Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Literate Frequencies

i was chatting with an anarchist comrade at the recent bookfair in New York City, when he turned to my table and spotted one of my more in-your-face Marxist-Leninist books, a history of relations between white and Black revolutionary organizations in the united states, specifically of the mutually parasitic dynamics that can occur when people get lost in the forest of (false) nationalism/internationalism.

This comrade laughed when he spotted the book, shaking his head. "I love that book," he said. "Though you know I disagree with every single thing in it."

& i understood exactly what he meant, and didn't thing this was a silly statement.

While perhaps not as strongly, i have found myself feeling the same way about various books over the years, so i enjoyed the forthright manner in which the statement was made. It got me thinking: how can one love a book, while disagreeing with its arguments?

Books present arguments in a layered fashion. Normally the argument is couched in the form of a story, depending for its integrity on a number of facts spun together by the authors' words. There are honest and dishonest ways of weaving this web, and instructive and destructive ways of leading our minds to follow an argument.

Rather than thinking of this using the metaphor of layers - which in the material world we normally encounter one at a time - i think books actually reveal themselves to us more like sound, or perhaps music. Different instruments play at the same time in music, just as these different aspects of an author's message present themselves at the same time in a book.

Many of my favourite books became my favourites not because of the arguments made - which i often couldn't judge right away - but rather because of the author's implicit suppositions. It's as if behind the loudest noise there's another frequency, maybe one you can only pick up on slowly, more a method than a subtext, a way in which facts are chosen and related to each other.

An author shares not only what they think they see, but also how they see. You can end up disagreeing with the argument while learning a lot from the method, just as even a correct argument can be perverted by a dishonest method.

Authors tend to use the same method in their different works, which is probably why you can know you like or dislike a particular author without reading every one of their books. Method is more specific than genre (though i suppose the latter may form a grouping of a variety of related methods).

There is a point to this, that texts have these multiple aspects, that they communicate with us on multiple frequencies (to stay with the metaphor of sound) and that as such what we learn from them is... complex. Politically, i would say that normally the method by which an argument is presented is more important than the actual argument itself.

There is a disagreement i have had, again and again, over the years regarding what is and is not sectarian in terms of the literature i promote. i certainly won't promote just anything on the left, but there is no clear ideological guide to what arguments i will or will not be into. Two authors can make the same claim, and one will strike me as worth reading and the other one not. Multiple authors can make competing and disagreeing claims - take a look at the various leftist and anarchist newspapers for instance - and yet underlying these opposing views is often a unity of method - and more often that not, not a very good method at that!

So to identify a few aspects of method that i find useful, and that can occur (or be negated) in any kind (M-L or circle-A or left communist) of texts:

  • that the oppressed (not their vanguards or organizations or liberators, though these may exist no sarcasm intended) are themselves central to the story - indeed, the oppressed are the story;
  • that things look different with time, so to grasp what's really going on we need to unearth the commonalities while not descending into nowism;
  • reality is not teleological, i.e. it does not unwind like a didactic morality play - there may be "good guys" and "bad guys" in retrospect, but you can't assign these roles a priori;
  • that nothing and no one is perfect;
  • better to tell the truth than to lie.
Telling a story is in and of itself an act for which we must take responsibility; our storytelling, our development of analysis, can be corrupt or it can be honest. The method in which a text is built can be authoritarian or antiauthoritarian - far more so than the argument which emerges from the same text.

Developing an antiauthoritarian method of telling our stories is a necessary part of developing a revolutionary praxis.

1 comment:

  1. Reading Settlers, Night Vision, False Nationalism for the first time, I had a similar perspective-altering experience. I was struck by the fact that these authors _took revolution seriously_, in North America. The texts are written neither as fantasy (whether dogmatic sectarian or idealistic anarcist 'ultra left'), nor as propaganda, nor as liberal apology. When engaging disagremeents, the texts seemed to me (although I know other readers have had the opposite reaction) to be engaging comrades in dialog in the spirit of self-improvement, not trying to tear down rhetorical opponents to make oneself look better on paper.

    I had never see anything like this before! Exposure to these texts made me realize what being a 'revolutionary' actually could mean in contemporary times, and that there was such a thing revolutionary intellectualism. And, for this anarchist, realizing that many of the people engaging in this kind of intellectual seriousness were communists (and very few were anarchists), was also an eye-opener.

    The distinction you make between method and conclusions seems a useful one, that I oddly hadn't thought of making before. Now I want to go back and read some of those texts with that distinction in mind to see how my reaction changes. I had mixed feelings about False Nationalism..., but also thought on last reading that most of their 'findings' were good, but as one piece of the story for further dialectical investigation and practice, not as absolute conclusions to constrain action. I know many people who read that book as 'anti-white', or an argument that 'third world' peoples and white peoples can never work together. To my reading, it was more a demonstration "Here are some of the dangers involved, let's learn how to deal with them."

    So now it strikes me that we could say something about the method involved in _reading_ (or receiving) an argument, as well as the method in making one.

    Your analysis of key points about making an honest and serious and constructive argument seem good to me