Review: Pick Your Battles by Douglas Lain (Archive 2011)

If there ever was a guide out of lifestyle rebellion and into systematic critique by means of memoir, Douglas Lain has attempted it.  The supposed category errors in that description of Lain’s ambition are part of its appeal and its fugue-quality. While the book describes itself “Your Guide to Urban Foraging, Hollywood Movies, Late Capitalism, and the Communist Alternative,” it is more akin to Doug’s guide to how he went from an urban forager to some form of communist from moving from an inchoate leftist writer in a cubicle job at Comcast to a thinker wrestling with Althusser, Zizek, Debort, and Lefebvre.

Critical theory is often divorced from the core of our experience, yet it describes the experiences at the core. In my experience, often people study it as grist for the mill of academic population as merely a rubric for papers in the Ideological Academic Apparatus.  Lain does not do this: Instead we get his dealing with his future wife, his cubicle job, losing that job, and dealing with children to foreground the way ideology works.   Often Lain does with collage elements of theory cut in and of out the text.

There are some surprising human movements in which theory weaves in and out:  the way desire is defined by lack is seen through Lain’s interaction with his wife, the way ideological conceptions define space, the way many of us move through periods of conspiracy thinking and frustration, through thinking we can hack it through survivalism, and then to grappling with the theory many of us were exposed to tangentially in college.

Indeed, I feel a kinship to Lain in this book as many of the developments in his life and their reflections in theory. I have also covered conspiracy thinking, post-left anarchism, and all the surrounding dross.  It hits a nerve personally having to come to terms that the cube farm world was not remotely meritocratic and that everyone in it, including many of the managers, were playing a game designed to be lost.

As for what the communist alternative might be, the letter at the end of the encapsulates a hope but no means to get there.  Lain, however, has achieved something in getting us to travel through this fugue from an inchoate understanding to a more systemic one.  The question for Lain, and for myself, is where exactly do we go from here. Marty McFly may see communists in the future, but it’s still only a vague outline.


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