January 5, 2018

Countering Pusillanimosity

I’m reading Ali Smith’s Autumn: a novel (Pantheon Books, 2016).  The main character is an art historian (and she’s employed!) But it is really about deep relationships among a few people across a number of decades. This excerpt made me sad, angry, sympathetic, and distressed, because it captures my swath feelings as we start 2018:

Her mother sits down on the churned-up ground near the fence.

I’m tired, she says.

It’s only two miles, Elisabeth says.

That’s not what I mean, she says. I’m tired of the news. I’m tired of the way it makes things spectacular that aren’t, and deals so simplistically with what’s truly appalling. I’m tired of the vitriol. I’m tired of the anger. I’m tired of the meanness. I’m tired of the selfishness. I’m tired of how we’re doing nothing to stop it. I’m tired of how we’re encouraging it. I’m tired of the violence there is and I’m tired of the violence that’s on its way, that’s coming, that hasn’t happened yet. I’m tired of liars. I’m tired of sanctified liars. I’m tired of how those liars have let this happen. I’m tired of having to wonder whether they did it out of stupidity or did it on purpose. I’m tired of lying governments. I’m tired of people not caring whether they’re being lied to any more. I’m tired of being made to feel this fearful. I’m tired of animosity. I’m tired of pusillanimosity.

I don’t think that is actually a word, Elisabeth says.

I’m tired of not knowing the right words, her mother says.

William Safire apparently coined the word ‘pusillanimosity,’ a melding of animosity with being pusillanimous, or timid.  Yet, we cannot be tired and we must be courageous. (‘We’ is all my selves that do battle over taking a nap, not showing up, and otherwise settling into my privilege.) There are so many ways to counter the tiredness and resist the lies, the selfishness, the violence, the meanness, and the appalling deeds. And there are lots of courageous people engaged in resisting.

Horrifying hoarding near City Basin, London, 2016

One manifestation of this dogged energy is the film, ‘Dispossession: The Great Social Housing Swindle,’ directed and written by Paul Sng. This film, not yet distributed in the USA (though my library just ordered it!), tells the stories of residents fighting to preserve their communities in London, Glasgow, and Nottingham, featuring interviews with 54 people, many of them long-time occupants of flats that initially were affordable for them and their families. This is only a hasty overview of an excellent film; it deserves broad viewership. The two photos here are not from the film, but ones I took in London.

The film profiles the ‘class cleansing’ occurring across the UK and the ways that legislation and real estate development have created housing crises in many cities since the 1980s. ‘Social housing,’ the term that describes government-supported, decent housing for all—which had a brief reality in the mid-20th century—has been gutted by policies and greed over the last 30 years. At least 1.4 million people are on waiting lists for subsidised flats now, and pressures are only increasing as luxury condos rise on property where ‘regeneration’ is occurring: ‘regeneration’ is the euphemism for tearing down old tower blocks or low-rise estates and not replacing them with housing for those displaced. In addition to the inspiring fights undertaken by the displaced residents (from the now-demolished Heygate Estate in London and Red Road flats in Glasgow, for example) and those insistently staying put (Aylesbury and Cressingham Gardens Estates), the film highlights the varied work of Shelter, Architects for Social Housing (ASH ), and Unite the Union. Scholars, journalists and a number of elected officials also weigh in on the ‘social cleansing’ in process in the last half-century. As Simon Elmer of ASH noted: ‘Gentrification is a gradual process. That’s not what’s happening. It’s not gentrifying the area, it’s clearing its local population out of it.’

Cranes are everywhere; London in 2016

The market-driven advice that Savills has provided to the government (this may be a representative report) pinpoints the need for rental housing, but the definition of ‘affordable’ no longer has any meaning; people are spending as much as 70% of their income on rent, if they have housing at all. According to ‘Dispossession,’ the recent government report Fixing Our Broken Housing Market does not move the dial in the direction it needs to go at all (‘market’ in the title indicates the framework); developers and landlords are still calling the shots. Some of their strategies include re-categorising property as ‘brownfields’ so that it can be condemned; if ‘sink estate’ is applied to a housing community—usually perceived as such by outsiders—then what journalist Dawn Foster calls a ‘deliberately ideological phrase’ sticks to that area and dooms the community.

Some artists are complicit too: ‘artwashing’ uses artists and their cooptation via cheap rents to drive up land and housing costs. Other artists, though, have created tremendous responses to the crises, and I only list a few of them here. In 2012, Marcus Coates made the stunning film, Vision Quest: A Ritual for Elephant & Castle, set on the Heygate Estate. Fugitive images created a profoundly moving film in 2015 Estate: A Reverie about Haggerston Estate in Hackney that was demolished. And the indomitable Bristol-based Knowle West Media Centre launched ‘We Can Make…Homes’ in 2016.

Thank you, Paul Sng, Velvet Joy Productions, Lisa McKenzie, and others for your amazing and informative work! Thank you for giving me new energy to counter my tiredness and my pusillanimosity.

September 18, 2017

A Tribute to the American Association of University Professors (AAUP)

My father, Don Irish, died in April of 2017. For the last five years of his life, many of us helped him write his memoirs. We self-published the book in 2015. I share an excerpt here that seems particularly relevant to the harassment of untenured professors (often people of color) that is occurring across the country now. The excellent Aimee Morrison has a forthcoming piece on the current version of this dilemma: “a piece on academic viral media that will appear in the next month in the Routledge Companion to Digital Humanities and Media Studies.” The relevant section below, related to my dad’s harassment, and indeed quasi-firing, is called “An unexpected challenge.”

Dad loved to underline words for emphasis and I have left his underlining in place, along with his frequent use of quotation marks.

Don Irish at home, August 2016, age 97

An Account by Don Irish of the year 1949-50, written in about 2014

…[W]e came to Bellingham [Washington] so I could teach Sociology for Western Washington State University students. At that time at Washington State all the faculty members were titled “Instructors.”(There were no Assistant, Associate, or Full Professors with a common rank order related to performance and length of service). Sometime after I left that institution, the faculty secured a change in the “Instructor” title for all positions. It ignored length of experience, failed to recognize quality of teaching, and made it financially difficult whenever a faculty member sought positions at other institutions. However, students did often refer to us as Professors, whatever our station.

At my first faculty meeting, at least 20 minutes were spent with a discussion of how high the water for the campus fountains should rise! (Why not leave that decision to the custodians?) Then at the fall annual faculty formal dinner, it was indicated that agreement had been reached that none of the wives should stand up when introduced because some were pregnant! So, I began hesitantly to wonder how “sociology theory” might relate to this institution of higher education!

Course work—As a newcomer on the Department’s faculty I was assigned to present Introductory Sociology classes. In addition, I was able to serve as instructor for Social Problems, which included a variety of aspects, as indicated by its title, and Marriage and the Family. Sociological Theory and advanced Statistics were left for the older faculty members. My colleagues became fine friends, and we shared our insights and knowledge.

One emphasis that I had developed for myself I labeled “Experiential Sociology,” not as a single course, but as an emphasis in widening “education.” Students may read assigned texts and other materials, prepare term papers on a theme in which they had special interest, attend all the lectures, give class presentations on their preferred themes, secure good grades on tests, and be a pleasant and attentive student. However, one can read, hear, speak, even prepare term papers on a theme of interest and still not experience, be exposed to, internalize the values related to the actualities while remaining limited to their own experiences and values.

As a new faculty member I did not yet have many relationships in the wider community. We and they needed wider exposure. The majority of my students, as for many other school classes, lived predominantly “white and middle” class lives. So, I endeavored in Bellingham and its surrounding area, to create ways and to expose students to other realities, to provide them with unfamiliar experiences. I would have been able to do this more consistently and extensively with longer teaching experiences and involvements in the communities in which the students and I primarily lived. That is, I sought to provide experiential sociology.

Examples:   For “social problems” classes, I arranged with the Sedro-Woolley “institution” for “mentally disturbed patients” for students to share in some of their programs for a weekend. We went there Friday afternoons and returned Sunday afternoons. Student participation was voluntary, not required, but I found most of them who could arrange their schedules did participate. So they had a chance to play cards, dance, view movies, eat meals, play ping pong, work on puzzles and so on, with one or more of the patients – not necessarily the same patient for each “venture.” The institution agreed to provide the overnight accommodations, meals together with the patients, and so on, with some staff time to aid the students to understand those situations more. Then, the students, also being citizens, will have had exposure to a “problem area,” and they can then say/feel “Oh, now I understand better….”

I’ve had similar trips to prisons, with arrangement with staffs, to meet the directors, social workers, chaplain, etc. The students only observe the prison cells from distant metal doors; balconies stacked one above the other, keys to lock and unlock several gates, etc. We never walked down the rows of the cells, violating the privacy of the occupants. However the students were exposed to the “layout.” One time, a cell occupant merely heard us talking at the end of a long row, and called out “don’t sneer, you may be next!” For classes in “Marriage and the Family,” I invited individuals who had been divorced, others who were widowed, and other variants to provide students with “greater and wider insights” of different lives. When I’ve lived in a community longer, of course, I can have more friends who are willing to share their life experiences with students….

An unexpected challenge– Should the best knowledge we teachers have be taught? To secure an enlightened citizenry, each generation needs to be exposed to a range of appropriate new knowledge and views. What is then “current” may alter or challenge earlier “wisdom.” For example, our globe is now viewed as round, not flat, as earlier for some. Continued research in science proceeds to validate the concept of evolution, and “gender” is no longer applicable and useful in dividing individuals just into “male” or “female” for humans and some animals. Thus, challenging “traditional” may be provocative, while enhancing future understandings and use.

As a teacher first at the secondary level, but thereafter with “higher education,” presenting “new information” or challenging “traditional truths” may be deemed to be “propaganda” by some, but certainly provocative as “new information.” I began college instruction just after World War II. “Feelings were high” and much information had been with-held and remained unknown to our citizenry. My lack of tenure did not lead me (in a democracy) to withhold information relevant to my field of knowledge and some expertise.

This was my first year at the Washington State University. Almost every text for Introductory Sociology included one or more chapters related to “Public Opinion and Propaganda.” My classes were in the late 1940’s, and after the official end of World War II. I read then to my class a number of cablegrams (no emails then) that were related to the communications among President Roosevelt in DC, the USA Admirals Harold R. Stark and Husband Kimmel in Hawaii, and our US Ambassador Joseph Grew in Tokyo, issued virtually two years before we became officially involved in World War II with a “Declaration of War” (by 1942). …These communications among the authorities were given to me by Kirby Page. He was then in Seattle on a lecture tour, a man well-known to many peace-oriented citizens then in our nation.

Brief space precludes my providing many details (apart from Kirby’s presentations). Japan lacked fuel resources, not having oil, gas, coal, and other fuel sources. My remembrance is that we (USA) blocked that country’s access to them. Also, I have learned that the USA had sunk a Japanese submarine considerably before the Pearl Harbor attack; we were “unofficially” in the war by providing varied weaponry and other aids to British and French “allies.” Not included in these cablegrams, of course, was the utilization of nuclear bombs on two major Japanese cities by the USA, which came later. However, I understand that Japan had already sought peace arrangements with the Soviet Union. The claim the nuclear bombs were needed to “end the war” is thus challenged.

Back to our Sociology class. After my sharing these communications in class, one of my Sociology students, a young man, reported to his Psychology professor that Prof. Irish was propagandizing the students in his class. “Not knowing the innards,” I suspect that the psych professor informed the University President, Dr. Haggard (the name I recall). In a very short time, one that seemed insufficient for any “check up,” seeking my explanation, Dr. Haggard called me to his office. He asked me to resign! That was not a decision I wished to make “on the spot,” seeking time for wider consideration and some systematic investigations. I was gratified when the local chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) indicated their concern and willingness to assist in resolving the problems. One lesson I learned anew was: “don’t judge persons much on first impressions.”

An officer of the AAUP was the head of Speech Department. He was a pleasant, gracious person, but so “slick” in his speaking and related mannerisms that I didn’t expect much aid from him. However, he became my staunchest supporter regarding my right and role in sharing with students the examples of hidden and delayed information regarding our nation’s official actions! I was cleared of blame. The President offered a plan: That I continue to teach that year, take a year off to pursue my Ph.D. at the University of Washington in Seattle, and then return for an additional period with them in Bellingham. (Relief! – with a wife and two young daughters and a professional record to build!) As it turned out, we went to Seattle, but didn’t return to “fill-out” the time at Washington State.

…I have considered myself to be an “early whistle-blower” by having experienced this minor challenge at the University in Bellingham. How can professional historians develop adequate accounts of the pasts of their nations (and ours) with censorship/secrecy? How can our citizens (and others in their own countries) make intelligent choices when choosing their governmental officials or voting on issues of major importance, if they are not provided with the full background? I believe that awaiting the opening of some archival material 40 years later (as has been the case in our nation) is obviously too late to aid in voting on current candidates or policies. Climate change issues are now vital concerns for the entire world. Everyone will need to have best knowledge and collaboration to work out solutions. If we intend to remain a vital democracy, we cannot continue to function well if our citizens (and others) are left ignorant and unprepared for very significant decisions of the past (to learn by). The futures for youth throughout the world are at stake!

My belief is that we in the USA cannot continue as an empire, with half of our discretionary budget going to war-related purposes. We cannot then effectively and promptly satisfy our domestic needs (education, health, transportation, and many other concerns). We need to re-read the results of the Roman, British, French and other imperial nations. Our USA citizens need to recognize that others do not like to be dominated, have their resources taken, cheap labor exploited, governments replaced by (coups), and with thousands of our troops stationed in many more than 130 countries. (How many foreign bases are in the USA? None that I know of.) No wonder we feel and are opposed by those whom we call “terrorists,” who we define by “labeling theory,” whereas our behaviors are not so defined….

Reflections on My Life by Don Irish (2015), book cover designed by Renner Barsella


April 22, 2017

Don Irish, Rest in Power

Portrait by Justine Di Fiore

Donald Paul Irish, 97, died on April 14, 2017, in St. Paul.

Don loved life: a deeply committed, intense, and energetic man, he joined countless causes for human betterment and fought despair in the face of many intractable forces. He put his body where his words were and he put his money where he felt it would have the most impact. He donated enough to minimize paying taxes for the U.S. war machine and, in doing so, provided substantial support for promoters of education and peace with justice.

Don loved to talk. He could chat up a rock until it turned to sand. His was never idle chatter, though. Words were serious business: global challenges required frequent conversations, in many venues, anywhere he could engage people and press for understanding.

Don was born in Oak Park, Illinois, on July 31, 1919, the second eldest of four children of Stella (Putnam) and Willis Irish. His three siblings and he grew up in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. He attended the University of Colorado on a Carson Pirie Scott scholarship; he had worked in sales at Carson’s during high school. In 1941, he completed his BA in sociology, anthropology and education; he earned his MS in group work in 1944 at George Williams College in Chicago. An MA in sociology from the University of Colorado in 1950 was followed by a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Washington in 1957. His early academic work was representative of lifelong interests: the sociology of war; anti-Japanese-American sentiment during World War II; cultural and racialized differences across the US; death and dying; and Latin American sociology.

He taught at Western Washington University in Bellingham (1948-50) and then at the University of Washington (1950-54). In 1954, he moved to Delaware, Ohio, to teach at Ohio Wesleyan University (1954-59).

A Methodist by upbringing, Don began to follow Gandhi’s teachings in his undergraduate years; he was classed as a conscientious objector during World War II. Don and his wife, Betty (Osborn) Irish—married in 1942–joined the Seattle (WA) Friends (Quaker) Meeting in 1952. Due to his outspoken beliefs on pacifism and intellectual freedom, Don was fired from Western Washington University (though ultimately reinstated) and later he left his tenured position at Ohio Wesleyan (with eight others) to protest the administration’s lack of respect for faculty governance. He received strong support from the American Association of University Professors (AAUP).

After leaving Ohio Wesleyan, Don took a post-doctoral position at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill (1959-63). His final academic home was Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota, where he taught for 22 years (1963-85). Don was a joiner and leader: he held membership in and was an officer of Sociologists of Minnesota; the Coalition for Terminal Care; Higher Education Consortium for Urban Affairs; and the AAUP. In addition to many social activist causes, he was committed to experiential learning for Hamline students. He also held Fulbright appointments at Universidad Pontifícia Bolivariana, Medellín, Colombia (1972), and Instituto de Estudios Sociales, Universidad de la República, Montevideo, Uruguay (1979).

At Hamline, Don and Betty Irish sponsored the Putnam Lectureship in Social Ethics from 1971-96, in honor of Don’s uncle, Irving Putnam. He was a generous donor to the Friends School of Minnesota. After Betty’s death, Don funded the Betty Irish Student Aid for Latin American Studies at Hamline University (after 1996) in her memory.

Don travelled tirelessly. His first visit to Mexico was in 1967 and to Nicaragua in 1968, followed by many more trips across Latin America in subsequent decades. He joined the Peace Brigades International team in Guatemala (1987) as well as the Witness for Peace long-term team (1987) and served as an official observer of Nicaragua’s elections in 1990. In 1990 Don married Marjorie Hedrick Sibley.

August 2016

Don was fond of crossword puzzles and would likely make one with the following acronyms; this list represents some of his most treasured organizations, not yet mentioned: AFSC (American Friends Service Committee); Honor the Earth; SERPAJ (Servicio Paz Y Justicia); School of the Americas Watch (SOA Watch); SPAN (Student Project for Amity Among Nations); TCFM (Twin Cities Friends Meeting); Vets for Peace; WAMM (Women Against Military Madness); and WILPF (Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom).

Don’s survivors include: daughters Terry A. Irish; Gail L. Irish (Steven Budas); and Sharon L. Irish (Reed Larson), as well as Marjorie’s children, Muriel Sibley and Martin Sibley (Ilona Popper). His grandchildren are: Gemma B. Irish (Mark Sweeney), Miriam Larson, and Renner Barsella (Audrey Barsella.) He was widowed twice: Betty Osborn Irish (1920-85); and Marjorie Sibley (1990-2003). His memorial service, 2-4pm, Saturday, August 5, 2017, will be held at the Friends School of Minnesota, 1365 Englewood Ave., St. Paul.

Memorials may be made to the Minnesota Historical Society to support the cataloguing of Don’s papers. Send checks to Development Department, MNHS, 345 Kellogg Blvd W, St. Paul, MN 55102. Please indicate “In Memory of Donald Irish, Collections Management Fund.”



April 10, 2017

Gliding into the Unknown

Swans at night by a bridge in Berlin

The Swan, by Rainer Maria Rilke, trans. by Edward Snow

This heaviness, toiling on as if in bonds
Through a landscape of things still undone,
Is like the makeshift walking of the swan.

And dying–to feel slowly giving way
That ground on which we daily stand,
Like his uneasy lowering of himself–:

Into the water, which receives him gently
And which, so serene in its passing,
Withdraws beneath him, wave on wave;
While he, infinitely still and sure,
With ever greater confidence and kingship
And self-possession deigns to glide.

With thanks to Cope Cumpston…glide on, Don Irish.

June 1, 2016

What’s Next with “No Budget”?

Plantain in concreteThe president of the University, Tim Killeen, just sent an email to everybody in the University of Illinois system called “No state budget.” I do not want to minimize the enduring damage that has been done to programs and services that have benefited many people in the state and that have had to close due to the budget impasse. I do not want to minimize the harm already done to those who have been laid off, not hired, or not promoted due to the budget impasse. In other words, I am not celebrating “no state budget.” But the brokenness of the state offers an opportunity to rethink things and, like it or not, puts the University’s values in relief.

The massmail from President Killeen arrived after a recent blog post by Joanne Barker about the erasure of the Native American and Indigenous Studies (NAIS) Department at the University of Illinois.  While I find her words very powerful, I am aware that I do not know the full extent of the pain and anguish perpetrated on colleagues by a series of toxic and destructive decisions, and that perhaps I contribute to the pain with my comments. But it was only in Ms. Barker’s post that I learned that “the UIUC administration will not commit itself to hire another NAIS scholar for 2 years, effectively absorbing the approximately $800,000 annually for the six faculty lines in NAIS into the campus coffer.” This was news to me and I think must be discussed across campus, at all levels. It’s possible that it is being discussed; I am so very part-time (by choice) that many conversations occur without my knowing about them. But, somehow, I think this particular conversation is resoundingly quiet. And this refusal to act on hiring by the administration is unacceptable, whatever the budget.

President Killeen wrote: “All options are on the table as we go forward – layoffs, reductions of academic programs, closure of units and cuts in a health-care enterprise that provides critical care to underserved populations in Chicago.” These layoffs, reductions, closures, and cuts are going to continue to reflect the ethics and values of the institution. The decision to hold off on hiring NAIS is, I believe, not a financial decision, but rather a continuation of the racist climate that has long been nurtured here. Budget decisions, like many other decisions, reflect and reproduce oppressions.

What if, instead of erasing NAIS, we asked the now-dispersed and numerically fewer faculty what (new) campus structures would help them? Then, supported, of course, by real funds, other colleagues, and policies with traction, we found ways to make those changes, to center their agendas? What if values that promoted indigenous knowledge and practices were evident in the budget? It’s a legitimate concern that white-identified administrators can’t promote those values, but it’s not an unresolvable concern. The administrators could get out of the way, for once.

The conclusion to Glen Coulthard’s Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition (2014) is called “Lessons from Idle No More: The Future of Indigenous Activism.” Coulthard summarized some of the main points he already made:

  • “Settler-colonialism is territorially acquisitive in perpetuity.” (p. 152)
  • He argued that settler-colonialism is not only coercive and violent but also “the practices of dispossession central to the maintenance of settler-colonialism in liberal democratic contexts…rely as much on the productive character of colonial power as it does on the coercive authority of the settler state.” (p. 152) I take this to mean that capitalism is very effective at co-opting everyday practices and making itself seem natural.
  • Coulthard used Frantz Fanon to discuss how recognition politics almost always benefits the colonizer (s/he who recognizes.) Further, the colonized tend to “internalize” their oppression, but, according to Coulthard’s reading of Fanon, “colonized populations…are often able to turn these internalized forms of colonial recognition into expressions of Indigenous self-empowerment.” (p. 153)

Coulthard then turned to “Indigenous resurgence,” and theorists of that idea, Taiaiake Alfred and Leanne Simpson. Alfred called this resurgence paradigm “‘self-conscious traditionalism’,” and Simpson argued that “‘[b]uilding diverse, nation-culture-based resurgences means significantly reinvesting in our own ways of being’” (p. 155). Coulthard stressed that for Alfred, Simpson, and himself, this resurgence is not a retreat to “an uncritical essentialism,” but a “self-reflective revitalization” (p. 156). Coulthard went on to point out “the centrality of sexism to the colonial aims of land dispossession and sovereignty usurpation” and the necessity of queering resurgence (pp. 157-58). “Indigenous resurgence,” Coulthard claimed, “is at its core a prefigurative politics—the methods of decolonization prefigure its aims” (p. 159, italics in original).

Red Skin, White Masks ends with “Five Theses on Indigenous Resurgence and Decolonization”:

  1. On the Necessity of Direct Action;
  2. Capitalism, No More!
  3. Dispossession and Indigenous Sovereignty in the City
  4. Gender Justice and Decolonization
  5. Beyond the Nation-State

Coulthard developed each of these theses eloquently, and I cannot do him justice. But I would still like to stress a couple of aspects. “Direct action,” however varied, is usually described by the media as threatening and disruptive; in a word, uncivil. In fact, these actions loosen “internalized colonialism, which is itself a precondition for any meaningful change,” and they build “skills and social relationships…that are required…to construct alternatives” (p. 166). These social networks have endured for decades against frequent efforts to weaken them. I love this: “Through these actions we physically say ‘no’ to the degradation of our communities and to exploitation of the lands upon which we depend. But they also have ingrained within them a resounding ‘yes’: they are the affirmative enactment of another modality of being.” Coulthard asks: “How might we move beyond a resurgent Indigenous politics that seeks to inhibit the destructive effects of capital to one that strives to create Indigenous alternatives to it?” (p. 170).

Thanks to Angela Piccini in Bristol (UK), I know about this lecture, “Rage against the Empire,” that Glen Coulthard presented at the Vancouver Institute for Social Research in 2013, which covers much of the same material as his book.This lecture is about 30 minutes, with some Q & A.

I write this post in the basement of my comfortable brick house in Urbana, Illinois, with little sense that my opinion matters or might induce change. On the other hand, I know I am not alone in being appalled at the state of things, and that there are others who want to enact other modalities of being, modalities that foster respect and imagination. And I do think asking questions can be tools that contribute to further, useful questions.

This week I have been inspired, and saddened, by Sara Ahmed’s resignation from Goldsmiths in London, reported on her blog.

It is not that this activity [in this case, sexual harassment] is coordinated by one person or even necessarily a group of people who are meeting in secret, although secret meetings probably do happen. All of these activities, however complex, sustain a direction; they have a point. A direction does not require something to originate from a single point: in fact a direction is achieved through the alignment between points that do not have to meet. Different elements combine to achieve something that is solid and tangible. If one element does not hold, or become binding, another element holds or binds. The process is rather like the cement used to make walls: something is set before it hardens. Perhaps when people notice the complexity, the movement, the inefficiency, the disorganisation, they do not notice the cement; how things hold together; that things hold together. Then when you say there is a pattern you are heard as paranoid as if you are imagining that all this complexity derives from a singular point…

To try and bring someone to account is to come up against not just an individual but histories, histories that have hardened, that stop those who are trying to stop what is happening from happening. The weight of that history can be thrown at you; you can be hit by it. 

But, cement can also be broken up, sometimes even by plants poking up through the cracks. I am one plant, poking up.


March 13, 2016

Joliet Wedding at the Henry Mansion

In July 2016, Renner Larson and Audrey Schlofner got married at the Jacob Henry Mansion in Joliet. I wrote up this long-ish version of the place where the event happened, for those who want more than the short insert in the program!

Jacob Henry Mansion, Joliet

Jacob Henry Mansion, Joliet

So, who was Jacob Henry?
Jacob Apgar Henry (1825-1908) made his substantial wealth in railroads and the industries that served them, like quarries. He moved to Joliet, Illinois, in 1846, having started his career on the East Coast with the Hartford & New Haven Railroad in 1842. He secured construction contracts to expand railroads in Illinois, Indiana and Ohio. As his success increased, he expanded into real estate, electric street cars, insurance, and banking, becoming a principal stockholder in Will County (IL) National Bank. He was a Universalist (before they merged with the Unitarians and became UUs.)

What about the house he built?
The nearly 17,000-square-foot mansion was built between 1873 and 1876 in a hodge-podge of styles known as “eclecticism.” It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and is part of Joliet’s East Side National Register District. Before Henry built this house he lived next door in the modest frame house at 22 Eastern Avenue. After his mansion was finished, his daughter, Helen Henry, and son-in-law, Julius Folk, lived in that house.

The mansion is three stories tall with a central tower. Henry owned a limestone quarry nearby, so it is no surprise that the basement, foundation, and front and side porches are of limestone. Joliet boosters seem to love this detail: “The largest stone ever quarried lies in the sidewalk under the front entry gate. The stone is 9’x22’x 20” thick,” but I don’t think that is nearly as interesting as the fact that prisoners from the Joliet penitentiary dug out the rock. You can see a photo of the quarry and the prison here. According to the National Register, “The walls of the structure are constructed of red Illinois sandstone and deep red brick specially fired in Ohio (wrapped individually and shipped by barge to Joliet).” The roof shingles are slate. In 1885, on the occasion of his second marriage (his first wife died in 1878), Henry added what was called “an oriental bay” with a copper dome on the south façade.

Speaking of the roof, the way that it encloses the top floor is called a Mansard roof, deriving from the 17th-century French architect, Francois Mansart, who popularized it; then in the 19th century in France it became popular again. It’s one reason why the mansion is sometimes labeled Second Empire (because the French president Louis-Napoleon declared himself emperor Napoleon III in 1852 and this style came back into fashion.) So a little bit of France and quite a few Renaissance details revived in the middle of the U.S.!

Jacob Henry Mansion, Joliet, pocket door, first floor

pocket door, first floor

Inside there are carved and inlaid pocket doors (they slide into the walls.)

Much of the woodwork is done in walnut, including the staircase.

Jacob Henry Mansion, Joliet, newel post

There’s a marvelous bay window on the north side.

Jacob Henry Mansion, Joliet, upstairs bay window

There’s a church on this property. What about that?
The Central Presbyterian Church (“Old Central”) sits on land donated by Jacob Henry to the church; he provided the stone as well. The church is on the National Register as well. It was designed by the firm of Wilm Knox and John Elliot in 1895. Knox and Elliot were active in Cleveland, Toronto, and Chicago from 1888 until their deaths in the early 20th century. These two architects met when they worked for Daniel Burnham, who ran a huge architectural and planning firm in Chicago; Burnham is famous for his 1909 Plan of Chicago. Surprise! “Old Central” is built of Joliet limestone. Its style is also eclectic, with Gothic Revival features, like the wooden tracery on the gable of the porch. The use of several colors of stone is called polychromy. While the church was in use as a church (until about 1995), it was the site of many events, including the wedding of Marshall Field IV to Kay Woodruff of Joliet in the 1950s.

2016-07-23 06.58.32

Joliet, Illinois, was a transportation hub
White settlers moved in to the Joliet area about 1831, and the town, originally called Juliet, was incorporated in 1852, re-named in honor of the 17th-century French-Canadian Louis Joliet. In 1871, about the time that Jacob Henry was planning his mansion, Joliet had about 10,000 residents. On the Des Plaines River and with the Illinois & Michigan Canal passing through after its completion in 1848, there were good locations for businesses and houses. In the neighborhood of the Henry Mansion, you can still see limestone curbs and tiles with the street names embedded in the sidewalks. Other rich folk lived in this area, once dubbed “Silk Stocking Row.”

February 16, 2016

Seeking Monograph Publisher

I just sent the email below to a bunch of people, but thought I would post this query here too:

As many of you know, I have been writing a book on Stephen Willats for a good many years now. A couple of publishers have not worked out, but I now have a nibble and I need to indicate to them what level of interest there might be in North America for a monograph on Stephen, as in: “who would buy this book?” (I think we have a good sense of the UK.)

I write to ask you to let me know of upcoming North American exhibits, symposia, or ongoing conversations around the following KEY WORDS: anarchism, architectural interventions, British modernism, computer arts, conceptualism, critical information studies, cybernetics, mutualism, participatory art, self-organizing, or social practice (or variants on that phrase).

The Performance of Information Flows in the Art of Stephen Willats

The Performance of Information Flows in the Art of Stephen Willats, published in Information & Culture in 2012

Book Precis:
Stephen Willats, Artist as Instigator is my third book and examines Willats’ social practice art using archival sources, primary literature, and interviews with the artist and some of his collaborators, informed by science and technology studies (STS) and contemporary art criticism. London-based artist Stephen Willats (b. 1943) has spanned many disciplines and media in his 50+-year career. My book has two foci: the relationships between artist and audience, and between Willats’ art and physical and conceptual systems. Historians of technology and feminist STS scholars are crucial to my study: Jane Bennett, Geoff Bowker and S. Leigh Star, Barbara Hanson, Donna Haraway, Andrew Pickering, and John Staudenmaier have provided concepts and models that shaped my research. Claire Bishop and Grant Kester, together with Rosalyn Deutsche, Shannon Jackson, Suzanne Lacy, Edward Shanken, and John A. Walker, have done foundational work on theory and practice in socially-engaged, media-rich art. Finally, the philosophy of Félix Guattari, particularly as expressed in Chaosmosis (1995 translation, 1992), has shaped how I think about social practice in the cultural field. We must take into account the roles that material processes perform in the environment, society, and subjectivity in order to fully constitute an “ethico-aesthetic paradigm,” in Guattari’s phrasing. I use Willats’ image of the homeostat as a metaphor for material, aesthetic and ideological inputs that recalibrate the shifting art canon. Linking Willats’ work to that of architect-planners and other contemporary artists clarifies the political underpinnings of his art and transforms our perceptions about social practice in the U.K., as well as helps to enact the paradigm that Guattari outlined.

I first began researching Willats’ work in 2003, and have published three articles on his project works. Since 2010, I have studied extensively in archives and museums around the U.K., also visiting Willats at his London and Rye homes to interview him and view his art and archives located there. I received funding from the Creative Capital/Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant Program and additional funding from the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art and the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts. While Willats himself has been thorough in documenting his work through self-publication and interviews, and while there are numerous short essays about him available in art publications, very few of these analyze his ambitious projects in depth or link Willats’ work to the social, political, and cultural histories in which he worked. Willats unequivocally declared in 1986: “The place of intervention itself is perceived as one of the mediums of the work.” Without the details regarding his art and its context, it is difficult to integrate Willats into the history of social practice art, in which he has been a pioneer and a key figure.

February 3, 2016

Dear Governor Rauner

I am not proud to say that I stopped writing politicians several decades ago. OK, I’ve sent an occasional email, usually prompted by some Facebook post, but my overly-long, impassioned missives to national and state officials ended with my use of the typewriter and carbon paper. Similarly, this old newspaper photo of me in front of the White House protesting the Vietnam War made me feel badly at how rarely I show up for protests these days. I’m still mad, still opposed to the drone devastation, Guantanamo, bombing raids, renditions, and on and on…but, but what? I confess it seems pointless, as the Koch Brothers continue to buy our government. But today I wrote to Governor Rauner. It may still be pointless, but, what to do? I kept my message very short and devoid of the RAGE that I feel about the way so many people are treated as disposable and all the programs being demolished that, however imperfectly, aim to serve those folks. This state has been poorly-run for a very long time and there are many systems to blame, while a few people have profited handsomely from the dysfunction, corruption,and callousness. I wrote to the state legislators, too, who are no doubt at least as frustrated as I.

In front of the White House in DC in 197x with a Quaker group

In front of the White House in DC in 197x with a Quaker group

“Dear Governor Rauner [I did not say “Dear Bruce”],” I wrote today, “I support a progressive income tax–as in, tax those of us who can afford to pay for a better Illinois and stop punishing the most vulnerable among us. The state budget impasse has permanently damaged so many non-profits and schools that we cannot recover. Still, we must solve the crisis immediately and begin to repair the damage as quickly and as best we can. Compromise, please, with your equally stubborn and egotistical opponents.
Sincerely, Sharon Irish”


“Dear Sharon,” the Governor [via his robot-minion], replied nearly immediately,
“I appreciate you taking the time to reach out to my office about tax reform in Illinois. My staff is reviewing your message. Please know I value your opinion and thank you for sharing it with me. Hearing from people in Illinois gives me a better idea of what is impacting local communities across the state. Knowing those opinions helps me make decisions for you in Springfield.
Please feel free to contact me in the future. My office phone numbers are (217) 782-0244 and (312) 814-2121.
Governor Bruce Rauner”

So I called and left a message on the machine. Will the machine call me back? To be continued…maybe.

February 2, 2016

Stand. Point.

Poem written in January 2014, but still relevant.

I can’t stand it.

White woman feminist with
Middle-class roots deep in the last century,
I stand in silence.

A gap
Agape (Gr. Αγάπη)

Not speaking because
If I speak
I harm those with whom I want to stand.
White supremacy leaks toxins
Into conversations, lectures, non-verbal exchanges.


I’d like to point out that archival boxes
Protect certain histories and
Fail to preserve others.
We have so many gaps to fill
Because racism erases.


I’d like to point out that to lecture students
Is pointless if your whiteness
Overrides thoughtful speech and
Undermines other knowledge and experience
Gained through love, risk and courage.

Agape | Αγάπη

Ruth Nicole Brown:
“Listening is the archive.
How to listen is the repertoire.”
I aim to stand in the gap
And point to “a wider repertoire.”

I don’t want to be seen
It’s a white thing
Can it be Other

December 2, 2015

Designing Differently

A toy horse with an airplane fixture, stands in Ken-doll plastic loafers. This sort of DIY assemblage has humor, weirdness, and possibilities that I like.

A toy horse with an airplane fixture, stands in Ken-doll plastic loafers. This sort of DIY assemblage has humor, weirdness, and possibilities that I like. See #2 in Anne Balsamo’s list below.

We at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, got an email on November 25, 2015, inviting us to town hall meetings in early December about a campus-wide Design Center that has been in the works for a couple of years. The Design Center website also solicits input, but does not indicate to whom this input should be directed. So I am taking a blanket blog approach….

Acknowledging that the last few years at this institution have been particularly fraught with unethical, intolerant and/or incompetent behavior, which has, among other results, decimated Indigenous Studies, caused morale among students, staff and faculty to plummet, and filled many positions on an interim basis, not to mention diverted attention from efforts like the Design Center planning, I would still like to stress that the timeline for input about the Center is ridiculously tight. How are adjustments to be made using that input, when the architects are to get the brief early in 2016 (as I understand it)? That said, I thank those who have clearly put substantial time into developing the proposal. Given the short amount of time, I have just sketched a few ideas, informed by science and technology studies as well as my presence on campus for 30 years.

I suggest a focus on a “Design Differently” Center.

First, consider and learn from past campus efforts, some of which are still ongoing. (A range of past experiential learning and interdisciplinary research efforts include: Urban Exchange, Civitas Community Design Center, East St. Louis Action Research Project, Center on Democracy in a Multi-Racial Society, Unit One/Allen Hall and other Living-Learning Centers, iCHASS, Illinois Informatics Institute…) Large sums of money were sometimes spent, often with little agreement on what success might look like. While “success” should be regularly considered and, possibly, redefined, the experimental nature of these research and pedagogical efforts must accommodate “failure,” and an institutional acceptance of some messy vitality.

Next, I am bothered by the staffing model proposed, with “technicians” placed in a hierarchy that, once again, is topped by a tenured faculty member. In “designing differently,” I suggest that the Design Center’s key challenges will be social, not technical: instead of staffing the Center “as usual,” I would encourage a redesign where students direct the programming and have a substantial say in budget allocations, technologists are integral to planning and implementation of programming, and where communication among users, non-users, and possible users is a key priority. That doesn’t necessarily mean that a faculty member couldn’t direct the Center, but the staffing should be as carefully designed as the physical plant. As a “hub,” the Center will be a socio-technical construction. The technical aspects, I believe, will be far easier to handle. If the social infrastructure consistently and continually challenges gender and racialized norms, contends with issues of ability and economics, and critiques the intended and unintended impacts of items that are “designed,” that will be an innovative design center![1]

Anne Balsamo in her 2011 book, Designing Culture: The Technological Imagination at Work, stressed “how innovation could be even more innovative in its scope of vision for the future if it were to take culture as the precondition and horizon of creative effort” (p. 3.) She then proceeded to list lessons about technoculture innovation, which I quote here, though I have cut out her useful commentary to keep this short:

  1. Innovations are historically constituted.
  2. Innovations are not objects, but rather assemblages of practices, materialities and affordances.
  3. Innovation is an articulatory and performative process, in that efforts of many people must be integrated.
  4. Innovation manifests the dual logic of technological reproduction; it both replicates previous and makes new possibilities.
  5. Designing is an important process of cultural reproduction. Creativity is a cultural construct.
  6. Designing is as much about social negotiation as it is about creativity.
  7. Designing is a process where the matter of the world becomes meaningful.
  8. Technological innovation is inherently multidisciplinary.
  9. Technological innovation offers the possibility of doing things differently.
  10. Failure is productive.[2]

FemTechNet‘s previous co-facilitator, Liz Losh, has framed a feminist-cultural approach to understanding technology, which I think also applies to design thinking in many ways. I end with her list:

Technology is material

Technology involves embodiment

Technology solicits affect

Technology requires labor

Technology is situated in particular contexts

Technology expresses political values

Technology depends on tacit knowledge practices

I hope the Design Center intentionally focuses on students, particularly underserved and marginalized students, who are already working to design better, more just social structures and who foster critical examinations of what is innovative and who is being served by innovations.

[1] Impact constituencies are those who lose due to the design and maintenance of new technological systems. See John Staudenmaier, “The Politics of Successful Technologies,” In In Context: History and the History of Technology: Essays in Honor of Melvin Kranzberg. Research in Technology Studies, v. 1, Stephen Cutcliffe and Robert Post, eds. (Bethlehem: Lehigh University Press, 1989), 150-171.

[2] Anne Balsamo, Designing Culture: The Technological Imagination as Work (Duke University Press, 2011), 8-13, 25.