A Response to the Renewal Faction on Events in Austin

Since so much has been made of Austin by the Renewal Faction, I would like to respond (especially since I’m singled out, again).

Here is the “crisis” to which the Renewal Faction refers in Austin.  I’ve redacted the names because they are unimportant, but if anyone would like to do the accounting, we will happily talk about them.

  • Comrade 1 and 2: political/personal differences
  • Comrade 3: Paternity
  • Comrade 4: long term health issue
  • Comrade 5: returned after custody battle
  • Comrade 6: on leave to finish a book
  • Comrade 7: undeclared personal reasons with a note to rejoin in a few months
  • Comrade 8: returned (irregularly to branch meetings)
  • Comrade 9: returned (reappeared at the Day School)
  • Comrade 10: long-term financial issues (reappeared at the Day School)
  • Comrade 11: difficult work schedule (reappeared at the Day School)
  • Comrade 12: time conflict (still doing fraction work)

There are two ways to interpret this data, but the Austin branch committee (while I was on it) was of the belief that we ought to take comrades at their word for their rationales for leaving rather than impute political debates on them.  We at least hold to the belief that our comrades are not lying to us.

So when the Renewal Faction writes the following

Now comrades may take leave for entirely legitimate reasons involving health, family, employment, and so on. But if ten people go “on leave” more or less simultaneously–at the same time as two others formally resign–then it is foolish to pretend as if the reason is not fundamentally political and indicative of a political crisis.

I can only respond: Post hoc ergo propter hoc.

In a branch that was 35-8 comrades, this is high but not unusual, especially given three things which the Renewal Faction overlooks: 1) The way that neoliberalism actually affects our members in ways that are not only political (i.e. job loss, family crises, etc.) 2)      The sheer exhaustion the branch faced after the most exciting summer that we have ever participated in politically (The War on Texas Women), arguably as large a protest as anything in DC or Chicago, but without the number of nearby branches to help with the organizational challenges. 3)The complicated back and forth we have been trying to navigate around the question of the size of the branch, student/community, and the development of cadre which have created some organizational bumpiness that are not the same thing as political disagreements.

I think that it is a fair question to call this a crisis in the branch, or rather, one reading of the evidence could reasonably lead a comrade to that conclusion.  But such an interpretation is so out of synch with the local evidence, so quick to use data to support its own alarmist conclusions, that it fails to explain the specifics.  Did we in Austin also overestimate the period?  Here is our assessment from the summer work:

At the same time, this movement has a time limit on it.  As soon as the bills pass, the Democratic Party and its ancillary organizations will begin to channel all of that frustration into electoral politics.  It is also clear that the Democrats are not willing to defeat the Republicans.  In order to defeat the bills, we would need to do something on the order of what was done in Madison, WI, namely occupy the Capitol with so many people and for long enough that they cannot pass the bills.  The left does not have the forces or the credibility to do something like this on its own – it would need the mainstream organizations (unions, feminist groups) to be on board as well.  It would require, in other words, a much larger “people’s filibuster.”  Anything short of running out the special session means that the Republicans will be able to use their stacked deck to push through whatever they want.  (Austin District Notes, July 2013)

Later we were even sharper about the limits posed by this movement:

We should also understand that the fight around abortion rights was more or less derailed by the abstention of the Democratic Party (if not by outright orders by Party leaders to pull the plug on an issue that would hurt their chances in the polls).  We continue to build as much as we can around this fight, but it is substantially harder to do so without a clear target and without the kind of mobilizing capacity that the liberal organizations possess.  We take no pleasure in having been right about this: it can only be disorienting for a number of activists who were told that this was the fight of their lives and that “we won’t back down” only to see the Democrats licking their wounds and waiting until 2014.  Some of those people can be brought to socialist politics; most of them will be disoriented or confused or will begin to repeat the shibboleths of Democratic Party sound bites about realism and pragmatism. (Austin District Notes, August 2013)

We did take a slightly over-optimistic turn in September, where I clearly erred in thinking that there was a larger periphery than there was.  Here is what I wrote:

This month the notes will be making the argument for an outward push for ISO events and tablings.  We have already argued that the mood in Austin, while angry at the general nature of the economy and oppression in general, does not still constitute fertile ground for agitational work (i.e. it is possible to call for relatively small rallies, but these do not bring out substantial, organized forces), our most important work will be propagandistic (i.e. informational tablings, meetings, teach-ins, etc.) in order to seed the ground for a revival in struggle.  The raw numbers just in terms of our activity over the past three week bear this out:

·        8/22: 200 people at town hall against APD violence

·        8/24: 80 people out at rally for jobs and justice

·        8/27: 96 contacts at Freshman activities fair

·        8/28: 200 people at rally against bleach balloons

·        8/29: 2-300 people at fight for 15 rally

·        8/29: 400 people at Huston-Tillotson Trayvon event

·        8/31: 100 people at No War on Syria rally

·        8/31:  80-100 people at Planned Parenthood fundraiser

·        9/1: 50-60 people at the “march for civil rights”

·        9/4: 65 people at Why You Should Join the Socialists

·        9/5: 13 people at Graduate Student organizing meeting

·        9/6: 8 people at People’s Task Force meeting

·        9/10: 40-50 people at bleach balloon protest

·        9/12: 15 people at Graduate Student Employees Association meeting

·        9/12: 275 people at Islamophobia event

(If you subtract out our members, we have a periphery of something like 1000-1500 people in the last three weeks alone)

Clearly, not all of these people are socialists or even left of the democrats, but they together represent a sizable chunk of people with whom we can engage in politics and political discussion.  The thing that has been missing has not been political issues that are drawing people out and engaging them in some kind of activity. (Austin District Notes, September 2013)

This was overclaimed, but it seemed right at the time to focus on meeting new political activists and talking to them about politics.  Still, this excited perspective was corrected by October once it was clear that these numbers were aberrational.  What is left out of the Renewal Faction’s assessment are two things.  1) the local character of our perspectives (which were much more conservative than even the national perspectives in some places) which underwent a lot of revision and debate and 2) the fact that even by the logic of the Renewal Faction, the “crisis” happened before September (when it was clear that we didn’t have the membership numbers to respond to all of the interest in the ISO).

In the interest of proving there is a crisis in the organization, the Renewal Faction mischievously misreads what is happening in Austin.   There may very well be an organizational crisis in the ISO.  We do not know because we do not have a full accounting of what happened all over the country.  But I can say with full confidence that what is happening in Austin, while not ideal, does not match the crisis that Shaun J is describing.

Snehal S

An Open Letter About the Events in Texas


An Open Letter About the Events in Texas:

The nation stands at the edge of a historic reversal. Hard won gains of the women’s rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s are about to be turned back with devastating results for women across the country. Abortion, already a barely accessible right for most women, is now being made extinct as conservative politicians attempt to press their advantage in certain states in opportunistic fashion.

But the problem we face is deeper. In Texas, the legislature has used every legal (and some illegal) trick in the book to make sure that the pro-choice majority is not heard. The current legislation under consideration represents some of the most draconian limits on abortion rights ever. And instead of allowing normal democratic procedures to resolve the issue, the legislature has relied on a rigged process to force the bill through. A few examples are worth mention: every procedural objection that was made to Wendy Davis’s historic filibuster; the refusal to hold state-wide hearings to allow affected communities to testify about the consequences of the legislation; the intentional misreporting of how many people testified in opposition to the legislation; the years of gerrymandering which make it nearly impossible for the legislature to reflect the real wishes of the population; the organizing of “special sessions” to push through legislation.

The current legislation is too important to allow these deficits in the democratic process to go unchallenged. The bills in Texas would close down the overwhelming majority of clinics which provide abortions and thereby eliminate all of the ancillary services those clinics also provide – STD testing, family planning, health care. That some of these clinics are also the only places where low-income, people of color, and LGBTQ individuals are able to get health services means that this legislation will disproportionately impact the most vulnerable members of society.

We believe that the legislative process is stacked against those of us who believe that abortion rights are a necessary part of a woman’s ability to control her own body and make decisions about her own health. As a result, it now becomes necessary to take action outside of the legislative process. We firmly believe that if we were to stand up and be counted, the pro-choice forces in this country will outnumber the forces of reaction. It is in this vein that we call on all people who believe in a woman’s right to choose to stand up and be counted.

We propose that marches and rallies be organized in every city in Texas on July 15th in order to show just how deep the pro-choice sentiment actually runs. In Austin, we will be rallying at 8 pm at the Texas Capitol. But as these attacks against choice are not limited to Texas, we invite all those who stand for choice to join us in a national day of solidarity on July 15th. We believe it is possible to win back our rights, but only if we take a stand in the way that people have been standing for their rights in Brazil, Egypt, and Greece: by understanding that popular protest has the ability to change what a narrow minority of people impose under the fiction of legality.


Linda Martín Alcoff, Department of Philosophy, Hunter College/CUNY

Dr. Anjali Arondekar, Associate Professor, Department of Feminist Studies, University of California, Santa Cruz

Wendy Ashmore, Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of California, Riverside

Michelle Belden, Bates College Archivist

C. Marshall Bennett, LMSW, President, ACC/AFT Local #6249

Tithi Bhattachrya, Associate Professor of History, Purdue University

Tiffani Bishop, GetEqual TX Central Texas Lead

Eileen Boris, Hull Professor and Chair, Department of Feminist Studies, University of California Santa Barbara

Brian A. Bremen, Associate Professor of English, University of Texas at Austin

Professor Timothy Brennan, Department of Cultural Studies&  Comparative Literature, and English, University of Minnesota

Susan Briante, MFA, PhD, Associate Professor, Creative Writing Program, University of Arizona

Rachel Brickner, Associate Professor of Politics, Acadia University

Karen Brodkin, Professor Emerita, Anthropology, University of California, Los Angeles

Carole H. Browner, Distinguished Research Professor, Departments of Anthropology,  Gender Studies & Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior University of California, Los Angeles

Heather Busby, Executive Director, NARAL Pro-Choice Texas

Judith Butler, Maxine Elliot Professor of Rhetoric, University of California, Berkeley

Allison Carruth, Assistant Professor, UCLA

Mia Carter, Associate Professor of English, University of Texas, Austin

Margaret Cerullo, Professor, Sociology and Feminist Studies, Hampshire College

Indrani Chatterjee, Associate Professor of History, University of Texas, Austin

Chris Chiappari, Associate Professor of Sociology & Anthropology, St. Olaf College

Dana Cloud, Associate Professor of Communication, University of Texas, Austin

Huma Dar, Asian American & Asian Diaspora Studies Program, UC Berkeley

Bug Davidson, Director of Homoscope Film Festival

Janet M. Davis, Associate Professor of American Studies, History, and Women’s and Gender Studies, University of Texas at Austin

Anthony DeStefanis, Assistant Professor of History, Department of History and Political Science, Otterbein University

Mia M. Dia, PE, founder of Women’s Alliance for Leadership (WAL) in Dallas Texas

Laurie Donovan, LMFT, LCSW

Jim Downs, Associate Professor of History, Connecticut College

David L. Eng, Richard L. Fisher Professor of English, University of Pennsylvania

Eve Ensler, Author of The Vagina Monologues

Anton Ford, Assistant Professor of Philosophy, University of Chicago

Sonia Pressman Fuentes, Speaker, Author, “Eat First–You Don’t Know What They’ll Give You, The Adventures of an Immigrant Family and Their Feminist Daughter”

Lauren J. Gantz, PhD Candidate, Department of English, University of Texas at Austin

Montserrat Garibay, National Board Certified Teacher, Vice President for LULAC Council 4859, Austin, Texas

Terri E. Givens, Associate Professor, Department of Government, University of Texas at Austin

Shari Goldberg, Assistant Professor of Literary Studies, University of Texas at Dallas

Gilbert G. Gonzalez, Professor Emeritus, Chicano Latino Studies, UC Irvine

Linda Gordon, University Professor of the Humanities, Florence Kelley Professor of History, New York University

Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb, Coordinator of FOR Interfaith Peacewalks, Cofounder of Shomer Shalom Network for Jewish Nonviolence

Elizabeth Gregory, Director, Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies Program, University of Houston

Sondra Hale, Research Professor/Professor Emerita, Anthropology and Gender Studies, University of California, Los Angeles

Lynne Hanley, professor emerita of literature and writing, Hampshire College

Leslie Harris, Dallas Coordinator, CODEPINK Women for Peace

Susan Sage Heinzelman, Associate Professor of Women’s & Gender Studies, University of Texas, Austin

Rosemary Hennessy, Director, Center for the Study of Women, Gender and Sexuality, Rice University

Jim Hightower, editor of The Hightower Lowdown, former TX Agriculture Commissioner

Kristen Hogan, English Literature and Women’s and Gender Studies Librarian, University of Texas, Austin

Nancy Hogshead-Makar , two-time Olympic champion

Jim Holstun, English, SUNY Buffalo

Michael Honey, Author and professor, University of Washington Tacoma

Heather Houser, Assistant Professor of English, University of Texas, Austin

Madeline Hsu, Associate Professor of History, University of Texas, Austin

Alison Jaggar, Professor of Distinction, Philosophy and Women and Gender Studies Research Coordinator, University of Colorado at Boulder College

Tsitsi Jaji, Assistant Professor of English, University of Pennsylvania

Pranav Jani, Associate Professor, English, The Ohio State University

Ann Rosalind Jones, Esther Cloudman Dunn Professor of Comparative Literature, Smith College

Alison Kafer, Associate Professor of Feminist Studies, Southwestern University, Georgetown, TX

Chris Kaiser, Staff Attorney, Texas Association Against Sexual Assault

Deena Kalai, PLLC

Katie Kane, Associate Professor of English, The University of Montana

Suvir Kaul, A. M. Rosenthal Professor, Department of English, University of Pennsylvania

Michael Kazin, Professor of History, Georgetown University, Editor, Dissent

William Keach, Professor of English, Brown University

Marie Kennedy, Professor Emerita of Community Planning, University of Massachusetts Boston

Linda K. Kerber, Brodbeck Professor of History Emerita, University of Iowa

Alice Kessler-Harris, R. Gordon Hoxie Professor of History, Columbia University

Katherine C. King, Professor Comparative Literature, UCLA, Los Angeles, CA

David Klein, Professor of Mathematics, California State University, Northridge

Karen Kocher, Lecturer, Department of Radio-TV-Film, University of Texas at Austin

Deepa Kumar, Associate Professor of Communication, Rutgers University

Christine Labuski, Assistant Professor, Women’s and Gender Studies Program, Faculty Affiliate, Department of Science, Technology, and Society, Virginia Tech University

Beryl Landau, Artist, San Francisco, CA

Edward Lee MD, Clinical Assistant Professor of Medicine, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine

Anne Lewis, Lecturer, Radio Television and Film, University of Texas, Austin, independent film-maker

Holly Lewis, Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Texas State University

Bernth Lindfors, Professor Emeritus of English, University of Texas at Austin

Arthur MacEwan, Professor Emeritus of Economics, University of Massachusetts Boston

Elaine Tyler May, Regents Professor, Departments of American Studies and History, University of Minnesota

Bryan McCann, Assistant Professor of Communication Studies, Louisiana State University

Edward J. McCaughan, Professor of Sociology, San Francisco State University

Mona Mehdy, Associate Professor of Biology, University of Texas, Austin

Carlos Muñoz, Jr., Chancellor’s Distinguished Public Scholar and Professor Emeritus, Department of Ethnic Studies, University of California, Berkeley

Ruth Needleman, professor emeritus, Indiana University

Mary Nolan, Professor, Department of History, New York University

Vivian Norris, PhD Honorary Chair Muhamad Yunus Social Business MBA Huffington Post blogger, filmmaker

Charlotte Nunes, PhD candidate, Department of English, UT-Austin

Richard Oestreicher, Associate Professor of History, University of Pittsburgh

Sarah R. Orem, Doctoral Candidate, Department of English, Managing Editor, Praxis: A Writing Center Journal, The University of Texas at Austin

A. Naomi Paik, Assistant Professor of American Studies, University of Texas, Austin

Thomas C. Patterson, Distinguished Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of California, Riverside

Leslie Peirce, Silver Professor of History, New York University

Ann Pellegrini, Director, Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality, Associate Professor of Performance Studies & Religious Studies, New York University

Ruth Perry, Ann Fetter Friedlaender Professor of Humanities at M.I.T.

Russell Pinkston, Professor of Composition, University of Texas, Austin

Jaime Puente, MA CMAS, PhD Student Dept of American Studies, UT Austin.

Peter Rachleff, Professor of History, Macalester College

Natalie J. Ring, Associate Professor of History, University of Texas at Dallas

Rochelle G. Ruthchild, Professor Emerita of Graduate Studies, The Union Institute & University

Sharmila Rudrappa, Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Texas, Austin

Roshni Rustomji-Kerns,  Professor Emerita,  Sonoma State University. CA

Cynthia Valadez-Mata, Jr. , League of United Latin American Citizens – District 7 Director

Simone Sessolo, Lecturer, the University of Michigan

Jon Shelton, Assistant Professor, Democracy and Justice Studies, University of Wisconsin-Green Bay

Falguni A. Sheth, Associate Professor of Philosophy, and Political Theory, School of Critical Social Inquiry, Hampshire College

Shu-mei Shih, Professor, Department of Comparative Literature, Asian Languages and Cultures, Asian American Studies

Snehal Shingavi, Assistant Professor of English, University of Texas, Austin

Professor Kaja Silverman, History of Art, University of Pennsylvania

Joseph Slaughter, Associate Professor, Department of English and Comparative Literature, Columbia University

Lindsay Smith, Houston Feminist Movement

Ellen Spiro, Professor, University of Texas, Austin

Clay Steinman, Professor, Media and Cultural Studies,Macalester College

Kathleen Stewart, Professor and Chair of Anthropology, University of Texas

Landon Storrs, Associate Professor of History, University of Iowa

Susan Stryker, Director, Institute for LGBT Studies and Associate Professor, Gender and Women’s Studies University of Arizona

Merritt Tierce, Executive Director of Texas Equal Access Fund

Sarah Tuttle, Board Member, The Lilith Fund

Angela Valenzuela, Professor, Education Policy & Planning, University of Texas at Austin

Alice Walker, Pulitzer PrizeChris Chiappari, Associate Professor of Sociology & Anthropology, St. Olaf College

winner, author of The Color Purple

Jennifer Jensen Wallach, Associate professor of history, University of North Texas

Devra Weber, Associate Professor, History Department, UC Riverside

Dan Welcher, Lee Hage Jamail Regents Professor of Composition, Butler School of Music, Director, UT New Music Ensemble

Amanda Williams, Board of Directors, the Lilith Fund

Dr. Carol Williams, Associate Professor, Chair of Women and Gender Studies, University of Lethbridge

Jennifer Williams, Visiting Scholar at Rice University

Courtney Williams Barron, doctoral candidate in American Studies, University of Texas at Austin

Jennifer Wilks, Associate Professor of English and African and African Diaspora Studies, University of Texas, Austin

Sherry Wolf, author, Sexuality and Socialism; editorial board, International Socialist Review.

Keeanga Yahmatta-Taylor, author of Rats, Riots and Revolution: Black Housing in the 1960s, Texas native

Lijun Yuan, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Texas State University, San Marcos

Lee Zimmerman, Professor of English, Hofstra University; Editor Twentieth-Century Literture

Dave Zirin, Sports Editor, The Nation Magazine

Faith Action for Women in Need (FAWN)

GetEqual TX

NARAL Pro-Choice Texas

To sign on, please email snehal100@hotmail.com

How the Papal example cannot save the University of Texas

In the name of the Father … I mean efficiency

The narrative presented by President Powers, “Smarter Systems for a Greater UT,” sounds too good to be true, in large part because it is.  It is premised on a contradiction which is all the more maddening because it is acknowledged, and then politely ignored.

The strategy developed for making the university work better, more efficiently, and still retain its excellence is “attrition.”  That this was the way that hundreds of thousands were sacrificed on the altar of Europe’s imperial ambitions in the last century, would be worth mentioning, except that the historical memory of our President seems to be limited to the obscure architectural accomplishments of the papacy.  Really, the pope managed to move an obelisk?  Are these the metaphors of innovation to which the university has been reduced?

You cannot have a strategic vision for a university, much less a war, on the basis of attrition.  It would be laughable if it weren’t for the fact that the university spent $960,000 to develop its well-worked out plan for saving money that amounts to, well, doing nothing and then charging more for it.  This is strategic neglect masquerading as policy.

Let me give you an example.

Two years ago, the Center for Asian American Studies, an already tiny center, was cut by 25%, despite the fact that we were exceeding expectations in terms of our “efficiency.”  Every metric that the university developed demonstrated at the time that the Center was actually performing well.  That year we also lost a senior faculty member to another institution.  The university did not approve using those savings to hire a replacement faculty member.

Last year, we also lost a full-time staff person, who was then replaced by a part-time staff person, and two of our faculty members were denied tenure.  This year, that part-time staff person is going to have leave her job because it doesn’t provide her with dental coverage which she needs.  The university, we have been informed, will not be refilling her position.

The Center for Asian American Studies will be one more casualty that will prove to the university that its plan is working.  There will be no discussion of the work that the faculty here do, the students they serve, the projects they work on, the communities outside the university to which they connect us.  Will we even pause to ask who is winning this war?

This is what attrition amounts to.  It amounts to taking excellence and then sapping it of all of its strength.  It is only through the deployment of Orwellian rhetoric that passivity can present itself as ingenuity and intelligence.  This is business orthodoxy pretending to be reform.

Lest I forget, here’s the remaining bits of the plan: charge more for things that people need like food and parking, and pay people less for the work they already do.  Oh and then there is also last year’s decision to charge students more tuition.  This is exactly what it means to run the university like a business, and no amount of papal sanctification can turn this water into wine.  We’ve run out of creativity at the top and we are hoping for miracles.

The sad part is that this plan will work: there will be savings, there will be efficiencies.  But it will also mean real, human casualties.  Education will suffer, as will the services that students are offered.  It will also be more expensive to be a longhorn.  Jobs will simply vanish into the ether.  And we will make do with less.  But the emphasis in that sentence has to be on the word “less” and not on the term “make do.”  And by the way, do you want an education in which “making do” is supposed to sound like “halleluiah?”

The nights are real, the days, lies

The nights are real, the days, lies

John Eliya

Scratch out my eyes if you will, I’ll never let go of my dreams

Neither their comforts nor their tortures will drive me to break my promises

New vistas do not dwell in the suburbs of the eyes

Must I also lose the treasures of my imagination?

Yes, my dreams detest the cold and shadowy implications of your mornings

Those mornings were only the shimmering and dizzying cycle of winter’s steam,

Of all of the suns that have ever been sold at evening’s counter

Like my night of dreams, burning, blazing nights

And each day of these icily condensed implications, is good and is true,

By which the blurry orbit of brilliance turns into a 360-degree illness

My darknesses are true, too

And your “albinism” is also a lie

The nights are real, the days, lies

As long as the days are lies, as long

Bear the nights and live in your dreams

They are better than dream-bleaching days

No, I won’t wrap myself in temptation’s fog

Scratch out my eyes if you will, I’ll still never let go of my dreams

I won’t break my promises

This is enough, it is my everything

The predation of months and years is my nemesis

Its reputation has been measured against my life

Let whatever happen, until my last breath let whatever happen

راتیں سچی ہیں، دن جھوٹے ہیں

چاہے تم میری بینائی کھرچ ڈالو پھر بھی میں اپنے خواب نہیں چھوڑوں گا
اِن کی لذت اور اذیت سے میں اپنا عہد نہیں توڑوں گا
تیز نظر نابیناؤں کی آبادی میں ،
کیا میں اپنے دھیان کی یہ پونجی بھی گنوا دوں
ہاں میرے خوابوں کو تمھاری صبحوں کی سرد اور سایہ گوں تعبیر
اِن صبحوں نے شام کے ہاتھوں اب تک جتنے سورج بیچے
وہ سب اک برفانی بھاپ کی چمکیلی اور چکر کھاتی گولائی تھے
سو میرے خوابوں کی راتیں جلتی اور دہکتی راتیں
ایسی یخ بستہ تعبیر کے ہر دن سے اچھی ہیں اور سچی بھی ہیں
جس میں دھندلا چکر کھاتا چمکیلا پن چھ اطراف کا روگ بنا ہے
میرے اندھیرے بھی سچے ہیں
اور تمھارے روگ اُجالے بھی جھوٹے ہیں
راتیں سچی ، دن جھوٹے
جب تک دن جھوٹے ہیں جب تک
راتیں سہنا اور اپنے خوابوں میں رہنا
خوابوں کو بہانے والے دن کے اجالے سے اچھے ہے
ہاں میں بہکاؤں کی دھند سے اڑھوں گا
چاہے تم میری بینائی کھرچ ڈالو میں پھر بھی اپنے خواب نہیں چھوڑوں گا
اپنا عہد نہیں توڑوں گا
یہی تو بس میرا سب کچھ ہے
ماہ و سال کے غارت گر سے میری ٹھنی ہے
میری جان پر آن بنی ہے
چاہے کچھ ہو میرے آخری سانس تلک اب چاہے کچھ ہو

The Spider’s Proverb

An attempt at a translation …

مقولہ عنکبوت

جون ایلیا‎

میں پیا پے جو موجود ہوں

صرف موجود ہوں

صرف موجود ہونے کی حالت میں ہونے کو جو حوصلہ چاہیے

وہ خدایا خدا میں بھی شاید نہ ہو

:عنکبوت رواق کہن کامرے یہ مقولہ ہے

ہے بھی نہیں

اور تھا بھی نہیں

The spider’s proverb

Jon Elia

I am present — on this web

Only present

Perhaps God does not even possess

The courage which existence requires

By virtue of mere presence

Such is the saying of my ancient line of arachnids:

He isn’t even

And He never even was

AuthentiCity and AlieNation — a review of Zadie Smith’s NW


In a controversial essay penned in 2008, Zadie Smith campaigned for a shift in the way that we understand and read novels.  Her New York Review of Books essay, “Two Paths for the Novel,” took the dominant tradition of lyrical, realist writing to task for its reliance on deeply held pieties: “the transcendent importance of form, the incantatory power of language to reveal truth, the essential fullness and continuity of the self.”  The novels which have been promoted by the critics in the twentieth century belong squarely to this tradition.

Smith’s rejoinder to this long-standing preference for realism is an inversion of the argument first made by Matthew Arnold in Culture and Anarchy:  now that God is dead, literature and its God, the lyrical self, must become the stuff of our new religion.  Smith’s retort to the Arnoldian penchant for “sweetness and light” is devastating: “But is this really what having a self feels like? Do selves always seek their good, in the end? Are they never perverse? Do they always want meaning? Do they not sometimes want its opposite? And is this how memory works? Do our childhoods often return to us in the form of coherent, lyrical reveries? Is this how time feels? Do the things of the world really come to us like this, embroidered in the verbal fancy of times past? Is this really Realism?”

This is also in part a novelistic rejoinder to Jean-Paul Sartre, himself another kind of advocate for the lyrical realist tradition.  Sartre’s injunction that we eschew the fiction of our own unfreedom (what he called “bad faith”) and embrace the dizzying, nauseating reality that we are always free to choose has given succor to the confident, novelistic self, which finds that when it is being most authentic it is also being its most beautiful.  The problem, as Zadie Smith contends, is that authenticity can also be an alibi, a narrative that we produce about ourselves to reconcile ourselves to our choices, that hides us from the reality that we are rarely as heroic as we appear in the rear-view mirrors of our epics.  It is interesting, isn’t it, that we become the most self-congratulatory, inflated, even eloquent when we feel we are being our most authentic, as if there were any correlation between morality and beauty anymore?

The vision that this leaves us with is perhaps bleak: we are not ultimately or consistently noble creatures, and the stories that we tell ourselves about our choices, even when they are authentic, may not actually help us understand our own place in the world.  Authenticity is another kind of hubris, in Smith’s telling, when most of us are defined by our deep familiarity with its twin: alienation.  But how do you predicate the Bildungsroman, that acme of the lyrical self, on the language of alienation?  Doesn’t this risk turning all literary endeavor into the flat rubble of antihumanism?  And haven’t Pynchon, Delillo, and their coterie of American postmodern novelists done this already?

Smith most recent novel, NW, while retracing steps taken by the postmodernists attempts to steer clear of both the easy course of modernist heroism—the legacy of Woolf and Joyce that hang heavily over this work—and the detritus of postmodernism by shifting the focus of the novel from the self in crisis to the anxieties of place.  The novel follows the lives of four people, all from a council estate called Caldwell in northwest London, as their lives go in directions that none imagined for themselves.  Each of the characters is confronted with the contradiction between a desired because unobtained ideal life, the dissatisfactions of the present, and the nostalgic selves which others remember because they have all shared a geography.  As a result, NW becomes a novel in which the only way to feel better about the sorry selves that we are is to find ways of reconnecting to the places that we inhabit.

The novel begins by taking apart an aphorism of authenticity and hollowing it out: “I am the sole author of the dictionary that defines me.”  It quickly turns into incantation and then meaninglessness:

I am the sole

I am the sole author

And later,

I am the

the sole

And even,

I am the sole. The sole. The sole.

The joke is Shakespearean in reverse (“I am a mender of worn soles”), undoing all of the work of literature to shore up the self as the unique confirmation of human heroism.  The anti-lyricism of the line, its emphasis on seriality and repetition, reflects back the emptiness at the center of human alienation rather than seeking out comforts in the fineness of literary revelation.    Later in the novel the same incantation is repeated with more desperation when it comes to mean that the self has no one else to blame for its ruin.  There is no revelatory self which can snatch from this rubble a jewel of good writing: lyricism cannot be a bulwark against radical possibility.

The inauthentic selves, but very real characters, that haunt NW: Leah Hanwell (an Anglo-Irish philosophy major turned public servant who is desperately unhappy about her marriage); Natalie (nee Keisha) Blake (the descendant of Caribbean immigrants who “wills” herself through law school and a family that she also recklessly endangers); Felix Cooper (the painfully optimistic filmmaker/drug dealer whose death becomes the crisis the rest of the novel seeks to understand); and Nathan Bogle (the high school athlete and heart throb turned into homeless pimp).  All of them take drugs, all of them went to the same school, and all of them find it impossible to bear the contradiction between their desires and their realities.  This line could have been written about anyone of them—“She was on the run from herself”; it happens to describe Leah.

The novel is best when it tears apart the fictions of self.  Keisha and her first boyfriend, savagely: “They thought life was a problem that could be solved by means of professionalization.”  Leah at a dinner party, pathetically: “While she was becoming, everyone grew up and became.”  Nathan Bogle, angrily: “See but that’s how you see it—I don’t see it like that.  To me it’s just truth.  She was trying to tell me something true.  But you don’t want to hear that.  You want to hear some other shit.  Oh Nathan I remember when you were this and that and you were all fucking sweet and shit, you get me?  Nice memory.  Last time I was in your yard I was ten.”  And unable find consolation in the omnipresence of their alienation, they can only see in each other reminders that the stories about the selves to which we all cling ring tinny when anyone else speaks them.

This deep attention to the agony of alienation, to the partial lives and devastated ambitions of her characters, prevents the novel from careening into antihumanism by replacing the obvious nihilistic conclusions with a ruthless anti-literariness.  This is a novel peopled by the failure of literary representations, and so its critiques are ruthless and daring: almost every figure of the canon is here politely acknowledged and then surpassed.  Dickens is too earnest; Donne too transcendent; and William Morris is just plain fodder: “The Cock Tavern. MacDonalds. The old Woolworths. The betting shop. The State Empire. Willesden Lane. The cemetery. Whoever said these were fixed coordinates to which she had to be forever faithful? How could she play them false? Freedom was absolute and everywhere, constantly moving location.”

Perhaps it is more precise to say that NW reveals something that we have all suspected but never been able to articulate so clearly: the novelistic tradition’s dependence on the individual (bourgeois) subject makes it too easy to show the seams and joints of its formal choices.  Having abandoned the subject to its own breakdown, NW, variously, becomes a novel in search of authentic form.  And in some ways, this displacement of authenticity from character to location helps to explain the novel’s seriality, pace, and movement; it wants to unsettle in all the ways it can.  After all, the problem with authenticity in the contemporary world is that we imagine it to be both imminent and immanent, which is why we experience it as an adjective (authentic) and a verb (authenticate), as a fact and as a process.

NW is easily the most significant novel of the last decade because it so frontally challenges and excruciatingly interrogates the fiction of fiction, and finds that selves and literature may both benefit from a more gentle anti-heroism.  It allows Smith to challenge some of the odd pieties we have inherited about multiculturalism and neoliberalism without faltering into reactionary clichés about personal uplift.  And in so doing she not only lays bare the dangerous seductions of literature as aesthetic ideology, as a snake oil for the ailing conscience, she also offers the promise of the “real” as an antipode to the literary: “If candor were a thing in the world that a person could hold and retain, if it were an object, maybe Natalie Blake would have seen that the perfect gift at this moment was an honest account of her own difficulties and ambivalences, clearly stated, without disguise, embellishment or prettification.”