bibliogramma: (Default)

Wonderfully left-wing publishing house PM Press has been putting out a series called Outspoken Authors which consists of collections of writings by visionary left-leaning writers, most of them writers of sff. I've read and talked a number of these before, including volumes that contained selected works (and an original interview) with people like Ursula Le Guin, Nalo Hopkinson, Kim Stanley Robinson, Terry Bisson and Eleanor Arnason.

My latest read from this series is a collection of essays, poems and other works from Marge Piercy called My Life, My Body. Woven through all the selections is a strong, politically and socially radical consciousness, conjoined with a commitment to feminist analysis, addressing topics ranging from the effects of gentrification on marginalised communities to the enforcement of a white male canon in literature.

Her focus ranges from social justice to literary criticism. Several of the selections here deal, in part or in whole, with the growing problem of homelessness, particularly among women. Others argue passionately against the trend in criticism that demands the separation of politics and art, and devalues literature written from a political consciousness (which, she notes, is often work created by women and marginalised peoples.

In addition to the essays and poems, the volume includes an interesting interview with Piercy conducted by fellow leftist and science fiction writer Terry Bisson.

If you're a fan of Piercy's work, you'll appreciate the pieces collected here immensely. And after that, I heartily recommend that you have a look at other volumes from the Outspoken Writers series.

bibliogramma: (Default)

Fatima Mernissi's The Forgotten Queens of Islam is framed as a direct response to the outcry against the election of Benazir Bhutto as Prime Minister of Pakistan in 1988. In telling the story of the women who have previously held political power of the Islamic world, Mernissi is countering both the resistance to women being active in public life, and the tendency of male historians to overlook the contributions of women.

When Benazir Bhutto became Prime Minister of Pakistan after winning the elections of 16 November 1988, all who monopolized the right to speak in the name of Islam, and especially Nawaz Sharif, the leader of the then Opposition, the IDA (Islamic Democratic Alliance), raised the cry of blasphemy: 'Never - horrors! - has a Muslim state been governed by a woman!' Invoking Islamic tradition, they decried this event as 'against nature'. Political decision-making among our ancestors, they said, was always a men's affair. Throughout 15 centuries of Islam, from year 1 of the Hejira (AD 622) to today, the conduct of public affairs in Muslim countries has been a uniquely male privilege and monopoly. No woman ever acceded to a throne in Islam; no woman ever directed the affairs of state, we are told by those who claim to speak for Islam and who make its defence their battle cry against other Muslims. And, so they say, since no woman had ever governed a Muslim state between 622 and 1988, Benazir Bhutto could not aspire to do so either.


Because the concept of separation of church and state, of religious and secular authority, is not a uniformly accepted thing in the Islamic world, Mernissi takes care to differentiate between caliph and mulk, between the leader whose authority is divine, who can claim descent from the Prophet, and the leader whose authority is only of the world.

The caliphate is the opposite of mulk in that it represents an authority that obeys divine law, the shari'a, which is imposed on the leader himself and makes his own passions illegitimate. And therein, Ibn Khaldun explains to us, lies the greatness of Islam as a political system. The caliph is tied by divine law, his desires and passions checked, while the king recognizes no superior law. As a result, the caliphate has another advantage that mulk lacks. Mulk deals solely with the management of earthly interests, while the caliphate, given its spiritual nature, is also in charge of the Beyond.


Mernissi goes on to explain that in the Islamic workd, a woman can not be a caliph, but that she can - if she is able to negotiate her society's networks of secular power - become a mulk.

Not just anyone can claim to be a caliph; access to this privilege is subject to strict criteria. By contrast, titles like sultan, the linguistic origin of which is salata (dominate), and malik (king), which has the same connotation of raw power not tempered by religion, are available to anybody. And that is why women can carry them; they do not imply or signify any divine mission. But women could never lay claim to the title of caliph. The secret of the exclusion of women lies in the criteria of eligibility to be a caliph.


But even though there have been no female Caliphs, Mernissi finds examples of many women who have held other titles which speak to their exercise of secular power - sultanas, malikas, al-hurras, sitts, sharifas, amiras, khatuns. But in examining the rise to power, and subsequent fall of many of these women, Mernissi frames the history of female political power in Islam as a struggle between women seeking power and the line of male caliphs, whose claim to spiritual power places them, at least in theory, above any secular leader, male or female.

... this one constant endured throughout the empire and its states: as soon as a woman came close to the throne, a group whose interests she threatened appeared on the scene and challenged her in the name of the spiritual, the name of the shari'a.


In writing this history of female leadership in the Muslim world, Mernissi is not just telling histories of the queens and their deeds. Rather, she is using the history of these women to explore what female power means in the Islamic context, examining how it occurs, what forms it takes and limitations it encounters, how it is understood in the Muslim political tradition of male-led theocratic institutions. In her examination of the meanings of women's political power in the Muslim world, Mernissi's text discusses the instances of secular rule - whether failed or successful - of women across a range of states and eras, begining with the first woman to assume secular authority in a Muslim community - A'isha, the widow of Mohammed.

A'isha was the first woman to transgress the hudud (limits), to violate the boundary between the territory of women and that of men, to incite to kill, even though the act of war is the privilege of men and belongs to territory outside the harem. A woman does not have the right to kill. Deciding on war is the function and raison d'etre of men. 'A'isha, as the first woman who took a political decision by leading armed men, remains forever linked in Muslim memory with fitna (disorder and destruction).


Just as she draws a distinction between the highest position of power, the caliphate, which being both religious and political in nature can not be held by a woman, and the mulk, which is a secular leadership that some women can achieve, Mernissi also differentiates between sovereign secular power and other forms of leadership. In the Muslim state, the primary signifier of true sovereignty is the proclamation of the head of state in the khutba, the Friday sermon.

The Friday khutba is both the mirror and the reflection of what is going on in the political scene. In the case of war, one learns what is happening at the front by listening: the name of the sovereign that is mentioned is the one who currently controls the territory by military means. And the name changes with events in periods of political trouble.


Mernissi notes that very few women have held this level of sovereignty - rather, most who have, by
Western appraisals, indubitably ruled, have done so while invoking the sovereignty of another, a man. A second indicator of sovereignty - the minting of coins with the sovereign's name - has likewise been limited to a very few among the women who have held power. Mernissi refers to the work of another modern scholar, historian Badriye Ucok Un, who identified 16 women who have held sovereignty in Muslim history by both criteria - none of whom ruled in Arab states, but rather held power in Muslim states in Asia (largely in those under Mongol control) Turkey (including Egypt under Mamluk rule) Iran, and Indonesia and other south Asian island states. Mernissi adds to this list two women rulers in Yemen whose sovereignty was proclaimed by khutba, but whose existence appears to have been, not just forgotten, but actively suppressed - not just because they were women, but also because they were Shi'ite monarchs.

After her discussion of women rulers of the past, Mernissi returns to the implications of Benazir Bhutto's election. In the election of a woman to sovereign power, two key aspects of the traditions of leadership in the Muslim world were broken - the assertion of a woman's will, to rule in her own right, and the aristocratic tradition of rule by dynastic elites, gaining sovereignty by association or inheritance (including all of the sovereign queens) or conquest.

That is why, as the fundamentalists well understand, the election of Benazir Bhutto constituted a total break with caliphal Islam. It represented the dual emergence on the political scene of that which is veiled and that which is obscene: the will of women and that of the people.


What began as an exploration of female rule in the Muslim world ends as a question about the future of both universal suffrage and democracy in a tradition that has long vested power in a male-dominated aristocracy in which secular power depends on religious authority.

bibliogramma: (Default)

Gypsy is one of the latest additions to PM Press's remarkable Outspoken Authors series. As with previous volumes in the series, Gypsy contains several collected works a single author. This collection features selections from the works of eclectic writer Carter Sholtz, including the novella Gypsy, two bitingly funny satirical short stories, an essay on the ease with which the US and its corporations violate national and international law, and an interview conducted with Sholtz by Terry Bisson.

The novella Gypsy takes place in an unsettlingly familiar dystopic future - climate change, corporate greed, resource depletion, war and the collapse of civil society. It's gotten bad enough that an underground network of dissidents have managed, in secret, to cobble together a space ship that will be able - if everything goes right - to transport a small number of people to the Alpha Centauri system in the hopes of finding a livable planet. It's a desperate shot in the dark.... but letting the situation on earth continue without some attempt to create another place for humans to survive seems unthinkable.

This is not a happy story. It is unrealistic to expect that that everything would go right in such an endeavour, and this is, given the opening situation, a very realistic, hard sf story. But it is also a powerful story, and a thought-provoking one.

In addition to the novella, the other pieces in the collection are well worth reading. I particularly enjoyed "Bad Pennies," a wicked satire on the American penchant for meddling in other countries' business and for doing business at whatever cost.

bibliogramma: (Default)

Kallocain, by Karin Boye, noted Swedish poet and author, is a dystopian narrative that fully deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Orwell's 1984, Zamyatin's We, or Huxley's Brave New World. That it is not part of the core lineage of 20th century political dystopian literature may be because it was not translated into English until 1966, or because it was written by a woman, or both. But it is unfortunate that even now, 50 years after it became accessible to English readers, it is still not better known and acknowledged.

Written eight years before Orwell's 1984, Kallocain place in a future in which the state - to be specific, the totalitarian police state - is all, and the individual nothing. Readers of 1984 will find much that is familiar; sparse living quarters, rationing, constant surveillance, the ever-present atmosphere of suspicion, politically correct expression, conformity of action and an on-going threat of war with other states about which nothing is known but that they are the enemy. There are no minutes of hate in Kallocain, but there are structured festivals that celebrate the state, weekly broadcasts in which people who have misspoken must make their apologies and corrections. The mechanisms of social control in the WorldState (so named even though it is just one of several states) are perhaps a little less dramatic, but no less all-encompassing.

But these are external manifestations of the totalitarian state. Kallocain concerns itself with the inner self under a social and political order that demands universal devotion and loyalty to the state and its ideology. As the novel's protagonist. Chemist Leo Kain, comes to realise, there are always those whose thoughts rebel, lack the singleminded purity required of them. Those who question, those who resent, those who watch and remember, those who imagine another way of being. And because he himself fears the embers of these thoughts in his own mind, he produces a drug, Kallocain, which relaxes inhibition and causes those under its influence to speak their inner truths, a drug which he offers to the state as the answer to identifying those committing these internal forms of sedition.

There is much that is chilling in the descriptions of how everything from family life to human scientific experimentation is handled in this future state, but it all follows quite logically from the basic premise of such systems, that the collective is all and the individual nothing.

I've long been fascinated by dystopian literature, and yet only recently did I learn of the existence of this novel. I'm very glad to have finally been introduced to it.

bibliogramma: (Default)

For some time now, I've been watching the full-tilt assault on reproductive rights in the US - and the less aggressive but equally troubling one here in Canada - with growing concern. It was a hard-fought battle, and one I remember well, to win those rights, and to see them being eroded in less than a generation is a sad thing indeed. Fortunately for Canadians, our struggle took us farther, to the full decriminalisation of abortion, which makes it harder to turn the clock back all the way here - though by no means impossible, and we must be vigilant, especially when conservative elements hold political power. But in the US, where abortion remained a matter of law, rather than a private medical decision between doctor and client, it has seemed to be much easier for the anti-choice forces to pass one new requirement or limitation after another, slowly curtailing reproductive freedom under many disguised. But as an outsider, dependent primarily on sporadic exploration of a foreign media, I remained unclear on just how serious the situation was in the US, and on what points the debate is currently focused. So when I heard of Katha Pollett's new book, Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights, I was eager to read it. And almost from the first page, I found my fears confirmed:
Between 2011 and 2013, states enacted 205 new restrictions—more than in the previous ten years: waiting periods, inaccurate scripts that doctors must read to patients (abortion causes breast cancer, mental illness, suicide), bans on state Medicaid payments, restrictions on insurance coverage, and parental notification and consent laws. In Ohio, lawmakers have taken money from TANF, the welfare program that supports poor families, and given it to so-called crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs) whose mission is to discourage pregnant women from having abortions. (That’s right: Embryos and fetuses deserve government support, not the actual, living children they may become.) Twenty-seven states have passed laws forcing clinics into expensive and unnecessary renovations and burdening them with medical regulations intended to make them impossible to staff. Largely as a result, between 2011 and 2013 at least 73 clinics closed or stopped performing abortions. When these laws have been challenged in court, judges have set aside some of them, but not all. The result: In 2000, according to the Guttmacher Institute, around one-third of American women of reproductive age lived in states hostile to abortion rights, one-third lived in states that supported abortion rights, and one-third lived in states with a middle position. As of 2011, more than half of women lived in hostile states. Middle-ground states, such as North Carolina, Ohio, and Wisconsin, have moved in an anti-choice direction. Only twenty-three states could be said to have a strong commitment to abortion rights. In 2013, only one state, California, made abortion easier to obtain.
Pollitt's book, however, is not intended as reportage so much as it is a revitalisation of the understanding of full access to abortion as an undeniable element of reproductive healthcare, and hence a social good (note: where Pollitt refers to women as those immediately affected by pregnancy and issues of access to abortion, my remarks on the text are intended to include in this category those genderqueer, non-binary and trans* people who, while not identifying as women, may also experience pregnancy and require such access). Pollitt summarises her main points as follows:
In this book I make many arguments, but let me mention three. First, the concept of personhood, as applied to the zygote, blastocyst, embryo, and, at least until late in pregnancy, fetus, makes no sense: It’s an incoherent, covertly religious idea that falls apart if you look at it closely. Few people actually believe it, as is shown by the exceptions they are willing to make. Second, the absolutist argument that abortion is murder is a mask by which people opposed to the sexual revolution and women’s advancement obscure their real motives and agenda: turning back the clock to an idealized, oversimplified past when sex was confined within marriage, men were the breadwinners and heads of families, Christianity was America’s not-quite-official religion, and society was firmly ordered. Third, since critiquing what came before does not necessarily help us move forward, I want to help reframe the way we think about abortion. There are definitely short-term advantages to stressing the anguish some women feel when facing the need to end a pregnancy, but in the long run presenting that as a general truth will hurt the pro-choice cause: It comes close to demanding that women accept grief, shame, and stigma as the price of ending a pregnancy. I want us to start thinking of abortion as a positive social good and saying this out loud. The anti-abortion movement has been far too successful at painting abortion as bad for women. I want to argue, to the contrary, that it is an essential option for women—not just ones in dramatic, terrible, body-and-soul-destroying situations, but all women—and thus benefits society as a whole.
As Pollitt points out, the standard narrative requires that pro-choice activists buttress their advocacy with comments describing abortion as "the lesser of two evils" or presenting abortion as a harrowing choice for those who decide to terminate a pregnancy. A person seeking an abortion is expected to express ambivalence, sorrow, regret. Abortion is often characterised as the action of frivolous or irresponsible people, young, unmarried and/or engaging in transgressive sex. And so on. Pollitt would have us challenge that narrative.
Abortion is often seen as a bad thing for society, a sign of hedonism, materialism, and hyperindividualism. I argue that, on the contrary, access to legal abortion is a good thing for society and helping a woman obtain one is a good deed. Instead of shaming women for ending a pregnancy, we should acknowledge their realism and self-knowledge. We should accept that it’s good for everyone if women have only the children they want and can raise well.
Pollitt takes a thorough look at the key questions surrounding positions on abortion, and effectively demolishes not only the anti-choice arguments, but also the propensity of many on the pro-choice side to allow their opponents to frame the discourse.

She addresses the issue of the personhood of the embryo/fetus, and the logical, if not always elucidated, consequences of the belief that it is a person from, as some insist, the moment of fertilisation. She examines the ways in which anti-abortion (and anti-contraception) arguments and laws are in essence about policing female sexuality and socially-prescribed gender roles.
At the heart of opposition to legal abortion is an anti-feminist, anti-modern view of relations between the sexes: Women are (or should be) maternal and domestic, men are (or should be) energetic breadwinners, and sex is a powerful, dangerous force that must be narrowly channeled, with parents controlling girls to keep them virgins and women refusing men sex in order to corral them into early marriage with babies soon to follow.
Exploding myths used by abortion opponents to paint abortions as dangerous, and those who have them as either hedonistic and thoughtless or victims of manipulation by parents, Pollitt exposes the hypocrisy of anti-choice advocates who value the fetus but not the person who bears it or the child it will be after birth. She draws aim on the conservative agenda in which opposition to both contraception and abortion goes hand in hand with opposition to everything that might make the lives of actual living parents and children easier, from paid parental leave and flexible working hours to subsidized day care programs to minimum wage legislation and welfare, showing that the real goal of conservatives is to negate the advances made through feminism and other social justice movements and send women back to a limited role where they are dependent on men.

As an American-centric treatise on the current state of abortion rights, Pollitt's book is highly informative - both well-researched and highly accessible. As a call to reclaim abortion as an essential and positive part of reproductive health care, it is inspiring. As a reminder that the work of feminism is not yet finished, that we do not yet live in some glorious post-feminist society, it is invaluable.

bibliogramma: (Default)

Azadeh Moaveni, the American-born child of Iranian parents who settled in the US following the 1979 revolution in Iran, first visited Iran in 1998. In 2000, she returned to Iran as a journalist reporting on the elections for Time Magazine, and remained in the country for two years before settling in Beirut, where she continued to report on issues in the Middle East, visiting Iran on many occasions. In 2005 she published a memoir, Lipstick Jihad, in which she wrote about her life as an Iranian in America, and an American in Iran.

Her latest memoir, Honeymoon in Tehran, begins in 2005. Mildly apprehensive about Iranian reaction to her book, she arrived in Tehran for a two-week stay to cover the state of mind of Iranian youth heading into the new elections. What she found was a mixture of cynicism and apathy toward the political system. Many of those she interviewed - not just youth, but all segments of Iranian society - had no plans to vote. They believed the election was "fixed" and that the outcome would be decided not by the people but by Iranian spiritual leader, Ali Khamenei.

Instead of politics, her young interview subjects were thinking about economic issues - finding decent jobs, earning enough money to get married and start lives of their own. Inflation, corruption and the theocratic government's attempt to police personal lives added to their feeling that nothing would, or could, change. Moaveni also found much private, even covert rebellion against the government's strict religious laws - underground parties, young couples secretly dating, a black market economy making Western videos, alcohol and other forbidden items readily available. Her story written, Moaveni left Tehran - but not before meeting a man, Aresh Zeini, towards whom she feels a certain element of attraction.

Following the unexpected election of fundamentalist ex-mayor of Tehran Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Moaveni returned to Iran for an extended stay, intending to report on the new regime. During this time she pursued a relationship with Aresh, first dating and then living together - a choice nominally forbidden but engaged in by many young Iranians, with relatively little risk as long as they remained circumspect - and ultimately marrying.

In this memoir, Moaveni writes about her everyday life as a young woman in love, and also about her professional life as a journalist in the employ of a foreign news organisation - and her contacts with her government-appointed "minder," whom she calls Mr. X. Moaveni's account of her relationship, her social and family life, her pregnancy, marriage and birth preparations all give insight into the complex and changing culture of Iran. At the same time her references to the political climate in the country, highlighted by both her work and her changing relationship with Mr. X, who has the power to end her ability to work as a journalist, underscore the instability and slowly increasing repression of the Ahmadinejad regime. A turning point in the narrative comes when the American government announces a series of measures clearly designed to encourage resistance to the Ahmadinejad government among the Iranian people.
... the Bush administration had launched a $75 million program tacitly aimed at changing the Iranian regime. Although its planners did not discuss the program in such explicit language, preferring vague terms such as “advancement of democracy,” the end of the Islamic Republic (or its transformation into a moderate, normal state, which was pretty much the same thing) was quite clearly their goal. Promoted through an array of measures—expanded broadcasting into the country, funding for NGOs, and the promotion of cultural exchanges—the democracy fund was intended to foster resistance to the government. With such support for the opposition, it was hoped, the clerical regime would collapse from within, taking care of what had become one of America’s largest problems in the Middle East.
The response within Iran was predictable, marked by a level of paranoia that was, given the circumstances, well-justified. It had profound effects on Moaveni's ability to work as a journalist.
... by September, I was scarcely working anymore. I still reported news stories on the nuclear crisis and domestic political squabbles, but I had to avoid sensitive subjects and I dropped altogether the myriad of projects and professional relationships that had once filled my time. I avoided meeting activists, and many avoided meeting with me. As a result, I could no longer tell you, or report on, how Iranians were challenging their government. All the people who once supplied me with such information—student dissidents, bloggers, women’s movement leaders—had been branded by the United States as potential agents of “peaceful” change, and in consequence were identified as security threats. The fear that our meeting—a western journalist with an activist—would be considered a plot was mutual.

I stopped attending seminars and conferences in the United States, because the government had concluded that those were the venues where the velvet revolution was being planned. On my return, I would be forced to debrief Mr. X, and would need to mention that U.S. officials had been in the audience (the Iranian government might have had a watcher or an agent at such events, who could verify my account). I might as well have had a bull’s-eye painted on the back of my headscarf. I stopped appearing on western radio and television shows, because in the present climate I knew I would need to soften my analysis, and in that case I preferred to say nothing at all. I gave up meeting western diplomats, who were considered the local spy-masters. I used to help Iranian journalists who were applying to various fellowships or internship programs in the West, because I believed they would return to Iran and share such valuable experiences with their colleagues, bringing professionalism and global perspective to what was still a field full of propagandists. But no more. The minister of intelligence had recently accused the United States of exploiting Iranian journalists as part of its conspiracy, so editing someone’s application essay or tutoring in interview skills would be viewed as abetting espionage. Worst of all, perhaps, I had entirely given up advising the countless American individuals—documentary filmmakers, academics, aspiring journalists—who wanted to visit Iran and help change its bleak image in the United States. Cultural exchange broke down age-old misconceptions, but the practice was now being referred to as a Trojan horse.
Now married and advancing in her pregnancy, with her work limited to relatively innocuous topics, Moaveni began to encounter more restrictions in her personal life as well. During a prenatal appointment at a hospital, she experienced a panic attack, followed by a realisation about what would be, by necessity, the shape of her life if she and her husband remained in Iran.
... I felt suffocated. Was there no point where such conversations would end? Can my husband come in [during prenatal exams and the birth] or not, Can we pick this name or not, Can I wear this scarf or not, Can I enter this building or not? Of course, the fact was that there was no such point. That was the nature of totalitarian regimes. Previously, I had believed that this need not define my experience of life in Iran. This perspective was the key, I believed, to not living as a victim. But I was having difficulty maintaining it in the face of repeated violations. Perhaps under the moderate Khatami this attitude was progressive and empowering; under Ahmadinejad, it amounted to self-delusion.
By 2006, Moaveni could see the signs of growing resistance to Ahmadinejad's political and social agenda among the Iranian people.
In the eighteen months since he took office, the president had managed to weaken Iran’s frail economy, provoke U.N. Security Council sanctions, elicit the threat of American military attack, alienate members of his own party (who broke off and started a front against him), offend the ayatollahs of Qom, and trigger the first serious student protest since 1999. Fifty activists burned an effigy of the president during his visit to Amir Kabir University; they set off firecrackers and interrupted his speech with chants of “Death to the dictator!” Their outburst reflected the widespread frustration also displayed during that month’s city council elections. Millions turned out across the nation to vote against Ahmadinejad’s allies in what amounted to a major, unequivocal setback for the president and his policies.
Increasing crackdowns in Iran continued to affect both her personal and professional life. At one point Moaveni is threatened by Mr. X, who tells her that her work is bring assessed to see if she is guilty of dissemination anti-Iranian propaganda - a potentially serious charge. At the same time, the birth of her son leads to growing concerns over the long-term effects of raising a child in an environment so divided and unsettled, where a careless word from an innocent child about their parents' political views or practices inside the home could lead to major repercussions. Eventually, Moaveni and her husband decide to leave Iran for England. Leaving a country she had hoped to call her own, Moaveni reflects:
This was the second time I had moved to Iran as an adult with every intention of building a life here, and the second time that grand politics and the twists of Iranian-U.S. relations were undoing my purpose. Back in 2001, in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks and President Bush’s labeling of Iran as part of an “axis of evil,” I had been forced to leave when Mr. X made my reporting untenable by demanding to know the identities of my anonymous sources. I wondered whether most Americans had any idea how the actions of their government influenced the lives of those across the world. Iranians had a long, sophisticated tradition of conducting their own opposition to autocracy. When would Washington realize this, and allow Iranians to resist their tyrants in the manner of their own choosing?
bibliogramma: (Default)

Life's been too much of a bitch for me to keep on writing about books much, but I still read, and I may as well at least post lists of what I read this past year. Here's the first list.


Non-fiction


Much of the of the non-fiction I read was a bit of a hodge-podge. Cultural/political studies, feminism, history, biography. All in its way interesting and nothing I regret reading.

Helen Merrick, The Secret Feminist Cabal: A Cultural History of Science Fiction Feminisms

Cordelia Fine, Delusions of Gender

Adam Kotsko, Why We Love Sociopaths: A Guide to Late Capitalist Television
Arundahti Roy, Talking to Grasshoppers: Field Notes on Democracy
Tim Wise, Dear White America: Letter to a New Minority

Lillian Faderman, Naked in the Promised Land

Alison Weir, The Wars of the Roses
Leanda de Lisle, Tudor: The Family Story

bibliogramma: (Default)

The non-fiction I read in 2011 was a small and somewhat mixed assortment.


William H. Patterson, Jr., Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue With His Century, The Authorized Biography, Volume I: Learning Curve

This was somewhat interesting but essentially unsatisfying. Patterson does not appear to have the detachment or the analytical bent (at least when discussing this subject) to provide more than a highly detailed but ultimately superficial look at Heinlein as man or as writer, and both his accuracy and his treatment of sources is open to question. A biography must be more than a collection of everything one could find about the subject, set down without comment even when the various sources are contradictory.


Sarah Schulman, Ties That Bind: Familial Homophobia and its Consequences

Schulman makes an interesting but not completely convincing argument that lack of full acceptance and support of queer people by their families is the basic cause, not only of social intolerance of queer people, but also of all the ills that can be found within the queer community. I think she has a point - that being that if families would fight for the rights of their queer members, both within the family and within the greater society, then much positive change would occur - but I think her argument simplifies the situation somewhat. But still, she poses some very interesting ideas and points out how easily gay men, lesbians other members of the queer community settle for the most modest shows of acceptance from their families of origin, and how much more many parents, siblings and other family members need to go in supporting, encouraging and defending the queer people in their lives just to provide the same kind of support that is automatically given to the straight people in their lives.


Arundhati Roy, An Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire

Roy is one of the most eloquent critics of the global imperialist project. These essays are from the periods of the Bush administration in the US and address issues having to do with the Iraq war as well as challenging imperialism and its effects around the world and in her own country.


Lee Maracle, I Am Woman: A Native Perspective on Sociology and Feminism

Maracle's book is part personal narrative, part history of the development of the movements of resistance and change among First Nations peoples, and part sociological analysis of the situation of First Nations peoples, and First Nations women, in their own communities and within north American mainstream society.


Carolyn G. Heilbrun, Writing a Woman’s Life

A fascinating examination of the ways that women's lives are chronicled, and how the ways that biographers and women writing personal narratives structure and organise their work differs from traditional approaches taken toward the writing of the lives of men.


Jennifer K. Stoller, Ink-stained Amazons and Cinematic Warriors

Stoller offers the reader an interesting and lively survey of many of the fictional heroines that have become part of popular culture over the past 70-odd years, from Wonder Woman to Buffy and Xena.


Barbara Ehrenreich, Bright-sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America

Ehrenreich looks at the history, the current manifestations and the effects of the positive thinking and self-help movements in American culture, and demonstrates how what appeared to be a beneficial response to the restrictive culture of Calvinist thought in the 19th century has become a dangerous mass delusion in the 21st.


Stephanie Coontz, A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Woman at the Dawn of the 1960s

Coontz does three things in this book, all of which are quite interesting - perhaps especially to someone like myself who remember when The Feminine Mystique was first published. First, she looks at the book itself. Second, she presents narratives of women who read the book and have described how it affected them. Third, she looks at the social history of women and the the women's movement in the US using the book as a touchstone.


And finally, a book that is not really classifiable, but which I am including here because taken in whole, it is an example of writing about a woman's life, and is hence no more a fiction than are the lives of any of us.

Karen Joy Fowler & Debbie Notkin (eds.), 80! Memories and Reflections on Ursula K. Le Guin

To celebrate the occasion of Ursula Le Guin's 80th birthday, editors Fowler and Notkin invited contributions of many kinds from a variety of writers. Here are reminiscences of Le Guin, personal accounts of what her books have meant to various writers, poems and short stories presented in her honour, pieces of critical analysis, a brief biographical sketch by Julie Phillips (who wrote the definitive biography of Alice Sheldon/James Tiptree Jr.) and a few other kinds of things that one might produce in order to celebrate a most extraordinary woman.



bibliogramma: (Default)
Power, Politics and Culture: Interviews with Edward W. Said, edited by Gauri Viswanathan

This is a fascinating collection of 19 interviews with Edward W Said, conducted between 1976 and 2000 and published in a variety of scholarly and other venues. Through these interviews, it is possible to follow the development of Said’s scholarship and his political activism, as they illuminate the range, penetration and passions in Said’s intellectual and public life.

Editor Gavri Viswanathan puts it best in her introduction:
The interviews Said gave over the past three decades boldly announce that neither his own books and essays nor those written about him have the last word. The first thing to note is not only th number of interviews Said has given, both to print and broadcast media, but also the number of locations in which they took place, spanning Asia and the Middle East as well as Europe and the United States. They confirm his presence on the world stage as one of the most forceful public intellectuals of our time, a man who evokes interest in the general public for his passionate humanism, his cultivation and erudition, his provocative views and his unswerving commitment to the cause of Palestinian self-determination... Together, [these interviews] reveal a ceaselessly roving mind returning to earlier ideas in his books and novels and engaging with them anew. One measure of the fluidity and range of Said’s thought is his ability to revisit arguments made in his books and essays, not merely to defend and elaborate on them but, more important, both to mark their limits and probe their extended possibilities, especially in contexts other than those which first gave rise to them.
Said’s topics range from discourses on the development of his own work, particularly on Orientalism and post-colonial theory, to ruminations on his childhood and how it affects his sense of self in the world, to his political activism and evolving relationship with the PLO, to reflections on other authors and areas from Austen, Conrad, Naipaul and Rushdie to Derrida and Foucault.

There’s a wealth of thought in these interviews, well worth savouring.

bibliogramma: (Default)

V for Vendetta, Alan Moore and David Lloyd (illus.)

My partner, who is far more conversant with graphic novels than I am, recommended that, since I had seen and been intrigued by the film V for Vendetta, I might be interested in reading his copy of the source novel.

So I did, and found that while I enjoyed the film, I enjoyed the source even more, because there are more ambiguities and more questions. While both treatments of the material have as their themes (at least in part) an exploration of fascism and the question of what degree of response is justified – the classic ends and means debate – the film treats V more sympathetically, more heroically, removes the explicit anarchism of the original material and fails to remind the viewer that fascism generally takes power with the people’s tacit consent (in the novel, the fascist regime is legally elected, while in the film, they take power following a (deliberately created) crisis.

I’m very glad I read the original. It made me think, even more than the film did.

bibliogramma: (Default)

The Clash of Fundamentalisms: Crusades, Jihads and Modernity, Tariq Ali

Tariq Ali has long been a leading voice in leftist political and social analysis, and this book, written following the events of September 11 2001, is both an introduction to the political and social history of Islam – as multi-faceted and diverse as that of any other faith, including the Christianity that Westerners are most familiar with – and a well developed argument that proposes the driving force in modern history to be the opposition, not of Western and Islamic culture as a whole (as argued by Huntington in his book The Clash of Civilizations but rather of the fundamentalism of Islamism and Western (primarily American) imperialism. Rather than privileging one culture/civilisation over the others, as so many West vs. Islam arguments have done, Ali argues that there are similar fundamentalist forces in both Western and Islamic cultures – but which are not in themselves necessary elements of those cultures, and that it is these forces that are in conflict and must be opposed in both cultures to bring about a change in the current world situation.

An important perspective on the current world situation from a writer who has lived in and studied both of the cultures he so thoughtfully examines in this volume.

bibliogramma: (Default)

The New Utopian Politics of Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Dispossessed, Laurence Davis & Peter Stillman (eds.)

I'll admit it, this wasn't an easy book to read, and it took me a long time to go through it, reading one section of an essay at a time and taking more than a few side-trips into the philosophies of the major thinkers of the anarchist movement to fill in some of the gaps. for the most part, I'm still digesting what I've read.

I will say that making my way through these essays has given me a far more profound appreciation of The Dispossessed in particular and LeGuin's way of examining political and philosophical points of view in her work. From now on, I think I will see more - which is saying something, because there's always been a lot to see in her work. I also think that I might want to go back and re-read some of my favourite LeGuin yet again, to see what new thoughts come forth.

bibliogramma: (Default)

Subject to Debate: Sense and Dissents on Women, Politics and Culture, Katha Pollitt

This is a collection of columns that were published in The Nation between 1994 to 2001. As gentle reader has probably figured out by now, I think Pollitt is one of the more worthwhile feminist analysts of what's going down in American culture and politics these days, and Subject to Debate is a fascinating look back at what was going on, from a feminist perspective, during the Clinton years.

bibliogramma: (Default)
The Authoritarians, Robert Altemeyer

Robert Altemeyer is a professor of psychology at the University of Manitoba, where he has been studying the phenomenon of the authoritarian personality for several decades. He has published several books in the conventional fashion, but has posted his latest book in its entirety on the Internet. The PDF can be downloaded here.

As Altemeyer notes in his introduction,
We know an awful lot about authoritarian followers. In one way or another, hundreds of social scientists have studied them since World War II. We have a pretty good idea of who they are, where they come from, and what makes them tick. By comparison, we know little about authoritarian leaders because we only recently started studying them. That may seem strange, but how hard is it to figure out why someone would like to have massive amounts of power?
Altemayer looks beyond that rather superficial assumption about authoritarian leaders to examine, as has been done for their followers, “who they are, where they come from, and what makes them tick.”

Being rather a fervent anti-authoritarian myself, I read this in the spirit of “know thy enemy” and found it to be an interesting look at the psychology of the person who not only thinks that they know better than everyone else, but wants to make everyone else do what they think is best for them. The general observations of the authoritarian mindset weren’t particularly surprising to me, having done a fair bit on ruminating on what makes dictators (overt or covert) tick for myself, but the research was in many cases interesting and enlightening.

As so many Western democracies inch – or lurch – toward practices redolent of fascism, I think that a book like this is rather urgently required reading for those who are in any way concerned about that slip toward the political, economic and religious right.



Cops, Crime and Capitalism: The Law and Order Agenda in Canada, Todd Gordon

And now I'll tell you what's against us
An art that's lived for centuries
Go through the years and you will find
What's blackened all of history
Against us is the law
With its immensity of strength and power
Against us is the law!
Police know how to make a man
A guilty or an innocent
Against us is the power of police!
The shameless lies that men have told
Will ever more be paid in gold
Against us is the power of the gold!
Against us is racial hatred
And the simple fact that we are poor.


From “The Ballad of Sacco and Vanzetti”
Lyrics by Joan Baez, based on the letters of Bartolomea Vanzetti.

Every social revolutionary knows in her gut that in the modern capitalist state (and in the modern totalitarian state, I’m an equal opportunity anti-authoritarian), the police, no matter how reassuring and comforting their presence and actions may be to the to the relatively privileged and, in North America, primarily white, middleclass, are tools of control and oppression organised and operated by governments in support of the interests of the powerful and wealthy elite and the societal structures that support that elite.

Todd Gordon has presented an interesting and valuable examination of how the relation between the police and the capitalist establishment has functioned, and continues to function, in Canada, with particular notice paid to how this works in the post-September 11 political and social environment.

bibliogramma: (Default)

I enjoy reading essays about politics, life, culture, current events and other such things from a feminist or a socialist perspective (or if I'm lucky, both together). In fact, it's probably from such American essayists that I get most of my ideas about what life in the US is probably like for real people (as opposed to the people in American-made films and TV shows, which would be my other source of information on life in America).

Three collections of essays with somewhat different perspectives that I've read recently are:

Don’t Think, Smile! – Notes on a Decade of Denial, Ellen Willis
Virginity or Death, Katha Pollitt
On Sex, Motherhood, Porn and Apple Pie, Susie Bright

Willis' collection of essays touch on a number of social, political and cultural issues and events from the 90s in America, from free speech to racism, the ideology behind The Bell curve to the million Man March, from the authoriarianism of the right to the complicity of the left. The seven essays collected here form a very thoughtful review of crucial social and political themes in the last decade of the 20th century, it's well worth reading.

Pollitt has assembled five years' of columns for The Nation in this collection, which touches on just about everything that's happened in those years, from the furor over the death of Terry Schiavo to the erosion of abortion access to the American response to the 9/11 attacks to war in Iraq to the growth of the anti-science movement among the right, and on and on. Short and pithy, each essay gave me insight and the pleasure of reading a fearless, intelligent and witty analysis of events and issues as they unfolded.

Bright is a fearless analyst of contemporary sexual mores, and recounts with humour and intelligence her own journey toward an erotics of feminism. This collection of essays continues to challenge mainstream American (and North American) ideas about sex, women, pronographyrelationships, mothering, and other such topics, and includes a great recipe for apple pie.

All three essayists offer food for thought on the American condition , and I'm richer in knowledge and insight for having read these three books.

bibliogramma: (Default)

Orientalism, Edward Said

I have, at long last, read this classic work that is considered to be one of the foundations of post-colonial studies. As I understand it, Said's underlying premise - one that is now very much a part of post-colonial criticism and political activism - is that the colonial and imperial cultures of Europe (and North America), by the very fact of their colonial and imperial position, create images of colonised nations and peoples that are not congruent with how these colonised people and nations perceive themselves, or with the realities of life and culture in these nations and among these peoples. Nonetheless, colonial powers, even after they lose direct control of colonised people, continue to impose these images from a position of assumed superiority, and this colours all discourse in colonial and former colonial powers about the colonised nations and peoples. The representation of a colonial nation in literature, art, and other cultural artefacts, becomes the nation itself, in Western eyes, and all discourse - including consideration of current economic and political policy - occurs within the framework imposed by the representation.

Said applies this premise to an examination of Orientalism - at the time of his writing (in 1978) the term used to describe the academic field of study devoted to the literature, history and culture of countries of "The Orient" - with particular focus on how Orientalists represented in their work the cultures of the Middle East.

It is a fascinating jounrney through the processes by which first, all Islamic, Arab and Middle-Eastern cultures are elided into one, and that one is represented as both oppositional and inferior to Western cultures in very specific ways.

What is particularly important about Said's argument is that he directly connects cultural representations with political ideology and goals:
Too often literature and culture are presumed to be politically, even historically, innocent; it has regularly semed otherwise to me, and certainly my study of Orientalism has convinced me... that society and literary culture can only be understood and studies together. (p. 27)

My whole point about this system is not that it is a misrepresentation of some Oriental essence — in which I do not for a moment believe — but that it operates as representations usually do, for a purpose, according to a tendency, in a specific historical, intellectual, and even economic setting. In other words, representations have purposes, they are effective much of the time, they accomplish one or many tasks. (p. 273)
While I had gleaned many of the principles of Said's arguemnts from later discourses in both post-colonial literary criticism and political theory, it was well worth it to go back to the beginning and look at the evidence, so to speak.

bibliogramma: (Default)

Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy, Noam Chomsky

I would hope that Noam Chomsky would need no introduction here, but just in case, this is what Wikipedia says about him (at least today) in its article on the Politics of Noam Chomsky:
Noam Chomsky is a widely known intellectual, political activist, and critic of the foreign policy of the United States and other governments. Chomsky describes himself as a libertarian socialist, a sympathizer of anarcho-syndicalism and is considered to be a key intellectual figure within the left wing of American politics.
In this new book, Chomsky looks at the idea of the “failed state” that has been circulating in various circles as a justification for intervention in any number of ways, including militarily, in the internal affairs of countries. Failed states are bad, the argument goes, because they do not or cannot protect their own people and may contribute to the destabilisation of other countries they interact with, and therefore it is justified for other powers to unilaterally intervene in these states to bring about the betterment of both the people’s circumstances and the global political scene. The US has repeatedly unilaterally intervened in a vast number of allegedly failed states during its history, ostensibly in support of its goal to bring democracy and freedom to the world.

Chomsky turns the magnifying glass around and examines the case for arguing that the United States of America is in fact a failed state. He begins with a reasonable definition of a failed state as one that is unable "to provide security for the population, to guarantee rights at home or abroad, or to maintain functioning (not merely formal) democratic institutions." He goes on to consider the linked concept of a “rogue nation” – one that acts in defiance of international law, and therefore may require intervention to bring it into compliance – and considers whether the US may also be considered to be a rogue state.

In arguing that the US does in fact fit the generally accepted criteria for both a failed state and a rogue nation, Chomsky details page after page of evidence and incident to demonstrate that the US does a poor job in all of these areas: providing adequately for its populace, guaranteeing their rights, maintaining a functioning democracy or obeying international law. Even a review in the New York Times concedes that “It's hard to imagine any American reading this book and not seeing his country in a new, and deeply troubling, light.”

Since I was more or less in accord with Chomsky’s thesis even before reading the book (and I should note that, while the US does a spectacularly poor job of being a functioning democratic nation and adhering to the principles of international law, similar arguments can, in my opinion, be brought against many of today’s modern economically and militarily imperialist states, my own included), I look on it personally as an excellent reference book if you’re trying to point out some of the issues that the left has with American domestic circumstances and foreign policy. But it’s a great tool to use if you want to encourage someone else to look at the questions Chomsky raises and consider their own thinking about what really defines a state as one that has failed.

bibliogramma: (Default)

Taking Responsibility, Taking Direction, Sheila Wilmot

There aren’t a lot of white people in Canada writing about issues of how to be a white anti-racist in the Canadian context. Sheila Wilmot is one of the few who is, and that’s a good thing. Her book, Taking Responsibility, Taking Direction, has some solid history, information and analysis on the issues, and some ideas about how to be an effective white anti-racist – how to take responsibility for one’s own racism, for one’s own privilege, and do something about it, while taking direction from people of colour.

To quote from the publisher’s notes, Wilmot talks about how
…white progressives who aim to unite with people of colour against racist oppression must examine and possibly challenge their personal, political, and theoretical ideologies and acknowledge their privileged societal position, if they are to translate anti-racist ideas into effective action, and furthermore, help educate other "white folks" into taking up the cause in an informed manner.
The notes continue outlining her basic argument that
… it is essential that in the fight against white oppression, white leftists come to the table in solidarity, rather than come as silent aides, or the opposite—come and paternalistically and patronizingly appropriate the organization.
These are important things to say, and important things to place within the history and context of Canadian state imperialism and colonialism and racism, and within the history and context of past and present anti-racist movements and organizations in Canada, and because Wilmot does this, there is a great deal to be gained from this book.

However, while the information is good, the presentation and organisation of the book is flawed. It did not engage me the way writings about white anti-racism from such activists as Robert Jensen, Mab Segrest and Tim Wise have moved me, despite the fact that this book is set in my cultural context and almost all other writings I’ve encountered from white anti-racists have focused on the American context. There’s already a very detailed review on the net by blogger Scott Neigh, aka A Canadian Lefty in Occupied Land, that provides an excellent critique of what worked and what did not in this book, so I’m not going to go into great detail.

Essentially, the book seemed both to lack focus at times and to be too focused on minor issues at others. It’s clear that the author intended the book to be of interest both to people who are already heavily involved in anti-racism and other leftist social analysis and action and to those who are just becoming engaged with issues of social justice. Unfortunately, this results in some material being tedious to the reader with a long history of reading socialist, Marxist or anti-capitalist takes on colonialism and racism, while at other times addressing issues for which someone without a history in the Canadian left would have little context. At the same time, it’s a small book, trying to tackle a huge subject, and the choices of what to include and what to leave out are not always the choices I might have found most felicitous.

Wilmot is very strong in her understanding and integration of the intersectionality of oppressions, and provides insight into how racism, capitalism and sexism interact and how the privileges of whiteness, maleness and wealth combine. And at the conclusion of the book she provides some specific ideas for who white anti-racism organising that are well worth thinking about.

In short, a worthy but flawed first step toward a Canadian body of literature on white anti-racism.

bibliogramma: (Default)

Glorifying Terrorism, ed. Farah Mendelsohn.

This anthology is dedicated to “all the terrorists who are now revered as elder statesmen.” It’s not hard to come up with at least a few names that fit, no matter what your definition of terrorism, or the politics you preach. Nelson Mandala. Ariel Sharon. Ulysses S Grant. Charles De Gaulle. Mao Zedong. And so it goes.

Totally ignoring the wise observation – or was it a prediction – made by Benjamin Franklin that “They who would give up essential Liberty to obtain a little temporary Safety deserve neither Liberty nor Safety,” the British government proposed – and has since passed – an anti-terrorism measure making it illegal to “glorify terrorism” (of course, we would hardly expect Her Majesty’s government to heed the words of a colonial, a revolutionary – even, by some measures, a terrorist leader).

The opening paragraph of Andrew MacKie’s introduction to this anthology is blunt and to the point.
The purpose of the stories and the poems in this book is to glorify terrorism. More specifically, they attempt to break the law proposed by the British Government designed to outlaw anything which might be read or interpreted as that.
Mackie continues to touch on many of the issues one might reasonably expect to find in a discussion of such a law – the definition of terrorism, the interpretation of politics, the judgement of history, freedom, of thought and of speech, and so on. His concluding paragraph sums it all up:
Under this legislation I can think of plenty illegal SF classics, from Dune’s suicide commandos to short stories by Rob Shaw, John Varley and Bruce Sterling. So can you. All we are asking is that we continue to be allowed to think of them; that the people writing for you in this book be allowed to think of them and others. If we are not going to be allowed to think as we choose, we choose to be targets – not for terrorists, but for our own legislators.
This is why I think this is one of the most important anthologies of the year. It is not only about creative expression and the sharing of ideas and the gift of joy and passion that is art, it is about the freedom of all of us, artist and audience alike, to be able to continue this greatest of human endeavours.

Twenty-five writers contributed short stories or poems to this collection. As one might expect, in a collection with such a range of writers, with so many different styles and sub-genres represented, not every piece resonated with me. I’m mentioning a handful of the contributions that affected me most powerfully, but this truly is the kind of anthology of which it can be sad that there is something for everyone – or at least, for everyone who is willing to look hard at the many sides of glorifying terrorism.

Ian Watson’s “Hijack Holiday” was written in early 2001. It begins as an examination of the commercialisation of every more intense experiences by the wealthy and privileged, but the takes a very dark turn from fantasy to reality.

Kira Franz’s “The Lion Waiting” is a short but powerful look at the power of resistance and sacrifice.

Davin Ireland’s “Engaging the Idrl” explores the bewilderment of those who “come in peace” to civilise and improve the lot of indigenous people who do not wish to be civilised or improved.

James A Trimarco’s “The Sundial Brigade” is on the surface, a strong SF story in a very traditional subgenre; some people arrive on Earth from somewhere else and impose an unwelcome social order; some people from Earth fight back and we applaud their heroism. Even when that fighting back involves the kinds of resistance we identify as terrorism when they are employed against us. Beyond what this story does in the context of this collection to make us consider what we call terrorism and what we call justified resistance, it also makes an interesting companion piece to Watson’s “Hijack Holiday” in its exploration of constructed experiences as entertainment.

Elizabeth Sourbut’s “How I took care of my pals” examines the kind of paradigm shift that can turn a soldier committed to a genocidal mission into a resistance fighter determined to stop that mission at all costs.

Katherine Sparrow’s “Be the Bomb you Throw” reminded me, in the final analysis, of James Tiptree Jr’s great ecoterrorist short story, “The Last Flight of Doctor Ain.” Both stories deal with the threat of environmental collapse, the power that lies in the actions of a single human being and the ethics of terrorism.

Rachel Swirsky’s “The Debt of the Innocent” explores a specific act of terrorism in a world only a little bit more callous, more sharply divided between have and have-not than our own, looking at the process of commitment to such an act on the one hand, and the consequences of the act on the other hand.

Adam Roberts’ “Here Comes the Flood” focuses on fear as a weapon, not only against one’s enemies, but as a means of social control, and at the same time reminds us that the means of resistance are closer to hand, and less conventionally warlike, than we may realise.

Suzette Haden Elgin’s ”What We Can See Now, Looking in the Glass” is a poem about the root causes of resistance, and how privilege breeds it.

As I said, that’s only a handful – some of the selections from this anthology that hit me hard, in one way or another, for one reason or another. In addition to the stories I’ve mentioned, the book contains worthy offerings on the theme from the following authors:

Jo Walton
Vylar Kaftan
Ken MacLeod
Gwyneth Jones
Kari Sperring
Lucy Kemnizter
Marie Brennan
Kathryn Allen
Hal Duncan
Lavie Tidhar
Van Aaron Hughes
Chaz Brenchley
H. H. Loyche
Ian Whates
Una McCormack
Charles Stross

I urge you to read this book. Because these stories will entertain you, because they will give you something to think about – no matter how carefully and completely you think you have considered the subject – and because to do so will be a statement in support of that liberty which we must not give up, even for a little safety.

You can order it here.

bibliogramma: (Default)

The Dispossessed, Ursula K. LeGuin
Woman on the Edge of Time, Marge Piercy

Not too long ago, I found myself in the position of trying to describe to a friend some of the ways in which a society based on anarchist philosophy might operate, and in the process of trying to make my own visions of an anarchist’s utopia more concrete, I picked up and re-read the two books on my shelves in which someone else had already done this, and probably far better than I ever could.

LeGuin’s The Dispossessed tells the story of a scientist, Shevek, raised on Anarres, a world settled by the followers of a political philosopher from Anarres’ sister world Urras, who finds himself questioning and rejecting the philosophy of the world in which he grew up. He travels to Urras, thinking to find a better way of life, only to realise how strongly his values have been influenced by the culture of his birth. Ultimately, he decides that the flaws in the culture and philosophy of Anarres are easier to live with – and possible change – than the flaw he finds in the philosophies of Urras.

Ursula Le Guin discusses her novel in an introduction written for “The Day Before the Revolution,” a short story written in memoriam to the anarchist, Paul Goodman:
My novel 'The Dispossessed' is about a small world full of people who call themselves Odonians. The name is taken from the founder of their society, Odo, who lived several generations before the time of the novel, and who therefore doesn't get into the action - except implicitly, in that all the action started with her.

Odonianism is anarchism. Not the bomb-in-the-pocket stuff, which is terrorism, whatever name it tries to dignify itself with, not the social Darwinist economic 'libertarianism' of the far right, but anarchism as pre- figured in early Taoist thought, and expounded by Shelley and Kropotkin, Goldman and Goodman. Anarchism's principal target is the authoritarian state (capitalist or socialist); its principal moral-practical theme is cooperation (solidarity, mutual aid). It is the most idealistic, and to me the most interesting, of all political theories.
What is interesting about LeGuin’s exploration of an anarchist utopia is that she allows it to be flawed. No society created by humans will ever truly reach the perfection of a utopia, because humans themselves are not perfect beings. LeGuin, however, shows the reader a flawed anarchist state and a flawed authoritarian state and asks: which is easier to live in, easier to change and improve without bloodshed, provides a better life for more of its citizens?

Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time also presents an anarchist state and an authoritarian state for the reader to consider, although the former is more of a utopia and the latter more of a dystopia than in LeGuin’s book. Piercy’s protagonist, Connie Ramos, is an American Latina living on welfare, who has a “bad history” of standing up for herself and other women against the oppression and violence of men, and is ultimately incarcerated in a mental hospital where she is chosen to be a subject for experimental "mind-control" research. She is also a Receptive, someone who can serve as an focal point for a kind of mental time-traveller and, with the assistance of that traveller, move forward to see the future herself. Or she is mad, and hallucinating everything that she experiences in her encounters with the time-traveller Luciente and the future she sees and commits herself to helping to bring into being in her own time.

Luciente’s future is, like Shevek’s Anarres, a society based on basic anarchist principles, although it is more consciously a feminist utopia as well. Both books explore ways of organising society and making collective decisions about that society without the creation of hierarchical, authoritarian structures, of valuing co-operation and mutual assistance, of sharing labour and eliminating class, and of changing the nature of the family, interpersonal relationships and gender roles.

Both are strong and important visions of what an anarchist society might be like. As such, they are also an inspiration and an invitation for further consideration of how life can be lived without social or political oppression of any group of human beings by any other.

Profile

bibliogramma: (Default)
bibliogramma

August 2017

S M T W T F S
  12345
67891011 12
13 141516 17 1819
20212223242526
2728293031  

Syndicate

RSS Atom

Most Popular Tags

Style Credit

Expand Cut Tags

No cut tags
Page generated Aug. 22nd, 2017 11:03 am
Powered by Dreamwidth Studios