What We’re Reading

Instead of a book review column written by one person, we invited several folks to review their favorite recent books. Three responded: Cindy Crabb, author of the 'zine Doris, John Dudda of Red Emma's Bookstore Coffeehouse, and Joshua Stephens from the IAS board.

From Cindy Crabb:

Girl Zines: Making Media, Doing Feminism; by Alison Piepmeier, New York University Press, NYC, NY, 2009 is an academic book about girl zines, and "what they can tell us about the inner lives of girls and women over the last twenty years." This book explores ways women's and girls's sense of self, political involvement, agency and embodiment have been affected by writing and reading zines. Piepmeier uses this book to "consider what kinds of resistance are possible within this particular cultural and historical context and how girls and women leverage the available cultural materials to create personal identites and communities." Academic, but fun to read. (excerpt from back of book and page 12)

Come Hell or High Water: A Handbook on Collective Process Gone Awry; by Vannucci and Singer; AK Press, Oakland, CA. 2010. Everyone who is involved in a collective or wants to do collective organizing should read this book, even if they've been in a collective for years and think they know everything. It's extremely accessible and to the point, and discusses just about every problem I've ever seen in collectives. Chapters include: "Tactics Used to Subvert Democratic Process," "The Baggage of Collective Members," "Banning," "Relinquishing Control," and "Staying True to the Mission."

Other books that didn't come out this year, but that you probably haven't read:

Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity, by Julia Serano; Seal Press, Emeryville, CA 2007. This book "...reveals the way that fear, contempt, and dismissiveness toward femininity shape society's attitudes toward trans women, as well as gender and sexuality as a whole." (excerpt from back of book). Political and brilliant.

On The Lower Frequencies: A Secret History of the City, by Erick Lyle; Soft Skull Press, Berkeley CA, 2008.
This is a recent history of San Francisco and people's resistance to gentrification. It is extremely funny and inspiring. Interviews with Biotic Baking Brigade, Gay Shame, Punks Against War, The UN Plaza Homeless Project; investigative reporting about welfare hotels mysteriously burning down during the dot-com era of city development.

From John Duda:
There are three books released in the past year which I have found exceptionally intriguing from an anarchist perspective, all of which are relevant precisely because while they all present accounts of people engaging in long-term struggles against the state. None of the struggles chronicled in the three books in question, however, are being waged by self-identified "anarchists."

James C. Scott's The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia (Yale UP,2009), for its part, makes the argument that (following Pierre Clastres) we need in many cases to reread the history of people who have traditionally been regarded as primitive remnants of historical epochs preceding the emergence of the state instead as active deserters from the state, using geographic isolation, antisedentary agriculture, and even the deliberate abandonment of writing as weapons in a struggle to escape incorporation into the work regime of the state form. Focusing on a Europe-sized region of Southeast Asia spanning seven national borders he calls Zomia, Scott argues that the real history of this region over the past two millenia(!) is one characterized first and foremost by widespread and largely successful practices designed to evade and ward off the state.

A flaw in Scott's book is his inability to draw consequences from these practices for contemporary struggles, but here, one can turn to Raúl Zibechi's amazing account of present-day struggles against the state in Bolivia, Dispersing Power: Social Movements As Anti-State Forces(AK Press, 2010). Here the account focuses on the indigenous alternatives to permanent, centralized power, against the backdrop both of Latin American neoliberalism and the social democracy under Evo Morales. What's most exciting about Zibechi's investigation is not just that it's looking at fascinating anti-state conceptions and tactics embedded within indigenous society and culture, but that he's concentrating on the encounter of these conceptions and tactics with modernity, and specifically in the way in which the city of El Alto, only a few decades old, has been constructed in the wake of mass displacement by its indigenous inhabitants in ways that thwart the formation or penetration of state power, and indeed, have proved potent means of constructing a platform for broader challenges to state-facilitated neoliberal dispossesion in Bolivia.

And speaking of cities and unexpected anarchisms closer to home, Matt Hern's Common Ground in a Liquid City: Essays in Defense of an Urban Future (AK Press, 2009), while making a number of important and highly accesible arguments about urban sustainability, settler culture, and gentrification, also traces the ways in which the best cities are those that build themselves---where self-determination, mutual aid, and horizontal sociality, rather than central planners and speculators, shape the built and lived environment. Again, this process, which Hern tracks in neighborhoods from his hometown of Vancouver and around the world, is perhaps another kind of overlooked anarchism, an implict anarchism. And while I'd be the last person to suggest that we shouldn't be explicit and call ourselves and our ideas "anarchist," it's the virtue of these three new books to remind us how much we can learn from other, more implicit forms of struggle against the state.

From Joshua Stephens:

In its February 22nd, 2010 obituary of Colin Ward, the Guardian reminded readers that "Colin saw all distant goals as a form of tyranny and believed that anarchist principles could be ­discerned in everyday human relations and impulses. Within this perspective, politics was about strengthening ­co-operative ­relations and supporting human ingenuity in its myriad vernacular and everyday forms." Arguably, the uprising against the WTO in Seattle eleven years ago, and its unexpected success, rekindled an aspiration toward -- and belief in the viability of -- a more cataclysmic vision of revolution. At that, it's one that has endured despite that such successes have shown little in the way of replicability.

Correspondingly, crises of virtually every stripe over the last decade, from economic collapses and tsunamis, to wars and hurricanes, to earthquakes and coups, have produced often unprecedented forms animated by solidarity, human innovation, and unconditional care. Often enough, these appear to have been pulled straight from the air we breathe, under conditions of unthinkable suffering and duress. Conspicuously, such crises rarely seem to inspire irrevocable, linear sorts of shifts toward revolution, as it's conventionally understood. It makes for an instructive contrast -- one that Ward would've likely underscored. Fitting then that Autonomy, Solidarity, Possibility: The Colin Ward Reader (AK Press) should arrive in this particular moment. Covering ground from social theory, to education, to city planning, to transportation, to housing -- all hats Ward wore at one time or another -- editors Damian White and Chris Wilbert have assembled in 375 pages a collection perhaps unsensational in its pragmatism, but stunning in its breadth, brilliance, and (most importantly) seriousness. Combining Ward's observation of the revolutionary in the everyday with Howard Zinn's histories from below, Jordan Flaherty brings us Floodlines: Community Resistance from Katrina to the Jena Six (Haymarket Books, 2010). To borrow from Eve Ensler's nod to the book, it functions as something of a "people's history of the storm," whereby Flaherty excavates struggle as a piece of Louisiana's very culture, documenting the emergence of popular forms as a politics of necessity. Simultaneously, what Flaherty offers well beyond this is a politics drawn from narrative, from before Katrina, up through the upheaval surrounding the Jena Six. Given his intimate relationship to these movements, his ceaseless dedication to illuminating them, and his unlikely victories in bringing them to the forefront of american consciousness, one could hardly ask for a more capable voice. Also drawing on the cultivation of organic forms -- particularly in the way of representation -- is Jeff Conant's A Poetics of Resistance: The Revolutionary Public Relations of the Zapatista Insurgency (AK Press, 2010). After some sixteen years, various iterations, tactical experiments, reinventions, and perhaps even simply the reality that there are now adults who were born, raised, and educated entirely within the world Zapatismo remade in southern Mexico, the fact of an initial few weeks of armed conflict almost seems a footnote. Appropriately, the first page of Conant's book quotes the late Edward Said, insisting on the primacy of narrative as a field of anti-imperialist struggle. And, indeed, Zapatismo's articulation, and the manner in which it -- against considerable odds -- captured the imaginations of vast sectors Mexican civil society, is virtually unthinkable when divorced from what could reasonably be described as a new genre of political writing. Therein, we find not just a writing of words or pages, but a (re)writing of possibility. Conant's is a welcome meditation, and might be the first major work attempting a technical, tactical analysis of Zapatismo as a communications strategy unto itself.

Cindy Crabb is a writer, public speaker, and sexual abuse survivor advocate. She writes the zine Doris, and edited the zines Support, Apoyo, and Learning Good Consent.

John Duda is a collective member of Red Emma’s Bookstore Coffeehouse in Baltimore, where he also is finishing a PhD examining the intersections between anarchist/autonomist theory and the sciences of self-organization. He is the editor ofWanted! Men to Fill the Jails of Spokane (Charles H. Kerr, 2009).

Joshua Stephens is a board member of the Institute for Anarchist Studies. He likes coffee and bikes, and dislikes socks.

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