Monday, December 30, 2019

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2019, pt. 24: Julie Phillips

 A Year of Shifting Perceptions
by Julie Phillips

It’s been a year of shifting perceptions for me, in which some things that have been stuck for a long time came loose, I can only hope for the better. Among my favorites this year are some books and a film about how to take useful action, whether or not you know where you’re heading.

The most encouraging book I read all year was Adrienne Maree Brown’s Emergent Strategy, a meditation on social justice and science fiction that is also a kind of carrier bag for ideas about imagination and change. Emergence has to do with allowing small interactions to become linked together in complex patterns of community and persistence. Taking inspiration from the work of Octavia Butler, as well as from biology and chaos theory, Brown emphasizes resilience and adaptivity as useful qualities and suggests learning from the survival strategies of dandelions, mushrooms, and oak trees. 

She also advises “collaborative ideation—what are the ideas that liberate all of us? The more people that collaborate on that ideation, the more that people will be served by the resulting world(s). Science fiction is simply a way to practice the future together.” Citing Toni Cade Bambara, she says, “We must make just and liberated futures irresistible.” 

While I was reading Emergent Strategy and marching in demos, an old friend took me to see Born in Flames, Lizzie Borden’s 1983 science fiction film about women plotting a revolution. It deals with the potential power of small-scale direct action, and I just can’t tell you how good this movie is and how amazing it feels to watch in this moment. Visually and thematically, it illustrates Brown’s patterns of emergence: Gangs of women on bicycles circulate for safer streets. Two pirate radio stations create links between feminist cells citywide. And an older activist (played by feminist lawyer Flo Kennedy) advises a younger one: “Which would you rather see come through the door, one unified lion or 500 mice? You know, 500 mice can do a lot of damage.”

The central narrative of armed revolution is not the film’s strongest point, although a scene of the Women’s Army hijacking a New York City TV station does have a kind of anti-Fox News satisfaction. But its class- and race-conscious analysis of feminism is fine, and I enjoyed its ’80s feminist anti-style (one of my responses to it was “Hey, I used to wear that”) and terrific punk soundtrack. You can watch it on demand here:

The feminism of Born in Flames grows out of patterns of verbal exchange, and so do the weird liberating qualities of The Blazing World, the epically strange 1666 work of fiction by Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle. A friend asked me to write about it, and knowing very little about it, I expected it to be a utopia of place—its creator’s perfect world. What I found was a utopia of process, of dialogue and relationships. The Blazing World isn’t actually on fire, sadly, though it has the usual buildings made of gemstones and so on. Its most remarkable property is that many of its inhabitants are half-human, half-animal—bird-men, lice-men, fish-men, worm-men—and the human scientist who becomes its empress persuades them to help her research the causes of natural phenomena. Where the science of the time placed men above women and the natural world, Cavendish advocated scientific inquiry as interspecies collaboration. 

It’s also very funny. After a while the empress decides she needs a secretary, and the spirits of the Blazing World tell her she can choose anyone, living or dead.

Instead she asks for a contemporary philosopher like Galileo or Descartes, but the Spirits answer that they’re too arrogant to be a secretary to a woman. Then the Spirits say, why not try the Duchess of Newcastle? So she summons the Duchess, who says, I’d love to, but my handwriting is terrible. And the Empress says, I can live with that. So they start having long conversations and making up new fantasy worlds. Collaborative ideation!

Also in 2019 I wrote about Suzette Haden Elgin’s Native Tongue I went to a great reading by my old Voice colleague Colson Whitehead, who is very funny about growing up a nerd as well as a profound and imaginative thinker about the use and misuse of power. I reviewed Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments and thought about how subtly she’s always written about the space between individual women and their roles. I rediscovered the wonderful film Céline et Julie vont en bateau (1974) by Jacques Rivette, a fantasy in which three female characters stage a jailbreak from a heterosexist love story and go off in search of a better plot.

I was sad that we lost Vonda N. McIntyre this year, and moved by her generosity in donating her estate to Clarion West. Another project she encouraged friends to support was research into the Southern Resident orcas who live in the waters of the Pacific Northwest. When I renewed my family’s orca adoption again this December, I thought of her, of the matriarchal society of the orcas, and how hard it is to keep imagining my way toward others, even though it feels like the work that needs to be done.

I don’t know if that’s part of un-stuckness, but I’m trying.

Julie Phillips is a book critic and the author of the NBCC and Hugo Award-winning biography James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon. She lives in Amsterdam, where she’s working on a biographical look at writing and mothering in the 20th century, to be called The Baby on the Fire Escape.

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