So there was a demonstration and some people got a little militant and maybe broke some windows. Chances are the demonstration wasn’t a rally against the existence of windows so this may not look like the smartest of moves to you. In fact, it probably seems pretty asinine. A broken shop window doesn’t really hurt those in power yet it probably rose more than a few folks’ hackles. Vandalism and a few street scuffles with the cops obviously aren’t potent enough to directly overcome the state by force so why bother if it’s going to turn a lot of people against you?
The answer as it turns out is a little complex. It may surprise you to learn that most of the time those who break windows or get into scuffles with the police at these kind of things are not the equivalent of human non sequiturs but highly committed and rational individuals, who–right or wrong–choose their actions after careful deliberation and in sharp awareness of the personal risk they run. Although you may not immediately see it, there is no small amount of strategic thought behind such tactics.
But before I illuminate it, it probably behooves us to run through some standard stuff:
Property destruction is not violence in any substantive sense. To use the same term for vandalism as direct physical brutality is an Orwellian pollution of language that cheapens real violence and suggests that people are equivalent to things. Obviously destroying people’s inert possessions is usually not ethically justifiable–but the bar is much lower than with real violence. Civil disobedience, like blocking a port, can incur costs in the millions of dollars, while other actions widely accepted as ‘non-violent’ like pouring fake blood over draft cards or mortgage records can amount to incredibly costly direct property destruction. Breaking cheap windows may look scarier to some, but appearing intimidating is hardly an atrocity.
It should also go without saying that some property is less legitimate than others. Institutions and individuals that benefit significantly from injustice–even through indirect channels–cannot lay a legitimate claim to all their wealth. Targeting small community businesses is almost universally frowned upon and, despite media portrayal, incredibly rare in political riots. (When looters managed to take advantage of an anarchist action in Greece to destroy an old woman’s shop the anarchists raised money and rebuilt it for her.) But again let’s remember that property destruction is almost inconsequential beside resisting actual physical violence; when under siege from the police, for example, it’s highly rational for folks to set fires in bins so that the smoke can negate the tear gas.
Similarly, masking up is not just useful when it comes to filtering chemical irritants but also a good way to avoid persecution. It’s a sorrowful fact that merely being identified at a demonstration has been repeatedly used by police to pin fake charges. Masking up collectively helps obscure those individuals who are at higher risk for police retaliation, like people of color. In a just world we could stand openly behind our beliefs and actions without flagrantly unjust repercussions, but we do not believe we live in anything approaching a just world. It would be ridiculous to call the French Maquis cowards for not lining up publicly in town square.
Okay? Got it? Good, now we can move on.
In order to understand the sense behind those silly busted windows it’s important that you look beyond your personal reaction, indeed you should probably even look beyond the reactions of most of the people you know. We’re conditioned to assume that winning over a majority is the very definition of success, but in many cases that’s not true at all. Sure, when you’re trying to impose your will upon others it helps to have a ton of support, but when you’re only out to resist it doesn’t take much to make yourselves ungovernable.
As anarchists we’re not out to impose some totalizing vision upon the whole of society–exactly how you live your own life is your lookout–but we do mean to lend a hand where we can to make it impossible for anyone to impose their will over another. It wouldn’t matter if a majority of folks supported chattel slavery, we’d help slaves shoot their owners regardless (and incidentally we did). A very small minority can be such a grievous pain as to make large systems of power unsustainable. This much is obvious to everyone in our day and age. If three million people–less than 1% of the US population–launched an armed insurrection it would obviously be enough to bring all semblance of state power down. Of course that’s not precisely what we’re attempting, we are hardly blind to the non-state dynamics of power such a blithely single-minded campaign would ignore, but it is illustrative. Even the American Revolution–a campaign that sadly wasted much to replace one authority with another–was won with the support of barely over a third of the populace. You don’t need a majority to derail an injustice.
However it does help to have more than a few people. There aren’t three million self-aware and committed anarchists in the US. Our movement has been rebuilding fast since the days when capitalist and communist governments openly collaborated to kill us off, and since the nineties that growth has been exponential, but we’ve still got a long way to go. Outreach matters. And when an activist tamely busts some window they’re obviously not trying to win by depriving the state of glass surfaces. This too is outreach of a form.
But you are not the target audience.
This may come as a shock. We’re all so used to politicians and lobbying groups trying to win our support that the notion of someone completely uninterested in what you’ll say about them over the proverbial watercooler is a little insulting. Tough. To the serious activist on the street it doesn’t matter how you’re likely to vote or whether you’ll donate money–those are not feasible routes to the sort of social change we’re interested in. Are you going to actively join us in struggle or not? Organize your workplace, start a community garden, retake an abandoned building, code better tools, fight off a cop? Are you likely to seriously commit? In practice some people are quicker and more effective allies than others.
You don’t have to explain the institutional allegiances of the police to certain communities. Many folks already know the score. All that’s holding them back from joining in active resistance is a sense of isolation, weakness, and despair. In this context street fighting and vandalism are not so much proofs of method but statements of commitment and seriousness. There are others like you who are willing to fight, and we can hurt them, or at the very least we can shatter the air of invulnerability that pervades business as usual. It’s hard to overstate the psychological effect this can have on those who feel ground down or fenced in. Riots are especially useful when passive protest is widely acknowledged in certain circles to be laughably useless and indicative of protesters unwilling to commit. It doesn’t matter if a riot is directly successful on the scale of burning down city hall or permanently evicting the police from a neighborhood, what matters more is the change in perceptions. There’s a long history of social struggle skyrocketing after street confrontations–not because folks believe a few busted windows or bruised cops pave the road to a better world, but because it at least demonstrates potential.
That’s why politicians and police consistently go apeshit over things like measly storefront windows. Their control is dependent in no small part on being seen as in control. Certain boundaries to what’s considered feasible must be secured at all cost lest they begin to lose the illusion of invulnerability that dissuades the subjugated from rising up. No one in power gets hysterical when a common thief, for example, breaks a window because thieves are perceived as part of the same ecosystem of exploitation in which cops and CEOs position themselves as the apex predators. Political vandalism is potent in part precisely because it risks much for no personal gain. It announces a violation of the established rules of the game, both of power and protest.
To be sure, the tactic of playing a victim in front of TV cameras in hopes of provoking outcry or disenchantment can also be useful in the right situation (when cameras are filming, enough people are listening, and public response is enough of a threat to change the cost-benefit analysis of those in charge). But such protest, even at its most acrimonious, still takes the form of an appeal to power–it assumes certain institutions can be reasoned with. As such it risks effectively bolstering the perceived legitimacy of those institutions.
In contrast, physical resistance challenges not only the state’s appearance of control but also the legitimacy of their monopoly on force. It’s a damned-either-way situation for the state. Any response sufficient to reassert the inviolability of their power will rightly strike anyone who isn’t a total asshole as grossly disproportionate; there’s no equivocating to be had when the state responds to broken windows by breaking skulls. And even if the cameras are off or filtered by ruthless propagandists, when the priorities of the state are laid bare it can still have a huge impact on first-hand witnesses and their friends. Again, what’s more valuable, avoiding a few million people briefly tut-tutting at the ‘violent protesters’ before promptly forgetting us or shattering the worldviews of hundreds and gaining fifty new full-time activists brimming with passion?
It’s worth remembering that all the public outcry in the world won’t win certain battles. There are some concessions those in power will never make. Passive protest negotiates by raising costs to the point where certain trade-offs become acceptable, but it can only succeed on issues where those in power are left room to retreat and regroup. On issues like abolishing borders, prisons, or the police, our demands will never be met because they pose an existential threat to the very premise of the state itself. No matter how limited a sociopath’s options become the total abolition of all positions of power is always going to be dead last on their list of preferences. At some point those in power will have to be physically dragged kicking and screaming out. Part of building a movement should be building the capacity to do precisely that. And that kind of strength doesn’t just spring into existence the moment our leaders cross a line, it must be nurtured and developed as our ranks grow. Demonstrating that we’re at least committed to working on it–that we haven’t forgotten that success on any serious issue will require us to develop and maintain a capacity for physical resistance–is an important part of being taken seriously and building our numbers. Even if we demonstrate that through actions that leave us looking a little juvenile.
Any given tactic is going to alienate some people and draw in others. There is no such thing as a universally well-received action. When critiquing actions what you need to check is whose perspectives you’re prioritizing and precisely why you think they matter more. What are you presupposing about the political landscape?
All the considerations I’ve discussed frequently vary in relevancy and degree. It should really go without saying that every context is going to be different. Sometimes purely passive protest can have a hugely positive impact. A lot of the time–frankly most of the time–busted windows and street scuffles end up serving little to no positive effect whatsoever. But gauging such consequences is never trivial. The point is that “public opinion” is an incredibly complex subject with even more complex strategic considerations. It is not reducible to polling data or the sensibilities of the people you socialize with. There’s plenty of room for productive conversations on what’s a good idea and what isn’t, but everyone has a different slice of the world apparent to them so evaluations of strategy will always have an inescapably subjective component. Someone busting a window at a demonstration may indeed be making an ultimately poor decision, but that doesn’t mean they’re unintelligent or unethical.
Collapse isn’t coming–not on the whole. In one form or another the nationstate ecosystem will almost certainly persist. Maybe just maybe we’ll expand off this planet. A few asteroids will be harvested. A couple shitty bases established. Someone will eventually set off an operation in the asteroid belt. Meanwhile billions upon billions of minds will suffer, will be trapped in varyingly miserable conditions all with no reasonable hope. Some lucky few will tunnel out, will form communities or find niches on the periphery. Social constraints are rarely uniform down to the individual level and it’s important to have avenues of releasing pressure. There will be turbulence. Insurrection. Things will change, often quite rapidly. That’s just a consequence of the technology. Development is in a bit of a feedback loop right now–doesn’t mean it isn’t vulnerable to getting interrupted or derailed–but it won’t be significantly reversed. What’s out of the bag will largely stay out of the bag.
What isn’t certain is what we will end up believing, how we will cope with these changes and atrocities, how we will interpret them, how we will respond and what new frameworks we might settle into.
Perspectives have always been more important than tools themselves. The opportunities a given technology opens up have always been broader than those our brains are able to parse simply. And technologies, being embedded in infrastructure, must interface at least in some form. So the memetic constructs of society will continue to play a limiting role on these protocols, especially as the term ‘social technology’ becomes more and more redundant.
We are all carrying a lot of baggage. Our understandings of a lot of things are incomplete, with so many kinks to be resolved. And so little is being processed across society. In the crises to come there is a significant chance we will not move or learn quick enough. Amid the mess folks will latch onto the first perspectives that suffice. We will entrench and by the time the divisions with reality become apparent it will be too late, either the consequences of the self-compounding complexities of our technology will spiral beyond our reach or, worse, the infrastructure will have been severed to the point where those rotten paradigms become intractable prisons. The world will end as a huddled mass before inexonerably escalating crisis or as intellectual fifedoms with all the data in the world presented in frameworks that are wrong, but too functionally right and too complicated for a human brain to revise.
If we want to survive and flourish, to avoid suffering by billions, we need to resolve these kinks, logjams and dissonances today, as soon as possible. To whittle things down to the true roots and work our way back up. Ideology and team spirit as well as the laziness of elitism and pluralism can no longer be left as viable intellectual retirement plans. We must be honest with ourselves and as honest as we dare with each other. Engagement must be our watchword, engagement past comfort and personal achievement. Because as technology compounds and advances so must our discourse be pressed even harder. There are simple truths to be found, perspectives with just a little more view, and new uses or workarounds that stretch the imagination and free up the possible. Not for what they can service in isolation, but for how potent they are in conjunction with everything else. Potent in ways yet to be discovered. The potency of the true.
It is unlikely that we will succeed. Even now the noosphere is still a tangled, knotted, fractured organ, choked of nutrition and with fragile axons. More an agglomeration of haughty cancers than something capable of real life. It is unlikely it will ever rise to the challenge.
But lord it’s worth trying. Because what could be more glorious.
Organizations have a lot of downsides. Anyone who’s ever attended a meeting recognizes this on some level. And yet most folks persist in an either instinctive or confused idealization of forming and participating in organizations.
Part of this is semantic. The term “organization” is so loose as to be either universally trivial or—more often—a substantive but hazy jumble of associations. Often such bundling acts to disingenuously assert a premise from the get-go and it’s worth picking apart exactly what is meant by an “organization.” “Anarchy,” for instance, directly means “without rulership” but the broader associations of violence, chaos and dog-eat-dog famously imply an inherent casual connection without bothering to enunciate it. Of course this is a flat contradiction in terms, obvious on the slightest examination; the spectre of everyone attempting to dominate everyone else is simply a change in the flavor of power relations, of relevant archies, not their total abolition. Yet such conflation has had huge impact because unspoken, unexamined ideas bundled as common sense have a pressure greater than the spoken.
“Organization” can stand for literally all modes of human interaction, but in common use “being organized” signifies effective and intentional structures of collaboration. Something anarchists defensively jump to assert we’re capable of! But as such the term is almost meaningless; no one on earth would argue against the utility of deliberative and rational approaches to collaboration – one might as well say “being intelligent“. The substance of the matter is of course how we chose to arrange and structure our collaboration. It is here that “organization” smuggles in assumptions through double-meanings. Because in practice the noun of “an organization” usually refers to a highly particular beast, requiring highly particular structures.
Make no bones about it: Faith is evil. Faith is the absence of vigilance and ethics necessitates vigilance. And so faith, in any form, is flagrantly unethical, immoral, evil… whatever terminology you prefer. But it’s an evil in the same sense as zombies. More bumbling than diabolical. And the fact of the matter is almost everyone these days has a little bit of the zombie juice inside of them.
In 2001 the technoprogressive and cyberlibertarian dreams of the 90s were largely on ice. The hacker community moribund. Everywhere the future seemed in retreat. For two years popular culture had dwelled on the turn of the millenium and the uncontroversial conclusion was nothing had lived up to snuff. To those who had been actively struggling in broad spheres the postponement of such predictions and dreams hardly needed explanation; hands-on engagement brings with it an appreciation of the complexity to culture and society in all its many fractal arenas. But to a certain class of people, junior technocrats mostly, who had grown up taking comfort growing up from prophesies of an assured gleaming rationalist future, this was an ecclesiastical betrayal that required a simple answer. And then the towers came down.
The core of the internet has always been atheist and so to was the fledgling bloggosphere in 2001. The difference was mostly one of age and cynical elitism. It takes a while to develop a finer appreciation of the underlying mechanisms of our society, there’s simply too much going on. “Why” can be a steep learning curve; explorations don’t deliver any framing narratives quickly. So much easier to stay at the surface with “People are stupid.” In this way, in that way. Slowly collect and label little discrete failings apparent in others, each one with attendant narrative implications. As parts of the picture fill in so to does a reflexive defense of certain institutions and assumptions.
9/11 was a pivotal paradigm-shift for a host of reasons from bewildered suburban housewives with existential vertigo to jetsetting corporate executives shocked that old fashioned things like national governments hadn’t been sufficiently sidelined. But the technocratic hordes reading instapundit, poised on the foundations of our embryonic information society, ended up playing no small part. Finally the world could be epic again. A clash of civilizations! Their conservatism was fancy devices and Janes and Stratfor, white, male and upper-middle-class, or at least aspirationally inclined to those things; they had little to fear from the conservatism of George W Bush, then merely an ineffective moderate. America was a bastion of secularism and gleaming champion of initiative, as atheists they convinced themselves it was the only tool worth a damn. And Islam was the devil. The heart of everything holding us back from an Asimovian paradise.
It’s so sad that one of the most potent cultural impetuses to the last decade of imperialism could be so blatantly fucking ridiculous.
Islam is a joke. (Christianity is a joke too.)
There are many forms of faith possible in life; religions only happen at the point when metaphorical flesh is dripping off a fractured logical skeleton and the insides have already rotted away.
Anyone and everyone capable of seizing any sort of power must at least retain enough brains to machievelli. It’s impossible to keep enough of a dynamic mind to look out for threats and manage the social complexities that interface with a religion without taking a step back from that religion and grounding yourself in less bulky faiths and more explicit selfishness. Our leaders from Ahmadinejad to Pope Sidious are atheists at core, always have been. Doesn’t make them any less evil, obviously, but it does assure a certain level of rational self-interest. bin Laden was an incredible dumbass, and he was contextually fenced in terms of social capital and desire, but he wasn’t such a dumbass as to actually be religious in his heart of hearts. He wasn’t going to start an apocalypse.
Further, at the end of the day Al Queda was stuck working through religion. Hezbolla, The Islamic Brotherhood, etc. No matter how much some of them may want to eat all our brains they’re an innately hobbled force. They have the mass sometimes, they just don’t have the speed or dexterity.
I am not afraid of Islam for a lot of reasons. But ultimately I am not scared of Islam because unlike those privileged and content enough to sit back and wait to be ushered in to some gleaming new world those of us actually struggling to build the future have a better appreciation of the landscape and dynamic obstacles at play. You can’t judge progress by comparison to shiny pamphlets as if the future was a condo going up (Next Fall!). In the trenches, in the nitty-gritty, you can see progress happening still small, sometimes just grinding industriously away at the rocks in our path, but accelerating with exponential growth nonetheless. We are changing the conditions of the battlefield faster than they can shamble. So no, you entitled bourgeois assholes who’ve never fought a fascist in your life or done any struggle besides petulant bloviating in the defacto service of totalitarianism, I’m aint scared of no holy ghost. Nor its followers.
And, if the last decade wasn’t mounds and mounds of proof that you shouldn’t think of the religious as anything other than a mindless natural disaster that it’s relatively easy to skirt, I’d like to tell you of a gal I saw once.
Minneapolis has a large Somali immigrant community, burqas and hijab are a common sight on the bus, with hot-pink phones flashing under the sleeves. One afternoon in the month leading up to the RNC while I was taking the 14 through South Minneapolis to meet up with someone at a FNB, one of these teenage Somali gals got on the bus in full black burqa. Except that covering the back of it were punk patches. From Antischism to Bad Religion. I don’t know if she was trying to balance Islam with anarcho-punk or if she was maintaining the burqa as an atheist punk in some personal fuck you to cultural prejudice and patriarchal sexualization, the way her sharp eyes burned I suspected the later. Either way, and I don’t mean to say this with any colonial associations: Free thought can consume anything. We got nothing to fear.
Or at least my team doesn’t. To hell with yours.
Obvious trigger warnings. Further this is gonna be an abstract conversation on concepts. If you’re one of those rare folks who feels the war against patriarchy can’t ever afford side conversations for the sake of curiosity/clarity that aren’t rhetorically perfected weapons pointed towards teh enemy or if you figure there’s nothing new under the sun to be heard from cis-ish male-bodied people I totes understand and sympathize and I hope you will take my disagreement for what it is. I abhor speaking to a choir and try not to write until I’m assured I can at least contribute something at least moderately original and challenging, but c’est la vie.
No one would disagree that porn is a major site of importance in modern patriarchy. And there are usually three broad categories of critique leveled against it: 1) That the means of its production are exploitative. 2) That it pushes narratives and perspectives reinforcing of patriarchy. 3) That the very act of getting off to or sexualizing visual stimuli mentally reduces other people to objects.
It’s this last critique, rarely addressed head-on or in good faith, that’s the most fundamental. The first two, while undoubtedly significant, are ultimately just matters of detail. There are folks who produce porn through egalitarian collectives just as there are now literally millions of exhibitionists who freely share images/video of themselves in open forums, repositories and networking sites. So too is there queer porn. Indeed even the most cursory overviews would reveal the last decade has seen the exponential spread into the mainstream of increasingly complicated and diffuse presentations of gender and desire. At this point the conventional for-profit “Porn Industry” is basically a tiny antiquated sideshow dwarfed by a hundred million digital cameras and sketchpads. (In this piece I’ll stick with a more Dworkin-esque definition of porn as inclusive of things termed ‘erotica’ because any distinction between the two either begs the question or is wildly arbitrary not to mention usually classist. Plus it would be more than a little haughty to completely ignore how the term is actually used.)
To be clear however just because porn is a wide category growing more diverse daily doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot of freaking evil shit out there. Recognizing complexity shouldn’t mean throwing up our hands and failing to critically engage, nor should it temper the intensity of our rage. Rapists are being made. And porn is a medium used to champion this in a variety of ways. Sometimes deliberately and explicitly, but at the very least huge swathes of what’s produced today still effectively contributes to, buffers, and insulates rape culture. This is no small issue and pretty much every other conversation on porn pales before it. Yet having our priorities in line shouldn’t equate disregarding those complexities. True ‘radicalism’ means exploring concepts down to the roots rather than settling for totalizing banners, no matter how generally adequate they seem. Individuals engage with things in a variety of ways with a variety of effects; done right analytical nuance and strategic dexterity doesn’t have to lead to equivocation or lost momentum. In fact, for those of us outside institutional power such precision and nimbleness is arguably our greatest natural asset.
What I find attractive about the notion that pornography is innately objectifying is not its obvious intuitive resonance but the promise of an inarguable underlying reality leading to clear-cut prescriptions. Yet there are actually quite a variety of arguments leveled in practice, working from significantly differing fundamentals. One can argue, for example, that sexual objectification derives from any divorce between desire regarding another’s physical body and desire regarding their mental existence, while alternatively one can argue that objectification stems from any desire regarding another’s physical body fullstop. Those are obviously very different approaches and frankly I find the latter far more secure. Most of us would surely find the former more pleasant or at least lenient in prescription but it reeks of unjustifiable arbitrariness. It’s not at all clear what would constitute such a divorce, nor what degree we should recoil from.
The fact is our minds change focus all the time. Does spending a minute or two reveling in some aspect of physical sensuality or desire mean hardening our neural pathways to perceive the existence of a partner more exclusively those material terms? Obviously there is a risk present, but how innately or concretely can we speak of it? If we spend a masturbation session primarily remembering a partner’s body/touch rather than anything specifically related to their character will that necessarily have any lasting effect upon us? What if it’s a child trying to imagine what sex would be like? Or a sickly person? Or a deformed person? It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the danger in focusing on the physical nature of sexual pleasure and desire is entirely dependent on things like the awareness, vigilance, and plasticity of a given mind — a conclusion that would lead to wildly variant prescriptions and significantly problematize any uniform social policy or campaign. If we can ever temporarily shift the focus of our desires/pleasure towards physical attributes/actions of a person and avoid generating any tendency to think of them as objects then the same would be true when it comes to pornography of one another.
One response is to turn the focus explicitly on whether a physical desire initially arises in response to personal associations or narratives predicated on the other’s existence as an agent. (eg ‘I only became in any way physically attracted to them after I got to know them.’) This might still allow forms of pornography to slip by when tied to a substantive narrative (the already large field of romance novels / pornographic comics offering many noteworthy candidates) yet at least allows us to critique the characterizations, etc presented. Unfortunately at the end of the day it’s not clear what could justify holding the original prompts of a given physical desire in such significance. The argument seems to be saying implicitly that what matters is what perspective or desire is ultimately prior or more fundamental in someone’s head than a momentary perspective/desire. And surely this is a matter of choice for anyone with even the most basic vigilance or agency in the construction of their own thoughts. We frequently choose to dabble in limited perspectives and focuses in ways that avoid overwriting our more core and motivating perspectives. Certainly corruption is a danger, and the social context of patriarchy can contribute significantly, but that’s no more innate a threat with one versus the other. Momentary desire for physical aspects of a partner can lead to ingraining objectifying patterns of thought just as easily as focus on those feelings more abstractly. There’s no straightforward reason to disallow taking such a risk in the one set of cases but not the other.
So what are we left with? Well, as previously mentioned, the other major approach is to reject sexual desire of physical things (at least in any way relating to people) wholesale.
I should note that at its greatest extreme this can even mean rejecting all sexual desire (arguing that surrendering one’s mind to desires arising from one’s own body counts in some sense as objectification of oneself). Frankly, I’ve always found anti-sexual positions kinda cool. I have a lot of admiration for people who bite bullets and in my mind the audacity of the proposition speaks positively of it. Plus I spent my teenage and young adult years seriously debating whether to go on chemical libido suppressants just to get by, so suffice to say I have an appreciation of how sexual desire can subjugate and reduce one’s own mind. But the same holds true of practically anything. The fact that one can get lost compulsively surfing Wikipedia for the dopamine fix of new information, while worth consideration, obviously shouldn’t speak to its proper utility. Sexual desire and sensuality interface socially, pharmaceutically, and psychologically in a host of ways, providing a vast array of tools that can be extraordinarily useful. Chucking it out would be akin to chucking any other field of technology. Sadly, to get started on anything even approximating an appropriate overview would require its own blog post so let’s skip that for now and just press on under the working assumption that sex is acceptable in certain forms.
What we can still at least conclude is that sexual titillation by compassion, mathematical aptitude, or say pine trees clearly wouldn’t involve preferences directed at anyone else’s body. There are still valid concerns to be had about the preformative aspect of mental actions (‘dance monkey dance‘ is obviously objectifying in any form), but I think we’ve clearly achieved enough distance from concerns about objectification to stop and take a look back. Does this resemble what hardline opponents of pornography within feminism are actually saying?
In almost every case, no. (The exceptions, insofar as they’re honest about it, are really cool. But again as above I will avoid exploring that direction in depth here for space.) Instead it’s almost universally conceded that the biological prompts of sexual desire are just too strong overall. We get turned on by certain forms of touch and smell for example without conscious choice. There are a wealth of hardwired physiological circuits capable of triggering chemical responses. Some, possibly even all, can be fiddled with or cut but the effort required can be functionally unfeasible and there are a multitude of them. That’s not, obviously, to throw up our hands in surrender (some of us are transhumanists after all). But it does generally seem to prescribe a certain pragmatism towards sexual desire that allows us to embrace the positives while staying alert to the negatives. It’s okay, in short, to do things like turn one’s focus to a lover’s body or fantasize about a fictional character or imagine what a certain experience would be like.
So what then is such a fundamental problem with pornography?
In practice it seems to be centered around an objection to the visual (as opposed to tactile or aromatic) component of the sensation. While most feminists left the Porn Wars with a nuanced perspective on porn as a medium capable of conducting good as well as bad (with effects dependent on a vast array of context both social and individual), the horrified lot that wrote us off as heinous apostates didn’t seem to do so just because they were wedded to rhetorical trenches or sumsuch; there was a notable tone of alienation and disgust at the very notion of visual desire. It was declared obviously suspicious because it was ‘unnatural.’ Anecdotal evidence can only go so far but time and again I’ve found an exceptionally strong correlation between my stridently anti-porn friends (of different genders) and ‘just not really getting the whole visual attraction thing‘.
Which makes a lot of sense. A straightforward experience-gap would explain in a sympathetic light why so many discussions on pornography within feminism, even when approached in good faith by both sides, so often grind up against a wall of mutual incomprehension. Well no freaking duh. If there was an entire avenue of physiological desire other people experienced that you didn’t (or didn’t experience with anything approaching the same intensity) and intersected with patriarchy the way porn does you’d be overwhelmingly inclined to write it off as a construct of patriarchy too. I mean good god! It’s a neat hypothesis at least in regard to some anti-porn feminists because experience-gaps don’t speak to intelligence, and over the decades I’ve encountered more than a few brilliant people with incomprehensibly absolutist stances on pornography. Sending pictures to your partner? Objectification. A pubescent kid drawing boobs? Objectification. An incredibly popular porn site consisting of user-submitted videos of the faces they make during masturbation and orgasm? Objectification. (Because getting off solely to indications of someone else’s pleasure is clearly… wait, what?) The line drawn is always between visual and tactile sensation. Dildos and even fleshlights no matter how evocative are almost always given a pass by the same people who assume any reasonable person would be grossed by the notion of getting off to imagery.
There may not be hope of persuading everyone stuck in such a trap. At this point the paranoia and war-effort frame of mind probably runs too deep for some and that’s perfectly understandable. But it’s at least another opportunity to drive home the so easily forgotten reality that people’s physical and neurological experiences can be quite different; our own are not necessarily a good baseline by which to judge others. Is it really so weird to consider that just as most brains are built with certain circuits tailored to recognizing and responding to faces there might also be circuits that automatically recognize and respond to other bodily details? Are we really so scared of the “but that’s just the way biology is babe” bros that we can’t allow ourselves any explorations in empathy?
At the end of the day the only question that matters is What Is The Mechanism? Because statistical correlation isn’t enough. There’s unbelievable diversity to how people think, what frames of mind they inherit or choose in approaching a given thing in a given context, and we’re not going to win by going around voting up or down on aggregates. I’m not saying, for example, that the societal and cultural effects of pornographic saturation aren’t significant or something that we should in any way shirk from attacking. But things are rarely cut and dry. Nor would it necessarily be better if they were. Complexity allows us a lot of directions from which to attack things, just as, in conjunction with our agency and proper vigilance, it allows us room to maneuver. Porn is just a medium and even Mein Kampf can be read for diverse reasons without corruption. Over the last decade various mainstream cultural ecosystems of porn (from imagefap to deviantart) have acted as virulent contagion vectors for a number of incredibly positive perspectives on consent and queered notions of gender/sexuality as well as broadly countering patriarchal narratives through direct interaction and omnipresent diversity. They’ve also served as vectors for the standard horribly fucked up shit, but in many cases the payloads have been subverted or partially neutralized as play made less potent by the surrounding free-wheeling context. Folks can no longer avoid recognizing the complexity of desire and identity in society and with less and less uniform social pressure a particular fetishization coming from a fucked up place no longer feels the obligation to form a totalizing counter-narrative and push it fascisticly. Porn as a whole has taken the form of a conversation.
That doesn’t make it anything close to a utopia yet. We still live under patriarchy and a diffuse post-modern fascism is still fascism. But it does make pornography a hugely dynamic and vital theater of conflict. And it does mean that the agency of the various speakers is creeping to the fore in undeniable ways among even those realms of kink that its hard at the outset to see any excusable mindset for. We can exploit this. And indeed a good many folks have rolled up their sleeves to get their hands dirty. So it’s sad to see a tiny remainder of otherwise brilliant feminists filled with right and glorious rage still bashing their heads together with sweeping practically deontological 70s-era frameworks. (Incidentally calling ourselves “sex-positive” is in most cases just incredibly underhanded and douchey and not making things any better.) This isn’t about some whiney liberal appeal to ‘free speech’ or chucking core principles out to win over bros. As I’ve picked apart there simply isn’t any root principle that pornography falls afoul of inherently; getting off to imagery relating to other people isn’t magically objectifying because people both differ and have agency in their self-construction. Socialization is anything but uniform and it certainly doesn’t create mechanistic people with mechanistic perspectives. Treating people like it does is itself objectifying.
The spontaneous emergence of oligarchies from egalitarian markets is a reoccuring fear to communists of all stripes and while the historical prompts of this fear can be easily shown to be horribly misinterpreted, the concern itself is not entirely without merit. Every so often a mathematical model comes along that bears some metaphorical resemblance to actual markets under certain conditions/assumptions and demonstrates a disturbing emergence of oligarchal tendencies. Markets, like ecosystems, are richly dynamic systems and the dangers exposed by toy models can speak to real ones, but they also tend to ignore emergent meta-complexities to the market that are in reality fundamental mechanisms of course-correction. Markets work precisely because they’re not simple and can evolve around problems by taking into account more context, moving into a higher-dimensional phase-space and generating new feedback loops to suppress lower level ones.
Today’s big hit is a cute little paper by a couple econophysicists in Bremen. They built a toy model where a whole bunch of limited agents each have two types of interactions: they decide a ‘trustworthiness’ value for themselves [0-1] as well as who all to contract with, and strategize to maximize the number of folks contracting with them times those folks’ trustworthiness and minimize their own trustworthiness in the contracts they initialize with others (each agent is forced to initiate said contracts/interactions with a set number of people per round). This asymmetry between initiated interactions and responsive interactions is intended to mirror a distinction between selling and buying and I’ll stick to that metaphor from here on out although it’s not unproblematic. Who to buy from in this model is decided by a straight comparison of prices while sellers set prices (quality/trustworthiness) by comparing the immediately preceding prices and resulting payoffs of their competitors. Long story short there were three major environmental variables, the set number of people the buyers were forced to buy from, a randomness factor localized to a single agent each iteration and the relative speed at which buyers updated their strategies versus sellers. The resulting system behavior revealed that this market had only two stable points: extreme competition (selling with next to no profit above marginal costs) or extreme cartelization (sellers get ridiculous profit).
No freaking duh. Said runaway cartelization is a direct result of the defining obligations imposed upon buyers. The number of sellers one’s obliged to sell to [K] is explicitly recognized as a big one, if the whole market is raising prices like crazy and one person deviates a little to undercut their competitors they don’t get appropriately flooded with payoffs from buyers because those buyers are obliged to buy from K sellers (of which the undercutter is just one). But most importantly K isn’t a strategic choice that can be set to 0 (through savings, austerity, DIY, etc) for extended periods by the buyers or lowered via model-external tradeoffs. Essentially what’s being modeled is forced consumption. It should be intuitively obvious that forced consumption will have a tendency to drive up prices as if sellers were operating as a cartel, if only because whatever’s artificially forcing buyers to buy no matter what IS usually in reality a cartel. The authors repeatedly emphasize gas prices as the best example and it doesn’t take unusual knowledge of history or political economy to recognize the role the state has plated in establishing the fixed demand there.
Predictably, coverage of this paper has largely played to the popular myth that free markets inexorably lead to oligarchies, which is a little sad because the best part of the paper is the quantitative analysis of response time in determining the critical point between competition and cartelization. How fast sellers and buyers pick up on market changes and adapt their strategies relative to one another is obviously of huge importance in the fight over what emerges. And this is actually a left-libertarian point: insofar as situations arise where smaller market actors are forced to consume rigidly they can leverage their well-known calculational advantages against larger more sluggish actors (usually the ones responsible for the situation). And in the other direction, where larger firms typify the position of buyer and individuals typify sellers (as with labor), such “cartelization” effects would be positive. Whether through solidarity unionism or more diffuse mechanisms like RateMyBoss.com, we want to drive them out of business after all.
Of course while this provides further impetus for the development of information technologies empowering consumers, there are obvious difficulties in practice for unrestrained market mechanisms alone when our existing “market” is already so far gone to cartelization (precarity, etc), but that’s what molotovs and pikes are for.
Anarcho-Transhumanism is the recognition that social liberty is inherently bound up with material liberty, and that freedom is ultimately a matter of expanding our capacity and opportunities to engage with the world around us. It is the realization that our resistance against those social forces that would subjugate and limit us is but part of a spectrum of efforts to expand human agency—to facilitate our inquiry and creativity.
This means not just being free from the arbitrary limitations our bodies might impose, but free to shape the world around us and deepen the potential of our connections to one another through it.
It means the tools we use should be openly knowable and infinitely customizable; it means bodies that are not locked into processes in which we have no say. It knows that the hunger for choice behind birth control, regrown limbs and sexual reassignment is the same hunger that organizes workers and sets fire to prisons. It is struggle to live free… and do so for one more year, one more decade, one more century. It means not just transcending the strictures of gender, but of genetics and all previous human experience. It means fighting to be allowed the fullest actualization of who and what we want to be, whenever we want to be it.
It means challenging and altering the conditions that might otherwise govern us. It means when the tools exist to better our lives they should be used; that no one should starve when such scarcity can be eliminated. It means vigilantly engaging with nature rather than bullying or surrendering to it. It is the knowledge that victory for the working class will only truly arrive when every worker individually owns the means of production—capable of fabricating anything and everything for themselves. It is proactive engagement with the environmental conditions that force hierarchy and inescapable collectivism. It means freeing our society from the hierarchies of two dimensional landscapes, to move our destructive infrastructures outside the biosphere and to eventually shake off sedentary civilization and take our place as hunter-gatherers between the stars.
It means cryptography—unbreakable channels of private communication added up into an unbreakable hive of ideas and knowledge. It also means the abolition of public privacy—the creation of a world where the actions we take with one another are sharable and verifiable in an instant. And ultimately it will be the freedom to surpass the limited bandwidth of language and connect more and more directly to one another—to merge minds and transcend individual subjectivities as desired.
Anarcho-Transhumanism is all of these things and any one of them.