"Self and Determination: An Inward Look at Collective Liberation" -- A Conversation with Joshua Stephens

"Self and Determination: An Inward Look at Collective Liberation" -- A Conversation with Joshua Stephens

Books for Thought -- Photo By: Joshua Stephens
Books for Thought -- Photo By: Joshua Stephens

This story comes in two parts.

The first is a presentation (audio format) with activist and writer Joshua Stephens, at The London Action Resource Center. This is one of two talks that Stephens gave this year, while traveling abroad. They focus on the intersections between Buddha's teachings and anarchist politics. The talks are titled: "Self and Determination: An Inward Look at Collection Liberation".

In the second part, Stephens is interviewed by Indyreader. The questions are inspired from his recorded presentation.

In both segments, Stephens looks past many of our basic ruminations on these two areas of thought/guides towards action. Drawing on personal reflections and experiences, he discusses the friction between the Dhamma (Buddha's teachings, which Stephens translates as "the science of the real") and anti-authoritarian/anarchist politics, as well as how those frictions can mend and collaborate.

As radical activists, we ever endeavor for better worlds. In similar ways that feminists have expounded the notion of the "Personal is Political", Stephens connects the external and the internal as inextricably woven. We cannot change one without changing the other. In "practices of the self" we commit radical acts.

We hope you will enjoy the many depths in these two conversations.

-Corey Reidy, for The Baltimore Indypendent Reader


Indyreader (IR): The audio featured here is from a series of talks you gave in the UK, this summer, entitled "Self and Determination: An Inward Look at Collective Liberation". Where did they take place, and what was the intended purpose?

Joshua Stephens (JS): Basically, Jamie Heckert -- who is a fantastic thinker and human being, whose work you might've seen; he did the "Gender" piece of the IAS Lexicon pamphlet series -- invited me to the UK while I was overseas this past Spring, and wanted to set up talks for me, there. I think he’s felt like he’s learned a lot from putting his yoga practice in conversation with anarchist politics, and he and I had talked a bit about my use of the Buddha’s teachings in the same way. The first event was at the London Action Resource Center, and the second was upstairs from a pub in Lancaster (in the northwest of England). Both were, in my view, pretty fabulous, and that was largely down to the people who showed up. They came prepared to get into some really challenging territory with each other. It was humbling as hell, actually.

The impetus for really diving into these themes in a dedicated way was, frankly, the Occupy movement. I'd been thinking about and having informal conversations with peers about them, for a number of years. But, you know, those of us who were doing consensus-driven, direct action organizing a decade or so ago, in the wake of the Seattle uprising... We were doing that within a framework that entailed a discreet temporality. A three-day summit, or week-long political convention. If we found someone difficult, or obstructive, or whatever -- we could just hold our breath and power through it, you know? We could compartmentalize what we were doing, and suspend our anxieties with the knowledge that, on the back end, we didn't have to deal with particular people again, or even entertain particular problems.

And outside of that context, I think anarchist milieus have often tended toward purging difficulty, complexity, or open questions. A whole language has evolved through which we give ourselves permission to retreat into more ideologically pure groups or comfort zones, or dispense with what is difficult. To the extent that we all drink from the same proverbial wells, ideologically, and are thus subject to all the same discourses and would-be pathogens floating about, this stuff becomes so ubiquitous that we don’t give it much thought. But it’s nonetheless unique to our adopted practices. About ten years ago, I decided to do a bit of detox, and I dedicated a year to reading nothing but writing from the movements that gave rise to works like This Bridge Called My Back. Folks like Audre Lorde, Gloria Anzaldua, Cherie Moraga. The first thing I was struck by was how the most gritty, physical – and even mundane -- day to day experience was politicized for them. You see it most dramatically, perhaps, in things like their refusal of the lesbian separatism that gained popularity in the 70’s, in white, second-wave feminist circles. They looked at that and said “It’s not as simple as indicting patriarchy, and then washing your hands of particular people. The men in our lives are being jailed, killed, and exterminated on a daily basis. Abandoning them is not a politically palatable option.” Reading something like that, there’s a level at which you kinda go, “Of course that’s true! How the fuck could anyone miss that?!” – but we miss shit like that all the time, largely because we’ve dispensed with curiosity, caught up in any number of stories we’ve cobbled together into some notion of certainty.

That’s not really tenable in the contemporary moment, I don't think. I don’t think it ever was, but we could get away with it, before. We're in the midst of an open-ended struggle, unfolding day to day. There is no point at which we get to slide down the back of the dinosaur and call it a day. Whatever selves people bring to movement-building – those are effectively part of the ecosystem, as it were. They contribute to and determine the overall ecology, and we don't have the luxury of ignoring them. Further, we're seeing the very mass movements we've pined for and romanticized. And we're finding that they're not quite as romantic as we'd maybe thought. Capitalism and domination have produced extraordinarily broken people; people deprived of adequate education or even nurturing human contact; people traumatized by oppression, or just worn threadbare by the slow erosion of possibility or disproportionate loss; people whose mental health has been neglected. Really, we're coming face to face with the fact that we're fragile. We break. We've happily deployed these effects of capitalism as a discursive indictment of the status quo, but I think we've largely avoided thinking about it as our status. Therein, impulses and inclinations that might strike us as utterly apolitical are often of profound political consequence, and can even be the levers by which powerful institutions derail resistance.

I wanted to encourage people to reconsider practices of the self as more than some shitty, individualizing navel-gazing. I wanted to suggest that they are an act of refusal.

IR: What is the meaning behind the title?

JS: It’s basically… well, the first part of it anyway, is from a book I'm working on. Obviously, I’m playing with the language of self-determination, which oddly tends to have keenly collective connotations -- national liberation, anti-colonial struggle, etc. There's a way of reading that association that nicely problematizes the notion of self, actually. Todd May wrote a great introduction to the work of Gilles Deleuze where he takes the reader through the various themes Deleuze explored, by way of the question "How might one live?" -- and he makes clear that "one" can be any body from a cell all the way on up. If we can understand a community or other collective body as a "self", we're necessarily conceiving of it as an assemblage of constituent parts, all of which are born, will die, and undergo considerable transformation in-between. It's a vignette of impermanence and anti-essentialism -- two of the three conditions the Buddha articulated as common to all things, actually. Similarly, I wanted to play with the multiple uses of "determination" -- its reference to the ability to determine or decide, as well as its reference to will, discipline, and embodied practice.

IR: The description of your politicization seems to have first come from punk rock, then via studying Eastern religions, and later to embracing anti-authoritarian and anarchist politics. You describe this as starting with the internal first and then finding the external; and that this is unusual for how people normally become politicized. Can you explain what you mean by that?

JS: Well, first, I have no idea whether any particular trend abides in how politicization tends to unfold for people. But observing my own peers, and trends I've encountered in political movements broadly, it seems to be the case that people -- especially in our younger years -- feel more dextrous with things perceived at some distance; things we can reduce to abstractions. They're more stable, more predictable, less complicated under that gaze. When we look at ourselves, the complexity we allow for and observe is such that it can overwhelm and intimidate us, really. So, we kick that monster back under the bed, and resume smashing the state or whatever. We distinguish these spheres with such intensity that they appear subject to two entirely different regimes of logic.  It shouldn't shock us, at all, that people whose lives are policed by institutionalized oppression and violence individualize and internalize that. Thanks to things like feminist consciousness-raising groups and other illustrations of the collective experience of these things, we can now recognize and see our way through the stories we're taught to tell ourselves about oppression. But the internal/external distinction generally is no less a story.

IR: You frequently reference the “politics of mindfulness”.  Also, in referencing Michel Foucault’s analysis of power, you speak on how we can radically approach present power constructs via these politics. Can you describe a bit more on what you mean by that term and the importance of its practice?

JS: I actually really dislike the word mindfulness, and I don't entirely know why. My best guess is that it feels overused, and lacks potency or specificity, and I worry that it gives liberal westerners in the convert community (as it were) a pass to believe that what they're doing in meditation practice is safe, unthreatening, ease-inducing, or whatever. It's not. It never was. I forget which teacher it was -- I think it was a monk from the Thai Forest Tradition -- said that if your meditation practice hasn't caused you to break down in tears, you haven't begun the real work. I would take that a step further and say that if practicing hasn't irrevocably problematized capitalism and domination for you, then you need to reconsider what it is you're doing on the cushion.

And that's where I think Foucault -- particularly his College de France lectures -- becomes useful. What he did best was illustrate how the exercise of power was, by various means, de-politicized; how things we experience as benign, or even things we don't notice, at all, shape us deeply -- with aggregate consequence. You have cognitive psychologists like Charles Fernyhough arguing that, prior to the acquisition of language, we don't actually think in any way we'd recognize conventionally. And yet language is something we acquire entirely from other people; from external sources. We literally learn it by mimicking other people's utterances. How could that possibly be neutral? Just the grammar of English allows certain meanings and disallows others. That has an immeasurable effect on how we meet the world. I understood the political weight immediately, when a meditation teacher told me "If you're not aware that you're having thoughts, you might be inclined to believe them."

Entire fields of study are devoted to how the suspension of democracy and civil rights we see in times of war -- unending, global war contemporarily -- is reducible to the construction of an utterance; one that strips politics from how we're policed, our freedom of movement, our freedom from state intervention, etc. All of this because we stumbled upon particular language for culling meaning from our sensory experience, and that language told a story about an ongoing existential threat, and mobilized particular, intense emotional responses we have to that, even where we have no way of directly experiencing or verifying its existence. It sort of evokes the opening passages of Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine, where she's quoting Milton Friedman saying that the course history takes in moments of crisis is largely a matter of the ideas laying around when the shit hits the fan. Mindfulness is the quiet refusal of passivity in that. It's a dedicated practice of recognizing that forces are acting on and speaking through us in any given moment, and that we can decide for ourselves whether we're getting on that ride. It is self-determination in the most literal sense, and it is profoundly threatening.

IR: Why do you think so many radicals/ anarchists hold stigma against practices that embody and surround the idea of self-care? Do you believe there is downfall in this stigma? If so, why and how so?

JS: I think it's actually pretty clear why that stigma exists. Loathe as we might be to admit it, we are total closet cases when it comes to this country's founding mythology of rugged individualism and the indomitable will of the universal subject of history. When was the last time you heard of an anarchist group developing a metric for failure in a given project, campaign, or what have you? We don't need to establish what failure might look like (even subjectively) because we don't fail. It's always just a matter of pushing harder, or thinking something through "correctly", in our view. So, while it's taboo to dismiss self-care, and no one's likely to contest its necessity, inhabiting the practice itself constitutes an acknowledgement that we are, in fact, subject to limits. That's huge. Cognitive dissonance around that is not any kind of big shocker, you know?

That said, I wonder if our whole discourse around self-care isn't wrong-headed. We treat it like this episodic application of some parallel-device. As though the computer can function just fine without it, between backups. The implication seems to be: Carry on going through these motions, whether or not they are productive of anything liberatory. Just make sure to do some yoga, or something, so as not to burn out." That strikes me as the logic of someone utterly in denial, and it rather plainly compartmentalizes a more attentive relationship with our internal lives, that precludes disrupting any other aspect of how we live. I forget where I heard or read it, but I'm generally more convinced by the suggestion that, when we get up off the cushion, we're not ending the meditation -- we're just changing positions.

IR: When you became immersed in anarchist politics, you said that you drifted away from Buddhism. Why do you think that is?

JS: I mean, I was 19 when I encountered anarchism, you know? I fell in love with the Buddha's teachings while living abroad, and I came back to the States on the cusp of 18, dying to commune with the punk scene I'd been absorbing through record sleeves and scattered zines. I seriously doubt I'd have let anything get in the way of that. So, pretty quickly, I shut the fuck up about this aspect of my life, lest it earn me the side-eye from the friends I was making. Plus, the whole Krishna-core thing was in its hey-day in the punk world, and I was reasonably certain "coming out" about this would land me in the dunce corner with that crew. Fast forward to me having my mind blown by Kropotkin, Bakunin, Emma Goldman... and it was just like "Fuck, I definitely don't want to lose this."  And I just didn't have the intellectual fortitude at that point to reconcile the Dhamma with what I was encountering in those thinkers, nor the ability to parse it out from what they were indicting in theology, etc. So, I just kinda shelved it, more or less. There were moments -- mostly while sitting in jail or being tortured by cops -- where I leaned back into it, cause it was the only thing I knew how to do. But it still wasn't something I talked about openly with people. Until very recently, talking to people about what I do on the cushion felt as intimate and awkward as talking to someone about how I masturbate, really.

IR: What do you believe eventually did help you "reconcile the Dhamma" with anarchist politics? Also, what has recently made it easier for you to talk about this area of your life and thought?                                                   JS: Truthfully, pretentious as I know it's going to sound, reading thinkers like: Foucault, Deleuze, Derrida, Lyotard -- as well as people they've influenced, like Judith Butler and Edward Said  -- and certainly some of the feminist thinkers I mentioned before... it just gave me language with which to discuss the Dhamma in a material way, as a technical approach to self-formation. I no longer understand its objects of analysis or its tactics as specific to the Buddha's teaching. Rather, I see him in a room with all these other folks, examining the same object and describing it with different language. There are places where his language is better suited to a given objective, and there are places where I'd go with the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish, maybe. But there's a current within all of that which is easier for me to discern now, and it makes it all much easier to discuss, and much easier to frame politically. Ironically, what's made talking about it easier has been just talking about it, at all. When the Dharma House started in DC, I moved in. And I was participating in multiple weekly study-practice groups, from Sutta-study to an anti-oppression Kalyanamitta group. There was no way for the people in my life not to know what I was up to. So, inevitably, conversations happened.

IR: What do you believe the importance is of the present?

JS: It's an opportunity to ask "What's actually happening, right now?", like, empirically. If you're expecting some dreadful call from someone, and you hear a phone ring, the stress you feel in that moment triggers the release of something like 148 different chemicals in the body. Physiologically, that's a massive information dump to manage, given that all that's actually happened is a sound. Certainly, nothing in that chain of events equips us to respond to its unfolding with any skill. I think a lot of times, people who talk about practice and meditation toss around reference to the present moment like it's the door to Narnia or something. But there's nothing mystical about it. Queer kids don't throw themselves off bridges because of cars barreling at them, in that particular moment. More likely, they're reliving pasts of trauma, shame, humiliation -- and anticipating futures of that plus compounded interest. What if the present moment were simply our opportunity to call the narrative bluff, and say, "No. Fuck no. I refuse to be conducted by shame, fear, or bullshit."? Why wouldn't we take advantage of that?

IR: How do we engage in prefigurative politics, learning from the past, while still being active in practices of the present?

JS: The Buddha taught that nothing outside of ourselves is required for our liberation; we can begin right where we are, with what we've got. For me, this is precisely what makes prefigurative politics so potent. The Zapatistas are known for the proverb "Caminando preguntamos" (Walking, we ask). I think that's so beautiful in its dynamism and humility. We evaluate, we move, and we re-evaluate. The present is simply our opportunity to reconnect with the candor that makes that process meaningful.

IR: How is there power in acknowledging when we cannot change a situation? How do we interact with that idea as activists who consistently work for “change”?

JS: I find people around me often have real problems with limits. Meanwhile, limits are a precondition for intelligibility, and furthermore -- creativity. The limits of grammar are precisely what allow me to construct unique sentences, right now. And those limits are also what make it possible for you to make sense of those sentences, even where you've maybe never seen certain words strung together in a particular way, prior. Limits enable the possibility of unpredictable, creative activity. They propel us forward, and lend coherence to what we do; they're a critical part of what we do. I think we have a tendency to conflate changing something with controlling it. Gravity is a limit, but it’s not generally something I hear discussed in organizing. I often wonder if our fixation on limits is a subterfuge for avoiding all the things we can do, but aren’t.

IR: You state that “to refuse to be uncomfortable is to recreate the very socialization that we’re trying to reject.” What do you mean by that?

JS: Capitalism -- particularly the consumerist impulse -- conditions us toward immediacy. For every anxiety, ailment, or dissatisfaction, there's a transaction that will yield some alleged corrective. So we've developed this sense of entitlement to comfort. Further, we've developed this individualistic sense that our specific comfort ought to be a driving feature of a collective experience. It's not that comfort isn't important, but our attachment to it is a massive impediment to our growth, both as agents and as movements. White supremacy and heteronormativity are largely articulated by way of discomfort. Our impulse toward that ought to be the sort of thing that shakes us out of a sleep-walk. Maybe discomfort means we need to be in the ER. And maybe it means we need to reconsider our own premises in a given scenario. But an appropriate response in either situation is a determination, not a given. And sometimes, discomfort just is. The universe doesn’t owe us comfort, much less constant comfort. And in determining where we got the idea that it does, I might suggest following the money, you know?

IR: You state that in many ways Buddhism is the practice of the self. What do you mean by that? Isn't one of Buddhism’s main tenets that there is no self?

JS: Yeah, but with a caveat: The Dhamma is a practice of the self. Buddhism is an orientalist term, actually. It was applied the same way that Mohammedism was used to describe Islam. No translation of the term appears anywhere in the teachings, and the Buddha certainly rejected a reading of his teachings that put him as a figure above the practice he taught (which is the same reason Muslims objected to being called "Mohammedans"). Dhamma is a Pali term that has sort of umbrella use, but in the case of the Buddha's teaching, can sort of be translated as "the way things are". In other words, a science of the real.

While the Dhamma is pretty ontologically lean, it does include what are called the Three Characteristics of Existence, one of which is anatta, or not-self. I think there's a lot of confusion about what this means, but for most contemporary radicals, I don't know that there's anything terribly esoteric about it. It's basically a refusal of essentialism. We get this from Butler's work on performativity, and even her more recent work on mourning. There's a beautiful passage in Undoing Gender where she talks about how we understand ourselves in relation to people around us, with such intensity that when someone is taken out of that constellation abruptly -- either by death, or the end of a romantic relationship or such -- we experience a sort of disorientation, even exhaustion, for a time. We don't entirely recognize our "selves", because upon losing someone, our composition as a self has changed. Self is socially constituted, and performed - both on us and by us. All self is drag, if you will.

IR: What is the importance in developing a “practice”?

JS: To tell you the truth, I think Foucault nailed it in his his preface to Anti-Oedipus, when he said "the strategic adversary is fascism... And not only historical fascism, the fascism of Hitler and Mussolini -- which was able to mobilize and use the desire of the masses so effectively -- but also the fascism in us all, in our heads and in our everyday behavior, the fascism that causes us to love power, to desire the very thing that dominates and exploits us."

One doesn't confront this adversary through simply deciding that fascist micropolitical practices are shitty. I think it's the sort of thing one takes up in the body itself. I try to stay clear of being read as suggesting that anarchists should take up meditation in the conventional sense, but I do think there's something crucial about daily, quietly fixing oneself in a place, and weathering whatever comes up, and then slowly learning how to be with those things, without needing to control the experience -- whether that's a matter of grasping at things that feel good, or resisting what's unpleasant. That can be done anywhere, under any circumstances. I think that’s valuable. If nothing else, it nurtures a humble curiosity about experience, rather than the impulse to categorize and react to it.

IR: Do believe that anarchists already utilize some Buddhist critiques and/or practices? If so, how? What do you believe we could gain/learn from Buddhism?

JS: I absolutely think that some aspects of anti-oppression/anti-racist practice involve the sorts of interventions on the internal life that come with meditation practice. Beyond that, not so much. And I'm not really of the belief that Dhamma practitioners have any more to teach anarchists than the other way around. I've been attending Sanghas off and on since 1995, lived in a collective house committed to facilitating rigorous -- even socially engaged -- practice, and it really wasn't until I got to Brooklyn and began practicing with Josh Korda and the local Dharma Punx group that I felt like I'd found something that was not resistant to my politics.

IR: Why is that?

JS: I just happened to have found a group of folks who, for whatever reasons, are rigorous and critical in ways I find nourishing and challenging. That's honestly more difficult than you'd expect. A lot of teachers in the US present the Dhamma in ways that don't demand much from anyone, or really gloss over its depth and detail. For instance, when I first moved to New York, I was practicing with the local vipassana group in Chelsea, and saw a lecture on what the Buddha called tanha -- thirst or craving. And the example given for this concept was: strolling past a store window and seeing a pair of shoes you want. If that impulse is all you're working to master, you're not dealing with tanha. Tanha runs so much deeper than that. It's what moves us to overlook the obvious in a failing relationship; it's what induces Staircase Wit, or fantasies of redemption/vindication when we've been hurt or embarrassed ourselves. Working with that impulse completely unmakes a person, because it drives so much of how we interface with the world. The practice the Buddha taught wasn't just some tweaking of this or that -- it was a radical recalibration of being. And I feel that quite tangibly in the New York Dharma Punx community. More so than I have anywhere else, actually. 

IR: Now that these abroad talks have concluded, do you plan to continue working on these dialogues while in the States? Do you plan on using this work in other ways?

JS: Well, I'm writing the book, for now. There was talk here in New York about putting together a study/practice group of a handful of anarchists already engaged with the Dhamma, who're also active in Occupy Wall Street, but due to my leaving the country for three months and everyone's schedules and movement commitments, we've never really managed to get it off the ground. Irony of ironies, I suppose.

With discussions like this, it's difficult to really open up the space for them`without a book or some other tangible item to serve as the provocation, you know? So, while I'm always happy to talk with folks, and hear about how they're integrating embodied practice and organized resistance, I don't expect much of that with any regularity until I finish the book.

IR: When can we expect your book? JS: Um, I could be completely fucking up the deadlines, perhaps to assuage my own anxiety about them, but I think the timeline is late next year. I'll have something on the subject in next issue of Perspectives on Anarchist Theory, in the meantime, and I'll have work that touches on similar themes coming out in Upping the Anti and the European Journal of EcoPsychology throughout the coming six months or so.



Joshua Stephens is a board member with the Institute for Anarchist Studies and has been active in anti-authoritarian movements for the last two decades, drawing from mentors as diverse and dispersed as the Ruckus Society and Murray Bookchin's Institute for Social Ecology in the US, to Zapatistas in southern Mexico and the Popular Resistance Committees in Palestine. His work has spanned coordinating and training participants for direct action struggles around issues both local and international, co-teaching a course on classical and contemporary anarchist traditions at Georgetown University, and co-founding three workers cooperatives. He lives in Brooklyn, NY where he's active with the Occupy movement, and has spent the last two months traveling and interviewing anarchists in the eastern Mediterranean.


Audio originally found at: archive.org in the "Ourmedia" Collection.

Joshua Stephens is a board member with the Institute for Anarchist Studies, and has been active in anticapitalist, international solidarity, and worker-cooperative movements across the last two decades. He currently divides his time between the northeastern U.S. and various parts of the Mediterranean.