When I write essays in English — unlike when I blog or even speak (both too quickly) — I’m meticulous.
Writing, for me, is a political engagement and a political act(ion). It is not something I do as some sort of allegedly pure artistic self-expression, although part of being meticulous is the joy of wordsmithing. Nor is it commodified or compulsory labor. And it is never, ever passive. It springs from what I’m both participating in and thinking about, also referred to as praxis. It’s also not meant to be received passively. The Zapatistas, like the Situationist International, scribed a cornucopia of quotable, borrowable, graffitable slogans, and I know I’ve used and lent out this particular phrase before, but it always bears repeating: for those of us who struggle for and/or strive to prefigure a world from below, us misfits in a present-day world we should never fit into, “our word is our weapon.”
Writing, then, is always intended as a political intervention. That can mean my words are sometimes inspiring or sometimes critical, or if penned well, a blend of both. Sometimes, too, they are militant, thrown down as a challenge — to myself, first and foremost, and also to my antiauthoritarian comrades of many tendencies, and/or to those outside our circles, but usually not too far outside (those who’ve moved close enough, by learning to think for themselves, to actively listen and dialogue). Always my words are meant to contribute, in whatever way they can, to social transformation. So I only write when I have something to say, and I try hard — slowly, excruciatingly slowly at times — to pick each word carefully, for nuanced meaning, poetic beauty, and accessible clarity as well as to construct a sharp argument that aspires to “educate, agitate, and organize.”
This isn’t to say that I always succeed in any or all of this.
In particular, this past month or so, when I write blog posts in English — in another country, as participant-observer in a largely Francophone-influenced and organized maple spring — I’m (inadvertently) careless.
I say “careless” not because I don’t care. Just the opposite. The reason I’m sticking around Montreal is because I already care too much about this longest of student strikes in North America and most remarkable of social movements. I mean careless as in spontaneous and yet sloppy. I’m not an anarchist “foreign” correspondent, carefully checking into each and fact, or even (I suppose) relaying facts at all. My “Dispatches from Maple Spring” are more like the written equivalent of an impressionistic painting: my visible “brushstrokes” are merely aiming to portray movement, unusual angles, changing qualities — all with an openness of composition.
I say “inadvertent” because I didn’t set out to be careless, as in “sloppy.” But this week, I received two fairly lengthy emails about two of my fairly recent blogs — one quite critical of what I am not seeing here and didn’t write about; the other offering me a friendly behind-the-scenes backstory. Both gave me pause, and both made me think, like militant challenges thrown down. As I emailed back to the first of the two folks, their words were a gift. If we’re serious about social transformation, we need to think critically. We need to think and speak the truth, not just to “power,” but to each other, to ourselves, to the power imbalances and machinations within our circles.
I asked the first emailer if they’d be willing to publicly post their critiques as a “comment” to the particular blog post of mine that bothered them, but thought soon after I wrote them back that it was really up to me to bring some of their meticulous suggestions into my writing. To start seeing things I’m not seeing, because of my own blinders, assumptions, or plain lack of knowledge, and/or because certain things aren’t prominent parts of this student strike, or are inadvertently, carelessly carried forward within the student strike because they build on a history of struggles that had their own blinders. For instance, ideas of decolonization shook up Montreal for the better in the 1960s, but also highlighted (and still do) “the contradictions and ambiguities of applying ideas of decolonisation in Quebec” (see book recommendation below). In the same way that even as I write, there’s a “national” gathering of occupies going on in Philadelphia, the “birthplace of American democracy,” on the July Fourth weekend. I can clearly see that while well intentioned, the very choice of time, place, and phraseology for this “natgat” already makes so many people feel left out of any sort of remotely liberatory political project — say, indigenous peoples who were on the land before the birthing or black peoples who were forcibly enslaved to raise the newborn country, not to mention those who practiced (and still do) forms of direct democracy on this continent without need of or desire for states or nations. That’s “easy” for me to see — “easier,” for as an Anarchist Person of Color (APOC) friend recently said, to varying degrees of better and worse, we can only be racist antiracists, at best, in a racist society — as it’s been easy and frustrating to see throughout “occupy,” itself a contested term that, happily, created transparent space for continuations as well (frustratingly) beginnings of political interventions.
Both email interventions/dialogues with my blog words made me think long and hard, and that’s good indeed. It feels good to have one’s brain work long and hard, through something it doesn’t already know the answer to, because to quote another phrase I adore repeating, by Theodor W. Adorno, “Open thinking points beyond itself.” If we have any chance in hell, from within this hell, of changing the world, we need to actively, politically engage in open thought. From there, if we’re lucky, we’ll be able to actively, politically engage in open experiments that point beyond themselves, like this student movement, which started as a student strike to challenge a tuition increase, and now points beyond itself, toward a social strike, too, and free education for all. With more open thinking and experimentation, who knows, it may point further still. Or not. Social resistance and reconstruction comes with no guarantee.
Neither do these blog posts. I will and am making mistakes, blunders, and typos. So I titled the blog piece in between the two recent emails I received with this phrase: “Lost in Translation.” I may do a few more parts under the same header, although I should more accurately have titled it “Lost (and Found) in Translation.”
For in thinking through critique and backstory both, I decided that what I’m doing, what I want to do, and more to the point, perhaps what I’m capable of doing here in Montreal, are impressionistic word-paintings. Maybe that’s why I’ve been especially drawn to commenting on visual culture, such as posters, street art, and graffiti. What you’re reading is, in essence, my open thinking. Sometimes it will point past itself; at other times, it might stumble and fall flat. I barely know the film An American in Paris, but its title, reworked badly, seems to capture my part here: An “American” in Montreal. Or better yet, An “American” Anarchist in Montreal. I finally just looked up the film’s plot, and it turns out that the main character, “the American in Paris,” is attempting to be a painter and of course he falls in love. It is, after all, a George Gershwin musical from the 1950s. I fell in love with maple spring in Montreal and now am attempting to paint it, clearly as the temporary expat who doesn’t believe in borders. Hopefully this movement-narrative will have a happy ending too!
So I’m going to embrace being that love-struck outsider and impressionistic word-painter role in a romantic rebel city, so that you — my love-struck outsider friends — can see this movement-narrative unfold, because I’m counting on that freshness, that openness, pointing beyond itself, to help us in our resistance and reconstruction elsewhere. If this is a foolhardy performance at times, that’s a risk I want to take, because of something that a 21- or 22-year-old student striker artist said to me and a friend several weeks ago. He said it in English, haltingly, so hence my notion that things actually are both “lost” and “found” in translation. What he said — versus what he probably would have more fully or altogether differently said in his French language — might not have been this at all: “No school, but learning.”
Since I know written English, I can now return to my wordsmithing for a minute. He didn’t write down these four words. So they could also have been: “No school but learning.” A little comma, like the little red felt square on so many people’s shirts and backpacks, can make a world of difference.
This person, one of the École de la Montagne Rouge (School of the Red Mountain) collaborators — I’ve rarely seen such almost-intuitively egalitarian collaboration, and one that produces new subjectivities and skills as well as such extraordinary and extraordinarily complementary/collaborative movement cultural creations (but that’s a whole other blog piece) — was answering a question about how it felt to be using their classrooms-turned-into-studios for self-managed, self-directed, collective artistic experimentation after experimentation, teaching each other, free from constraints like grades, professors, or other institutional pressures. So he might have meant, “We’re not in school now, due to the strike, but we’re still learning anyway.” But another part of his explanation made me think he intended it otherwise, for he also said something to the effect that he didn’t want to think about how it would feel when school started again.
My heart stopped when he said that. When I looked around at the Red Mountain crew in their red overalls, screen printing red ink on to 500 hundred posters that night, well into almost morning of the next day. There was such passion; they were indeed love-struck with each other and their creation, the School of the Red Mountain along with its growing body of work, literally crawling up the walls of their high-ceiled, reappropriated space. Of course he didn’t want to think about how it would feel. Having felt heartbreak time and time — and time — again, over people, places, projects, and movements, I know that the restart of school is going to feel devastatingly cruel and hurt more than he and his red-clad friends will almost be able to bear. I know that’s how it’s going to feel for all the other 17- to 22-year-olds (and some slightly older) who have been at the heart of meticulously making this revolt, with an openness — likely inadvertently — that has allowed for maple spring to become maple summer and probably spill beyond that. I oh so want it to have the Gershwin happy-ever-after ending; I also know that’s rarely how these social movement stories end.
But I’m also a “good” anarchist in the sense that besides steeling myself to heartache in order to have a wide-open heart left to fall in love again and again — and again — for a lifetime (because otherwise one gives up and becomes a coldhearted liberal, if even that), I don’t think narratives have a beginning or an end. There are no neat stories in real life; just a lot of twisted tales, messy manuscripts, and poetic passages, such as those being created by my artist friend and his collaborators. So whether he knows it consciously or not, I know he meant “No school but learning.” As in: “This strike has pointed beyond what we thought school meant or can ever mean. Now we know that we don’t learn through their schools, as this society has constructed and structured them, or through short-term places called college; we learn, always, by schooling ourselves. We learn by doing it ourselves, together. Our school is learning, for the whole of our life, and learning, throughout one’s lifetime, takes place in our own self-constructed school.”
When the strike ends, or is ended, and the Red Mountain’s paper prints come falling off their studio-returned-to-classroom walls like the red leaves of autumn, they and all their extraordinarily hardworking fellow “strikers” — no work stoppage here, but rather an outpouring of voluntaristic creation! — will likely experience the deepest of bloody-red wistfulness. But they can’t lose now, because they’ve already won so much.
If I miss the realism in my painting-words for the impressions of what maple spring is bringing to life — tinged, too, with impressions of its problematics — I hope you’ll still glean a few new ways of seeing this moment. And I hope you’ll send me your thoughts on where I’ve erred, in your view, or fill in some of the blanks — or post them as a public comment — so I can try to be a better artist-agitator.
I think if we’re humble about all we don’t know in this historical moment of grand transformations and turmoil; if we remain generous about each and everyone one of us collaborating and contributing to “making history” together; and if we stay open in thought and practice in order to critically yet constructively keep experimenting while this window onto history is still fairly wide open, we might just learn without school. I know I am, since I always believe, for better or worse, that there is no school ever like our own learning, even if I occasionally deserve a D for “damn, I missed something” or an F for “fuck, how I could have been so myopic?”
And even though this might only make sense to me and the person who critiqued me via email, I’d like to recommend a book that another smart friend recently recommended to me: The Empire Within: Postcolonial Thought and Political Activism in Sixties’ Montreal, by Sean Mills. I’ve only read a little bit of it (so far), but as backdrop to maple spring, at least for this “American” anarchist in Montreal, it seems thoroughly illuminating. Here’s a brief description:
“In a brilliant history of a turbulent time and place, Mills pulls back the curtain on the decade’s activists and intellectuals, showing their engagement both with each other and with people from around the world. He demonstrates how activists of different backgrounds and with different political aims drew on ideas of decolonisation to rethink the meanings attached to the politics of sex, race, and class and to imagine themselves as part of a broad transnational movement of anti-colonial and anti-imperialist resistance. The temporary unity forged around ideas of decolonisation came undone in the 1970s, however, as many were forced to come to terms with the contradictions and ambiguities of applying ideas of decolonisation in Quebec. From linguistic debates to labour unions, and from the political activities of citizens in the city’s poorest neighbourhoods to its Caribbean intellectuals, The Empire Within is a political tour of Montreal that reconsiders the meaning and legacy of the city’s dissident traditions.”
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If you stumbled across this blog post as a reposting somewhere, please excuse the typos/grammatical errors (it’s a blog, after all), and note that you can find other blog-musings and more polished essays at Outside the Circle, cbmilstein.wordpress.com/. Share, enjoy, and repost–as long as it’s free, as in “free beer” and “freedom.”
(Photos: Unless otherwise noted, all photos were taken in Montreal, summer 2012, by Cindy Milstein)