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Internet Anarchist Revision Brigade #2: Django at LibCom on the Stonewall/Bindel affair and the politics of transsexuality

So here is the latest action alert for the I.A.R.B.. (I fear that this is going to be a long-running series.) As a reminder of why we fight:

Bad writers, and especially scientific, political, and sociological writers, are nearly always haunted by the notion that Latin or Greek words are grander than Saxon ones, and unnecessary words like expedite, ameliorate, predict, extraneous, deracinated, clandestine, subaqueous, and hundreds of others constantly gain ground from their Anglo-Saxon numbers. The jargon peculiar to Marxist writing (hyena, hangman, cannibal, petty bourgeois, these gentry, lackey, flunkey, mad dog, White Guard, etc.) consists largely of words translated from Russian, German, or French; but the normal way of coining a new word is to use Latin or Greek root with the appropriate affix and, where necessary, the size formation. It is often easier to make up words of this kind (deregionalize, impermissible, extramarital, non-fragmentary and so forth) than to think up the English words that will cover one’s meaning. The result, in general, is an increase in slovenliness and vagueness.

. . . As I have tried to show, modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug. The attraction of this way of writing is that it is easy. It is easier — even quicker, once you have the habit — to say In my opinion it is not an unjustifiable assumption that than to say I think. If you use ready-made phrases, you not only don’t have to hunt about for the words; you also don’t have to bother with the rhythms of your sentences since these phrases are generally so arranged as to be more or less euphonious. When you are composing in a hurry — when you are dictating to a stenographer, for instance, or making a public speech — it is natural to fall into a pretentious, Latinized style. Tags like a consideration which we should do well to bear in mind or a conclusion to which all of us would readily assent will save many a sentence from coming down with a bump. By using stale metaphors, similes, and idioms, you save much mental effort, at the cost of leaving your meaning vague, not only for your reader but for yourself. This is the significance of mixed metaphors. The sole aim of a metaphor is to call up a visual image. When these images clash — as in The Fascist octopus has sung its swan song, the jackboot is thrown into the melting pot — it can be taken as certain that the writer is not seeing a mental image of the objects he is naming; in other words he is not really thinking. Look again at the examples I gave at the beginning of this essay. . . . In [the example from a Communist pamphlet], the writer knows more or less what he wants to say, but an accumulation of stale phrases chokes him like tea leaves blocking a sink.

— George Orwell (1946): Politics and the English Language

Now here’s an example of exactly that kind of writing, which I’ve taken from an article recently printed over at LibCom. I take it that the article has something to do with radical feminism, gender identity, and sex-reassignment surgery. Beyond that–well, let’s just try to read it.

What matters, then, is the practical implications of the best insights of feminist theory. Clearly, the violence and intimidation transgender people routinely face is unconscionable. But the question again boils down to the contradictions between the politics of affirmation and the politics of negation. This may at first seem strange. As Slavoj Žižek amongst others has argued, the difference between the politics of oppressed and marginalised groups seeking to defend themselves and the politics of class struggle is that class struggle seeks as its end point the abolition of class. ??Class pride? is a reactionary concept, and though class relations can and do express themselves through communities and class identities, if class struggle is to be part of a revolutionary project rather than the affirmation of the working class within capitalism then it must abolish capitalism and with it abolish class. Class is furthermore a material position within capitalism ?? those who have nothing to sell but their labour and who must work for the money necessary to live, those dispossessed of ownership of capital and who must sell their labour time and labour power to those who have or administer it. It is not a sociological category, but a condition and a social relation. The struggles of women, ethnic minorities, gays and lesbians insofar as they are organised around the marginalised group must struggle for recognition of various kinds. But this, as so often, is an oversimplification. The various marginalised roles are themselves constituted within the process of their marginalisation ?? and though the material proletarian condition which is the prerequisite for capital accumulation is demonstrable in a different way to the constitution of various marginalised identities, we can still see the issue in terms of affirmation or negation: in the case of gender, either liberal feminism??s affirmation of women as bourgeois subjects with equal legal standing, or the radical project of the negation of gender binaries and with it gender identity.

So what would this look like in practice? I don??t pretend to have the answers. In the case of negating the proletarian condition, the answer is relatively straightforward: the direct communisation of the means of production, the abolition of wage labour and the replacement of the state by the construction of real human community through linked councils. Gender cannot be negated in the same way, though the same processes of seizure and transformation growing out of class antagonism. Its fairly easy to imagine that a society where the production of the entire social environment is no longer alienated would allow for a new kind of society and more radical possibilities, but its not enough to talk abstractly of revolution as being the cure-all we must invest our faith in.

But we do know where it can??t start ?? certainly not from the reification of binary gender identities. The task must be to destabalise and desacralise gender, and this cannot be done whilst upholding a belief in the ability to ??match? bodily organs to gendered behaviour. The critique of gender cannot be held back because it offends the sensibilities of marginalised groups, and whilst we recognise the difficulties transgender people face, we can??t let those difficulties be an excuse to suspend critical thought.

— Django @ LibCom.org (2008-11-28): The Stonewall/Bindel affair, and the politics of transsexuality

I’d like to know what to say about this passage, or the point that the author is trying to make. But I’m not sure whether or not I can, because I’m not sure whether or not I even know what point the author is trying to make. I’m setting aside, for the moment, the fact that nothing after the eighth paragraph even attempts to connect the author’s points to the ostensible topic of the post — the radical feminist journalist Julie Bindel and her expressed views on sex-reassignment surgery. Because, even at a more local level, I think I understand most of the individual sentences, or at least clauses in the passage, but the way that it is written makes it nearly impossible for me to figure out what those parts add up to, or where that whole is supposed to be going by the end of the post, to the extent that I honestly don’t even know whether or how strongly I disagree or agree with what the author’s trying to say.

I suspect that the only way to understand it is for us to dig in and try to rewrite it, so that the author’s point, if he has any, isn’t lost beneath the dull, thudding drumbeat of his language. In any case, even if it turns out that there’s really nothing much, either good or bad, to find in this passage (a conclusion I haven’t yet drawn, but which I haven’t abandoned either), then it’s worth trying as an exercise, if nothing else. If we want to talk about the things we need to talk about, then we need to find better ways of saying things than this.

If you were going to try to rewrite a passage like this to try to make it more clear — especially to those who haven??t spent years reading and writing in Marxian jargon — and more enjoyable to read even for those who have, how would you go about it? Just what is going on here? What conclusion does it seem to you he’s trying to get to, and what reasons is he using to get to that conclusion? If you were trying to say what he’s saying, how would you say it well?

See also:

13 replies to Internet Anarchist Revision Brigade #2: Django at LibCom on the Stonewall/Bindel affair and the politics of transsexuality Use a feed to Follow replies to this article · TrackBack URI

  1. Andrew

    Here’s my take on a coherent rewrite in plain English. If others attempt this project, I’ll be curious to see just how wildly their rewrites differ from mine.

    “We must eliminate class distinctions. But it may be that if this goal is self-undermining. For how can we celebrate or take pride in being poor if no one (or everyone) is poor?

    Similarly, there are other distinctions we must eliminate: racial, sexual, ethnic, gender, and so on. But if these distinctions are eliminated, how can those who are currently oppressed (racial and ethnic minorities, women, transgendered individuals, and so on) celebrate or take pride in their status? Indeed, how can such groups even be identified if racial or sexual distinctions are gone?

    These are difficult questions that I cannot answer. But we must try to do so.”

  2. Rad Geek

    Andrew,

    Well, I’m pretty sure that’s not what Django is saying. When he writes:

    Class pride is a reactionary concept, and though class relations can and do express themselves through communities and class identities, if class struggle is to be part of a revolutionary project rather than the affirmation of the working class within capitalism then it must abolish capitalism and with it abolish class.

    I’m pretty sure that part of the point is that he’s calling for a form of politics that doesn’t involve celebrating or taking pride in being poor, and he thinks that this is definitely a good feature of the kind of politics he wants to advocate. People who write like this dude writes generally consider labeling something a reactionary concept to be a condemnation beyond any hope of appeal.

  3. Marja Erwin

    I think he’s contrasting class struggle – which seeks to eliminate the difference between rich and poor – with some other kinds of struggle – which seek to create equality while retaining distinctiveness.

    Some feminists have sought to erase the differences between gender roles, and other feminists have sought to change the balance but keep certain differences.

    Django, of course, equates gender roles with subconscious sex, and accuses trans folks of reifying gender:

    “But we do know where it can’t start – certainly not from the reification of binary gender identities. The task must be to destabalise and desacralise gender, and this cannot be done whilst upholding a belief in the ability to “match” bodily organs to gendered behaviour. The critique of gender cannot be held back because it offends the sensibilities of marginalised groups, and whilst we recognise the difficulties transgender people face, we can’t let those difficulties be an excuse to suspend critical thought.”

    Queenemily addresses this bullshit here:

    http://questioningtransphobia.wordpress.com/2008/07/21/transphobic-tropes-3-%E2%80%93-%E2%80%9Creifying-gender%E2%80%9D/

    http://questioningtransphobia.wordpress.com/2008/08/09/transphobic-tropes-4-%E2%80%93-%E2%80%9Cmy-theories-are-more-important-than-your-experience%E2%80%9D/

  4. Rad Geek

    Marja,

    I agree that the last sentence more or less amounts to My theories are more important than your experience, and I feel comfortable being an asshole about that. (As far as I can tell, nobody who writes offends the sensibilities of X ever thinks that what they’re talking about actually is, or ought to be considered, offensive.) If one were to rewrite the passage, the whole sentence is probably worth striking, because it contributes nothing other than some disingenuous assholery (was anyone actually ever suggesting that anyone suspend critical thought? really?).

    What I’m really most interested in is the way in which Django ends up choking himself with phrases like The task must be to destabalise and desacralise gender, Gender cannot be negated in the same way, though the same processes of seizure and transformation growing out of class antagonism, its not enough to talk abstractly of revolution as being the cure-all we must invest our faith in. Partly it’s a matter of word choice and partly it’s a matter of tone. I’m curious about seeing efforts to rewrite this in a less tea-leaf-choked sort of way because, while I’m pretty sure there’s plenty that’s worth trashing, and also a bit here and there that’s worth salvaging, but the most interesting parts of the discussion can’t be gotten to without trying to clarify and thus unpack some of the ideas that are being piled on top of each other here.

    Some feminists have sought to erase the differences between gender roles

    I dunno; there have certainly been plenty of radical feminists who have suggested that their goal was to abolish gender. But is that best glossed as erasing the differences between gender roles? That would seem to suggest the old claim that feminists’ goal is to make men and women the same, when actually the goal is to erase the gendered constraints on difference, so that all people can live out the tremendous variety of their individual differences, regardless of biological sex, rather than being crammed into prefitted gender roles.

  5. Jeff Davis

    Here’s my attempt at a translation of the three quoted paragraphs:

    Class struggle is about abolishing class. It’s not about working-class pride, it’s about getting rid of the system that creates classes in the first place — the system that forces some people to sell their labor and work for money in order to live. Identity politics, by contrast, is about a struggle for recognition — the recognition of identities that are created by oppressing one set of people rather than another. In the case of gender, we can either fight for equal rights for women within the existing system, or fight for the abolition of gender altogether.

    So what would this look like in practice? I don’t know. To abolish class, we can fight for communal ownership of the means of production, the end of wage labor, and the replacement of the state with federated councils. Gender can’t be abolished in the same way, by taking over and transforming society. It’s easy to imagine that a classless society [?] would allow for new ways of living that don’t fit into traditional stereotypes about gender, but it’s not enough to talk abstractly about revolution as a cure-all.

    One thing we do know is that we can’t fight for a better society by fighting in the name of gender binaries. We have to abolish gender, and that can’t be done as long as we support the “matching” of body organs to gendered behavior. It would be wrong to stop struggling to abolish gender just because doing so offends some marginalized groups, and the difficulties that transgender people face shouldn’t lead us to suspend critical thought.

    I agree with Marja that the author is trying to contrast class struggle with “identity politics” (I hate that phrase — it reeks of condescension — but I think it’s what Django would use if he or she were trying to write more plainly). Maybe there’s some truth to the contrast, but in this article it comes across as special pleading for class struggle. The weakest part is the middle paragraph, because it shows that Django can’t imagine achieving fundamental social change through any means other than old-school communist-style revolution. That’s why he or she never explains what it would mean to “destabalise and desacralise gender” — because he or she doesn’t know, and says so.

  6. Black Bloke

    “The task must be to destabalise and desacralise gender, and this cannot be done whilst upholding a belief in the ability to “match” bodily organs to gendered behaviour. The critique of gender cannot be held back…”

    I interpret everything written through the lens of this section. I probably shouldn’t interpret it this way, but this simply seemed like the most standout part.

    I defer to the interpretation rendered by the late president of the late CSA who posted above me.

  7. Anonymous

    “Don’t bother examining a folly – ask yourself only what it accomplishes.”

  8. Nick Manley

    “The weakest part is the middle paragraph, because it shows that Django can’t imagine achieving fundamental social change through any means other than old-school communist-style revolution.”

    The evolutionary quality of mutualism is one reason I am more attracted to it. I cannot imagine a more uncomfortable scenario then a revolution followed by civil war. I don’t understand Marxist-Leninists. The Soviet Union sucked under every thugocratic ruler it had. It’s time to move on ( :

    As the late leftist Ellen Willis pointed out, there is a huge disconnect between the stated ends and means of exceedingly violent revolutionary communism. It’s the equivalent of Bush talking about bringing freedom and peace to Iraq.

    That said, the anarcho-communists of the world are not Marxist-Leninists. There isn’t even a uniform opinion on violence in such circles.

  9. Nick Manley

    Here is the worst state communist apologia I’ve ever read: http://www.icl-fi.org/english/wv/archives/oldsite/2002/Rawa.htm

    To quote it: “Leftists Sided with Islamic Reaction Against Red Army

    Socialist-minded youth in the West might try to imagine that they are at the University of Kabul in 1979 as the Soviet Army rolls in to beat back the CIA’s Islamic rebels. Look across the border to Soviet Central Asia: there are schools, factories and hospitals. Women, regarded as human beings instead of property, are not bought and sold in marriage. They are doctors, engineers and political leaders. No matter what indices you check—life expectancy, infant mortality, literacy—the differences between the two societies are measured in centuries, not decades. Do you don a burqa and follow Meena Keshwar Kamal into Pakistan to join the Islamic insurgents based there, or do you join a militia to drive out and destroy the mujahedin enslavers of women? Do you defend the Soviet Union, or support imperialist counterrevolution? Are you for or against the liberation of women from feudal barbarism?

    The gut-level response of radical leftists should have been the fullest solidarity with the Red Army. Instead, most left groups—including those that had supported the PDPA before the Soviet intervention—and most feminists joined the anti-Communist, anti-woman outcry against the USSR. Today they weep over Afghan women, but when there was actually a chance to throw off the veil, achieve literacy and break the power of the mullahs, the despicable fake leftists were on the side of their own capitalist governments’ support for the mujahedin cutthroats.”

    Oh yeah. The Red Army were saints in Afghanistan. And it was only imperialism when the U.S. intervened!

    They basically bash RAWA as not nationalistic enough, because they have stated they would welcome an international peace keeping force that disarms the Islamists-warlords. Yes, let’s all be xenophobic in our thoughts, except when the glorious Soviet crusaders are involved.

  10. Nick Manley

    One more quote:

    “That the Bush administration, which would like to see every abortion clinic in the U.S. destroyed, could posture as “liberators” of Afghan women is certainly grotesque. Yet this cynical charade was aided by an array of leftists and feminists in the U.S. and Europe who beat the drums for imperialist intervention. Exemplifying such efforts was a “women’s rights” demonstration in Paris on September 29, barely a week before the bombing began, which prominently featured portraits of assassinated Northern Alliance warlord Ahmed Shah Massoud and demands for the U.S. to put an end to the Taliban.

    Especially prominent amid this hypocritical crusade about Afghan women was the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA). RAWA has been hailed by pseudo-Marxist and anarchist groups around the world and its spokesmen were invited to address leftist antiwar protests. At the same time, it has been embraced by Democratic Party politicians and the Voice of America in the U.S. and showered with imperialist “human rights awards” from France to Asia.”

    The article actually makes some decent points about U.S. policy and whatnot. It would be a much better one, if it didn’t completely whitewash the brutality of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. The U.S. invading a country in the name of fostering “democracy” or “women’s rights” is always imperialist reaction, but the Communist states are always truly on a noble crusade. This is reverse American exceptionalism.

  11. Nick Manley

    I know I kind of went off track and have already posted three times, but I can’t avoid expressing my anguish. The Afghanistan situation might have been different, if the nation-states of the world had simply abandoned geo-political power politics. Every single government on Afghanistan’s border has endlessly manipulated the poor country into disaster for reasons fit for a criminal gang — fucking with the other national gang over some stupid dispute.

  12. Gabriel

    The Afghanistan situation might have been different, if the nation-states of the world had simply abandoned geo-political power politics.

    Roderick Long posits two origins of the state: (1) Some invaders conquer an agricultural area and enslave everyone, and (2) some invaders try to conquer an agricultural area, but the people living there form a government which successfully resists the invaders.

    These two insights helped explain to me why the entire world is covered in nation-states and why they cannot help but engage in “geo-political power politics”. Simply put, if the Afghans were not being continually oppressed by the surrounding nation-states then they would probably be the ones doing the oppressing. The dominance of nation-states makes it impossible for any stateless area to survive long (e.g. see how often Somalia has been harassed or invaded since 1990). On the bright side, if all areas were stateless then emerging states would probably not survive long either.

— 2010 —

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