A History Made of Glass: Bluestockings Bookstore, Fair-Trade Café, & Activist Resource Center
by Malav Kanuga
(get the PDF)
It is a question of producing within the work a movement capable of affecting the mind outside all representations; it is a question of making movement itself a work, without interposition; of substituting direct signs for mediate representations; of inventing vibrations, rotations, whirlings, gravitations, dances, or leaps which directly touch the mind.
– Gilles Deleuze
As Team Colors propose in their introduction to this journal, tiny gusts of wind have characterized social struggles in the United States in recent decades. One only has to think of the ceaseless activity that exists in the space of our daily lives to recognize this as itself the source of our whirlwinds. Nevertheless, the very commotion of everyday life often obscures the political significance of our endless energies. So where to begin?
It is important to recognize the changing compositions of our movements. This is necessary in order to understand how the politics of our everyday lives relate to long-term struggles for social change. Additionally, inquiry into our movements’ current composition allows us to engage clearly with our constantly changing understanding of what is possible. Many of us look to the sky for our movement’s north star, straining from our low vantage point in the U.S. for the brightest constellations of resistance in ongoing struggles. We sometimes forget that the light that reaches us is not always that of a still-shining star. For example, many look toward the heroic highpoints of the anti-globalization movement in North America as the last time we truly felt an effectively constituted resistance. This star, however, seems to have faded, dissolved, imploded, undone by the gravity of wishes placed upon it, or otherwise forced inward. This is by no means an indication that activity has ceased. Quite the contrary: all around us, there is an explosion of activities.
Rather than look to the sky, therefore, I would like to direct our gaze toward the ground below us. The role of space (both physical and relational) in our social struggles is intimately connected to the question of composition. Indeed, it is the opening up of space that facilitates the experimentation and multiplication of new relationships. Thus, I would like to ask: What can a lived space of relative autonomy mean in a social topography increasingly subsumed by domination?
Drawing from the experience of organizing Bluestockings, a radical bookstore and event space in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, I would like to suggest a few themes that are integral to the various living answers we might give to this question. Many participants in the bookstore contribute to the daily effort of ensuring that Bluestockings continues to be an open ground for the whirlwind of activities that circulate through the space. Yet, these activities do not largely emerge by direct decree. In a certain sense, there is almost no way to identify them under the aegis of our space. These activities have circulated prior to and beyond our efforts. Our role, in many ways, is simply to amplify – but something else happens in the process.
In what follows below, I offer a few themes that elaborate on the social significance of Bluestockings. I am purposely staying away from describing the many ideas contained in the space, either by the many people that participate in the project or by the books we sell and our nightly programming. All of it exists together, somewhat chaotically. To centrifuge them out would be to lose the vitality of so many elements existing in concert, however different and sometimes seemingly incompatible. Therefore, one cannot find a clear conception of Bluestockings’ politics, either as endorsement, preferred tactic, or centralized vision of strategy. We could barely agree on the color of the walls.
Rather, what I’d like to do is start with a condensed history of the space, its organizing principles and how it is loosely conceived and implemented. There are many lessons to draw from our experiences and I will attempt to discuss some of those as well.
It is instructive in inquiring about the power and composition of various movements today to begin with what we know about how movements compose and cohere. I hope to draw out the importance of one type of composition in this long and variegated struggle: that of a community that bears no conditions of belonging; a community that is defined by its conditions of capacity and not by conditions of belonging; one that is referred to simply by what it is capable of doing. Bluestockings is constituted by such communities. To understand the conditions of the coming-to-be of this kind of community is to understand the vitality that is infused in a space like Bluestockings. It is a vitality that provokes the constant reorganization of what it means to work, as well as associate and collaborate freely toward productive ends. Thus, it is an exemplar of many of the questions movements are grappling with today.
The Fires that Supplied the Glass
To be truly visionary we have to root our imagination in our concrete reality while simultaneously imagining possibilities beyond that reality.
– bell hooks
Originally founded by different owners, Bluestockings opened in 1999 as a women’s bookstore. By 2003, the business was under financial duress and ownership was transferred by the founders to an assemblage of new collective members and old volunteers, some of whom still comprise our current collective five years later. In this time, we have fully organized as a self-managed worker-owned business.
This worker’s collective has had as many as six members and as few as three. The collective body has always been majority women (and at the time of this writing, majority people of color as well). All collective members are equal owners of the business, participate equally in all decisions through consensus, and, ever since we established a still-precarious but enduring financial solvency, members are remunerated equally, as well. These practices took shape slowly as a result of our struggle to establish ourselves and work out kinks in our collective process. Nevertheless, the ideas and passion behind collective organization burned from the beginning. One might attribute this to past anti-authoritarian experiences that constituent members invested into the collective, or the still warming fires of the anti-globalization movement, whose ‘spirit of ’99’ directly infused individual orientations to the project. Bluestockings, in many ways, can be seen as glass that took shape as these fires raged and then subsequently cooled. While the fires of previous movements have been reduced to embers, we carry the memory of their flames in glass-form. I hold on to this image of Bluestockings because our organization shares some qualities of glass: like glass, our organization is fluid though it appears solid; it is transparent, durable, able to magnify, focus, protect and in proper orientation to the sun, is even able to concentrate both light and heat. Thus, it has the capacity to start fires of its own. However, all of this is possible only based on the specificities of our glass – and we are still learning a lot about the potential of all of our organizational contours.
Over the last five years, we have become highly visible as a ‘leftist’ bookstore, fair-trade cafe, and free event space. However, much like any anti-capitalist project, if one does not analyze the intentions and social relations at the foundation of the endeavor, the practical purpose seems slightly akin to running an ice cream parlor (which Emma Goldman indeed attempted in the closing years of the 19th century): nice and sweet, but not immediately the stuff of social struggle.
In an immediate (formal) sense, our ‘politics’ may be said to exist in what we do: sell leftist books and host activist-oriented discussions. Accordingly, we are, by derivation, a political project. Something is missed in this semblance, however. What is perhaps less visible, mostly because it is not easily verifiable, is our role as a node in an elaborate but ephemeral network of autonomous community practices across the city, the country, and increasingly international locations.
The most significant aspect lost, however, is the role that Bluestockings plays in another register of social struggle, one that is outside the locus of most politics. While we root ourselves in an array of traditions and current experiences of resistance and movement organizing, ours is a politics organized around a “refusal to constitute [ourselves] as frontal opponents,” as Colectivo Situaciones have described similar autonomous practices (2003: footnote 11). We do not put sole emphasis on achieving oppositional stances to current political orderings. By expanding the category of resistance by focusing inwardly, we start on the plane of what constitutes our daily life and attempt to invest in practices and encounters that reconstitute political power within us based on the desire to affirm and build communal life. This long and slow process affords very few visible markers of success or defeat. But it does reorient our understanding of the plane of politics as corresponding with the plane of our lives.
Once we achieve this reorientation, an already implicit problem of this plane immediately greets us: how to link separate experiences of daily life to each other across the vast geographic differences of degree and scale. This can range from the challenge of connecting communities that inhabit the same fragmented city, to the ability to correlate experiences that arise from local/global differences.
Our fundamental focus is on the articulation of a space that is transparent and open to participation. Over the years, we’ve found a recipe that works. By linking the openness of our space with the dynamic of direct participation and the sharing (often times, the mutual co-articulation) of ideas and visions, it is possible to gather multiple and fluid communities who continually invest their energy in the space not as individuals (visitors, guests, passersby) but as an emergent public (rooted, responsive, self-constituted). As a community space, our energy is supplied and re-supplied in this way.
This is where we shift emphasis from other ‘independent bookstores.’ At every moment, we integrate the act of selling books with our bigger priority: creating a space through which many different people can participate and share access to community resources. Accordingly, it is a very large and variegated community that comes in and buys books. A smaller but no less striated community intersects or integrates into the fabric of our space in more direct ways: they volunteer, they attend study and reading groups, they meet people, they propose events and self-organize events, they participate in discussions, readings, screenings, etc. Throughout all this, the many people that come through choose their own level of interest and involvement in what the space can offer. They choose to interpret the significance of the space, as well as their own orientation to the multiple participant-created economies propagating at any given time (money economies, knowledge economies, alternative value practices, mutual aid and just negotiation, mental, spiritual and emotional support, etc.). We find these multiple economies in all facets of life, yet in some ways we think of them as only growing in the cracks of everyday life. Bluestockings as a physical space – or more accurately, as the embodiment of a collective of individuals – is not responsible for these various economies, nor the complex web of relations they generate, but we are responsive to them. We understand our role as a community space in this way.
Our daily encounters and nightly events focus on ways of acting that are not supplied by a simple or quick reaction to current political order; critique is all too often born from this moment of reaction. Those who participate in Bluestockings tend to evince a feeling that, though criticism is necessary for navigating the deceptions intended to dominate our daily lives and relations, our outrage must not overshadow visionary thinking about solving today’s problems. Indeed, it is quite typical to come to understand the world as political in a negative sense: the register of today’s defeats and disasters are overwhelmingly political (political institutions, governments, etc. are the prime actors). At Bluestockings, we take the inverse relation: the politics that convene in our space generate from the sense that our everyday formations are creative and each constituent member of this community lends meaning to the abstract relation of what we understand as ‘politics.’ Such politics require a strange mixture of anger and affection, but that is perhaps what is most necessary for creating enduring struggles.
As a worker-owned bookstore, we have developed a framework over the last five years grounded in cooperation, mutualism, autonomy and participation. It would be impossible, I believe, to explore the political potentialities described above and throughout this journal without first solving for ourselves the ownership problem. Without collective control and autonomy, it would not be possible for us to expand our vision and determine for ourselves the fate of the space. The autonomy afforded to us by being a worker-owned business is not a goal, but a necessary precursor and premise. While we are beholden to a staggering rent (resulting from the rapid gentrification of our neighborhood) and nearly debilitating overhead, we have so far been able to keep up with the pressures and challenges.
Given our location in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, it is important to add that even despite (or indeed because of) of our activist orientations, we pay all our overhead and expenses entirely from sales. This is quite a bit more than most independent bookstores in New York City are able to manage, even with special relationships with neighboring university landlords, wealthy owners floating ‘vanity’ book projects, rich investors, and so on; despite these advantages, many independent bookstores seem to be closing their doors.
Our worker-collective maintains the responsibility of satisfying all the preconditions of keeping the space open. We work as hard as it takes to make rent every month, keep our lease-agreement in good standing, pay our vendors, and otherwise stay financially solvent. All of this ensures we have a space to work and organize in tomorrow. What does this enormous effort then produce?
The nature of work at Bluestockings is of course fundamentally marked by the lack of bosses. Being a self-managed worker project requires us to rearticulate a new dynamic and ethic of work within the space as well as in our daily lives. In their essay in the first issue of Turbulence, Todd Hamilton and Nate Holdren eloquently describe a model of workplace organizing that fits with our own: “It’s more like a scale or key in music [than a model], it provides the framework within which we improvise the affective, immaterial, flexible processes of organizing and building organization” (Hamilton and Holdren 2007: 20). Much of our organization stems from the multiplication and repetition of affects of care and cooperation. Perhaps it is a simple anti-authoritarian revulsion to cumbersome structures, or something more significant, but we rarely quote our by-laws or rehearse canned answers to daily questions about our policies in the store. Rather, we speak our structure. We derive our reasons based on the well of affect that circulates in the room, much of it seeping into the architecture in the form of memory and will to hope. None of it comes from outside. Indeed, it is not premised upon outside knowledge or the sufficient accumulation of past experience. Nevertheless, just because no structural position is left for a boss does not mean that we have not all internalized the boss in our modes of behavior and interaction, nor does it mean that we’ve been able to successfully eradicate all the potential indignities that soft hierarchies sometimes rear. This experiment repeats each day, creating the new challenges as well as the new possibilities that constitute the space.
An equally enduring challenge is how to sustain the perpetual democratizing machine of worker’s autonomy in such a way that it extends into all other facets of our lives. Most of the collective works elsewhere, and to varying degrees we are required to transition from the horizontalism of our workplace to more alienated work. We still struggle with the familiar questions that we come across as a worker’s collective, but in other work spaces we become isolated individuals dealing as best we can with the precarious psychological and structural forces that command our labor. At times, it can seem like we recompose and are decomposed in the span of a day. Longer volleys into the feeling of our own power do make all the difference. But, nevertheless, as everyone else, we struggle.
Furthermore, we admit that worker control does not inherently emancipate daily life. Nevertheless, decoding the work relation amounts to quite a bit organizationally. As workers without a boss, the question becomes, what new antagonism are we able to open up at the same time as we become elusive? Is the stake of the wager that we can (and should) run a ‘successful’ business guided by anti-capitalist principles, a business that therefore requires even more scrutiny to the obedience of legal and financial authority? The consequences of these questions arise out of the hope that if we organize collectively as workers, we may achieve a certain confidence in duration – that this enormous effort won’t suddenly dissolve, but can find itself slowly taking root in many other spaces of daily life as well as proliferate into the lives of others.
In order to shift emphasis to another decoded work relation, I would like to draw out the significance of volunteer work at Bluestockings. Qualitatively speaking, Bluestockings volunteers are everywhere and do everything. Indeed, since our inception in 2003, our collective ownership structure has been pooled from our volunteer base. Currently, this volunteer base is approximately 70 active volunteers who participate in the running of the space during weekly three-hour shifts. In addition, there have been many hundreds more volunteers over the years, many of which continue to participate in one way or another. The combination of collective workers and weekly (and more provisional) volunteers run the entire project day by day. In the process, we reproduce the skills and knowledge of how to organize a collectively run social space, as well as manage a worker-owned business.
This volunteer body has no real composite identity to be referred to – one or more of them may be grouped in one sense as students, artists, educators, non-profit workers, organizers, the skillfully self-employed or not at all, in addition to a multiplicity of other things that define their lives. Indeed, as multiplicity, what defines Bluestockings volunteers is not their identity but the force of what they are capable of doing in unity. This force is governed mostly by chance. When volunteers assemble in the space, it is to recompose (befriend, enjoy) as a group that cooperates without command. They mix and combine differences in orientation, experience, ambition, desire, and form temporary (though regularly recombining) teams in order to embody the space. They work alongside those of us in the workers collective as well. Here too, people combine in quite fluid ways that resist the possibility of their differences becoming opaque (i.e., paid and unpaid labor). Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari characterize this combination as a type of ‘free action’: “Regardless of the effort or toil they imply, they are of the order of free action, related to pure mobility, and not of the order of work with its conditions of gravity, resistance, and expenditure” (Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 401).
It is certainly true that collective work retains the character of ‘gravity,’ ‘resistance’ and ‘expenditure.’ But what happens when we combine these conditions with the condition of ‘pure mobility’ of free action, of unencumbered (volunteer) power? An alternative ethic is brought into the world; a value-system proliferates that forms the dispositif of a more novel emergent power.
Commons as Common-Differences
Bluestockings is conceived as a space of encounter for movement(s). In one sense, this encounter is at the individual level of newly forming relations, borne from the co-articulation of desires, experiences, and modes of acting. Thus it is both bodily and affective. There is, however, another level to the encounter that we facilitate. Almost every night, we serve as a venue space for social justice/movement thinking and reflecting. We host authors, filmmakers, writers, poets, musicians, visionaries, travelers, and storytellers in an effort to construct new knowledges about our daily lives and the larger (often equally obscured) world we live in.
Our events offer people a chance to organize to their concerns and be hosted in a friendly space. The ‘audiences’ that come to these events are always, each day, very different; in aggregate, our community, year after year, tends to be less easily identified. Since space that is open and inviting is at a premium, we find that offering ours for free event programming every night is one of the more critical resources we can generate and allocate into community concerns.
This is in a similar spirit of what Michal Osterweil and Graeme Chesters describe in their own coordinating experiences, in that it is
…our attempt to create a critical public space, one that exists for sustained periods of time and in various physical and virtual places. We believe that the creation of such a space will allow us to include more people and different ideas, as well as make possible wisdom that only comes from reflection; reflection and iteration that in turn only come with time. The content of our politics is more precisely that of engagement, culture, and encounter than of programs, campaigns, and building institutions (Osterweil and Chesters 2007: 255).
The emphasis that emerges is not simply a catalog of injustices against gender, nation, class, etc. in different communities, but what Mohanty calls the “mutuality and co-implication” of these struggles, “which suggests attentiveness to the interweaving of the histories of these communities” (Mohanty 2003: 242). Thus, we foreground not just the connections of domination but also those of struggle and resistance.
Our starting point is the yearning for a better world; at the heart of this yearning is the question of knowledge and value production. Our activities begin with an understanding that we cannot advance from our own conditions of knowing the world (since the world is infused with a vast ecology of knowledges), nor can we claim knowledge of how to proceed. In its place is a “not-knowing,” a mere intuition about how to begin organizing and expanding our knowledge. On the one hand, the attempt to bring people together to co-produce and expand local knowledges into the register of larger ecologies begins with the realization that knowledge itself is a terrain of struggle. The facilitation of local and global productions of knowledge is not a static phenomenon, nor are there any ‘neutral subjects.’ Our resources and capacity to engage in this struggle must necessarily be attuned to linkages, the strategic navigation around conceptual blockages, and the ability to recognize our own practical inertias. In this way, inquiries, discussions, and debates themselves become adversarial spaces of knowledge. This is as true within the space of our events as it is in the practice of daily encounters.
The most immediate outcome of the existence of our event-space is the ability to raise the level of engagement in our everyday lives. Equally important is the creation of an intellectual commons that resists identity: this commons based on intellect (and the ability to link this intellect to everyday life) does not exist as a set of different knowledges treated as equivalents. Nor are these differences passed through some higher identity, for example that they all constitute a commons, or ‘counter public sphere’ in some time and place. What is significant about this commons is that it is not subject to any ideological ordering. Here too, it is important to note that none who gather around this commons are subsumed by it. This commons expands at every point that limitations are posed. It swells through the multiplicity of people’s involvement and orientation to it, into the sphere of ‘common differences.’
Community, Whatever, Wherever, and However
While I stated at the outset that the organizing principles of Bluestockings tend to fall outside the oppositional logic of most protest-politics, we do situate ourselves in the context of struggle. The vitality, yet inherent disorder of larger social struggles as they relate to our coordinating efforts does not bifurcate neatly into discrete realms. Much of what Bluestockings facilitates, engenders or otherwise makes possible does remain in the (more) familiar register of oppositions, a terrain characterized most clearly as conflicts in power. But as we look toward the creation of autonomous experiences we find that we cannot simply reject antagonism in order to more fully explore our autonomous potential.
In order to push the problematic of antagonism versus autonomous self-creation, I would like to draw out two meanings of ‘community’ that take shape at Bluestockings. On one hand, we might position ‘community’ as simply the time and space that we gather ‘outside’ of work-time or labor-command. This community, by definition, aims to situate itself in many ways ‘outside’ the logic of capitalism. It is a space wherein people orient themselves around an inverted value-relation. Our encounters are not predicated solely upon commodity exchange (although who wouldn’t bring up the fact that books are commodities as well?), but more significantly, they are predicated on the social use-value of shared knowledge, a celebration of the printed word, and the circulation of the empowered imaginaries into a self-expanding commons. As Ben Holtzman, Craig Hughes and Kevin Van Meter remind us, “while this is not noncapitalist activity, since a commodity still does exist, it is a first step in the process of going beyond capital” (Holtzman, Hughes and Van Meter 2007: 45). More to the point are the relationships created through these encounters. We must be hesitant, however, to adopt too quickly the jubilee of the above realizations. Together, they can be far too congratulatory and, consequently, distracting.
If we follow the Italian autonomist analysis of the social factory, we must remember to constantly bring forward the notion of discipline and control as it permeates all facets of social life. There are two major points here. First, our community cannot pretend to exist apart from the larger capitalist relations or society that constantly threatens to further entrench and subsume our being. Remembering this merely makes clear the necessity of inscribing our autonomous spaces within the struggle against capital, the ‘refusal’ to be productive for capital while simultaneously being productive of ourselves. As Selma James states in her introduction to The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community, “once we see the community as a productive center and thus a center of subversion, the whole perspective for generalized struggle and revolutionary organization is re-opened” (Dalla Costa and James 1972: 17).
Second, this same community may work its politics not through confrontation or opposition but through elusion. Our community is formed in relation to desire (whatever you want) and not identity (the conditions of belonging). In this formation, we are freed from claims of belonging that are based on properties (being queer, being young, being fearless). What takes the place of identity is activity: the action, orientation, values and practices that emerge from encounters with others. The precursor is an ethics that is constantly opening up the space for perpetual transformation.
Given the necessary precursor, this community takes shape as an unrepresentable “multiple common place” (Agamben, 1993: 28). There is no substitute for this community, yet there is no singular uniqueness to it; it is not organized by way of individuals represented by it, just as it is only possible to refer to it but not wholly or adequately describe it (i.e. ‘capture’ its meaning). In this formation, the community has no identity but only potentiality, the ability to do something next.
This dynamic of “unrepresentability” raises the scale of antagonism. Here Giorgio Agamben’s discussion of community (what he calls the gathering of ‘singularities’) outside the limitations of individuality and (state) institutions is both useful and decisive:
These communities set out “an insurmountable disjunction” between themselves and the State organization, not as a “simple affirmation of the social in opposition to the State. [These communities] cannot form a societas because they do not possess any identity to vindicate nor any bond of belonging for which to seek recognition. In the final instance the State can recognize any claim for identity […] What the state cannot tolerate in any way, however, is that the singularities form a community without affirming an identity, that humans co-belong without any representable condition for belonging […] For the State, therefore, what is important is never the singularity as such, but only its inclusion in some identity, whatever-identity (but the possibility of the whatever itself being taken up without an identity is a threat the State cannot come to terms with). A being radically devoid of any representable identity would be absolutely irrelevant to the State. [This being] rejects all identity and every condition of belonging, [and is thus] the principal enemy of the State” (Agamben 1993: 86-87).
The political potential of this community is something that remains to be seen in the example of Bluestockings. However, wherever and whenever this community sheds its nebulous cloak and mobilizes as an identifiable entity, the context and power of this community will change; it is a question of composition and changing forms.
Interrupting the Myth of Neoliberalism
At every level, a different set of relations is taking the place of relations imposed by capitalism.
– Ben Holtzman, Craig Hughes and Kevin Van Meter
Outside the question of political composition, I think, resides a still lurking communal power, untouched yet plugged into the veins of all political life. This community has the power, by its very ontology, to interrupt the myth of neoliberalism. The myth attempts a mass erasure of solidarity with the simple image-illusion of the individual. We are told (seduced, bribed, coerced) to bypass communal forms and increasingly identify the market as the only resort for our needs, even though we find everywhere concrete examples of people’s self-activity.
At every level, capitalism attempts to re-supply and re-impose social relations based on control, exploitation and oppression. There is nothing inherent in the order of practice that transverses capitalism. There are no well-ordered levels to social struggle, such that the satisfactory completion of one level implies the advancement to the next. Struggle is rather a matter of constantly (re-)opening space for participation and co-articulation. The ephemerality of these spaces is not something to mourn, just as the ephemerality of dominant spaces make us no less vigilant.
Interrupting the myth means rejecting the inverted form in which our own commons are represented back to us. This is most obviously the commodity-form and the state-form, but is also the forms that comprise our real community. In this last sense, as in the previous, a universal identity calms all the activity that threatens its existence.
To return to the image of music that Todd Hamilton and Nate Holdren introduce (see above), we might say that our activities produce vibrations that resonate in broad frequencies and rich timbres across the register of our common life. These activities naturally have the ability to link and reverberate with those of others. Insofar as we make these frequencies audible, a common motif (if not song) emerges. But the inverted form of our songs that are too often returned to us is this myth of neoliberalism. It is characterized not by our collective sound-making, but by the individual silences that isolate each note. Our challenge is to hear the cry of all social struggles as different forms of our music, not by noting the gaps (which the state and capital seek to impose), but by searching out, note by note, that which constitutes the hidden repertoire of all these songs with no name.
We are able to engage in the production of a commons by continually opening, and keeping open, the conditions of its creation. If this creation remains mobile and open, perhaps it will endure. The capacity of these commons to reorder social life almost becomes a simple question of endurance. What new subjectivities and value-relations would arise from this community-form, whose only quality is that it is characterized by the constituent capacity to act to which members each contribute?
Spatializing Feminism, De-Neoliberalizing the Mind? 
…a world that is definable only in relational terms, a world traversed with intersecting lines of power and resistance, a world that can only be understood in terms of its destructive divisions of gender, color, class, sexuality, and nation…but also a world with powerful histories of resistance and revolution in daily life and as organized liberation movements.
– Chandra Talpade Mohanty
As a continuation and updating of our origins, Bluestockings remains an overwhelmingly women-run movement space. This is a substantial principle of our collective. Inheriting a failing ‘women’s bookstore’ compelled us to reinterpret the legacies of feminism anew. Indeed, as Chandra Mohanty reminds us, “many of the democratic practices and process-oriented aspects of feminism appear to be institutionalized into the decision-making processes of some of [the anti-globalization] movements” (Mohanty 2003: 250).
Our challenge has been to affirm a multiplicity of feminist perspectives that enables all of us to further our liberatory tendencies within the space of Bluestockings, as well as our daily lives. This question simultaneously exists as a process within the collective, a policy and orientation of how to manage the space, as well as a textual and curatorial project of how to follow the links being made by numerous thinkers and writers on the connections between feminism and broadly conceived social justices issues.
None of this is to say that feminism or feminist movement spaces such as Bluestockings are an accomplished fact. Our task is a process: as a fundamental challenge to patriarchy and the establishment/transvaluation of freer social relations, we continually organize, struggle, and resist the “micro-fascisms” that pervade all social spaces. Such micro-fascisms infuse the ordinary space of our daily interactions with a residue of despair and defeat and create a dynamic of explosive capacity. These microfascisms result because real dilemmas created by patriarchy have yet to be solved within our movements.
According to Osterweil (2007), the potentialities of anti-authoritarianism rooted in feminism must be matched with reality. She asks, “what does it mean to see yourself as part of a movement governed by feminist and minoritarian logics when in so many of the most visible spaces, the voices and languages of women continue to be less audible?” (Osterweil 2007: 22). It is our hope and contention that the affect of feminizing/queering-the-everyday pours vitality into a multiplicity of practices and modes of behavior that all, constituted together, increase our power (i.e., capacity to act). This, of course, is a working proposition. It must be verified and furthered in daily experience. Feminizing the everyday, which involves divesting oneself of patriarchical practices, does not alone eradicate the system of patriarchy, sexism and male domination. Oppressions are situational, structural and institutional but also coordinate power in quite diffuse ways. Thus we must view our struggles as enduring processes that are capable of recomposing in sustainable ways. In other words, we must conceive of struggle as something in which we can all participate in the space of our everyday lives.
It is important to root the above process in everyday experience in order to focus on the potentialities that emerge when we shift power relations on a micro-scale. Our ground is the basis for the many particularized analyses that inform, identify and re-imagine forms of collective practice that we enact in our many different communities. This is the red soil that fortifies our collective existence from the isolation and fear that neoliberalism intends to harvest in our minds. Mohanty reminds us of the intimate/integral relation between capital and our (though particularly women’s) lives and bodies. She recommends “it is by paying attention to and theorizing the experiences of these communities of women and girls that we demystify capitalism as a system of debilitating sexism and racism and envision anticapitalist resistance” (Mohanty 2003: 235). By engendering a feminist space, we are able to articulate the many ways forward from this debilitating and isolating neoliberalization of our headspace.
On the other hand, it is equally important to remain systematic and attuned to global processes that reproduce domination. Indeed, it is the relay between these registers of everyday and global that we must be careful to acknowledge and understand. Engendering a direct and lived space for feminist practices to experiment, confront challenges, and pose community solutions must appeal to a politics without representations. Equally, we must expand the scales from which we understand domination and force ourselves from “the micropolitics of context, subjectivity and struggle […to…] the macropolitics of global economic and political systems and processes” (Mohanty 2003: 223 and 225). In the process, we must not allow mediations to substitute equivalence for real differences, nor must we allow contradictions that exist in our global movements to simply pass along in some higher form or for some higher purpose. These questions cannot live in the apparatuses of representation because they are manifest – they rely on lived experience as the register for struggling against these dominations, everywhere and simultaneously.
What We See When Our Glass Illuminates this Fractured City
The ambitions of the many that participate in Bluestockings are not possible without reference to all sorts of similar approaches being experimented with everyday. We see our ‘local’ work as incomprehensible without a sense of the already existing cooperative efforts of building new networks across the country and the world. This situates the imperative for us to resist the comfort of celebrating the ‘local’ while shouting slogans about global injustices. It is not a matter of simply connecting the ‘local’ and the ‘global.’ Indeed, we have seen this exercise become fraught with traps.
Accordingly, we do not simply orient ourselves in local, national and global registers, as if to create a spatial balance sheet of politics and place. This would be, I think, to surrender to the vortex of neoliberalism, which attempts to create and manage socio-spatial divides. Rather we try to retain a fluid and relational sense of space, by mapping the question of ‘local,’ ‘national’ and ‘global’ space in more than just absolute terms.
Thus, we try to understand our project in the context of our neighborhood as well as in the context of New York as a neoliberal city. This is intimately tied to the issues of geographic scale just mentioned. Here, the perspective is to understand neoliberalism not simply as a general system of coordination that structures power relations and remakes urban space in an attempt to enervate working class composition. Rather the task is to look much more carefully at “actually-existing neoliberalism” (Brenner and Theodore 2002). Here we see many struggles situated against specific threats to daily life in the city, each organizing under different logics and coordinating principles. The fragmented nature of the city is such that these struggles do not clearly link up with others. This is partially because different communities experience the social effects of neoliberal strategy differently, but also because differences in organizing models and a strict adherence to identity- and issue-based analysis trumps the propensity to circulate struggles – to find commonalities that properly understand and illuminate differences.
We have yet to learn how to properly see through the glass lens that is Bluestockings in order to rise to the challenge of understanding “actually existing neoliberalism” as it affects communities in struggle across the city and the globe. Addressing this problem necessarily starts with the ability to understand the many social struggles that exist today and to inquire how the knowledges produced in these struggles can circulate into larger spheres. We recognize that we are not alone in this challenge but that we share this urgency with the many communities that are struggling for social justice in the city.
Nevertheless, we have much more to realize about the capacity of our lens and the need for innovation alongside the emergence of newer struggles. We do not feel alone, however, nor do we feel as fragile as a history made of glass suggests. Around us in this fragmented city, on a daily basis, there are countless other shards that are continually constituting themselves and their ability to see each other. These are already the conditions of possibility for focusing our intensities into a spark, setting off the next cycle of fires in this city.
A Conclusion with Questions
I found the safest place to keep all our tenderness…keep all those bad ideas, keep all our hope. It’s here in the smallest bones; the feet and the inner ear. It’s such an enormous thing to walk and to listen.
– John K. Samson
The state-apparatus also produces its own whirlwinds. We are sucked into them on a daily basis. But in an exploration of our whirlwinds, I have tried to suggest another rotational force that we should be eager to acknowledge: the rotating ground of everyday life. While we must admit that this ground of everyday life is overwhelmingly the constructed space of capture and control, this only clarifies the relationship between autonomous movements and the context of apparatuses of state and capital. Thus, in the space of a day, this ground alternatively illuminates and darkens our lives.
I like to imagine the vast organizing energy that surrounds Bluestockings as magnifying the sunlight just beyond the shadow. This shadow, ever expanding and contracting, has a long history – much longer than our time as a project. In its current composition, the shadow can be viewed as the inheritance and increasing reaction of the politics of domination and oppression effectively organized under the concept of ‘the society of control.’ We simultaneously produce ourselves and wage battles against this shadow every day and night. But since these battles are grounded in the spatial ordering of social life, we must be ready to defend not only the idea of space, but also the many ideas that arise from our social recoding of space. This is an inseparable component to our self-activity – both for our ambitions to embody a new daily life, and for our aspirations for new subjectivities to arise in and through the experimentation of new social encounters, values, and modes of behavior.
As a microscopic inquiry, my discussion lacks the conceptual power to clarify many of the instances and urgencies that arise as our movements struggle to recompose themselves. Instead, the above has merely been an attempt to introduce into a narrative of Bluestockings what Maria Mies previously called ‘struggle concepts,’ derived from experiences of struggle as well as reflection of those experiences. For Mies, these are “not based on theoretical definitions worked out by an ideological mastermind of the movement” but are fundamentally have and “open character” (Mies 1986: 36). The resources that these ‘struggle concepts’ offer are limitless because they borrow from experiences, hopes, daily lives and possibilities that walk in all directions.
Finding useful registers within which to explore what we’ve learned from recent cycles of struggle is the united work of all of our experiences. The questions that should be asked: What struggle concepts may emerge that can guide our movements forward? What line of inquiry allows the greatest space possible for the apprehension of confluences (not equivalences) in our whirlwind of activity? The answers lie in our ability to see how various activities derive from both common and disparate conditions. Perhaps our challenge is to learn how to see difference when searching for commonalities, and to see commonalities when searching for difference.
1 As Subcommandante Marcos originally wrote in August of 1992, “The storm is here. From the clash of these two winds the storm will be born, its time has arrived. Now the wind from above rules, but the wind from below is coming…”
2 It seemed to have risen suddenly in 1999 in Seattle only to be felled by the twin shocks of brutal repression in Genoa in 2001 and the onslaught of an intensified repressive response to our movements after the fall of the World Trade Center buildings just a few months later.
3 Deleuze and Guattari’s words to describe the war machine as it intersects the work relation are illuminating. The model juxtaposes free action (what they call “war”) with work, which lives analogously with their distinction between weapon and tool: “doubtless the State apparatus tends to bring uniformity to the regimes, by disciplining its armies, by making work a fundamental unit, in other words, by imposing its own traits. But it is not impossible for weapons and tools, if they are taken up by new assemblages of metamorphosis, to enter other relations of alliance.” The concept brings together the worker and the ‘warrior’ of the war machine, “the shared line of flight of the weapon and the tool: a pure possibility, a mutation.” Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: 402
4 This community-being “is not…either an essence or an existence but a manner of rising forth; not a being that is in this or that mode, but a being that is its mode of being, and thus, while remaining singular and not indifferent, is multiple and valid for all.” Giorgio Agamben, The Coming Community (Minneapolis and London, University of Minnesota Press, 1993: 28)
5 See Anita Lacey’s “Forging Spaces of Liberty” in Constituent Imaginations for more on the creation of space that links patriarchy and neoliberalism, especially in the direct-action, temporary contexts of the anti-globalization movement in which she writes.
Agamben, Giorgio. 1993. The Coming Community. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
Brenner, Neil and Nik Theodore. 2002. “Cities and the geographies of ‘actually existing neoliberalism’.” Antipode, 34, 3: 356-386.
Colectivo Situaciones. 2003. “On the Researcher-Militant.” Translated by Sebastian Touza. Transform.[link]
Dalla Costa, Mariarosa and Selma James. 1972. The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community. Brighton, UK: Falling Walls Press.
Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari. 1987. A Thousand Plateaus. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
Hamilton, Todd and Nate Holden. 2007. “Compositional Power” Turbulence: Ideas for Movement, June 2007: 20-21.
Holtzman, Ben, Craig Hughes and Kevin Van Meter. 2007. “Do It Yourself…and the Movement Beyond Capitalism.” Pp. 44-61 in Constituent Imaginations: Militant Investigations, Collective Theorization. Edited by Stevphen Shukaitis and David Graeber with Erika Biddle. Oakland, CA: AK Press.
Mies, Maria. 1986. Patriarchies and Accumulation on a World Scale: Women in the International Division of Labor. London, UK: Zed Books.
Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. 2003. Feminism Without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity. Durham, NC: Duke University.
Osterweil, Michal and Graeme Chesters. 2007. “Global Uprisings: Towards a Politics of the Artisan.” Pp. 253-262 in Constituent Imaginations: Militant Investigations, Collective Theorization. Edited by Stevphen Shukaitis and David Graeber with Erika Biddle. Oakland, CA: AK Press.
Osterweil, Michal. 2007. “Becoming-Woman: In Theory or in Practice?” Turbulence: Ideas for Movement, June 2007: 22-23.