Activism In-Difference

By Laura Harwood

Though it wasn’t part of my original project design, I realized that my research experiences, presentations, and the workshops I have given are forms of activism.  I came to this conclusion when reflecting on how much time I spent filtering through my thoughts, explaining my research to people from similar and sometimes painfully different perspectives, but also through Avery Gordon’s book chapter in which she discusses being “in-difference.”

To be “in-difference” is to be, “Indifferent to the lure and the pull of the sacrificial goods and promises ubiquitously on offer and also indifferent to the familiarity of being sick of it all” (203).  Gordon’s description of in-difference reminds me that as an academic and activist, I need to caution against the places I can be led to if I do not think critically and carefully about my actions, phrasing, and contexts.  That is also a place I previously came to view activism.  When Gordon states that we need to be “indifferent to the familiarity of being sick of it all,” I have come to believe that this is the attitude I need.  Before taking this course, I was familiar with being sick of it all—but it didn’t do anything to provoke change.  It was also difficult because throughout my life I have happened to be surrounded by social circles or groups of people who are cynical, self-involved, and not particularly interested in being involved on campus or with any cause that requires dedication and time.  I could do all that I wanted to try to explain things that mattered to me to people, but it only seemed to provoke hostility and irritation in myself, because I didn’t have the distance, the patience, or the awareness Gordon’s form of indifference suggests, which I also view as a survival strategy.  To be “in-difference” is to take anything that can be disruptive to one’s beliefs or dreams in stride, to resist romanticizing your work and also letting go of the feeling of being tired that comes with any form of activist work.

Gordon also states that to be “in-difference is to find the work of the revolution irresistible” (203), which I understand as her suggestion for an attitude that abandons attachments and focuses on possibility.  Rather than being sick of an issue or romanticizing it, Gordon suggests that the work around it should be understood as a process of “what is to come” but is never “ending.”  With this conception of activism, or work, the limitations to what something can mean or socially signify is always transforming, but that uncertainty is what needs to be accepted and reframed as possibility and freedom.

In thinking within Gordon’s framework, and my work over the past quarter, I have realized that this idea of “irresistibility” is my attitude towards research, social theory, and cultural criticism.  I have a deep passion for disability studies, queer theory, and critiquing identity politics, and have been particularly mind-blown by a form of thought I came into contact with this quarter: the decolonial option.  I consider it irresistible because it challenges modernity in ways I wish I had imagined.  One of my main interests in the decolonial option is because it is outside of Western critique, and I am not familiar with much outside of Western social and cultural criticism.  It allowed me to develop a more comprehensive understanding in my research that led me to think about the how modernity, or the Enlightenment, let their ideas of racism flourish by imposing their epistemologies on others and attaching value to difference.  While I am aware that race, queerness, and disability have different histories, this idea of imposing epistemologies on others made more sense to me than anything I had heard before, probably because it linked together forms of oppression in an argument I knew and felt was true.  This form of thought was irresistible because it didn’t stop at analyzing “the institutions,” which I had become frustrated with, but went to the source—it critiqued how things like race, identity, gender, and sexuality all came to exist within the rise of colonialism and capitalism.

Though Walter Mignolo, the decolonial thinker I draw my thoughts from, does not include disability in his analysis, I have borrowed Mignolo’s discussions of the body and epistemology to “decolonize” queer and disabled bodies.  From my fanaticism over his thought, I decided to gamble one of my opportunities to talk about my research to try to challenge peoples thinking about not only queer and disabled bodies, but how modernity has confused ontology (the nature of being) and epistemology (forms of knowledge) as one entity; essentializing the body to a specific ontology.  This, in turn, makes anyone who is not white, because white people have an inherent form of knowledge that is superior according to Enlightenment epistemologies, subordinate.  Using the idea the understanding that Enlightenment epistemologies have led to the oppression of billions, I put what queer and crip theory I knew in the context of the decolonial option in a workshop, which went pretty well.

The workshop I gave featured quotes from the book that I found to be exemplary of what Mignolo means or is trying to articulate, as well as a couple of images from Michel Foucault and Mignolo to illustrate how I meant things.  I think one of the most beneficial things of that workshop was the discussion, because people pointed things out to me that have been or are useful for future use.  One of them was a comment on the images that I had never thought of before—that the pole trying to make the tree straight could also be a piece of wood.  In the context of the decolonial option, that would mean that the pole is the colonizer, and the tree would be the colonized.  There is order imposed on something of a similar kind, but only because it is not following the order to which one believes is valid and true for all trees (or in the decolonial option, mankind).  While I think that a lot of stuff may have flown over people’s heads, I’m pretty sure I got my main point across—that we can’t attach value to difference, and that value is a social construct across the board of identity categories.

All of the decolonizing I have been doing In my thinking has been liberating, giving me “freedom” that is similar to how Gordon describes Bambara’s notions of freedom as a form “that is not a futuristic construct; it is grounded in our present existence as we relay individually and collectively between what’s past and what’s to come” (192).  Rather than thinking within binaries, I have found solace in the not static, constantly negotiating between who I thought I was and who I can be.  I am slowly starting to realize that I am both being and becoming; I will always be who I am within a certain space and time but I am also always shifting and changing according to context.  This idea parallels Mignolo’s discussion of shifting how people perceive themselves to move towards situational identities, so rather than saying “I think therefore I am” saying “I am where I do and think” (99).  By thinking of myself, and my activism, as being where I do, I can avoid identifying myself, or thinking of myself, as an activist all the time (which would be tiring).  This quarter I focused on being and becoming– an activist, a more critical thinker—but moreover, a constructively frustrated person operating within various systems.  By imagining my future as a series of “only endings”—by which I mean, perhaps ironically, without endings, only what’s to come—I can conceptualize the work I have completed this quarter as an ending that signals and speaks to what is, what is to come, what will always be arriving.

By engaging in the everyday, in addition to the abstract and the universal, I have been able to critically engage with my own skepticism, both freeing myself of some of its shackles and recognizing its importance.  As Robin Kelley argues, “once we strip radical social movements down to their bare essence and understand the collective desires of people in motion, freedom, and love lay at the very heart of this matter” (12). Through my critical engagement with my own ideas about activism, I have come to understand what Kelley means: we all imagine and look for the  “what is to come” differently.

I have been able to configure the idea of “what is to come,” with my formerly negative attitudes towards activism to imagine what might be the “bare essence” of activism (at least for myself).  I have realized the value of activism and of theory.. I have come to understand that social change is a complicated thing and requires a variety of approaches. I have come to understand that you do not have to conduct research to order to be an intellectual, or to have informed opinions. I have come to understand that people can be informed in many ways I may not know about, including through activism. I have learned that one’s activism can change their intellectual positions and that one’s intellectual positions can change their activism.

Gordon, Avery. “Something More Powerful than Skepticism,” Keeping Good Time: Reflections on Knowledge, Power, and People. Boulder, Colorado; Paradigm Publishers. Pp. 1-18, 2004. Print.

Kelley, Robin. “When History Sleeps: A Beginning,” Freedom Dreams: The Radical Black Imagination. Boston; Beacon Press. Pp. 187-205, 2003. Print.

Mignolo, Walter. “I Am Where I Do.” The Darker Side of Western Modernity: Global Futures, Decolonial Options. North Carolina; Duke University Press Books, 2011. Print.

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