Monday, February 11, 2013

Movements, Emotions, and the Challenges of Writing About Them

Back in December, I wrote a piece beginning to think through how what we feel in our bodies -- the feeling in our gut, our affect, our emotion -- is not just "us, feeling" but is always also "us, feeling the world." That is, those feelings are significantly about the social world and not just about the individuals who feel them. They are always at play as we come to know the world. They are always involved as we act in the world. Yet we seldom recognize that, or explicitly incorporate it into our narratives of ourselves and of the world -- too often, even if on some level we don't agree with doing so, many of us, particularly those of us with the privilege to get away with the pretence, act based on the deeply socially ingrained figure of ourselves as atomized, liberal-democratic individuals.

One of the areas in which I am particularly interested in thinking about this inherently embodied and socially enmeshed character that we inevitably have but that there are so many barriers to fully appreciating and acting upon is when it comes to questions of oppression and resistance, of struggle, both in their everyday and in their more explicitly collective and deliberate variants. I'm early on in reading what promises to be a fascinating book on related questions, Moving Politics: Emotion and ACT UP's Fight Against AIDS by Deborah Gould. I will definitely review it when I've finished it, but it has already got me thinking more about how I want to work on some of these questions myself. In particular, I have been thinking about the affective and emotional landscape -- Gould distinguishes between affect, inchoate and undirected feelings of bodily intensity, and emotion, those feelings once they have been moulded and channelled into more directed, linguistically-shaped forms -- in my own experiences related to oppression, resistance, struggle, and movements, and those of the people I've worked with over the years. And one perhaps not surprising but nonetheless quite important realization that I have quickly come to is that my knowledge of how that has worked for most people with whom I have been politically active is starkly limited.

Now, this not-knowing (much) is not a simple absence but rather a complicated patchwork of shifting, flickering presences and of multiple kinds of absences. I won't try to sort it all out in this post, but there's all kinds of unevenness when it comes to who is more connected with and who is more detached from their own feelings, and which among those feelings, as well as who is more likely to notice the feelings of those around them and who is not. There is related unevenness in terms of who develops and practices communication about their own emotional states and those of the people around them. Then there are all kinds of tricky questions about who is present in what spaces, how such spaces are formed, how they get regulated, how that shapes opportunity and safety for communication with openly emotional content, and how all of these things produce and/or constrain shared discourses in which emotional content is even legible.

Given that one's social networks tend to overrepresent people like one's self, and that my own identity tends to fall in most ways towards experiences of the world that do not produce particularly great emotional functionality, and given that white middle-class men often exert undue influence over many of the kinds of social movement spaces I have been in and we are (on average) less likely to be good at talking about such things ourselves and less likely to shape social space in ways that makes others feel safe enough to do so -- all in the context of a dominant culture that is scornful of emotion and that de-socializes it -- it probably isn't that surprising that I have very uneven knowledge about the landscape of how affect and emotion have intertwined with experiences of oppression, resistance, struggle, and movements for most of the people around me -- it is, generally, talked about rarely and poorly, though judicious observation certainly reveals certain kinds of things. What knowledge I do have through conversation rather than direct observation has, I think, most often been acquired outside of movement contexts rather than in ways integral to them. Speaking personally, my own particular blend of normative and not-so-normative ways of doing (middle-class white) masculinity means that I am not always particularly well connected with my own affective and emotional states, nor do I find it an easy thing to communicate outside of certain narrow circumstances, but I do tend to invest significant energy in noticing and trying to understand the emotional states of the people around me. What I can say based on what I have seen and on reflecting on my own experiences is that the how and the when of emotional engagement and emotional detachment in these areas, particularly by white middle-class and working-class men who are involved in social movements, is complicated and messy and often does not fit very well at all with what we would likely claim in speech or writing about the content of our politics...detachment when we should be engaged, moments of sudden and unexpected emotional engagement that take us by surprise and disorient us, anger pointed in troubling directions, anger pointed at injustice but felt/expressed in patriarchal ways, self-deception about our feelings, desire at inappropriate times and expressed in inappropriate ways, and all sorts of other things. And I feel even less sure of the landscape of experiences that are socially organized less like my own, even though I have been more likely to hear directly about those experiences from the people who experience them. However, I feel fairly confident that even for people and in movement spaces where the issues are very different, there is still lots going on related to the powerful, overarching social messaging about the illegitimacy of emotion and the erasure of emotion as social rather than private.

This post is not leading up to some kind of singular, simple "we all must" point. That said, it does seem evident to me that not knowing (much) and not talking (much) about this key element of how movements happen can't be good for building effective movements, so there is plenty of incentive to try and figure some of this stuff out. I have a few ideas about ways that I might contribute to some of that thinking and figuring and acting and talking. So this post is written in the spirit of further thinking through something that is both an area of interest for me and itself a barrier to producing useful movement-grounded knowledge about that area. I want to have a better understanding of how the intertwining of the affective/emotional experiences of our embodied and socially enmeshed selves with oppression, resistance, struggle, and movements works for more people. Not sure yet what that is going to mean in practice, but at least one thing it will likely mean is doing some work to figure out more ways to usefully talk about some of these things and then actually doing so when the opportunity presents.

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