Voices from the Collective
Issue #19, March 1995
The following posts remain unedited, appearing as they did on the Internet.
Date: Sat, 11 Feb 1995 21:02:51 -0800 (PST)
From: Nathan Newman <firstname.lastname@example.org>
To: 'badsubjects@uclink' <email@example.com>
Subject: BS #18: Why Do We Study Ourselves and Our Friends?
Having just finished reading a paper copy of Issue #18 on Cyberspace (after going to the Bad Subjects Party here at UCB), what struck me was that when everyone was talking about cyberspace, they were talking about what it meant for the identity and actions of average folks.
So there were a number of articles about the experiences of individual members of the list, often about experiences on the Bad Subjects list. But not one article about what cyberspace means for those with concentrated power in our society. Oh sure, in the new Manifesto there were the ritual mentions of 'global capital' but its invocation was an excuse NOT to have the same in-depth analysis of it as the meaning of flame wars among list subscribers. There was little analysis of what cyberspace means to the corporations in how they keep track of the keystrokes of clerical workers or spread factories to low-wage countries or use high-cost databases to keep track of the population. It was very much a study of how cyberspace is effecting the 'average' user — a rather limited view and dangerous in missing some of the key issues that we'll face in this brave new world.
Now, this is not a slam on the Bad Subjects collective. It's actually a slam on the way academia and much of the left has approached social issues in recent decades — discussion of 'the people' and their social life and social history has taken dominance over studying the enemy. We have much discourse analysis and little power analysis.
And on a related pet peeve, it seems like the University reinforces this sort of bias with 'human subjects' rules such as informing those being interviewed what the purpose of the research is. The powerless — the 'people' — have little interest in concealing their actions so that sort of requirement does not stop research in that area, but if deceit is banned in research, then the powers become exempt from much hostile study.
Is it just me, or does it seem like we study the enemy too little and our own speech acts a bit too much?
Nathan, who was disappointed that there weren't mounds of chocolate at the Bad Subjects party but enjoyed the conversation
Date: Sun, 12 Feb 1995 14:02:26 -0800 (PST)
From: Annalee Newitz <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: study yourself as you would study the others
As always, Nathan has brought up a number of relevant points. It *is* certainly the case that the right wing tends to marshall its intellectual and grassroots forces more effectively than the left at this point in history. Many people have pointed out that this is more a function of our historical moment than any property inherent to the 'right wing,' and I'll leave questions about what the 'right wing' actually is aside. See Mike Davis on how the right wing became what it is today in his dense but fascinating book, Prisoners of the American Dream (1986). Bad Subjects is intended to be a leftist publication which respects the right wing's ability and desire to perform the kind of analysis Nathan has talked about — and often, a badsubjectian position cannot easily be characterized as 'left against right' as a result. After all, if we wish to work with right wingers to change mainstream America, we ought to find out our commonalities with them rather than simply 'demonizing' them, as Nathan suggests.
And this brings me to my main point. Nathan criticizes 'academic' leftism (not sure why Bad Subjects necessarily falls into this category at this point) for celebrating 'shades of grey' rather than demonizing the enemy like the right wing does. First of all, I would point out that demonizing the enemy is *hardly* equivalent to *demystifying* it. Nathan argues that we should both demonize and demystify the ruling class (and, I suppose, the middle-class). To put it succinctly: painting our struggle in black-and-white (angels vs. demons) is simply to repeat the mistakes of history, in which differences were exaggerated and celebrated in order to whip up revolutionary/counter-revolutionary fervor. To demonize an enemy is to *remystify* them — to combat their own mystified self-image with our own.
I would also remind everyone that as 'net.citizens' we are nearly all members of the middle-class, so it is inevitable that a discussion of cyberspace will focus on the middle-class and its self-image. One might say that the middle-class created the Net in its own image, just as Marx once said that the ideology of the ruling class is the ruling ideology. Hence, it makes sense that we analyze ourselves in order to analyze 'daily life' on the Internet. If we wish to demystify social relations in cyberspace, focusing on a demonized 'enemy' is not going to get us very far. As members of the 'privileged class' on the Internet, we need to be self-conscious of how our identities here are shaped by our class experiences, and how complicit we are with capitalist structures of trade and subjectivity. In my own article, 'Surplus Identity On-line,' for example, I discuss how middle-class ideas of personality and identity can be associated with way capitalist culture invites us to accumulate surplus value.
Finally, if we wish to combat the capitalist ruling class, we cannot be afraid to criticize ourselves, and look at our own roles in capitalism just as critically as we look at others'. Most of us are not members of the underclass, and as such we *do* occupy a kind of grey area in economy and culture — pretending that this isn't so is going to weaken us when our 'enemies' find out. After all, one of the Left's favorite occupations these days is to punch holes in the Right's fanciful self-conceptions. We cannot expect that the Right will be so foolish as to ignore our own. Hence, we must ruthlessly criticize ourselves in order that we see clearly the difference between lived experience and the ideals promised to us by the ideology of capitalism.
If we propose to berate others for their abuses of power and oppressive practices, we'd better make damn sure that we aren't also guilty of the same crimes. Furthermore, if we are afraid to examine ourselves as critically as we examine our adversaries, what does that say about us? Are we so uncertain of our righteousness that we are afraid to look beyond the Left's own mystique?
Date: Sun, 12 Feb 1995 19:52:30 -0800 (PST)
From: Nathan Newman <email@example.com>
To: Annalee Newitz <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: Re: study yourself as you would study the others
On Sun, 12 Feb 1995, Annalee Newitz wrote:
> And this brings me to my main point. Nathan criticizes 'academic' leftism
> (not sure why Bad Subjects necessarily falls into this category at this
> point) for celebrating 'shades of grey' rather than demonizing the enemy
> like the right wing does. First of all, I would point out that
> demonizing the enemy is *hardly* equivalent to *demystifying* it. Nathan
> argues that we should both demonize and demystify the ruling class (and,
> I suppose, the middle-class).
Exactly what I am not arguing. We need to separate out the middle class and demonize the ruling class, thus splitting the ruling class off from their democratic hegemonic base.
> To put it succinctly: painting our
> struggle in black-and-white (angels vs. demons) is simply to repeat the
> mistakes of history, in which differences were exaggerated and celebrated
> in order to whip up revolutionary/counter-revolutionary fervor. To
> demonize an enemy is to *remystify* them — to combat their own mystified
> self-image with our own.
Fine, demystification or remystification — either is fine with me. I don't believe that analysis ever reveals 'the Truth' but one truth I believe is that there is no exaggerating how evil the present ruling class is. They are out to murder young children, especially immigrant children and children in poverty. There are 1 million people in prison in this country, the largest portion of any population in the world. And the right-wing is working to deny freedom to ever greater numbers. Three strikes laws are sending non-violent criminals to jail for life.
They are trying to end liability for polluters and other big corporations so the ruling class can poison us without retribution. They are pushing the Mexican government to suppress democracy down in Chiapas and the only reason they care about democratic rights in China is to make sure the US gets copyright royalties for any copying of the Declaration of Independence.
How much more evil do they have to be before we can paint them hard black?
> I would also remind everyone that as 'net.citizens' we are nearly all
> members of the middle-class, so it is inevitable that a discussion of
> cyberspace will focus on the middle-class and its self-image.
Why is narcissism inevitable? I sometimes think that hypocrisy is underrated and wish we would return to the age of middle class intellectual denying their class origins in solidarity with the working classes. Sub-commandante Marcos and the Chiapas rebels are nice middle class students, but they were able to mystify their origins and provoke an uprising of the people.
What's wrong with myth? Now, good mythmaking and demonization requires good analysis. Or, to put it in Gramscian terms, we need to find the common sense at the core of our counter-hegemonic mythmaking.
> As members of the 'privileged class' on the Internet, we need to be
> self-conscious of how our identities here are shaped by our class
> experiences, and how complicit we are with capitalist structures of trade
> and subjectivity. In my own article, 'Surplus Identity On-line,' for
> example, I discuss how middle-class ideas of personality and identity can
> be associated with way capitalist culture invites us to accumulate surplus
Again, I think self-consciousness is overrated. I sometimes think that at the core of all this self-consciousness and fear of hypocrisy is left guilt over Stalinism. One group of leftists fucked up big-time and became oppressive in the extreme and spread the rot far and wide. A good warning, but if the lesson is self-conscious paralysis in action, then the lesson was the wrong one.
We need the courage and imagination to act with too little information, with too little self-consciousness and probably lots of hypocrisy, because all of these sins permeate life and are unavoidable. This doesn't mean we should ignore them as dangers, but fear of screwing up should not be the paralyzing agent it has become in the intellectual left.
Let me add to this post a story from Saul Alinsky, the academic turned community organizer, who never shied away from elitism and mystification in the pursuit of empowering the poor. In fact, he often saw deliberate deception of the poor as the best way to empower them. In reading this story, you should get a little outraged, but keep in mind that Alinsky helped train organizers and organizers of organizers ranging from the United Farm Workers to Citizen Action to a whole range of organizations across this country. Here is a story he tells in his book RULES FOR RADICALS (p. 114-115):
'The organizer's job is to begin to build confidence and hope in the idea of organization and thus in the people themselves...An example occurred in the early days of Back of the Yards, the first community that I attempted to organize. This neighborhood was utterly demoralized. The people had no confidence in themselves or in their neighbors or in their cause. So, we staged a cinch fight. One of the major problems in Back of the Yards in those days was an extraordinarily high rate of infant mortality. Some years earlier, the neighborhood had had the services of the Infant Welfare Society medical clinics. But about ten or fifteen years before I came to the neighborhood the Infant Welfare Society had been expelled because tales were spread that its personnel was disseminating birth-control information. The churches therefore drove out these 'agents of sin.' But soon the people were desperately in need of infant medical services. They had forgotten that they themselves had expelled the Infant Welfare Society from the Back of the Yards community.
'After checking it out, I found out that all we had to do get Infant Welfare Society medical services back into the neighborhood was ask for it. However, I kept this information to myself. We called an emergency meeting, recommended we go in committee to the society's offices and demand medical services. Our strategy was to prevent the officials from saying anything; to start banging on the desk and demanding that we get the services, never permitting them to interrupt us or make any statement. The only time we would let them talk was after we got through. With this careful indoctrination, we stormed into the Infant Welfare Society downtown, identified ourselves, and began a tirade consisting of militant demands, refusing to permit them to say anything. All the time the poor woman was desperately trying to say, 'Why of course you can have it. We'll start immediately.' But she never had a chance to say anything and finally we ended up in a storm of 'And we will not take 'No' for an answer!' At which point she said, 'Well, I've been trying to tell you..' and I cut in, demanding, 'Is it yes or is it no?' She said, 'Well, of course it's yes.' I said, 'That's all we wanted to know.' And we stormed out of the place. All the way back to Back of the Yards you could hear the members of the committee saying, 'Well, that's the way to get things done: you just tell them off and don't give them a chance to say anything. If we could get this with just the few people that we have in the organization now, just imagine what we can get when we have a big organization.'
Or, to quote Han Solo from the first Star Wars movie after C-3PO had told him the chances of surviving a meteor storm was close to nil. Quote Solo: 'Never tell me the odds.'
— Nathan Newman