Of Margins, Refuge, and Struggle

This post began as a reflection on some ideas that Robin DeRosa offered in one part of her recent keynote address for the AMICAL Conference in Cairo. It may be helpful look at the transcript or video of the “Frankenstein’s Margins” section of the keynote to understand some of the context here. (Like most informal writing of this sort, the topic I thought I was writing about shifted as I wrote. I have kept some of the false paths and false starts in place. A bit of a Frankenstein monster, this.)

When I first started blogging back in 2003, my blog didn’t have a comments section because back then Blogger didn’t have a built-in comments tool. At some point, maybe a couple months into the blog’s life, I discovered a commenting tool that could be added to the site with a bit of HTML fiddling, and so I added it. (Back then, everything required a bit of HTML fiddling, including every individual post, as there was no WYSIWYG editor. You kids don’t know how spoiled you are now that you don’t have to walk uphill both ways just to create a blog post!) Once my site got some attention, comments started pouring in. Sometimes it was a lot of fun, especially the occasional times when a famous writer stopped by to say hello and offer some ideas. But it also often felt burdensome. Most comments weren’t especially great or awful. Some were derailing, whether intentionally so or not; some were flat-out abusive. A few were brilliant and helped me reconfigure my thinking.

When I switched from one commenting system to a newer one and lost all the original comments, I didn’t feel any sense of loss. When I changed systems two more times (the last to move to Blogger’s own native commenting system), I also felt no sense of loss. Then, a couple years ago, when I decided to get rid of comments altogether, again I didn’t feel any regret. I’ve never been tempted to turn comments on back at that blog.

I’ve kept comments on this site. I am occasionally tempted to turn them off, even though I’ve never gotten a bad comment here, unlike at my old site. Sometimes a comment box on a blog post is exactly the right thing, and comments can be productive and interesting and funny and powerful. Maybe my own feelings are changing to be more in favor of comment boxes now that I’ve got some distance from where those negative feelings began. We’ll see. For now, comments here don’t bother me, and I always keep in mind that there are some extraordinary examples of comments sections becoming communities — Ta-Nehisi Coates is the gold standard, but if a site gains any popularity, then holding up such a standard can easily become a full-time job. (No, I don’t think I’m in any danger of that here!)

Photo by Phil Botha on Unsplash

To analyze the pervasive character of the border’s operations—let alone the marked violence that accompanies them—we need a more complex and dynamic conceptual language than that which sustains images of walls and exclusions.

—Sandro Mezzadra & Brett Neilson, Border as Method, or, The Multiplication of Labor

As Freud would undoubtedly agree, how we come of age shapes us for a long time. I came of age on the internet particularly via my other blog, The Mumpsimus, and the early days of blogging were, for me, incredibly exciting, incredibly empowering, and incredibly bruising. (I expect just about every reaction I have to internet things and to digital technology generally could be explained, or at least contextualized, via how things happened in the first few years of my life as a blogger.) I’d never been consistently part of a general public before, never had my thoughts and feelings out there for anybody with an internet connection to see — and then comment on. And I had an easy time of it. I may be queer, and write openly as a queer person, but I’m still a white male in the U.S., writing in a style that may be seen as convoluted and/or pretentious, but at least is seen as somehow “standard” and “educated”. There are people who get in one day more abuse online than I’ve gotten in 15+ years. And what I’ve gotten is enough to make me pretty damn cautious.

I never for a moment had to wonder why Audrey Watters would create a script to prevent Genius and Hypothesis from adding annotations to her website. When I read Watters’ post about it, I almost grabbed the script myself. I understood that decision from a very deep place.

I was brought back to that very deep place recently when reading k-punk: The Collected and Unpublished Writings of Mark Fisher, which includes the evolution of the comments policies at Fisher’s k-punk blog. k-punk began a month after my own blog, and I read it from its early days, though not religiously, as I didn’t yet have enough understanding of the contexts and philosophies Fisher was writing from to be able to make sense of a lot of it. But it was hard to avoid k-punk if you were blogging back in the early days of this century and had an interest in left politics. I remember when Fisher posted a new comments policy in September 2004, and you can see the reaction in the comments still preserved on that post. Five days later, Fisher decided to turn comments off on all future posts, and that’s the way things stayed.

“Yesterday,” Fisher wrote, “when I closed most of the current comments boxes down, you can’t imagine the relief I felt. I could come to k-punk without feeling sick with anxiety about what unthought out oedipalised rage, overgrown adolescent boy sulks and gliberal stupid American platitudes (‘hey man, all that Marxist lingo makes my cringes cringe…’) I would have to deal with.

“It was definitely more stressful than work. And I have a very stressful job.”

I remember reading that and feeling sympathy as well as a certain amount of envy — envy both of the conversations he was inspiring and envy of his decision to send those conversations elsewhere. I never got even a fraction of the comments that Fisher got, but even still, whenever a new comment came in, I braced myself, ready for combat.

Not too much later, Fisher created a forum, Dissensus. I don’t remember reading it back then, but I might have. I don’t know Fisher’s actual reasons for starting it, or how he thought of it in relations to kpunk — he may have expressed it online somewhere, I haven’t looked — but I can make an uneducated guess that the forum worked for him in a way comments on the kpunk blog didn’t because the forum’s whole purpose was community discussion, while a blog’s purpose may be more individual. And social media something else again.

Photo via NASA

…we can say that border as method for us is as much about acting on the world as it is about knowing it. More accurately, it is about the relation of action to knowledge in a situation where many different knowledge regimes and practices come into conflict. Border as method involves negotiating the boundaries between the different kinds of knowledge that come to bear on the border and, in so doing, aims to throw light on the subjectivities that come into being through such conflicts.

—Sandro Mezzadra & Brett Neilson, Border as Method, or, The Multiplication of Labor

The sentence that most stuck with me from Fisher’s declaration on shutting down comments was: “The comments boxes have become almost completely unproductive. Almost all of the worthwhile discussion happens between members of the kollelktive, who, if the comments boxes weren’t there, might be inspired to produce their own posts.” That, I thought then, was my own ideal. Not people conversing at one central site, but at their own sites, and linking to each other to create a web or rhizome, a discussion with many entrances and exits, paths in a journey with no fixed destination, no single end.

(“All middle,” Galsworthy said of Chekhov’s stories, “like a tortoise.”)

Of course, blogs and blog comments are so, like, last decade. Facebook and Twitter took over. By the time I turned comments off at The Mumpsimus, most of what previously would have gone into the comment boxes appeared on social media. If I’d crunched the numbers, I’m sure I would have been able to graph a compelling correlation between the rise in social media’s popularity and the fall-off in commenting at my site.

But that would have been only one part of the story.

I didn’t need Twitter and Facebook for my site to lose commenters. I’d gotten rid of most of them myself. I started running the site in a way that quite deliberately cut down on its audience: posting only occasionally, writing long posts, writing about whatever I happened to want to write about rather than about the hot new things or the day’s controversies or all the people who are wrong on the internet. I decided I wanted to write in a way to discourage casual, fly-by-night readers. Part of my anxiety over the site had to do with people just popping in, as they will do on the internet, and spouting off without any knowledge of why I was writing or what I had written in the past.

But yes, like many bloggers, I also cut way down on the types of posts that now made better Tweets or Facebook posts — short, immediate stuff — and that, too, reduced audience.

For all of these reasons, the border is for us not so much a research object as an epistemological viewpoint that allows an acute critical analysis not only of how relations of domination, dispossession, and exploitation are being redefined presently but also of the struggles that take shape around these changing relations. The border can be a method precisely insofar as it is conceived of as a site of struggle.

—Sandro Mezzadra & Brett Neilson, Border as Method, or, The Multiplication of Labor

When it comes to meaningful thinking, I am easily undone by cacophony, and easily perceive multiple voices to be cacophonous. I suppose it’s why as a student I’ve never much enjoyed class discussions, and why as a teacher I struggle to make them work. (Struggle is not always failure. But knowing that class discussion is not something I have great talent for, either as participant or leader, I tend to seek other formats, other ways leading on to other ways. The workaround that I have found most successful in my own classes is to have students break into groups for discussions. I don’t mind those as much myself as a student, and seem to be able to manage them better as a teacher, mostly because it allows me to only have to “manage” the ones that aren’t working and let the ones that are working do their thing.) If I am ever in a group of more than 3 or 4 people and don’t know them well, I usually won’t talk unless directly addressed, and will probably feel awkward, uncomfortable, and that the whole event is taking much too long — whereas I have no trouble with 1 or 2 newish/unfamiliar people, and often, in fact, enjoy such interaction and want it to last longer.

It makes sense, then, that the kind of internet space I feel most comfortable with — something like the blogosphere of old — replicates a lot of those dynamics. Similarly, I adjusted some of my approach on social media to make peace with the cacophony (multiple Twitter accounts for different purposes, highly curated Twitter feeds, no guilt about muting/blocking quickly, a Facebook account where I try only to “friend” people I have had some sort of good interaction with so that I can create both public and friends-limited posts depending on my mood or desire to interact with the world, the public posts available to anybody, the friends-only posts limited to people who I feel some even very small sense of connection to). Our individual ideas of cacophony vary, but managing cacophony may be the difference between having a valuable online experience versus a tormenting one.

My writing in this post so far says more about me than about anything else. I need to lay these personal preferences and prejudices out for the rest of what I’m going to write to make any sense, but I am wary of extending my personal preferences into some sort of recommended rules and regulations. My goal here is not to make you into an image of myself, but rather to see what happens when we think about the complexities of our oh-so-human responses to technological existence.

As I write, I find myself returning to the word I used above regarding classroom discussions: struggle. Not automatically fail, not automatically reject, but struggle. Seeking the good struggle, the struggle toward progress or knowledge, trying to get away from the pointless struggles, the struggles that just waste time and energy, the struggles that beat us down until we don’t struggle anymore (the boot pressing the face into the mud).

So here I must say I struggle with Hypothesis. We require its use in the classes in my program, and I have kept that requirement. The folks at Hypothesis have been nothing but kind and helpful to us. I’ve found it legitimately useful in gauging my students’ understanding of and interaction with some of the course material. It is an amazing tool in all sorts of different ways.

And I really don’t like using it. I just wrote lots of paragraphs about why, and have cut them because they are too digressive and too much about the quirks of my own neuroses. I realized I am writing here not to advocate for abandoning Hypothesis — I expect to continue using it to some extent or another in my classes — but rather to advocate for what I’m always advocating for: Keep in mind that no tool is perfect for everyone, and we need to be empowered to refuse tools that other people embrace.

(How is digital annotation anything other than a comments section that can be placed anywhere on a page? Is that enough? Is that too much?)

In conversations about being committed to opening up education and to finding tools for people to use to bring margins to the center, it’s easy to fall back on slogans from other contexts, to talk about, for instance, speaking truth to power, a phrase sure to bring a shiver of righteousness to the heart of anyone with deep sense of justice. Who among us doesn’t want to speak truth to power? We have the truth, they have power, the people united will never be defeated no justice no peace what do we want TRUTH when do we want it NOW—

(The title of my autobiography could be: I Have Qualms.)

Does digital annotation actually speak truth to power? As I think of “speak truth to power”, no, but my idea of that phrase may be more insistently radical than other people’s idea of it. Perhaps digital annotation does speak, but it’s not going to be heard unless the powers-that-be are already primed for listening, in which case you’re not so much speaking truth to power as engaging power within a mutually-agreed discussion space. Which is valuable — indeed, exactly where we might want to get to — but it comes after what I, at least, think of as speaking truth to power, which is much more of an intervention. (It’s nice to be able to respond to peer reviewers, for instance, but I’ve got to have the knowledge and access to be able to get read by peer reviewers in the first place.) It’s not speaking truth to power to say, “Hello, please add this extension to your browser so that you can see what I have to say to you.” That’s submitting a tech request to power.

Digital annotation may not really have the ability to speak outward in an insistent way, but it can easily have a community-building effect because of its ability to create borders. It can be invisible except to certain users, certain groups, those in the know, the elect. The margins become a place where people of shared identities/inclinations/interests gather to comment. That can be a group of students working on projects in a class or it can be a group of racists using digital tools to create a safe space for their hatred.

What would be speaking truth to power via digital annotation? One method might be hacking and defacement — scrawling your idea of truth across the screen of power. Which is sometimes absolutely necessary, but is a heckuva lot more invasive and obstructive than any digital annotation tool! There’s an aggression to speaking truth to power, as I use the term, because it requires a crossing of some significant borders, and it requires getting out of any safe space, any walled room. It’s deeply uncomfortable and potentially dangerous. It requires usurping the right to speak from the power that is either ignoring or denying that right. It requires struggle and conflict, and it requires taking a position that can’t be ignored. Otherwise, you’re speaking truth to the wind.

I suppose I’m skeptical about the whole idea of speaking truth to power, because if we’ve learned anything from neoliberalism it’s that power only listens to whatever strengthens and consolidates power, and is free to ignore the rest. We’ve known for decades that capitalism is happy to commodify your dissent. We don’t need to speak truth to power. We need to put obstacles in the way of power, we need to disseminate power, to redirect power, to appropriate power, and maybe even to cut off the sources of power.

…the reproduction of borders within the commons—whether they take the form of lines of political division or ones of gender domination, racial difference, or indeed social class—can never be excluded. They must always be fought against. This is why the production of the common is always a political and not merely an ethical proposition.

—Sandro Mezzadra & Brett Neilson, Border as Method, or, The Multiplication of Labor

Of course, lots of the time we don’t need to think of ourselves as speaking truth to power. Sometimes we’re just dusting off a shelf or smelling the roses or going for a Sunday drive or making a quick meal or watching some mindless television. Sometimes that’s what we need the margins for, as a place to hang out and do our thing in relative peace and quiet. Spend all your time speaking truth to power and pretty soon you’ll lose your voice.

When I consider digital tools, pedagogy, academic life, and their relations to margins, marginality, marginalization, and the marginalized, I find myself musing about refuge. Maybe it’s because I’m getting old. I don’t have the zeal of an activist now; I just want some space to do my own thing with like-minded people. Let the folks who disagree play in their own sandbox. This could, I realize, be considered an anti-political position, a position of cowardice and resignation, of giving up. But it doesn’t need to be that, because the work of creating refuge often requires significant challenges to the powers that be, and it provides the space from which people can go out and do whatever work they need to do in a potentially hostile world.

(Not that this is inherently good. It is not. Again: racists finding refuge for their hateful commentary.)

A center may be a place of centripetal force, a place of pressure. Moving to the margins may be the way you don’t get crushed, the way you find freedom, or at least rest. But to get to the margins requires the effort of working against centripetal force, the force trying to pull you back to the center, to crush you.

A page contains both margins and text, usually easily discernible, easily seen to be separate, the borders clear. A globe contains margins and centers, but which is which depends on how you’re looking at them, what you are emphasizing or not emphasizing, what your values are, what your position is. These different metaphors suggest different problems, different analytical challenges.

photo by Kenneth Allen

Border struggles in very real ways have been expanded and sit no longer at the margins but at the center of our political lives. While they challenge any closed notion of political subjectivity in the struggle for the common, they also confront us with the continued production of other limits that run across societies, labor markets, and jurisdictions.

—Sandro Mezzadra & Brett Neilson, Border as Method, or, The Multiplication of Labor

I am writing here toward no conclusion, and, if anything, I feel less clear in my mind than when I began writing. I keep asking myself: What are the implications for practice? What does thinking about centers and margins, borders and methods reveal for teaching and learning?

I come back to refuge and to community.

Someone tweets out a link to this article about the need for community in social life. I glance at the article and think back to one of the most profoundly gut-punching things I’ve read in the last decade, “Together Alone” by Michael Hobbes, which is subtitled “The Epidemic of Gay Loneliness” but which is about far more than that (and loneliness feels like the wrong word). I remember when Hobbes’s article was published and how many of my queer friends (especially male friends) and I passed it back and forth because it felt like it described a world we knew and had never much wanted to talk about because we thought it was just us, just our own quirks and failures, our own private struggle. Certain paragraphs explained things to me about myself that no therapist ever had been able to pinpoint, and the friends I talked with about this essay felt the same (though often we were talking about different paragraphs). Later, I thought: How interesting that we all knew whom to share this article with immediately. And also whom to never share it with.

It’s valuable to think about how we carry our margins with us. Much of my daily life is spent with straight people, which is usually fine, but now and then events remind me — and them — that whatever margins they carry are different, that very visible borders to me, borders that sometimes become walls, are for them invisible and open.

And depending on the borders and walls, that feeling is true for all of us. (We are globes, not pages.) My straight, white, male, athletic friend is also severely dyslexic, and that has formed and deformed his life in ways similar enough to how my queerness has shaped mine that I have begun to suspect it is the great bond between us, when we have so little else in common and yet are so close. They aren’t equal, of course, our obstacles or challenges, our struggles, but they overlap enough to produce rhymes and harmonies.

Maybe that’s what I’m working toward here: the music and poetry of margins. Find the rhymes, be aware of the discords. How might margins work together, how might we lead each other over borders invisible to one and impregnable to another?

In the article about community that I just saw flow across the tweetstream, the writer says that “what I would come to learn, slowly, is that community is about a series of small choices and everyday actions: how to spend a Saturday, what to do when a neighbor falls ill, how to make time when there is none. Knowing others and being known; investing in somewhere instead of trying to be everywhere. Communities are built, like Legos, one brick at a time. There’s no hack.”

Small choices. Everyday actions. Knowing others and being known. Investing in somewhere rather than everywhere. Communities are built.

I like that. I want to consider what sort of communities might be built within productive borders (somewhere rather than everywhere), borders that allow and encourage action, while providing refuge from harmful, narrowing, stultifying borders (knowing others and being known). What are the everyday actions of our work and life that contribute to building such a community, what are the small choices to be made?

I want to bring my margins to see what music they make with other margins. Let borderlines become chords.

Featured image by Umnak on Foter.com / CC BY-SA

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *