Reviewing James Scott’s “Against the Grain”

February 9th, 2019 by Johann Strube

It so happened that the subject of my second published book review, like my first, might be categorized as contemporary anarchist scholarship. Good to see that there is a space for this kind of work in the academy and happy to be (a very tangential) part of that community. This time, I like to introduce James Scott’s “Against the Grain”, published by Yale University Press. The book’s core message, that the integration of hunters, gatherers, pastoralists, and other mobile peoples into sedentary, agrarian society has been a deeply political process of an elite trying to force peoples into a social structure that served the formers’ personal interests against the letters’ will is an assault on conventional narratives about unilateral civilizational progress and the inevitability of a hierarchical, agrarian society. Provocative, and – given the presented evidence – convincing stuff. Anyway, I loved this piece. Check out my review in the Journal of Agriculture and Human Values.

When blogging about my first book review, I thanked the author Alex Barnard to encourage fellow grad students like me to stay true to our values and conviction to pursue radical scholarship. Now, James Scott doesn’t need more recognition and life-time achievement awards, but I still like to acknowledge that your scholarship – and success as a professor despite unpopular, “against-the-grain”-type of arguments – encouraged me to even enter academia and stick to it to this day. I will do my best to carry on that legacy!


finding my pace VS slowing-down-to-speed-up

February 4th, 2019 by Johann Strube

I read an article in Die Zeit on the ever increasing tempo of our world, about the ever accelerating rate of change and the difficulty of the human mind to keep up with it. The author Ulrich Schnabel suggests that a key skill of our time is to both be lighting fast when need be, but also be able to slow down when need be. Slowing down is portrayed as a means to recharge and ultimately to keep up. This may indeed be a useful strategy to be successful by today’s dominant standards, yet it is also written from a colonialist standpoint. The accelerating rate of change is not a natural force but it is man-made and largely fueled by burning fossil energy. It benefits those that rather have us consume and spend money than create and reflect. I have yet to see that anyone has gotten happier by responding to a text message faster or loading a browser tab in half a second vs two. The slowing-down-to-speed-up strategy is about aligning ourselves to someone else’s pace rather than finding our own. However, being happy is neither about slowing down nor speeding up but about doing the things that are meaningful to us in a mindful way, however long that will take us.

Anxiety, my new, awkward friend

February 1st, 2019 by Johann Strube

I’d like to share something about anxiety that I have come to understand over the past months which I like to share, hoping it might be helpful to some of you.

As most graduate students I know, and indeed many fellow millennials, I often struggle with anxiety. That nagging feeling of uncertainty, stress, discomfort, that often distracts me from doing the things I set out to do and that, frankly, makes it hard to enjoy life. It is often so vague and undefined that I can be ashamed of feeling miserable about it, considering the types of “objective” hardships that many other people go through, such as oppression, hunger, disease, death. I used to think I just need to get my act together, push through, and eventually I will feel better. Long story short, I saw anxiety as something bad, something to rid myself of.

I no longer see it that way. Now, I treat my anxiety as a mentor, a partner of sorts, a good spirit, a true friend that tells me the truth even though I may not want to hear it. Don’t get me wrong, this friend is awkward and a huge party pooper. But still a valuable one.

My anxiety helps me in two important ways. First, it’s a tell-tale that I am off-track with something. I do believe that there are right things and wrong things that we could be doing with our time on earth, and too often, most of us, me included, do the wrong things. Like spending the majority of our time working a job (or preparing for such a career) to earn enough money to approach a bourgeois middle-class lifestyle (and than needing the rest of our waking hours decompressing) while forgetting to attend to the emotional and spiritual needs of ourselves and the people around us. Probably not a good thing to do and yet the trajectory of most. So my anxiety is that red flag that is hoisted when I’m off-track. Unfortunately, it really is just a red flag. It will not tell me which of the many things I am doing is the one that caused it to give me that warning, nor does it tell me what the right path would be. So I still need to do a lot of introspection (meditation, walks, conversations, counseling, fasting, etc.) to figure these things out, but my anxiety is a gentle (or sometimes not so gentle) reminder that I still have work to do in this regard. Ultimately, I see it as an act of love, though, because aligning my life with what I perceive as my purpose in life is key to my happiness, and isn’t that what we all should be striving towards?

Second, my anxieties are reminders that some things in my life are objectively shit. Some of these things are relatively evident, like some unresolved conflict with a loved one. Some are less obvious, like the profound lack of true community and solidarity in our capitalist society, imminent climate catastrophe, reemergence of fascism, a deep sitting feeling of uprootedness. The point is not to mistake the anxiety for the problem itself. Shooting the messenger will not solve the problem. So instead of blaming my anxiety, I should be blaming all these issues mentioned above, or better still, turning my energy towards working towards a solution of these things, or if that is impossible, finding other, conscious ways of coping with them. Anxiety is uncomfortable. So is fascism or deep conflict. Trying to be comfortable in the face of these issues is just plain ignorant and might even deepen these problems instead of solving them. It is time to accept discomfort and use it creatively. Becoming conscious about this type of anxiety also moves away my focus on these issues as something that is my personal problem, something that I have internalized the blame for my discomfort. No, more often that not, these things are societal issues, or at least interpersonal issues, that I might be part of, but that are also beyond my sole individual responsibility. I will no longer blame myself for feeling uncomfortable about oppression, violence, climate change, other people’s avoidance of relational problems, capitalism and what have you.

Do I need anxieties to show me these things? Probably not. A good friend that hugs me when I feel shaken up by the distressing truths they are reminding me off would probably do the same result with less pain. In an ideal world we would have lots of people around us that help us coping with this discomfort and make us feel less powerless when facing it. In fact, those people are around more often than we think but we have forgot to reach out for them and admit to our own vulnerability. But meanwhile, I appreciate my anxiety as perhaps the ultimate ally on my path towards living a more truthful and purposeful life in a world that bombards me with temptations to rather use my precious time and energy to make someone else richer and more powerful.

Now, I’m not a psychologist and there are probably instances of anxiety that are pathological, that is to say, not rooted in some actual problem that deserves our attention. Anxiety of being anxious. A self-perpetuating loop that can only be remedied by some kind of psychiatric intervention (whether medically, psychotherapeutically, or ceremonially). I also don’t mean to say that one should dwell on one’s anxieties. Going back to the party pooper analogy, you don’t want to be around that person all the time or else you are bound to feel miserable forever. Just take their advice and then move on towards what they have told you and focus on resolving that situation. Finally, it is not always the right moment to face our inner gloom. We do have to function in the real world, we have to make ends met and secure our survival. For those moments, I welcome all the anxiety-management techniques out there – meditation, sports, arts, masturbation, video-games, the odd joint, whatever helps to move on. I just need to remember that nothing of this will actually solve anything, it only gives me time until I face what I need to face, or until I break down.

This is hard stuff and I get the temptation to somehow avoid anxieties, either through denial, medication, or even excessive, that is never-ending, coping techniques. But I doubt this is feasible in the long run. Bottling up everything that makes me feel uncomfortable is just bound to burst that bottle eventually, burnout, depression, violence, addiction, suicide, or any other type of mental breakdown. But perhaps even more importantly, anxiety can help me on a path towards more happiness and peace if I start listening to it and trusting myself that I am able to cope with its messages. Anxiety, I no longer run away from you. Let’s sit down and have a tea together (but stay away from my party, FFS!).

Winnipeg and I don’t even know how that happened but I like it

August 22nd, 2018 by Johann Strube

In what can only be described as a mad twist of serendipity, life  washed me up against the banks of the Assiniboine and Red Rivers, in the Canadian city of Winnipeg, that only a bit over a year ago I only knew through Venetian Snare’s charmingly titled song “Winnipeg is a Dogshit Dildo”. I am not sure what I was supposed to expect of a city that is likened to a, well, dogshit dildo, but those expectations have been exceeded by far.

Think of Winnipeg as the kind of place where–unless you try to hitch your way from East Coast to West Coast along the Trans-Canada Highway–people don’t end up without a purpose of doing so (in fact, most Winnipeggers don’t end up here at all, they just never left). In that respect, it is the antithesis of New York City and the Pacific Crest Trail, the obvious places where one would go who has no purpose to be anywhere else. In fact, Winnipeg is the antithesis to NYC and the PCT in many ways. These comparisons out of the way, Winnipeg is a very livable, bike-able (in the summer anyway), diverse, culturally rich, and socially complex city that seems to be the exact thing I was craving after two years in a small college town in the hills of Pennsylvania.

Part of my purpose to be here is to find out what that purpose is. Superficially Professionally speaking, I am here to pinpoint the nitty-gritty of my dissertation, that will be something around tribal sovereignty, wild rice, and ownership over land and water. Or will it? I am currently using the blank back pages of my proposal to take my fieldnotes. This is about as useful a proposal is once you actually get into the field and get your reality check. Did I mention that I have a lot of fun figuring these things out? I mean it. Driving around Manitoba, Western Ontario and Minnesota, talking to and learning from Ojibwe elders, joining their ceremonies, attending community meetings, and just being (a person) in this beautiful country is a heck more enjoyable than sketching out a dissertation from my office desk half a continent away.

But of course, there is always a deeper level to which one could take the question of purpose, and this is where the serendipity comes in and my readiness to pour out the well of my soul in the public parts of the internet drops out. So I leave it at that. Think of this post as a public service announcement, that I live in Winnipeg, Manitoba (Canada) for now. Now, what about visiting me as a purpose for you to come to this city?

article on Pockets of Peasantness in Cornell Small Farm Quarterly

November 1st, 2017 by Johann Strube

Cornell Small Farm Quarterly has published a short overview over my master’s thesis work on Pockets of Peasantness in Upstate New York. I hope, this way some people outside of academia but with an interest in small farming in the Northeast will get to read it.

Reviewing Alex Barnard’s “Freegans: diving into the wealth of food waste in America.”

June 10th, 2017 by Johann Strube

I’m equally surprised and pleased, that my first academic publication is a book review about freeganism and dumpster diving. I absolutely loved reading Alex Barnard’s “Freegans: diving into the wealth of food waste in America.” I’m not gonna write more about the book here, just check out the review at the Journal of Agriculture and Human Values.

There are certainly moments in grad school, when you’re wondering if the path that you’ve chosen is the right one, but when you get a chance to be involved in scholarship on some radical anarchists and their interpretation of how messed up our capitalist food system is, it makes you wonder a little less.

On a slightly more somber note: isn’t it ironic that copyright law and my agreement with the publisher prohibits me from posting my own review on a book on freeganism on my blog?

Also, if you ever read this: Go Alex! You wrote such a great book and it hugely inspirational that a grad student on the other side of the country devotes his dissertation work on such an important yet often intentionally ignored topic. Thank you!

Pockets of Peasantness – Small-scale Agricultural Producers in the Central Finger Lakes Region of Upstate New York

September 21st, 2016 by admin

Over the course of 2015 and 2016 I worked on my master’s thesis called “Pockets of Peasantness – Small-scale Agricultural Producers in the Central Finger Lakes Region of Upstate New York” which is finally available online.

In case you haven’t downloaded and read it already, here’s what it is about. Some people call this an abstract:

Farmers in the Central Finger Lakes Region of New York (USA) balance their production between principles of peasant farming and capitalist farming. They struggle to extend their sphere of autonomy and subsistence production, while extended commodity production is often a response to external forces of the state and capital. This struggle, together with a quantitative increase of small farms, can be described as an instance of repeasantization.

Based on inductive, empirical qualitative social research, and in particular, ethnographic participant observation and semi-structured interviews, this thesis describes the economy and social organization of six farms in the area under investigation. Besides selling commodities to pay for many farming inputs and consumer goods, the farms produce for their subsistence and that of their community. They exchange products and services with other farms, they build networks of mutual provisioning, support and mentorship and try to take good care of the land.

This thesis shows that subsistence production and peasant culture are not restricted to the past or the Global South, but also exist in the United States of America, albeit subject to the globalized capitalist market economy. I suggest that these pockets of peasantness are an important source of inspiration for society at large, while the dominant capitalistic social order fails to deliver good living conditions for most people. It is therefore critical to support farmers in their struggle.

catching up – life between North America and Europe

September 4th, 2016 by admin

When months pass without me writing any blog posts, it’s usually not because nothing happened (in which case I tend to turn to political commentary). Quite the contrary, so much happened that I didn’t find time to blog. Or let’s be honest: Blogging was the least thing I thought of.

After spending about 7 months in Upstate New York to do field work for my master’s thesis, I moved back to Vienna to finish my degree. Part of that was re-designing a green roof for IKEA in Budapest (don’t think they ever actually implemented any of our plans). After fall semester, I reconnected with my hobo-self and kind of drifted back and forth between Vienna and my hometown Rostock while writing up my thesis. All this was interspersed with the odd trip to Prague, Berlin, Bremen, London, Somerset and Reykjavík. Don’t think I ever spent so much time on long-distance busses. In the meantime, I accepted an offer to pursue a PhD in Rural Sociology at Pennsylvania State University and defended my master’s thesis. Guess that makes me technically a Diplomingenieur in Landscape Planning and Landscape Architecture now.

In retrospect, I realized that my restless traveling through Europe was my way to say good bye to the continent, places I love and people that I miss already. I am now in State College, PA, two weeks in the crazy adventure of grad school. Crazy it’s been indeed so far, but more on that in entries to follow…

 

Die Subsistenzperspektive – eine Umorientierung zum Guten Leben für alle

December 2nd, 2015 by Johann Strube

Im vergangenen Sommer haben Johanna Biesenbender, Sigrid Gerl Monika Thuswald und ich in transatlantischer Zusammenarbeit einen Artikel zur Subsistenzperspektive (Die Subsistenzperspektive – eine Umorientierung zum Guten Leben für alle) geschrieben, der jetzt endlich bei der Grünen Bildungswerkstatt erschienen ist. Für alle, die es noch nicht wissen: Die Subsistenzperspektive ist ein wesentlicher Schwerpunkt meiner wissenschaftlichen Arbeit und  dieser Artikel gibt eine gute Einführung zu dem Thema.

No, traveling is not expensive OR how to travel on a budget.

October 2nd, 2015 by Johann Strube

Among my friends, I have a reputation for being some kind of a traveller. Sometimes, I find it an applicable label, endearing for the romanticism it implies, and sometimes I find it misleading, as traveling to me is more a means than an end. And who can call oneself a travel who has never been to… say India? Either way, I do tend to change my position in space rather frequently and therefor I found it surprising that I write so little about it. Guess I’m more of a traveller than a writer. Certainly a rambler.

One of the things that continues to strike me in conversations on traveling, that many of my contemporaries seem to see it as an expansive activity, associated with towering costs that makes it impossible for them. When I say striking, I mean profound amazement and confusion because to me, traveling is rarely more expansive than staying (what is even the opposite of traveling? Non-traveling?). Sometimes, it is actually cheaper. But more on that later. This bewilderment is the reason for this post. It’s partly about my style of traveling and partly an attempt to understand the reasons that keep others from hitting the road (or rails, air, water, outer space or what not).

So what is traveling? On the most basic level, it’s changing one’s location in space (and until beaming becomes a reality, time, too.). I include in my definition, that traveling implies staying away from wherever you stayed before. I admit, it’s a difficult definition, as it implies that you had to stay somewhere, in order to be a traveller. What about someone, who never stays anywhere and is constantly on the move? Does that make the person less of a traveller? “INDEED”, you might chime in, “it’s a hobo, a bum, a punk!” Well, these are all judgmental expression and I think that person would be a perfectly valid traveller. What I am trying to say is that you need to stay away from wherever you came from. You can’t just change your location to work and back home within one day and call yourself a traveller. This is commuting. Everything else is negotiable. Basically, if you do have a cunning, positive definition of a traveller, please post it in the comments. Lacking a better definition and internet connection to look it up (guess what, I’m traveling), I leave it as that and proceed.

As earlier mentioned,

traveling to me can be a fairly cheap,

which to be fair is counter-logical. After all, you add one activity to the things you would be doing otherwise.

It follows, that

right? Well, not quite. Basically, for these two reasons:

Now, the critical point is, that you need to minimize your expanses for board, transportation and stuff. When you achieve the following two statements to be true

then you reached the holy grail of cheap traveling, you safe money while traveling, expressed as

Depending on your situation, that’s $200-$500 savings a month right there (You are doing something seriously wrong, if it’s even more. But I save that for a later post). Now you practice the art of free living. Especially in the warmer months, you could be camping. Many countries have lands where backcountry camping is free of charge. If you want to stay in more developed areas, you can sleep in most airports for free. Even better, you sign up to sites such as couchsurfing or hospitality club and stay with kind strangers, that invite you to their homes. It’s mostly safe and fun. Heck, travelers relied on strangers for century for free lodging. Just ask, built a relationship instead of buying a commodity. Only when you end up somewhere longer, you rent or sublet a room (do not take a hotel!). Of course, in that case your expanses won’t necessarily be lower than they were at home, but if you look around, they won’t be higher either.

It’s even easier in the stuff department. Since you don’t want to bring all that expansive and heavy entertainment equipment in your rucksack, you pick up something more lightweight, which tends to be cheaper, too. Reading a book (one at a time) is a popular choice among travelers. So is taking pictures with a small camera. Part of why people go traveling in the first place is to see something new, so you’ll enjoy studying that. Be it a new city or the plants and wildlife in the great outdoors. All that is incredibly cheap yet more fulfilling then watching movies or jet-skiing.

Transportation can be had for free, too. Provided you are able to walk, you are already gifted with a free mode of transportation. Just hike places. If you want to be faster, hitchhike. Yes, it can still be done and in most places, it is legal, too (Hitchwiki.org is a great resource to get you started). If you prefer the train, you could hop on a freight train. Personally, I have never done it myself, but I met many who did and had a great time and it sure sounds intriguing. But here is the secret point: since you’re already saved a couple of hundred dollars (or some other currencies, whatever) for shelter and stuff, you can easily afford train or plane tickets or gas AND still have some money left. Yes, it is indeed wonderful!

So this is how I travel cheaply. Let’s turn our attention to the second question of inquiry,

why do people think traveling is expansive and unaffordable, even though it isn’t as we have seen?

Well, I can’t be sure, but this is what I assume:

When people say traveling, they don’t mean changing one’s position in space (excluding commuting). They mean changing one’s position in space AND living a middle class life while doing so WHILE keep paying that apartment/room/house back home. Hell yes, that would be way more expansive and it seems utterly ridiculous to me why anyone would want to do that. And it gets worse. From that perspective, it’s not far to even more irritating assumptions, like traveling has to include a very far and exotic destination and perhaps on a even higher level of consumption (think whirlpools and fancy restaurants), since you only do this once a year. Now, don’t get me wrong, all that qualifies as traveling and it’s probably fun, too. But when people say, they don’t have the funds for traveling, they mean expansive spa traveling (shorthand for every kind of traveling that includes hotels, restaurants etc.) as a vacation from work, not traveling per se. This is all fine and fair, but please name it accordingly.

Please comment if you think my assumption is wrong and you have a different explanation. You can also comment to tell me that my views are pretentious or righteous or that I’m a hobo, which would be a fair point.

A few qualifications/further explanations at the end.
I didn’t yet satisfactory address the issue of food. In my experience, it usually ends up being the same no matter where I am. That’s why I assumed that

When I travel, I tend to eat out more often, mostly because I don’t have access to a kitchen, but also because I’m interested in the local cuisine (the best way of exploring that, though, is by being invited by locals to their homes. Not only is this free [you might want to contribute to that dinner in some ways], but also more authentic). The higher price tag for restaurant visits is then offset by having extremely cheap camping meals, like beans, oatmeal or peanut butter sandwiches and bananas. Of course, food expanses don’t have to be equal, depending on your specific situation. If beans, rice and oatmeal is the stable of your diet already, you will hardly beat that on the road. Conversely, if you eat out a lot at home, you might make considerable savings when restricted to a very basic diet on your backpacking outing.

Another valid criticism is that my explanation above doesn’t address the job factor at all. More often then not, our need to earn money forces us to live at a specific place and we would lose that income when traveling, thus making traveling more expansive if you sum up income and expenses. Now, however, the main constrain to travel becomes time, not money. There is a whole different (yet related) argument to have here, why one might want to free up some time for traveling, which I save for later. You might also want to look into ways, how you could make money WHILE traveling. In my case, I usually used the model, where you work in a place and then find a new job or study program somewhere else and use this as an opportunity to a) travel to that place, where I sometimes try to extend the time for some diversions on my way and b) check out the new place, which some people consider traveling as well. Again, the most noble way of traveling, however, is if traveling becomes your life and you do it, because you want to avoid the exploitive world of wage- labor altogether.

The last qualification addresses people, that already live extremely cheap in their non-traveling day-to-day life. Many of my friends (and potential blog readers) are skilled frugalists (of choice or/and necessity) who hardly will be able to reduce their expanses even further while traveling. Interestingly, since these people know how to live on a budget already, they never think that traveling is expansive.

PS: Can anyone give me a pointer, how to embed those mathematic formula nicely into html? I know how to get my pdfs through markdown, but html doesn’t seem to work.