The notion of “autonomy” has growing political appeal in a time of rising fascism, but what does this term really mean, and what kinds of potential might it offer? TRNN Editor-in-Chief Maximillian Alvarez sits down with author and artist Janet Sarbanes to discuss her book, Letters on the Autonomy Project.
Post-Production: Jules Taylor
Meg: Good evening, everyone. Welcome to the new Red Emma’s. Is this your first time in the new spot?
Speaker 1: Yes.
Meg: Yeah? How do you like it?
Speaker 1: It’s nice.
Meg: And we’ve got more coming, right? We’re renovating the bookstore right next door. It’s going to be very lovely. And then we’ll have the Free School up and running downstairs where the books are now. So lots of beautiful things on the way. We’re really excited to have Janet Sarbanes here today in conversation with Maximilian Alvarez. So, I’m assuming you all know a little bit about Janet. You might know her for her fiction collections, her short story collections, or you might know her for her essay on Shaker aesthetics, or you might know her as a theorist at CalArts, where she’s on faculty. I’m super excited about this book. I’ve been reading it for the past two weeks, which is lovely because Punctum offers it up on the internet for everyone.
So it’s a lovely book on the question of autonomy. And of course, as you might expect, autonomy is not about personal autonomy, the idea embedded within individualism, but really the matrix between individuals and collective action. And more than that, about the generative power of autonomy. And I think throughout these open letters, she addresses just about every question I had. And I know that Max over here has many questions for her. Max, if you don’t know him, he is the editor-in-chief of The Real News Network as well as a dear friend of the collective. We just had his book launch. He wrote The Work of Living. We also have that here. So we’re going to get this conversation started, and then see me to buy the book afterward, right over there. Take it away you all [applause].
Max Alvarez: And just a heads-up to folks, we are recording the conversation in the hopes that we end up with a usable track for a podcast that we can publish at The Real News. But just wanted to make sure everyone knows that we are recording it, but it’s not live or anything like that.
All right. Well, thank you so much, Meg. Thank you, as always, to the incredible Red Emma’s collective. It is always an honor and a pleasure to be here in this exciting space where a lot of great conversations happen. If you all don’t know the upcoming schedule of author events, you should check that out, because it’s a real feast. And I’m truly honored to be sitting here with Janet to talk about her incredible new book with you all tonight. So we’re going to have a back and forth chat, and then we’ll open it up to Q&A.
But of course, we are here, ultimately, to celebrate the accomplishment of the publication of this great and really thought provoking book, which is entitled Letters on the Autonomy Project by Janet Sarbanes. Also wanted to give a big shout-out to the publisher, Punctum Books. If you guys don’t know Punctum, they are an open access publisher. They publish a lot of incredible stuff. You can freely download the PDFs online, but please do support them financially so they can keep commissioning great pieces and great works like the one I hold in my hand.
So the real task is figuring out an entry point for this book, because I feel like there are many, which is more daunting… I find it to be more daunting than I anticipated. But Janet and I were talking before we sat down, and I know it’s a really boilerplate way to start an author book talk, but I feel that the question always generates new answers, and exciting answers, and it’s genuinely really interesting to learn about where the book came from. Because it’s written in an epistolary way. Each chapter is a new letter addressed to A, right? The first chapter is called “This Book is for You”. So in a lot of ways you’re interpolated by that format with each new chapter. But those chapters include segments from your childhood, recent segments. So it feels like this book’s been building up your whole life. So I wanted to ask, where did the book come from? How and why did it end up taking the shape that it did? And why do you feel like now is the time for it all to come together in this final form?
Janet Sarbanes: Thanks so much, Max. Thank you, Meg, for that great, lovely introduction. And thank you guys for coming out on a Wednesday night. I’m so happy to be here, as always, at Red Emma’s, and in Baltimore, my hometown. I guess to start out and to answer your question, I actually jotted down some notes. But I guess my primary motivation in writing this book and bringing it out now, bringing it out with Punctum, which, as you said, is an open access press, so it’s free as a PDF, as well as you can get the nice object if you’re from my generation or above and like to have that in your hands.
Max Alvarez: Yeah, please also buy the hard copy, because it’s a beautiful, beautiful copy.
Janet Sarbanes: Thank you. But I really wanted to understand the times I was living in and that we are living in, which seemed to me to be extraordinary, both in terms of the challenges we’re facing, and then in terms of the wave after wave of struggle we’ve seen over the last decade or so, I would say, to try to create the kind of society that can meet those challenges. And it’s not all in the past, of course, because I just came from California, there was just a huge academic workers’ strike. 48,000 University of California workers, they gained substantial concessions. There was the strike at The New School, there was something happening all the time, and it is wave after wave of struggle, really. And Robin Kelley says in Freedom Dreams that social movements generate new knowledge, new theories, and new questions. So I wanted to explore what those were. And at one point I say it’s sort of a love letter to our moment. And I really did think, what an amazing time to be alive. Difficult, of course, but also amazing.
And I was really excited by this radical horizon that had been sort of resurrected, I thought. This idea that we could change the whole of society, not just little bits and pieces here and there. And I felt grateful to be alive in this moment where these new solidarities were emerging, and hopeful that they wouldn’t dissipate or be captured in the wa,y or in the same way that they had after that last great moment of seismic upheaval, which I identified as the ’60s and early ’70s.
And as you said, these letters look back on the ’60s and ’70s and autonomous movements of that era and debates over art’s autonomy at that time. And then they bring the questions forward to our own time. And at first it was just instinctive. I was like, this is what they always said. The ’60s and ’70s were like that, right? I was drawing this comparison between social movements back then and then movements like Occupy, Black Lives Matter, Me Too, and Standing Rock, among others.
But as I kept writing, I came to understand, I think that perhaps the most fundamental similarity was this on the level of scale, everything was scaling up. And I think it scaled up back then as well, just there were huge numbers of people who wanted to remake the world. And I feel like that’s something that’s going on in our own time, and I just wanted to take stock of it.
So the book, it looks at a lot of things, and I’ll say more about the form in a little bit. But another thing, because I’m a fiction writer, as Meg said, and I also teach in an art school, I write about art, I’m a round artist. I was also just struck by how absent art seemed to be from these processes. Not the work of individual artists, but the presence of a strong counterculture that would feed the struggles and take them further in a different way.
And I think if we’re living in a time where one of the dominant ideologies of neoliberal capitalism, which is hyper-individualism, is coming under real scrutiny, I think we have to ask some really hard questions about the role of art and art institutions in upholding that ideology. And we need to think about what ideologies of art align it with capitalism and white supremacy and the status quo, and that prevent that viable counterculture from forming.
But it’s not all critical because I think we should attend in this moment, also, to the social dimensions of art that are specific to art. Things like practices of collaboration, improvisation, where the individual isn’t [subordinate] to the collective or vice versa. And of course, they’re different traditions, they’re different artistic and aesthetic traditions that look at art’s autonomy and its communal dimension differently, and not in a way that’s conflicting. And I’m thinking of the Black arts movement, where the dynamics of the jazz ensemble were frequently invoked to describe something that wasn’t individuality. They called it personality. Ron Karenga said, individuality is by definition me in spite of everyone, and personality is me in relation to everyone. So there are these kinds of traditions in art. There are these dimensions of art that are not engaged in the notion of art’s autonomy as solely being about the right to individual expression, but also as being related or connected to possibilities of making new forms of collectivity. So I think when you start to think of it that way, a whole new horizon opens, or it reopens, because I really think that’s what they got in the ’60s, and that’s why there was a counterculture.
And then there’s a theoretical underpinning to the book, which is that I had newly discovered the work of this Greek philosopher Cornelius Castoriadis, who was actually active in France from the ’50s through the ’90s. And he has a theory that links individual and collective autonomy. He always hyphenates them in his discussions with the understanding that one cannot exist without the other. And just to maybe speak to Meg’s question of, what’s the definition of autonomy we can work with? Well, to be autonomous is to make your own law or form, to be self-determining, whether that’s on an individual basis or on a collective basis. Individual freedom, essentially, is connected to collective freedom. They are not in conflict.
And in fact, we need autonomous individuals to form autonomous societies. But we also need autonomous societies, societies that are aware of their capacity for self-creation, that are committed to the participation of all in power in order to form autonomous individuals. And Castoriadis is really interested in radical democracy. He says autonomous societies are always radically democratic, and they’re also extremely rare. Since most societies throughout history have understood that their law in their form comes from some external authority, whether it’s God, nature, capital. And he believed that liberal democracies, like the one we live in right now, actually foster a weak form of autonomy. So the autonomy project that I referenced in the title is an ongoing project for him, which is the project of emancipatory movement toward a truly and radically democratic society. So it’s something that’s ongoing.
I’ll just say one more thing about Castoriadis’s thought that I found compelling was the distinction he makes between the dimensions of instituted and instituting society. So we’re born into a society that’s already instituted. The horizon of possibility seems fixed to us. We learn the laws, we learn the forms, they’re already fixed. But in fact, he says, the horizon of possibility is never fixed, and society isn’t only inherited, but it’s also an ongoing creation. So new institutions are constantly forming, specific institutions within a society and then the institution of society as a whole.
And he defined the word institution broadly to include not just forms of organization, but norms, values, language, tools, procedures, and methods of dealing with things and doing things. So he doesn’t fool himself that we can just create a whole new society out of nothing. We have enormous constraints upon us, but through a process of continuous questioning and creation, we can do something else with what we’re given. So I have a lot more to say about him, but it’s all in here, so I’ll just leave that.
Max Alvarez: Yeah. Again, the hope is not to provide a conversation that makes you feel, oh, I don’t need to read the book now, but that makes you go out and buy the book. Go read the book. I found a renewed love for Castoriadis after reading your book, because I feel like you’re really putting your finger on the texture he gives to the famous Marxist axiom that we make our own history, but not under the circumstances of our choosing. And you, I think, really bring an artist’s eye to that, what that means for our base human existence, our being ourselves, and being together, and what that creativity looks like, where the yearning for it comes from. And I think that that’s the side of Marx that, maybe even going past Marx, that I’ve always felt myself going along that path. And so it was really exhilarating to read your book in that vein. And you do a lot of really, I think, beautiful, attentive, and exciting readings of Castoriadis.
But I just wanted to also say one thing before I move on to the next question, which is that this book is also punctuated throughout with lines that you just savor. And so I highlighted so many, but one, just on that point is a great passage where Janet writes, “I could have made this whole book about Castoriadis. He means that much to me, and certainly his thought is worthy of closer attention and deeper analysis than I’ve performed here. But instead, I want to undertake a praxis inspired by his work in the interest of struggle and of understanding why people struggle, and what art might have to do with all of that.” So I just kept rereading that last part of that line over and over again. And so, thank you for that.
And we’ll circle back to the question of autonomy, because obviously it’s a big one. It’s at the center of this whole book, not just theoretically, but practically, artistically, really trying to think and rethink different ways that that word can take on different meanings. And it’s funny, because we actually have in the audience two of my great colleagues, Stephen Janis and Taya Graham, the intrepid local Baltimore journalists, incredible journalists, and the intrepid hosts of the Police Accountability Report. So they just produced a new documentary on Baltimore and how Baltimore just gives all of its money away to rich developers through these financial instruments like TIFs. It’s a kind of innocuous sounding acronym, means Tax Increment Financing. And the ongoing joke for us while they were making the documentary was every day you’d walk into the office and say, and so, what’s a TIF?
Because I feel like there was a new answer every single time. So I feel like I could do the same as, so what’s autonomy? But I thought it would be maybe helpful and generative to get at that question by talking about some of the personal examples you give and historical examples you give, none that seems more appropriate for the time and place right now than this line that you wrote just a couple lines after. The one that I read where you say, “Growing up in 1970s Baltimore, I could feel autonomy all around me.” So I’m going to do my best Larry King and say, expand on that.
Janet Sarbanes: Thank you. Yeah, this kind of gets at the question too, of the form of letters. I didn’t want to present, in a sense, a totalizing theory of where we are now or a kind of account, but just it is sort of praxis. It’s just in the moment thinking about where we are and then where maybe we could go next. Particularly, I’m thinking about art and its role. And the form of the open letter, I think, it’s a really good one for talking about autonomy, because again, it’s not trying to give one definitive account, but it’s more conversational. The open letter is not just an I and a you, but there’s a we, so it gets at that notion of individual and collective autonomy. And then it allows for a personal accounting of what you’re experiencing, what you’re seeing, what you’re doing, what you’re reading, that other forms do not.
And I thought it calls forth maybe in the reader… I’ve actually already gotten a letter back from someone who felt like they were called upon to respond and share their thoughts. And I think that’s really great. And so the letter about Baltimore, I start out by talking about Castoriadis, as I did here. And then I was like, wait a minute, I need to say who I am. Because it’s a letter, the letter form makes it… I guess you could write a business letter, but the form that I’m working with requires you to identify your positionality. So I’m from Baltimore, I grew up, as I talk about in that letter, largely in a white, upper middle class neighborhood. But I went to Mount Royal 66, which is one of the – And there’s a former colleague of mine from Mount Royal here tonight, which was one of the first schools in Baltimore to integrate.
But by the time I went to school there, my brothers went to school there, it was largely Black and working class for all kinds of reasons, white flight being one of them. But I feel like I really learned a different value system there. And the curriculum at Mount Royal was about valorizing, affirming the value of Black life, really, to use our language today, and centering Black culture, as I talk about. And my teachers and all the administrators were Black women. And it was a very different, as I said, value system than I was getting elsewhere in the culture. And I feel like that really was my first introduction to autonomy, because it was about self-determination. It was about self valorization, but of a community.
And as I say, nearby was the Soul School, which was associated with the Black Panther Party. The Black Panther Party, when I was starting kindergarten, was very strong in Baltimore still. And I see the Panthers as an autonomous group. And it’s not just me, others see them, and you can identify that.
But punk bars in Baltimore, the Marble Bar, then there were these, just like Red Emma’s, there were these bookstores, there was the Black Book, which was dedicated to… And also a press dedicated to African American thought and culture and literature. And then there were these feminist bookstores. There were centers devoted to poverty rights movements and community empowerment, women and children. And then there were those, I would say communes, but we would probably say collectives, like Jonah House is maybe the most famous in a Catholic worker setting. But then there were all these other self-starting collectives. And I see, of course, Red Emma’s really continuing that tradition.
But I think there was a long period – And I moved away from Baltimore, so I can’t say about Baltimore, but certainly in my experience elsewhere – Where there was a kind of sense, the end of history and capitalism has won. And the idea of these community organizations or enterprises, was not as strong as it was then, I felt as a child, or as it is now. And I feel like I recognized something from my childhood. There was, as I say, they’re kind of borrowing Castoriadis language, but it was still magmatic then, it was like molten. The ground was still shifting and moving. It hadn’t hardened into the Reagan years and all of the terrible policies that came down at that time. And I feel like our time is also molten again, so there’s this real sense of possibility.
Max Alvarez: Well, it’s interesting you use that term, because Red Emma’s actually hosted another book event at the end of last year with the great non-violent Quaker activist, George Lakey, who used a similar metaphor. He is just the sweetest sounding guy, but he’s done such incredible things in his life. And he was talking about a forge, and he said, you can’t bend metal when it’s cold. And so in times like these, it’s understandable that people are afraid of what we call polarization, divisiveness, these heightening social tensions and inequalities that make people feel how pliable the order of things is. And that, understandably, a lot of people feel anxiety over that. But what George said was, that excites me. For the same reason as you do. He’s like, that means that the future is still within our hands to shape. We still have a chance. We don’t know what the outcome’s going to be because what happens next is going to be determined by what we do now.
And I think the way that you talk about autonomy in the book really, I think, helps people understand what that openness means, both in the context of their own lives, but also in the broader macro sense. Because I feel like, and that’s why I wanted to ask about the Baltimore example, because I feel like I gained a new perspective on what autonomy meant to me or Castoriadis or you through the more personal touches. Because then I started to think like, oh yeah, if I was back in the classroom, I would be thinking about this aloud with my students and say, there’s something beautiful in that I think we all inherently recognize, but then we collectively start to forget as we move on through life.
But you’re not born with all the tools you need to be yourself. You have to download a lot of it from the culture around you. You learn social cues from your parents, from your other friends that you play with. You absorb language from outside of your head when you are born into this world. And then that language has been shaped by people who are not you over centuries, if not millennia. And then when you start to develop into more of an agent of your own life, that takes a long time. But then that’s where the art comes from. It’s like you’re using a medium like language that is not yours, that is used by everybody. There’s something that’s determined by it, but the artistic impulse is to try to push the boundaries of it, to use creative ways to signify what’s in your heart and connect with people that you don’t yet know.
So I feel like that’s the dialectic of autonomy that you’re getting at, of inheriting this stuff that does shape who we are and how we act and what we think, but then that same impulse to push beyond that, not in just a purely individualist way. I think that’s the really important point that you make in the second letter, I’m not just talking about individualism here.
So I wanted to ask, by way of getting to the ’60s and ’70s and the autonomous movement, what that tension is between the inherited world and the autonomous impulse that you were talking about. I just want to ask if you could expand on that a little bit more, maybe in the realm of art so that folks could understand it a little more.
Janet Sarbanes: I think you said it so beautifully in terms of thinking about language. And as a writer, you’re rendering language molten. You’re giving it weird shapes and new meanings, and it’s not just individual expression, you’re engaging with the materials of your society.
And also, one of the things I wanted to draw attention to in this book was the framing, it’s very important. We lose the framing often, even when we’re talking about forms, something like interdisciplinarity in art, we’ll say, oh, in the ’60s and ’70s, they just started breaking the boundaries between music and performance and literature and visual art, and it was just amazing. And we inherit that, but we lose everything that was going on around it and why they were doing it. And that often what they were doing was pushing back at a frame that was the gallery system and the museum system that kept, for instance, visual art… I talked about being sort of entombed in the market. And they were trying to push out from that to go out on the street to show art in different places, to share art in different places, and to find forms of art that fit with that kind of intervention, that political intervention.
But then when it comes down to us, we only think of it in formal terms. And I think this is a really important time to bring back the social and political framing and context and dimension of the arts. One, so we can see when it’s tamed and domesticated. And Marcuse talks about that as a sort of affirmative culture, affirmative art, where it gives us a little bit of freedom within a basically exploitative world and society, and everything stays the same. Or that we have a subjectivity in art that is denied to us elsewhere in the society. That framing, but also the potential for different forms of art institutions and places, again, like Red Emma’s, where people are thinking about the whole landscape.
And that was so interesting, the example of forging and molten being a metaphor that’s coming up a lot. I find that a metaphor that has come up for me and talking to people, I just did an event in Philly at Making Worlds Bookstore and Social Center with someone who was talking about radical urbanism. And they had cities where people create solidarity economies and engage in more autonomous practices. And she kept bringing up the word “horizon”, and that kept coming up for me as well. And a horizon is sort of you look, you see everything, and just beyond, even in the case of urbanism, it’s the city, and then just beyond the city, there’s the horizon. But I feel like our horizon, in a sense, is expanding and expanding.
And then going back to the Italian situation that you asked about, I mean, there are any number of movements I would identify as autonomous in the US, in Europe in the ’60s and ’70s. But in Italy, there was a movement called Autonomia. And it wasn’t just one group, it was many, many different groups. And they started out as part of the workers’ struggle, they started in the factories, and they started in these mass strikes that were taking place in the late ’60s and early ’70s. But they didn’t just want better wages, and they didn’t just want better working conditions. They wanted everything. They were making a demand starting in the factory, but in a sense for changing the whole of society. And they were both agitating for wages and they were agitating against wages. Just the whole idea of wages and the way that society, in a sense, was organized.
And what they did is eventually they just began moving out from the factory and said, in fact, the whole society is organized according to the same principles as the factory. And so they moved out into the city, and I’m really interested right now, partially because of this conversation with Mary P. Taylor, who was the urbanist I was talking about. But about the city as a horizon right now. But they moved out into the city and others joined their struggle, in a sense. And the working class was redefined. And it was redefined as housewives are part of the working class, because they do the work that supports the worker, if the worker is male, to go back into the factory to reproduce capital, to keep it going.
And students became part of it. And I think we’re in a similar moment. I started off by talking about the academic workers’ strike, but just that phrase is almost like a new one, is doing a lot of work, in a certain sense, to bridge what it is to be a student and in an enormous amount of debt, usually, and what it is to be a worker. And so that movement was called autonomy, basically, in Italian: Autonomia. But I think those same sort of impulses, which were not only to ask for more power within society, and not only to ask to be able to determine their own existence collectively, but to say that, in fact the whole society has to change in order for that to be possible.
Max Alvarez: Right. And again, I think that what it really comes down to, why this movement could not be contained within the factories as such, but almost by necessity expanded out to the other social factories that exist in the society that we inhabit is because that’s ultimately, I think, where the struggle that Autonomia names comes from. Is the struggle over whether or not people, as human beings, will fit and stay inside the frames that the status quo sets for them. The limits of being that a given society circumscribes, the limits of permissible being, I guess I would say. So, yeah. If you’re a woman, you’re one of two things at that point, because that’s all that society allows for you. Same if you are non-white in the United States. I mean we could go on and on and on, but the status quo and the hegemonic powers that dictate what hierarchies form, what social codes and orders are taken as given, that these are things that set society like a gelatin mold.
And that autonomous impulse is that some indefinable yearning of people that rejects that. And I think it comes out in art, but also, like you said, in the autonomous movement, it came out in everyday forms of sabotage. Ways where people were essentially rejecting, again, the circumscribed roles that they had stepped into. And what you just said I thought was really, really important, which is that then catalyzes the political side of all of it where you start making demands upon a system that does not want to change. And the feminist example in the autonomous universe of demanding wages for housework is a perfect example because on its face, it is an impossible demand within the given social, economic, cultural arrangement. But by making the demand, you expose the unbearable wrong at the heart of that system. That depends on so much unpaid, unacknowledged, exploited labor to keep going.
And just like you were saying with the academic workers, I imagine many of us have known or been in academia, it’s one of the hardest things to do with academic organizing is get grad students, lecturers, adjuncts to see themselves as workers in the first place. But if you start that process, then the demands start coming, and when those demands aren’t met, it just is a continual indictment on the system that refuses to acquiesce or even acknowledge the viability of those demands. Am I on the right track, you think?
Janet Sarbanes: Yeah, absolutely.
Max Alvarez: Well, and I don’t want to talk too much because I want to open up to Q&A, but by way of taking that around the final turn, you have some really beautiful… Speaking about the city, right? You talk about LA a lot. And I think LA, like Baltimore, becomes this interesting laboratory where you’re looking at the different ways that people are pushing against the circumscribed roles that the society as such gives them. Even examples on the 4th of July where East LA, everyone knows it’s illegal, but literally everyone is firing off homemade fireworks. And so that’s a moment where people are refusing to be the subjects of the city on any other day of the year.
So I wanted to ask where in the book you see these sorts of examples, including in LA of the politics, the aesthetics, not at odds with each other, but like in that 4th of July example, there seems to be a real beautiful eruption of what you’re trying to put your finger on throughout the book?
Janet Sarbanes: Right. Right. Yeah, I’m reminded that Fred Moten calls it fugitive aesthetics, moments like that where people just escape from what he calls from the carcerality of their daily life. And fireworks, in that example, are really interesting. In LA, they just pop off all over and they’re these great time lapses videos where the whole city is lit up. And I mean, I know that happens in other cities and it’s the same dynamic, but when I was growing up here, fireworks were very contained, you went to the stadium, there were fire trucks nearby, there was martial music.
And the fireworks, fireworks are interesting because they’re a kind of symbolic bomb. And they’re bomb busts. So in LA there’s this question, is it, in a sense, fire, or is it just artwork in a sense, the firework? Is it really dangerous, or is it just symbolic? Well, it’s both. But that’s so interesting, it kind of scrambles all the signals. The cops are driving everywhere trying to stop them, but they can’t because they’re happening all over. And so for this one night, the city just really does belong to somebodies else, as I say.
That’s an example of aesthetics and art that we might not think of as aesthetics and art having a political and social dimension. But I live in LA now. I’ve lived in LA now for longer than I lived in Baltimore, which is hard for me to believe. But I think that, in terms of the art world there and then political autonomy there, they are still at odds.
And one of the examples I talk about is there’s a neighborhood in the East part of Los Angeles, Boyle Heights, where a slew of galleries moved in and started that gentrification process that we’re all familiar with. But they hadn’t reckoned that they moved into a community where there had been very strong and very effective autonomous organizing for many, many years. I don’t know if you know Father Gregory Boyle and his Homeboy Industries that employs formerly incarcerated people, it has all these dynamics of trying to create something besides the prison pipeline kind of thing.
He collaborated with mothers in the community to, again, organize, to make the community somewhere where the people who wanted to live there could live there safely, but without incarcerating, for instance, the young men in the community that were involved in gangs. And the mothers and those young men came together, and all kinds of really wonderful stuff had happened.
And then these gentrification processes started to kick in, these huge, cold storage places and warehouses had been evacuated that made good art galleries. But the rents of the people who were living around there who had organized, who often had been employed in those places and were out of work because of these various processes, had organized to keep it livable and to keep the rents down. And they really pushed back. And in fact, and I talk about it in the book, through a series of events, they pushed all of those art galleries out.
And so it’s a really interesting case study. But the reasons I wanted to really look closely at were these, particularly the artist-run spaces, there were two of them, the others were commercial galleries. But the artist-run, could they have done something differently? Beginning with knowing the community they were moving into, and maybe being aware of the processes that they might kickstart, and how they could create a different kind of institution or mode of instituting.
And I think for the LA art community, that was a very… And I had friends who were on the organizing side and had been involved in that, and then also knew the artist-run spaces, at least. But that was a crucible for the thing that I’m talking about, which is, is there a different way to think about art’s autonomy that can actually create solidarities with political autonomies you had in this community, and not be at odds with it?
Max Alvarez: Because it was a bad question, but you gave a beautiful answer to it. But in the autonomous vein, we’re saying using what you inherit, but autonomously pushing the boundaries of what currently is and is possible, art tends to be the realm in which we see that most clearly. Where people are pushing the bounds of permissibility, acceptability, form, so on and so forth, whether it be in acrylics or literature, performance art, so on and so forth. Art seems to be that bleeding edge at which the human is trying to find new ways to be.
But then when it gets captured in the way that it did after the ’60s and it did in situations like these, then art becomes like a vanguard sort of thing. A sort of place where you go to see that autonomy, but you yourself are not part of it. You’re observing other people do it, and it’s housed in these commercial art houses and stuff like that. And that has real social effects, like you were describing. And so then the question that you end on is like, is there a way for the politics of that pushing of the boundaries and the artistic expression that it takes to not be a vanguard thing, a closed off thing, but something that still is part of the community? Is that right?
Janet Sarbanes: Yeah, I think so. Yeah, absolutely.
Max Alvarez: Okay, let’s give it up for Janet Sarbanes, everybody. So yeah, we really would love to hear your guys’ questions. You got Baltimore’s own Janet here. I’ll shut up. But if you guys got questions, please do ask them.
Janet Sarbanes: Okay.
Speaker 2: Thanks, Janet, that was awesome. Thank you for the role that you’re playing as moderator. So whether it’s political autonomy or artistic autonomy, can you talk about how the shape of it, the integrity of it is facilitated by, affected by, harmed by social media in this moment? I’d like to understand your perspective on that, whether social media can end up distorting the autonomy that we’re seeking, et cetera.
Janet Sarbanes: Yeah, thank you for that question. I do kind of touch on this a little bit in the book, in the letter that looks at the Black Lives Matter movement and Me Too movement, where their social media played this really important role in getting people into the streets, but also, in a sense, in focusing and making connections. And people talk about it as hashtag activism. But for instance, what the Black Lives Matter’s hashtags did, or would often do, was tie the name of a young man or a young woman who had been subjected to police brutality or brutally murdered to others, to create a pattern, in a way. So there would be the name, and then there would be Black Lives Matter. And that this was a way of, in a sense, making this pattern emerge. And I think it is interesting in terms of thinking about individual and collective autonomy, because it was a single person’s story, a name, but it was connected to all of these other ones. And it was also connected to a movement. And that was very effective.
That was when video sharing was just, in a sense, getting started. The demand that sharing makes, that you respond. Even if you don’t respond, there’s kind of… In the technology itself, if you respond with a like, or angry or with… And I think that galvanized and it got people out into the street. Me Too did a similar thing. The women and other people who suffered gender based violence and oppression told their story, and then #MeToo. And then there were those first days of that where you were scrolling, scrolling, scrolling, and it was just the enormity of the problem and of the suffering. So that was very powerful. And I have thoughts about how that then connected to being in the streets.
But what I’m interested in is there is something called virality, which is when something goes viral and you get millions and millions of people liking it and responding to it, seeing it. But is virality solidarity? Because virality can evanesce. So how do you keep it going? How do you bring it into actual spaces? Which I think has been so hard from the pandemic, and Max has just done this wonderful book interviewing workers about the pandemic. It’s made all those dynamics difficult. It, I think, hyper emphasized social media because it was the only way to be social for a little bit. But I think it’s a really good question.
And I won’t even get into all the questions of misinformation, because obviously it was virality that also created the Jan. 6 storming of the Capitol. I don’t think there’s as much solidarity there. But in a way, I’m interested in what you have to create, what infrastructures you have to create. So something that’s viral, which we think is having a huge impact, actually has that impact. And I think in staying faithful to incredible movements like Black Lives Matter, or the phenomenon of a 100,000 people in LA hitting the streets of Hollywood, you need to make sure it becomes solid. And I guess that’s what I’m talking about in terms of solidarity and doesn’t just, yeah. Evanesce. I don’t –
Max Alvarez: Melt in there. I feel like we could have a whole other hour discussion just on this question, because I would be remiss if I didn’t start answering this question by acknowledging that we are having this conversation on the very day that marks the 10-year anniversary since the death of Aaron Swartz. And we actually just published a tribute, extended podcast discussion that I recorded with Aaron and Sean from the SRSLY Wrong podcast about Aaron’s life and legacy. And of course, Aaron was right about so many things that we have just come to accept. The digital world, the promise of Web 1.0 has kind of given way to the nightmare of Web 3.0 or whatever the fuck we’re in now.
But so much of that enclosure that Aaron was horrified by and fought against as part of a movement that fought for free and open access to information and knowledge and art and everything else. So much of that enclosure has come to pass. So much of the promise of the technology that is available to us has been bastardized and used for the purposes of creating these locks and keys that inhibit our ability to explore, to create, to connect with people beyond our algorithmically sorted, beaten paths that social media constantly is inscribing and reinscribing the more that we feed it, the data about who we are and what we like.
So in that sense, I think that it is overwhelmingly bad, the effects that social media has on autonomy. Because the other part of it that I would say, in a past life, I was a media historian when I was still in academia, so I apologize if this gets jargony. But I do think that one of the perverse realities about social media is that it gives the fiction, the fictive sense of autonomy. And you see that every single day on a platform like Twitter, where it’s become a running joke now where you can’t even say like, post, I love my mom, without five minutes going by and someone’s like, wow, that’s really problematic of you. Or someone saying like, hey, fuck your mom.
It could come from the right, it could come from the left. The impulse is to differentiate yourself somehow, because that is the currency of social media, is like staking some sort of rhetorical claim that makes you appear more of an individual than the rest. And so that ends up being the guiding light by which people formulate their opinions and their posts and stuff like that. And I think that that is fundamentally antithetical to solidarity building.
What I will say on the positive side, and then I’ll shut up, is that just like you said about Me Too, I think that that’s a perfect example. The other example I would give is the Starbucks wave of union organizing. So many old timers that I’ve talked to in the labor movement – Because this is what I do all day at The Real News, I just interview workers and I focus on the labor movement in and outside of the US – A lot of folks never thought that something like what Starbucks Workers United is doing was possible, because they don’t know how to use social media. But Gen Zers who work at these stores do.
And what happened after Buffalo won a year ago was… I know that this has been debunked by MythBusters, but you know like in The Mummy, when he does the sun lamp, right? If you just line up the lamp the right way, then the sunlight bounces off everything and it illuminates the entire chamber. So that may be a false premise, but that effect is what the Starbucks win in Buffalo was. Because people were seeing the faces, they were seeing the posts, they were seeing the human side of workers just like them doing what they never thought was possible.
And then they turned to their coworkers in their own store and said, why not us? Every Starbucks worker I’ve talked to has described a similar process where they said, hey, they did it. They look just like us. I’m seeing them post on TikTok, we can do it too. And then that builds a catalytic, cascading type of solidarity that fuels people to take that fateful step to go to their boss and say, we’re going to unionize. To step outside of that prescribed role of the good obedient worker and say, we deserve better than this. So it’s mainly bad, but sometimes good, I guess, is what I would say.
Janet Sarbanes: Any other questions?
Speaker 3: Thanks very much, Janet. I wondered if you would say a little bit more about how you’re defining culture today, or if you think that a solid culture exists? You talked about the counterculture of the 1960s, and I wonder if the same opposition is possible to some kind of solid formation that would exist today?
Janet Sarbanes: Yeah. Thank you for the question. I think that, for a long time, there was a sense that a counterculture wasn’t possible because it had been completely subsumed. And that, actually, anytime there’s anything counter that appears in the society, it is quickly put to work for capitalism, because it’s about novelty and it’s about freedom. It’s just about turning that towards profit, in the ends of profit. And I really think there was a concerted disinformation campaign, or an ideology, this was all part of the reaction, the counter revolution, the Reagan era against the counterculture, which just became drugs, rock and roll.
And this idea that there can be, we’re not talking about being outside of the society, but that you could take the same materials and turn them to different ends. I think, if you are connected to something in a sense that’s bigger than culture, if you’re aware of history and you’re aware of the sociopolitical context and dimensions, that’s possible. So I’m aware that counterculture is a… I don’t know, maybe it is like a hippie word. But I think we’re in a moment where it’s legible again, that there could be art and culture that is not completely organized by capitalist processes. And actually, I’m not sure if that answers your question. I wanted to follow up a little bit on what you’re getting at.
Speaker 3: Just that in the 1960s, you could have said that we’re responding to the idea of Western civilization being a largely shared set of values, liberal democracy, that history would have a capital H. And in our own moment we would say, well, those things have been successfully complicated at the elite level. And you mentioned the percolation of commercialism. If you look at the people who’ve done the portraits of the Obamas, that these would be understood in many circles as… And would be resisted, but would be thought of as incredible examples of countercultural response.
But that at the same time, this would be the work of multi-millionaires, if not billionaires, and then different artists that would be recognized as breaking the edge would be awfully overtaken by what would seem like commercial capitalism. But I wondered if the fragmentation in our own point is such that it’s difficult to mount a countercultural response or to conceive of the idea of an oppositional force, autonomous collective solidarity that would be an opponent?
Janet Sarbanes: Yeah. Thank you for that clarification. I think that you could ask the same question about my claim of scaling up politically. Is it possible to scale up politically? I don’t see it. I think it is impossible to say, we should all be this. In fact, there is a strong contingent that says, now we should all sort of be socialist and only socialist and not think about these differences around gender or race or anything else, because those are just distractions. So that’s not at all what I’m after, because I think, in a sense, the horizon of struggle is expanding because we are seeing there is solidarity across struggles without making them all one struggle. And I think that can also be true of art institutions.
But I would say right now that art institutions are running on fumes in terms of this idea of them being beacons of liberty and freedom, and that there really has to be a questioning of that. And for a long time there was a strong community arts sector in the society, and then that got discredited in a way, and it wasn’t really art. So, there isn’t one art world, just as there isn’t one art tradition or artistic tradition, but I think there can be, again, solidarities.
But even before you get to that stage, there just has to be a questioning. The art world can’t act as if… I really appreciated the way you said it, Max, was that you go to look at these people being free in a way that you can’t be. That’s not doing anything to further the freedom of the society at large. It’s the same way, I think, in academia, you need to continually struggle in an emancipatory way if the autonomy of the university is going to have meaning. The same way, in a sense, with the art world, you can’t just say, well, we’re free and you can come look at us being free.
Max Alvarez: And I know we got one more question, so I’ll be brief, but I think this is one of the real triumphant achievements of your book, is getting people to realize that there are no final triumphant achievements in the struggle of becoming. That to be is to constantly be a person in process. And in fact, that is, I think, the autonomous impulse. And the tragedy is to look around and see, both in yourself and in so many other people, how they have convinced themselves that they are done becoming, that they are who they were meant to be, and that there’s no more growth to be had. There’s nothing left to explore or experience or think differently about. And I think you start to see the ways that the society we live in actually crushes that impulse out of us, whether through imposing drudgery upon a constantly expanded and beleaguered working class so that the freedom to be and express and think differently is the privileged reserve of those who have the means to do so.
But it’s also a state of mind. I think this is why the concept of learning is one of the most radical concepts that we’ve come up with. And acknowledge, because to acknowledge the process of learning is to acknowledge that you are always being in process with the world that you’re a part of. To learn something is to absorb it, to think about it, to process it, but it did not exist within you to start with. So there’s that engagement of you and the person you’re going to become and the world that you’re a part of. And that openness to where that will go, that questioning you to think like, well, maybe there’s a different way to look at this. That is a really beautiful thing, but there’s never a horizon that you reach, to use your metaphor. There’s never a plateau that you say, okay, we made it.
And think about the historical context that you mentioned earlier from which this comes. I mean, understandably, people of a left disposition in the 1960s were looking at the horrors committed by fascism and the horrors of Stalinism and seeing what it looks like when you try to change society from the outside by imposing a totalitarian structure and concept of being, and you eliminate all those who fall outside of its prescribed boundaries. And so it’s understandable that folks were looking for those types of subversion and creativity and will to be that came from the individuals, the people in the factories, the people doing housework and stuff like that, as opposed to seeing just the party, the state, so on and so forth, as these change making agents of history.
Janet Sarbanes: I mean, think we’re coming to see that we’re not powerless before our own creations. And whether you’re an artist and you don’t think that you can control how your work moves in the world, or if you’re an activist, or just a worker, society is our own creation. It’s imposed on us, but we are also continually creating it. And so I think there’s an awareness now that this process is ongoing, and that there is a whole other society underneath the one that we’re in the process of emerging, I think, in this moment. So it may sound utopian, but I don’t feel that it’s utopian at all.
Max Alvarez: Oh yeah.
Janet Sarbanes: I think it’s here. So.
Max Alvarez: We got one more.
Speaker 4: Janet and Max, I’d like to see if you could come back to the question of education. So I’m a teacher at a high school in the city here, and the question of how does education relate to autonomy, hopefully in the fostering of it, not the crushing of it. But how that is thought about. And Max, I have in mind, I had one of my graduates, a kid who graduated a couple years ago, came back to see me, who’s working at an Amazon warehouse on Broening Highway. And we actually had a conversation around how much autonomy do you have? And he was like, I got zero autonomy. Zero. But I’m kind of interested in this question. Mostly of education, of getting young people ready for the practice of autonomy. And then what happens when they go into settings where, like my graduate, like this kid, where he’s like, I got zero. So I’m interested in your thoughts around education and young people coming into autonomy.
Max Alvarez: So I’ll hop in just because I think it’s wrong for me to have the last word in your book talk. So I’m just going to hop in and then just leave it to you. But I’m going to use the higher education example, but it very much applies to all education. Because I think about the ways that this type of dynamic was replayed, and who you as a student, as a young person going through that factory, who you are told to want to be and the horizon of possibility of who you can be. It’s very circumscribed.
I mean, like my generation was told from day one, if you want a good life, you have to go to college. And so throughout my whole life, up until the age of 18, I didn’t hang out with friends when I wanted to because I was studying for a test, or I was doing X number of extracurricular activities, sports. I even took calculus at the community college. This is what, especially coming from a first gen immigrant household, it was like, education is what you need to succeed, at all costs, so do that. And now that same generation that told us to go to college is saying, well, you shouldn’t have gone to college and accrued all that debt. Sorry.
But the point I’m making is that when those are the pressures that are imposed upon you every day of your life when you walk into that school, when you go home and you think about what the future lies in store for you, you really start to narrow the horizon for yourself. What you can do, what types of risks you’re willing to take, what types of things you’re… Questions you’re willing to ask your teachers, things you’re willing to write a paper on for fear of getting a bad grade.
So I say that to say, that’s how I see it working just in general. But for me, the realization of this came at probably the most painful point of my academic life, which was when it came to an end. Which was when, after striving for my entire 30 years of existence, even when I was working low wage jobs just praying that I somehow got into grad school. Like 10 years ago I was working in warehouses, much like your student, and I didn’t think I would ever get back, but I did. And I tried that much harder to realize the dream of becoming an academic professionally, becoming a tenure professor, getting to spend my life teaching, writing books, being in the vaunted halls of academia, yada, yada, yada.
To realize at the very end of it, and I was like, wow, 1% of us are going to get that job? The rest of us are meant to be pushed out. We were never meant to have those jobs, and everyone knew it the whole time? They knew that it was going to be a crapshoot. They knew that we were speeding towards the cliff and they didn’t say anything. And so having those dreams crash down around you was incredibly painful, because then it feels like the horizon is closing as well. All the things you wanted to be and do and become with your life are suddenly gone.
But then I started to realize with the little time I had left in grad school before I actually got a job in journalism, it was like, this is quite liberating. Because now suddenly the carrot that’s been held over me of like, if you just keep your nose to the grindstone, keep your head down, publish in the right journals, you will get that job. When that’s gone, suddenly I’m like, oh, I can do whatever I want. I can organize with my other grad student workers. I could write for publications. I could do a podcast. I could use the tools around me for different ends.
And so that’s my message to anyone who’s still in academia is like, don’t listen to anyone who’s telling you they know the right formula to get that carrot at the end of the stick, because no one really does. So use the time you have in as creative a way as possible. Okay. Now to Janet.
Janet Sarbanes: Yeah, I mean that’s another thing we have to reckon with, is how academia has become one of the most exploitative workplaces in the US, even though, at the same time, the art world is also exploitative from the perspective of labor and opportunity and actual jobs. At the same time, it presents itself as a model of liberated existence, I think.
But in terms of education, you can’t educate someone to be autonomous. You can’t say, this is what you do to be autonomous. You can educate for autonomy. You can, as you’re talking about, in a sense, model for your students how to question, and to question everything. And how not just to question, but to make and to do in light of that questioning. But that ongoing questioning is…
You can’t tell them to ask questions, in a sense. You will project onto them. This is what Castoriadis thought. In a sense, there’s a gap between the autonomous individual and an autonomous society, because how do you get them to all meet, in a certain sense? Well, you kind of project autonomy and onto them. Act as if they are autonomous, in a way. Treat them as if they are your equal, as if they are capable of questioning, and particularly their own existence and the things that are constraining them and holding them in.
Now, what do you do when they get out into the world and, for instance, face a very exploitative workplace? Well, I think you can also teach… And this is something that I felt that at 66 I was taught, that you need to get with other people. I mean, no one thought Amazon was going to ever get a union. That’s like a real chink in the armor, in a way. Once that starts to happen – And it was interesting because the way they got the union, really used videos really well, the social media. But also just had food waiting after every shift to talk to people and give them something to eat and creating community on the spot. That wasn’t a union. It wasn’t that yet, but it was a form of collectivity and one that didn’t exist within Amazon, within the factory walls, or the warehouse walls, sorry, in that instance.
I think that’s why it’s so important that autonomy not be thought of as just me against everyone else, the individual. I’m developing my capabilities. In a sense, that’s what the entrepreneur is. They’re doing, in a sense, their thing. But that it is always connected to collective autonomy, because that’s the only way you’re going to be able to resist those, push back against extremely exploitative working conditions, which we have all over at this time. Yeah.
Max Alvarez: One more round for Janet. [applause]
Meg: Thank you, Janet. And thank you, Max.
Janet Sarbanes: Thank you all for your engagement and for being here, and thank you so much, Red Emma’s and Meg.
Max Alvarez: Please buy a book if you want to get it signed. Janet is here, but you can get them right over there at the counter. Thanks for coming, y’all.