On reshelving books: a humble opinion piece

Via Boing Boing comes this: Political prankster Jane McGonigal has had an idea for a rilly great political gesture – move all the copies of Nineteen Eighty-Four from the fiction section to Current Affairs, then post the results to a Flickr group pool. Because they want, you know, to make a statement, about Bush and the Republicans, and stuff. Or something like that. They’re not sure. But it will be funny!

To which the only response can be…

“I’m sorry – this guy has been in charge of your country for, what, over four and a half years? In that time, he’s exploited a terrorist atrocity in order to start an illegal war, destroyed your country’s credibility in the international community, passed draconian laws, imprisoned people without trial, privatised your social security system, given enormous tax breaks to the already obscenely wealthy, run up a massive national debt, done nothing in response to global warming and… this is the best you can come up with? For fuck’s sake, how does pissing off a few hard-working bookstore employees, who will inevitably have to spend time undoing your pathetic sub-Mark Thomas jape, equate in your minds to making a political statement? But then you’ve probably never had to do a crap job in your lives, you hipster douchebags, so you wouldn’t actually know what a pain in the arse you actually are. Why not actually try working for once, instead of being a smug, lazy showoff prick? While you’re at it, why not actually broaden your horizons, gain some sophistication, and find out about books other than Nineteen Eighty-Four, because quite frankly, referring to it all the damn time and trying to use it as an allegory for whatever you want to whine about is the height of intellectual laziness, and something that is probably making Orwell somersault in his grave as I type. In summary then, you are a grade-A fuckwit, who’s more concerned with trying to gain kudos for being a “subversive” amongst your braying sub-Nathan Barley peers by making this “statement”, when actually you have less sophistication than a cunt rolling downhill in a shopping trolley. It’s wankers like you who deserve to have the government you have at the moment, and if I could have it my way, you’d have Bush for a third term, all the fucking way to 2012 – maybe by then you’ll realise that there’s more to political action than merely going ‘Barnes & Noble! Pwn3d!’. Now, do the whole world a favour, and fuck off.”

Update/reflection: Whoah. Dissertation stresses bring out the Brooker in me, I think. Still stand by every word of it, though.

27 thoughts on “On reshelving books: a humble opinion piece

  1. After seeing the BoingBoing post, I was going to comment on my blog – but I’m just going to link to you. I couldn’t possibly have said it better.


  2. Hello,

    I came over from John Carter McKnight’s link. =)

    > Still stand by every word of it, though.

    Hell, _I_ stand by every word you said… maybe minus the “you’d have Bush for a third term” though… =}

    — J.

  3. I basically agree, but I think I feel slightly more empathy for this idea, simply because I always have the urge to rearrange books in bookshops anyway. Always.

    Yes, it’s more a symptom of low-level OCD than a limply situationist political protestwank like these guys, but nonetheless I feel a certain comradeship. Because the books are so often in the wrong place. Which is untidy. Ugh.

    actually you have less sophistication than a cunt rolling downhill in a shopping trolley

    Wonderful phrasing.

  4. Hi Chris,

    Thanks for your cheerful diatribe on the Reshelving project. Like all experiments, I figured this one would draw a pretty wide range of opinions. I think you have officially set the mark for the far end of the spectrum. A helpful benchmark, indeed.

    You might be interested to know that certain co-founders of the Ministry of Reshelving were actually arrested by the city police at the earliest anti-war protests, back in spring of 2003 when most people thought going into Iraq was a good idea. So this isn’t some come-lately hipster intervention. We are people with a serious commitment to intervening in all kinds of ways. This is just one of them. And we happen to think it’s a good one, more accessible to many people than getting arrested.

    I have no idea why you think I haven’t worked jobs that might qualify me as a decent citizen, other than the fact that you don’t know me. I’ve worked in libraries quite a bit. I’ve taught in some of the most challenging schools in the Bronx and Brooklyn in New York City, including the high school with the highest violence rate in the entire state, and I actually organized and helped managed a free bookstore for low-income families in inner-city Philadelphia where I’m from originally. So I don’t know, I think you’re off the mark in your personal assessment me of me. Also, I’ve never called anyone a cunt or a douchebag in public. Certainly not someone I haven’t taken 2 minutes to learn anything about. BUt actually, I don’t call people that in private, either.

    You’re welcome to check out my website and decide if you really hate me as much as it appears from your comments. I respect your opinion on the project, but I think you’re pretty off base on your assessment of the organizers of this project.


  5. Am I a _really, really_ bad person for thinking ever so slightly less of Jane McG because she’s never called anyone a cunt in private? Or is this just because we’re not American, and so do actually have a swearing vocabulary longer than “fuck” occasionally?

    Also, if she has actually worked in a bookshop before, then her inability to realise that her only achievement with this is to annoy a bunch of low-paid shop assistants who probably even agree with her opinions on Bush is more astounding than it was before.

  6. Wow, the power of Technorati. Jane also emailed me about this, I sent this in reply:

    For starters, I did not call you a cunt (merely said you were less sophisticated than the ones on ‘Jackass’), although on the lesser charge of calling you a douchebag, I plead guilty.

    Your comments are welcome, and I appreciate that what you consider is performance art. However, I still cannot see how what you’re doing is little more than making bookshop staff’s lives a little bit harder, in attempt to show off. It’s not political action, it’s just obnoxious gesture politics.

    I’m glad to find out you have done more constructive and serious forms of protest, and as a former bookshop employee, I am pleased that you have worked hard to run a bookshop yourself, but to me, this only makes your current choice of action even more unfathomable. Presumably, as most bookshop staff are (in my experience) of a liberal persuasion and are going to vote Democrat anyway, then you figured that annoying them isn’t going to make too much damage politically, which makes them the easiest of targets.

    I do appreciate the role of humour, satire and performance art in political discourse (as I type, the Edinburgh Festivals are running all kinds of such plays and performances along those lines), but to me your actions aren’t art at all. It’s no better than making the servers in McDonald’s lives’ a misery, just because you disagree with the decisions the company’s executives have made. You’re aiming at the wrong target; in this case it’s a particularly soft and undeserving one.

    I’m sorry for calling you a douchebag (and in no way does this mean I hate you – it takes much more than this for genuine hatred to come about). In light of what you’ve told me about yourself, in your case I withdraw the comment. However, I still stand by my assertion that your particular actions in this case are basically fucking pathetic. It’s juvenile, misdirected, unsophisticated and above all, makes you look like a bunch of dicks.

  7. “I’ve taught in some of the most challenging schools in the Bronx and Brooklyn in New York City, including the high school with the highest violence rate in the entire state, and I actually organized and helped managed a free bookstore for low-income families in inner-city Philadelphia where I’m from originally.”

    I’ve been bitten by several kids, slapped, hit, threatened with knives; the usual frankly. I don’t use my job to defend myself when people attack me, because I don’t know anybody who does this sort of job for kudos- if that’s all you want from it a) you’re not trying hard enough and b) it’s a shit life just for kudos.

    Futhermore, Ms McGonigal, your ‘protest’ is shit. Not exactly monks setting themselves on fire, or going through U.S. Customs in an orange jumpsuit is it (although congratulations on geting some of your people arrested- how daring!)? Still, I’m sure you’re oligarchic power base are truly moved and redefining their personal beliefs with the same vitesse they are applying to the reforming of US foreign policy.

  8. What would be REALLY subversive is if all these ‘pranksters’ did something USEFUL, like providing support for families with relatives fighting in Iraq, or trying to improve the living conditions of those living in Red states, which do tend to be worse than those in the ‘Blue’ states. That might make real headway and show that the left in the US wasn’t just a combination of smart arses preaching to the converted and making fools of themselves in public, but rather, a force for real change and progress. Then again, these are the same people who thought that the talking ironing board John Kerry could win the 2004 election, so I doubt they’ll work that one out…

  9. “I’m sure you’re oligarchic power base are truly moved”

    Aaaaaaaahhh! My grammar! Somebody cut out my tongue and decapitate my digits, quick!

  10. Why has this action raised such animosity? Not the greatest act of political protest ever, perhaps, but surely not deserving of such a harsh dismissal. And to argue that all this action does is cause trouble for ?a few hard-working bookstore employees? is strange ? don?t all protest actions inconvenience someone, by their very nature? When people marched against war on Iraq, no one said ?think of all the police forced to do overtime? or ?this is very inconvenient for people travelling with the roads closed off?. We can only be glad this blog was not running in1955, ?I?m sorry, these laws have been in place in your country for what, over 90 years? In that time Black Americans have been exploited, murdered, excluded from jobs and housing, segregated and forced to live as second class citizens and? this is the best you can come up with? For fuck’s sake, how does pissing off a few hard-working bus drivers and commuters who will inevitably have to spend time arguing with the others who will follow your example equate in your minds to making a political statement?? Etc etc?
    While I don?t really think this book moving is going to cause an amazing change for the better in the US, Jane McGonigal and others are only trying to make a point. You think its rubbish. Fair enough; mock the idea all you want. Whatever you think about it, however, I think the very personal attack on someone you know nothing about was unnecessary. Evidently one person?s ?political action? is another?s ?obnoxious gesture politics?, but in the absence of an absolute standard by which people can decide whether their protest is worth doing or whether they should ?do something useful? (and who?s to say they are not, even if this particular action doesn?t help anyone much) why not keep the personal diatribes for those who really deserve them?

  11. I must admit, that a part of me is wondering if my reaction to this is based on a prejudice that the Republican voter base who are to ‘blame’ for Bush aren’t exactly likely to be shopping in the bookshops where it will happen.

  12. Urgh. Run on sentence from hell. A woefully misplaced comma just to rub it in. What is it about this subject that is destroying our basic English skills?

  13. Ruth – of course all protests cause some incovenience to someone. The question is, are the right kind of people being inconvenienced? (And incidentally, I’ll bet you any money that policemen are happier getting paid to marshal well-planned, peaceful protests like the anti-war or anti-poverty mass marches of recent years than a random Saturday night in [insert town centre of choice] after chucking-out time). Your analogy with the civil rights protests doesn’t stand up – Rosa Parks et al. were directly challenging the racially segregated bus system of the time: anyone who disagreed with their protests, thinking they were just making them late, would have thus been complicit in the racist policies of the time: they were the very people who deserved to be inconvenienced.

    One’s local branch of Borders or Barnes & Noble, and the fact they keep current affairs from modern fiction separate, had no influence, direct or otherwise, on whether Bush got elected or not. The staff and customers who get inconvenienced for no reason at all; it’s not their fault things are the way it is, so why take it out on them?

    Why did I get personal? Because it is personal. If you think protest should be about pranking and showing off, rather than doing something of note, then that shows you’re basically in it for the ego – you’re a dick and a showoff and need to be taken down a notch. If you think bookshop staff (and ordinary customers) are a fair target for your japery, then you’re a nasty and unfeeling wanker. If you think that Nineteen Eighty-Four can be used as a simple catch-all allegory of modern-day America, then you’re dogmatic and intellectually lazy to the extreme. These are all (IMHO) loathsome personality traits, which can be and should be shown up for what they are.

  14. And to argue that all this action does is cause trouble for ?a few hard-working bookstore employees? is strange ? don?t all protest actions inconvenience someone, by their very nature?

    Ruth, the important word in that is all. This protest/art experiment/prank doesn’t do anything else (if it even does that). Other protests achieve, or at least aim to achieve, some greater purpose. This doesn’t even seek to make people think a bit more, because the given purpose behind it is so vague and trite that any supposed message is lost. And the comparison to Rosa Parks is fatuous; that was an act of direct civil disobedience. If the Bush administration had actually banned the placing of 1984 in the Current Events section, then I’d be well behind this, but unless that’s some obscure subsection of the PATRIOT Act that I wasn’t aware of, I’m not sure it’s an apt comparison.

    The reason for the frustration on display here is that a lot of us feel increasingly alienated from a certain strand of supposedly progressive activism, that seems to view simple acts of mooning at authority as worthy and insightful in themselves; it seems symptomatic a smirking, disengaged complacency that views self-gratifying acts of pranksterism as sufficient action. I thought a large part of the point was that we’ve actually got the good arguments on our side; we don’t need to resort to empty displays of symbolism that are so vague and ill-thought out that we can’t even decide quite what they’re supposed to symbolise.

  15. Oh, word!
    Thanks from this very dismayed American!
    We possess (for now) the power to vote these baboons out of office and actually do some good for all of our citizens, but we instead re-elect the fool and complain about what he’s doing through some vanilla quasi-performance game thing. What the hell?
    Idiots! This is a country of idiots!
    Please keep up the vituperative commentary; we are the selfish adolescent that needs to hear the truth NOW!
    Thanks again!

  16. In a tongue-in-cheek, male chauvanist manner, I think we should let Jane off, simply because she looks quite fit on her website thing.

  17. There are two kinds of protests out there: ones that make a difference (and therefore, as a consequence, might make you feel good) AND ones that merely make you feel good. Personal example — I have never flashed a gas station attendant or urinated in front of some oilco offices or whatever is the hip way to protest our dependence on non-renewable fuels these days. What I do is not drive a car. And know that, with my 30 years of non-car-driving, I have made more difference than 100 performance artists with an “I heart Earth” sticker on their SUV.

  18. =v= It’s not exactly difficult to get arrested in New York City. It’s a might liberal and in places radical city, but it’s got a huge jackbooted Republican-run police state apparatus standing on its neck.

  19. Hm, dissertation stresses eh?

    Let me give you a pointer Chris. It is not the fact that you use the term ‘cunt in a shopping trolley’ that is worrying. It is the fact that when you think how can I express disapproval the term ‘cunt’ comes to your mind.

    For example, when I think about you and your opinions, the terms facile, puerile and stupid come to mind. So much more descriptive. You now know that I think you are a complete idiot. No doubts on your part. Period

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