Mad Men Spoilers as Class Warfare?

4 Jun

I wrote this several weeks ago now (when the new seasons of everyone’s favorite Quality TV shows were just premiering) and shelved it. But now that it’s season finale time, it feels apt enough to toss out into the world. Admittedly, the title (and perhaps the premise of the post itself) is a bit incendiary, but whatever, spoilers make me cranky.



With the long-awaited premiere of Mad Men’s fifth season on Sunday, we saw the return of a series that, in certain circles at least, has become a major cultural touchstone. For me, the return of Mad Men signaled a surge in one of my social media pet peeves – the TV spoiler. My Twitter stream is now full of plot details that I wish I could un-see.

I noticed a few other people griping about the spoiler phenomenon too – mostly people who don’t subscribe to cable, and thus aren’t able to see Mad Men “live” on Sunday nights. They have to wait until they can see it on a friend’s DVR, or worse, wait months for the series to be released on DVD. The whole social media spoiler phenomenon will likely intensify next weekend, when Game of Thrones begins its second season on HBO. Only those who can afford a premium cable subscription – or who move in the social circles of people who do – will be able to beat the spoilers that are sure to overrun the social media sphere.

Spoilers are a form of conspicuous consumption. They’re a way of showing the world, “Look what I watch.” The underlying message is, of course, “Don’t I have great taste?” A hundred years ago, going to the symphony differentiated you from the masses who filled the vaudeville halls. Now, “quality television” occupies that high-class cultural space. The refined Downton Abbey watchers get to float above the riff-raff who’d rather watch the brutish spectacle of Sunday Night Football. As for those people whose three minimum wage jobs don’t leave them much time for TV or Twitter, well they’re not even on the cultural map. Just like the aristocrats and domestic laborers on Downton, the details of our everyday lives and the conversations in which we can participate are still powerfully shaped by our economic circumstances.

You’ve probably heard of white privilege, and maybe male privilege, but what about media privilege? Privilege is about the tiny, almost unnoticeable advantages that you get in your everyday life, which can be traced back to the social groups in which you belong. A familiar example is a white person having no trouble hailing a cab in New York City. Sure, it’s hard to work up too much sympathy for someone who has the plot of a niche TV show spoiled for them, when, across our country, children of color are regularly being shot and brutalized. But it’s worth pausing to think before you tweet that spoiler – whose experience am I ruining, and is my privilege showing?


Book Progress Report, Week 27

1 Jun

Today is one of those days I sat down at my computer to write a little bit and just can’t muster up the will to do it. This chapter is really giving me trouble – I think no matter how many times I outline and sketch out the argument, it just feels over-worked and forced. Which makes me worry that I don’t in fact have a very strong argument in this chapter. Now, maybe this chapter doesn’t need to have a stronger argument than “the whole idea of an anarchist identity (esp. one that is constituted through lifestyle practices) is problematic and here are some of the reasons why” but that feels pretty uncompelling to me. Like it’s the kind of thing that will only be interesting if you happen to care about anarchism as a political project. Maybe that a valid basis for a chapter, I dont know – this book is in a series called Contemporary Anarchist Studies after all. I think what I need to do it spit out what I’m saying about anarchist identity, like just get it down on paper, and then use the introduction and last section to position it as a set of questions and observations that can be fruitful to consider for other social movements/identities. Basically, give myself a stern talking to in which I say, just write this damn chapter, Laura, you can perfect it to death (aka refine the argument) later. It’s worth remembering that this was the sample chapter that got two thumbs-ups from the anonymous referees, so it couldn’t have been too awful to begin with.

I’m having a pipe dream that I will get a good draft of the chapter done by Tuesday (when I leave for LA for 3 weeks), which will then put me in a position to print out and read the 4 main body chapters as a complete set. Then I can spend my time in LA writing the more meta Lifestylism chapter, which basically needs to be written/assembled from scratch. It may be a silly idea to try and write a new chapter while physically separated from my primary sources (my little box of anarchist ephemera + shelf of anarchist books) but hopefully I have enough notes on this stuff to carry me through a first draft. I’m bringing my Bookchin with me, but that’s it.

Ok, I’m feeling a surge of will power coming on. Better go harness it!


The Identity Chapter (or, what I’m thinking about for the next month)

26 May

This is the roadmap for the second-to-last chapter of Lifestyle Politics and Radical Activism. It’s written – just needs to be revised. I’m pumped.

So far, this book has examined specific practices of anarchist lifestyle politics. For the most part, these discussions have assumed subjects acting in the name of a coherent political identity. In this chapter, I want to dig deeper into the very idea of anarchist identity. My previous chapter, on sexuality, argued that self-identification is itself a political practice, which as such can be analyzed in similar fashion to other everyday activities which are of concern in this study of lifestyle politics. This chapter will look at anarchist identification: how anarchists experience, think about, and talk about their identification with anarchism. I open anarchist identification up to critical assessment, to questions of meaning, effects, and strategy, much as I have done for other aspects of lifestyle politics throughout this book. I ask, what do people mean when they say they are anarchists? Why do they choose to identify themselves in this way? How does anarchist identity function as a disciplinary discourse? What kinds of subjects and behaviors does it produce and foreclose? How does the construction of a particular kind of “authentic” anarchist identity performance work to reinforce the stereotype of the young, white, male as the quintessential anarchist activist? These questions are important because they can shed light on why and how certain assumptions about anarchist activists persist. Even though women, people of color, and other socially marginalized groups are arguably the lifeblood of contemporary anarchist movements—bringing not only significant physical participation but also perspectives and critical discourses that give contemporary anarchism its relevance to current political conditions—their presence and contributions continue to be underplayed. It is strikingly easy (and common) for outsiders to a movement like Occupy Wall Street to write off the anarchist element as privileged white male youth who have no legitimate claim to organizing against social problems to which they are the least vulnerable. My analysis will explain why it may be the case that anarchist ideologies are not the exclusive purview of young white males; rather, the performances which we interpret as signifying anarchist identity may be disproportionately associated with young white males. The middle aged woman of color who espouses anarchist principles—but not the stereotypical trappings of anarchist identity—will go unrecognized as an anarchist, thus reinforcing the interpretive framework begun with. The question then arises, is “anarchist” useful as an identity category? Or does it do more harm than good? Can “anarchist” as an identity category be disarticulated from its attendant lifestyle practices? Should it? While I don’t think it’s my place to answer the final question, I will draw on the theoretical contributions of scholars of identity politics, to offer some historical perspective on the strategic utility—and strategic pitfalls—of identity as an organizing principle for radical social movements, with a particular eye toward considering the role of lifestyle in the history of identity politics. This will set the stage for my final chapter which will take a close look at the debate around “lifestylism” that is a seemingly infinitely renewable source of internal conflict for the strategists of contemporary anarchist movements.

Returning to this a day later, I’m less than pumped. Does it even make sense? Does it meaningfully communicate what I do in this chapter? Maybe it communicates the questions I’d like to ask, but my job as a writer is not to ask the questions, but to answer them (at least provisionally). Asking a string of complicated questions and then expecting the reader to figure out how the writing that follows actually answers these questions is a bad habit I picked up (*gives Judith Butler the side eye*). So I’m going to take a stab at rewriting a chapter abstract that actually says what my chapter does.

As an identity label, “anarchist” is both descriptive and prescriptive. As a description, “anarchist” describes a certain set of ideologies, orientations, and, yes, lifestyle practices held by the person (or organization or community for that matter) who claims the label. As a prescriptive force, the label “anarchist” can push a person (or organization or community) toward certain practices. When used as a descriptor, the person to whom the label is applied is subject to questions of authenticity: “Am I a real anarchist?” “Is this lifestyle practice what a real anarchist would do?” Inversely, definitions of authenticity can work to bring a person’s behavior in line with certain norms, in order to make a more convincing claim to the identity “anarchist.” In this way, “anarchist” serves as an aspirational identity label, and the anarchist community is a site where one is held accountable to upholding the norms one must aspire to in order to claim authenticity for one’s anarchist identity. These processes are not without their troubles though. Descriptive identity labels are troublesome because they can fail to capture empirical reality–there may be differences between what one says and what one does. They may also reduce a diversity experiences to an essentialist definition, which is necessarily exclusionary. Furthermore, there are often disagreements among claimants to the label about the definition of authentic anarchism. And there are disagreements about the extent to which lifestyle practices serve as a defining or essential characteristic of anarchist identity. On the other side, the prescriptive character of anarchist identity can be troubling in its normativity. As queer theorists such as Warner have argued, normativity necessarily implies division and exclusion of those whose behaviors fall outside a community’s prescribed norms of practice. Because of the close relationship between lifestyle practices and the constitution of anarchist authenticity, taste and lifestyle choices become the basis for battles over who has the right to call themselves “anarchist” and even which groups anarchists will find themselves in political solidarity with. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the norms of anarchist identity often shake out in similar ways to the queer movement Warner was himself critiquing–recentering the young, white, male subject through the privileging of particular lifestyle choices that are most available to these kinds of subjects. While it is not the case that anarchist movements are exclusively inhabited by or attractive to privileged individuals, it is true that the dynamics of anarchist identity constitution outlined above may work to exclude more marginalized subjects from the label “anarchist.” Previous theories and histories of identity politics in radical movements, and the practices of some anarchists themselves, suggest that the anarchist identity label is most effectively used in a “strategic” way, rather than in an absolute way that relies on inherently exclusionary judgements of authenticity.

God, that’s a mouthful, but I think it’s better. And I think each sentence corresponds with the actual work that will be done by each passage in the chapter. So it makes a good map, both for the reader, and for me to figure out how the hell to arrange the evidence I’ve collected and the paragraphs I’ve already written.

Book Progress Report, Week 26

25 May

So, despite getting absorbed in revising my Facebook refusal paper, I was able to meet my goal of putting away the Sexuality chapter by the end of this week. There are still a few places where the language really needs to be cleaned up so as not to be so “high theory” (AKA totally not understandable to readers) but I am thinking that can happen latter when I do a sweep through the whole book looking for those kinds of things.

My first task on the next chapter (the Identity Politics chapter for those keeping track) was to read it again this morning – the draft has been languishing unread for a while now. Upon reading I came to several conclusions: 1) the chapter is not really about identity politics (it might be a little bit, but that is a bad organizing principle for the content that is actually there); 2) I have not yet broken the bad habit pointed out to me by my graduate Feminist Theory professor of making major points and then just leaving them sitting there at the end of a paragraph, unexplained; (3) this chapter is actually interesting and not that bad.

So, the chapter doesn’t need a major overhaul. I think what it needs is some reframing at the beginning, reframing that is more sensitive to what I’ve actually written about in the chapter itself. It’s ok if this chapter doesn’t solve the problem of identity politics, all it has to do is have a title and introduction that address the problem it does solve. Then I think I need to front-load the empirical evidence about anarchist issues with identity, and bring in the identity politics history/theory in the back half of the chapter for context and support for the ultimate argument I make about “ethical normativity.” (I also need to be careful about making theoretical arguments versus prescriptive arguments – instead of advocating “ethical normativity” as something I want to see, I need to just show how it’s a useful framework for thinking about what anarchists do and how it might be consistent with what they want to see.) And then there are about a million places where I just need to draw out the points a little more instead of leaving them hanging on the page and expecting every reader to be clairvoyant about what I meant. Also, right now this chapter is a bit shorter than the others, but I think probably by the time I’m through with it, it’ll measure up.

First step will be to sketch out the current paragraph level outline, then see what about that needs rethinking. Then based on the outline I’ll figure out the best way to title/frame this chapter. Then I can do the drawing out of the points. And then I can cut some of the cite-y stuff, make it more about what I’ve found rather than what I’ve read. Sounds like a plan.

Book Progress Report, Week 23, 24, and 25

18 May

It was a quiet couple of weeks on the book front. I finished up a first complete draft of my Media Refusal and Conspicuous Non-Consumption paper, and then got slammed with end of the semester grading. But now that summer is officially here I’m on a good work schedule (using the Pomodoro technique and dividing my day up into 5 tasks – book writing, reading new material, blogging and other writing, emails and other bureaucratic things, and future class prep, with book writing getting half of my total work time each day) and actually making progress on the manuscript. This week my book task has been to clean up the last few missing references in the Sexuality chapter. This has resulted in some additions to my reading list, so I’m thinking I can have this chapter totally put away (except for the introductory anecdote) by the end of next week at the latest.

My very rough plan for the summer is to spend late May/early June revising the Identity Politics chapter, late June/early July writing the Lifestylism chapter/conclusion, and the rest of the summer revising/writing the introduction and Methodology chapter, and researching/writing the anecdotes for each chapter introduction. My plan, which may be totally insane and unrealistic, is to have a complete draft by September so that I can get feedback on it before it goes to Continuum in December (note: accepting volunteers to read the manuscript in the fall).

Book Progress Report, Week 22

28 Apr

Have just been plugging along with the Media Refusal  and Conspicuous Non-Consumption manuscript this week, so not much new to report in the book realm. I did teach my “Constructing Anarchist Sexuality” article in my Queer Identity and Popular Culture course this week, so I had occasion to look back at the sexuality chapter draft I left hanging in mid-revision several weeks ago, and I felt pretty good about it. There are a couple places where I’d like to make brief references to some social theory to add context, but it’s not like I need to do anything radical to the chapter to make it readable or understandable.

The journal version of my consumption chapter finally went live last night, so that’s exciting. Other than that, not much new to report!

Book Progress Report, Weeks 19, 20, and 21

20 Apr

If my blog silence about book progress didn’t make it painfully obvious that I have made none in the past 3 weeks, well I dont know. I’ve been deep into my paper manuscript on media refusal (working title: Media Refusal and Conspicuous Non-Consumption: The Performative and Political Dimensions of Facebook Abstention). The end is in sight – I’m expecting to have the manuscript draft finished and submitted to a journal by the end of the semester (May 9th for those keeping track). After that it’s Lifestyle Politics and Radical Activism 24/7 all summer long. With a few breaks for blogging, of course.