re: kristin ross’s “communal luxury”

this week’s book for “performance of politics” class was kristin ross’s communal luxury: the political imaginary of the paris commune. it’s interesting to move to this from butler’s book last week because neither of them feel particularly theoretical to me. they feel pragmatic, like blueprints. ross’s move with this book, i think, is to expand the account of the paris commune, both in space—beyond its usual national borders—and in time—into its own past and into our present. part of this is framing the totally remarkable vegetarian geographer polymath french guy, eliseé reclus, with marx, kropotkin, and william morris instead of with just other french guys. in terms of scholarship, i can’t know whether the move is justifiable since i don’t know a single thing about this body of research or this moment in history, but i do appreciate the gesture.

content-wise, i appreciated learning about the event, which was formative for marx and lenin. the paris commune, to paraphrase ross, was a 73-day occupation of the city in which communards attempted to reorganize social life based on association, cooperation, and solidarity. sound familiar? there are moments where a lot of this feels very ideologically close to conversations i have with friends who are involved with left social movements today, who are resisting the violence of capitalism by doing housing differently, who are thinking nature and interdependence differently, who strive for what in this book is called internationalism. drawing connections between struggles, thinking backwards and forwards in time.

plus, writing about an occupation, an encampment, “the insurgent city”, feels like a no-brainer today, for reasons that ross articulates and that butler broke down so well in notes toward a performative theory of assembly.

a jacobin article synthesizes one of the points i struggled with:

“What he and the other artists meant by “communal luxury” was something like a program in “public beauty”: the enhancement of villages and towns, the right of every person to live and work in a pleasing environment.

This may seem like a small, even a “decorative,” demand. But it actually entails not only a complete reconfiguration of our relation to art, but to labor, social relations, nature. and the lived environment as well. It means a full mobilization of the two watchwords of the Commune: decentralization and participation. It means art and beauty deprivatized, fully integrated into everyday life, and not hidden away in private salons or centralized into obscene nationalistic monumentality.”

this feels old. we discussed it in undergrad in my german visual culture class. i was not convinced then that william morris’s desire for more “public beauty” was not, as ross puts it, a “decorative demand”.

more recently, jerry saltz wrote about the cost of great public art: public/private partnerships and the privatization of public space. we have beautiful objects everywhere, thoughtfully curated by the best in the world, subway stations full of the stuff, and yet…

new york city has been a lesson in many things for me, one of which is that a city can have public housing, public art, better public infrastructure than exists in any city i’ve ever lived in, and it can all coexist with extraordinary violence, poverty, inequality, policing. i’m looking forward to hear what other folks in class made of this.

TO RESEARCH: henri lefebvre’s “dialectic of the lived and the conceived”

tearing down judy b

the theory nerds broke my damn heart this evening.

for the “performance of politics” class i’m taking with tavia nyong’o and eric lott semester, we are assigned a book a week. the book we discussed this week was judith butler’s notes toward a performative theory of assembly.

butler is dear to me. i am hopelessly uncritical of her work, so basically unable to have a scholarly conversation about it. i remember following the knots of her thought through gender trouble in undergrad. i had never read anything like it. i had never read gender. i had never read or thought queer anything. i watched youtube videos of her lectures and was tickled by her pacing, her patient picking apart in language that was so bizarre but the only language that would work for the thing. she reads like a poet.

a few years later, i read hannah arendt’s eichmann in jerusalem, another life changer. i came to know arendt better through butler. and primo levi. and levinas and benjamin. edward said. i’m doing other reading/thinking at this point in my life, but when i come back to those thinkers, and i definitely will, it will have been because of her. parting ways: jewishness and the critique of zionism led me to jewish voice for peace, an organization that (re)shaped my life in profound ways for the years i lived in seattle.

butler is not as much a theorist for me as a rabbi, a person whose primary concern is how to live ethically, how to be in the world with others in the right way. what it means to do this as a jew. what queerness tells us about this. i am only grateful that she has found better editors or at least clarified things for herself somehow over the years. whatever the thing is that has made her so much more legible, digestible. although sometimes i miss the feeling of rocks in the stomach grinding, roughly, over her ideas.

all of which is to say, it was hard to sit in class tonight and hear very eloquent arguments about why this book is not a book of theory, to wonder why she would choose arendt (so racist! so elitist!), to contest her claims about humanism (she says she’s not a humanist, but she is!), to note the limitations of her thinking about allegiances and coalitions (why didn’t she anything about reparations?). none of which, in the end, is actually off-base at all or even really a threat to what she is or what her thinking is.