Perspectives on Anarchist Theory

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Vol. 6 - No. 1
Spring, 2002


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Resisting Panic, Resisting Forgetting
By Alejandro de Acosta

I remember thinking: finally, it’s happened. Starhawk said that she had a premonition and perhaps I did as well. Over the next few days I expressed the sentiment in many different ways: for a lot of us, because of our politics, because of our backgrounds, because of some unusual sensitivity, in short, because of ways of living that cross over from history to what pushes into being from beyond history (call it the future, or becoming), there was ultimately little surprise in what happened. 

I remember thinking on September 11th… odd expression, isn’t it? There are few days about which one can say that one has not forgotten the particulars of what one might have been thinking. On the other hand, surely you and I have forgotten a lot of what we thought on that day. That is to say that I cannot deny that the day’s occurrences impressed themselves upon me in a certain way. They provided for dated realizations.

 But the event is already dust. I have to struggle to recall, for example, two very troubling messages, wherein loved ones said little more than: did you hear the unhappy news? The tone of their voices tore me up. And I remember visualizing the planet Earth, Buckminster Fuller’s Spaceship Earth, and the planes and the buildings from some sort of solar system perspective. It’s as though my immediate reaction was not to panic, or to be angry, or sad, but to imagine this event from an ecological-geological-galactic perspective. A terrible sadness was circulating that day, a panic which had to be resisted.

 I was unsurprised about the brutality of the day. Like many of my friends and compañeros and compañeras, I am well aware of the insistence of violence in our everyday lives, and in the everyday lives of others, in the U.S. and throughout the rest of the earth. Some of us cultivate this awareness because it is important to us. Others do it we have no choice. In both cases we cultivate it as part of our politics. Those of us who live this way in the modern “security” state called the U.S. prefer not to separate ourselves from the rest of the world population. Again, for some of us this is because we do not in fact live very differently than they do (and here I am thinking of so-called “third world zones” in North America). For others of us it is a point of solidarity and political conscience to refuse to inhabit the “here” of “it can’t happen here.” I think that I have always felt this way, but the need to remember it, to resist the forces that bid me to forget it, began to grow after the attacks.

On the night of September 11th, I wrote to myself: “it is not a surprise, but an ordeal that is beginning. The question is how to remain politicized in the times to come.” My immediate reaction seemed to be one of contemplation, so I began gathering information from the Internet and circulating it in the form of a digest. I called these digests “already we must be thinking and feeling,” and sent out nineteen in all from September through December, with texts in English, French, and Spanish. This is what I wrote on the 13th:  “Friends, compañeros y compañeras: This is in hopes that we can begin thinking critically about what has happened, and what is surely beginning to happen. These are the first attempts I’ve seen at theorizing what is going on in the U.S. and around the world right now. Needless to say, these texts come from very different perspectives and I don’t agree with everything I am sending you. The point is not to get over our shock or our sadness. It’s to couple those feelings with the life-affirming activities of thinking and continuing to create joyful relations with each other.”

 I consciously became an information gatherer and filter, combing through websites and forwarded messages for radical and alternative viewpoints. I included texts from friends and acquaintances as well as from well-known theorists or analysts, trying to unhinge the prejudice in favor of “expert analysis” and to promote the possibility of folks just saying what was going on with them. During its lifetime, the list of people who received the digest grew steadily, from a select group of friends and acquaintances to a large mass of people, at least half of whom I have never met.  

The aim was to promote critical thinking and feelings of joy and solidarity during a time when both seemed to me to be in very short supply. Binghamton, New York, the small city where I live, responded much as any working-class post-industrial zone would: with a morass of flags covering all available display areas on cars, buildings, and bodies. I walked and ran past these markers of allegiance (to what exactly?). Towards the end of September, I wrote: “Let me once again emphasize that I don't take this to be a news service. It’s up to all of us to find the news that matters to us instead of allowing any network (channel, station, website, paper) to tell us what is important. It’s also up to us to make the news while we make history - and then find ways to tell each other about it.”

During those months, I countered my intake of mainstream coverage of the attacks and the “war” with far more alternative and independent sources. The only television I took in was the week of the attacks: about an hour of live feed projected on to a large screen at the university, and Bush’s speech a few days later. On the internet discussion list nettime, Wade Tillett posted a brilliant analysis which summed up most of what I was thinking at the time. The government, suggested Tillett, reserved for itself the privilege of distributing positions on to two sides: with us or against us. In the grotesque either/or that was being imposed, there was little room for political pluralism, let alone anarchist ways of life.

 I spent a lot of time reading alternative coverage on the internet. A friend and I had begun doing a “public affairs” radio program on the university’s station, and we dedicated several shows to the war. By the first week of October, the time of our first program, the call was to “return to normal.” This is where my attitude changed from resisting the imposition of panic to resisting forgetting: the forgetting of alternatives, of everything that was being threatened in the return to normal. The first program consisted of readings of texts from my first few digests. As time went by, we tried to develop a theory and practice of independent and alternative media as counter-memory. We tried to process, talk through, conceptualize as well as feel what was occurring and we tried to be aware that we were doing it live and on the air. I began to think of creating our own live feed, an “it’s happening here and now” that referred not to events authoritatively described as important but to our own perspectives on them as a resistant activity. We constantly reminded ourselves and the listeners that we were speaking and thinking in public. There was some risk in doing that. We made the risk part of the example; we said, “everyone should find a way to do this,” because we hoped for strength in numbers, and because we knew that it is vastly more powerful to become the media than to consume it, even when it is alternative media. 

When we read alternative media coverage from the internet on the air we were trying to cross the digital divide which limits many folks’ access to independent and especially radical perspectives. We also experimented with call-in shows where friends from around the country and world reported on activism and perspectives from their region. There was something quite electrifying for me in using the radio show as a time for live sharing of information. It spontaneously generated great feelings of solidarity. Become the media before…

We laughed, joked, and played music as well as discussed the week’s occurrences. Other times, we refused to discuss the week’s occurrences and read poems. This too was a resistance: resistance to a certain focusing of attention. An independent media tactic: when you pay attention to the mainstream media, always know from where you are listening; do not accept their authoritarian non-place. When you have had enough, or are not in the mood, by all means, ignore it. Resisting forgetting and resisting panic.

In the university environment where I move, there had been five or six “teach-ins.” As of the last few years, the word “teach-in” was used to describe what amounted to an irregular seminar with a changing cast of professors who provide detailed but not particularly positioned information on whatever the international situation of the moment is. Some friends and I talked about how the tradition of the “teach-in,” which goes back to the Vietnam War protest scene, if not earlier, began from a need to gather in a moment of political crisis, possibility, and action so as to collectively understand what is happening. It seemed ironic that the “teach-in”, which was resistant to the way in which universities circulate knowledge, had been taken over by what amounts to a very traditional monological setting, with professors as the sole authorized speakers, and students reduced to asking questions.

We planned our alternative to this event: a “dialogue circle.” We made a packet, a three hundred page photocopied book, out of texts from the digests and others sent by friends. It was called Tools for Thinking About and Beyond the “War”: Perspectives for Cruel Times. The idea was to find another way to circulate alternative perspectives and information, beyond the Internet, beyond college radio, and to propose a different setting than the institutionalized “teach-ins.” The “dialogue circle” was based on the technique of the reading circle, often used in popular education. A large group of people is divided into smaller groups, each of which chooses one essay. Someone reads the text line by line, and the emphasis is on comprehension. There is a lot of repetition and slow analysis. Discussion of opinions is kept to a minimum (because it is supposed it will happen spontaneously beyond the reading circle). Our first event was small, but it already felt like a real change compared to the sorts of conversations we had all been having. For my circle, I chose to read an article on anti-authoritarian responses to the war efforts, which proposed a form of global popular justice as an alternative to the war. It met with a lot of interest from the non-anarchists gathered with me. They also posed some difficult questions about how such justice would be carried out, and we spent an interesting couple of hours discussing the possibility of international communication among masses of people and the problems with parliamentary forms.

Call it another strategy for resisting forgetting or creating resistant counter-memory. Call it the forging of a public space under difficult circumstances! For those far from the academic milieu, believe me: it is not so easy to find a space to gather and talk openly in. This not only compounds but is directly linked to the exclusion of poor and disadvantaged folks from this space.  My friends and I needed very badly to do our resistant thinking in a public and shared space, to carry what had been private, personalized, and thus almost necessarily sort of paranoid and alienated talking into a public space where it could be transformed in dialogue with others.  

Resisting forgetting and resisting panic. In both cases it’s about maintaining our priorities as anarchists or anti-authoritarian thinkers and activists. It is a matter of living in resistance to the nation and the state; not confusing its priorities with ours. As always, this is a matter of resisting the spread of fear that comes from both directions – the state’s war machine, and the terroristic war machine that has perhaps escaped the state, but which bears the marks of its contact with the state. It is also a matter of making our non-allegiance to those entities or processes visible, communicable, public: on the air, in the street, in any space that opens or is opened for political discussions.

 In this time of shutting down of political pluralism, in this time of the apparent vanishing of all religions except dueling monotheisms, it seems ever more important to insist on other politics, other religions, other cultures, and other ways of life, which continue to struggle and resist as living alternatives. In so far as we live these alternatives, or can communicate with them (though there is nothing easy about this communication), we resist the flows of stupidity that the state relies on for its distribution of sadness and identities. When I move in public, I try to embody this pluralistic outlook. That it has become more difficult does not make me want to do it any less – to the contrary. ~

 

Anyone interested in copies of the “thinking and feeling digest” or in purchasing a copy of Tools for Thinking About and Beyond the “War” can contact me at lejandr@hotmail.com. Thanks to Joshua Beckman for help with this piece.


Perspectives on Anarchist Theory - Vol. 6, No. 1 - Spring 2002