Productive Incoherence and Thinking Differently about Change

Organizing
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Pearl River     A book entitled, The Sex Obsession:  Perversity and Possibility in American Politics, arrives in the mail with the word SEX in capital red letters along with obsession slightly smaller, and I didn’t know whether to take the cover off or cry uncle, having been lured by the word, “politics,” into reading the book and interviewing the author, Janet Jakobsen, on Wade’s World.  Was this really a book about American politics coming out on the eve of the election?  Was this really a book written by a professor at Barnard and an expert in sex, gender, and other studies?  Here’s the quick answer.  Once you crack the cover and start reading, or listen to the interview, you know that this is no play around, breeze of a volume, but a weighty theoretical – and practical – book.  It’s a shame that it will find its place on the bookstore shelves for feminist and gender studies, where it certainly belongs, but not prominently on the shelf where it is an even better fit on politics and current events.

I’m not saying it’s an easy read.  I’m saying it’s a valuable read with huge rewards.  Jakobsen is in love with words and catching the reader, if napping, by repurposing them in unexpected ways to make her points set deeper.  She likes putting them together in unusual partnerships, that with a little work on the part of the reader, end up exciting, because they evolve into something close to making perfect sense.

Take “productive incoherence,” a phrase I came to love and told Professor Jakobsen that I was determined to steal, because even outside of the context of the book, it almost seems a perfect description of so much of our current times, especially during the pandemic.  What the phrase describes in Jakobsen’s telling is the way politicians and many others create binary, either-or, choices and positions on issues that seem to be commonsense and therefore coherent, but in reality, are much more complex and shifting.  She uses the metaphor of a kaleidoscope in describing this phenomenon.  We may be pushed into trying to see things as just one way, but actually the interplay of other issues like class, sex, race, religion, and so forth intersect with the issue so that it shifts in the same way that a kaleidoscope offers different perspectives as it revolves.  There are more discoveries awaiting the reader as she explains “perverse multitudes,” “differential consciousness,” “complex universals,” and “promiscuous practice,” among other concepts marshalled to reveal the scaffolding of contemporary politics.

Practically, what resonated most strongly to me as an organizer, was her arguments about the ways that this incoherence was separating alliances that should be natural, like those between caregivers and clients, domestic workers and immigrant rights groups, and, from my experience, many others.  The ability to unit home day care workers with parents needing day care was critical in our organizing these workers into unions in New York, New Jersey, and Illinois.  One of the most effective tactics in organizing private sector home care workers in Illinois was the realization that workers had the power to take their clients to other companies.  The union’s ability to understand the fact that the key relationship was between the care worker, the client-consumer, and the client’s family and not the employer, unleased a power the union could use against company recalcitrance.  This is one of the reasons in our union’s nursing homes and community care homes that employers are so intent on preventing communications between workers and the client families, because they understand its power.

Jakobsen understands this situation in the same way that organizers on the ground have come to recognize experientially, and she provides some explanations and theoretical legitimacy that makes Sex Obsession the kind of work that is a gift that keeps giving and rewards in proportion to the work invested in the reading.