“As long as I’m alive, imma live illegal” – Mobb Deep
Today is International Women’s Day. On this day in post-Soviet Ukraine, my brother was born. On this day, in a Trudeau Canada, my father-in-law died. After months of suffering and an opportunity to say goodbye, he chose medically-assisted suicide. This option was not always available in Canada, and I was surprised to learn that as of 2016, it became legal in Alberta.
One of my favourite quotations from Annie Ernaux’s work keeps coming back to me in this tumultuous time of climate change, crumbling capitalist ideology, and the yearning for action from the global youth. In her slim but powerful work, L’evenement, she notes, “On jugeait par rapport à la loi, on ne jugeait pas la loi.” Yet the law, much like language, knowledge, and money, is an expression of human relations, a social system in which we exist. It does not come down from the Ether, but is historically situated, forever revised and contested.
In an recent OCULA webinar on Critical Librarianship, my friend Sam mentioned interest in the intersection of libraries and the law, and I too have been thinking a lot about what I’m calling ‘the continuum of action’. To what degree are we bound to be silent, complicit, and neutral, and to what extent must we take action in our professional and personal lives, if there is a difference? The University of California took action. Jody Wilson-Raybould took action. Women of Iceland took action in 1975. So with this in mind, I ask: can we have just one major strike, please? I am interested in exploring what withholding our labour for even a day would like provincially, nationally, globally. Who would care, who would notice? Youth around the world are preparing to strike. Why can’t we?
I have always been fascinated by stories of prisons, labour camps, and other spaces that are purposefully designed to confine, restrict, and punish. One of my favourite films, for example, is Steve McQueen’s Hunger, about Bobby Sands leading a no wash protest and a hunger strike in Northern Ireland’s Maze Prison in 1981. (I still think the “wee foal” scene is one of the best in contemporary cinema and captures the ethos of the film, as well as what I’m going on about here. I will write about it someday.) I wonder if my interest in this topic always harboured a secret fear that I too am two steps away from being locked up under the “wrong circumstances.” I have always imagined myself in the cold cell in the unnamed northern gulag rather than Solzhenitsyn’s Shukhov. When Varlam Shalamov wrote of the arbitrary nature of “justice” in Kolyma Tales, I, too, imagined what I would do when sent to Magadan. Would I trade my fellow labourers for a can of condensed milk? Similarly, in a recent episode of No Librarians Allowed, Carla and I talked about the question of values in librarianship and actual cases of individuals facing life and death consequences over intellectual issues. Diego Gomez faced criminal charges, of which he was later acquitted, for sharing research online. In the Twitter War of 2019 that Erin Glass inevitably started, some librarians objected to the idea of the library being open late by recalling cases of librarians have been killed at work in the recent years. Would I go to prison for refusing state power in line of duty?
I am interested in exploring what responsibilities leadership of major public institutions have to each other and to local communities to fund housing for the homeless. I am interested finding out what it means on an institutional level to not be giving our time and labour to those who diminish and dehumanize others.
“For all the talk of freedom in the west, there sure are a lot of rules!” – Slavoj Zizek, basically
We talk about freedom in the west but rarely define it. In many ways, we understand it to be freedom from something – freedom from totalitarianism, oppression, and censorship of expression. But what are we free to do in the west? Am I free to work a 15-hour week, when I materially cannot support myself on this kind of exchange of labour for wages? Am I free to move around the city as I wish when there are no sidewalks designed into neighbourhoods (such as those were my parents live in Nova Scotia) or in the industrial zone where my weightlifting team practices that is not serviced by public transit? Am I free to raise goats and dig a well in my backyard to provide for myself when I live in the city? What if all Canadians applied for hunting and fishing licenses? How soon before the municipal officials would come after the neighbourhood that chose to self-organize and distribute food, housing, and other resources among its members “illegally”?
In other words, when we talk about freedom in contemporary late capitalist societies, we mean very specific kinds of freedoms, and yet are told again and again that ideology exists elsewhere, outside this perfectly reasonable, “balanced”, logical order. We don’t live in an ideology-free world; there is no such thing as a person living above (Jude) Law. We are born into a society, we are bound to others around us, and we cannot escape obligation and relationship to them. We can only replace one ideology (of oppression, domination, alienation) with another (of sharing, negotiation, and conflict) before the Maldives are under water, the bees are gone, and ash rains from the sky every August in Western Canada. Arguably, it is this very unfreedom that articulates meaning, our relation to others, and that structures our understanding of the world for the brief moment until we go.
On this International Women’s Day, I also think about my grandma, after whom I am named.
Here she is in her lab, in an industrial city on the left bank of the Dnieper river. She has spent over 32 to years in chemistry and applied sciences, making polymers, ethanols, and synthetic oils for a plant that processed iron ore. Was she a feminist before the term was adopted widely? Was she oppressed because her boss put pressure on her to return from her state-funded maternity leave early in order to serve the community because her skill and talent were desperately needed for the plant to continue production? Or was she truly liberated because she attended free education, attaining a certification that allowed her to participate socially and economically in the world, living in a community where she was respected and needed by others? Was she free to receive state-organized housing and occasionally travel to Crimea on her own (while grandpa was with the boys, who attended free daycare)? Or was she a victim of state oppression that only legislated a 5-day workweek in 1967 and did not allow her to ‘do what she loved’?
What is the truth, in this case? While my father-in-law was still alive, we would often discuss the nature of science the way it is conducted in Canada. He was surprised, for example, to hear me challenge the idea that academic publication rates are unbiased, or rather, that the organization of research replicates the social biases of society more broadly. For example, we know that individuals from marginalized groups are published less frequently, in less prestigious journals, which has impact on material rewards they receive. After all, scientists are some of the most educated and “objective” people in the world. Surely, they would not perpetuate sexism, racism, ableism, and other forms of discrimination. And in any case, the work is judged on its merit. But I would remind him about those are not present in the room, those who have been forced to drop out of the game along the way, those who did not have a chance to get to the stage where they have the space to publish and present because of lack of access to childcare, elder care, healthcare, and a liveable wage. I would sometimes ask what science might look like if it was conducted by another species, or in another time. In other words, yes, the findings of science, medicine, and law are great, but how are science, medicine, or law organized more broadly. How do they function in society? It is us, mere mortals, who set up the review procedures, include and exclude members on committees, adjudicate funding, and distribute awards. I was fascinated to challenge the idea of positivist methodology and impartial objectivity of science, so often invoked in everything from journalism to public education systems. In a true Slavic fashion, I can’t help but rely on a joke to think through this idea of the truth:
There is a well‑known, very Hegelian joke that illustrates perfectly the way truth arises from misrecognition, i.e., the way our path towards truth coincides with the truth itself. We are referring, of course, to the joke about the Door of the Law from the ninth chapter of Kafka’s Trial, to its final turnaround when the dying man from the country asks the doorkeeper: “Everyone strives to attain the Law‑‑how does it come about, then, that in all these years no one has come seeking admittance but me?” The doorkeeper perceives that the man is at the end of his strength and that his hearing is failing, so he bellows in his ear: “No one but you could gain admittance through this door, since this door was intended only for you. I am now going to shut it.” (Zizek’s Jokes, 2014, p. 123)
Zizek muses that another ending for Kafka’s story could be invented to make the point clearer. After the long wait, the man from the country brakes out in fury and screams at the doorkeeper: “You dirty rascal, why do you pretend to guard the entrance to some enormous secret, when you know very well that there is no secret beyond the door, that this door is intended only for me, to capture my desire!”‑‑ and the doorkeeper (as if he were an analyst) would answer him calmly: “You see, now, you’ve discovered the real secret: beyond the door is only what your desire introduced there.”
Here we see a ‘reflexivity’ which arguably cannot be reduced to philosophical reflection: the very feature which seems to exclude the subject from the Other (his desire to attain the secret of the Other – the secret of the Law, for example) is already a “reflexive determination” by the Other. Precisely as excluded from the Other, we are already part of its game. In other words, there is no space to stand outside of the nature of experience; there is no objectivity as such.
On this International Women’s Day, I must disagree with Rancière when he reminds us that “there is no such thing as a possible society. There is only the society that exists.” (The Ignorant Schoolmaster, 1987, p. 75). I believe the time to imagine a possible society is now. We know so many wonderful, useful “facts” in science, medicine, and law, but we have not distributed them evenly, equitably, or justly among humans. What’s worse, is that we are facing a time that materially limits our experience as a species in the natural world. We actually don’t have the time. I reject the notion that journalism, public education, research, and any other human pursuit exists for its own neutral, objective, non-involved sake. We cannot escape being bound to others around us. There is no way to develop as a human being without other human beings. If we do not seek to improve the lives of others, if we pretend to remain on the fence, then why do we get up in the morning? For whom is this entire enterprise?
“Soudain, ça m’avait intrigué, excité même, que la mort ne fût plus à l’horizon, droit devant, comme le butoir imprévisible du destin, m’aspirant vers son indescriptible certitude. Qu’elle fût déjà dans mon passé, usée jusqu’à la corde, vécue jusqu’à la lie, son souffle chaque jour plus faible, plus éloigné de moi, sur ma nuque. C’était excitant d’imaginer que le fait de vieillir, dorénavant, à compter de ce jour d’avril fabuleux, n’allait pas me rapprocher de la mort, mais bien au contraire m’en éloigner.” Jorge Semprun, L’Écriture ou la vie.