Monday, October 11, 2010

Social Relations, Struggle, Affect, Shame

I think it says something about the political culture in many left-ish spaces in North America that politicized investigation of emotion might need to be extensively justified to be seen as "legitimate" and "serious" activity. Despite corners of interesting work on affective dimensions of social movements (e.g. see here), I think that need to explain and justify is common enough that, as much as I don't like it, I think I should probably do it.

As I've explained before, there are a few broad clusters of interest that I've decided to explore in leisurely ways in reading and writing now that my movement history project no longer dominates my time in quite the way it did for many years. The way I described these clusters originally was something like this: history/race/gender/nation, taking action (in both everyday and more collective senses), popular culture, and sexuality/gender/relationship practice/shame. Talking about them in this way is arbitrary and artificial because they aren't actually distinct like that -- I can't imagine thinking or talking about any of these clusters without talking about things like race and gender and capital, for instance, even though I don't name those in each and every one -- but they have been provisionally useful to me in organizing various choices about how to focus my activities. How these clusters of interest might translate into larger writing projects remains to be seen, but I have various nascent ideas about how that could happen.

You'll notice that in one of those clusters, one of the elements that I name is shame. All I've written about it so far is a single book review, and not a particularly good one at that, but more are on the way. And in that first one I largely glossed over the question of how it is a topic that fits in with the rest of the writing that appears on this site -- the connection feels obvious to me, but I suspect this is not widely the case, and given the common occurrence of skepticism or puzzlement about the importance of seeing a connection between affect and radical social change, I thought I'd talk about it a little more explicitly.

I think the place to start is to revisit material I've talked about lots over the years on this site and in other writing and give a quick back-of-the-envelope sketch of how I understand the social world to work.


Our social world is organized in particular ways, not random. As each of us move through our days, our choices are constrained and regulated by the other people with whom we co-create our immediate, local environment. And we and those around us have our activities organized in extra-local ways by both identifiable written texts and somewhat more amorphous clusters of ideas/discourse/ideology, both of which get any social force they have through people taking them up and acting on them. An example: A police officer on traffic duty has their activities organized by particular sets of legislation, regulation, and policy (not to mention by past urban planning choices), and their actions, in turn, impinge on and regulate ours as we drive through the city. Our desire to be safe ourselves and to keep others safe and the common acceptance of certain rules to organize traffic are often enough to keep our actions organized by those same rules, but the presence of individuals whose activities are organized around intervening punitively in response to violations of those traffic regulations also plays a role in shaping how people choose to take up and act on traffic rules. But that's not all. Though in important respects it is a product of other, deeper aspects of the social organization of police work and not a product of individual agency at all, when this officer stops someone for "driving while Black", they are also acting in the space that people have to make choices as they activate specific texts. As well, they are taking up and acting on longstanding elements of the discourses that organize racist social relations that identify Blackness with danger and criminality. In so doing, the cops help to reproduce in material ways the division of people into groups based on racialization, and differences in power and privilege. That is one of a million small but material ways that every moment of our everyday lives are socially organized, which in turn add together to produce and reproduce the broader strokes of current social relations, dividing humanity into groups, oppressing some, privileging others, exploiting many, and giving extreme power to a few.

Our selves, our subjectivities, are produce by those experiences. At the same time, our choices in taking up the texts/narratives that organize our lives, in making use of the space we have for agency, comes out of that socially produced sense of self. That doesn't erase choice, but it is a way in which the power of the social world to shape us has duration, and it is not just the social of the current moment that matters.

Given this picture, it feels obvious to me that emotion, affect, structures of feeling -- I'm still sorting out how to talk about it all -- can be socially produced and are intimately a part of projects of ruling and of struggles for justice and liberation.

An obvious example is fear. There are times and places where fear is deliberately cultivated as part of social control, whether that is the crude fear of overtly repressive regimes, or the somewhat more sophisticated fear of terrorism cultivated by Western states as part of getting their populations to accept particular agendas (along with the fear that the national security apparatus of those states, including the Canadian state, have at moments instilled in domestic Muslim populations). Fear is also an element of maintaining oppressive social relations in more distributed, less obviously centrally decided, ways -- the specific terrors inflicted by white people on Black populations in the Jim Crow south, for example, or the fear of gender-based sexual and physical violence that regulates the space for making choices for many women (and queer and trans people). Fear of not knowing where your next meal will come from, fear of having your children taken from you, fear of rape, fear of humiliation, fear of losing your job -- not necessarily deliberately planned or centrally coordinated, though often preventable and allowed to exist or even actively propagated in a dispersed kind of way by those who benefit from them, and definitely integral to the "how" of power-over, whatever mechanism by which the fear is produced.

That's kind of a quick-and-dirty account done off the top of my head, and I'm sure there is much more depth and nuance to the role that fear plays in our social relations, but it is enough to be an example of what I mean, I think.

So what about shame, then? How does it happen? What do its origins look like/feel like in individual experience? How is proneness to it in individuals or groups socially produced? Who does it happen to? How does it get mobilized in the service of power, in the maintenance and reproduction of oppression? What about resistance -- does it ever have a role there? Those are the questions I want to explore.

All of which invites a further question: Why shame? Why not fear or anger or arrogance or sorrow? Partly it is an arbitrary choice, since I think it makes sense to think through issues of the role of emotion with a concrete example in mind, and it is not the only one I'm interested in -- for instance, I think there are multiple, often mutually contradictory, ways in which North American movements don't have good ways of thinking about and dealing with anger and I'm sure I'll come back to thinking and talking about that. However, a more complete answer is probably an obvious one: Shame has rather more of an impact on me personally than I would like, in a bunch of ways, and not only is that rather an unpleasant state of affairs, it also sometimes gets in the way of sound political practice and certain kinds of choices about writing. And that just will not do. A friend suggested that one useful response, given how I move through the world anyway, might be thinking about it a bit more deliberately and theoretically, and then writing about it. So here I am.

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