Tuesday, December 11, 2012

How Do You Feel the World?

The commonsense view that predominates in North America tells us that we exist as individuals prior to our entry into any sort of social world. There are stronger and weaker versions of this assumption -- some of the softer versions, for instance, allow that we are shaped by our environment. But even the more environmentally-focused accounts grounded in liberal assumptions about how the world is put together still emphatically push us to see what we feel as being mostly about us. Our emotions, our gut-level responses, our triggers, our desires, our pains, are seen as individual phenomena and, to the extent that they are treated seriously at all, they are seen mainly as sources of information about us as individuals.

It is not unusual for more critical approaches to understanding the world to try to get past this and to understand us as always already a part of the social world in a much more fundamental way -- to see us as produced by the social and the social as simultaneously produced by us. Often language of "social construction" or something analagous is used. I often talk about it, for instance, in the language of "social relations," with the idea that social organization shapes experience which informs our actions which produce social relations and other aspects of social organization, and so on. This recognizes the individual level as important for our self-perception and for our interventions into the world, but also sees that level as just one part of flows of cause and effect -- not as an original cause but just as one moment in a larger dynamic that passes through that level but neither starts nor ends there, that is socially produced as well as socially productive.

The particular language that I use is just one possibility; there are many others that sound very different but that share certain basic features. Despite that apparent variety, I've become increasingly conscious that while the ways in which I and lots of other people talk about these things do in principle pay a certain kind of attention to experience and do certainly get past some of the problems with liberal conceptions of the social world, they are still drawn subtly but relentlessly away from the messy, gritty, visceral character of what goes on in our bodies. There is a pull towards treating these things in a kind of cerebral way and to a kind of focus on that which is seen and that which is visible rather than that which is felt. Experience (messy) is read into categories (tidy) which reflect important things and do important work but which make us forget, partially or completely, the experience and thereby constrain our insights and our actions.

I didn't come up with this idea on my own, of course. I was particularly struck by it this past summer when I read Sara Ahmed's Strange Encounters: Embodied Others in Post-Coloniality, which unfortunately I did not have time to review. It does other things as well, but one important aspect of it is its focus on theorizing the social world by starting from encounters -- not just relations, but the physical, embodied encounters through which the sustained patterns and tendencies that we call relations are produced and reproduced. A related idea appeared in a to-me less usable form in Jasbir Puar's Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times (reviewed here). In retrospect, this impulse to be more closely attentive to and grounded in the what goes on in our bodies as we think about and act in the world can be seen to underlie lots of other examples or calls for doing things differently that have resonated with me. For instance, part of what makes Eli Clare's wonderful critical memoir, Exile and Pride: Disability, Queerness and Liberation (reviewed here) so powerful is his skilled, seamless writing of embodied self integrated into social world. It can also be understood as a significant demand of Feminism For Real: Deconstructing the Academic Industrial Complex of Feminism (reviewed here) that we prioritize lived experience and theorizing grounded in lived experience in all its messy, felt, realness over theorizing (and political action) that demands we deny the mess, the felt, the real. And I may be reading some of my own current preoccupations into it, but I even see it in Clare O'Connor's piece in Whose Streets? The Toronto G20 and the Challenges of Summit Protest (to be reviewed soon) when she writes, "There is no place more 'real' than where we happen to find ourselves. In order to build a world that accords with our desires ... we have to start with the raw material of our own immediate conditions" (198), a lesson she says particularly needs to be learned by those of us with relative social privilege as we organize to create revolutionary change.

So I think we need to start doing a better job of paying attention to that level of embodied experience at all as we go about our business of thinking about and talking about and acting to change the world, because many of us don't -- I think generally it is those of us with greater relative social privilege who have more space to ignore the messages that our bodies send us, but it's not a simple linear relation. And we have to start paying attention in ways that look for how those sensations are not purely about us as individuals but are also about the social world. Not that we should treat such feelings as not about us at all; they just aren't only about us. They are us, feeling. But they are us, feeling the world. And we can learn from that -- important things, I think. We can learn about who we are, about the world that makes us who we are, about our space and need and desire to act to change the world.

How do you feel the world? What's going on in your gut, right now? What mood, what sensation, what emotional pain, what delightful tingle, occurs fleetingly every day, but you just ignore it? What does it mean? What does that gnawing hunger you're feeling say about the world? Or how about that intense flash of desire? That deep blue sadness? Those waves of anger you just can't prevent? What do they say about who you are, where you are, and how you might act to create change? And perhaps equally important for those of us with relative social privilege, in what moments do we fail to feel the world -- when it would make sense for us to have some sort of affective response, but we feel nothing? What does that mean? How should we respond to that, and how should that inform our actions?

How do you feel the world?

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