“Imagining worlds beyond fungibility: Science fictional approaches to particularity”

Access copy (please feel welcome to email me if you were there and need a copy of the full paper now)

Interdisziplinäres Zentrum für Geschlechterforschung (IZG) at the Zentrum für interdisziplinäre Forschung (ZiF), Bielefeld

2 July, 2024


How do we imagine new worlds? One way to answer this question is to shape ourselves against what we inherit and what people expect of us; to become more defiantly ourselves and to build a world that supports everyone else also getting ever weirder. In this paper, I discuss anarchist approaches to nourishing beautiful specificity in this mode, such that the purpose of society is to allow each of us to manifest our uniqueness. I put Samuel Delany’s science fictional discussions of gendered embodiment into conversation with Black feminist theorizations of the creation of the category of “fungibility,” the process by which things are made exchangeable in the marketplace. I ask: Should we aim for uniqueness? Or are there other ecologies of flourishing embodiment that we might yearn for?

Life as fanfiction: Building a self and a world beyond what has shaped us

Carleton College – Feb 13th, 2024 – access copy

Did you know that Fifty Shades of Grey started its life as an erotic fan fiction of the Twilight novels? E.L. James changed the names for the publication of her series, but Anastasia is Bella, Christian is Edward, etc. Fan fiction is when readers (“fans”) write stories set in fictional worlds created by other writers.Now, I don’t need you to be excited about vampires or kink, separately or together. But if you didn’t know Fifty Shades’ origin story, isn’t it interesting to learn that it is part of a longer conversation? When I learned this, I suddenly perceived these books as an interaction rather than a proclamation, a work of collective enthusiasm rather than an individual project. You may think of fan fiction as a small niche hobby, if you’ve heard of it at all. But there is a dizzying array of work available on sites like Archive of Our Own, whattpad.com, and FanFiction.net, where people write and share work out of love for a world that they did not originate but that they contribute to creating. While fanfic often has erotic content, much is kid-friendly. Fic has proliferated over more recent years. I’m thinking here of the Harry Styles wattpad-to-film franchise After, the wild proliferation of works set in the Harry Potter universe (notably the success of the dark Dramione fic Manacled), the Omegaverse (which significantly originated with the show “Supernatural”), Ali Hazelwood’s contemporary romance novels (which originated as Reylo fic), as well as meta-fic, such as Rainbow Rowell’s book Fangirl and the Simon books, in which Rowell wrote the fic referenced in the Fangirl. Fanfic is one place where we enact the possibility of revising what’s given to us, and creating something unexpected out of it. In art or life, we can be part of an unfinished, collaborative process of creating something that doesn’t yet exist out of what we receive. We can do that with wonderful things, but also we can do it with the lousy, complicated, terrible things that make up so much of our world. People joyously and prolifically generate new work even in the face of despair, and we can too.

            Fan fiction often takes the straight world received in conventional writing and queers it – so, in the Harry Potter universe Remus and Sirius were (obviously) a couple, so were Ron and Harry, and (less obviously, unless you like the enemies-to-lovers trope) so were Harry and Malfoy. Kirk and Spock prototypically queer the Star Trek universe, and so on (there are currently 516,327 works in the LGBTQ Themes section of AO3). If your fic reading practices are queer oriented, as mine are, it can be tempting to say that fanfic is ontologically good because it explores what would happen if the queer choice was made, instead of the straight choice; almost always, the alternative universe in which everyone makes the queer choice is just a better universe. But of course there is also a lot of straight fanfic that is still doing something transformative.

Writing fanfic almost always also involves reading it, and participating in a community that jointly shapes the interpretive context of shared texts. Fanfic is a beautiful exemplar of a more general approach to making art and offering it to others as a practice of craft abundance. It refuses the idea that we should monetize everything creative that we make (though there are more examples now that Fifty Shades in which fic authors file off the serial numbers and find significant commercial success). Fic writing makes a claim on shared worlds that some original authors are not comfortable with (Stephanie Meyers reportedly decided not to write a book from Edward’s point of view on hearing that E.L. James was doing one from Christian’s). Fic eschews the model of the brilliant Author, spinning worlds out of whole cloth, isolated and mighty. Instead, writers of fanfic are self-avowedly both consumers and creators of work — fanfic exemplifies one way that works of art offer us worlds unpredicted by their own authors.

Consider how often we’re told that there is a predictable, ultimate meaning authored by the universe, and that our job is just to discern it.  Self-help writer and artist Marlee Grace puts it like this: “Yes, it took until chapter 10, but I am here now to tell you the universe has a divine and specific plan for you. And it’s so magnificent. But we only get to have it if we pay very close attention. Here are suggestions for how to do so” (Grace 134). A lot of self-help books have this kind of approach, as do many mystical and divinatory techniques. But if the universe has a plan for you, if everything happens for a reason, then the project is just to discern this plan. I object to this approach, and prefer the idea that we’re part of making plans for our lives. This approach assumes that we can change the script that has been written for us. We can have love for founding stories but still critique and transform them. It may be that it is possible to use technologies such as throwing the I Ching, having our Tarot cards read, or our horoscopes done, in the critical and collaborative mode that I believe fanfic exemplifies. Part of that involves a commitment to a shared world, which in certain ways constrains or anchors the claims that we’re making about and for it. Loving critique and creation in fic relies upon some shared reference points – the difference between telling someone a story based on a dream you had and telling them a story about when Kirk and Spock started dating is that it is possible to triangulate whether the Enterprise was anywhere near the planet on which you’re setting their first kiss.

Critique as love helps us understand why we still feel betrayed when an author tries to be an Author, to close down the meaning of their text, or when they turn out to be a bigot, like JK Rowling. The author is important to texts we love, and they can still hurt us even if they’re dead. The aliveness of the reader means that we can critique and enliven problems even in beloved worlds. This death and aliveness is an aesthetic situation; it invites us to practice our own capacity for response in a shared context. The meanings we make in relation to the work we engage are collectively and relationally crafted.

Jo Walton’s novel Or What You Will (Tor, July 2021) offers a beautiful model for thinking about this kind of collective meaning-making. The main characters are a dying writer, Sylvia, and the main narrator she uses in her writing. He is alive, an invisible friend, a part of Sylvia, or perhaps a piece of life that slips into her fiction. Sylvia and her narrator have collaborated throughout her life, and he wants to find a way for her to not die through writing herself into her final novel. This book inquires into the ways story can save our lives.

In Or What You Will, Sylvia’s mother was unloving, emotionally abusive, terrifying. Sylvia escaped her mother’s orbit by marrying, chewing off a paw to escape a trap, into a different kind of abusive relationship. Of that relationship, the narrator says, “The violence is the easy thing to talk about, in many ways. It’s much harder to say that he circumscribed her soul” (349). Sylvia is saved, or saves herself, freeing herself from abusive others who have controlled her life’s course. Here the book explores a question that follows from the death of the author: If others have had the power to write our story, what power do we have to revise it? When our very soul has been circumscribed, where do we find the aliveness to revise our lives?

Walton writes:

There is a pernicious lie in Western culture that Sylvia has tried to combat in her books for years, and it is this: a child who is not loved is damaged beyond repair. Relatedly, anyone who has been abused can never recover. These lies are additional abuse heaped on those who have already suffered. … People who have been abused will not be the people they would have been if it had never happened. But they can be splendid people going on from where they are (374).

The pernicious lie is propped up by a theory of selfhood positing the people who author us as having final say in who we are. But, this novel asserts, parents are not our gods and abuse does not write the whole story of our lives.

This exploration of people who have been abused, whose souls have been circumscribed by their parents or their partners, going on from where they are to be splendid people instantiates what Barthes thought of as resisting final signification, any secret, ultimate meaning emanating from the authors of our interpersonal experiences. It is taking our life as a text with some original authorship, but which we can rewrite. If we are sometimes characters in other people’s stories, subject to their writing, we are also our own readers, our own characters, our own authors, and because of our liveliness we can go on, making ourselves anew, no matter what history we inherit.

Walton’s iterative exploration of the aliveness of the reader offers an immanent critique of dominant models of surviving abuse and interpersonal boundary violation. Sylvia’s mother was unloving, emotionally abusive, terrifying: What does that imply about who Sylvia can become? Walton contests the idea that abuse writes in stone what kind of life abused people can lead; she contests the idea that parents are our Authors and that they have the final word on our lives.

Contrast this with the commonsense idea that parents are responsible for their children’s behavior, especially in limit cases such as mass school shootings. In these narratives, abuse is taken to explain sociopathic, violent, pathological people — or at least their behaviour. It is very common for newspaper articles, talk show hosts, and people on the street to ask what the parents did or failed to do to make their kids into monsters.

            Take a few examples: In the novel (later a movie) We Need to Talk about Kevin, Lionel Shriver asks whether Eva, a mother telling the story in letters to her absent partner Franklin, is responsible for their murderous son Kevin. The novel is dense, ugly, and very readable, circling malevolently around what Shriver adeptly characterizes as “every parent’s latent fear that it was possible to do absolutely everything right and still turn on the news to a nightmare from which there is no waking.” Eva is an unreliable narrator, but every indication is that she was unloving, emotionally and physically abusive, a terrifying mother to a sociopathic killer; she thinks he was born that way, but Shriver gives her reader even odds that Eva made him into what he became.

In contrast to Shiver’s incisive, pitiless writing, Sue Klebold’s memoir A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy offers an earnest engagement with actually, in the real world, trying to do absolutely everything right and turning on the news to find your child is one of the Columbine killers. The memoir takes up the question of whether Klebold and her family are responsible for Dylan Klebold’s actions, directly answering the many people who wondered how they could have missed the signs that he was preparing to commit mass murder and kill himself. Sue Klebold characterizes herself and her family as having done everything right, certainly not as unloving, abusive, or terrifying — but still as responsible for not recognizing that Dylan Klebold was in a mental health crisis. She writes, “We don’t lose our bearings because we’re bad people. Persistent thoughts of death and suicide are symptoms of pathology, not of flawed character” (xii).

Klebold is right to argue that turning toward parents in trying to explain school shootings implies a conception of character: Our character is shaped by the people who raised us. In that conception, withdrawn or abusive parents are partially responsible for kids becoming the sorts of people who kill others.

Shriver’s novel too enacts such a conception, along with a persistent theme that school shootings are a matter of imitation and one-upping other school shooters. Klebold turns toward medicalization, a disease model of murder and suicide, and affirms the view that how we report about school shootings contributes to the likelihood of copy-cat killings. Such a model is tactically effective, I believe, and epidemiological attention to clusters of suicides shows us that it does matter how imaginable self-harm is. A third example is currently playing out, with a legal case to hold Ethan Crumbley’s parents criminally responsible for the murders he committed in 2021 in Michigan. Jennifer and James Crumbley bought their son a gun for his fifteenth birthday, and reportedly ignored many signs that he was planning violence. This focus is on the material conditions that underlay mass shootings – since the vast majority of school shootings use guns acquired in the home – but also Ethan Crumbley’s defense relies in part on that narrative that he was insufficiently nurtured. His lawyer characterised him as a “feral child,” whose brain was “still maturing” (AP Aug 1, 2023); the lawyers defending his parents are trying to force Ethan to testify in their defense (Reuters Jan 23, 2024).

I honor Sue Klebold for reflecting deeply on her son’s actions and turning her life after his actions towards preventing suicide and supporting youth mental health. But I think we should be unsatisfied with both the parents-as-authors story (producing flawed or good character in their offspring, Shriver’s approach) and the pathology unnoticed-in-time story (Kelbold’s). Both encode a conception of the self as settled, subject to a final signification. Reading our past — whether parents, genetics, or circumstance — as though it explains who we are and what life we can lead is part of the pattern of attempting to discern a secret. Such an approach animates quite a lot of self-help literature, in which we’re invited to find an explanation for our life in something outside ourselves that now constitutes our selves — so, God, trauma, abuse, good or bad schooling, good or bad genes, and so on. This self-help through external reference approach is weirdly woven together with a dominant strain of neoliberal responsiblization manifest in endless self-improvement. This second approach flattens out our history and social context, and we are all supposed to be equally capable of maximum optimization though heroic acts of individual will. Considering the material, political, and felt character of what actions are possible is vital here, as the Crumbley case shows us: How we shape the social and practical choices available to us cannot be left to the dyadic family structure, since so often, as in their case, it is in the parental home people get guns. I’m interested instead in how we nourish our capacities of self and world making starting from the understanding that relational and historical circumstances are the terrain upon which we change ourselves or the world – but also recognizing that they are not an end point for the work we do. Our selves are in constant process of revision, inviting beta reads, and exploration.

I see Jo Walton offering just such an existential-aesthetic model of selfhood and transformation. By existential I mean that she gives an account of self-making as an ongoing project without recourse to predestination and in the face of death. This project is one for which we can take radical responsibility, though only in the context of recognizing the actual world in which we live and the histories we inherit. Paraphrasing Marx: We make history, but not in circumstances of our own choosing. As someone prone to despair about the circumstances in which we find ourselves implicated, many of which we are helpless to affect, the approach to history Walton offers has helped me think about death and art.

Or What You Will’s narrator reflects on death, his own and others. He says, “terrible things are happening, and some of them in our names. Do what you can. Every little bit helps. Speak up for the voiceless, protect the powerless, open up choices for the choiceless. …We’re all going to die. Finding ways to save other people is one form of immortality” (316). And saving others, in Walton’s work, includes making and preserving art.

When we feel despair about the state of the world, when we feel implicated in the terrible things being done in our names, it is reasonable that the future feels impossible to picture. Walton’s approach here rejects the idea that the world we receive dictates the world we can make together. She enjoins us to make something and pass it forward even if we’re not sure there are hands waiting to receive it. The novel offers the idea that the best way to manifest aliveness is to practice our own art towards futures we cannot picture. Saving other people also means witnessing and responding to beauty, passing forward, hand-to-hand, something that outlasts us.

The book asks what it means to work with our whole being on creating goodness that we will not personally experience but that we offer to the future. Recognizing art, it encourages us to “admit that we are moved, that we care, that this is important” (46). Seeing beauty, Or What You Will suggests that we might respond “the only way anyone can, by gasping at the wonder of it and then making art of one’s own. You can’t answer it or equal it or rival it, but it makes you see you have to give it the best you can because nothing else is good enough” (172). The only thing we ever really have to offer is what we ourselves can make, in our specific context and with our own self.

Equally, while we make work ourselves, we also only do it in relation to a collective framework – we witness and are moved by others doing this, and we then offer ourselves to them. Rather than a model of individual geniuses working alone, the approach here is a bumptious collection of enthusiastic makers of our own work and appreciators of one another’s work, in time and across history.

To me, this encouragement to give the present and future the “best you can” evokes Audre Lorde’s conception of the erotic. The erotic is a felt sense of knowledge, life-force, and fullness that Lorde argues might animate our life.[1] She characterizes the erotic as sensual (in some of the usual ways we think of eros, sexual and sensual) but also as arising when we write a poem, build a bookcase, dance, share joy with others. It cannot, she says, be felt secondhand. Having experienced the erotic in this sense, recognizing its power, we cannot settle for less. Lorde says:

It is never easy to demand the most from ourselves, from our lives, from our work. To encourage excellence is to go beyond the encouraged mediocrity of our society is to encourage excellence. But giving in to the fear of feeling and working to capacity is a luxury only the unintentional can afford, and the unintentional are those who do not wish to guide their own destinies (54).

The recursive process through which we pursue “this internal requirement toward excellence,” as Lorde puts it, allows us to go beyond the encouraged mediocrity of our society — and thus to encourage excellence in ourselves and others. That sentence “To encourage excellence is to go beyond the encouraged mediocrity of our society is to encourage excellence” reads like a transcription error, but it is actually a spiral, and one I believe Lorde constructed that way on purpose. Every time we center the power of the erotic in our own self-making, we are also contributing to a collective context in which others might also pursue excellence in this way. Lorde here articulates an approach toward building our own capacities that requires changing collective conditions; this is not a voluntarist, individualist approach. Manifesting the erotic requires making a world in which we all can live good lives. And we contribute to that making through the work we do.

A different way to approach this is to say: Perceiving the horror of all that is being done, and in our names, how do we continue transcribing hope for a future with trust that there will be hands to pass that work on to? How can we refuse the circumscription of the soul collectively forced on us by capitalism? How can we re-author ourselves even when we have been subject to abuse and violence? How do we respond to beauty and, gasping at the wonder of it, turn to then making art of our own?

I have found myself turning to actual art making for inspiration here, including my own work as a potter. On this, I really like this book Art & Fear. David Bayles and Ted Orland argue:

The hardest part of art making is living your life in such a way that your work gets done, over and over — and that means, among other things, finding a host of practices that are just plain useful. A piece of art is the surface expression of a life lived within productive patterns. Over time, the life of a productive artist becomes filled with useful conventions and practical methods, so that a string of finished pieces continues to appear to the surface (62).

I love this idea. Living our lives in a shape that produces work as its byproduct, as a surface product of patterns that nourish making, might seem a long way off from Barthes, let alone from fan fiction set in an alternate universe were Voldemort won. But creating and offering as an ongoing practice of collaboration with fellow readers and writers, creators of worlds, is very much in a fic ethos. Among other things, as I’ll discuss below, this attention to process rather than product might open space for refusing the commodification of our selves that neoliberalism’s endless drive for self-improvement places on us. I find possibility in the space of holding fidelity to a habit-forming demand for freedom, a commitment to the erotic, and — gasping at the wonder of it — making art in response to this world.

What would it mean to live our life in such a way that the work gets done, over and over? In such an approach to making art, we are also making a life, choosing what to do with our time such that we keep fidelity to making of ourselves something beyond what our original authors may have intended. The crucial question here is how we decide what kind of self and world we aim to make, despite and against the history and world that shapes our possibilities. Taking fanfic as our method does not offer a guarantee of resisting capitalism. It is possible to argue that the fundamental framework of fic is oriented against private ownership, since so much of it is written in spite of copyright and not for profit. But, as the increasing trend to take fic and publish it for profit shows, this orientation is not necessary to it. It is vital that while the mode of doing fic can orient us toward anti-capitalist approaches, the only way to manifest practices of felt abundance and fundamental generosity is in collectivity. We can transform, but we never do it alone.

But we can build collective possibilities for everyone and everything to be able to transform in this way. Life as fanfiction! We can make something unpredicted by the scripts offered us; we can make alternate trajectories. But, as with fanfiction, in our life we need others to participate in the kind of shared making, and meaning-making, that living in this world necessarily involves.

This is to say: When we make the aspiration that we could all become splendid people, going on from where we are to make new histories that resist the circumscription of our souls, that must be a collective aspiration.  

Evils such as colonialism, the extinction crisis, unjust treatment of migrants, ecological devastation, and so on, are sites of implication in profound harm that invite repair, moral and practical. This is complicated, because we want to help repair something even as we’re involved in continuing to damage it. Elizabeth Spelman’s book Repair: The impulse to restore in a fragile world offers resources for this kind of situation. Repair is an action manifesting a response to damage and the despair it can engender. Repair enacts a commitment to not giving up.

Spelman turns to movements for restorative justice to think about how repair can grapple with political inheritances of complex harms, arguing that we can think about repair as itself a form of destruction. As she puts it: ‘Repair is the creative destruction of brokenness’ (134). Thinking about repair as a way of becoming more engaged or connected with a state of brokenness may open space for creative, collaborative approaches to complicity. And we can engage brokenness even if there is no state of wholeness to which we can, or want to, return.

Here I think of Gustav Landauer’s frequently quoted argument:

The state is a condition, a certain relationship among human beings, a mode of behaviour between them; we destroy it by contracting other relationships, by behaving differently toward one another…We are the state, and we shall continue to be the state until we have created the institutions that form a real community and society of men [sic] (Landauer, quoted in Marshall, 411).

Destruction is a relation, and so we can ask what form of destruction we want to practice. One that continues to devastate the world and everyone in it? Or one that destroys social relations of capitalism, colonialism, and border militarism? There is no destruction without creation; the current organisation of capitalism is constantly creating a world that, to our sorrow, is also destroying the world. Every politics that involves taking a stance is, on this view, both creative and destructive. Affirming certain visions requires discarding others. And while it may sound easy to contract different relationships, to behave differently towards one another, taking seriously our implication in structural injustice requires us to address what relationships individuals are able to contract with one another under current social relations. Affirming relations that cannot yet fully exist – for example, relations outside of colonialism – aims to abolish current relations. Relations that have been anti-relational from their beginning, such as colonialism and extractivist capitalism, based as they are on normalising evil, are relations that need to be destroyed before any other ethical engagement can begin.

I am, still, hesitant about my own interest in this move to thinking about repair as the creative destruction of brokenness. Eli Clare’s rich grappling with the logics of cure, ranging from thinking about disability to the restoration of tall grass prairie in places that have been farmed with monocrops, illuminates this question even as it complicates any understanding of brokenness.

Clare asks, ‘how do we witness, name, and resist the injustices that reshape and damage all kinds of body-minds – plant and animal, organic and inorganic, nonhuman and human – while not equating disability with injustice?’ (56). He moves from this question into a consideration of ecological restoration, considering the longing many of us have for a kind of return to a time before climate change:

[E]nvironmentalists, partly motivated by the longing, have started to learn the art and science of ecological restoration. They broadcast tallgrass prairie seeds, raise and release wolves, bison, whooping cranes. They tear up drainage tiles and reroute water back into what used to be wetlands. They pick up trash, blow up dams, plant trees, hoping beyond hope that they can restore ecosystems to some semblance of their former selves before the white, colonialist, capitalist, industrial damage was done.

When it works, restoration can be a powerful force, contributing to the earth’s well-being, as well as providing an antidote to loss. But the damage may be irreversible; some ecosystems, irreplaceable. Restoration may take centuries or may be a Band-Aid stuck on a gaping wound. We may not be able to fix what has been broken (58-59).

He adds a crucial point that I have not seen fully explored in the academic literature: Repair thought of as cure may be a problem because it can only picture success as involving fixing what is broken. Clare connects this with his own experience of sexual, physical, and mental violence, at the hands of his father and his father’s friends. He says, ‘I won’t write the details or try to capture the terror and pain in words. But believe me: what they did broke my body-mind. It shaped every part of my life. This is not hyperbole, not a claim to perpetual victimhood nor a ploy for sympathy, but rather an enraging truth’ (159). This matters, because ‘The ideology of cure would have us believe that whole and broken are opposites and that the latter has no value’ (159, emphasis in original). If there is any use in the idea of repair as a creative destruction of brokenness, it will require careful attention to Clare’s points here: We may not be able to fix what is broken; brokenness has value.  This is true of people, and it is true of our suffering planet. So, how might we, to reprise Landauer, contract different relationships? And are different relationships all we need to build a world in which everyone can flourish? Which side are we on?

Asking which side we are on raises the prospect of binary, purist thinking about politics, as though it was easy to delimit sides and as though being implicated would make it impossible for us to be on the side of justice. If we’re implicated no matter what we do, and if we cannot excuse ourselves from that relation, can we take that situation as the ground for action? It is precisely the political features of ethical decision making in complex and relational contexts that makes this ethically interesting terrain. We’re involved in circumstances in which we are going to have to begin repair even as we are continuing to break the world. In this context, how do we practice our capacities to make different collective decisions?

It is easy to type ask that question; it is much harder to build the actual practices involved in moving from where most of us are – individual agents who are at best recycling and bicycling – to where we need to be: hundreds of millions of organised and energised people working collectively to take power and fundamentally transform the world. But since we cannot solve the wicked problems that confront us through expressions of our individual will, and since we are confronting a planetary disaster unevenly of our own making that will destroy us completely very soon if we don’t do something, collective liberation really is our only good option.

In practice, organizing mass movements means getting involved with other people to do things that put us in league with a future that does not end in ruin and desolation. Taking each site of implication in evil we find as a site for doing otherwise gives us a starting point. Taking up the work of repair as we continue to be implicated in ongoing destruction requires us to go further, to skill-up in collectivity. Many people today have never experienced working in collective contexts that are not organised through their wage work or church. Many people have not developed the skills of having an articulated politics, in both the sense of an explicit, expressed politics, and in the sense of a politics that is put together, assembled. Participating in mass movements changes us, and gives us skills that individualism and neoliberalism have stolen from us. I believe these skills are both on the level of feeling and in terms of practice. Being part of movements over the long haul builds a comfort with feeling curious and uncertain about what might happen next, an openness to being surprised by things changing.  And we learn all the many ways there are to work with others in non-heirarchical ongoing relations.

Identifying whose side we are on is a key beginning for this work. Alook et al argue for a kind of left populism grounded in the complexity and contradictions of actually existing social worlds. They write,

It is possible to acknowledge different histories and goals, while at the same time drawing parallels in order to present a shared narrative of ‘us’ – Indigenous peoples, workers, migrants and displaced people, women, LGBTQ2S+, disabled, and young people – and ‘them’ – a small group of mostly settler capitalists (Alook et al, 156).

Social movement historian Chris Dixon underlines that building such narratives is not easy. He writes:

I think the crucial step here is developing a distinction between those who gain privileges (by race, gender, sexuality, and class status) through the current systemic arrangement versus those who gain immense profit and power. In order to build successfully transformative movements, we must prioritize the struggles of those most disadvantaged by ruling systems and bring more and more of the first category of people onto our side by giving them investment to address their privileges – all while consistently targeting the second category of people and the structures that sustain their power and profit-making (Dixon 2014, 224-225).

These interventions help us conceive of the fruitful work of identifying complicity within the field of shared implication and responsibility. Naming a ‘them’ – those who are on the side of the death economy, who believe they can ride out global heating and leave the rest of us to burn, starve, and die of thirst – is part of naming the social relations we who believe in a shared world want to destroy. They are complicit in those relations, and committed to deepening the wrongs baked in to capitalism and colonialism. But we also identify a ‘we’ – uneven, some more responsible than others, some benefiting from social relations of oppression and benefit while others suffer. We can meet our implication in those relations by becoming complicit with one another to oppose them, to repair relations, to build a new world in the shell of the old. This ‘we’ is on the side of something creative, something we do not know the end of yet, of a world that can be shared. As Arundhati Roy famously wrote: ‘Remember this: We be many and they be few. They need us more than we need them. Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing’ (Roy). Let’s become complicit with that world, even though (and precisely because) we are implicated in this one.

[1] See also Caleb Ward’s work on Lorde’s thinking on the erotic (Ward 2023).

Whiteness is a relationship: Thinking with Shary Boyle’s “Outside the Palace of Me”

18 January, 2024 – access copy

Race is a social relationship, a creation, a collective fabrication. But it is real. It kills some people and enriches others; it pretends that these deaths and that horded wealth are just the way the world is and therefore how it will always be. This is a lie. Even if we are not personally targeted by the life-destroying lie of racial superiority, if we care about our own and other’s humanity, we should fight for the truth. We should bend our will toward liberation with all our hearts and all our skill. We should look for every opportunity to reckon with the past and create the imaginative and practical possibility for a different present and future. We should fight on the side of people targeted by racism, border militarism, and genocidal colonialism. We should fight to win.

If we begin this work against racism, we might feel helpless or useless. White people in particular often feel adrift and incompetent, implicated by the fact that we benefit from violence directed against other people. Shary Boyle’s new show, “Outside the Palace of Me” offers us a model for thinking about race in the midst of those complex feelings. A rare example of a white artist reckoning deliberately with whiteness, the show is beautiful, provoking, and pedagogical.

Viewers enter the exhibit through a curtain, stepping onto a raised stage. On the stage of this show, but also in our lives, we enact different roles; our expressive intent does not control the interpretive uptake we might receive. And we’re only ever holding a role in relation to others. Thus talking about something like whiteness invites us to dwell with the complexity of social relations that are entirely made up but have real material effects. We make and remake our self and the world in relation with others; Boyle’s work here stages some relations with which we can identify or disidentify – figures, images, and also the space of the stage, other people who might move through it with us, in complex configurations of gaze and body.

We experience whiteness this way, as a whole world we move through with others, a co-production in which we are differentially situated and for whom the meaning we make shifts depending on how others perceive and position us.  So, we can start by recognizing that whiteness as a social relationship of oppression and benefit has not always existed, that “white” is not a biological category, and we can ask what it will take to destroy the work it currently does – to make whiteness as a relation of oppression no longer exist. And we can reflect on how looking at art can help in that creative destruction.

The pieces in the show that most directly engage whiteness are the White Elephant figure and the images that bracket them. But it is notable that we could have an entire discussion about whiteness exclusively through attending to the work in this exhibit that is not overtly or obviously about whiteness or white people. Indeed, often the most important places to understand whiteness are through thinking about the ways that culture creates identity [potter]; how culture is racialized, travels, and becomes mutually-implicated [Cephalophic saint]; the echoes of people experiencing what Franz Fanon called epidermalization, Black skin contemplating white masks [drag show]; the entanglements of racial capital with spectacle and performance [Centering]; and the ways gender and sex are always lived through race and vice versa, in ways that mark the vital importance of resisting binaries and fixity as we move toward worlds that can celebrate the glorious complexity of our actual lives [Oasis].

But space is limited! So let me tell you a little about the animatronic sculpture “White Elephant” and its affiliated paintings “Lone Gunman” and “Settler.” As Boyle said in one of the conversations about the making of this work, “white elephant” names whiteness as the perpetual elephant in the room, which white people would like to not have to acknowledge or talk about even as it distorts the fabric of space and time. And a “white elephant” sale is often of those things that people don’t want but have priced too high to sell, that which has been overvalued but cannot be disposed of.

But where does this sense of “white elephant” come from? It turns out, OG colonialism! Which is to say, this phrase densely figures the intertwined material and symbolic formation of whiteness as it manifests today, though this actual animal other. Toung Taloung was a Burmese (from what is now Myanmar) elephant with distinctive epidermal difference, pale patches on their body. Symbolically, in parts of cosmologies in Siam and Burma, the birth of a chang pheuak or “strange coloured” elephant marked the auspiciousness or legitimacy of the monarch ruling at the time. They became symbolically important when Britain invaded and took over direct rule of Burma over the course of three wars between 1824 and 1885 – complex fetish objects for the British colonial imaginary. And so when circus operator P.T. Barnum bought and brought to first London and then the US this white elephant it is perhaps to be expected that it catalysed a much bigger conversation about race and whiteness.

As Sarah Amato notes in her brilliant social history of Toung Taloung and race, the definition in the OED in the 1850s read: “a. A rare albino variety of elephant which is highly venerated in some Asian countries. b.  fig A burdensome or costly possession (from the story that the kings of Siam were accustomed to make a present of one of these animals to courtiers who had rendered themselves obnoxious, in order to ruin the recipient by the cost of its maintenance). Also, an object, scheme, etc., considered to be without use or value”. Amato carefully examines how debates about whether Toung Taloung was “really” white, or mottled, whether he was becoming whiter the longer he was away from the east, and what it would mean about the orientalised other for him to be venerated in the ways Barnum claimed that he was.

All of this carried over into the elephant’s further adventures in North America, facilitated by the Pears soap campaigns that quickly tranversed the trope of the elephant being whitened through to the idea of Blackness being something that could be washed off. A competitor to Barnum painted and bleached the skin of an elephant, rendering it much whiter, and put it on display. So here we have one aspect of whiteness, the epidermal question, pigmentation, melanin, “looking white.” Determining who is “really white” by the colour of their skin (alongside other physiognomy criteria) has of course been a key technology of racial oppression globally. One of the fears 19th century racists had about Toung Taloung was precisely the worry that colour could be erased – if it was so easy to become white, how would the racial order be maintained?

Boyle’s White Elephant is a kind of white no white person is, from their skin colour to their nose, lips, eyes, hair texture, and politely cold expression. Boyle deploys here the visual markers that have been central to racial projects of whiteness. But, as marked by the racial anxieties white people had about the existence of a white elephant (or an elephant who could be made white), the project of whiteness requires constant vigilance. In White Elephant’s case, this manifests as a motion-sensor-triggered spinning head, a 360 degree pivot on a moment’s notice. We can think of it as the racial pivot from imputing racial biological markers to fanatically stabilizing a social order that creates racial meaning. This figure harkens back to many horror tropes; the uncanny spin of their head, along with the distortion of the White Elephant’s body, might enact the affective charge of horror in viewers of the exhibit. As scholar Laura Hall and Chanda Prescod-Weinstein have elaborated, horror as a genre is densely entangled with legacies of chattel slavery and genocidal colonialism, especially as horror works through the question of resistance to Christian domination. So there are interesting questions here about what it means to be horrified by whiteness, especially for those of us who are white. 

It matters that Boyle’s work is coming from the Canadian context. Color-based racism of course matters in Canada, everywhere from the ongoing reality of police murders of and violence against Black, Indigenous, and other racialized people to less overtly murderous forms of interpersonal racism. But consider what was happening in Canada the same year Toung Taloung was brought over to North America, 1884. 1884 was an early iteration of what would later become the “Indian Act.” John A Macdonald forwarded the “Indian Advancement Act,” an early iteration of “enfranchisement,” voting, Canadian political control of Indigenous governance. The Act, and indeed all subsequent versions of it, aimed at extinguishment of Indigenous being. This doesn’t sound so bad, but enfranchisement in fact was part of a genocidal project – if Indigenous people became eligible to live off-reserve, vote, if they became clergy or got a university education, they would forfeit their Indigenous status. This extinguishment was also material, manifest in the government’s stated policies to use starvation, confinement to reserve systems, and withdrawal of medical care to kill Indigenous people. Macdonald and the Dominion and subsequent Canadian government used these extermination practices (including but by no means limited to stealing children from their communities through forced residential schooling and later the sixties scoop) as an arm in the broader genocidal project that continues to ground what is currently “Canada.” That project uses legal extinguishment in attempts to formally end treaty and other relationships that require Canada to respect the sovereignty of Indigenous people. Indigenous people and their governance structures, being, and relationships with other beings and places are not dependent on Canadian recognition, much as Canada has tried to make them dependent on that recognition and then withhold it.

The emaciated White Elephant who sits in judgement, head spinning, the long arms of the law ready to hand, whose mouth is so small that they cannot ever consume enough to satisfy their long, long body, might be a figure of this manifestation of whiteness. This is whiteness as the legal arrangements that determine who can enter or stay in the country, who has standing for civil engagement in all its forms, who should be imprisoned, and how resources are distributed. Whiteness like this is hard for white people to perceive even as it is constantly apparent to the people it targets for our benefit.

The way that Canadian whiteness happens is often as being “better than the US.” We can consider the figure of the “Lone Gunman,” who evokes the Boy Scouts, Hitler Youth, the agent of deadly mass shootings that happen so regularly now in the US that they are not even reported, and certainly not as a form of a racial project. Boyle’s work points to the formulation of the “lone gunman” whose whiteness and frequent connection to overt white supremacist and misogynist groups is erased through media representation of him as a lone actor.

The Lone Gunman, his violence and the refusal to reckon with what that violence protects, expresses one aspect of whiteness in the mode of the work white people do to create and then discipline a racial order – whiteness is in continual need of defense, collusion, and violent maintenance. Philosopher Charles Mills called this the “Racial Contract” – formal and informal agreements between white people that sort the world into groups, benefitting the people constituted as white.

The Lone Gunman also signals the violence of resource extraction, militarism, and the idea that it is possible to have dominion over the land, and that some people have the God-given right to that domination. Aileen Moreton-Robinson focuses on the aspect of the racial contract which operates on a logic of what she calls “the White Possessive.” She writes, “racialization is the process by which whiteness operates possessively to define and construct itself as the pinnacle of its own racial hierarchy” (Moreton-Robinson, 2015, p. xx). The gun is a key technology for enforcing the very idea that ownership is possible, with whiteness emerging from the classifications of who can own and who or what can be owned. This is practical (inherited wealth being the engine of home ownership) for example, and it’s ideological (as when Black people entering their own homes are assumed to be robbers). As Robyn Maynard argues in her work on Blackness in the Canadian context, it is vital to consider the role of state violence in the creation and maintenance of the racial order, from colonization to police murders of racialized people; who has sanctioned or official access to guns, and who they kill, tells us a lot about the racial organization of violence in our world, and what it protects.

Whiteness also organizes the eugenic work of determining who should reproduce the pure white race and who should be sterilized. Boyle pairs with the boyish representation of the RCMP the figuration of the settler, a young, pregnant, chained white woman necessary to securing the future of the white nation. She is bound by her own whiteness, but as she gets what one hopes is some ease from the pot she smokes, we can see the echo between her fingers clutching her chains and the fingers that clutch her. For me, this is an important reference to the ways that white women have been central figures in the violence meted out to racialized men in particular. White feminists thus can trouble rather than embrace the anaesthetic necessary to either numb out to our complicity with, or actively participate in, the evils of racism.

This figure of the pregnant settler also references ongoing debates about meaningful abortion access. Forced sterilization of racialized people and disabled people are part of the eugenic project of forced pregnancy for the white race. White supremacists here in Canada, as abroad, consistently reference a commitment to securing a future for whiteness, whether they reference the “14 Words” of white supremacist David Lane (“We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.”), or in the slightly masked formulation of the Progressive Conservative party, simply “Secure the Future.” The figure of the pregnant white woman settler asks us what other futures we can imagine, which do not simply replicate the horrific histories and presents we now live.

Canadian evocations of multiculturalism and diversity often stand as a counter to this triptych of the white elephant, the lone gunman, the innocent-yet-knowing settler. This returns us to everyone in this exhibit who is not overtly coded as white. What is the relationship between them and the figure of the White Elephant, the Lone Gunman, the Settler?

Most of what I’ve elaborated so far applies to white racial formation across North America, grounded in the founding violences of settler colonialism, chattel slavery, and border militarism. In Canada, we have a perhaps more subtle unfolding of white racial formation and the racial contract, which uses the language of diversity and multiculturalism. To be a diverse and multicultural nation sounds good, better anyhow than being an engine of white supremacy – and this is complicated because decrying “multiculturalism” has become itself a dogwhistle of the right. As both Himani Bannerji and Sunera Thobani have elaborated, what seem to be value-neutral or actually quite positive commitments to multiplicity and complexity are in fact more complicated. Being a mosiac rather than a melting pot seems to hold the promise of everyone being able to have their own dignity. These thinkers argue that what happens, instead, is a solidification of conceptions of people framed as “diverse” or “multicultural” – everyone who is not white – into fixed cultural or ethnic groups, who are then seen as the site of difference, backwardness, and “culture.”

So as white people look hard at ourselves, maybe with new eyes, what can we do with what we see? If this exhibit is to help us think about whiteness, situated as it is in the context of an art world that has not yet collectively reckoned with its own whiteness and the material conditions that make questions about race consistently the white elephant in the room, what kind of action might it spark? 

What new faces might we shape, if white people aim to refuse the benefits we receive from whiteness and repair the harms of the inheritances we’ve received? One option is to come to this exhibit, or to think about whiteness, and feel bad. Lots of us do this – white people feel bad, decide we need to learn more, read more, and so on. When we do this, the bad feeling and the learning more can become the end point of our actions. This does not actually help dismantle white supremacy and massively transform the racial order that is doing its part to destroy our shared world.

The best way to break the racial contract, to become a traitor to whiteness, is through collective action. This doesn’t have to take the form of a protest march, though it can and often does. Wherever white people are situated, we are made complicit against our will with horrific wrongs. And each point of complicity, each thing we want to repudiate, is also a site of traction for transformation. We can ask, both in daily life and as we set broader strategic goals for collective transformation, how we can rend the forms of life that stabilize racism.

As the tombstone for antiracist white activist Joel Olson asks, “What is the most damage I can do, given my biography, abilities, and commitments, to the racial order and rule of capital?” Are we upholding whiteness, or transforming and destroying it? These are helpful questions, and ones I think this exhibit helps us ask.

Panel on Ami Harbin’s Fearing Together

Fermenting freeform feelings – access copy

Panel on Ami Harbin’s Fearing Together

Eastern APA, January 18, 2024

Feelings have turned out to be a perhaps unexpected terrain of struggle over the first years of the ongoing Covid pandemic. And among those feelings, fear has emerged as a kind of “hinge feeling,” a feeling upon which other claims, affects, and theories of change turn. People who think we should be practicing various virus-curbing behaviors are accused of being ruled by fear, while people contesting mask and vaccine mandates are characterized as viciously indifferent to suffering and death, and not feeling sufficient concern for the well-being of themselves and others. And here “well-being” is code for “not being disabled.” We cannot think about the fear of Covid without thinking about the fear of disability. How we feel about disability indexes our collective situation, and the distribution of dignity and flourishing under capitalism. What might it mean to welcome disability instead of fear it, while also working collectively to prevent the disabling effects of repeat Covid infections? And is fear the best lever we have for that welcome and that work?

Ami Harbin’s work in Fearing Together helps immeasurably in approaching these questions. In this short response to her book, I attend especially to Harbin’s extension and application of Sue Campbell’s expressivist account of feelings. My core questions for Harbin will be about more expansively individuating the feelings clustered under the rubric of fear in the book, and about whether politics are necessary to the moral responsibility of fearing well together.

Harbin follows Sue Campbell’s rejection of accounts of emotion that hold that “our emotions can be individuated prior to their expression,” the “presupposition of individuation.” Instead, on the Campbellian account, “expression individuates. It is expressing to others through our language or behavior that actually forms or creates the feelings we have” (Harbin 2023, 48). In Campbell’s words, “we form our feelings through acts of expression and, in doing so, attempt to make clear to others, or even just to ourselves, the personal significance of some occasion or set of occasions in our lives” (Campbell 1998, 131). Because of this imbrication of personal significance with the necessity to have a hermeneutic space that can receive our expressive attempts, through which we individuate our feelings, Campbell spends quite a lot of time articulating an account of feelings beyond the ordinary list of feelings we might identify. She observes, “It is only sometimes that we express our emotions, express ‘how we are feeling’ by referring to a classic emotion, such as anger, jealousy, or love. Often our feelings are too nuanced, complex, or inchoate to be easily categorized” (Campbell 1998, 3). The expressionist theory she forwards offers an account of “the existence of nuanced and nameless feelings that are neither reducible to sensations nor the sorts of states that are adequately captured by the categories of the classic emotions” (Campbell 1998, 71). These are idiosyncratic, “freestyle,” or “free-form” feelings, which do not fall into the classic buckets of emotions. They may be inchoate, unformed, or complex. It is this feature of freestyle feelings that illuminates the necessity of an expressive account of feelings, for Campbell. As Harbin explains them:

Freestyle feelings are those which have not yet been adequately identified or recognized, or even named. According to Campbell, the individuation of freestyle feelings is collaborative: it requires expression and interpretation. There are cases in which successfully forming feelings depends on other people’s capacities for recognizing our feelings: these are cases where uptake is necessary for the formation of those feelings (Harbin 2023, 50).

I have long wondered about the lynchpin status of freestyle feelings in Campbell’s account; it is clear that the existence of these feelings is key to the expressivist stance, and allows Campbell to reject the presupposition of individuation and the view that we individuals have epistemic authority over what we are feeling and why we are feeling it. Harbin relies on these aspects of Campbell’s view in making the – very compelling – case for the idea that in the domain of fear in particular, people can be wrong about the causes of their fear in ways that matter tremendously, both morally and politically.

 Harbin usefully clarifies some key things in Campbell’s view here, notably about the classic emotions. She writes,

In the case of classic emotions, expression is sometimes but not always needed to identify the object of an emotion, and thereby to individuate the emption. Expression is not always required because sometimes we have already practiced an emotion so much, people can recognize the scenarios and anticipate what is appropriate for people to be feeling (Harbin 2023, 49).

Even in the case of classic emotions, though, both Harbin and Campbell hold that often we require interpretive help to individuate our feeling – if not about what the feeling is, then perhaps about what the object of the feeling is. Harbin gives the example of the early months of the Covid pandemic. She reflects:

It was at some points difficult to determine the perceived threats to which individuals were responding. Through an individual’s expression – for instance, behavior to avoid talking about the emerging facts about those populations most at risk of negative outcomes, avoiding talking with elderly loved ones, and perhaps through tearing up at every mention of outbreaks at nursing homes – it might become clear that the chief object of one’s fear is loss of elderly parents. This maybe not be the only fear a person has in this context, but if it was not immediately clear to an individual, it could become clarified as one of their fears by expression. Some instances of fear, like this one, may be classic emotions where the object is not clearly established, and expression might be necessary for identify it, and thereby for forming the emotion (Harbin 2023, 53).

So, there are at least two ways that individuation can help us as feelers: We may benefit from interpretive collaboration with good hermeneutic others to individuate freeform, non-classic feelings, or we may benefit from such hermeneutic help in identifying the object of classic feelings.

            Fear is a classic emotion, though, like pain, something that is difficult to accurately describe and account for, and as personal as any feeling really gets. This may be one reason for fear’s frequent deployment – as feeling and as suggested interpretive frame – about Covid. It functions as a boundary object, in Bowker and Star’s sense, something that can travel between discursive realms and work well enough even in very different deployments. We can be said to fear too much, too little, the wrong objects, in the wrong way, and so on. My own impulse about Covid feelings has been to move away from classic emotions and toward a call to craft hermeneutic spaces that can nourish the individuation of freeform feelings, mostly because I am convinced that too often we lack the interpretive resources to turn toward nuance, slowness, and co-creation as regards feelings. I think creating these resources involves some fundamental and beneficial transformations in how we feel together.

            And so I want to push Harbin on the extent to which this book may tend to fold freeform feelings back into the classic emotion of fear. She writes:

Though we may be tempted to interpret a lot of nuanced feelings under the umbrella of a classic kind of fear, Campbell’s view helps show how doing so may not do justice to what the feeling actually is. Indeed, my inquiry into fearing is partly an inquiry into feelings that we might tend to categorize as something other than fear, but that should instead be understood as forms of fearing, as well as into instance that we might misunderstand as a simple kind of fear, but that are actually more complex (Harbin 2023, 54-55).

Here, I would like to hear more about the criteria and practice we might enact of individuation in these different cases: Times when interpreting freeform feelings as fear is inappropriate, times when things that are elsewise classified should be understood as fear, and times when we understand something as simple fear when it is in fact complex. How do we tell the difference, and when – and how – do these differences matter? Maybe another way to ask these questions is about whether we need to do more to individuate what is currently dumped into the big bucket category of fear, or whether we need to do more to delineate and identify the objects of fear. I see Harbin in practice in this book doing this latter work, to better delineate objects, causes, and experiences, more often, and very productively, and I’d like to hear more about why.

My second big question is about the question of how to cultivate better practices of fearing together. I find Harbin’s central argument – that “fear is a thing we learn and do with others and that we have learned to fear badly” (Harbin 2023, 122) totally compelling. As she demonstrates, being too sure that we can identify the objects of our fear, being too reactive, and being too easily compelled towards particular actions out of our fears are significant, life-threatening problems. Under regimes of white supremacism, border militarism, and gender oppression, in particular, racialized people, migrants, and trans people experience horrific results of bad fearing. Harbin turns in response to these significant threats to the need to practice “new ways of feeling fearful without immediately being drawn into action by these feelings, without rushing to resolve, escape, or otherwise dispel them” (Harbin 2023, 122). She is especially interested in “mindfulness-based and somatic regulation approaches to emotional life” (123). My worry is that mindfulness and somatic experiencing are not enough, and indeed that simply not being reactive is not enough – we need politics.

I should situate this worry a bit in my own biography, since it may be overwhelming my philosophical reasoning. I grew up in a Buddhist community and have been a serious practitioner of mindfulness meditation since I was a kid – I did my first silent retreat at 11, my first month-long retreat at 17, and many more retreats since then. I was a formally authorized mindfulness meditation instructor and teacher of Buddhism within my tradition from 1999 until 2020, since which time I have been on hiatus. As part of my training, I also did work with somatic practices and trauma-responsive mindfulness practices. I became unable to do mindfulness meditation or teach Buddhism in the wake of abuse revelations in my home community, and then through research and reflection on the ubiquity of power abuse in all Buddhist lineages, across tradition and time. There is a very strong narrative within mindfulness community that simply sitting is transformative of our action in the world. Harbin quotes Jon Kabat-Zinn’s widely-popularized definition of mindfulness, the practice of “paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally” (Harbin 2023, 123). This is a good general depiction of the practice. The outcomes of this are supposed to be multiple, but they frequently come down to the possibility that if we create a little more space around our felt experience, we can shift from reactive stances to responsive ones. Harbin’s attention to mindfulness as a possible avenue to fearing better together rests on this possibility. As she writes, “by creating some space between feelings and automatic action, actions will be motivated as considered responses to some feelings rather than as impulsive reactions to all feelings” (Harbin 2023, 126). The other modalities of working with reactive responses – which will tend to be expressions of prejudice, oppression, and supremacist modes – similarly aim at this creation of space between feeling and action; Harbin examines Generative Somatics/politicized somatics and the trauma-aware approaches as other modes of slowing down, attending, and cultivating the possibilities for relations that can hold the discomfort of fear without moving into ill-considered action.

While my own skepticism about these links definitely arises from my own spiritual crisis, I don’t think it is entirely unfounded. My doubts about mindfulness practice arose from learning about and experiencing bad behaviour on the part of very seasoned practitioners of mindfulness and compassion practices, people who used their positions as teachers of meditation in ways that were clearly harmful to their students. It became unavoidable that meditation had not produced any particular behaviour, ethical or otherwise. The most neutral way to think about this is simply to say that there has to be something else that makes for a principled person who behaves well towards others. By extension, I believe there has to be some other normative footing to determine what good relations of feeling are.

I think the missing ingredient is politics. In other words, even if we have a space between experience and action, that space may not have any particular content. Indeed, it is likely that, given precisely the Campbellian account of the relational formation of selves and feelings that Harbin relies upon, we will have racist, sexist, ableist, ethnonationalist (and so on) responses. While the pace of those responses matters, I’m not convinced that Jillian Wuestenberg, who drew a loaded gun on an unarmed Black family in the Chipotle parking lot, would have had a substantively different set of feelings given more time and good interpretive others to feel her responses less reactively. I agree absolutely that slowing the reaction time between someone reaching for an someone using a gun is vitally important. But just as important is what the space of response opens. And I suspect that only changing things other than our own habituated reactions will help with that question.

I turn back to Harbin’s relational commitments here. As she writes:

We are only able to act in the ways we do because the possibilities have been opened up for us by others’ having acted before us. What responsibilities we have, and whether or not we can live up to those responsibilities, depend on other people – what others are calling for us to do, and whether or how others are participating with us in trying to meet those responsibilities (Harbin 2023, 9).

Let’s transpose this to considering Covid, and fear as a politicized feeling, with imperatives to feel more or less fear about it.

We may benefit from an approach that I think of as feeling fermentation. Our feelings are our own but shared, and the interpretive space we offer can function like an appropriate culturing ground for feelings; if we’re making tempeh, the soybeans need to have a specific humidity and temperature to grow their delicious spores. As in fermentation, we can identify specific strands that we want to culture, which in virtue of their proliferation make the context less friendly for bacteria and viruses that hurt or kill us. This is to say: We need an explicit politics in thinking about our feelings. The focus on fear, as something that we are supposed to feel more or less of, has carried with it a supposition that Covid is primarily a thing we ought to personally manage, calibrating our physical behavior to our level of fear. So, if we’re very afraid, we’ll wear masks, not spend time in crowded public spaces that don’t have good air, attend meetings remotely, and so on. If we’re less afraid, we’ll just go about our lives as though the pandemic had never happened.

For any question of health and sickness, our best politics are a radical disability politics. What we could be doing in this situation includes but is not limited to: providing the conditions for everyone to have clean air wherever they are breathing, using the adaptation of James T Reason’s “Swiss Cheese” model of cumulative effects in systemically preventing accidents in complex systems. For Covid, this might include a combination of easily available effective masks for people to wear when they’re sick, filters and UV light everywhere air circulates, being vaccinated and staying home when sick so that we’re not putting so much virus out into the world for other people to contract, wastewater testing and updating health guidelines with data, and all the other partial acts that can reduce the spread of transmissible illness. But all of that is insufficient without much more: ensuring paid sick days for all workers; offering free housing and food for all people whether or not they work for a wage; socially – that is, not through dyadic units predicated on monogamous sexual desire – providing child care for all kids and elder care for all elders; again, socially – not through forced institutionalization – making sure all disabled people have dignified and joyful conditions for living well; ensuring meaningful and free access to healthcare for all regardless of employment or citizenship status. In other words, turning away from fear and fatalism and towards “what we could be doing” in this situation is a turning towards a set of anti-capitalist, decolonial, radical disability politics, which are also a set of feelings.

The free-form disability feelings that I continue to take heart from include grief and worry about people developing Long Covid and becoming disabled right alongside a blazing belief in the goodness of disabled lives well-lived, a belief that we can welcome the disability to come while at the same time resisting the conditions that make disabled lives harder than necessary. Writing about the dismantling of collective care entering the fourth year of the pandemic, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha writes:

When my fear and disabled despair gets big, I remember: there’re still more of us than them. There are more of us all the time, and especially more of us because of COVID. And disabled people are (some of) the best goddamn people in the world. Our disabled love and all our brilliant collective care and crip ingenuity, that we’ve done before and through the endemic, is love work that’s not going anywhere. We’re not going to stop dreaming.

As it turns out, a lot of oppressed communities have a lot of practice dreaming in the middle of complete despair (Piepzna-Samarasinha 46).  

This practice of dreaming in the middle of complete despair, amplifying how to live when you were never meant to survive, in Saidiya Hartman’s words, includes the interpretive work of individuating these resistant free-form feelings. To return to the fermentation analogy: We create the causes and conditions for some things and not others to arise; we can do this with how we organize and also how we offer interpretive justice to one another. May we all have the conditions to live good lives. May we ferment a freestyle feeling for that world, and for the many worlds it might nourish.

“All we have is means”: Ursula K Le Guin’s imperfectionist anarchism

Kunstuniversität Linz, 12 Oct 2023 –

this was the access copy for this talk – if you were there and need it, please email me!

Abstract: Anarchists have long argued that there is a vital connection between means and ends, that how we do things matters to what we can accomplish in collective movements for liberation. In this paper, I think with science fiction writer Ursula Le Guin, putting her articulation of the importance of process in conversation with theorists writing about prefiguration, anarchism, and collective transformation. Le Guin foregrounds the importance of attending to how we do things, formulating any work toward a goal as something that will continue beyond that goal, continual becoming as a core aspect of revolutionary work, and continual questioning as a basis for life.

No higher purpose: Ursula K Le Guin’s existentialist anarchism.

Institute of World Literature, Bratislava –

11 Oct 2023

(access copy was here if you were at the talk and need a copy, you are welcome to email me)

Abstract: It is a standard existentialist trope that humans come into the world without a pre-given purpose for our existence. On this view, there is nothing in particular that we are made for, and we must make for ourselves any meaning or direction. Often this sense of being condemned to our freedom is experienced and discussed at the individual scale. This is odd, since from the beginning of the tradition philosophers have theorized the relationship between individual freedom and the collective context in which we exercise it. The urgency of thinking beyond the individual becomes clearer when we confront existentially demanding problems, such as climate change, migrant crises, global pandemics, wars, or famines. In this paper, I argue that anarchism helps us in thinking about the necessarily collective aspect of addressing wicked problems like these. I take Ursula Le Guin’s science fiction as a key theoretical resource for an existentialist anarchism, and so I am also reflecting on method: what are the implications of reading fiction as philosophy? How is Le Guin’s conception of shared social responsibility helpful for projects of ongoing life on earth? 

Using a “menu of options” assessment approach.

I have been experimenting with an approach to grading and feedback that I haven’t seen many other teachers doing, and a couple of people have asked for me to write it down. In the below I’m going to explain the “menu of options” approach I’m now using, and also say a bit about using pass/no pass assignments in the context of still assigning grades to a class as a whole. And I’ll share the way I talk about this in my current syllabi.

I’ve been writing about grades as a hinge point in the epistemic extractivism of higher education, but I’ll try to not veer off into the theoretical underpinnings of why I think this matters. I’ll just say that in my experience people hate being graded, people hate grading, and grading is the point at which really painful things like plagiarism and disciplinary proceedings proliferate. Grading is the thing that brings out the parts of my role as a teacher that I hate most – acting like a cop or the functionary of an empty credentialing system, forcing people to do useless work that then becomes further useless work for me. But responding to students, hearing what they’re thinking about and what they’re into, helping them figure out things they didn’t know before, watching them build capacities they didn’t have and become more fully and interestingly themselves – I love these things! These are some really strong antidotes to alienation under the neoliberal edufactory!

Since assessment is a key part of my job, and since I don’t actually think it’s wrong to have points for pausing and reflecting on whether learning is happening, I’ve been working on making assessment schemes that do a few things. I want them to:

  1. Help me articulate what I’m teaching through getting explicit about how I’d know that students were learning stuff.
  2. Be an infrastructural bulwark against ableism, racism, classism, and other vectors that punish students for not being rich, white, Christian, and second- or more-generation university students.
  3. Again infrastructurally start from the fact that people including me have lives that can get weird or have ongoing challenges, and that I don’t want them to have to get doctor’s notes, disability accommodations, or even tell me if their kid or parent is sick or if they’re having a pain flare.
  4. In the context of Covid, assume that people will very likely need lots of slack time in the term.
  5. Assume that students are interesting, interested adults who can make their own decisions about what they prioritize in their life and learning and that this is not up to me to manage.


The “menu of options” approach to assessments that I’ve been doing for the past two years in my undrgrad classes has so far worked really well towards these goals, though of course it’s a continual work in progress. It’s like arriving at Subway, Harvey’s, or a poke bowl place: You arrive at the counter and choose what base, substance, and extras you want. In my classes, the base is self-reflections, the substance is “content stuff,” and the extras are a summative project.

Base: 10% of the grade comes from three self-reflections, which ask students to write up what they want to get from the class and how they would know they had done that, a mid-term check in about how that’s going and decision about changing goals, and an end of term backwards look at how it went.

Content engagement: 75% of the grade comes from “are you actually reading stuff, thinking about it, working on learning things the class is teaching you, getting better at articulating what you learned” and so on. What this actually looks like varies, but for example in the third year social movements class that the syllabus excerpt below is taken from the ingredients here can come from short weekly assignments or the take-home exam. The weekly assignments are themselves broken up into “capacity assignments,” “learning from movements,” and “investigating ideas” options, which means there’s three short assignment options each week. Some of these can be done in class if students attend, or always on their own timeframe.

All of these have a firm deadline, and there’re many more of them than they can actually count in their final grade, so if they miss a week, or only want to do the “ideas” assignments, that’s fine. My weekly assignments are just pass/no pass, but you could do this with graded assignments too. The magic parts, I think, are having the revision option, and having many more opportunities for work than they actually need to do well in the class. In this example, there are 120 possible points they can pick from in the “Content Engagement” menu option, but only 75 of those points count toward their final grade. If they do just the reflections and content stuff they can get an A in the class through entirely pass/no pass assignments.

I give them short responsive feedback (often on the level of “really great quote selection here!” or “you might want to read In Defense of Looting if you’re interested in property destruction and social movements”). If they didn’t do a good enough job to meet my minimum standards I tell them what they got wrong or need to work on (“So the question asked you to talk about x, but you didn’t ever do that. What does x tell us about y?”), and they have a week to submit a revision.

I can’t overemphasize how relaxing this is for me. I no longer have to negotiate with students who need an extension, because they can just skip that week with no penalty. Or they can put in an earnest but really crappy attempt and just revise it when it doesn’t pass. But I also can’t explain how much better their work is! I’m used to getting a lot of really stiff writing, often with tons of lifting from Wikipedia. These short pieces end up actually sounding like my students, I see the point of telling them things because they have the chance to revise, and they write much much more than in regular papers. I don’t grade in a defensive posture of knowing they’ll just be looking at the grade and that I’ll have to justify giving them a grade lower than they want.

If they want an A+, or they just like doing longer projects rather than piddly weekly work, they can do a summative project, which is a regular scaffolded writing or creative piece with a proposal, mid-way check in, and final product.


For the past ten years, I’ve been experimenting with including responsive rather than primarily evaluative assignments in my classes – that is, assignments where I’m giving students feedback but no grade. One way I’ve done this a lot in previous classes was to have a paper worth, say 20%, and then have a draft option worth 5%. If students did an earnest draft – answering the question, meeting the page minimum, etc, they would automatically get a 5/5 and responsive comments for revision. Then their final version would be marked out of 15 instead of 20, and would receive just a summative comment. Students who didn’t do the draft would simply be marked out of 20, with the usual marginal and summative comments. This worked really well, both as a grade boost and to make substantially better papers that were a pleasure to read.

This approach has evolved into the current menu, where all of the “during the term” work is marked pass/no pass, and only the final take-home and the summative project are conventionally graded. There’s a lot that can be said about this and a ton of really interesting work on ungrading, specifications grading, contract grading, and other approaches to assessment that aren’t just giving a grade. I think that much of this work is right that grades are racist, sexist, ableist, fatphobic, and just generally a way the existing power hierarchies of the world as it is are mystified and rendered as objective assessments of worth. But I’ve become concerned that approaches like labor-based contracts, where students are graded based only on how much work they put in, also replicate existing structures through rewarding people who have time to put in to the contract. I’m also convinced that it doesn’t work to only have short weekly assignments – many students do better with and prefer a deep-dive push of the kind you get with a big project or take-home exam. But it has worked well to integrate the pass/no pass options into a standard cumulative grade, since I’m still required to give a final grade.


The main question I get from people about the menu option and about offering revision as part of weekly work is: Isn’t this just way too much work? I will say that I’m a super fast reader and so that reading a lot of written work might feel like less work to me than it does to others. Also I find commenting on written work much more rewarding when I know that it’s heading for revision if it isn’t up to par, so that’s qualitatively more satisfying work for me. Last Winter I had 95 students across three classes (one grad class of 15, one 4th year seminar of 25, and a 3rd year class of 55. I had a TA for my third year class. For that one, I didn’t have the TA mark any of the weekly work, instead using their time to meet with students, work on summative project drafts, and to help with marking the take-home. Only one of the classes was a completely new prep, the other two being just lightly revised syllabi that I’d taught at least once before. It was a lot of teaching work, for sure, but I don’t think that it was more than I would have done with conventional grading, and I liked it better. If you’re considering experimenting with these things, you could try having one pass/no pass assignment on term, and another term try incorporating more of the “menu of options” approach, and just see how it feels.

Again, I no longer: Require attendance or participation, require doctor’s notes for illness or disability, require students to disclose intimate details of their lives to me, or have extensive negotiations for extensions. I just tell people to choose different stuff from the menu – future weeks, or bigger projects. But for both my own workload needs and because I think it’s actually better for students, I do have firm deadlines. If they miss deadlines, there are many many other options for them. Weirdly I have had strong attendance and solid participation since stopping including these in the grades for classes. And the feedback I’ve gotten from students specifically about the flexibility of assessment options – once they figure it out – has been just great.

Here’s how I talk about this in my syllabus.


We will be using a pass/no pass grading approach for most of the assignments in this class, with a “menu of options” scheme.” This means that for everything except the take-home and summative assignment options I will evaluate only whether you have done or not done the assignments or tasks – you will pass or not pass each assignment. I commit to telling you this directly and clearly (so, for example, if you respond to a reading or capacity reflection without sufficient engagement, I will tell you so and give you direction for revision). If you receive a “no pass” on any assignment you are welcome to revise it within one week, as many times as necessary, to bring it to a satisfactory level. I will give you responsive feedback rather than letter grades on the work in progress, and a summative final letter grade based on the work you completed in the course overall. You decide what letter grade you get and do the work required for that grade.


You need to do Part A, and then it’s up to you how much of menu options from parts B & C you want to do.

A (required, up to 10 points/10%): Three self-reflections (P/NP)

•           assessing what you want from the class at the start of term (due Sept 19th),

•           how it is going at mid-term (due Nov 7th), and

•           how it went at end of term (due Dec 5th).

If you do all of these, you’ll receive a 10% in the class, so you should add as many of the other menu options as you need to receive the grade you want

B (up to 75 points/75%): Content engagement. Choose your own adventure from as many of these as you want:  

•           Weekly capacity assignments (P/NP) (thirty points/30% possible, due each Monday at 11:30)

•           Weekly investigating ideas summaries (P/NP) (thirty points/30% possible, due each Monday at 11:30)

•           Weekly learning from movements quizzes/short papers/discussion posts (P/NP) (thirty points/30% possible, due each due each Monday at 11:30)

•           Final take-home exam (conventionally graded) (thirty points/30% possible, assigned Dec 5th, due Dec 22nd)

C (up to 30 points/30%) Summative project (conventionally graded)

•           broken down into 1. A 500 word proposal due Oct 17th 2. Earnest attempt amounting to half the work necessary for the project due Nov 14th 3. Final product or performance due Dec 5th. You must pass each developmental segment (proposal and earnest progress) to turn in a final project. In other words, this is not a project that you can do in a last-minute push. Please see the assignment sheet for more explanation about this!

The basic idea here is to give you the flexibility to choose what engagement with this material will best support your own learning goals and life. If you know that you vastly prefer doing large projects worth a lot of points, and you would like to receive a B- in the course, you could choose to do the take home and the summative project, along with the required reflections, and receive a score of 70, or a grade of B-. If you prefer to do short, manageable weekly work that keeps you engaged with the class in a low-stakes and ongoing way, you could plan to do the self-reflections and complete many of the weekly assignments to receive a score of up to 85% and a grade of A. Or you could do some weekly assignments and one of the longer end of term options. It is up to you. There is no way to receive an A+ without doing some weekly assignments and a summative assignment, however.

All weekly assignments open Monday at 11:30 am and close a week later. These must be in on time to be counted. If you want an extension on weekly assignments, simply turn in an earnest effort – really addressing the prompt at hand by the due date; if I judge it unsatisfactory you’ll have a week to revise. Submitting an assignment that just says “I would like an extension” does not count as an earnest effort – if small weekly work isn’t your jam, that is totally fine! Opt for the take-home and summative project menu choices in that case. Some weekly assignments will involve experiential learning, others will be quiz or short essay based, others will invite discussion.

Shary Boyle, Outside the Palace of Me – Virtual Spotlight Tour: Whiteness

  • (this was an access copy for a conversation about this work, Thursday, May 12, 1 – 2pm EST)
  • On the stage of this show, but also in our lives, we enact different roles; our expressive intent does not control the interpretive uptake we might receive. Thus talking about something like whiteness invites us to dwell with the complexity of social relations that are entirely made up but have real material effects. We make and remake our self and the world always in relation with others; Shary Boyle’s work here stages some relations with which we can identify or disidentify – figures, images, and also the space of the stage, other people who might move through it with us, in complex configurations of gaze and body. We experience whiteness this way, as a whole world we move through with others, a co-production in which we are differentially situated and for whom the meaning we make shifts depending on how others perceive and position us.  

I want to start by giving a few orienting guiderails for thinking about whiteness, especially in the Canadian context. Whiteness is a social relationship. It is made up, but it really exists and has effects. While there is no biological or physical marker that identifies someone as white, there are many social and political markers that do this.

  • Michael Omi and Howard Winant write, “there is a continuous temptation to think of race as an essence, as something fixed, concrete, and objective. And there is also an opposite temptation: to imagine race as a mere illusion, a purely ideological construct which some ideal non-racist social order would eliminate” (Omi & Winant, 1994, p. 54). They name the process through which race exists “racial formation.” This is the “sociohistorical process by which racial categories are created, inhabited, transformed, and destroyed” (Omi & Winant 55).
    • So here, we can start by recognizing that whiteness as a social relationship of oppression and benefit has not always existed, that “white” is not a biological category, and we can ask what it will take to destroy the work it currently does – to make whiteness as a relation of oppression no longer exist. And we can reflect on how looking at art can help in that creative destruction.