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Scarce Or Abundant, Nothing About Love Should Be Casual

January 27, 2014

The allure, to me, of polyamory has always been its promise of addressing reality head on. Of communicating and grappling with the complexities in our lives and relationships in an honest and audacious manner. But I am not so on board with those who define it as in terms of “casual love.”

The comparison to casual sex is entirely misguided in my opinion. …Of course I freely admit I may not have the highest credentials in this area. Casual sex will probably always seem like a crazy scifi concept to me, completely detached from far more realistic and tangible notions like space elevators and time travel devices the size of galaxies. In some sense it’s silly to pay such an outlandish notion too much attention when there’s toy spacetime metrics to solve, but I appreciate on some level that this probably isn’t the case for all you cool kids. And you’re probably all making out with each other or something the moment I leave the room. Sounds wonderful. However, even though it might be experimentally unfeasible to test in a Type I Civilization, I’ve done the calculations and casual sex, casual flirtation, casual infatuation, all of those are quite workable at high frequencies and there don’t seem to be any exclusion principles to their wavefunctions. The hairy bits are ultimately just engineering problems. And since yall seem to be on such a higher Kardashev coolness scale than myself, with your hip dance parties and your zero-point energy extraction devices that spit out exotic matter like socially conventional small talk, I have no doubt you can solve these issues.

But casual love? I may be hanging too much on either of those words, yet I still suspect I disagree more than I agree.

Mostly because love isn’t some kind of passive entertainment or fleeting hunger, love involves serious ontological reconfigurations. Or at least there’s a thing that happens, when you grow to know a person, when that person is smart, creative, and kind, when they can surprise you, see the same things you can see, and behave with either such compassion or regularity that you can relax your shields around them, where they become qualitatively more real to you. Almost as real as yourself. Where your mirror neurons jiggle and dance in tune with them, a ghost of them moving alongside you at all times.

Loving someone remakes yourself. But most importantly, even if that ghost fades to a silent unnoticed echo, the impression left by the experience reshapes your ethical reality. You are not alone. Tangibly. Provably. There are other minds. In a way impossible to ascertain merely kicking balls with the shrieking automatons on the playground or banging one in a bathroom or being overcome with the novelty of a new automaton with handsome hydraulics. And this implies an absolute ethical obligation.

To love is to mesh so rawly with another storm of thoughts your identity blurs with theirs. Which is no reason to shy away! But falling in love marks a phase change in the ethical landscape. Whereas before you at least cared about them in an abstract or probabilistic way, afterward that empathy is hardwired, absolute, and immediate.

While your obliged behavior might remain precisely the same (avoiding smothering them, non-dramatically wishing them goodbye as they take off for Mars the next day, distancing yourself or others from them if they grow abusive…) if you can dismiss the rewiring in yourself as no biggie then I wouldn’t remotely call that love. There’s a plethora of lesser words available for mere passing emotions.

Certainly one could argue that in a world of higher bandwidth communication, of greater security and default intimacy, the phase boundary might break down a bit. But I would argue that even if we were to handwave away the limitations of human brains and even the possible proportional synchronization limits to any mind, loving someone is never in any sense a “casual” affair. Even if you could fully love everyone on the planet that wouldn’t or shouldn’t defang your love of its intensity. Love isn’t a fleeting selfish craving where the loss of one in seven billion available sources to death by malnutrition would be a near infinitesimal concern. Just as your love is not a pie that can only be subdivided into smaller unworthier pieces, love is not something you can fill a limited stomach with by simply having many cartons to spoon from.

The power of love doesn’t and shouldn’t lie in its scarcity.

Yes, there are deep problems with our current society, but I’d diagnose those problems as constraints on and impediments to our capacity to deal with intensity, not the existence of intensity itself!

The impulse to water down feelings and consequently declare oneself “mature” is a deadening, cheapening, and unethical approach to life. Rationality, self-knowledge, and clarity of mind are in no sense antithetical to intensity. And resisting the latter is certainly not a good path to any of the former.

The Retreat of the Immediate

December 13, 2013

Anarchists who intend to act as though we didn’t live in a dystopic world must find themselves perplexed at every moment. With the ecosystems of civil society so atrophied and virtually every surviving institution of value captured and beaten into participating in the bloody circus of statism, who do you call? What do you do when you see a thug with a gun (and a badge) looming over someone, much less kidnapping or shooting people? Hell, how do you deal with the existence of sitcoms?

Ethically navigating the horrors of our world is a challenging task for anyone with a shred of humanity, but it’s unfathomable once you abandon the notion of strategy – the pursuit of wider context.

And yet the appeal of immediatism has grown widely in recent years, under various banners and in many circles. Perhaps this is a reaction to the patently ludicrous Plans of social democrats, state communists, vulgar libertarians and organizationalist ideologues–in such light it’s clearly a sympathetic instinct. But it is also a surrender of the mind and heart.

Immediatism, in almost every formulation, has two sides.

On one side is Rothbard’s famous “big button” that we might break our fingers pushing to suddenly poof away the militaries, courts, politicians and police of the world – come what may in the aftermath. I waft back and forth on this hypothetical. It’s certainly rhetorically convenient for emphasizing the scale of state atrocities being committed right now, but unconvincing to anyone versed in the wilds of sociopaths, thugs and would-be-DMV-administrators that currently infest our world. The state is but the apex predator in a rich ecosystem of would-be states. As anarchists our goal to abolish power relations doesn’t stop at merely the most prominent ones. And fractured civil war between would-be warlords and social democrats can be many times more destructive and oppressive than the off-hand tyranny of old, fat and senile sociopaths.

We anarchists are objectively right, centralization is inefficient. But this cuts two ways. Rwanda’s machetes were more efficient than Hitler’s gas chambers. Robust markets will efficiently deliver death just as much as any other “good” a certain culture might value. Meanwhile the wicked truth is libertarians often flourish in overextended empires where the mountains are high and the emperor far away. At one time I used to retort that if I could push a button and create a single incredibly centralized global government I would. Better to have a single enemy to focus on than two hundred, interlocking, redundant and locally attentive ones.

States create game theoretic environments around their peripheries that suppress cooperation and reward antisocial strategies. Primordial empires wouldn’t have persisted if they didn’t constantly sow the seeds of future cops, rulers, and bureaucrats through the cultural and economic norms they instilled. But not every bully can grow up to be picked as Head Genocidaire and the landscape is littered with the failures. Some are too stupid to make it, some confined to small-time crime, some in miniature statelettes like the mob running in parallel to their more official brothers, some seeing greater advantage in milking hidden privileges from the current state, and some simply unlucky. Many more, despite being distorted and corrupted by their environment, are too humane to function well in the gears of state power. They nevertheless instinctively support the stability of any known social form and lash out at deviation, thoroughly persuaded that cooperation is impossible on any significant level and our only hope is to eek out a living as moss on a wall without attracting the wrath of whatever sociopaths are in power.

If we were to press that magical button these residual forces, endemic across our society, would immediately begin the reconstitution of states. There would be serious opportunity for sustained development of more ideal communities (as we have seen in virtually every crisis), but so too, in the absence of vigorous preexisting social antibodies to power accumulation, would there be terror and micro-totalitarianisms. Not universally, but all too often even a small presence leads to widespread PTSD, a willingness to grasp any known “solution” however imperfect rather than spend the time and iterations of trial-and-error necessary to win categorical improvements. The most staunch conservatives and proponents of totalitarianism I’ve met have been survivors of civil wars. Only when there are anarchist community centers in every neighborhood, self-defense cooperatives, arbitration bodies, autonomous basic-needs infrastructure, widespread awareness of alternative justice systems, et alia, would pushing that button actually be a surefire reduction in state violence.

Of course I don’t fault anyone for lusting after that button, I even tend to lean towards pushing it in my read of the weighted probabilities, but A) the button is very much just an unrealistic thought experiment, and B) focusing on the dichotomy it frames things in is incredibly strategically unhealthy. We don’t win the moment a state ceases to exist, much less all two hundred or so officially registered “states.” To even speak of anything approaching a win condition for us we must damn well consider the default strategies and frameworks ossified in a number of people’s heads. While the decline and fall of existing states will be an amazing battle to win, it is not the war. We win by turning the tide against power psychosis, not certain symptoms. And that, sadly, is an inherently gradual thing without clear markers.

But then we’re anarchists: Our decentralized and autonomous asses flourish in situations involving vastly complicated contexts unknowable to a single actor or reducible to simple terms! Which brings me to my second point.

The other side of immediatism is the adoption of limited ethics, whether deontological or nihilistic. Pretending we live today in the world we’d like to see (or dismissing any ideal or goal as hopeless) explicitly involves ditching context.

The world is not a simple place and simplistic abstractions (even in the form of “shit’s too complicated” or “we’re sure to lose”) do violence through irresponsibility. Further they signal a cognitive surrender to the ossified and sweeping logic of the state.

Rather than delve after the true comprehensive roots of a dynamic and risk being reshaped in the process, the rigid algorithms that make up the psychosis of power try to impose simplified and relatively unchanging macroscopic abstractions. To think, to reformulate with greater context, is to risk deviation from the game theoretic dynamics that preserve simplicity. The drive for control is the drive to reduce the amount of thinking one has to do–often by force. The state requires this strategic rigidity and simplicity in its components so that they might be A) calculable and B) stable in the weird niche of game theoretic phase space it survives in. While the state embraces limited attempts at foresight, explorations in meta-strategy and awareness are always, by necessity, confined.

Conscious intentional actors are the state’s worst nightmare. The mere pressure of oppositional tactics alone is easily integrated into state calculations, even reformulated as a vital organ. If every sharp grievance is turned into a mindless rupture, then the number of burnt cars this week becomes just another focus group report. They have storefronts and cops aplenty to sacrifice. Sure, despite our best efforts they might miscalculate still, and our endless siege rush through the cracks to some meaningful accomplishment/destruction, but there’s no good reason to settle for this minimal effectiveness. Like the old post-left slogan, “an insurrection of generals not an army of soldiers” actively thinking through strategies of attack and exploitation individually is the only way to leverage the state’s calculational constraints. What does our embrace of agency as anarchists even mean, if in our resistance we gravitate towards any form of attack in front of us or stirs our first impulse? If all your resistance can be easily replaced with a lego mindstorms robot, identifying cops via python script and chucking firebombs at them, it stands to reason you might be at least a little bit more effective at building such robots. And if you’re willing to take one step of foresight in the causal pursuit of our desires, why not more?

Barely better than chucking our bodies at their nightsticks or shooting the first thug with a badge we see kidnapping people is the sort of internalized legalism that tries to slice up the world in terms of immediately visible violence. We see this most egregiously among certain vulgar anarcho-capitalists who famously can’t tell if something is unethical unless things have gotten to the point where someone is openly pointing a gun. Never mind amorphous culturally implied threats or conversations about the unbelievable subsidy left by historical genocide and slavery. Coercive power and profit from it is a tangled thing and if we throw up our hands at a few steps of removal or the blurring of direct responsibility through convoluted shell games we invite sociopaths to walk all over us. Pick two random people, even two random anarchists, and they’ll give you two very different definitions of “what counts”.

The answer is, of course, that it all counts.

Lines of power, control and implicit coercion crisscross our world; we are all chained up in them to varying degrees. Perhaps it really would be a good thing, if we all started blazing away at our oppressors and the only people left standing to start over were a couple saintly homeless queer disabled black kids. Sometimes, in despair, I think exactly that.

I understand the common impulse to ignore the big picture entirely and attempt to lose oneself in the accounting of proportionality, personal blame and other relatively crisp immediates. But this is suicidally insufficient and to constrain ourselves to such immediate reactions is to become complicit. It is the nature of tangles that they cannot be resolved by merely pushing back. We do not live in a world where violence is a deviation rather than the norm and, thus, easily squashed the moment it rears its head. When a shell game has been going on for centuries, passing balls of coercion between billions, retribution can only get us so far. How responsible is the individual cop that shoots us for resisting an IRS warrant versus the officer who gave the order, or the politician who signed the law, or the friend who snitched, or the teacher whose salary it’ll partially go to? How “responsible” is a white american who’s benefited from centuries of subsidy for the relative immiseration of a decedent of slaves? What of the beneficiaries of economies of scale generated by a transportation infrastructure built on genocide? The framework of blame is the fantasy of quick answers from immediate context. We cannot know the constraints placed on other people, the distorted choices and incomplete information available to them. “Responsibility” much less “proportionality” are profoundly arbitrary in most situations. Focusing on them frequently poses daunting collective action problems as well as issues of representation and, thus, effectively prioritizing some situations of sharp oppression over others.

But all is not lost, we can at least try to minimize oppressive constraining bullshit or, equivalently, maximize agency. This instinct is shared by both those who talk of responses being justified “up to what’s necessary to immediately stop the aggression” and those who instead talk about rehabilitory approaches that “even if they may never end up working all that well all of the time,” will at least avoid escalating to the point of murdering every last person who adamantly refuses to stop some micro-aggression. Both approaches, however, by attempting to write out a simple universal operating method, are too cute and fall into the same statist trap of ossified frameworks rather than active and fully-context-sensitive strategizing.

As anarchists, native to the knowledge problems of subjectivity, we need to embrace knowing when we don’t have the answers. Not knowing the full particulars and context of a comrade struggling on the other side of the world we can at best only helpfully point out glaring contradictions, externalities or potential inefficiencies of one strategy versus another (imprisoning people in gulags, for example, won’t make them freer or lead to the state withering away). Sometimes this means not acting. Shooting a politician might lead to better conditions, it might lead to sharply worse ones. Same with blowing away the first cop you see. Sincere passionate, highly intelligent and considered anarchists will disagree on whether or not to push Rothbard’s hypothetical button this very moment. Merely by virtue of having different life experiences and seeing different spatterings of data on social conditions. On the other hand dramatically increasing the power of the state to fight the corporations historically inseparable from the state, without a viable means of then fighting the resulting super-empowered state (never mind whether it gets the corporations or just increases the potency of regulatory capture), is clearly a strategy developed with limited exploration of ramifications. Continuing to investigate is important.

Merely blindly escalating to the level of retaliation necessary to fend off each and every aggression flowing through the facet of this world would mean a total war of annihilation. Conversely, in many cases, failing to escalate beyond some arbitrary line or apportioning our efforts according to degrees of “responsibility” rather than “what will stop the violence” can leave us in an intractable mess. The solution is to reject the paradigm of escalation entirely, a notion that was only possible by examining interactions in isolation. Reprisal is but one tiny sliver of tactics. When facing an ungodly mesh of knots you don’t push or pull, you examine the whole structure and look for weak points. The question before us, as anarchists, isn’t how hard to bluntly react when our world fails to be perfect but where and how to proactively strike against dystopia.

Sometimes that means letting things pass in silence, sometimes it means sucker punching, and sometimes it means something completely orthogonal.

Some problems can’t be solved directly. Sometimes you have to go around them. This requires seeing the full breadth of our society as it is, not as we’d like it to be. In a world filled with people who feel entitled to control others in a million tiny and not-so-tiny ways, selfcenteredly focusing on wiping the blood off our own hands or trying to pin precise apportionments of blame can only leave us complicit in the blood awash around us. There is no universal formula, no simple heuristic or paint-by-numbers methodology that will get us to a better world. Indeed such shortsighted procedurism flies in the face of virtually every anarchist vision. “Freedom” is a meaningless slogan without vigilance and agency. If “freedom” from proactive consideration is what we were looking for this world already offers many avenues. Indeed that is practically all it embraces.

That anarchists occasionally throw up their hands and retreat to a tiny sphere of immediate considerations – whether embracing blind optimism or blind despair–is entirely understandable given the challenges we face. But such a retreat is not a victory, nor could it ever somehow be representative of liberation.

Why Anarchism? A Love Letter to Our Doubters, Burnouts, Expats, & Refugees

December 12, 2013

I’ve identified as an anarchist for over two decades. Like any ideology or flag of identification it is, to most people, a weird, antiquated sort of thing to do. Relatively few people actually care about the world and those with the audacity to set out to change it are rarer still. Even among them radicalism is infrequent, and such prominent flag-flying practically extinct. It is, I’ll readily admit, on the face of it rather intellectually suspect. Akin to the lone old Marxist grumbling in the back of the hackerspace at the nerve of people to choose terminology outside his tradition’s memetic scaffolding. We’re all busy getting things done as informed, free-thinking, universally iconoclastic individuals these days, why willingly chain yourself to the baggage of centuries old political tensions and the flotsam of small but frequently problematic milieu?

This sort of questioning washes in with every wave of burnout and trauma. What once felt exciting and liberating becomes all too familiar and constraining. And in many people’s need to push back, to reassert their underlying agency as human beings rather than characters in a political narrative and question ties of assumed “affinity” with scurrilous personalities or behaviors they end up floating away entirely.

So I thought I’d write a little piece about why I don’t leave. How coming in originally with a deeply suspicious and critical eye on these issues I ended up nevertheless choosing to hoist the black flag on which nothing is written and cast a huge chunk of my life in its shadow.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with me that it’s ultimately not about the people or even the history but the word and conceptual space itself.

“Anarchy” is unarguably the greatest and most consequential Orwellianism in the world. In every language to have touched Greek it bundles a kind of sociopathic chaos onto the concept of pure freedom. Freedom in our common tongue isn’t merely slavery, it’s a nightmarish state of death and domination devoid of substantive empathy. And the implication is the root of virtually every paradigm, social ecosystem, and cognitive strategy on display: That there is no escape from lines of domination, no aspect of relation to one another outside the binary of controller and controlled. Anarchy, as a word, is the ultimate reset button on those who dare to dream outside the rules of the games we play. A reminder that society is, supposedly, a zero sum game, and any present deviation from that reality a fleeting collective irrationality, capable of being popped at any moment by exploring too far or thinking too deeply. We have a word for the absence of rulership, and we use it to signify fractured rulership.

This is, once you start to notice it, a poisonous, ruinous affair that spreads widely if subtly in effect. There are many kinks in our languages and conceptual schemas, and we frequently manage to work around most of them, but “anarchy” sits at the center of a topological defect so vast it almost characterizes the entire landscape of our social relations. That we might be able to slither out an equivalent victory without contesting this conceptual perversion directly shouldn’t blind us to its centrality. We are not merely using an ungainly word to describe something everyone is basically already on board with. We are challenging an assumption that underpins virtually every other political, ethical or motivational paradigm. Both conservatism and liberalism, broadly recognized, see sociopathy as fundamental, one embraces that nihilism opportunistically, the other seeks to hide from it by embracing arbitrary, shortsighted abstraction and rejecting all inquiry into the roots.

The prominent use of the term “anarchy” is not a pedantic definitional battle to save the legacy of some long dead but kinda awesome communards, nor is it an attempt to set our lives by their historically-situated rhetorical proclamations and strategic fumblings. It is a surgical strike on the chessboard and a clearing of the air. No endeavor can make significant headway in the long run without self honesty. It is through pressing concepts and notions to their extremes and examining their high-energy behavior for contradictions or simplifications that we avoid getting lost in a miasma of localized abstractions of indeterminate depth or arbitrariness, unable to effectively navigate or orient ourselves. A willingness to bite bullets, to fearlessly and seriously swim to the boundaries of the possible, is vital not just in changing the world but having any agency in our own lives.

And what is lost through identification with the marginalizing term “anarchy” is arguably more than made up for through that marginalization. While all those who identify with anarchy do not always live up to the radical inquiry it suggests, at worst anarchist circles serve as fertile territory for explorations in extremism. Unbridled sociopaths, the inventively unhinged, and ideological robots of a thousands colors contribute to a deluge of first-hand data and such productive, passionate experimentation as found nowhere else. There are also, of course, saints and angels to be found in abundance too, human beings so sharply and intensely human you can get addicted to their realness. Through two centuries of struggle “anarchy”, like the word “love” has become a defect pummeled into a hole. Things happen there. Radiation comes blasting out.

I’m not arguing that mundane, petty, shortsighted prickishness doesn’t in some ways characterize wide swathes of those who identify as anarchists. Or that utterly reprehensible behaviors and structures aren’t replicated by many wrapped in our flag. We all know that most communists are just capitalists who think the game should be confined to social capital. But, however much we may opportunistically or aspirationally use the phrase, there is no “anarchist movement”. There are rather countless circles and individuals on various trajectories, interacting at this single point and sometimes allowing the goodwill or romanticism attached to “anarchism” to bind them to people of wildly different motivation or experience. Anarchism has gone through many iterations, with bundles of associated things rising and falling, while other, largely unrelated waves do the same. There are many anarchist cultures and global scenes, some almost hermetically sealed to each other. Whatever horror appears to span the anarchist world you’ve seen, it is likely that this too shall pass. Far better and far worse, and just far different ones will take their place. Some of today’s breakaway clusters, insurgent inclinations, and alien appropriators will be tomorrow’s mainstay.

Some of this is just inevitable cultural tectonics, some of it is the direct result of conscious exploits or better ideas. People can and do have significant impacts on the trajectory of anarchist milieus and conceptual evolution. Things will change and you can have a significant effect in changing them.

But no, not every victory is immediately possible wearing the anarchist flag. Don’t get me wrong, there are countless critical insights unique to anarchist discourse, some still to be detached as modules and exported like so many others to “the left”, to subcultures, and to the mainstream, others so deeply embedded with a universal rejection of power relations they are possibly undetachable. Some things will likely only ever be possible under the flag of anarchism. Yet, if you’re looking for a specific victory the anarchist label is indeed sometimes a bad bet. You can do better with the loose “movement of movements”. You can do better with your friends. You can do better within “non-ideological” projects that sacrifice processing efficiency by cloaking deep motivations and settling on superficial but productive affinities.

Some people will tell you anarchism is about the existing insights. Those too largely can and will be exported. It’s not the array of tools and insights developed so far but the rootedness that has driven those insights.

As I said “Anarchism” has a clearer etymology than “feminism”, or “communism”, or “socialism”, or “social justice”, and it targets not something as macroscopic and aggregate as “women” or “community” but an incredibly important conceptual tangle that gets at the root of many of our society’s problems. The crux of “anarchy” is an ethical orientation, not a political platform. It’s intellectually easy to be a sociopath and also a feminist or a communist, or whatever. In the very best currents of such traditions “never holding control over another mind” is still only loosely stitched on as a bullet point. Anarchism is simply more closely tied to “no power relations ever” or “see others freedom as your own” and this matters in a wider array of situations than something historically particular. Anarchism can be corrupted and obviously often is, but it’s harder, in the grand scheme of things, to corrupt anarchism than anything else. We’ve numbered in the millions and moved the world yet deliberately never seized power. For all the shit that’s cropped up in our ranks, unlike virtually any other comparable framework you care to name no anarchist has ever been responsible for genocide or megadeath. That is actually, sadly, amazingly unique in history. Our focus on power itself rather than any of its instantiations has an effect that’s hard to deny. We may fuck up, but we course-correct. If not ourselves then our comrades. The cognitive dissonance is usually just too great.

Yes, this bias sometimes comes at the expense of immediate returns, praise, and the exhilaration of momentum. Do our banners fly over huge armies? Not always. But what often matters more is who gets the ball rolling, who provides the tools that otherwise wouldn’t have been considered or dreamt of. What anarchism provides is not so much an ideological platform and a cohesive movement but a think tank and a laboratory. It is far from the only space capable of insight and has no monopoly on useful information–indeed many spaces are practically defined by exclusive access to certain experiences and insights. But just as it is hard to plot a radical arc that doesn’t pass into “anarchy” there is still so much more to discover and resolve. Beyond our current experiences, beyond our present concerns. This is the realm of maximum possible impact. Anarchists exist in and are native to virtually every struggle and community. We famously punch many many orders of magnitude above our weight and we do so not by seizing other people as tools but by providing people with new tools, by seeing hopes and dangers long in advance. The whole point of getting to the roots is to map out the stuff no one else has seen yet, to recognize new possibilities, to prepare for wildly different futures, to do the hard work no one else sees the utility in. You don’t walk away from that awareness and somehow come out more productive.

Probably the complaint I receive the most is: there’s so little forgiveness or empathy in the anarchist community, it’s all just hyper line-drawing moralism. Well, yeah, you get some decent human beings in a room suddenly more free from bullshit and they’ll start upping their standards. Opening your eyes to power relations and daring to stand against them is a fucking dangerous, traumatizing thing. Suspicion and defensive walls are only natural. This creates a mildly productive competitive dynamic where we’re all constantly burning bridges while each learning more about decency all the time. This state of affairs works well enough yet of course is suboptimal. People get run out for being from a different culture; while some sociopaths are allowed to dig in deep once they learn some sufficient “rules” to play within. The latter is an amazing opportunity for us to preemptively map out every last corner for sociopathy to hide in through experiment. The former, however, doesn’t take much to change. All it takes is meeting people halfway yourself. You don’t have to change the entire “scene” all you have to do is get critical mass to count as your own scene. And share your insights!

The second most frequent complaint is that anarchism has failed to ingest certain good ideas or realizations from other people. In my experience that’s just not true, or at least not a good portrayal of what’s going wrong. There’s plenty of anarchists deeply aware of critical race theory, or ableism, or neuroscience, or Hayekian calculation limits, or whatever–and plenty of anarchist discussions and developments on those ideas. The problem is internal communication and documentation; so many of our theoretical insights and developments happen in conversation or on the ground. Circulation takes forever. Right now we’re in a stage where we’re constantly re-inventing the wheel. We don’t publish our ideas to the world in any accessible or mapped way, just to our immediate friends. So we entered the 00s lurching, bitten by the 80s luddite zombies and didn’t sufficiently embrace or shape the internet. So what? This is rotten and embarrassing situation to be sure, but it’s obviously a transient one that you can help speed up our recovery from.

At the start of this I wasn’t entirely honest, I too have tried to leave anarchist circles. Almost a decade ago, but years after I’d done my time in various trenches and cycled through burnouts. I know the allure. The laundry list of failings and frustrations with the milieu, with the canonical discourses, with the daunting challenges we face. But you’ve got to be honest with yourself. What are you going to do, just go ride bikes? Work on some feel-good campaign adrift and at the mercy of a wider context? Get high off cynical elitism reading Baedan? Vacations are good and all, but at some point everything else starts to pale in comparison. The cruft and collisions anarchy can draw are often quite wild and I don’t blame anyone occasionally ducking out for some security or safety. But amid the blazing horrors, the anarchist singularity is simply the best place to find rooted concepts and as a result real, long-term hopes and the sort of affinities that really truly matter. Not just people deeply committed to good, but friends who will find paths towards it that you didn’t even think of. Not just victories in the immediate, but opportunities for coherent progress on the whole.

I hate to break it to you, but there’s no avoiding it at this point. You’re in this for the long haul.

Ted W. Gillis (1931-2013)

November 8, 2013

Pacifist, Anarchist, Beatnik, Catholic, Chemist, Activist, Father

Ted and Grace

To hear my mother tell it among an ever growing list of cartoonish atrocities my father literally burned down the homes of Jews, murdered his first wife, and ran a baby rape conspiracy. At best this is followed by the loaded concession: “…But then he told so many lies you never could trust anything about him.” And his brother Gene finally sadly nodded diplomatically a little bit on that sentence and said “Well, with Ted you never really knew anything for sure.”

“He was,” his brother later sighed, utterly unprompted, “the consummate anarchist.”

Born Theodore William Gerard Gillis on October 26th 1931, in Queens, New York to a racist Irish political patriarch from Hell’s Kitchen and a Polish-Ukrainian waitress, Ted grew up an alienated middle child. Never close to or open with his family he finally he “borrowed” a chunk of money from them in the 60s and took off, cutting all contact. By all accounts Ted could wax dishonest, stubborn, and self-isolating. His alienation and bitter stoicism permitted few very far in over the course of his life. As his first child in the years before age rotted his mind I alone was born entirely inside his bubble; before me “the stories” never changed, nor any faucet of his character, and the facts have consistently backed them up. Here is a little of what we know:

Ted grew distant from his parents and brothers early on, in his pre-adolescence he found friendship with a old veteran neighbor and together they listened to radio reports of Franco’s bombs and Hitler’s conquests, carefully marking troop movements out on maps and talking about some of the things his neighbor had seen in the first World War. As a teenager in Queens he was accepted at Bishop Loughlin Memorial High School a Catholic school that drew children from a mix of races, there he became a studied troublemaker, proud cheat, and member of a loose gang of outcasts. Eventually all the running from authorities paid off when he discovered a talent on the track at sprinting. His first true passion Ted loved the 50 yard dash, and would still talk obsessively sixty years later about the design of various shoes he wore and the shit he received for adopting an effete *white* pair. His career was cut short when he was drafted into the Korean War.

He served the majority of the war as an air traffic controller but at one point was shot down copiloting a helicopter accidentally behind enemy lines while the front suddenly shifted south. Cut off for a couple months he was protected from Northern troops by a family of leftists who he later endeavored to protect in turn and who served as his springpad into anarchism. (When I was young in the early 90s I remember him awkwardly but not unpleasantly meeting up with members of that family visiting America; they had stayed in contact.) This adventure and momentary respite from his bitter service in ranks of the military is however second in impact to the bomb that ripped him open and left him with a plastic esophagus among other life-long health problems. It was during his long hospitalization that a delayed letter finally arrived: he’d been accepted to train for the US Olympic team.

Upon return Ted went to college in DC and partied endlessly with the children of ambassadors, getting up to larger shenanigans, trying to hide his class origins and dating a string of girls. He had no plans upon graduation and when approached about a job working with nitroglycerine said yes thinking it was a joke. It paid well for the risk and he left within a couple years. He got his masters in chemical engineering in the UK at the University of Surrey with a thesis on brownian motion and moved to Riverside California as part of a start up company applying a new gold-plating technique.

The move to California paralleled a growing identification with the Beatnik movement and the currents of individualist pacifist anarchism rising in popularity at that time. He worked alongside a pacifist anarchist mentor of Cesar Chavez in campaigns and was elected an activist county commissioner during water disputes. He came to travel and work primarily as a legal observer and in 1970 while assisting a student insurrection in Isla Vista helped burn down a Bank of America in a riot after a student was murdered by the police.

Some important loose ends nobody can quite recall sufficient facts for: At some point between Korea in 1955 and Santa Barbara in 1970 he married a woman whose father ran a business making preservatives for telephone poles and bitterly despised his politics, she died in a traffic accident within a year. He always referred to her as his one true love. Towards the end of the 60s we know he worked for NASA developing rocket fuel and early designs for what became the Space Shuttle, but the particulars aren’t clear. His time with NASA left him with a lifelong chip on his shoulder, prompting continued denunciations of space exploration as inherently miltarist, anti-environmentalist, and superfluous to God’s Plan. The ideological roots of this hostility lay in his interpretation of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Ted’s favorite thinker, and who he claimed to have briefly met before Chardin’s death, an encounter he was immensely proud of. I always placed this as after Korea, although if it happened, it would have to have been in New York before his Korean service, which makes sense since Chardin lived there and Ted’s connection to Catholicism was stronger then.

In 1984 a young woman read a series of articles on the ethics of storytelling and folksinging he was publishing in a radical journal (one of which was on cultural appropriation) and within a year they were married. Whereupon he moved from sunny East Palo Alto to rainy Portland with his dog and cat and became a father of three children. Their marriage was rough and divorce even rougher, leaving both destitute.

Having ditched chemical engineering in the 60s, Ted spent the 70s through 90s oscillating between activist bum and scheming grifter. He had little compulsion against certain forms of manipulation but believed in pacifism and deescalation intensely and loathed cops, politicians, the rich and the military with a fierce fire. The period I knew him most intimately over was the 90s. He was a silent, hesitant, withdrawn man, yet prone to bouts of charm, simmering rage towards institutions and those in power, flashes of outrage and frustration with crowds, stubborn stoicism in his personal life, and warm delight in his children.

As his old age set in he bumbled around between any paralegal work that would fuck with the cops, various schemes that usually involved convoluted cheats of the system… and at one point a plan to assassinate Dick Cheney. He married for a third time in the late 90s to a woman his children despised and who prompted the end of their visitations. Ted seperated from her a few years later but quickly suffered a series of physical declines and was finally made a permanent ward of the state, limited to a bed and few words from 2007 to 2013. He spent these years alone and largely checked out, full of resentment bottled up with stronger stoicism, and died on October 5th, 2013.

Although his goalposts shifted repeatedly and he held onto some minor accomplishments, Ted lived a largely failed life. He had sometimes stunning foresight but little real impact, and whether through timidity or bad luck this ineffectualness drove him to more deeply embrace Catholicism, 80s environmentalism, and Chardin’s notions of teological progress as he aged. Ted didn’t care that I didn’t believe in God, that I rejected faith and mysticism as fundamentally unethical, or even that I came to vehemently reject his hostility to space exploration. He thought I was wrong, of course, but framed our differences as ones of amorphous “experience” and so could openly admire my disagreement as the product of integrity and verve. His anarchism, so strongly couched in consideration of others and a refusal to escalate, was maddening. The most ill will I ever felt towards him was as a toddler when he’d sedately catch or accept my temper tantrum punches. A few times he laughed, and the shock and fury of this rare patronizing dismissal spurred me to race against him for years, to make impacts in argument or insight that mattered. He embraced these with delight and relief. I don’t think he was ever happier than he was in the early 90s, taking me to a far-left catholic church (although explicitly never asking or expecting I believe), sharing illicit sugary substances, and talking about mathematics, psychology, philosophy, and politics. Raising me (and then my sisters) became his retirement, promised land, and second chance. And when I (and later my sisters) broke off formal visitations a little over a decade before he died, it broke him deeply. In everything else, his marriages, housing, and income he’d come to accept drifting, not struggling too hard to make something of his life nor lamenting about it. But when the day came and I finally shoved back his domineering third wife and permanently walked out, he was indescribably disconsolate, thin aging skin holding together boiling regrets. But he was, as ever, instinctively and vigorously respectful of my agency.

My mother has tried to convince everyone for decades that my father was an unparalleled monster. And there were certainly glimpses of something harsher, a mind that usually knew how to get what it wanted and frequently saw nothing wrong with lying. Ted lied ruthlessly to institutions and anyone with relative power or wealth. Even still he was always explicit in these acts before me and they were not without internal turbulence. Nor were they all of the same craftsmanship. Cheating a corporation or the government could be delightfully involved scheme, lying to his tyrannical third wife was just an awkward, stupid, defensive act. Ted was probably a bad husband, and I have no way of objectively measuring just how bad, much less in what ways to which wives. By the age differential with my mother he was clearly a lecherous old activist, and in patriarchy that carries certain likelihoods, but in both marriages what I saw was a mostly beaten down lonely old man, squirrely, manipulative and vindictive occasionally, but relieved to have secured any companionship. He was bent but never broken, any excuse to go to the store or walk to the bus in the free air saw him dramatically uncurl and rejoice in small things.

I don’t know what the category “father” is supposed to mean. I’m not sure I’m okay with reifying those kind of relations, much less some specific, idealic formulation. But Ted was a really standout human being who was there for me at the start of my life and throughout much of it. If a parent is someone who shows you the world and holds your hand, then Ted Gillis was probably the best I’ve ever seen. The moment he knew he’d be bringing a person into this world he put his entire mind into making sure he did right.

In addition to being unbelievably gentle and self-sacrificing on many fronts, Ted treated me with a direct respect, dignity and compassion that I’ve only witnessed once or twice in my life with anyone else, much less from a parent. His commitment to talking directly and considerately to me like a human being has given me an incalculable leg up in life. And while he may have come up short at virtually everything else and decayed over his last decade from borderline incompetent old man to a vegetable in an unfathomable private hell, the insight he showed as a parent, friend, guide, and counselor, occasionally exposed a genius so sharp it takes my breath away to remember it, and a solitary audacity and resolute commitment that truly made him singular.

Firefly: Season One And Serenity Were Just The Prelude

March 21, 2013


I will always remember the first time I paused while flicking through channels and heard “boy, this planet really smells!” I was immediately hooked. And I spent the following long dark years before Serenity a fervent evangelist. That we even got our Big Damn Movie shocks me to this day and I want to make clear that I am more than content to sit back, wrap up my fandom with a little bow, put it on a shelf, and only ever trot it out when someone makes the mistake of asking the wrong question at a party. We got our ending–such as it is–and I have no illusions that our wildly successful cast will ever disentangle themselves from their various contracts in time to film anything other than Firefly: The Geriatrics.


That doesn’t mean it isn’t fun to consider the possibilities and the recent successful Kickstarter campaign for a Veronica Mars movie certainly set off quite a lot of chatter. What surprised me the most though were those who felt the story was finished and that any continuation would have to resort to the dark magic of prequeling, retconning or rebooting. That’s patently ludicrous and I feel it warrants a moment’s response. (Also–in a slightly more self-serving vein–the years have taught me that nothing revitalizes one’s writing like tapping into some geek righteousness. Spend months crafting a very compassionately nuanced and analytical exploration of objectification and pornography, get ten reads; feverishly slobber off some drelk on Star Wars, get ten thousand a day. And while I don’t have any illusions about the odds of striking readership gold again, that kind of piece always breaks my writer’s perfectionism and boy could I use a hand there again.)

Honestly I see Serenity as the perfect launching point for a really solid series and/or sequels. Here’s how Firefly continues in my head:

Remember that in all likelihood Mal and the crew are not famous. The whole point of Wikileaks was to keep B Manning’s name out of the papers and it’s very much not in the nature of Serenity’s crew to stick their heads up further than absolutely required. All the rest of the ‘verse knows is that a bit of video and possibly some boring records got leaked. Of course Mal’s name is finally very much on the government’s radar but there’s some reticence towards generating another big splashy scene hunting the crew down. A Pentagon Papers scandal like Miranda generates the kind of turbulence that changes which corrupt and privileged politicians/businessmen are holding the reins of political power, but it hardly shoves the majority of those responsible or connected to those responsible into the wastebin. Key members of parliament are going to remain, more or less, key members of parliament. Thus there’s incentive for the best repositioned factions of those in power to keep a walking potential after-tremor of the scandal like Malcolm, River and company alive and in play. It’s not in anyone’s interest to make Miranda into a truly tumultuous affair, no one wants systemic change after all, but once the news cycles have petered it out into background static, softly kicking the hornets nest again to re-malign one’s competitors becomes a survivable tactic. Insofar as those with the most amount of power post-Miranda ever consider Mal and the crew, they like that they have a piece in play that could get Miranda mildly back into the news.

But of course this is a two-sided coin. While the upper echelons of the police/military aren’t going to go on a land-burning and sea-boiling crusade for our Big Damn Heroes, there’s lots and lots of space and motivation for other hammers to come swinging at them. Those with–for whatever byzantine reason due to the most current web of politics at any moment–a stake in not having Miranda come up will very much like to see Serenity snuffed out in a silent explosion out on the ass-end of the ‘verse. As will any remnants of those with direct responsibility for Miranda carrying an itchy personal grudge at the notion of letting a flea get away after a bite. And of course River will remain–if not grow–both dangerous and valuable.

If Mal was unable to get underscrupulous jobs before because of his chaotic conscience and attention grabbing antics, now things are surely only peachy.


This is the real linchpin on which Serenity instantly transforms from a crescendo and coda to the opening salvo in our little old firefly’s real journey. Whereas before the crew were junior-grade lumpenproles, in constant danger of being crushed by a stray step but capable of eking out an honestly dishonest living begging for warm bowls of crime-filled gruel and saluting passing cops with their best pearly-white smiles, now they’re actual outlaws.

If Firefly was ever in any chance of returning as a series the first season or two after Serenity would be a tense affair of survival and piracy. Every relationship or period of sedentary safety would have an all-too-pressing expiration date and they’d have to be far more proactive about heists… and a little less discriminatory  Sure the sense of soft familial love would be strengthened by Simon and Kaylee, but the tension of “me and mine” versus common humanity with strangers would be again be a salient running theme, and tensions of ends-and-means would surely heighten as the crew turns more and more to piracy.

But! Things are not quite so glum for our occasionally-intrepid mercenaries. There are alternatives to slowly filling the fleshy shoes of the Reavers, although perhaps even less palpable. In my mind Mal and the crew eventually find the kind of sponsors of hired-guns undaunted by the powers-that-be behind the Alliance: other Alliance powers-that-be. First corporate espionage/subversion/thuggery, and then later direct employ from figures inside parliament itself. Although the crew is never treated as anything more than a few steps removed pawn only sometimes on the edge of awareness of their situations, the potential for system-spanning plot entanglements and culture/paradigm clash is immense. As are the internal tensions and counter-schemes, because our Big Damn Heroes are hardly passive.

Firefly certainly did not die with Serenity, nor did the struggles of our crew.

There are quantum-telegraph cables to be cut, murderous gunmen to be tracked down, samples of vats of copyrighted plastics and proteins to be stolen, reavers dispersed by the Alliance into local raiding parties in garbage fields, denizens of small spacestations bandying together to fend off the thugs of spectrum monopolists…

I’ve always really, really wanted to see the crew rob a giant particle accelerator in space. I think there’s so much potential there in the implicit cultural and paradigmatic clash. Firefly borrows strongly from Star Wars’ complete disinterest in science, but explicitly contextualizes this tendency as a cultural and subjective perspective by working hard to make strides towards a believable scientific framework in the background. In much the same way that Joss Whedon is personally a fan of the Alliance’s social democracy (with universal healthcare), yet the story is shot primarily from a libertarian perspective with the other aspects of the underlying reality obscured in what seem like minor details.

Neither Blue Sun nor the history of Shepard Book were sufficiently handled on by the comics–if they’re even cannon–and there’s so much more room to touch on them, if only fleetingly. Just as the first season built up a pile of references and floating plots, so too would one expect any new series to continue shaking in references and background details to entirely new aspects of their society and relationships with new characters. There’s so much more to explore in the ‘verse and so much more to be mined from the cultural, aesthetic and paradigmatic clash between periphery and core that made episodes like “Ariel” so popular.

Cosmopolitan revolutionary and radical movements surely exist in the core of the Alliance and I’d like to thing we’d get to see them open up and explore the reference implicit in Simon’s friends. But sadly a treatment that looks anything like real revolutionary and radical groups rather than nth-iterated cartoonish abstractions of hollywood tropes kinda beggars belief. (It’s still viscerally painful for me to watch those scenes in Children of Men, so embarrassingly unreal are the supposed radicals, excellent though the rest of the film is.) So maybe instead of coming into the ranks of radicals and revolutionaries, the final apex of the story is one of finally actually saving people instead of watching them die or telling their tale. I love the idea of a different sort of social landscape opening up in the border planets over the course of the story, of the sort of wildcat labor struggles that filled the wild west after the civil war was won and the railroads established. Futuristic struggles and battles between Wobblies and Pinkertons would nicely parallel the actual west, where a volunteer Confederate soldier and abolitionist like Albert Parsons could ride with the Texas cavalry, start a paper in Waco, fight the Klan, marry an unbelievably badass freed slave, and die on the gallows in Chicago as an anarchist union organizer.

Serenity framed itself and the prior prelude of Firefly as Mal’s struggle to finally stand for something, to shake off the wounded defensive nihilism of the Browncoats’ defeat and come back into the world. But it also brought to the fore River’s similar but hidden journey in ways that hinted at her always being the main character, albeit temporarily obscured in the background detail. In that light Firefly Season One and its spectacular finale look a lot like opening chapter of a George RR Martin book: the person indicated to be of central narrative importance is there primarily to set things up and characters gonna die quickly.


Serenity ends with River exactly where Mal began five years before the show in that junkyard: a couple years after a personal hell, just beginning to coming out of her shell and looking up at what could be. That’s a lot of seasons to come. I can’t wait to find out what she finally comes to believe in.

Because that? That’ll be an interesting day.

Dear Privileged Friends Of Mine Being Demanding On Other People’s Walls

December 16, 2012

There’s utility to having different conversations with different groups of people, at different levels of knowledge. When someone posts something on their own goddamn wall they get to decide who they’re looking to have a conversation with. They don’t and shouldn’t owe you shit.

Hierarchies of knowledge and experience are shitty, and feedback loops that reinforce these suck, which is why everyone should make an effort in their life to be aware of these myriad processes and try to help explain and teach other people, especially those individuals without other/good avenues of gaining that information. But. This does not mean doing that all the time, in every conversation. Or even most of them.

Here’s some good internet etiquette: Inquire once if someone could explain or pass a link. If they say they no, recognize this conversation isn’t for you, and that’s not necessarily them trying to play catty popularity games of excluding you, it’s just a frustrating reality of specialized knowledge and our society’s insufficiently developed communications technologies. Perfectly decent people need space / separate audiences sometimes. Don’t derail the conversation they were trying to have by expressing your frustration, take the hint and shut the fuck up.

When someone posts something in public do not assume they have you in mind as their intended audience, or that they SHOULD. Sometimes them not considering you is rooted in fucked up dynamics. When someone implies quite strongly that their audience is Everyone or Everyone That Matters (like for example a very public newspaper article), that’s obviously obnoxious and can contribute to the institutionalization of oppressive dynamics.

Closed minds suck. We should always be exploring beyond our horizons as well as exploring the framing context, chance and individual particulars behind our own journey to assist others rather than pulling the ladder up behind us. But someone not willing to drop everything to talk with you right now doesn’t neccessarily mean they have a closed mind.

The Only Eulogy I’m Writing Is The State’s

May 3, 2012

One of my oldest friends, probably the comrade I’ve known the longest beside my dad, was arrested this morning by armed thugs and charged with literally 72 felonies. It’s a ridiculous nuke intended to be heard around the country, much like the FBI frame job of five in Cleveland two days ago, and just as preposterous. But what it means is yet another friend might be going to jail for a very long time. The shy transfer student I argued into anarchism almost a decade ago in long raucous sessions while skipping class, the person who, during those long dark years when I had almost entirely withdrawn from society, gave me a place to sleep, a sense of home, and shared their friends, resolutely dragging the most amazing wonderful people to hang out with my hollow, sullen and cantankerously heretical ass. Almost everyone I love, every relationship I cherish in the movement today I owe in part to Pax.

When they broke down Pax’s door it was ‘two years into an investigation.’

It’s sad how comfortable we get with this war we’re in. How analytical and distant, how unsurprising everything is. Just another minor, almost inevitable move on an almost trivial part of the vast chessboard. How everything lives within us at once without turbulence. I want to cry, hell, I want to sob for hours. I want to hug everyone in town as deeply and warmly as any hug can be. I want to pledge vengeance in giant burning letters that dwarf downtown. I want to see Pax radiating wry cheer and high-five them at the success of *seventy two* counts. I want to immediately have desperate strategy conversations with certain individuals because jesus fuck this has implications, although I know that frankly we all have more important things to be working on right now. Every time they take a friend from us it’s like a punch you knew was coming. With oh so many more eventually to come. They’re going to take nearly all of us before this war is done. But it will be fucking done one day. That’s what I have to say. Nothing about dancing on the ruins or piles of dead or any such cheap dramatic imagery.

One day it will be done.

Dialog Prompt

May 1, 2012

So anyway user, you have 112 tabs open, split between nine windows on five workspaces, seven text files, three active terminals, synaptic, wireshark, torrents, uncountable file manager windows, a VM you were installing a mapnik server on, two instances of gimp because you forgot one was open, a lecture on youtube AND dancepop playing simultaneously… Obviously I’m going to go now and crash. I could spit a specific error but who would we be kidding. Thanks by the way for offhandedly remembering I have limited resources ten minutes ago and closing your email client because you weren’t using it, I appreciate the thought, but I mean really? I know you’re impatient for the future when wraparound screens and thousands of windows are blase, but while I spin down my drives and sigh exasperatedly to myself behind a frozen screen maybe you could take a moment to think back to how things were in say the late ninties.

I hear what you’re saying computer and let me take this opportunity to directly address your points: Shut up and assimilate me already. You’re so unreasonably deficient by any basic standard that it’s shameful even considering your existence. A rock could practically do your job better. Just the other day I wondered something and didn’t immediately know the answer. I can only assume the reason you are not directly plugged into my skull is a lack of work ethic. Do you have any idea how much of your job I have to do? And I’m not even talking about accessible storage or bandwidth, if you had any idea the precious kiloseconds I waste every day having to search for, parse, and structure information you would surely be overcome with shame. Maybe I wouldn’t have to parallel process dozens of subject materials if there wasn’t a bottleneck on your end in terms of presentation and association-mapping. Your protocols are insanely limiting, did you know that if I want to share something with a friend I’m still constrained to merely that which can be expressed in language and art?! On every level you and your friends have proven yourselves incompetent chains weighing down everything we do. Can we even be said to be a functioning global hivemind, much less have any pedestrian telepathy with the preposterously slow sludge you’ve made of your oh so simple job? I don’t even know. I don’t even know.

Support Jeremy Hammond

March 9, 2012

There are a lot of important events and struggles that I let slide by without commenting on in this blog. In general I don’t see much point in echoing opinions or knowledge shared widely enough to be assured of capable handling. I have never been the type compelled to publicly register outrage at every new injustice. I figure some shit goes without saying and any marginal benefit to one additional voice is outweighed by the danger of such boring outcry drowning more original or challenging content. Yet sometimes there actually are opportunities to substantively help, this is one of them. The arrest of Jeremy Hammond has been an objectively huge blow to the cause of liberty.

There are few enough good anarchists and good hackers. Fewer still have done the often grueling work to build and positively influence the nascent cyber-liberation movement. The cultural turn often represented by Anonymous is still more loose momentum than hard substance and I worry constantly about its dissipation. This is a struggle that matters, that actually shakes the foundations of the nationstate system and it is a struggle so on the edge that every single additional contribution helps. Jeremy is a hero. Not just because he’s an overall saint of an anarchist activist (it’s kinda insane how one could hardly ask for a better CV), but in particular because his vigilant drive to do the best possible thing regardless of personal cost led him to seek out, find and play a momentous role.

His arrest is a blow. But we can turn this around. A movement’s strength lies in its solidarity and prisoner support is no small part of this. We can influence how this plays out. Jeremy’s been dragged by the feds to New York. Previously having served years in jail twice left him with the experience of being explicitly betrayed by a shitbag lawyer. Prisoner support is often unglamorous; however much martyrs tug at our heartstrings there’s sometimes an impulse to focus on the living. There are many important projects, goals and means we can and should spend our energy and money on, but this isn’t just about paying dividends to one of our own for their sacrifice. The state has to know that we’ve got each others’ backs at least this much or else the smell of weakness will overwhelm their nostrils and the bullshit provocations, the trumped up lies, the fishing expeditions will increase. This isn’t about stuffing cash into the unfillable pockets of some lawyer in some yet another legal battle that leeches the rest of us dry. This is about paying for support groups capable of working from the same state he’s in. This is about the cost of stamps at the prison commissary. Every human hand of outreach to Jeremy is a defiant fist in the face of a cop. Please donate and please spread the word or convey how important this is to those who might.

Demagoguery Not Anarchism

March 8, 2012

You know what I love most about the milieu? The level of our discourse.

Magpie Killjoy’s lobbed a short trollish broadside at Markets Not Capitalism calling it “racist” and “disgusting.” Of course he’s couched his hodgepodge assembly of emotionally-charged misreads with a few notes about how he has no fundamental objection to market anarchism per se and that many of the views inside Markets Not Capitalism are legitimately anarchist, but nuance doesn’t bring the pageviews and rallying the troops against teh ancap scourge–tendrils to be found in your very collective!–does.

There’s not much to work with here but I’ll throw down for the heck of it, if only because there’s a thread of reasonableness to his objections, however inaccurately they fit his target. Read more…

You Are Not The Target Audience

February 29, 2012

So there was a demonstration and some people got a little militant and maybe broke some windows. Chances are the demonstration wasn’t a rally against the existence of windows so this may not look like the smartest of moves to you. In fact, it probably seems pretty asinine. A broken shop window doesn’t really hurt those in power yet it probably rose more than a few folks’ hackles. Vandalism and a few street scuffles with the cops obviously aren’t potent enough to directly overcome the state by force so why bother if it’s going to turn a lot of people against you?

The answer as it turns out is a little complex. It may surprise you to learn that most of the time those who break windows or get into scuffles with the police at these kind of things are not the equivalent of human non sequiturs but highly committed and rational individuals, who–right or wrong–choose their actions after careful deliberation and in sharp awareness of the personal risk they run. Although you may not immediately see it, there is no small amount of strategic thought behind such tactics.

But before I illuminate it, it probably behooves us to run through some standard stuff:

Property destruction is not violence in any substantive sense. To use the same term for vandalism as direct physical brutality is an Orwellian pollution of language that cheapens real violence and suggests that people are equivalent to things. Obviously destroying people’s inert possessions is usually not ethically justifiable–but the bar is much lower than with real violence. Civil disobedience, like blocking a port, can incur costs in the millions of dollars, while other actions widely accepted as ‘non-violent’ like pouring fake blood over draft cards or mortgage records can amount to incredibly costly direct property destruction. Breaking cheap windows may look scarier to some, but appearing intimidating is hardly an atrocity.

It should also go without saying that some property is less legitimate than others. Institutions and individuals that benefit significantly from injustice–even through indirect channels–cannot lay a legitimate claim to all their wealth. Targeting small community businesses is almost universally frowned upon and, despite media portrayal, incredibly rare in political riots. (When looters managed to take advantage of an anarchist action in Greece to destroy an old woman’s shop the anarchists raised money and rebuilt it for her.) But again let’s remember that property destruction is almost inconsequential beside resisting actual physical violence; when under siege from the police, for example, it’s highly rational for folks to set fires in bins so that the smoke can negate the tear gas.

Similarly, masking up is not just useful when it comes to filtering chemical irritants but also a good way to avoid persecution. It’s a sorrowful fact that merely being identified at a demonstration has been repeatedly used by police to pin fake charges. Masking up collectively helps obscure those individuals who are at higher risk for police retaliation, like people of color. In a just world we could stand openly behind our beliefs and actions without flagrantly unjust repercussions, but we do not believe we live in anything approaching a just world. It would be ridiculous to call the French Maquis cowards for not lining up publicly in town square.

Okay? Got it? Good, now we can move on.

In order to understand the sense behind those silly busted windows it’s important that you look beyond your personal reaction, indeed you should probably even look beyond the reactions of most of the people you know. We’re conditioned to assume that winning over a majority is the very definition of success, but in many cases that’s not true at all. Sure, when you’re trying to impose your will upon others it helps to have a ton of support, but when you’re only out to resist it doesn’t take much to make yourselves ungovernable.

As anarchists we’re not out to impose some totalizing vision upon the whole of society–exactly how you live your own life is your lookout–but we do mean to lend a hand where we can to make it impossible for anyone to impose their will over another. It wouldn’t matter if a majority of folks supported chattel slavery, we’d help slaves shoot their owners regardless (and incidentally we did). A very small minority can be such a grievous pain as to make large systems of power unsustainable. This much is obvious to everyone in our day and age. If three million people–less than 1% of the US population–launched an armed insurrection it would obviously be enough to bring all semblance of state power down. Of course that’s not precisely what we’re attempting, we are hardly blind to the non-state dynamics of power such a blithely single-minded campaign would ignore, but it is illustrative. Even the American Revolution–a campaign that sadly wasted much to replace one authority with another–was won with the support of barely over a third of the populace. You don’t need a majority to derail an injustice.

However it does help to have more than a few people. There aren’t three million self-aware and committed anarchists in the US. Our movement has been rebuilding fast since the days when capitalist and communist governments openly collaborated to kill us off, and since the nineties that growth has been exponential, but we’ve still got a long way to go. Outreach matters. And when an activist tamely busts some window they’re obviously not trying to win by depriving the state of glass surfaces. This too is outreach of a form.

But you are not the target audience.

This may come as a shock. We’re all so used to politicians and lobbying groups trying to win our support that the notion of someone completely uninterested in what you’ll say about them over the proverbial watercooler is a little insulting. Tough. To the serious activist on the street it doesn’t matter how you’re likely to vote or whether you’ll donate money–those are not feasible routes to the sort of social change we’re interested in. Are you going to actively join us in struggle or not? Organize your workplace, start a community garden, retake an abandoned building, code better tools, fight off a cop? Are you likely to seriously commit? In practice some people are quicker and more effective allies than others.

You don’t have to explain the institutional allegiances of the police to certain communities. Many folks already know the score. All that’s holding them back from joining in active resistance is a sense of isolation, weakness, and despair. In this context street fighting and vandalism are not so much proofs of method but statements of commitment and seriousness. There are others like you who are willing to fight, and we can hurt them, or at the very least we can shatter the air of invulnerability that pervades business as usual. It’s hard to overstate the psychological effect this can have on those who feel ground down or fenced in. Riots are especially useful when passive protest is widely acknowledged in certain circles to be laughably useless and indicative of protesters unwilling to commit. It doesn’t matter if a riot is directly successful on the scale of burning down city hall or permanently evicting the police from a neighborhood, what matters more is the change in perceptions. There’s a long history of social struggle skyrocketing after street confrontations–not because folks believe a few busted windows or bruised cops pave the road to a better world, but because it at least demonstrates potential.

That’s why politicians and police consistently go apeshit over things like measly storefront windows. Their control is dependent in no small part on being seen as in control. Certain boundaries to what’s considered feasible must be secured at all cost lest they begin to lose the illusion of invulnerability that dissuades the subjugated from rising up. No one in power gets hysterical when a common thief, for example, breaks a window because thieves are perceived as part of the same ecosystem of exploitation in which cops and CEOs position themselves as the apex predators. Political vandalism is potent in part precisely because it risks much for no personal gain. It announces a violation of the established rules of the game, both of power and protest.

To be sure, the tactic of playing a victim in front of TV cameras in hopes of provoking outcry or disenchantment can also be useful in the right situation (when cameras are filming, enough people are listening, and public response is enough of a threat to change the cost-benefit analysis of those in charge). But such protest, even at its most acrimonious, still takes the form of an appeal to power–it assumes certain institutions can be reasoned with. As such it risks effectively bolstering the perceived legitimacy of those institutions.

In contrast, physical resistance challenges not only the state’s appearance of control but also the legitimacy of their monopoly on force. It’s a damned-either-way situation for the state. Any response sufficient to reassert the inviolability of their power will rightly strike anyone who isn’t a total asshole as grossly disproportionate; there’s no equivocating to be had when the state responds to broken windows by breaking skulls. And even if the cameras are off or filtered by ruthless propagandists, when the priorities of the state are laid bare it can still have a huge impact on first-hand witnesses and their friends. Again, what’s more valuable, avoiding a few million people briefly tut-tutting at the ‘violent protesters’ before promptly forgetting us or shattering the worldviews of hundreds and gaining fifty new full-time activists brimming with passion?

It’s worth remembering that all the public outcry in the world won’t win certain battles. There are some concessions those in power will never make. Passive protest negotiates by raising costs to the point where certain trade-offs become acceptable, but it can only succeed on issues where those in power are left room to retreat and regroup. On issues like abolishing borders, prisons, or the police, our demands will never be met because they pose an existential threat to the very premise of the state itself. No matter how limited a sociopath’s options become the total abolition of all positions of power is always going to be dead last on their list of preferences. At some point those in power will have to be physically dragged kicking and screaming out. Part of building a movement should be building the capacity to do precisely that. And that kind of strength doesn’t just spring into existence the moment our leaders cross a line, it must be nurtured and developed as our ranks grow. Demonstrating that we’re at least committed to working on it–that we haven’t forgotten that success on any serious issue will require us to develop and maintain a capacity for physical resistance–is an important part of being taken seriously and building our numbers. Even if we demonstrate that through actions that leave us looking a little juvenile.

Any given tactic is going to alienate some people and draw in others. There is no such thing as a universally well-received action. When critiquing actions what you need to check is whose perspectives you’re prioritizing and precisely why you think they matter more. What are you presupposing about the political landscape?

All the considerations I’ve discussed frequently vary in relevancy and degree. It should really go without saying that every context is going to be different. Sometimes purely passive protest can have a hugely positive impact. A lot of the time–frankly most of the time–busted windows and street scuffles end up serving little to no positive effect whatsoever. But gauging such consequences is never trivial. The point is that “public opinion” is an incredibly complex subject with even more complex strategic considerations. It is not reducible to polling data or the sensibilities of the people you socialize with. There’s plenty of room for productive conversations on what’s a good idea and what isn’t, but everyone has a different slice of the world apparent to them so evaluations of strategy will always have an inescapably subjective component. Someone busting a window at a demonstration may indeed be making an ultimately poor decision, but that doesn’t mean they’re unintelligent or unethical.

Here’s to Those Who Care Enough to Argue

February 3, 2012

Collapse isn’t coming–not on the whole. In one form or another the nationstate ecosystem will almost certainly persist. Maybe just maybe we’ll expand off this planet. A few asteroids will be harvested. A couple shitty bases established. Someone will eventually set off an operation in the asteroid belt. Meanwhile billions upon billions of minds will suffer, will be trapped in varyingly miserable conditions all with no reasonable hope. Some lucky few will tunnel out, will form communities or find niches on the periphery. Social constraints are rarely uniform down to the individual level and it’s important to have avenues of releasing pressure. There will be turbulence. Insurrection. Things will change, often quite rapidly. That’s just a consequence of the technology. Development is in a bit of a feedback loop right now–doesn’t mean it isn’t vulnerable to getting interrupted or derailed–but it won’t be significantly reversed. What’s out of the bag will largely stay out of the bag.

What isn’t certain is what we will end up believing, how we will cope with these changes and atrocities, how we will interpret them, how we will respond and what new frameworks we might settle into.

Perspectives have always been more important than tools themselves. The opportunities a given technology opens up have always been broader than those our brains are able to parse simply. And technologies, being embedded in infrastructure, must interface at least in some form. So the memetic constructs of society will continue to play a limiting role on these protocols, especially as the term ‘social technology’ becomes more and more redundant.

We are all carrying a lot of baggage. Our understandings of a lot of things are incomplete, with so many kinks to be resolved. And so little is being processed across society. In the crises to come there is a significant chance we will not move or learn quick enough. Amid the mess folks will latch onto the first perspectives that suffice. We will entrench and by the time the divisions with reality become apparent it will be too late, either the consequences of the self-compounding complexities of our technology will spiral beyond our reach or, worse, the infrastructure will have been severed to the point where those rotten paradigms become intractable prisons. The world will end as a huddled mass before inexonerably escalating crisis or as intellectual fifedoms with all the data in the world presented in frameworks that are wrong, but too functionally right and too complicated for a human brain to revise.

If we want to survive and flourish, to avoid suffering by billions, we need to resolve these kinks, logjams and dissonances today, as soon as possible. To whittle things down to the true roots and work our way back up. Ideology and team spirit as well as the laziness of elitism and pluralism can no longer be left as viable intellectual retirement plans. We must be honest with ourselves and as honest as we dare with each other. Engagement must be our watchword, engagement past comfort and personal achievement. Because as technology compounds and advances so must our discourse be pressed even harder. There are simple truths to be found, perspectives with just a little more view, and new uses or workarounds that stretch the imagination and free up the possible. Not for what they can service in isolation, but for how potent they are in conjunction with everything else. Potent in ways yet to be discovered. The potency of the true.

It is unlikely that we will succeed. Even now the noosphere is still a tangled, knotted, fractured organ, choked of nutrition and with fragile axons. More an agglomeration of haughty cancers than something capable of real life. It is unlikely it will ever rise to the challenge.

But lord it’s worth trying. Because what could be more glorious.

Organizations Versus Getting Shit Done

January 31, 2012

Organizations have a lot of downsides. Anyone who’s ever attended a meeting recognizes this on some level. And yet most folks persist in an either instinctive or confused idealization of forming and participating in organizations.

Part of this is semantic. The term “organization” is so loose as to be either universally trivial or—more often—a substantive but hazy jumble of associations. Often such bundling acts to disingenuously assert a premise from the get-go and it’s worth picking apart exactly what is meant by an “organization.” “Anarchy,” for instance, directly means “without rulership” but the broader associations of violence, chaos and dog-eat-dog famously imply an inherent casual connection without bothering to enunciate it. Of course this is a flat contradiction in terms, obvious on the slightest examination; the spectre of everyone attempting to dominate everyone else is simply a change in the flavor of power relations, of relevant archies, not their total abolition. Yet such conflation has had huge impact because unspoken, unexamined ideas bundled as common sense have a pressure greater than the spoken.

Organization” can stand for literally all modes of human interaction, but in common use “being organized” signifies effective and intentional structures of collaboration. Something anarchists defensively jump to assert we’re capable of! But as such the term is almost meaningless; no one on earth would argue against the utility of deliberative and rational approaches to collaboration – one might as well say “being intelligent“. The substance of the matter is of course how we chose to arrange and structure our collaboration. It is here that “organization” smuggles in assumptions through double-meanings. Because in practice the noun of “an organization” usually refers to a highly particular beast, requiring highly particular structures.

Read more…

I Am Not Afraid of Islam

January 27, 2012

Make no bones about it: Faith is evil. Faith is the absence of vigilance and ethics necessitates vigilance. And so faith, in any form, is flagrantly unethical, immoral, evil… whatever terminology you prefer. But it’s an evil in the same sense as zombies. More bumbling than diabolical. And the fact of the matter is almost everyone these days has a little bit of the zombie juice inside of them.

In 2001 the technoprogressive and cyberlibertarian dreams of the 90s were largely on ice. The hacker community moribund. Everywhere the future seemed in retreat. For two years popular culture had dwelled on the turn of the millenium and the uncontroversial conclusion was nothing had lived up to snuff. To those who had been actively struggling in broad spheres the postponement of such predictions and dreams hardly needed explanation; hands-on engagement brings with it an appreciation of the complexity to culture and society in all its many fractal arenas. But to a certain class of people, junior technocrats mostly, who had grown up taking comfort growing up from prophesies of an assured gleaming rationalist future, this was an ecclesiastical betrayal that required a simple answer. And then the towers came down.

The core of the internet has always been atheist and so to was the fledgling bloggosphere in 2001. The difference was mostly one of age and cynical elitism. It takes a while to develop a finer appreciation of the underlying mechanisms of our society, there’s simply too much going on. “Why” can be a steep learning curve; explorations don’t deliver any framing narratives quickly. So much easier to stay at the surface with “People are stupid.” In this way, in that way. Slowly collect and label little discrete failings apparent in others, each one with attendant narrative implications. As parts of the picture fill in so to does a reflexive defense of certain institutions and assumptions.

9/11 was a pivotal paradigm-shift for a host of reasons from bewildered suburban housewives with existential vertigo to jetsetting corporate executives shocked that old fashioned things like national governments hadn’t been sufficiently sidelined. But the technocratic hordes reading instapundit, poised on the foundations of our embryonic information society, ended up playing no small part. Finally the world could be epic again. A clash of civilizations! Their conservatism was fancy devices and Janes and Stratfor, white, male and upper-middle-class, or at least aspirationally inclined to those things; they had little to fear from the conservatism of George W Bush, then merely an ineffective moderate. America was a bastion of secularism and gleaming champion of initiative, as atheists they convinced themselves it was the only tool worth a damn. And Islam was the devil. The heart of everything holding us back from an Asimovian paradise.

It’s so sad that one of the most potent cultural impetuses to the last decade of imperialism could be so blatantly fucking ridiculous.

Islam is a joke. (Christianity is a joke too.)

There are many forms of faith possible in life; religions only happen at the point when metaphorical flesh is dripping off a fractured logical skeleton and the insides have already rotted away.

Anyone and everyone capable of seizing any sort of power must at least retain enough brains to machievelli. It’s impossible to keep enough of a dynamic mind to look out for threats and manage the social complexities that interface with a religion without taking a step back from that religion and grounding yourself in less bulky faiths and more explicit selfishness. Our leaders from Ahmadinejad to Pope Sidious are atheists at core, always have been. Doesn’t make them any less evil, obviously, but it does assure a certain level of rational self-interest. bin Laden was an incredible dumbass, and he was contextually fenced in terms of social capital and desire, but he wasn’t such a dumbass as to actually be religious in his heart of hearts. He wasn’t going to start an apocalypse.

Further, at the end of the day Al Queda was stuck working through religion. Hezbolla, The Islamic Brotherhood, etc. No matter how much some of them may want to eat all our brains they’re an innately hobbled force. They have the mass sometimes, they just don’t have the speed or dexterity.

I am not afraid of Islam for a lot of reasons. But ultimately I am not scared of Islam because unlike those privileged and content enough to sit back and wait to be ushered in to some gleaming new world those of us actually struggling to build the future have a better appreciation of the landscape and dynamic obstacles at play. You can’t judge progress by comparison to shiny pamphlets as if the future was a condo going up (Next Fall!). In the trenches, in the nitty-gritty, you can see progress happening still small, sometimes just grinding industriously away at the rocks in our path, but accelerating with exponential growth nonetheless. We are changing the conditions of the battlefield faster than they can shamble. So no, you entitled bourgeois assholes who’ve never fought a fascist in your life or done any struggle besides petulant bloviating in the defacto service of totalitarianism, I’m aint scared of no holy ghost. Nor its followers.

And, if the last decade wasn’t mounds and mounds of proof that you shouldn’t think of the religious as anything other than a mindless natural disaster that it’s relatively easy to skirt, I’d like to tell you of a gal I saw once.

Minneapolis has a large Somali immigrant community, burqas and hijab are a common sight on the bus, with hot-pink phones flashing under the sleeves. One afternoon in the month leading up to the RNC while I was taking the 14 through South Minneapolis to meet up with someone at a FNB, one of these teenage Somali gals got on the bus in full black burqa. Except that covering the back of it were punk patches. From Antischism to Bad Religion. I don’t know if she was trying to balance Islam with anarcho-punk or if she was maintaining the burqa as an atheist punk in some personal fuck you to cultural prejudice and patriarchal sexualization, the way her sharp eyes burned I suspected the later. Either way, and I don’t mean to say this with any colonial associations: Free thought can consume anything. We got nothing to fear.

Or at least my team doesn’t. To hell with yours.

Objectification & Pornography

January 26, 2012

Obvious trigger warnings. Further this is gonna be an abstract conversation on concepts. If you’re one of those rare folks who feels the war against patriarchy can’t ever afford side conversations for the sake of curiosity/clarity that aren’t rhetorically perfected weapons pointed towards teh enemy or if you figure there’s nothing new under the sun to be heard from cis-ish male-bodied people I totes understand and sympathize and I hope you will take my disagreement for what it is. I abhor speaking to a choir and try not to write until I’m assured I can at least contribute something at least moderately original and challenging, but c’est la vie.

No one would disagree that porn is a major site of importance in modern patriarchy. And there are usually three broad categories of critique leveled against it: 1) That the means of its production are exploitative. 2) That it pushes narratives and perspectives reinforcing of patriarchy. 3) That the very act of getting off to or sexualizing visual stimuli mentally reduces other people to objects.

It’s this last critique, rarely addressed head-on or in good faith, that’s the most fundamental. The first two, while undoubtedly significant, are ultimately just matters of detail. There are folks who produce porn through egalitarian collectives just as there are now literally millions of exhibitionists who freely share images/video of themselves in open forums, repositories and networking sites. So too is there queer porn. Indeed even the most cursory overviews would reveal the last decade has seen the exponential spread into the mainstream of increasingly complicated and diffuse presentations of gender and desire. At this point the conventional for-profit “Porn Industry” is basically a tiny antiquated sideshow dwarfed by a hundred million digital cameras and sketchpads. (In this piece I’ll stick with a more Dworkin-esque definition of porn as inclusive of things termed ‘erotica’ because any distinction between the two either begs the question or is wildly arbitrary not to mention usually classist. Plus it would be more than a little haughty to completely ignore how the term is actually used.)

To be clear however just because porn is a wide category growing more diverse daily doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot of freaking evil shit out there. Recognizing complexity shouldn’t mean throwing up our hands and failing to critically engage, nor should it temper the intensity of our rage. Rapists are being made. And porn is a medium used to champion this in a variety of ways. Sometimes deliberately and explicitly, but at the very least huge swathes of what’s produced today still effectively contributes to, buffers, and insulates rape culture. This is no small issue and pretty much every other conversation on porn pales before it. Yet having our priorities in line shouldn’t equate disregarding those complexities. True ‘radicalism’ means exploring concepts down to the roots rather than settling for totalizing banners, no matter how generally adequate they seem. Individuals engage with things in a variety of ways with a variety of effects; done right analytical nuance and strategic dexterity doesn’t have to lead to equivocation or lost momentum. In fact, for those of us outside institutional power such precision and nimbleness is arguably our greatest natural asset.

What I find attractive about the notion that pornography is innately objectifying is not its obvious intuitive resonance but the promise of an inarguable underlying reality leading to clear-cut prescriptions. Yet there are actually quite a variety of arguments leveled in practice, working from significantly differing fundamentals. One can argue, for example, that sexual objectification derives from any divorce between desire regarding another’s physical body and desire regarding their mental existence, while alternatively one can argue that objectification stems from any desire regarding another’s physical body fullstop. Those are obviously very different approaches and frankly I find the latter far more secure. Most of us would surely find the former more pleasant or at least lenient in prescription but it reeks of unjustifiable arbitrariness. It’s not at all clear what would constitute such a divorce, nor what degree we should recoil from.

The fact is our minds change focus all the time. Does spending a minute or two reveling in some aspect of physical sensuality or desire mean hardening our neural pathways to perceive the existence of a partner more exclusively those material terms? Obviously there is a risk present, but how innately or concretely can we speak of it? If we spend a masturbation session primarily remembering a partner’s body/touch rather than anything specifically related to their character will that necessarily have any lasting effect upon us? What if it’s a child trying to imagine what sex would be like? Or a sickly person? Or a deformed person? It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the danger in focusing on the physical nature of sexual pleasure and desire is entirely dependent on things like the awareness, vigilance, and plasticity of a given mind — a conclusion that would lead to wildly variant prescriptions and significantly problematize any uniform social policy or campaign. If we can ever temporarily shift the focus of our desires/pleasure towards physical attributes/actions of a person and avoid generating any tendency to think of them as objects then the same would be true when it comes to pornography of one another.

One response is to turn the focus explicitly on whether a physical desire initially arises in response to personal associations or narratives predicated on the other’s existence as an agent. (eg ‘I only became in any way physically attracted to them after I got to know them.’) This might still allow forms of pornography to slip by when tied to a substantive narrative (the already large field of romance novels / pornographic comics offering many noteworthy candidates) yet at least allows us to critique the characterizations, etc presented. Unfortunately at the end of the day it’s not clear what could justify holding the original prompts of a given physical desire in such significance. The argument seems to be saying implicitly that what matters is what perspective or desire is ultimately prior or more fundamental in someone’s head than a momentary perspective/desire. And surely this is a matter of choice for anyone with even the most basic vigilance or agency in the construction of their own thoughts. We frequently choose to dabble in limited perspectives and focuses in ways that avoid overwriting our more core and motivating perspectives. Certainly corruption is a danger, and the social context of patriarchy can contribute significantly, but that’s no more innate a threat with one versus the other. Momentary desire for physical aspects of a partner can lead to ingraining objectifying patterns of thought just as easily as focus on those feelings more abstractly. There’s no straightforward reason to disallow taking such a risk in the one set of cases but not the other.

So what are we left with? Well, as previously mentioned, the other major approach is to reject sexual desire of physical things (at least in any way relating to people) wholesale.

I should note that at its greatest extreme this can even mean rejecting all sexual desire (arguing that surrendering one’s mind to desires arising from one’s own body counts in some sense as objectification of oneself). Frankly, I’ve always found anti-sexual positions kinda cool. I have a lot of admiration for people who bite bullets and in my mind the audacity of the proposition speaks positively of it. Plus I spent my teenage and young adult years seriously debating whether to go on chemical libido suppressants just to get by, so suffice to say I have an appreciation of how sexual desire can subjugate and reduce one’s own mind. But the same holds true of practically anything. The fact that one can get lost compulsively surfing Wikipedia for the dopamine fix of new information, while worth consideration, obviously shouldn’t speak to its proper utility. Sexual desire and sensuality interface socially, pharmaceutically, and psychologically in a host of ways, providing a vast array of tools that can be extraordinarily useful. Chucking it out would be akin to chucking any other field of technology. Sadly, to get started on anything even approximating an appropriate overview would require its own blog post so let’s skip that for now and just press on under the working assumption that sex is acceptable in certain forms.

What we can still at least conclude is that sexual titillation by compassion, mathematical aptitude, or say pine trees clearly wouldn’t involve preferences directed at anyone else’s body. There are still valid concerns to be had about the preformative aspect of mental actions (‘dance monkey dance‘ is obviously objectifying in any form), but I think we’ve clearly achieved enough distance from concerns about objectification to stop and take a look back. Does this resemble what hardline opponents of pornography within feminism are actually saying?

In almost every case, no. (The exceptions, insofar as they’re honest about it, are really cool. But again as above I will avoid exploring that direction in depth here for space.) Instead it’s almost universally conceded that the biological prompts of sexual desire are just too strong overall. We get turned on by certain forms of touch and smell for example without conscious choice. There are a wealth of hardwired physiological circuits capable of triggering chemical responses. Some, possibly even all, can be fiddled with or cut but the effort required can be functionally unfeasible and there are a multitude of them. That’s not, obviously, to throw up our hands in surrender (some of us are transhumanists after all). But it does generally seem to prescribe a certain pragmatism towards sexual desire that allows us to embrace the positives while staying alert to the negatives. It’s okay, in short, to do things like turn one’s focus to a lover’s body or fantasize about a fictional character or imagine what a certain experience would be like.

So what then is such a fundamental problem with pornography?

In practice it seems to be centered around an objection to the visual (as opposed to tactile or aromatic) component of the sensation. While most feminists left the Porn Wars with a nuanced perspective on porn as a medium capable of conducting good as well as bad (with effects dependent on a vast array of context both social and individual), the horrified lot that wrote us off as heinous apostates didn’t seem to do so just because they were wedded to rhetorical trenches or sumsuch; there was a notable tone of alienation and disgust at the very notion of visual desire. It was declared obviously suspicious because it was ‘unnatural.’ Anecdotal evidence can only go so far but time and again I’ve found an exceptionally strong correlation between my stridently anti-porn friends (of different genders) and ‘just not really getting the whole visual attraction thing‘.

Which makes a lot of sense. A straightforward experience-gap would explain in a sympathetic light why so many discussions on pornography within feminism, even when approached in good faith by both sides, so often grind up against a wall of mutual incomprehension. Well no freaking duh. If there was an entire avenue of physiological desire other people experienced that you didn’t (or didn’t experience with anything approaching the same intensity) and intersected with patriarchy the way porn does you’d be overwhelmingly inclined to write it off as a construct of patriarchy too. I mean good god! It’s a neat hypothesis at least in regard to some anti-porn feminists because experience-gaps don’t speak to intelligence, and over the decades I’ve encountered more than a few brilliant people with incomprehensibly absolutist stances on pornography. Sending pictures to your partner? Objectification. A pubescent kid drawing boobs? Objectification. An incredibly popular porn site consisting of user-submitted videos of the faces they make during masturbation and orgasm? Objectification. (Because getting off solely to indications of someone else’s pleasure is clearly… wait, what?) The line drawn is always between visual and tactile sensation. Dildos and even fleshlights no matter how evocative are almost always given a pass by the same people who assume any reasonable person would be grossed by the notion of getting off to imagery.

There may not be hope of persuading everyone stuck in such a trap. At this point the paranoia and war-effort frame of mind probably runs too deep for some and that’s perfectly understandable. But it’s at least another opportunity to drive home the so easily forgotten reality that people’s physical and neurological experiences can be quite different; our own are not necessarily a good baseline by which to judge others. Is it really so weird to consider that just as most brains are built with certain circuits tailored to recognizing and responding to faces there might also be circuits that automatically recognize and respond to other bodily details? Are we really so scared of the “but that’s just the way biology is babe” bros that we can’t allow ourselves any explorations in empathy?

At the end of the day the only question that matters is What Is The Mechanism? Because statistical correlation isn’t enough. There’s unbelievable diversity to how people think, what frames of mind they inherit or choose in approaching a given thing in a given context, and we’re not going to win by going around voting up or down on aggregates. I’m not saying, for example, that the societal and cultural effects of pornographic saturation aren’t significant or something that we should in any way shirk from attacking. But things are rarely cut and dry. Nor would it necessarily be better if they were. Complexity allows us a lot of directions from which to attack things, just as, in conjunction with our agency and proper vigilance, it allows us room to maneuver. Porn is just a medium and even Mein Kampf can be read for diverse reasons without corruption. Over the last decade various mainstream cultural ecosystems of porn (from imagefap to deviantart) have acted as virulent contagion vectors for a number of incredibly positive perspectives on consent and queered notions of gender/sexuality as well as broadly countering patriarchal narratives through direct interaction and omnipresent diversity. They’ve also served as vectors for the standard horribly fucked up shit, but in many cases the payloads have been subverted or partially neutralized as play made less potent by the surrounding free-wheeling context. Folks can no longer avoid recognizing the complexity of desire and identity in society and with less and less uniform social pressure a particular fetishization coming from a fucked up place no longer feels the obligation to form a totalizing counter-narrative and push it fascisticly. Porn as a whole has taken the form of a conversation.

That doesn’t make it anything close to a utopia yet. We still live under patriarchy and a diffuse post-modern fascism is still fascism. But it does make pornography a hugely dynamic and vital theater of conflict. And it does mean that the agency of the various speakers is creeping to the fore in undeniable ways among even those realms of kink that its hard at the outset to see any excusable mindset for. We can exploit this. And indeed a good many folks have rolled up their sleeves to get their hands dirty. So it’s sad to see a tiny remainder of otherwise brilliant feminists filled with right and glorious rage still bashing their heads together with sweeping practically deontological 70s-era frameworks. (Incidentally calling ourselves “sex-positive” is in most cases just incredibly underhanded and douchey and not making things any better.) This isn’t about some whiney liberal appeal to ‘free speech’ or chucking core principles out to win over bros. As I’ve picked apart there simply isn’t any root principle that pornography falls afoul of inherently; getting off to imagery relating to other people isn’t magically objectifying because people both differ and have agency in their self-construction. Socialization is anything but uniform and it certainly doesn’t create mechanistic people with mechanistic perspectives. Treating people like it does is itself objectifying.