Spring is here / the lilacs bloomed and died already

I recently had a fun yogurt breakthrough that I’m excited about. I have been making all our yogurt for a year now, and it’s easy and fine. As with all such projects, you know, there is a lot of googling and YouTubing for things like “yogurt runny why” and “how long can I culture yogurt” and “my yogurt smells weird” and such. And over time I cobbled together a method and it’s all great. But then somehow the other day I was googling more because I had a batch turn out really yeasty, and I fell through a hidden pocket of knowledge into a whole other realm of Yogurt Internet I had never known about before: not Mediterranean yogurt internet but INDIAN yogurt internet. It’s a slightly different method, with different accessories! And I had never known about it before because when Indians talk about yogurt in English they don’t call it “yogurt” they call it “curd.” KEYWORD REVELATIONS. So in conclusion I bought a handsome terra cotta curd pot that supposedly will make my yogurt less runny (because of porous terra cotta/evaporation during culturing). I find this very fun. The other yogurt revelation I had is that when people say you can put your yogurt (or your bread dough) in the oven with the light on to keep it warm, I always thought that meant PILOT light, and since I don’t have a gas stove I’ve been culturing my yogurt in a cooler filled with jars of boiling water, which is unwieldy and mildly annoying. Finally realized it literally does mean “oven light,” as in the light bulb that’s in there. I cultured my last batch in there with the light on and was astonished by how warm it stayed in there. You just have to put a post-it on the oven that says DO NOT OPEN OR USE OVEN OR TURN OFF LIGHT.

The first revelation was born of cultural difference, the second of me being stupid! Both are great.

I finished Capital vol. 1 some time ago. It was such a wonderful journey. I feel very very satisfied by the experience. My brain changed a lot and I learned so much. I took 110 pages of notes, which sounds like a lot until you remember the book itself is 940 pages long plus I simultaneously read David Harvey’s companion book, which is like 300 pages I think. I’m sure I have gone on and on before in here about how much I love my notebooks and my note-taking method, but it really came to the fore for me during this process. I felt this was really more of a spiritual journey, like a monk rewriting the Bible 100 times or something (to sell to a King for gold lol).

Capital is just a great book. After the first three chapters it just gets so good. The end is really rip-roaring, he gets into colonialism in America and it’s just devastating. He’s so angry through the whole book and yet is being so incredibly precise and writing with such intense clarity. There’s a joke on Twitter about how Marx considered everything, because it’s basically true and there’s something so funny about that. Like I saw a joke where someone said “Marx failed to consider a giant boat blocking the Suez Canal” and then someone else came along and found some weird passage where indeed Marx is like “let’s say a giant boat blocks the Suez Canal, what would happen then” and then accurately explains indeed what did happen. What a brain! Scribbling away in his horrid London grotto with his little English son calling him “Charley.”

All this being said, I also can’t imagine someone reading Capital without having read like 500 other books across ten years first. When people say Capital radicalized them I just either don’t believe them or else I’m incredibly chagrined by how dumb I am. I just can’t imagine this being your first intro to a critique of capitalism. How could you possibly make sense of it?? If I had read it ten years ago before having read all this other crazy shit I’ve read by now, it would have been like trying to read an Algebra textbook upside-down. I guess we all are truly so different in God’s benevolent gaze. Also I do think my brain is slower than a lot of other people’s, it takes me a long time to really learn stuff. I’m also forgetting stuff at a faster rate than before, which sucks.

Yesterday was my final TGIF of the semester. What an absurd semester! Teaching online–something I imagine Marx genuinely did fail to consider, although I am open to being corrected on this point–is extremely not fun. The experience of sitting here at my desk for four months straight is totally bizarre. I mean my lifestyle is always very desk-oriented, but at least during normal times I get up and drive to work and walk around campus and stuff. Instead now I’m just….here. Every moment of every day. Sometimes I’m here in my house when I’m sitting here; other times I’m in a classroom when I’m sitting here; other times I’m in an organizing meeting or a mutual aid meeting when I’m sitting here; sometimes I’m talking to a crying grad student in New Hampshire when I’m sitting here. Yesterday I was scrolling through Twitter in the 10 minutes before I had to teach, which is my way of managing last-minute teaching anxiety, and Gary came in and did the passive aggressive thing we do to each other when one of us is annoyed the other one is on their phone (asking “what’s on your phone?” in a bright, interested voice that is just dripping with scorn) and I yelled FUCK OFF, I AM AT WORK, HOW DARE YOU. He said he forgot I had to teach. Which is fair, as I’m just puttering around in my office at home! Sometimes I vacuum or something in between classes. It’s so weird. Also bizarre is the experience of teaching my big nighttime class, because during it I am also hearing the banging of pots and pans that signifies Gary in the kitchen making lasagna. Simultaneous spaces and temporalities! Teaching some crazy lecture about propaganda to 80 students and then just closing the laptop and instantly you are home and dinner is on the table. No thank you. Never thought I would miss a commute but I do; I miss the decompression time, the farm fields rolling by in the gloaming, the moving from here to there.

A few weeks ago I was teaching a seminar about music during the Third Reich, when a gigantic hawk SLAMMED against my office window right in front of my face, feathers flying as it speared a mourning dove in its talons. It flew away low over the yard, carrying the dove. I screamed and ran off camera and watched it fly up onto a tree branch and start tearing into the other bird.

Another time a thunderstorm rolled in while I was teaching, so while I was maintaining normal composure talking about some boring-ass shit and gesturing with one hand, with the other hand I was trying to comfort my gently sobbing dog who was pressed trembling against my legs.

Another time a grad student was attending class while driving and had to screech to the side of the road because he wanted to make a point about Nietzsche.

Anyway it’s over and now we wait to see what the Fall will hold. What fresh horrors await? Like most of us, I assume, I no longer really speculate about the future. One day at a time, baby

I am getting a haircut on Friday. It is my first haircut in FIFTEEN MONTHS. I might get bangs. I am also getting a tattoo. The really cool 21 year old anarchist I co-coordinate a food distro team with does super avant-garde freehand tattoos for a living and I feel like there will never be a better time, reason, or situation than this, for me. They recently asked me how long Gary and I have been together and when I said “eighteen years” they just stared at me wordlessly, so to fill the space I said “we met on the K Records message board” and THEY KNEW WHAT THAT WAS. Cross-generational, cross-country connections, thanks to punk culture. Surreal to picture the fact that when Gary and I were falling in love on the K Board via weird long jokes about our shared orthodontia history, this person was three years old. Alas! “Every old man dies a foreigner in his own land”–Chateaubriand

We are starting to move into public outreach phase of our budget project. It’s exciting and unnerving. One of us received an anonymous letter in the mail the other day detailing all this corruption in our local government. It’s all incredibly small potatoes stuff but still. Deep Throat!

Gary’s anti-profit bookstore is going really well. He’s now hosting the wishlist for Noname’s book club! Selling the books at cost, zero mark-up. “It’s literally so stupid” he said happily. Making zero income and spending 40 hours a week in the basement with 800 browser tabs open is honestly the happiest I have ever seen him. All he does is make spreadsheets, research shipping costs, have long phone conversations with local weirdos he’s doing various projects with, and then on Tuesdays he drives around delivering books for free to locals. This has been such a cool and fun aspect of our network-building this year. If you want a cheap-ass book without using Amazon, check it out! We make no money off this (all profits are rigorously dispersed elsewhere, primarily to mutual aid projects in our area, and always will be) so I don’t feel weird about promoting it. It’s Gary’s contribution to the struggle. He will eventually have to get a job but I think it’ll be okay. I have given him one haircut over the past year and he looks like a beast. He is currently using our food dehydrator to dry a bunch of stinging nettles he made me get from the farm co-op.

We are nearing the end of our biggest movie project yet. Over the past year we have undertaken lots of projects where we, like, watch all of Ruben Östlund’s movies in chronological order; watch both versions of Brewster’s Millions and discuss how they reflect changing historical circumstances; watch all of Miami Vice (we made it through I think 4 episodes and couldn’t deal although we did paint our bathroom Miami Vice colors if you’ll remember); we went through a long period where we picked our nightly movie based on a weird “game” where I would describe a vibe and Gary would research and find movies that fit that vibe. Like “British thriller from the 70s” or “period drama but NOT Jane Austen” or “courtroom drama” or “non-American rom-com.” He finds such good movies! We went through a period of re-watching movies that made huge impressions on us as kids (Hot Shots Part Deux; Double Jeopardy; the Brady Bunch movie; Gremlins (“Billy from Gremlins is the worst character in the history of Western fiction”)).

ANYWAY our biggest project yet: watching all of Star Trek: the Next Generation, from the beginning. 7 seasons of like 20 episodes each; remember what TV used to be like?? It was really soothing at first to get back into that older paradigm of episodic television. Like one episode is just the most devastating meditation on humanity and you are weeping; the next episode is Deanna Troi’s mom is too horny and it’s “hilarious!” People are constantly adopting children and swearing never to leave them, or falling in love, but then you never see the children or the love interest ever again. Worf has at least two kids at this point. A character will have the most shattering experience you could possibly imagine and then at the end of the episode it’s like “Well number one I’m certainly glad everything is back to normal” and you never hear mention of the shattering experience again. It’s also so interesting to watch this exploration of the liberal mentality. It’s the perfect liberal utopia, in all its legitimate joys and wretched sorrows. The unexamined centering of certain values and perspectives as universal; the 90s style multiculturalism where all types of aliens are welcome to participate in the Enterprise so long as they give up all but the most superficial markers of their own cultures in order to be appropriately productive as a member of the crew; the show even explores how wrenching this is, i.e. when Worf is screaming about how he had to give up sex in order to be a Federation officer. The insistence that human society has moved past war and yet Starfleet is clearly a military and they are constantly blowing shit up. The insistence that society is egalitarian and yet somehow they are also rigorously hierarchical. The absolute acceptance of meritocratic top-down hierarchy, but it’s okay because the boss is the best person who has ever lived, so you are in good safe hands, you don’t have to worry about anything. As Claire put it: “the central thesis of TNG is: ‘what if daddy was good?'” It’s such a window into how a certain type of bourgeois liberal humanist sees themselves. Caring deeply about equality–the way they instantly free those giant jellyfish in season 1 even though they know it will cause a diplomatic incident, simply because Troi is like “THEY ARE SUFFERING IN BONDAGE.” How devastated they are when they accidentally commit genocide because they didn’t know the sand on that mining colony was sentient or whatever. “WE ARE SORRY. WE DID NOT UNDERSTAND.” The one where they encounter a totally unknown life form swimming through space and they are all just astounded by the joy and beauty of that encounter but then accidentally immediately kill it!!! And are so ashamed. The weird displacement of self-loathing onto the Ferrengi, who represent the dark side of the bourgeois ethos, and thus are viscerally loathed by every single other species in the universe to a degree that is just straight-up rude and racist. Methinks the Federation doth protest too much! Also, of course, Data, the greatest character in Western fiction. Is he a person or not?????????? They are constantly worrying over this point, even though he is clearly a person. It’s Frankenstein, but again, it’s Frankenstein if Daddy was good instead of a piece of shit like Victor was. How I wish there were a scene in Frankenstein where the Creature tries to learn how to small-talk by observing a boor at a cocktail party. Or where he learns to tap dance! OMG the Creature does tap dance, in “Young Frankenstein!” Whoa

And it’s also just a very fun and silly show with a lot of truly weird moments. So many parts have made us laugh for days. “MY NAME IS, BLEEP BLOP!!!!” “You’ll always be Jean-Luc to me”

I genuinely think Brent Spiner is the greatest actor of our lifetime

But anyway my point is that we are almost done with season 6 and we are getting tired of it. We watch two episodes every night no matter what, and I always fall asleep during the second one and Gary has to recap it to me in bed and it’s confusing. They are all blurring together in a really psychedelic way. I’m tired of the opening credits, which we DO NOT skip. We are also getting so overwhelmed by the repetitive plot paradigm that it’s like we stop paying attention to plot and get really fixated on details, like a really weird piece of blocking where Picard gets up and walks thoughtfully across behind someone to the wall and back, and if you actually think about it it would be the most psychotically weird thing for someone to actually do during a conversation. Or like there’s one moment we saw recently where Geordi is walking toward the camera just PAWING at his little iPad thingy, like the most half-assed fuck-you fake computer acting you could imagine, and we were dying, we were imagining it was like take number 20 and LeVar Burton has HAD IT. Or there’ll always be a scene where somebody is talking intensely in close-up and then behind them is a totally random extra in the most outrageous face prosthetic imaginable, playing some fuckin’ alien, and after awhile it becomes really surreal and hilarious.

It will be so weird to finally finish and then go back to watching movies. It will feel like shooting into the future! Although, the first movie I want to watch after this is “Speed,” so who knows.

Today is the first day of vacation (not counting grading) and I tried to read a book about history but couldn’t concentrate because I kept thinking about all the other books I want to read this summer:
– Robinson, Black Marxism
– Jackson, Blood in my Eye
– Brown/Gordon/Pensky, Authoritarianism
– Adorno, Aspects of the New Right-Wing Extremism
– Robinson, Hungry Listening
– couple books about time
– finish this book about primitive accumulation and Renaissance pedagogy I started 2 years ago
– political theory book I can’t remember title of
– Lewis, a Power Stronger than Itself
– Rosa Luxemburg
– Kropotkin, mutual aid and conquest of bread
– Dialectic of Enlightenment! I’M GOING THERE
– want to finish the Marx bio I started last year, it’s really good
– Nietzsche, not sure what. What should I read? Zarathustra?
– other things I think I am forgetting
– It is also time to re-read Infinite Jest again, I do so every few years
– I also am going to re-read Lonesome Dove in honor of my childhood and Larry McMurtry’s passing

Will I read them all, in truth? I have no idea.

I fell out of fiction reading over the past year somehow. During all the times I’d normally read fiction I instead played video games. I did read all the LeGuin short stories collected in that cool box set.

I have a videogame group chat where we discuss the games we are playing; we like to find out about a new game then all start it at the same time and talk about it. One of us is an incredible gamer genius so she always is like “I finished the game, it was pretty good” while the rest of us are still in learner mode being like “how do I walk forward.” This group is really a support group, born of the intense yearning for the Breath of the Wild sequel that feels like it will never come; we are always looking for games that somehow approach BOTW even though that of course is not possible.

– Windbound (fun at first but very not fully realized)
– Long Dark (amazing, not at all like botw but an incredible hypnotic game made by weird Canadians)
– Stardew Valley (so great)
– just started Yonder!

My joy-con broke and I had to ship it back to Nintendo for repairing and my husband mocked me til his throat was sore

What else has happened? So much, yet so little. Some say maybe/others aren’t so sure. Time has passed in blur and also stretched on forever. I have aged 10 years and yet am a child again. The world explodes over and over and yet each day you still have to do the dishes and feed the dog. The apple tree is blossoming; asparagus are in season at last; a cat has been shitting in my raised bed. An oriole visited us again, same as this time last year, a fun little orange bright spot kicking up a ruckus in the bird bath while Gary takes 700 pictures of it. Snoopy is an old bumpy man who now groans continuously and farts more than usual, just like a real grandfather. At his senior wellness check the vet said he is beautiful and perfect. “Greatest dog in town” she said, “best dog I’ve seen in my career” she said, “this dog should be president of the United States” she said. He will catch a cookie in his mouth if you toss it over your shoulder; it’s the only trick he knows. He disrupted MANY of my classes this semester, as he is actually the worst.

Our friend Luke now lives in a house with a pool, and so it is going to be a decadent summer. We also just learned that you can rent the entire historic movie theater in Brattleboro for $50 and they’ll open the popcorn stand and let you watch a DVD you bring from home. NO BIG DEAL!!!!!!!!!!

One big summer project I might undertake is renting out an industrial kitchen and trying to can like 1,000 jars of tomatoes and salsa, to give out during distro next winter. Winter distro has been super depressing and how amazing would it be to have canned local produce?! This might be too ambitious an undertaking, I don’t know. I did find a cheap kitchen you can rent but I now need like a team of dedicated canners and a bunch of equipment and anyway I might be too scared. I also formed a gleaning team and we got hooked up with a local rabbi who operates a vast gleaning network, so we will be gleaning local farm fields and orchards on Sunday mornings sometimes! All this food work and yet I still haven’t learned to garden. Maybe I just never will.

My other summer goal is to become fluent in Spanish, which I know won’t happen.

Oh we also finally learned how to smoke weed!!!!! Turns out it’s great

Posted in Opinion | 3 Comments

“To Stonk or Not to Stonk”: Stock Market Advice From An Anarchist Who Doesn’t Know Anything

Two dearly beloved longtime readers/actual human friends who are also real-life life partners who live together posted SIMULTANEOUSLY YET UNBEKNOWNST TO ONE ANOTHER on my last entry, asking me for, of all things, stock market advice! Well, one of them wasn’t asking for advice, to be fair, but their comments were about the same issue, and that’s crazy enough for me.

Here is their mutual question as voiced by one of them:

First off, I want to acknowledge that this is an AWESOME problem to have. Please excuse me if this sounds like I am complaining about good fortune!
So my partner and I had long discussion last night about investing in the stock market. She is a university professor, as you know. I am a freelancer with many random jobs, including some adjunct work. Through privilege, pandemic luck, a bushel of scarcity thinking, and seven years of my partner’s stable income, we’ve managed to amass a savings of $15K. We both feel safer than we ever have, feeling like if something happened to our house or medically we are finally in a place where we wouldn’t be in crazy trouble. Once we hit this savings goal, we began to aggressively pay down debts, highest interest rate first.
So that’s where we’re at. The problem is that that savings is just sitting in point zero zero zero whatever apr savings accounts and my partner feels like she is being stupid by not investing it. She doesn’t LIKE capitalism, but feels like “participating in the economy” is how life works if you want to be comfortable when you retire or if you have extra money, like literally, you are being stupid if you’re not using it at least to keep up with inflation.
I know this is SO dramatic sounding, but the thought of willingly investing in the stock market makes me feel ill. Encouraging unethical business practices, the ethos of growth, and “finding new markets,” all of it. Not to mention, I believe investing in the stock market has the power to degrade folks’ moral characters. God, it sounds so crazy to say that, but we live in trump territory and most of the people who are into him are so strictly for their retirement accounts. We’ve talked about alternatives, including peer-to-peer lending, real estate (maybe like a real estate investing co-op), and even weird (to me) shit like gold bars/coins. None of this seems as logical and straightforward as an index fund to my partner.
We have a non-optional stock market-based retirement account through my partner’s job. In the last few months, I have been randomly bequeathed stock in a utility company that my grandfather worked for. So I know that I’m already participating. My partner makes the point that we already participate by just being alive in this country and I see her point. But life is choices, right? Every day, we try to make decent choices, going to the farmer’s market, reusing things, not eating meat, whatever. I don’t know. I have the feeling I’m being a huge baby but I also having a really hard time processing the idea of willingly investing in the market system.
One last thing: we’ve agreed that we have until March 1 to come up with a compromise solution or we’ll just go for it. I’ve promised her that I’ll be fully on board, joking I’ll get myself a green tinted visor and a cute pair of suspenders for the occasion. We’ve also talked about how we’d rather not divide the savings into “hers” and “mine” and instead want to do something as a team.
Any advice for a more productive conversation around this or for just swallowing this pill?

My friends, let me preface my predictably long meandering overwrought response by first very definitively saying: me no know.

This life is so complicated and contradictory and I don’t know if I can tell you concretely what you should do, not least because I haven’t solved this problem for myself either. My partner and I are similarly comfortable thanks to similarly privileged life trajectories/my current employment situation, and we similarly now have a little money in the bank, and don’t really know what to do with it aside from putting it into our home, which we also own and said ownership of which also chains us–albeit in a more abstracted way–to the stock market (in the form of “property values”) etc.

We don’t invest in the stock market ourselves, for all the reasons you mention in your question, so in that sense I guess I am more on your side than your partner’s. BUT!!! I have many caveats to this. For starters, as your partner points out, we too are already “invested” in the stock market, with or without our full consent. I am a state employee, and so I have a pension fund, like your partner. I have nothing to do with it, didn’t choose it, don’t manage it in any way, but it’s there, a fund for my retirement that I pay into and that my university manages on my behalf, and I imagine it’s all part of the university’s own investment package, you know, how they take their money and put it in fossil fuels and resource extraction and real estate speculation then so it’s like the health of my retirement fund is contingent on the health of the university’s other investments, a.k.a. the rape of the planet/other cultures/the poor. This is upsetting. And there are movements to divest the university from fossil fuels and all that, but nothing’s ever gonna change this basic dynamic. I can’t remember if it’s Marx or somebody else I’ve recently read, but basically literally any time you get a profit off an investment it is coming from somebody’s unpaid labor, somewhere. That’s just the deal.

Every qualm and conundrum and back-and-forth you and your partner mention is exactly right. Everyone has to survive in this system and there IS NO WAY of doing that without being complicit in this system in some way, as your partner notes. “There is no ethical consumption under capitalism” and all that. There is no “good” way to retire–it will ALWAYS be done on the backs of other people elsewhere, somehow, so long as our social organization is chained to capitalism. There are no “good” jobs, only jobs manifesting varying degrees of complicity with the overriding system of global evil and destruction that is required for accumulation to continue.

ON THE OTHER HAND, there is complicity and there is complicity, right? Like you say, life is choices. There is “I have to work for somebody so I guess I’ll take this random desk job or wait tables” and there is “hmmm I will deliberately write code for Amazon to sell to the U.S. military.” There is buying a home to live in and there is buying 10 homes to rent out to people who don’t have generational wealth. There is putting your money in the bank because you have to put it somewhere and there is BEING a banker, and taking all that money and sticking it into the global imperialist project.

It’s hard to both recognize that there is no ethical consumption under capitalism (and rent is theft and wages are theft and ACAB etc.) and nonetheless figure out some sort of life plan/set of choices that you are able to live with, morally, while also continuing to, you know, literally live.

And yet, like your partner, I sometimes worry that we are being foolish. If we reject all these investments and opportunities to make money, what does it mean for us? If we are 65 and living in penury because of choices made in our impetuous radical youth (lol “youth” but you know what I mean) what does that really look like, how will that feel, will it be pathetic and will we regret it? Gary says: well, if that is how it plays out, then we will just die in penury, like millions of people currently do every day already. We aren’t special and we don’t have some special preferential spot on the earth where like it’s wrong for us personally to suffer the same fate everybody else does. This is really hard and scary to think about. We are trying to basically embrace the reality of death, which is maybe impossible and anyway super fucking scary and sad.

By this I mean, facing your own death and your own insignificance in the global project. Things start seeming smaller, maybe, maybe in a good way. In fact maybe it helps to put it in different terms than “facing death,” which is admittedly so brutal and perhaps needlessly metal. Maybe it’s more like, “insisting on life.” Real life. Doing things, and doing them in such a way, so as to insist that a better world is possible. And that we can all choose to live in that world, already, whenever we get the opportunity. That’s what “mutual aid” is for example–an act of “prefiguration” where you simply behave as though you already live in the world as you want it to be, a world where people help each other totally outside of any organizational or institutional or legal framework, and with no money changing hands. The more mutual aid we do, the more it spreads, the more practices get folded into it. Will these small-scale experiments bring about the downfall of global capitalism? Obviously not, but they plant seeds. They create ties. They open up ideas of what could be possible, if things were to become different. So e.g. we have this woo-woo feeling that by not putting our money in places where you are supposed to put it, and instead using it for other stuff in the here and now, we are acting as though we believe by the time we are old the world will be different. Like we’re putting our faith in that, as an act of hopeful practice. I do think that in reality this is stupid and won’t work out for us, so, you know, caveat emptor on this whole concept.

Ok so anyway these are my thoughts on your side of the equation, sort of, I guess. AND YET, I also want to turn back toward your partner’s point of view. Because I also think I believe that there are lots of ways to turn away/turn toward, and that it’s our responsibility to find those ways for ourselves, where they make sense for us, in our own situations. Maybe for your emotional health you really should invest your nest egg! Everyone is in a different situation. For example I know that my familial situation engenders in me a deeply-felt sense that “it’ll all probably work out,” because my parents are well off and I’ve always had a support network I’ve taken utterly for granted because it’s always absolutely unconditionally been there. I’ve definitely been broke as hell in my life but deep down there was always the absolute knowledge that if I really needed to I could ask mommy and daddy for help and they would help me instantly. So like being broke was an inconvenience and stressful and sometimes humiliating but it has never yet been SCARY, for me (knock on wood; my life ain’t over yet). I think this stuff looks and feels a lot different to people living closer to the edge, obviously, so there’s another caveat from me.

And anyway we’re always entangled in this system so long as we continue living in society, which I think we have to do. You can’t leave society, that’s nihilistic and probably impossible anyway. So, if we choose not to invest in the stock market, we are still feeding into the system in other ways. Given the fact of all of our complicity, yet also given the fact that it’s also all of our (in this case “our” meaning “people with the luxury to have choices at all”) responsibility to critically engage with this and make good decisions anyhow, somehow, I don’t think there are, or should be, rules for everyone to follow. I think you have to decide your own rules for yourself, you have to answer the thought experiment yourself, and how to put imagined things into practice yourself, in the way that makes sense for your context. Not Investing In The Stock Market is maybe just one rule; there could be many others. If you do invest your little nest egg, maybe you could actively challenge yourself to look for other opportunities to offset that act of complicity. Where are there opportunities to “create the new world in the shell of the old,” for you? They exist everywhere, and will be different for different people. I don’t know if this is an ideologically coherent thing I am suggesting, but I THINK this is basically what Gary and I do, for whatever that is worth to you to hear.

I love thinking about all the different needs the struggle has, all the different ways we can be useful to each other. I’m a middle aged middle class white intellectual, what are my skills, what is authentic to me, who do I have access to to build coalition with, to challenge, to be challenged by? To whom can I be useful and how? I just read an essay by a guy who couldn’t get hired as a history professor in the 50s because he was a communist, so instead he went to law school and became an employment lawyer and spent his career helping poor people sue their bosses. He said he first thought about just saying fuck it and going to work in a factory, but then he was like, that’s stupid, I am who I am, and because of who I am I have the opportunity to use the tools of the system to serve people who don’t have access to those tools, so that’s what I should do. And he’s like 100 years old now and he says he feels great about this life choice. A life spent relentlessly hectoring rich people! #goals

I guess I’m describing something a lot more concrete than just “try to be a good person” or like “give some money to charity.” I’m saying, find an actual project, a thing to really do in real life with your actual human hands, a way to change your own life so that it is turned toward a radically different, better world, in some way, even if in a small way, or a temporary way. I know you already do good work like this; maybe the answer to your painful dilemma is to consciously dedicate yourself to doing more of it, in addition to whatever else you do to survive. Mutual aid work, direct actions of all kinds, maybe you turn your garage into a free place for someone to live, maybe you start a free school in your town, maybe you offer classes to incarcerated people in your area on whatever they want to learn about within your purview, maybe you start a food distribution network or join an existing one, maybe you have a cool skill like gardening or canning or construction and you can offer free instruction in those skills, like literally put up a flyer at the library and just go for it, maybe you start a group to make demands of your city council, maybe you do a community needs survey and use it to demand your town defund the police, literally there are so many things to be done, given where you are, what the needs of your community are, what skills you can collectively muster.

This essay on accomplices not allies is really thought provoking for me, maybe it will be helpful to you. It’s one attempt to outline What Should People With Relatively More Comfort/Access/Etc. ACTUALLY DO. And it suggests a framing that I have been finding really useful lately, in reorienting myself in the struggle. What can you do from INSIDE, where you–regrettably, perhaps, and anyway through no particular fault of your own–happen to have ended up living? I mean to the extent that we even are “inside,” in terms of access to wealth and power. We have a little bit more access than a lot of other people, I guess you could say. And here by “we” I literally just mean myself and the two people I am addressing in this entry, lol, I don’t know anything about the rest of you people!!!

There are certainly radicals out there who would read this entry and think “what a bunch of bullshit.” Bunch of rich people wringing their hands about how to both live comfortably in the imperial core AND somehow serve the struggle. Well, you can’t do both, they would say, and maybe they are right. Maybe I am justifying a lifestyle that is unjustifiable (I don’t mean to be “justifying” it, though, exactly, but like maybe I’m being lazy or turning away from something I should be willing to grapple harder with, I don’t know). But I think there are roles for everyone to play and that we all have different ways we can authentically contribute, and I also think you can’t really change who you are and how you’ve been shaped by the various compounding accidents of birth. You can abdicate and go join the guerrillas in the jungle, and some people do do that, and that totally rules, I just have limitless awe and respect for that act. But I also have to believe there are other ways to be of service than only the most extreme acts of abdication. What can you do, in your position? To whom are you legible? To what do you have access? Where can you reach out, make a connection, build something with those around you? This is where I’m at, at this moment in my political development, so this is what I say to you guys in response to your dilemma. I’m saying something less extreme than “quit your jobs and move to Chiapas and learn to use automatic weapons” and something more extreme than “just do your best and don’t be too hard on yourself.” Something in between those two poles. Something that is real and that manifests real change in our lives, a change that grows and flowers out of really critically grappling with reality, but that also doesn’t cause us undue anguish or pointless suffering. Investing or not investing, ultimately this is passive either way–what is something active that’s also available to you?

I don’t know what else there is to do, honestly. You can’t abdicate privilege, it will always be part of you. I think it’s our job to find ways to put it to use, and that means staying here, and staying here means being complicit also, and constantly struggling with ourselves in deciding what is the right way to be, what little examples of a new world can we create together right here in the shitty shell of the old one. And we will never do this perfectly, ever. And that’s it!

I love you both and I am glad to be with you in this struggle, and I also will say I hope you can find a way to make this struggle joyful and not just grueling/a source of antagonism betwixt you. This is the real stuff, what life is all about! Grappling together. I think whatever you decide to do after all this grappling will be great.

Also I’m sorry that this went off the rails and I talked about a bunch of stuff you weren’t actually asking about. But I took this opportunity to work through some problematics I’ve been chewing over in my own life, so thank you for indulging me (as always).


Posted in Opinion | 3 Comments

What a Tangled Web we Weave

Hi y’all
It’s been like a week of nonstop gross weather and I am starting to feel the burn, of Covid life I guess. The burn of the onrushing online semester I deeply dread; the burn of isolation from humanity; the burn of constant low-grade anxiety and all that. I haven’t been sleeping well. When you become middle aged “not getting a full night’s sleep” is like “drinking poison” or “letting a man hit you with a novelty fairgrounds hammer for ten straight minutes” or something. I saw a tweet where someone said once you’re over 30 pulling an all nighter would mean your certain death and I definitely think that is factually true.

Anyway but, I have been having such a great reading journey these recent months. I actually set myself the task of using this time to read Capital Vol. 1 cover to cover, and I am doing it! I just got to Part 7 (709 pages in) and this is now truly the home stretch (only 240 pages left to go). It’s been really exhilarating. One tries to read Capital periodically but it presents so many barriers. Its fantastical length of course is intimidating–you can’t really imagine casually carrying it around and cracking it open at a bar or something, it’s more like a Torah you study in a dedicated space–but also it’s so complex and layered, by intention, but then also the intervening couple hundred years-ish since he wrote it have added more layers you have to first identify and learn about, like about history and stuff, and about his method.

It’s just an outrageous book. I’m also reading David Harvey’s companion book which is really fun because you read a chapter in Marx, then you go read the companion chapter in Harvey, and sometimes Harvey literally is like “chapters 19-22 are boring and the writing is bad” and you’re like great I’ll skim those, thanks for the tip. He also says you can’t understand Capital without understanding Marx’s critical-theoretical method, but Marx never wrote anything explaining his method, and in fact the best explanation of his method is simply the entirety of Capital, which you can’t read without understanding his method. Then Harvey is like “sorry!” He’s also great because he points out all the ramifications of this or that theory given what we’ve seen happen since the 1860s in the world, like what would Marx have said about this or that facet of today’s world, and see how this or that aspect of his theory is borne out or disproven given what’s actually happened since he wrote this crazy book.

Harvey also notes that “Marx himself would never have gotten tenure at a university in any discipline,” which makes the whole thing so much more compelling and interesting to me. The point being, this is a VERY STRANGE BOOK. I never understood how unusual it is until just now, actually reading it straight through. It incorporates everything into this deeply entangled and nuanced and complex web in an effort to understand not just how capitalism literally works but also its effects on/in life, history, the family, how we think and feel. So he interweaves long critical exegeses of political economists’ work with what we might call “primary source” material–reports from factory inspectors and doctors, reports from people who wrote factual descriptions of the condition of the working class in 1830s London, reports from Engels on how factories function etc.–but then also interspersed with extremely enlightening and apropos quotes from Goethe, Shakespeare, Aristotle, the Bible, Benjamin Franklin etc. You can’t know it completely if you approach it only with your own disciplinary perspective and I LOVE THAT. Harvey: “you have, in short, to struggle mightily to determine what he is saying beyond what you can easily understand by way of your particular disciplinary apparatus, your own intellectual formation and, even more important, your own experiential history.” So reading it isn’t just like “learning what Marx thought about x or y,” it’s also like, “struggling to clearly see what *I* think about x or y and how the shapes of those thoughts create a frame within which I slot everything I learn” and then “trying to break out of that frame a little bit in various ways.” You read Capital to learn about capitalism but also to learn about the dialectical method itself, which you can only learn by experiencing it. And after awhile all the crazy shit people have said to you in explaining dialectical materialism start clicking and you are like oh, so it really is just taking opposites and smushing them together over and over. To see how and why the world has developed in this or that particular way; to see what problems and contradictions new things have arisen to (seemingly) resolve.

It feels more like a spiritual process or a journey than like reading a book. Not because you feel reverent or whatever but just because it’s like this process of grappling and that’s what the book is–the process of grappling itself. It’s a book about grappling and also the book IS a grappling. It’s so awesome. Once you get past the harrowing first three chapters where he just relentlessly goes through the various mathematics of how a commodity becomes a commodity and all that, it gets so good. He’s so angry and his anger is so cleansing. The other thing that makes Marx hard I think for contemporary readers is I think a lot of people don’t give historical authors the benefit of the doubt when it comes to humor and irony. We take them at face value, like they were all just stuffy-ass humorless caricatures of old-time prissy assholes. I have actually published an academic article about this, I just realized, haha. But anyway Marx is constantly sarcastic and hilarious. If you take him at face value he seems to be saying many offensive things–so don’t do that! Give people some fucking credit! There’s long sections where he’s basically like “yes, the amazing factory! What a gift to the world, what astounding feats of mankind” etc. etc. but actually he’s just BLISTERINGLY trolling the classical liberals who “proved” that the free market guarantees political freedom or whatever. He’s being funny! I don’t think anyone ever told me how funny this book is, and I think that is very wrong. It should be a selling point. So it’s been delightful to experience that aspect as well. My margins are filled with “LOL”s. There is this super long footnote where he quotes some political economist he hates, and he keeps interspersing “(!)” and “(?!)” in the text and the insertions get more and more intense and constant (like after every word) as the quotation goes on. Hahaha he put that in a book!

It’s incredible to see how little has changed since he wrote it, in a certain way. All the fatuous insipid shit that liberals say to justify market capitalism–which he dismantles with the most scathing scorn you could imagine–are, like, almost word for word the same shit people say today. 160 years of constantly being assured that capitalism isn’t bad, just our current version of it needs some tweaking. You start to see that this will go on forever. 1,000 years from now when all of earth is a wasteland and one man owns literally every inch of the planet and we all live in dormitories eating regulation sludge out of a tube these people will still be like, yes, there have been some abuses of the system, but progressive tax reform will fix it all this time! Also the way liberals use rationality to address moral issues and how soul-killing it is. There’s this long chapter about child labor and it’s so infuriating. He quotes from all these reports and articles and parliamentary proceedings to demonstrate that questions like “is it wrong to work a child to death” become formulated as like quibbling over “what is the legal definition of ‘child'” or of “day” or “hour” or “work” or whatever. It’s ok to work a 13 year old to death but not a 12 year old, it says so on this piece of legislation! All set. And the way the poor are blamed for their own sufferings–he documents this in excruciating detail. Article after article decrying the selfishness of working mothers, drugging their babies with opiates so they can leave them home alone while they go to the factory. They value their own selfish gain over the lives of their children! Marx describes capitalists as vampires and werewolves but also as automatons, almost, he describes them as “capital personified” and given motivations and ideas. So the book moves around back and forth, from long mathematical equations to werewolves baying at the moon to imagined dialogues between Worker and Capitalist to long sarcastic screeds about the classical liberals’ “Crusoe fantasies” to long excerpts from Aristotle demonstrating that he couldn’t quite get to the answer of what creates profit because he lived in a slave society. And then, like, the perfect quote from Faust demonstrating all of this in one sentence, somehow.

It’s very demoralizing to see how nothing has changed, ideologically, over all these years. But one must press on!

I am also halfway through a biography of Marx that is very fun/upsetting. His marriage sounds so wild and incredible, suffering together so epically and staying in love the whole time (their daughter in her memoir wrote in irritation about how her mom and dad had so many inside jokes that they would roar with laughter together until tears ran down their cheeks and it was SO EMBARRASSING MOM GOD). Jenny never blamed her husband for their life of travail and poverty, “rather she blamed the Prussian government, and capitalism.” I love hearing about these people’s teen years in particular, the worry they cause their long-suffering parents. His dad just wanted him to be a lawyer! But now his son isn’t going to class and is instead reading philosophy and sending home long rambling letters about his sexual longings for his girlfriend Jenny and how he wants to be a poet? And enclosing his poems, which are VERY bad? And then suddenly the Prussian secret police are knocking on the door??? Son, please, your mother is worried

Worried Parents Of History

THE OTHER THING I AM READING is this astonishing history of textiles and/as “women’s work.” It is called “WOMEN’S WORK: THE FIRST 20,000 YEARS,” which is a hilarious title but she is dead serious. It’s about cavemen and shit. It’s interesting thinking of this book in the context of all that stuff I just said about Marx, because it also entails a certain degree of interdisciplinary revelation. It opens with this great origin story–this author grew up weaving, like on looms and such, because her mother was a weaving nerd, a full-on weaving expert who studied the ancient ways in Denmark and stuff. So this girl grew up weaving and knowing all about cloth. But then she became an archeologist. And one day in archeology school they were looking at a bunch of old-ass pots and she was like “look, there’s an impression of a textile on one of these,” and the professor told her that wasn’t possible because they didn’t have looms at that point in history. But the girl was like, I KNOW that is a textile impression!!! What does it mean? And she started doing all this weird research, and found all this amazing information that just hadn’t been put together yet, and it ended up becoming her dissertation and then also a book. I love that so much!!! The way knowledge accumulates in different ways / can be put together in different ways. Those pots existed and were studied for ages, but it took someone with such a specific background and life journey to have that realization: a woman who grew up weaving, which is very ancient and describes millions of women who have lived on this earth; but also a woman who grew up weaving but who also lived at a time when women who grew up weaving could also go to archeology school; and then also a woman who grew up weaving who had access to archeology school and who WANTED to go to archeology school. All these things had to be in place for this particular revelation to happen. Think about all the other revelations out there waiting to happen! Wonderful.

I am learning so much amazing wild stuff from this book. Here is a small selection:

– hieroglyphics in tombs were painted without perspective because the idea was that the objects they depicted would somehow mystically accompany the dead person into the afterlife, and so they had to be depicted in their entirety in order for that transubstantiation to occur. So you get stuff depicted both sideways and in birds-eye view, really weird perspectival stuff that now makes sense when you know this is why

– the dramatic ancient Egyptian eye makeup was actually a fashion that was based on a necessity–the makeup was made out of a mineral that was an insecticide for a specific insect that gave them eye diseases

– the Venus de Milo, what was she doing with her missing arms? SPINNING WOOL (long tradition of associating spinning/weaving with women/fertility (making something out of nothing))

– most flags until the late 19th century used only red, white, and blue because until the invention of synthetic dyes, red and blue were the only organic dye colors that were colorfast when they got wet. LITERALLY THESE COLORS DON’T RUN

– King Tut was actually a boring short-lived king nobody cared about, and his tomb was embarrassingly small and shoddily furnished, compared with other pharaohs, and the reason he’s a big deal to us is simply that unlike all the other tombs we’ve studied in modern times his tomb made it through thousands of years of history INTACT, and the only reason it made it through history intact is that a later, cooler, fancier, richer king built his own tomb in the hillside above King Tut’s, and the debris from that huge construction project covered up Tut’s tomb so completely that nobody found it again for 6,000 years

– There’s this site in Eastern Europe where they’ve found tons of artifacts from 10,000 years ago, specifically ORGANIC MATERIAL like wood and cloth (which normally cannot last that long, it rots/degrades/goes away), because these ancient people decided to build a little town right on top of a horrible-sounding mud bog, even though it makes no sense, apparently they had to constantly pound wooden pylons down into the mud to keep their houses from sinking, etc., and anyway the mud is this really specific thick-ass deep mud with specific chemical properties that mean anything dropped into it is swallowed up immediately and totally preserved essentially indefinitely. And so it’s now this trove of amazing info about ancient cultures, because so much shit got dropped into it from this weird town. So I love thinking about that so much. For example she talks about a hank of spun dyed yarn that is one of the artifacts. She talks about how much work went into spinning and dyeing that hank of yarn–shearing a sheep, carding the wool, spinning and spinning for hours until you had a useable hank, then dyeing it (pounding berries, creating the dye, etc. etc.), and then the person fucking DROPPED it in this STUPID FUCKING MUD and I picture them being like OH GODDAMNIT, like what a total disaster…..and then somehow there’s a connection between that person and the archeologist 10,000 years later who found the yarn and was like HOLY SHIT GUYS LOOK AT THIS!!!!!!!!!!! Like both people at either end of that connection are so invested in the yarn but for different reasons

– she has an entire chapter about the invention of string. She’s like, everybody talks about the wheel, the internal combustion engine–but fuck all that. Humanity literally could not have progressed if we hadn’t invented string. And then you read the whole chapter and you’re like, damn she’s right, string RULES

This book is also so interesting to read alongside Marx, and it’s incredible I just happened to read them both at the same time, because of course Marx’s main example of “labor” he returns to throughout the book is WEAVING. And his insights would have been even stronger had he considered weaving specifically in light of the ancient and longstanding gendered quality of that labor! But he didn’t, and so that’s a great example of how even the most fantastically brilliant among us are still only able to think and see what our historical context allows us to think and see. The great thing about Marx is that he’s aware of this and indeed it’s sort of the whole point: trying to analyze your own brain (probably this is not a good description of the dialectical method but whatever)–his big criticism of Darwin and the classical liberals is that they didn’t take THEIR OWN BRAINS into consideration in formulating their analyses. He’s like, huh it’s pretty crazy that Darwin identified modern English society in the workings of “nature” (meaning: survival of the fittest and competition and progress–all the stuff in the 19th century theory of evolution is just capitalism, and evolutionary scientists in other non-capitalist countries didn’t come to the same conclusions as the English ones. AND then isn’t it interesting that the English version of the theory was the one that won, and that we all learn in school as the only theory of evolution that exists? And not, say, the Russian version, which emphasized cooperation and collaboration as the engine driving evolution? Huh neat). Like if you can’t at least acknowledge that there COULD BE angles you aren’t seeing because your own brain is inevitably conditioned by who/where/what/when you are using it to think things, you are a dangerous person to be weighing in on things like “human nature” or “how great capitalism is for everyone on earth.”

David Harvey tells a charming anecdote about how he was involved one time in the planning of a new city, and so it was a group of architects and engineers and stuff, and then him, as a geographer, and he started talking about what cities are for and how to think about what goes on in them and how constructions of cities tell us a lot about the values and ideas of the people who built them, and everyone is sort of flummoxed and astonished, and somebody says “where can we read more about all that stuff you just said” and he goes “oh, footnote 4 of chapter 15 of volume 1 of Marx’s Capital!” and then he says he was an “idiot” to say this, because immediately everyone was like……[fart sound] and it made him sad

“Capital, which has such ‘good reasons’ for denying the sufferings of the legions of workers surrounding it, allows its actual movement to be determined as much and as little by the sight of the coming degradation and final depopulation of the human race, as by the probable fall of the earth into the sun…Après mois les déluge! is the watchword of every capitalist and of every capitalist nation.”

Damn, dude, tell us what you really think

Posted in Opinion | 5 Comments