Imagining Otherwise: The Being and Becoming of Resistance
By Carly Thomsen
“What would be the value of passion for knowledge if it resulted only in a certain amount of knowledgeableness and not, in one way or another…in the knower’s straying afield of himself? There are times in one’s life when the question of knowing if one can think differently than one thinks, and perceive differently that one sees, is absolutely necessary if one is to go on looking and reflecting at all.” –Michel Foucault
“ If you have come here to help me, you are wasting our time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” — Aboriginal activist group, Queensland, 1970s
“My basic suspicion is that [scholars’] account of activism has been at once too much and not enough. That is, we give activists or oppressed people too much credit for always having a good analysis of their situation and always resisting it, something that often gets expressed through the term agency, on the one hand, and too little credit for their intellectual work, on the other hand.”–Laura Briggs
“It is the task of the radical critic to illuminate what is repressed and excluded by the basic mechanisms of a given social order. It is the task of the politically engaged radical critic to side with the excluded and repressed: to develop insights gained in confrontation with injustice, to nourish cultures of resistance, and to help define the means with which society can be rendered adequate to the full breadth of human potentialities.” –Chuck Morse
I start this blog with a series of quotations that have informed the thinking and doing central to Feminist Studies 190, “Activisms: Theorizing Resistance and Building Skills for Social Justice,” a strategy that reflects a key position of the class: our activism and thinking are better when we can understood, articulate, and disrupt the ideologies upon which they both rely.
Participants in this class spent the quarter collectively examining what is meant by “freedom,” “activism,” “justice,” and “the political.” We developed strategies and methods for creating alternative worlds, and considered the relation of knowledge production to justice and action. Doing so required that we challenge the still-circulating but tired and bankrupt divisions between theory and practice, internships and intellectualism, activism and the academy—dichotomies perpetuated by academics, activists, and, perhaps ironically, scholar-activists. When I posted to Facebook the invitation to the students’ exhibition of their activist projects, an inspiring activist and former Women’s Studies Professor of mine, who I adore and respect immensely, commented, “Glad to see contemporary WS still concerned with activism. Sometimes it seems like all the focus is on post modernism and Judith Butler.” Such positions simultaneously reiterate the common assumption that activism and theory are dichotomous, and even worse, that they can exist and function without one another.
In this class, we approached theory as resistance and activism as a site for the production of theory. In fact, the class had two goals: (further) developing both activist skills AND critical feminist analytical skills. Readings and assignments required students to critically examine strategies of resistance, activisms, and social movements, as well as the structures and forces that produce the very issues we work on, within, and against. We explored the forces that impact how belief systems are constructed and perpetuated through examining various activist issues from discursive, geographic, political, and historical perspectives, analyzing the structures and institutions that work to construct gender, race, class, ability, sexuality, and nation to investigate their linkages to hegemony and resistance.
To create a space in which students could cultivate new intellectual approaches to social justice work and develop new skills for implementing feminist and queer theoretical ideas required a willingness to critically engage with and analyze the movements to which we belong, to re-think ideologies we’ve long accepted, and to deconstruct the approaches to activism we utilize. These discussions were meant to be challenging—they were intended to encourage us to question how we view ourselves, how we see others, and how we engage with the worlds that surround us.
At the core of this course is the supposition that re-thinking our activism allows us to re-imagine our own subjectivities. Foucault describes the possibility for personal transformation through thinking, reflection and curiosity—not the kind of curiosity that seeks to assimilate what it is proper for one to know, but that which enables one to get free of oneself. This class asked participants to critically analyze, engage, and imagine differently as a form of resistance, as a way to get free of ourselves.
But how in the world does one get free of oneself? What might this mean for critically engaged activists? Avery Gordon asks a question all politically engaged radical critics must engage: “What is involved in wanting and doing freedom?” (193). For Gordon, figuring out how to approach both the wanting and the doing requires, as she says, “something more powerful than skepticism” (187).
Activism, like freedom, is a process. A process that benefits from skepticism and critique, but that also requires something more. As Gordon argues,
Freedom means facing up to what’s killing you, healing the damage, and becoming in-different to the lure of sacrificial promises of monied or exclusive happiness and the familiarity of your own pain…Freedom is the process by which you develop a practice for being unavailable for servitude. It is an uneven process, not very linear, always looping around, catching folks at different moments—facing up, healing, becoming in-different, already in-different. The practice of freedom is difficult; it can be overwhelmed by despair and depression, but it is also joyous. Freedom is, in short, the process by which we do the work of making the revolution irresistible, making it something we cannot live without (204-5).
In spearheading and participating in a significant activist project over the course of the quarter, students in this class confirmed that the process of freedom, the process of activism, is a difficult one. They also expressed that critically engaging with our own activism is as difficult as the doing of it—although, again, these forms of engagement are mutually-constitutive. This is not only because the practice of freedom requires the willingness and ability to imagine and articulate what we are fighting for, not just what we are fighting against—a much more difficult task, as it turns out—but also because the process of freedom, of getting free of ourselves, requires that we critically engage with what we think we know about ourselves.
That students in this class engaged with such processes, grappling with feminist and queer theoretical ideas throughout, strengthened, or perhaps even made possible, their projects. These projects are both theoretically sophisticated and significant activist accomplishments. Over the course of this quarter, students created a music video about crisis pregnancy centers, a reproductive justice poster campaign, programs to build bridges between queer high school and college students, PSAs on feminism and the prison industrial complex, The Reproductive Justice Power Hour radio show, books to more effectively transition queer activist groups from one year to the next, op eds on reproductive justice, coalitions between various disability rights and awareness groups, theater as activism, a program to provide transportation or reimbursement for transportation costs for women seeking abortions, a violence prevention program and academic course, a group dedicated to making spaces accessible for disabled and trans* students, and a blog and exhibition to feature all of this activist work.
Students did these things. Collectively. In a matter of a ten week quarter. The projects that emerged reflect the sophisticated theoretical concepts that were central to our course conversations. They also reflect Gordon’s call to develop approaches to the world that are more powerful than skepticism, approaches that allow us to simultaneously construct and get free of ourselves.
Briggs, Laura. “Activisms and Epistemologies: Problems for Transnationalisms,” Social Text, 2008, 26(497): 79-95.
Foucault, Michel. The Archaeology of Knowledge and the Discourse on Language. Trans. A.M. Sheridan Smith. New York: Pantheon, 1972.
Gordon, Avery. “Something More Powerful Than Skepticism,” Keeping Good Time: Reflections on Knowledge, Power and People. Boulder: Paradigm Press, 2004.
Morse, Chuck. “Capitalism, Marxism, and the Black Radical Tradition: An Interview with Cedric Robinson,” Perspectives on Anarchy Theory. 1999, 3(1). http://flag.blackened.net/ias/5robinsoninterview.htm