Monthly Archives: October 2015

A Manual for Struggles in the End Times

I

The first thing I can
Say about a Manual for
Struggles in the End Times
Is that the last thing
Anyone really needs now is
Another privileged white settler
Explaining what they should
And shouldn’t do in their
Struggles for justice peace well
Being and quite simply—existence.

So let me instead begin
At the end as it were
And say a little about
Why the struggles so many
Are now engaged in are
Struggles in the end times
And I don’t mean this in
An eschatological or millennialist sense
I mean it in an Intergovernmental
Panel on Climate Change sense—

Or even better—a climate
Justice sense because if the
Planet’s climate continues to erode
As reports currently project there
Will be no place left
For justice to be found
Forged or defended from assault—
Climate change is a social
Justice issue because justice means
A liveable life for all

And an uninhabitable planet means
No liveable life for anyone.
I’m getting ahead of myself.
Or maybe behind the times.
Because the reality is of
Course that climate change is
Here and happening now and
We cannot stop many of
Its effects—they are already
Locked in and the planet

Will continue to warm and
Oceans will rise and acidify
And the pollutants we have
Spilt into the air and
Oceans and the land will
Continue to bring all living
Beings increasing levels of suffering
But my point isn’t that
We need to act now
To stop climate change

Although we do need to
Act now to slow mitigate
And alter the current course—
My point is that justice
Comes through the struggle for
Justice and the struggle is
The point now maybe more
Than ever because of this:
The changes to the planet’s
Climate capitalism and colonialism

Have set in motion will
Take many generations to reach
Their full and terrible extent.
In the meantime we need
To learn at last how to
Collectively and justly weather
The coming storm together.
So what we struggle for now
Is in part a struggle

For the means by which
We will navigate the losses
And reduced conditions created
By the capitalist and colonial era.
The other alternative—more of
The same—more competition more
Inequality more exclusion more
Resource extraction more dispossession
More of the species and human
Populations of this planet sacrificed

Until at long last the chickens
Come home to roost and even
The affluent west can no longer
Avoid the consequences of a
Depleted and compromised planetary system
Looks like the only other
Alternative on the table now.
So the struggles now are
Struggles in the end times
In this no alternative sense.

Our lives will increasingly come
To be defined by struggles
Struggles for basic resources
Struggles for clean water for
Food security refuge and autonomy
And dignity—so what world
Within crisis and struggle will
We create now? How will we
Dwell within crises and struggle
Fashioning new forms of justice there?

 

II

Hmm … just wait a second
Just wait aren’t many people
Already struggling in just
This end-times sense I
Have been describing here?
Haven’t the genocidal waves of
Colonization and the centuries of
Slavery capitalism set in motion
(And which in turn really
Helped set capitalism in motion)

Left shipwrecked and ravaged
Communities all over this planet
With social and cultural end
Times to endure and which
They have endured for centuries
Now struggling continually against
The end of almost everything
They had previously known? OK
I think the time to face
Our end times and learn

How to continue to struggle
In and through them is
Here and I think the
Time to learn at last
How to properly live in
This world is here despite
How much damage we have
Already done—or maybe exactly
Because of how much damage we
Have already done—we need

To grieve—but also to
Continue and we need to
Seek a sort of restorative
Justice in our relationship with
The biosphere which I think
Amounts to saying we need
To “become Indigenous” and that
The struggle in the end
Times will take the form of
A kind of indigeneity where

In this case to be
Indigenous might mean just this:
Continuing inhabitance based in
Cultural practices geared towards
A sustainable and interdependent
Relationship to the natural environment.
But what about this “we”
I seem to be deploying here—
Who is we and who
Gets to say and claim it?

I think of what my
Friend the poet Cecily Nicholson
Has written—we who do
This all the time to
We eroded are legible
Which maybe means there is
Always a “we” performing erasure
And a “we” who resists
And struggles to remain “legible”
Despite all they have sustained

And that sometimes those two
“We”s might find their way
To new forms of solidarity
And as we all of us
Learn to struggle in the
End times we might need
To find a way to tell
Two stories at once: the
Story of our differences and
The story of our similarities

The story of the damages
We have differently endured and
The story of the damages
We are all coming to have
To learn to endure or
What the poet Fred Moten
Calls the coalition of the
Fucked up—he writes from
The black undercommons:
The coalition emerges out of

Your recognition that it’s fucked up
For you, in the same way
That we’ve already recognized that
It’s fucked up for us. I don’t need
Your help. I just need you
To recognize that this shit
Is killing you, too—by which
I take him to mean
That the struggle in the
End times comes when you

Realize it’s fucked up for
You and not just those
Unfortunate folks on the other
Side of history and it
May be that climate change
Is the moment when the
World capitalism and colonialism
Built finally becomes fucked up
For white people too now
How fucked up is that?

 

III

The complications of pronouns aside
I think that the struggles
In the end times will
Have to come out of
Every corner of the land
And every pore of every
Body—the struggle will be
At a blockade on unceded
Territory and the struggle will
Be in a university classroom

The struggle will cross your
Border and the struggle will
Find new homes in new
Lands the struggle will happen
In the downtown east side
And the struggle will happen
In Surrey the struggle will
Wear a niqab and the
Struggle will be called a
Barbaric cultural practice though

It will in fact be a
Struggle against barbaric cultural
Practices such as the maintenance
Of inequality exploitation the
Expansion of fossil fuel extraction
Policed borders criminalized dissent
And one of the oldest forms
Of barbarism of all: the
Violent destruction dispossession and
Displacement of peoples this planet over.

The struggle will not be
Quiet or always polite and
The struggle will come from
The grass roots but also
Sometimes the struggle will involve
NGOs political parties and other
Institutions that despite having a
Structural relation to the state
Can also harbour the struggle
Because in the end times

Where we all now must
Carve out a home the
Struggle cannot be picky the
Struggle cannot be about purity
The struggle must lift its
Dirty scorched and moulting wings
Above the fires scattered across
The territories of our better selves
And soar on the air we
Make and breathe together in struggle.

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When Democracy Becomes Controversial

[My portion of a lecture given at the SFU Centre for Dialogue, with Lynne Quarmby, for the Nora and Ted Sterling Prize in Support of Controversy]

1

Our argument tonight, stated as simply as possible, is this: If what Lynne and I have done constitutes anything “controversial,” it is so only because of the problematic state of our current democracy, for all we have done, in our opinion, is exercise “normal” and supposedly long-standing democratic rights of assembly and public speech. Democracy, now, produces a fundamental contradiction which anyone engaging in the political must wrestle with: we feel we cannot help but participate in the current democratic system (there are so many urgent issues to address)—voting, supporting parties and candidates, participating in public debate, even running for office—at the same time, we can have little faith in the ability of our political system, as currently constituted, when it comes to the most pressing issues we face (such as climate change, the geographical displacement of populations, and Indigenous rights and land claims), and so we must also take direct action outside of the electoral and representative apparatus of governance. To live today is to live in a world of such contradictions. Go vote on Monday, but do not stop there, and do not stop demanding, and taking steps to build, a more just, more open, more equal and more participatory political system.

Another way of approaching this: controversy, however figured—along with informed, respectful argument and passionate disagreement, as well as acts that can be seen as confrontational or disruptive, acts which sometimes may involve non-violent civil disobedience—should really be understood as part of the healthy functioning of a democracy. They are evidence of the people taking autonomous control of and responsibility for their lives. If such acts themselves come to be characterized as “controversial,” rather than essential, then something is rotten in the state of our democracy.

Our discussion tonight of what, exactly, might be “controversial” about direct democratic action will pass through the lenses of our personal stories this past year, the particularity of our fields of research, and the critique we are levelling with our words and our actions.

2

For me, my involvement in the Kinder Morgan resistance this past year was unavoidable. I had for a number of years been writing about and participating in social justice and environmental justice grassroots movements. I had been concerned about climate change, social inequality, Indigenous land claims, and our government’s seeming inability, or lack of interest in, doing anything about these issues. When Kinder Morgan came to the Burnaby Mountain Conservation Area, to cut trees and conduct seismic testing for their new pipeline last September, they came into my back yard. I have a 20-year relationship with Simon Fraser University, so this mountain is one of my homes, a place where I have spent a good portion of my life, and I care about it, as a place and as a community. I care about local First Nations title to this land upon which I am a settler. And I care about the state of this world, the natural environment upon which we all collectively depend, and the future my and your children and grandchildren and great grandchildren will inherit. “Kinder Morgan,” it may be worth noting, in perhaps not the best German translation, can be taken to mean “tomorrow’s children.” This accident in corporate naming is telling.

I could, on my way to and from work, stop on the mountain and join others keeping watch in the forest. I could, and soon did, play the role of a spokesperson for what people were trying to achieve on the mountain. And I could write—and I did write—as Lynne did too.

For me personally, one of the most instructive, and chilling, moments was having my writing read aloud in the BC Supreme Court, by Kinder Morgan’s lawyers, accusing me of conspiring against their company. “Underneath the poetry,” the lawyer said of a blog I had written (and I quote), “is a description of how the barricade was made”—thereby unintentionally echoing the famous Situationist slogan: sous la plave, la plage (under the paving stones, the beach). It was a good day for poetry—it mattered enough to be cited in court—even if it was a bad day for this one poet.

That one sentence spoken by that lawyer on November 5 2014 continues to haunt and shape my work (including my forthcoming book of poetry, Once in Blockadia). Of course, I’ve always mostly been interested in what was “beneath the poetry”—the Real, the material world of exploitation and repression, and collective struggles for justice and freedom and our complicated social relations. But now that the two-headed monster of the corporate state has tipped its hat—that it, too, is very interested in what’s “beneath the poetry,” and the sort of veiling that literary and other cultural expressions may engage in—well, quite simply I’m still trying to process this new piece of information.

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3

The connection between poetry and politics, poetry and social justice and social movements, is primary to the work I do in my academic field. In a recent publication I referred to the sort of work I do as a form of “embedded poetry”—like an “embedded” journalist, I write from a position within groups undertaking certain actions in the social field. Obviously this is anything but dispassionate, distanced or objective research; it is a committed creative and critical practice. But the literature that doubles as social commentary and in fact at times as a form of social “action” also has a long tradition about which I teach and write, as well as engaging in it in my own creative practice.

This is what I find so useful and fascinating—both as a subject I study and a methodology I employ: poetry, especially, provides the generic wherewithal to imagine ourselves as vocal agents of change and actors on the stage of social transformation. Poetry is still shaped by speech and the oral imaginary. In a poem, we can say public things we otherwise do not have the opportunity or occasion (or perhaps even freedom) to say, and we can address situations, individuals, the body politic and even abstract entities in ways that would not otherwise make sense. And yet, this imaginary by which we speak to that which it is often impossible to speak is a crucial political imaginary too. Democracy, I would argue, is nothing less than a mechanism to allow impossible speech: the collective speech of and between communities, the speech of and to large and abstract forces that affect us all in the broadest, and therefore sometimes decidedly intangible, ways. Such speech is absolutely necessary to our social wellbeing, and while “publicness” seems to be something which has been steadily eroded over the past three or four neoliberal and austerity filled decades, poetry and other literary arts remain a place where the voice of honest indignation (as William Blake called it) is kept alive.

4

Here’s perhaps a bit of controversy: we’re not living in a democracy. Not, at least, if we take seriously the idea that a democracy is a system of rights and freedoms enshrining the self-determination of a community’s constituents. As many thinkers are now pointing out, western democracies in fact function much more like oligarchies than anything else—as a recent Princeton study suggests of the United States:

Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organised groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on US government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.

This is likely news to no one. Consider Bill C-51, a piece of legislation which the majority of legal experts in Canada deride as unconstitutional and, frankly, undemocratic. Consider the “close working relationship” between the current Conservative government of Canada and its “friends” in the fossil fuel industry—to the point at which, as documents have revealed, the government has over the past four years implemented exactly those policy and regulatory changes industry has asked for—down to each dotted i and crossed t. Then of course there is the denial of the will of the city and the majority of the citizens of Burnaby in the Kinder Morgan case on Burnaby Mountain, and the way various levels of government run roughshod over Indigenous rights and title in the rush to approve and develop multi-national fossil fuel extraction, infrastructure and trade deals.

I could of course go on. But consider this: a recent Fraser Institute report suggests that “democratic institutions are not relevant for an enhanced feeling of life control.” The report adds that economic freedom, specifically, “exerts a positive impact on life satisfaction, while democracy remains insignificant.” Here’s where we are heading under the current neoliberal phase of capitalism and governmentality: democracy is “insignificant”; you can find “life control” and “life satisfaction” through economic (as opposed here to social) freedom alone. Interesting. And who, we might ask, has access to this singularly significant “economic freedom”? Hmm…I wonder.

Let’s step back from the brink of democracy’s twilit last gleaming. The era in which modern democratic institutions developed, over the past two to three centuries, is also the era of capitalism’s full and eventually global development. It is also the era of colonialism—if we stretch this analysis back just slightly into the seventeenth century, when the British parliament, at least, began to exert more power, and in which global exploration and expropriation began to expand beyond Europe in earnest. All these socio-historical phenomena—capitalism, colonialism, and what we have come to refer to as “democracy”—are linked processes. They are phenomena unleashed by the drive of elites to increase their influence and wealth—and thus productive forces—supported by a rapidly developing ideology of limitless economic growth and competition—through the private ownership of land and labouring bodies (sometimes the bodies themselves, literally, at other times simply the labour time of those bodies—although it has often amounted to the same thing).

In the historical narrative I’m offering here, democracy—the “granting” of democratic rights and the gradual implementation of a slowly expanded franchise—functions as a “containment system,” intended to corral popular will and opinion—to cordon it off while the important business of colonization and capital accumulation proceeded and expanded (as indeed it continues to proceed and expand, in diverse ways). We might say that the rights and freedoms we do have were “granted” only because of popular unrest and resistance: the commons demanded change, and elites gradually offered various sops and allowances and “privileges” which were eventually stitched into a system (which we have deigned to call democracy), constantly modified, which allowed a semblance of the participation of the “will of the people” while continuing to serve the interests of the accumulation and radically uneven distribution of wealth.

If we, the commons, made some gains in the past through popular resistance, we can do so again. Indeed, I would argue that we have not yet gone nearly as far as we need to in this direction. In this regard, I recall the words of Henry David Thoreau, who in his essay Resistance to Civil Government, wrote: “Is a democracy, such as we have known it, the last possible improvement in government?”

So—maybe there’s something more important here that the word “democracy” obscures. Maybe what we really need to focus on is the demos, the commons, and the ability of the commons to manage and maintain its shared planetary resources. This is the controversial thing Lynne, and myself, and many others did: we stood on the remnant commons of public space and unceded territory and demanded that the commons be heard, be acknowledged, and be followed.

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5

I return to the question of controversy. Is it really controversial to act to protect our shared natural environment? Is it really controversial to place ecological values ahead of economic ones, or to demand economic practices that are in harmony with ecological values? IF it is, then we are truly in a bad way. And certainly legislation such as Bill C-51 attempts to mark out those who stand in the path of the economic’s triumphant parade over the body of the ecological—especially Indigenous land defenders—as controversial, deviant, even terrorists.

If Lynne and I have indeed participated in a controversy, it is largely, to my mind, a controversy centered on one aspect of our work as academics. It is not our research that is necessarily controversial, nor is it our teaching. Rather, it is our public outreach and service to the wider community—our functioning as “public intellectuals” (if such beasts are not yet extinct), and our taking of SFU’s mantra—engaging the world—perhaps a little more literally than intended. Advocacy is often a part of what academics do, both from within and outside their respective fields. You might also characterise what Lynne and I have done as to take our social analysis and critique—our understandings of the functioning of the physical and social worlds—and put them at the service not just of our disciplinary community, but at the service of the wider community as well. This is perhaps another form of “embedded” cultural practice—embedding knowledge production and dissemination not in the rarefied and disciplinarily bound institution alone, but in the very communities that are struggling for social change from below—and further, to actually form that knowledge in a collaborative and grassroots milieu.

We have without question desired to be of service. But again I have to ask, what here is controversial or even exceptional? In the kind of political life that I would see as living up to the concept of democracy—of real, participatory democracy—such “engagement,” such direct collective social action, would neither be controversial nor extraordinary. It would be expected. It would be a normal part of daily life—and indeed we would have to reconceive daily life so that it allowed and supported a more fulsome participation in a more autonomous, localized, and engaged form of community self-governance (a topic of discussion, perhaps, to reserve for another occasion). Now imagine—if engaging the world was taken to mean direct and active participation in our own collective self-governance, as well as the attendant ascendancy of the rights and responsibilities of citizens over corporations, we might have to redefine engagement—we might in fact have to rebrand SFU as having a new, more radical mandate—one of revolutionizing the world.

 

 

 

 

SFU Faculty Letter in Support of TSSU

Dear President Petter,

We are faculty members who strongly object to the Administration’s threat to end the health benefits for TSSU members. As we understand it, this will include terminating Medical (MSP), Extended Health (EBH) and Dental benefits for all those now receiving them, or will require that the employees themselves pay these premiums if they are to be covered.

This move directly threatens the health and well-being of TSSU members and their families, and is therefore a very harsh imposition on professional workers at SFU who are already in precarious working conditions.

While we understand that this may be legal because the contract has expired, it also constitutes a tremendous abuse of power during contract negotiations.

We would urge the Administration to rethink its position and return to bargaining with TSSU.

Sincerely,

Ian Angus (Humanities)

Ronda Arab (English)

Yıldız Atasoy (Sociology and Anthropology)

Alison Ayers (Political Science/Anthropology/Sociology)

Kumari Beck (Education)

Sabine Bitter (Contemporary Arts)

Nick Blomley (Geography)

Enda Brophy (Communication)

Clint Burnham (English)

Wendy Chan (Sociology and Anthropology)

David Chariandy (English)

Elise Chenier (History)

Allyson Clay (Contemporary Arts)

Susan Clements-Vivian (School of Interactive Arts and Technology)

Marjorie Cohen (Political Science/Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies)

David Coley (English)

Stephen Collis (English)

Lisa Craig (Molecular Biology and Biochemistry)

Lucas Crawford (Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies)

Dara Culhane (Sociology and Anthropology)

Sheila Delany (English)

Jeff Derksen (English)

Peter Dickinson (English and Contemporary Arts)

Nicky Didicher (English)

Milena Droumeva (Communication)

Noel Dyck (Sociology and Anthropology)

Marla Eist (Contemporary Arts)

Susan Erikson (Health Sciences)

Mónica Escudero (Humanities)

Andrew Feenberg (Communication)

Samir Gandesha (Humanities)

Tom Grieve (English)

Rick Gruneau (Communication)

Shane Gunster (Communication)

Rebecca Goyan (Chemistry)

Robert Hackett (Communication)

Atousa Hajshirmohammadi (Engineering Science)

Robert Hogg (Health Sciences)

Matthew Hussey (English)

Adel Iskandar (Communication)

Chris Jeschelnik (Communication)

Sharalyn Jordan (Education)

Dal Yong Jin (Communication)

Sharon Kahanoff (Contemporary Arts)

Christine Kim (English)

Paul Kingsbury (Geography)

Mark Leier (History)

Frédérik Lesage (Communication)

Carolyn Lesjak (English)

Geoff Mann (Geography)

Jennifer Marchbank (Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies)

Laura Marks (Contemporary Arts)

Jan Marontate (Communication)

Janice Matsumura (History)

Kirsten McAllister (Communication)

Sophie McCall (English)

Eugene McCann (Geography)

Gary McCarron (Communication)

Arlene McLaren (Sociology and Anthropology)

Cari Miller (Health Sciences)

Marina Morrow (Health Sciences)

Roxanne Panchasi (History)

Chris Pavsek (Contemporary Arts)

Anthony Perl (Urban Studies)

Stacy Pigg (Sociology and Anthropology)

Evelyn Pinkerton (Resource and Environmental Management)

Erika Plettner (Chemistry)

Stuart Poyntz (Communication)

Cheryl Prophet (Contemporary Arts)

Deanna Reder (English and First Nations Studies)

Gordon Rose (Psychology)

Kathleen Slaney (Psychology)

Margaret G. Schmidt (Geography)

Jamie Scott (Molecular Biology and Biochemistry and Health Sciences)

Patrick Smith (Urban Studies/Political Science)

Kendra Strauss (Labour Studies and Geography)

Janet C. Sturgeon (Geography)

Tim K. Takaro (Health Sciences)

Gary Teeple (Sociology and Anthropology)

Ann Travers (Sociology and Anthropology)

Barry Truax (Communication)

Ker Wells (Contemporary Arts)

Aaron Windel (History)

Jin-me Yoon (Contemporary Arts)

Habiba Zaman (Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies)

Kirsten Zickfeld (Geography)

Dear Common – Democracy

Dear commons
that means everybody
soon as you can
conceive it
not a house of
but a space between
everybody’s anywhere—
can we ask again
what a democracy is
or what it looks like?
We know you are busy
all the everythings
you are up to
on some glowing
page or site or
at work or at home
(if those are still
distinct places
you careen between)—
but guess again
at the outside
of polling stations
characters in debate
mostly acting like
they’ve imagined we
imagine we want
them to act for us—
ignore them as
best you can
they are the fallen
angels of the polis
panders of influence
and money’s more
indecorous gestures

Now let’s imagine
ourselves as actors—
here’s a stage we found
call it wherever you are
call it whoever you’re with
(they are actors too)
the script is how to
get everyone home safe
get everyone a home
get everyone what they need
get everyone involved
in the decisions that
most directly affect them—
health of the land
an open future
refuge and respect
for difference
which is the delight of being
access to the means
of our collective subsistence
autonomy by no other name

Turns out it was
always all talk anyways
but talk we make together
as we walk together too
not elections and not
even rights which were
made to infringe or just
float in the foul soup
of official discourse
like flags and songs
no one remembers
the origins of
except it was likely
theft blood and fire—
let’s call them instead
responsibilities
to each other and
to the earth
to the ways we all make
being the waymakers
we all are as
the demos daily
undoes every harm
touching loving local
hand to beloved
local root—
come here we say
in our best stage whisper
let’s make democracy
ordinary and strange
once again—let’s
make it what we do
every day and let’s
make it what scares
the living shit
out of the living shits
who have been trying
to keep us down
but who we now
run out of town
having figured out
what democracy is
and what it looks like
in this very act which it is