Consciousness Rising

The subtitle of this post should be "or, how the internet learned about intersectionality," but while I love a good pretentious academic title, I don't think that's particularly representative of my intent here.

Sometime in the last 5 or 10 years, the popular discourse on justice on the internet learned about intersectionality. Which is great. Intersectionality, generally is the notion that a single identity isn't sufficient to explain an individuals social experience particularly vis a vis privilege. Cool.

This is really crucial and really important for understanding how the world works, but for totally understandable and plain ways. People have a lot of different identities which lead to many different experiences, perspectives, and understandings. All of these identities, experiences, perspectives, and understandings interact with each other in a big complex system

Therefore our analysis of our experiences, thought, understandings, and identities, must explore identities (ET AL) not only on their own terms, but in conversation with each other and with other aspects of experience.

Intersectionality is incredibly important. It's also incredibly useful as a critical tool because it makes it possible for our thought to reflect actual lived experiences and the way that various aspects of experience interact to create culture and society. [1]

[1]A lot of arguments in favor of intersectional analysis and perspectives are political, and raise the very real critique that analysis that is not intersectional tends to recapitulate normative cultural assumptions. I'd argue, additionally, that intersectionality is really the only way to pull apart experiences and thoughts and understand fundamentally how culture works. It's not just good politics, but required methodology for learning about our world and our lives.

While intersectionality is an interesting and important concept that could certainly support an entire blog post, I'm more interested, the genealogy of this concept in the popular critical discourse.

I know that I read a lot about intersectionality in college (in 2004-2007), I know that the papers I read were at least 10 years old, and I know that intersectionality wasn't an available concept to political conversations on the internet at the time in the way that it is now. [2]

Concepts take a long time, centuries sometimes, to filter into general awareness, so the delay itself isn't particularly notable. Even the specific route isn't that interesting in and for itself. Rather, I'm interested in how a concept proliferates and what is required for a concept to become available to a more popular discourse.

If interesectionality was an available concept in the academic literature, what changes and evolutions in thought--both about intersectionality, but in the context--needed to happen for that concept to become available more broadly.

[2]I admit that this post is based on the conceit that there was a point when the popular discourse (on the internet) was unaware of intersectionality followed linearly by another point where the concept of intersectionality was available generally. This isn't how the dissemination of concepts into discourses work, and I'm aware that I've oversimplified the idea somewhat. This is more about the process of popularization.

I think it's particularly exciting to trace the recent intelectual history of a specific concept in discourse, because it might give us insight into the next concepts that will help inform our discourse and things we can do to facilitate this process in the future for new concepts and perspectives.

As we understand the history of this proliferation, we can also understand its failures and inefficiencies and attempt to deploy new strategies that resolve those shortcomings.

Deleuze and Grove

I've been reading, two books non-fiction intermittently in the last little bit: Andy Grove's High Output Management and Deleuze and Guatteri's What is Philosophy?. Not only is reading non-fiction somewhat novel for me, but I'm sorting delighting in the juxtaposition. And I'm finding both books pretty compelling.

These are fundamentally materialist works. Grove's writing from his experience as a manager, but it's a book about organizing that focuses on personal and organizational effectiveness, with a lot of corporate high-tech company examples. But the fact that it's a high-tech company that works on actually producing things, means that he's thinking a lot about production and material constraints. It's particularly interesting because the discussion technology and management often lead to popular writing that's handwavey and abstract: this is not what Grove's book is in the slightest.

Deleuze is more complex, and Guatteri definitely tempers the materialism, though less in the case of What is Philosophy than the earlier books. Having said that, I think What is Philosophy is really an attempt to both justify philosophy in and for itself, but also to discuss the project of knowledge (concept) creation in material, mechanistic terms.

To be honest this is the thing that I find the most compelling about Deleuze in general: he's undeniably materialist in his outlook and approach, but but his work often--thanks to Guatteri, I think--focuses on issues central to non-materialist thought: interiority, subjectivity, experience, and identity. Without loosing the need to explore systems, mechanisms, and interfaces between and among related components and concepts.

I talked with a coworker about the fact that I've been reading both of these pieces together, and he said something to the effect of "yeah, Grove rambles a bunch but has a lot of good points, which is basically the same as Deleuze." Fair. I'd even go a bit further and say that these are both books, that are despite their specialized topics and focus, are really deep down books for everyone, and guides for being in the world.

Read them both.

Isolation and Ideology Change

Following the 2016 election my father, who is a much more active participant in Facebook than I, said something to the effect of "don't mourn; organize. I had a long winded post on the topic of 'don't celebrate; organize', but the bottom line is the same: organize."

I'd append to this just to make clear that I'm of the opinion that self care, survival and the care for and survival of our communities is crucial. Which sometimes means celebration and sometimes means mourning and sometimes means a quiet night at home with the and friends.

At the 2016 New England Sacred Harp Convention a friend of mine gave a lesion for those members of the community who were unable to attend because of profound illness which was delivered in conjunction with a lession in memorial for members of the community who had died in the last year. These lessons are a common and enduring tradition of Sacred Harp conventions.

The lesson focused on isolation, and the ways that illness, care-giving (and indeed dying, death, and grief) are isolating. But it went on to discuss the ways that we combat isolation, through connections to people and communities, and by the project of meaning making.

Connection and meaning making are related, of course, and are central to why I sing. I mean I also enjoy the music, but it's the connection with other singers, and the ways that our practices in and around singing are about making meaning.

I heard this almost 6 weeks ago, but I keep coming back to this in a number of different contexts. There's a lot in the world that either directly isolates, or provokes feelings of isolation.

Bottom line, the way that we can fight isolation is by forming connections and by working to create meaning in our lives.

I was talking on Wednesday with a couple of friends, one of who was most distraught at the seeming impossibility of progress. "What can I do? There are all these people, and I'm not sure anything I can do will have any effect." I think this distress is incredibly common and reasonable, given the size of the task and the amount of time any person has in the world.

The task of effecting change is huge on its own, but the project is compounded by its scale: there are a lot of people in the world and a lot of different views. It's difficult to even know where to begin.

I think fundamentally this kind of distress is about the isolation created by the experience of difference, by the size of the task.

There are tools that we can use for managing and fighting our own isolation: building connections to each other, creating meaning in our lives and in our social spheres.

This is also, interestingly, these are the same methods that we use to organize, to build consciousness, and to change ideologies.

On Wednesday, I said, that (for the most part) people are just people: the way that thought changes is through meaningfulrelationships, conversation, and through additional opportunities to make meaning and to form connections in a larger context.

Seek out people and experiences that are different. Stay safe. Listen. Learn. Talk. Teach. Share your experiences with people who are like you. Work hard. Take breaks. Remember that people are, for the most part, just people, and we're all alone in this together. All of us.

Said on the Train

I finished, on the train this week, reading Freud and the Non-European by Edward Said (on the recommendation of zmagg and it was, one of the better reading experiences I've had in a while.

Said is brilliant, and clear and says really complex important hard things in a really clear and approachable style. He's also frustratingly correct, which isn't really a problem, but as an engaged and independent reader, I occasionally realize that the internal monologue of my response is an unintelligent "yep yep" chorus, and I feel like I've fallen down on the job of being a good reader.

I might have a bit of a complex.

The thing is, that he actually is very right, and does an amazing job of meeting Freud in his historical context, respecting in that context for the audacity of his mission and the power of his insights to encourage us to think about culture, its impact on human motivation, and how personal and cultural histories combine to produce identity, and inspire behavior. Or, more simply, that self-hood and experience are a product of history and context.

Without, of course, in anyway excusing the flaws in Freud's methods, biases, basis in fact (or lack there of), or utility (or lack there of) in the care of the mentally ill.

Moreso, Said uses Frued, and his ideas about Jewish identity, and himself as an example of late a certain phenotype of 19th century Jewishness, to help contextualize (roughly) contemporary thinking about jewish identity and Israeli culture and statehood.

It's roughly brilliant.

I've long struggled with any kind of theory that engages seriously with Freud or his intellectual successors: there's so much crap around Freud, and it sort of feels like good energy after bad to try and justify or resuscitate the tradition. And hurts when Freudian are used to support what are otherwise really interesting intellectual projects.

If nothing else Said gives a good example of a successful intellectual interaction with Freud can occur, and what kinds of parameters and context promote that kind of successful and productive interaction.

Maybe someday, I'll learn how to be a quarter the reader that Said was. If I'm lucky.

In the mean time, I'm just going to keep reading things on the train.

Whiteness and Diversity

This post is a follow up to my earlier post on diversity and representation In short, while I think it's great that we're beginning to talk and write about race and representation in our fiction and field, I think we [1] need to expand our analysis of whiteness.

Whiteness in Science Fiction

I'm still working on figuring out what this means, and I'm sorry that I haven't developed my thinking sufficiently to be more clear on this. In light of that here are a collection of my thoughts on representation:

  • Whiteness is multiple and I think it's possible (and important) to depict whiteness and white characters critically and without recapitulating normalization. At the same time, it's important to avoid falling victim to a lot of the normalization to which uncritical representations of racial diversity often fall pray.
  • The theory around race and representation must deal with issues around assimilation. More diversity is useful, but to move forward on issues of representation, the field needs to better understand the process of assimilation. I want to see stories that help us unpack assimilation.
  • Whiteness is complex and a major problem with stories that "don't do race well," is not just that the characters aren't explicitly of color, but that whiteness isn't portrayed very well. This is part of the struggle of privilege, but not only does science fiction need to be better about diversity and representation of non-white characters, but we the thinking on whiteness needs to continue to evolve apace.

Diversity and Quotas

Discussions about diversity and representation in fiction often lead the under-informed to ask "So what, do you want to impose some sort of quota system? Does that mean diversity is more important than quality?"

The answer is almost always no.

I'd also like to point out that this is one of those cases where whiteness and systematic bias conspire to define "quality," in unuseful ways. But this is another argument for another time.

The canonical answer is: there's a great deal of amazing work written by people of color and a lot of great fiction that incorporates and addresses the experiences of people of color. This is great, and if we've learned anything in the last couple of years, it's that if you look for this work it's there. The real challenge revolves around cultivating that work so that there's more of it, and promoting [2] that work so that there's a large audience.

[1]The science fiction writing/reading/editing community.
[2]Promoting and marketing literature is by no means a solved problem under any conditions.

Cyberpunk Sunset

I'm not sure where I picked up the link to this post on the current state of cyberpunk, but I find myself returning to it frequently and becoming incredibly frustrated with the presentation.

In essence the author argues that while the originators of the cyberpunk genre (i.e. Gibson and Sterling, the "White Men") have pronounced cyberpunk "over," the genre is in fact quite vibrant and a prime location for non-mainstream ("other") voices and per perspectives. Also, somehow, the author argues that by denying that cyberpunk continues to be relevant and active we're impinging the diversity that's actively occurring in the space.

My thoughts are pretty simple:

  • This is old news. People have been pronouncing cyberpunk dead since 1992 or thereabouts. And they've largely been right. Cyberpunk died, because the technological horizon 1980s (e.g. BBSs) developed in a particular way. In someways the cyberpunks got it right (there is a digital reality, there are digital natives, and unique digital social conventions.) In many ways no one got it right: more people are using the internet per-capita than anyone thought in 1984 and no one predicted that the internet would be as commercial as it is.

    In light of this the kinds of things that the people active in technology and in cyberpunk are thinking about and addressing have changed a lot. In many ways, Cory Doctorow is a pretty fitting heir to the cyberpunk lineage, but I think it's also true that the cyberpunk tradition has shifted it's focus into other issues and ideas.

    That interest in the present and the near future has always been a significant defining characteristic of cyberpunk, at least as relevant as the DIY and outsider aspect. In this respect, cyberpunk's critique was accepted and quite transformative for the genre.

    At the same time, the "hackers," and "cyberpunks," grew out of academia (e.g. Free Software) and not the punk movement.

  • The cyberpunks, even when (white) men were the front men for the (sub)genre, have always been outsiders. In the 80s were the "Young Turks" of the science fiction world. Samuel Delany's Nova is often cited a key cyberpunk-precursor, and there are some pretty important precursors in Stars in My Pocket, Dhalgren, and The Einstein Intervention.

  • I want to be sure to not forget about Melissa Scott while we're at it. Trouble and her Friends is a great example of using cyberpunk to explore subcultures and experiences of people (queers, PoC, etc.) on the margins. While Trouble is almost on the late end for "original" cyberpunk I think it counts. The blogger seems to think that only queers and PoC and others have only recently taken up cyberpunk, and that seems particularly shortsighted, and not particularly true.

  • One of the most troubling aspects of the argument is the assumption that if "cyberpunk" is over than no one can write cyberpunk anymore and that to declare such would be to silence all of the would be *punks.

    This is absurd.

    Not only is this not true, but it's also not how literature works. I'm also pretty sure that this is not consistent with the origins of cyberpunk, or the way the genre memes play out.

    What I think happened when cyberpunk stopped being on the cutting edge and we realized that a critique of the present required different science fictional method (I think that resurgence in "New Space Opera" in the 90s is part of this, as well as a hard-SF turn in the form of Beggers in Spain and a turn toward alternate histories.) As a result, what's happening cyberpunk has become something closer to fantasy.

    The division (and implications) of the difference between "fantasy" and/or "super soft science fiction" and the science fiction mainstream is at play and probably out side of the scope of this post.

So I'm not that sure where we're left? Am I missing something? Lets hear it out in comments!

Critical Practice

Being a critic is not simply looking for the points of failure, shortcomings, and breaking points in cultural artifacts (e.g. music, art, literature, software, technology, and so forth.) Criticism is a practice of comparison and rich analysis and a way of understanding cultural production. One might even call criticism a methodology, though "methodologizing" criticism does not give us anything particularly useful, nor does it make any practices or skills more concrete.

Criticism is really the only way that we can understand culture and cultural products. In short, criticism renders culture meaningful.

I wrote the above in response to this "On Being a Critic" post that a long time reader of this site wrote a while ago. Most of the differences between our approaches to criticism derives from technical versus non-technical understandings of critical practice. With that in mind, and in an effort to consolidate some thoughts about methodology, criticism, and theoretical practice, I'd like to provide two theses that define good critical practice, and provide some starting points for "getting it right:"

  • Criticism is comparative. If you analyze a single thing in isolation, this analysis is not criticism. By contrast, one of the best ways to make poor criticism more powerful is to include more information (data) to strengthen the comparison. Comparison should highlight or help explain the phenomena or objects you are critiquing, but should always serve agenda and goals of the criticism to avoid overloading readers with too much information.
  • Criticism ought to have its own agenda. It is impossible to avoid bias entirely, and from this impossibility springs criticism's greatest strength: the power to productively examine and contribute to cultural discourses. While critical essays are perhaps the most identifiable form of criticism, there are others: novels, lectures, films, art, and perhaps even technology itself, can all be (and often are) critical practices in themselves.

Everything else is up for grabs.

Do You Read Philosophy?

"What do you do?"

"I'm a technical writer."

"Do you write other stuff?"

"A bit, sometimes."


"No Poetry." I laugh.


"Yeah, Some."

"Do you read philosophy too?"

"A bit."

"Oh, good! Materalist or Idealist?"


"Who do you read?"

"I'm a bit of an unreformed Deluzian."

"Deleuze wasn't a materialist."

"Yeah, but he wanted to be. Really bad."

"There's that. I've been reading Hegel recently."

"Oh, really."