Monday, August 15, 2016

Review: Normal Life

[Dean Spade. Normal Life: Administrative Violence, Critical Trans Politics, and the Limits of the Law. Durham NC: Duke University Press, 2015.]

This is a classic of radical trans politics, written by legal scholar and organizer Dean Spade, and originally published by the sadly now-defunct South End Press in 2009 and re-released by Duke University Press in 2015.

A central premise for the book is one of the key divides in contemporary social movements. On the one hand, there are politics that focus on narrowly defined single issues, that don't really consider differential impacts of their agenda within or beyond their presumed base and that therefore centre the more privileged elements of that base, and that tend to lack any critical understanding of the state. On the other hand, there are politics that may be grounded in a particular set of experiences but that prioritize seeing the interconnections between different struggles and that aim for collective liberation, that are very attuned to the differential impacts that various reforms would have both within and beyond their base in ways that centre the most marginalized people within that base, and that are very clear (but not dogmatic or rigid) about the oppressive violence inherent in the state form. This is perhaps most clearly talked about these days with reference to queer struggles, and this book puts an emphasis on drawing lessons from past queer movements and applying them to present-day decisions in trans organizing, but it is a distinction that is relevant to quite a few movements.

Given that Spade is a lawyer and a legal scholar, a particular emphasis in the book is examining the role of law reform within movements. Again, there is a distinction that maps roughly onto the two broad kinds of politics described above. The former often ends up relying quite heavily on legal strategies, to the extent that they take on much more weight and significance, and absorb more resources, than more grassroots elements of struggle. In the context of lesbian and gay movements, these politics have tended to emphasize law reforms that constitute some kind of positive recognition -- most prominently equal marriage, hate crime legislation, and explicit inclusion in human rights law. The latter kind of politics, and the one Spade argues for, uses law reform as only one part of a larger, multi-faceted movement strategy, and is quite careful that grassroots, often base-building, activities are prioritized. He goes through each of those major legal achievements of queer movements in the United States and shows how they often don't have the promised impacts on queer lives, and that at least some have significant negative consequences on some (often racialized and/or poor) queer and non-queer people. He suggests an approach to law reform in movement contexts, with particular reference to trans struggles, that begins from asking what aspects of law have the greatest material impact on the greatest number of lives, and then seeking to change those things. In the case of trans people, he suggests that rather than following the lead of LGB movements in seeking things like inclusion in human rights codes and hate crime legislation, the largest impact on trans lived experience would actually be made by challenging how gender functions in administrative law -- which hate crime legislation and human rights codes mostly don't touch. He also argues that, again using the metric of actual impacts on the lives of trans people, it is crucial for trans movements to become part of larger coalitions challenging the prison industrial complex and various injustice related to immigration.

The book is scholarly, but very lucid, very clear in its argument, very easy to follow. I think what I like most about it is how grounded and practical it is when it comes to arguing for a sort of intersectional collective liberation approach to movement politics, and when it talks about state violence. I find that too often when activists or writers take those positions, particularly more privileged activists, they end up sounding radical but feeling pretty detached from lived experience in a way that allows single-issue politics and the downplaying of state violence to come across as the pragmatic and reasonable position. Spade does an excellent job of making clear that in fact politics that strive for collective liberation and that refuse to ignore state violence are not just too-the-root radical but also, when done right, the more practical alternative to making incremental improvements to people's everyday lives.

As a cis person, I have no standing to comment on the choices facing trans politics at this moment of heightened visibility and attack, but I think this book is one excellent way for those of us who do not have that lived experience to understand some of the ways that trans lives and gender more broadly are socially organized, and I think the political lessons in this book resonate through all of our movements.

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

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