Monday, March 11, 2013

Review: Moving Politics

[Deborah B. Gould. Moving Politics: Emotion and ACT UP's Fight Against AIDS. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009.]

When I started reframing some of my prior preoccupations as, in part, an interest in how emotion and other feelings in the body are intertwined with/produced by/produce the social world, this was pretty much the only book that I was aware of that I knew I would want to read. It didn't end up being the first relevant book I got my hands on, but after reading it I am no less sure of its importance to whatever I end up doing to pout my interest in this area to work.

The book is an examination of the rise and decline of the direct action AIDS movement in the United States, particularly iconic group ACT UP, in the 1980s and early 1990s. The author herself was a core militant with ACT UP/Chicago, and she bases the work on her experiences, on many interviews with other participants, on archived movement material, and on articles published in the queer press in those years. Gould periodizes the work by looking at, roughly, the years between AIDS emerging and the turn to direct action, then the meteoric rise of ACT UP and similar groups, and finally the years in which the need for radical change in the face of AIDS was no less but ACT UP declined in most cities and nationally. Even just as a fascinating history of a fascinating movement, this book is an important contribution. Perhaps not surprisingly given its theoretical focus, it not only gives a very useful account of events and the context in which they happened, but it powerfully evokes mood, tone, feeling at different points along the way -- the grief and rage of having so many friends die, the bubbling sexual energy that was so much a part of early ACT UP, the joy that can come from acting directly and collectively when action is absolutely necessary, and so on.

Of course, it's easy when you're not yourself the writer to ask for more. It's already a lot of book -- not a hard read, but not a quick one either -- so it's even more unfair than usual to ask it to do more than it does, but as is always the case there are other aspects of the history that I would be interested to see. For instance, the book focuses primarily on Chicago, New York, and the national scene, and I'd be interested in how things went down in other places, especially smaller centres. As well, in exploring the complex interweaving of diverse experiences and diverse politics within the movement, the book pays a great deal of attention to positive/negative status, to gender, and to political analysis (and how it should not be assumed to map simply onto identity), but I felt it all would've been enriched through drawing more than the book did on the (presumably diverse) voices of gay men of colour both within and outside the movement. I also would've liked to have seen more consideration of the presence/experience/role of non-monosexual men. There was certainly even less space then than there is now for men to take on identities that are not "straight" or "gay", but the book had some limited discussion of men with non-monosexual practices in the context of the sexual environment of ACT UP -- particularly, how the sexually charged and enthusiastically transgressive atmosphere of the movement included space that was never uncomplicated but that was nonetheless embraced by some participants for gay- and lesbian-identified activists to experiment sexually across gender. This is one of a number of ways in which the direct action AIDS movement was a crucible from which 'queer' sensibility and politics and sexuality emerged later in the '90s. As important as this aspect is, I'd be interested in seeing that situated in a broader analysis of how relatively reified monosexual identities, and experiences of fitting or not fitting them, were important both to building and to constraining the movement and various people's affective identification with and participation in it. And, of course, I'd be interested in knowing more about how the direct action AIDS movement happened in the Canadian context -- thankfully, a couple of good friends are in the early stages of putting together a project to do some of that work, and I'm excited to see what they produce over the coming years.

Another part of what this book does is intervene in academic theorizing about movements. Generally speaking, I don't have a whole lot of interest in that body of scholarly work which describes itself as "social movement theory." There are exceptions, of course, but for the most part it tends to objectify movements and to ask questions that end up being of relatively little interest or use to movements themselves. So I don't necessarily identify with this book's impulse to present that body of work as one of its origin points. However, I do think its interventions in that field could be of considerable use if broadly taken up. In particular, I think its focus on emotion and on a kind of holisitc history both contribute to a whole-person basis for understanding movements, rather than the reified and abstracted tendency that dominates social movement theory, and its extreme caution about proposing excessively generalized answers to abstracted questions about movements is also useful. That said, there are still echoes of a kind of problem-posing and question-answering that occasionally rubs me the wrong way, but for the most part it is only echoes.

Perhaps the most useful part of the book, beyond the history itself, is its theoretical work around emotion. The idea that we should think of ourselves, each other, and our movements as simultaneously embodied, emotional, and rational, rather than only one or the other, or all but in discrete and separated ways, is not new in many feminist and anti-racist spaces. However, the lack of space for this understanding in many dominant ways of talking about the world -- definitely in academia, and certainly in many movement contexts as well -- means that the tools to mobilize this understanding in talking about the social world, movements, and how our lives are woven through and by them, are far more limited and underdeveloped than they should be. Gould's contribution is not so much to settle how best to do this, but to insist that we must and to offer both her overall example, which in most cases I find convincing and compelling, and a collection of specific conceptual tools that are useful suggestions along the path of figuring it all out. Certainly among these are some that I am interested in but not yet entirely convinced by. For instance, her notion of "emotional habitus" to talk about the repetitive, socially organized, locally normative practices which shape and regulate emotional life and emotional possibility seems quite powerful as something that "locates feelings within social relations and practices" (25), not to mention being compatible with understandings I already hold about how our lives are socially organized. Yet I am cautious because it seems to me that it is a way of talking about it all that is very prone to substituting naming for explanation -- "Why did X happen? Oh, because of the emotional habitus of the group." I don't think she particularly falls into that, but I wonder if there might be other ways to frame it that would do more to keep lived practices front and centre. Or to take another example, this book's account gives significant power to "emotives" -- statements which not only express how we are feeling but that, as we make them, give shape and specificity to the affective energy we experience in a given situation. This seems plausible to a certain extent, and I certainly agree with Gould's emphasis on distinguishing between affect (visceral intensity that is not-yet-named and not-yet-directed) and emotion (energy that has been taken up into language and named, and therefore has specificity and direction), but I would want to do a lot more reading and thinking about how micro-level social production and regulation of affect and emotion happens before giving quite as big a role to emotives in that process. Those reservations notwithstanding, I think the work that Gould does in this area is tremendously useful and important.

I think perhaps that what is most useful about how she goes about this work is in some ways what distinguishes what she does from more conventional social movement theory. That is, in my experience, when I'm trying to make a decision about how to act in a movement context, as a writer, or in other aspects of everyday life, mostly how I do that is a sort of ad hoc empathetic and imaginative modelling of the context in which I'm acting and of the other actors in that context rather than by applying anything that resembles an academic analytical model. Gould's analysis is very grounded in the material circumstances it seeks to explain, and it is very descriptive and rich in detail. And that is exactly the sort of source material you need for the kind of empathetic and imaginative modelling that is the basis of how individual and group decision making actually happens in most cases -- not some proscriptive approach that does violence to your experience by telling you how to abstract it and rip it out of context, but rich and nuanced examples that model for you how it all went and how tools were used in other situations that you can then take up and adapt as necessary. I think, actually, both ACT UP as presented in her work and the model of her doing of the work itself are both examples of this that readers can learn from. Even things as deceptively simple as her modelling of how to take up newspaper accounts and transcribed interviews and read them for emotion, even when emotion is not the explicitly communicated content of the text, is incredibly useful as a kind of example of listening that can be applied in making knowledge about the world, in making movements, and in making knowledge about/for movements.

Similarly, it is in that mode that her analysis of ACT UP struck me as most immediately useful in applying it to other movement-relevant situations. One example of this sort of resonance that struck me very forcefully as I read the book was ways in which her thinking about the sudden turn to direct action by AIDS activists in the mid 1980s might provide us with ways to start thinking about the sudden tactical shift in indigenous organizing that happened in the initial upsurge of Idle No More. I'm not sure I have anything of much use to say about that at this point, but I bet that a sort of deep listening to emotion will be as useful in learning from Idle No More as it is in Gould's account of ACT UP. And the ways that she talks about things like polarization within movements, both in terms of tactics and in terms of narrow vs. intersectional politics, are useful models for thinking through the dynamics of similar polarizations in other movements. As are her discussions of movement decomposition and withdrawal, of questions of respectability, of the emotional and political implications of queer ambivalence, and many other things.

So. I look forward to figuring out how make use of what this book offers. Unfortunately, I don't necessarily expect a lot of other people to pick it up -- the history it tells is quite specific, and it is not a small book -- but I think its theoretical insights could be tremendously useful for those of us who are involved in building movements, those of us who are involved in producing knowledge about movements, and those of us who try our best to be involved in both.

[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

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