Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Recommended Reading: To know yourself and your place in the world…?

[For students of all specialized disciplines, including physics.]


We have obvious biological drives to feed ourselves, seek physical shelter, and reproduce. And it is in our natures to both compete and cooperate, to both hate and feel compassion. We adapt these drives and tendencies to our circumstances and to social and physical realities, while being guided and misguided by our individual psychologies that are in turn products of our environments and accidents of our developments.

We are also political beings. We want agency and influence. We need some control over our place in the world. And on this front, there is a divide between those who feel and believe the world is just and is close to ideal in terms of what is practical and those who believe the world is unjust and far from a more just world that is possible; those who feel that they can accept their place in society and cooperate to ameliorate their circumstances and those who feel that present structures are unacceptable and should be fought and dismantled.

These are two end-points and there is every variety and deception in-between that varies in time and place and from person to person. But nonetheless they are bimodal attractors in that, at a given time and place, we tend to adopt predominantly one interpretation or the other. Fight or flight? Friend or foe? Safe or dangerous? There are many such bimodal attractors that determine our survival choices.

Just or unjust? Liveable and stable or wrong and dangerous? Am I being oppressed or respected? Am I being used and coerced or given my due and appreciated? As worker, student, mother, child, citizen of the Third or First Worlds…?

Our fundamental beliefs about the extent to which and the ways in which the present “order” is just and sane are what predominantly distinguish us as political beings. These will determine whether we are liberals, conservatives, socialists, or anarchists, in our hearts.

And these beliefs are constantly managed and groomed by the First World trillion-dollar-a-year industry that fabricates our mental environment. So, even if you must medicate yourself with alcohol, consumerism, and entertainment, the aim is that you come to believe that this is an acceptable life, that the rewards make it meaningful, and that to fight against it is futile.

Which brings us to the question of a reading list: One might conclude that education is the answer and that independent and alternative information can lead to political development and more justice. I don’t believe this. Education as a first step, practiced on oneself from a position of having integrated mainstream compliance, is inaction and self co-optation.

One’s justice-injustice world view, one’s anti-authoritarian stance, one’s defiance, and one’s solidarity with the oppressed, are determined by the deep experiences of growing human; involving contacts with life and death, struggles won and lost, facing danger, taking risks, and acting to change one’s place in the world (family, cooperative, community, society).

Reading independent and alternative information can serve either side and does not create justice fighters on its own. But it is an invaluable source of inspiration and aid-in-reflection for the developing activists who already know things are wrong.

At best, reading powerful material can momentarily destabilize the indoctrinated individual, thereby creating opportunities for action.

Action, its results and any backlash, is what educates. Breaking the rules informs us of the true nature of the system that imprisons us, something we cannot learn from books. This in-turn allows us to decode the great writers that spoke from the trenches, from experience. It allows us to see writers for what they are, on the justice-injustice divide.

Therefore, my first recommendation is about this divide, as expressed in the intellectual. True intellectuals who are freedom fighters versus service intellectuals who serve power:

Representations of the Intellectual
...by Edward W. Said, 1994
(Vintage Books edition, 1996)

A related essay is:
Gradual Change is Not Progress
...by dgr

The rest of my recommendations are divided into two themes: (1) Anarchist writers and anarchism as the most advanced political theory, consistent with human liberation from oppression and exploitation, and (2) independent analyses of the world and its societal structures – how things work and how they got that way.


Virtually all the true intellectuals identified by Said and by whoever cares to enumerate them are and were anarchists, in that they believed in the liberated human spirit, liberated from all oppressive structures and all institutions not directly mandated by democratic consensus.

If you know in your gut that things are wrong and if your reaction is to want to fight it rather than accept it to hopefully transform it incrementally, then read about anarchism; read the anarchists. There are usually no courses on anarchism on university campuses. Find the anarchists (Mikhail Bakunin, Emma Goldman, Peter Kropotkin, Erico Malatesta, Emile Pouget, Pierre Joseph Proudhon, Georges Sorel, and many many others) on the web (see links below) and in libraries and read them.

The anarchists, like the Paris students of May 1968, call on us to “live instead of devising a lingering death.” And life is risk: “Sous les pavés il y a la plage.” (May’68 student slogan)

Many of the greatest intellectuals of our time have declared themselves anarchists and have adopted anarchist ideals (see: Chomsky on Anarchism, Barry Pateman, AK Press, 2005).

I recommend a small book that is one of my favourites:

...by Erico Malatesta, 1891
(translation by Vernon Richards, Freedon Press, 1974, 1994)

(Note: A bad translation is available on the web but the Richards translation makes all the difference!)

Compare it to Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’ brilliant The Communist Manifesto first published in 1848. These are two small essay-length books but rarely are pages so densely packed with powerful ideas. The dissonances with modern mainstream mass media spin are striking. Minds at work…! This comparison allows one to clearly discern socialist-communist models from anarchist thought.

For those wishing to situate their activism and modern activism in the broadest possible historical context of world views and defining ideologies, I recommend David Noble’s “pocket book”:

Beyond The Promised Land: The Movement and The Myth
...by David F. Noble, 2005
(Between the Lines, Toronto, 2005)

It puts anarchism in its rightful place and shows that history does not simply repeat itself…

We are all students and we are all teachers. The anarchist educator par excellence is Paulo Freire, the father of critical pedagogy. I recommend his book:

Pedagogy of the Oppressed
...by Paulo Freire, 1970
(Continuum, NY, 2005)

This is a very difficult read. I think one cannot understand or know how to apply this work without a critical mass of fighting and organizing experience. But don’t give up.

Some great anarchism stuff and resources and networks on the web:












Among salaried employees, there is a difference between labourers and workers on the one hand and professionals and managers on the other. The first can simply be forced to obey, using job loss and working conditions as tools of oppression, whereas the latter must obey and adopt the employer’s ideology. That is why we have universities and professional and graduate schools.

My first recommendation in this section is for all who have been and continue to be subjected to a university education:

Disciplined Minds: A critical look at salaried professionals and the soul-battering systems that shapes their lives
...by physicist Jeff Schmidt, 2001
(Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham MD, 2001, http://disciplinedminds.com/)

It’s about knowing the system that shaped/shapes you.

Next, you probably want to read an independent history of how America (the US and Canada) got to somewhat recognise civil rights, workers rights, freedom of expressed, and other such nuisances to people in power. I recommend:

A People’s History of the United States
...by Howard Zinn, 1980
(Perennial Classics, 2003)

And what about genocide? What about Canada’s dirty hidden genocide? You probably want to know about the continental-scale crime against humanity perpetrated by Canadian (and US) society. Therefore read:

A Little Matter of Genocide: Holocaust and Denial in the Americas 1492 to the Present
...by Ward Churchhill, 1997
(City Lights Books, San Francisco, 1997)

Finally, on the theme of understanding the world, one should introduce oneself to Chomsky. The most complete and readable Chomsky reader I have found is:

Understanding Power: The indispensable Chomsky
...edited by Peter R. Mitchell and John Schoeffel, 2002
(The New Press, NY, 2002)

And you probably want to know something about feminism, especially if it did not occur to you as a particularly important “ism”. A wonderful introduction to feminism, in the broader context of class struggles, is provided by bell hooks (bell hooks does not capitalize her name):

Feminism is for Everybody
...by bell hooks, 2000
(South End Press, Cambridge MA, 2000)

Such are some bits and pieces that might distract you from the forced ingurgitation of your specialized program of study…? May your discomfort grow and be amplified. May you be deeply perturbed and inspired to act. Or may these writings inform your actions and nurture your mid-action reflections. Otherwise, it’s wasted.


Sorensen said...

Here's something interesting:

And here we go

Stage 1 - Denial (This can't be happening)
Stage 2 - Anger (We have to find those who did this!)
Stage 3 - Bargaining (Well, maybe we can save enough to have them raised)
Stage 4 - Depression (I miss them so much)
Stage 5 - Acceptance (They always made me laugh)

um the 3rd example is weird because of the context I ripped this from.

It seems like half of society is in stage one, and third maybe in stage two; not necessarily evenly distributed among all demographics, etc.

In this model, acceptance is the final, desireable goal; perhaps an alternate model which focusses on the same essential psychology can show an alternate 'route', that leads to, I donno, say, peaceful change? Maybe stick Gandhi in there at stage three and see what happens?

I think depression is likely to occur before a stage where real positive change is going to happen...people have to realize, and be aware, of how bad things really are, and internalize this. But the stage after, one ...determines what this means, personally, and how one is going to respond... like in Hamlet, the question: "Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of
troubles, and by opposing end them?" (the whole soliloqui is relevant, for those with that interest, to... such a psychology... in fact, the play itself is very much in the spirit of dealing with corruption and conspiracy)

Perhaps a culture of fear helps push people towards feeling they are helpless and alone; incapable of making meaningful, lasting change. Perhaps inspiring examples of people rocking the boat is the spark that lights the powder keg - people seeing a direct avenue towards changing their circumstances, and injustice.
But perhaps that is deceptive as well, as many times, the avenues for change are not as clear and straightforward as we would like to believe, when we see it done with others, but are in fact part of something much more complex, and organic.
So, how to inspire people to do things that will cause lasting change through 'just transition' practices, rather than the 'short, straight line' of passion and a simplified interpretation of what one's actions will achieve, and how to go about them?
1) Having time to spend on it. A support network that allows one to exist while trying various avenues for change.
2) Access to 'experience'; something that gives both power to interpret past, present, and possible future events, and to help on reflecting on their meaning, and putting that into context.
Conviction and motivation.
Something touches you personally, possibly threatening something you love. Something threatened and taken away, leaves only the possibility of vengeance, but something in constant threat, but not taken away, like the love for children/ family, may cause people to devote a persistent amount of effort to such considerations. If you neither love nor hate anything, the third, and most powerful of these points, may remain missing. Sorry, this is just my interpretation. Hope you find it useful.

Sorensen said...

two other things I see might be useful in evolving things to a better situation, given the first three: respect, and love.

Respect, in that people restrict themselves to somewhat civilized means, to resolve conflicts,

and Love, so that people will actually take the effort to work with people, and try to find a means of communication, etc, rather than just deciding someone is an enemy, and deciding to instead work to 'eliminate' them, rather than reach consensus or some compromise that serves what is best for all involved.

Open-mindedness, might allow people to ... consider other views of what a 'compromise that serves what is best for all' in fact is. The ability to see past dogma to the function that it is meant to serve...

Brian said...

Thank you for these links. 'Very useful.

Sorensen said...


Anonymous said...

Anger is an important part of breaking out of the system because the system spends so long teaching us that we are bad if we are angry. We are taught that anger will not help us accomplish anything, that our anger will isolate and shame us, that anger necessarily equals violence and villainy. All of this is untrue. Anger is righteous. Anger is powerful. Our anger is our first indication that something is deeply wrong. I will unlearn politeness and passivity and I will find my anger, because it is the only way I will be free.

Anonymous said...

The idea of conflict and 'rebelling' seems to suggest the point of view we are separate beings: if the others we perceive are a projection of our own inner reality, in fact it is ourselves, we must negotiate with, and this desire to create separateness is our attempt to create a schism from the darkness we know and see within ourselves.
The only way to overcome, instead of succomb, to this darkness, I think, is to know it, and own it: you will learn in which way it is meant to serve you, and how it is a compromise from the truth. In so doing, you will see a path to mastery: to take stubbornness and refine it into determination, self-righteousness to elevate to righteousness.

By seeing separateness, we create conflict, see the 'other' as the problem, and therefor the solution not withing ourselves, but in changing the other; create judgments of good and evil, without the context of knowing individuals personal circumstances and psychologies.

The principle in aikido of harmonizing with an opponent, and then 'leading' and taking control, focusses on the sameness, on blending, and therefore something of a gradual, constructive shift of energies, rather than a destructive clash or cancellation; it channels existing energy, and moves it in a way that fulfills its true purpose and intention, when the means and aims have been misguided, and thereby makes friends of enemies, by giving them what they really needed, so they no longer need to fight for things they misperceive as their needs. For instance, one may wish to have love, and try to fulfill this through lust, take rejection as meaning one is unlovable, then retreat deeper into their armour, rather than revealing their hearts and becoming open, and thereby 'allow' others to love them, decreasing such a hyperfocus on the perceived need, lust, on a physical level, which is distracting them from their deeper needs which they have hidden away like an animal tries to conceal its injuries to dissuade attack.

Evil harmonizes with, coopts and corrupts the good too; or perhaps a better word than evil is self-interest and rationalization; holding on to integrity, while being flexible and open, willing to closeness, is what allows one to best find and maintain control: if one redirects another's energy in such a way that is best suited to their needs, even if it opposes their wants, the resistance will still melt away, as the truth penetrates their consciousness and conscience; the animal may resist in fear, but the deeper being within relaxes, and will allows itself to be healed, and help - and this is where a being's true power lies.
or in this case, finds its truth.