Textured activism: in-between liberation and oppression

By reducing life to dualisms we lose the rich fabric of possibilities that can generate important social change.

Natalie Kouri-Towe
27 December 2016

Credit: CC0 Public Domain.

Do you ever get that sensation where your insides want to crawl out into the world and fix something that feels wrong? It’s a feeling that keeps me up at night. Encounters with injustice are often deeply felt, and activism is imbued with feelings of rage, anger, hope, despair, fear, excitement and desire. We often think of the political world as a space for thinking and action, yet many of us are drawn to social movements because we feel the urgency to change the world and to change ourselves; the thinking, analyzing and strategizing come later.

Contemporary movement practices of self-care and community accountability acknowledge feelings like this and use them in concrete, positive ways, but what about those sensations that we can’t quite put into words, those feelings that are not quite emotions? These are the non-verbal, not-yet-signified sensations that emerge from what psychoanalytic thinkers, philosophers and cultural theorists call affect.

Affect refers to those aspects of our embodied experiences that move us—not simply feelings of anger, sadness or happiness but the unsettling, shifting, moving intensities that emerge inside each person; the uneasy sensations that don’t yet have definitions, explanations or rationales but which are powerful motivators in both thought and action.

In social movements, we often talk about feelings as a way to put our affective experiences into action—by redirecting that churning feeling in our stomachs into anger or turning euphoric sensations into love for our communities. But mobilising feelings for politics can be risky: critics of neo-liberalism like Lisa Duggan argue that feelings can reinforce hegemonic power by investing desire into the status quo—so gay marriage, for example, is celebrated as a victory of love over hate even though it does little to address the broader issues of social, sexual and gender inequality. Instead of relying on our feelings, affects can help us to redirect our energies in the ways we take action.

Part of my proposal to think about activism in this way comes from critiques of linear progress: the past was bad and the future will be good. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick calls this a form of dualistic thinking—she’s the gender and queer theory scholar who introduced this way of thinking about affect. For Sedgwick, dualisms like good/bad or repression/liberation trap us in their logics, so we are either ‘oppressed’ or we are ‘free.’

But by reducing life to dualisms we lose the in-between, the texture of agency and possibility that can bring meaningful change even when liberation hasn’t been achieved. This is what textured activism entails: refusing the easy dualisms of political thinking in favour of the richly textured landscape of possibilities that include but are not limited to resistance. It’s an approach that’s informed by the unsettling aspects of affects that move us to change.

Affect is an important concept because it asks us to suspend our need to know our feelings, and instead asks us to consider the open, nuanced, complex, and different ways of feeling and responding—not just anger directed at oppression, or happiness directed at liberation, but adaptive responses to the unsettling feelings of injustice. A textured approach to transformation asks us to consider strategies that aren’t yet fully formed, and that might unsettle us. That might mean not calling for liberation, for example, but asking a different set of questions.

The recent “no big deal” campaign on gender pronouns in Canada provides a useful illustration of textured activism in practice. When a professor at the University of Toronto publicly announced that he would refuse to respect the gender pronouns of his trans, non-binary and gender-nonconforming students, an inflammatory public debate ensued over his position and the status of new legislation that would add the protection of gender expression and gender identity to Canada’s Human Rights Act.

Refusing the dualism of pro-versus-anti-pronouns in the resulting media frenzy, the #nbdcampaign used a more subtle approach by pronouncing that “using someone's preferred gender pronoun is an easy way to show your support for everyone's right to live safely and well in their gender identity.” So “I’ll use your pronoun, no big deal.”

The campaign effectively redirected discussion away from a simplistic either/or analysis and changed the conversation by transforming the terms of engagement and de-escalating the feelings of public panic about pronoun use and legislative changes. This strategy worked because it didn’t try to appeal to people’s feelings such as shame, anger, or fear. Instead it recognized the ways in which feelings were being intensified by the debate, and offered another way of approaching the respectful use of pronouns—a creative approach that unsettled the debate and helped to settle the panic that surrounded it.

Unfortunately, not all political conflicts can develop such solutions. In part, the problem we face is that dualistic thinking is immensely helpful to social movements. Given a clear, binary choice, we can quickly identify power hierarchies and inequalities. Dualistic thinking is a psychological shortcut that helps us to navigate a complex world.  But what happens when this way of thinking leads us to miss opportunities to engage in potentially-transformative practices of change?

Take, for example, the case of domestic violence. Traditional feminist responses see the problem as embedded in patriarchal structures of power in which men perpetrate violence against women. However, in her research on violence against women of colour, Kimberlé Crenshaw introduced a more nuanced analysis of the interplay between the different economic, social, and political dynamics that shape gender-based violence. In what she called an intersectional approach, Crenshaw argued that undocumented women who were victims of domestic violence were not only subject to male violence, but also to racial violence, state violence at the hands of police and immigration enforcement, and family economic and social dependency. Therefore, responses to domestic violence require a more textured approach that connects these different factors together.

In practice, this more textured analysis has opened up a range of different interventions in addition to more traditional campaigns to end violence against women, which tend to focus on the criminalization of the perpetrators. For example, transformative justice approaches call for the end to racial profiling, incarceration and the prison system; expanded social welfare programs; and the building of strong community networks that can respond to cases of violence without criminalization. These responses entail thinking beyond the dichotomy of ‘bad-perpetrator’ and ‘good-victim’ in order to understand and transform the conditions that produce violence, whether they are structural and systemic or psychological and emotional.

Especially for activists, this is difficult to do because the perpetrators of violence (whether states or individuals) seldom face any consequences for their actions. But the pervasiveness of violence, and the inability of social movements to halt it through resistance alone, suggests that other strategies must be considered. Turning to affect theory helps us to consider the subtle, under-developed, adaptive, textured approaches to activism that might help.

We can’t simply rely on the tools and strategies that are readily available to us if we want to build effective approaches to social and political transformation. It’s the same with our feelings, which can betray us when we turn to quick and easy answers because we feel bad about the world. Likewise, our political strategies can fail our vision for transformation when we remain attached to dualisms. Sometimes we don’t need an opponent—we just need to change the script in the way the #nbdcampaign is doing for gender pronouns.

At root, textured activism is a commitment to suspending our expectations and desires that social and political transformation can only be achieved through liberation. Instead, it asks us to consider how an attachment to good/bad dichotomies might prevent us from developing effective strategies in movement building. This is a difficult task because it requires that social movements undertake more nuanced, self-reflexive, and at times contradictory work, but the commitment to thinking about different approaches alongside liberation politics opens up more possibilities for transformation in ways that might be unexpectedly meaningful and effective.

This article is inspired by a previous piece in Atlantis.


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