expansive micro. She concludes:
"But it does mean that there are political answers (treatments, if you will) as well as medication and therapy, and I think there’s something worthwhile about naming an enemy you can fight, too."

The enemy is within, but it is also outside of ourselves. No amount of working on ourselves is really going to acknowledge that system that leads to illness and allows the arts of the self that Connolly wants to see. Something has to be done by way of acknolwedging that system and saying that sometimes the arts of the self aren't about expansive politics at all, they aren't even arts of the self, they are overcoming the system that has ground you down just enough to make you sick and being sick is not an opportunity, it is a symptom of a larger, macro, systemic illness.

Perhaps what I am trying to say is that the arts of the self are not open to everyone. It's a great idea, but how do we remove the privilege evident in a statement that sees illness as an opportunity. How do we acknowledge that not everyone gets to enjoy expansive politics and how do we allow everyone to participate? How do we make the arts of the self democratic?