In an increasingly neoliberalized literary market, “surface” readings constitute today’s most prevalent form of cultural criticism within and beyond the academy. In pop as well as literary culture, amid critical dispositifs of disinterest and “zaniness”—described by Sianne Ngai as an aesthetic of laboring and playing under the new “connexionist” spirit of capitalism—the pressure to trade in nuanced perspectives for shallow punditry or personal diatribes subtends what Avital Ronnell calls our “default of the political.”
For writer Anne Elizabeth Moore, the evasion of national and global crises, in order to maintain the status quo through unexamined obsequies or the revalorization of the private sphere, is a problem for all capitalist subjects, particularly for those seeking to find voice and form for radical critiques: “Nestled within these difficulties is a particular (although not exclusive) challenge to the female of the species, relegated to a gender role rewarded for silence and prized when emotional…. As a culture we value niceness, particularly in women, even at the expense of truth.”
I caught up with Moore to discuss her current multi-media installation for the School of the Art Institute’s “Opening the Black Box: The Charge is Torture” exhibition (70 collected works of witness memorializing more than 100 reported cases of torture by Chicago Police from 1972 to 1991); her current and upcoming projects; and her post-election response to questions concerning U.S. free trade laws, labor politics and censorship in a neoliberal market.
Virginia Konchan: In your election-day speech on the 19th amendment at the Defibrillator Gallery in Chicago, you argued that merely participating in patriarchal institutions isn’t necessarily an actual gain, if those systems don’t represent through a governing body or in the private interests they serve, the needs of women for safety, civil rights and economic development. What are some guerilla tactics for women to change the system (or, ourselves, as you suggested), from within?
Anne Elizabeth Moore: That election-day piece will be published in a book on inauguration day, but if you can’t wait I do have an audio version of it here.
I personally don’t advocate change from within a system which has thoroughly disempowered us—or, for that matter, any system that thoroughly disempowers as a matter of course. There are tons of people who do and that’s great. I totally see the value of having more women in congress, more female politicians, more politicians of color and the general diversification of all institutions, organizations, systems and neighborhoods. But what we lose in that debate is the reminder that legislation is not the only way to achieve change. Going out and making the change happen on your own is one slightly more effective way of spending your change-making efforts, especially when everything else has stalled out. That election-day piece is an update of an Emma Goldman essay and what she argues, which I think still holds true, is that the big challenge is convincing women to see this, to not be beholden to a system that relies on their continued oppression. So “guerilla tactics,” which has this totally dirty, underground sense to it. . . it’s not about acting beyond the law necessarily. But about doing what you believe to be right in the world. I don’t think that takes tactics. I think for most people it just takes a little silence and self-trust—maybe a bit of education or experience, too.
VK: We live in the age of media’s seeming democratization (blog culture, citizen journalism); the means for self-publishing or publishing with independent presses and magazines abound. Is controlling the means of production everything, do you think, or only half the battle? In other words, does content suffer from the commodification of intellectual capital for the marketplace, and is the relationship between reader and writer compromised by media’s digitization?
AEM: We don’t control the means of production of everything, and we don’t know what it would be like if we did. Publishing has always been limited by economic class, first and foremost, and by gender and education, secondarily. So keeping in mind that we are already dealing with a limited field of a potential range of cultural output, which itself necessarily limits the potential for new and exciting directions for future content, we also note that content is right now also being held back by that value system I mentioned earlier—the one that prizes financial reward over, say, intellectual achievement, thoughtfulness or integrity. You can see it in fiction, in nonfiction, in visual work, in film. Take journalism, for example. I mean, most of what passes for it these days is literally an ad. On top of what that’s doing to us as humans, my real problem isn’t with the ethical shift. My real problem is that I am totally bored by it. So I don’t know necessarily that readers and writers’ relationships are changing. Some are, some aren’t (I had this conversation with Mary Gaitskill the other day about Twitter. She was like, “That sounds really stupid”). And I know that as a writer I am unchallenged. Although I really like Twitter.
VK: Social media and cyberactivism played a key role in drawing awareness to recent revolutions (from the Zapatista National Liberation Army to the Occupy movements). What is the next step after cyberactivism (on the level of policy reform or law?)
AEM: It’s popular to claim all these miraculous attributes for social media, as it is for all new products when they appear on the market, but using social media is not cyberactivism, and it’s definitely not activism. Making use of a tool in the manner for which it was designed to be used is just not activism. It’s communication, and that’s great, and important, but “raising awareness” is the lamest kind of armchair policy advocacy at best, which is about 80 steps short of change-making. It’s totally great that people are educating themselves and each other about issues and events, especially as these unfold. But until that translates into shifts in behavior, whether legislated or not, it’s just not going to matter. Anyway—when did that kind of behavior go from being considered “preaching to the converted” to being “cyberactivism”? Maybe the way we talk and think about social media is changing, but its effect on us isn’t. Definitely, our standards are slipping.
I think we can actually see this in the Rolling Jubilee fallout. Rolling Jubilee, the Strike Debt project of Occupy Wall Street, is this interesting but very flawed response to the debt crisis. Some really smart writers, including Doug Henwood and Yves Smith, have done great investigative work about the larger problems that this supposed solution actually creates. Here I still think the action might be worth the critical response, because we are giving debt a common lexicon: but there may well be some people seriously screwed over as a result of this OWS well-intentioned action, so I hesitate to say for sure.
And that’s kind of what I mean: we’re really willing to retweet the first message that comes across our screens, not even thinking through the action behind it. Yves Smith made some excellent points in his essay on—again, not even policy reform, but holding people to existing laws—as a way of undoing this damage. You know? Let’s do that.
VK: Was the black box in your recent installation at the School of the Art Institute your proposed means for a prisoner or detainee to disclose incidents of torture during interrogations?
AEM: Actually, the mailbox is for fellow officers to report wrong-doings, and the plaque above it simply restates the Law Enforcement Oath of Honor they each took when becoming police officers. I think prisoners of torture already have enough going on in their lives and shouldn’t be responsible for repeatedly reporting their own abuses. They should be able to file a complaint, and an investigation should occur. Our charge as a society is not to burden the oppressed with further potential for oppression, especially when it’s become so abundantly clear that most systems are set up to ignore prisoners’ needs. The officers and detectives working under Jon Burge knew—hundreds of them. They were duty-bound to come forward, and only one did, 18 years later. My piece “Rest Area” is about holding the police force responsible for its own misdoings, which is exactly what they agreed to do when taking on the duty in the first place.
I generally find that new laws and policies aren’t necessary to address most of the crap that goes down in the world these days, but holding people to the laws and policies that already exist means doing two things that don’t happen very often: 1) people need to be already aware or made aware of current agreements and legislation and 2) the wrong-doers need to be held to these. Right now, ego and exceptionalism are, I believe, behind all of the most egregious violations of our social contract and laws. And it’s going to take a lot more to undo those than passing a new law that says “by the way, laws apply to everyone, including people who think they don’t.” It’s going to take education, introspection, reflection, time, and a culture that values facts over loudness, authority, and repetition.
VK: What kept the victims of torture (facing everything from mock executions to cattle prods) from communicating what was happening: fear of further retaliation? The black box suggests that anonymity would encourage more victims to speak out, if they knew they were being heard. Did some of the victims of torture by the Chicago police attempt to speak out, and to whom?
AEM: Well, the point is that they weren’t all kept from communicating what was happening. People just weren’t listening to those who were speaking out. That kind of silencing is very, very toxic. I’ve been writing about it in relation to Cambodia for years. When victims speak up about abuses, but their voice is silenced with extreme and excessive violence, guess what? Other people stop talking. That not only means that the original torture and abuse often continues, but silence becomes a learned behavior. Already we’ve seen other varieties of self-silencing on the south side of Chicago, because there has been no justice around this issue. In Cambodia, the silencing that happened around the Khmer Rouge continues to this day, almost forty years on—as does the resultant, unavoidable trauma. Don’t think for a second that over a hundred black folks tortured in a small area of a single city won’t have as strong and as lasting an effect. (And, you know, don’t think that the history of segregation and racial violence and racism here didn’t help foster a situation in which John Burge could go as nuts as he wanted, seemingly with full support of the entire city.)
VK: The memorials are, as the project statement says, “proposals for speculative ways to memorialize the torture cases.” This double hypothetical confused me. Are there plans for implementing these projects (e.g. the Virtual Chicago Torture Justice Memorial), or is the larger point that restitution remains, in the legal system, insufficient and only speculative?
AEM: Hmm, it is a confusing sentence—and an extremely confusing notion. The project as I interpret it is to create public recognition around the particular set of police torture cases initiated by John Burge. I don’t believe there’s any plan in place to implement these exhibitions beyond the current gallery set-up, but I’ve been asking about that too. On one hand, it would be great if these pieces (all of them, or several of them) were placed in various spaces around the city, to widen awareness of the problem and artfully present responses to it. It would be great if the city itself would acknowledge its wrongdoings and not only fund this, but begin making restitutions to the torture victims and their families in the first place. On the other hand, regarding my piece in particular, I would be really sad if the city acknowledged that no current mechanism exists for the humanizing of police officers except to install mailboxes and plaques in bathrooms at the detective areas where folks could very secretly reveal wrongdoings they had witnessed. My piece is a nice conceptual response to a lot of different kind of wrongs currently embedded in a totally fucked system, but a more thorough overhaul of how officers behave and who allows for it and why would be a far more effective real-world solution.
VK: In considering the many cases of women publically beaten and killed during the Arab Spring uprisings (by police, as well as the public), and the continued human rights violations that occur in the Middle East and globally (genital mutilation, “honor” killings, public stoning of women), and most particularly in times of political instability (rape camps, or, for example, the sexual violence directed at female earthquake survivors living in Haitian tent cities), what do you think needs to be done on the level of foreign intervention (of course Egypt is a member-state of the U.N.)?
AEM: Here in the U.S., women are abused publicly as well, sometimes beaten or killed, sometimes sexually assaulted—by police as well as the public. The problem is not on the same scale as in Egypt, but it is the same problem. So the logic of U.S.-backed foreign intervention, whether military or via the U.N., totally eludes me. U.N. peacekeepers have their own history of sexual assault, keep in mind. It will never be a good idea to send an abuser in to respond to abuse, whether on an individual level or a national level. So what I advocate in such situations, always, is that we get some reliable studies of women’s rights organizations doing gender justice work on the ground, ask them what they need in terms of support, and then give it to them. Anything beyond that is more or less colonialist and wrong-headed.
VK: You are the author of Unmarketable: Brandalism, Copyfighting, Mocketing and the Erosion of Integrity; Hey Kidz, Buy This Book: A Radical Primer on Corporate and Governmental Propaganda and Artistic Activism for Short People; and Cambodian Grrrl: Self-Publishing in Phnom Penh. All these books fight back against corporate and governmental censorship. In Cambodian Grrrl you describe your self-publishing course taught to 32 girls in Phnom Penh, shortly after the final press run of your indie magazine of 13 years, Punk Planet. In interviews you have noted the neoliberal free market’s alliance with corporate ideology and in Unmarketable, DIY projects’ and alternative media outlets’ co-optation by capitalism, or our internalization of the capitalist to create what John Seabrook calls “the marketer within.” With Obama in office for the next four years, what are some effective strategies—local, national or global—of resistance for “underground” movements, feminisms, and hybrid/fringe identities? How can these avoid being reinscribed by wage-labor capitalism, cyborg culture, and media-generated consumer desire? Is there, in your opinion, an “inside” or “beyond” to capital?
AEM: Ah, well, there’s also The Manifesti of Radical Literature (and the comics), but it’s true that strategizing against silencing and self-silencing under governmental, corporate, and other pressures is “my beat.” Neoliberalism values certain things and devalues others; that’s our political economy at this moment, and Obama may have been the lesser of two evils in terms of how quickly this value system gets legislated, but he’s not going to dismantle it—even if it unjustly discriminates against women (technically 51% of the U.S. population, although 57% of the folks living in poverty). And don’t even get me started on how thoroughly neoliberalism discriminates against folks who do not place themselves on a gender binary, or how race fits into that matrix. (All of this being what my Truthout column Ladydrawers looks at.) Take drones, for example: the Facebook of warfare. We’re really beyond a point where traditional notions of “anti-capitalist resistance” are going to do anything about drones. So this particularly pernicious form of late-stage capitalism we find ourselves in right now, that strives always for austerity and privatization while freeing only market oversight…it’s a little beyond questions of capital. These are questions of human survival. A friend just called after he’d assigned Unmarketable to his college students. They had no idea what was being lost in the race for market dominance. But what’s being lost is a fundamental respect for people, for ourselves. And we don’t have much ground to lose there anymore.
I mean, I get asked this question a lot: what are the solutions? What are the upbeat answers to all these yucky problems? And, you know what? Those are questions totally fueled by capitalism, by a logic that demands that if we point out a problem we must fix the machine so production can continue. But there aren’t flaws in the machine. This is what the machine does. I think it’s enough at this point to all get on the same page about that. As far as what comes next, I don’t know, and I don’t think any of us will for a long, long time.
VK: In your 2012 Truthout article about the 3,000 mass faintings, during the previous year, at Phnom Penh garment factories (supplying goods to Puma, Gap, H&M, and American Eagle Outfitters stores), you note the failed 2010 union strikes in Phnom Penh (followed by rounds of illegal firings), and state that until U.S. consumers are willing to “double what they pay for cheap fashion,” this system of exploited labor will continue. Of course that system might even worsen. In May 2012 the U.S.-Columbia Free Trade Agreement was approved, making 80% of U.S. consumer and industrial exports (and more than 50% of U.S. agricultural commodities exports) to Colombia duty-free. Obama supported this and other deregulated free-trade agreements, and pledged an increase of $130 million U.S. funds to Columbia to “bolster security” and hunt down narco-traffickers and gangs in the region. Bill Clinton’s 1997 Apparel Industry Partnership initiative aside, what kinds of citizen action can be done to protest wretched labor conditions in the U.S. and elsewhere? Do you think selective purchasing agreements (e.g. those instituted in Berkeley and Cambridge, boycotting companies or corporations producing goods in Burma) or ethical investment drives are effective at the local level? Or does change need to come from putting pressure on Obama to impose sanctions on companies with sweatshop compounds that commit human labor violations in Nigeria, Indonesia, Cambodia, China and the Philippines?
AEM: Hmm, that’s a good question, and it’s going to take a lot of strategizing. Obama was in Cambodia yesterday and, thanks to some amazing on-the-ground activists, he spoke out against some human rights abuses the prime minister, Hun Sen, has been committing. But that’s a pretty weird moment; if you think about it, there are a ton of human-rights abuses that go on in garment factories every day that Obama didn’t even need to travel to Cambodia to fix. He could easily just say, “Yo. H&M, Inditex, the Gap, and Nike: let’s get you on a timeline to pay a living wage wherever you manufacture, or we’ll have to start holding you responsible for the human rights abuses that occur on the floors of the factories that make your clothes. We’ll start charging you a massive human-rights-abuse import tax I just drew up BECAUSE I AM THE PRESIDENT OF THE U.N.ITED STATES.” Then, you know, we’re so close to the election everyone would just cheer and go out and voluntarily pay double for all their clothes for the week.
You know what I’m saying? Like the way we’re even defining human-rights abuses here is crazy. Obviously our national sense of self-worth is overblown (American exceptionalism, again) if we think we deserve $7 dresses made by folks who are earning a fraction of that per day, around the world.
But it’s a mistake to pretend that only people who make money are capitalists, of course. The real problem of capitalism is that we’re all involved, whether we like it or not, whether it benefits us or not in any imaginable way.
In terms of changing the discussion, we have seen some great success from a performance based on the faintings called FEINT I did with some folks downtown last year. Those have now proliferated around the country through an activist organization called the Clean Clothes Campaign, and H&M, the world’s second-largest clothing company, is now responding to some of the problems this organization has raised. But people remain desperate to find a way to get out of paying more for stuff, because getting something cheap makes us feel special. Maybe the real trick is finding a less damaging way to feel special.
VK: You were raised on the Rosebud Indian Reservation (Sioux) in South Dakota and have worked on the Cheyenne River Reservation. What do you see as the most significant challenges facing indigenous communities today, and what did your work there entail?
AEM: So these are both Lakota reservations. So my experience living in indigenous communities in the U.S. is fairly limited. But Lakota women are stalked and sexually assaulted at rates much higher than the national average for women. They have a harder time in school, suffer from greater self-esteem issues. It’s unbelievable, when you see it all together, even if you walk around with this received knowledge that, yes, these are the survivors of long-standing genocidal policies put in place by the U.S. government. And, it’s not just women: last spring a blind tribal elder checked into the hospital with chest pains, and when he got out, he found KKK symbols had been carved into his chest by the non-Lakota hospital staff. So it’s not even that these policies have fallen out of disuse. They’ve just, like everything else, become privatized. I was last there over a decade ago, running a camp for at-risk youth in some of the harshest conditions of poverty I’ve ever seen in the world, and I’ve been hoping to get some funding to return this summer to do my Adventure School for Ladies project there, but I’m not sure that funding will come through. If it doesn’t, we’ll put it off until next year—at which point a bunch of radical gender-minded queer folks will spend some time on the reservation, thinking through questions of social justice and translating them into cultural products or studies. Adventure School is really hard, and really frustrating, and more work than you can imagine, but pretty much the most fun ever.
VK: New projects on the horizon?
AEM: New Girl Law, the follow-up to Cambodian Grrrl, should be out in the spring. Ladydrawers has been invited to do some cool stuff coming up, so keep an eye on the blog for details. And a couple journalism projects. A lot of stuff, actually! So the cats are not going to be very happy with me.
Writer and activist Anne Elizabeth Moore is a Fulbright scholar, U.N. Press Fellow, Truthout columnist behind “Ladydrawers: Gender and Comics in the U.S.,” and the author of five books, most recently Hip Hop Apsara: Ghosts Past and Present, a lyrical essay discussing Cambodia’s recent economic development. Moore writes and lectures on independent media, globalization, and women’s labor issues.