Friday, September 18, 2015

Review: Transformation Now!

[AnaLouise Keating. Transformation Now! Toward a Post-Oppositional Politics of Change. Urbana, Chicago, and Springfield IL: University of Illinois Press, 2013.]

Take the fact that I am writing this review at all as a sign of my regard for some of this book's ideas. I've only recently returned to any sort of consistent writing-and-making practice beyond journalling, a sparse scattering of letters and posts, and the radio show, after four months of having most of my time beyond that tied up in moving. I finished reading this book (for the first time) early in the move-prep but never quite found the time to write a review. Normally, this long after, I would've just let it slide. However, some of the book's ideas are very relevant to some of the work that was before and is starting again to be current for me, while others connect with certain things that I have written in the past and offer me ways for me to deepen what I've done. Which isn't to say that I have no reservations about the book, but I'll get to those in due course.

The subtitle of the book promises a "post-oppositional politics of change," a phrase that is likely to intrigue some and set off warning bells for others. I suspect that what that phrase evokes for many in both of those categories is really a somewhat different thing than what the book actually contains -- it is not at all, if you read it with care and generosity, an argument for a formless blahblah liberalism that refuses to take seriously the immense violence and injustice of the world. Quite the opposite, really. But it is quite a subtle book, I think, and an approach to politics that makes no claim to have everything figured out. In fact, I would argue that it is best treated not as complete and self-contained, but as a source of generative ideas that can be taken up and engaged with as part of the ongoing transformation of our existing politics rather than as any sort of replacement for them, as a necessary corrective and addition that is compatible with a range of both more and less radical starting points.

Here's my take on the basic argument of the book: In the West, our ways of seeing and talking about the world are deeply organized via binary oppositions, from Descartes' mind-and-body split on up. This is no less true in movements and communities-in-struggle that are working hard to create change, or in those corners of academic institutions where folks concerned with justice and liberation and critical analysis of the world have carved out some space. Indeed, vigorous embrace of binary oppositions and a stance of energetic oppositionality can often be central for those of us who are trying to create change. This, the book argues, profoundly shapes how we understand the world, how we understand ourselves, and how we understand our struggles. Furthermore, it leads us to misunderstand all of these things. It leads us to homogenize and discount difference within categories, and to refuse to see points of consonance and similarity across them. And understanding the world less well means being less effective in changing it. As well, the book argues that entrenched and rigid forms of oppositional thought and practice lead to particular kinds of approaches to creating change -- approaches that can certainly be crucial and effective in some moments, but that often hold on long past such moments and end up getting universalized in ways that limit our potential for creating truly transformative change.

To get a flavour of the ideas involved, you can listen to this in-depth interview with the author, AnaLouise Keating -- a scholar, an activist, and a disciple of legendary (and, sadly, now deceased) feminist Gloria Anzaldua. (In fact, it was only after I started to read this book that I realized I had encountered Keating's work once before, many years ago, when I read an important collection co-curated by Keating and Anzaldua called This Bridge Called Home.)

One of the key commitments in Transformation Now! is to take up theoretical work done by women of colour scholars and writers of the past. It quite rightly points out that, even when key works by radical women of colour are cited in and beyond the academy, it is often done in ways that are superficial or tokenistic or that cherry-pick narrow points without really making an effort to engage and build upon the central ideas they present. And Keating is very clear that her commitment to focusing on some of these works by radical women of colour is not based on some shallow commitment to representation for its own sake, but because she believes that some of the most innovative and important theorizing of the world to happen in North America in the last several decades has been done by women of colour, and we all lose by leaving those ideas marginalized. So, for example, she argues that, despite how often the collection This Bridge Called My Back gets cited and described as a feminist classic and put on reading lists, very little work has been done by subsequent generations of writers (particularly in the academy) to actually build on the theorizing done by its contributors. So she does some. As well, she makes great use of some of the central concepts developed by Gloria Anzaldua throughout her career to get at ideas of relationality, complexity, and transformation.

One area in which the book discusses its core ideas, and an area that I found particularly interesting, was in the context of what gets labelled, often dismissively, as "identity politics." There is a rich tradition of writers and activists, not only but primarily women of colour, articulating the importance of experience and identity to efforts to create change, and doing so in ways that emphasize complexity, multiplicity, and relationality. As those insights have spread to other contexts, both in movements and among scholars, the ways that they get deployed have changed. In the terms of this book, they have become bound up in binary oppositional politics, and have therefore lost much of their original openness to complexity, multiplicity, and relationality. To put it in somewhat different terms, I would argue that they have for many people become absorbed into ways of treating identity that are reified, and ways of doing politics that adhere to liberal assumptions about both the nature of the social world and about politics. The book doesn't really explore how this transition happened, but I would guess that beyond the hold that binary thinking has on movements and critical scholars in general, it can be tied to things like the overall push under neoliberal capitalism to reify identities, the impact that the social relations of the academy have on any radical idea, and the sadly predictable result of lots of privileged people taking up these ideas and applying them in simplistic ways such that more radical implications get bleached out.

In contrast with these reified/binary oppositional identity politics, the book poses not a downplaying of the importance of experience and its sedimentation into identity -- that is, the approach some liberals and (in a different way) some (mostly white) radicals have used to respond to the limits of mainstream invokations of identity and intersectionality -- but rather an even greater emphasis on them. It is a recognition that inherited identity categories exist because they say something important about the social organization of our lives, and that it would be cruel and foolish to advocate just abandoning them, but also that such categories are very far from capturing everything that is personally and politically significant about our lives and the social world. It is attention to the fine grain of experience, to what the book talks about as the complex weave of both commonalities and differences that invariably exist within and across inherited categories. It is insistence that in that complexity exists the possibility for new kinds of action, new modes of transformation. It is relational and dynamic rather than centred on rigid, stagnant categories. It is a recognition that, yes, it is and must be central to our politics that we have such-and-such experiences of marginalization and such-and-such experiences of privilege, but we must attend to the how of it, to the contextual eddies and currents, to the possibilities for surprising alliances and unexpected shifts in self-understanding. We are always more than what we are told we must be -- to use language I have picked up in other places, we always overflow; we always exist within, against, and beyond.

I particularly appreciate the three deceptively simple but very powerful lessons that she derives from theorizing done in This Bridge Called My Back. She sees these lessons as a basis for moving from currently dominant approaches to intersectionality that remain bound up with binary oppositional concepts and politics (and, I would add, reified ones), towards a more radical and nuanced "politics of interconnectivity." She argues, on this basis, for "making connections through differences," "positing radical interrelatedness," "and listening with raw openness." In all of these, a commitment to "intellectual humility" and to recognizing the inevitably incomplete character of our knowledge of ourselves and of the world are absolutely essential. And I agree -- these are crucial lessons, crucial tools for us to take up as we try to know the world and change it.

As I have mentioned in some of my infrequent posts in the last year, I've been doing a lot of thinking about how we know the world through encounter, relation, and movement, and I think this book is incredibly relevant to that work. It makes it very clear that we miss a great deal when we insist on ordering our knowing of the world through an abstracted series of binaries, and we gain immensely when we attend to how the social organization of our lives and communities through the workings of power actually happens -- how those complex lived realities of commonality and difference actually weave through our lives. This includes, in the book, an emphasis on the value of considering unlikely juxtapositions of very different sources of knowledge, to explore those commonalities and differences and the complex socially organized relationships that they are part of. So, for instance, an early chapter reads Ralph Waldo Emerson, Toni Morrison's Sula, and Gloria Anzaldua in relation to one another, as a way of theorizing the individual and the social. And this is part of why I think this book offers a much deeper reflection on some ideas that I had begun to fumble my way towards in my own books -- the idea of understanding the social world, either historically or in the present, by beginning from my experience, and your experience, and her experience over there, and figuring out how they are all interconnected. It is relational, it is open to complexity, and it works to understand how things are actually happening, with an underlying commitment to doing so in the service of just and liberatory social transformation. Or, at least, that's the theory...I don't necessarily make grand claims for how effectively I've been able to realize any of that so far.

Related to this is the book's emphasis on developing an understanding of the social world that transcends the binary between a very atomized version of liberalism, and a sort of rigid and unthinking structural determinism. In everyday conversation about the world, and even in most writing outside of very specific niches, these are really the only easily accessible options for thinking about how the social world exists. And neither is very useful. Again, in my past work I've tried to learn from some of the approaches that are out there for getting beyond this binary, and one of the things that I have considered as a focus for a future project (not the one I'm returning to writing at the moment, but perhaps the next one) is figuring out new ways to offer tools to people for beginning to think about themselves as being in the social world beyond the very limited possibilities offered by this binary.

Despite all of these interesting and useful ideas, back at the beginning I mentioned that I had some reservations -- some specific elements that, in the spirit of the book's commitment to finding complex commonalities and differences rather than falling into the binary of devotion or rejection in relating to other people's work, I think deserve further thought and development.

For one thing, I wonder if the book is perhaps a bit too stark in how it poses the distinction between binary oppositional (or reified) identity politics on the one hand, and more complex and relational integration of experience and identity into political work on the other hand. I can appreciate why doing so is important for clarity. And I also think there is a tendency -- again, particularly among that subset of white or otherwise privileged progressives and radicals who don't particularly like identity politics anyway -- to conflate what are actually quite different ways of deploying identity and experience. Given that, drawing out the differences is a crucial task. But my sense -- and I welcome feedback from folks who disagree, because I feel very tentative about this point -- is that, particularly among people who experience a significant degree of marginalization, the language that they often have available to talk about their experience and the world is hard to distinguish from more problematic variants of identity politics, but their actual practice of said politics often organically incorporates much more recognition of complexity and relationality than you will find in a significant proportion of related scholarship, from most powerful institutions that have taken up identity politics for their own ends, and from many privileged individuals (both those who recognize the importance of experience and identity and those who scoff at it).

I also wonder about how best to frame the relationship between the "post-oppositional politics" that the book is trying to articulate and the binary oppositional politics upon which it builds. The book is very clear in some cases that it is not attempting to treat these two modes of politics as themselves a binary, with the "post" clearly trumping the present mode. It is, in these cases, careful to talk about this new approach adding to oppositional politics, which cannot help but continue to be an important part of the lives and struggles of many different people situated in many different ways. But the book is not always as careful as that, and there are moments when it feels like it is dismissing oppositional politics in a much more total way -- I don't think it actually is, but it reads that way in places. More importantly, the book does not tackle what is to me the crucial question of how to make decisions about relating in practice to these different modes of approaching analysis and political action. Not that I'm looking for a recipe book -- that would be a very bad idea, I think -- but it seems absolutely central to lay out some tools that might be useful for people on the ground trying to navigate this political landscape in practice. In scenario X, what is the risk of moving away from starkly binary understandings, and what might be gained? How is that different in scenario Y? What are the ways to take up the recognition of complexity and relationality at the heart of this book's approach, while still being a productive part of movements on the ground that are necessarily oppositional?

Related to that is what looks to me -- and I know full well I'm extrapolating pretty intensely here -- like a deliberate decision by the author to write a book that will easily be misread, a book that requires the very kind of nuanced, humble, generous reading that it advocates. I don't think this is an accident. Among other reasons, I think that partly because one chapter in the book is an analysis of a book by an otherwise much-respected Indigenous woman scholar that is often ignored and criticized because it could and does get used in really politically troubling ways by white and other non-Indigenous women. The undercurrent of Keating's effort to re-read that work in more positive ways involves (it seems to me) a recognition that radical women of colour should not have to orient their writing choices around avoiding misreading and misuse by privileged folk, and instead should be allowed the space to produce the tools that say what they want to say in the ways that centre themselves and those with whom they have political affinity as the imagined reader. (And I recognize that even the way I'm deploying identity-related words in that sentence sits uneasily with the spirit of the book I'm reviewing, but as Keating herself acknowledges, it's hard to avoid sometimes. As well, I suspect (and the book admits) that many people will not be convinced by her reading in this chapter, and I'm not going to weigh in on that, because it's one of those conversations that I feel that I can only sit quietly and listen to.)

And regardless of whether it is a deliberate feature of Transformation Now! or not, I think there is a real danger of it being misread -- or perhaps it's more appropriate to say that it is open to a wide range of different readings, given the danger of presuming (and dubiousness of fixating on imaginings of) authorial intent. Not only can I imagine, as I said at the top, both embrace and dismissal of the book based on such a (mis)reading, I can also imagine it being weaponized in debate in really troubling ways by (probably mostly) privileged folks. I can imagine people towards the apolitical end of the Peace Studies spectrum, for instance, deploying some of the language in this book to push for peace over efforts to create justice, or for some defanged version of dialogue instead of open struggle, in situations where I think those would just be bad, bad, bad ideas. I can imagine class-privileged white university students using some of the language in this book to argue against identity politics in their entirety, to argue against struggle, to argue against radicalism. I can imagine these people thinking they are taking up and using these words exactly as the author intends as they do these things, and invoking her identity and credentials to legitimize their politics against and over marginalized peers. And these really would be misreadings and misuses, no matter the openness to multiple readings made possible by the book. I find it pretty hard to know what to do with all of that. At the very least, I don't think I would feel comfortable writing a book that left itself open in this way. But, frankly, I have immense respect for (what at least to me looks like) the author's decision to write the subtle, complex book that she wanted to write; that requires the kind of reading she calls for; that speaks to people who are willing to do the work to read not just the words but also the field of meaning from which they emerge; and that refuses to put at the centre of its writing people who can't or won't do these things. It's gutsy, and it's a challenge to us as readers and writers that we must take seriously.

So. It's always tough to know how any given instance of reading will filter down into yet-to-be imagined pieces of writing. But this book will certainly be in my mind as I write over the next little while.

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


Elan: Reviews and Reflections on Culture, Politics and Spirituality said...

Hi Scott: This is a very long review - though I did get through about 80% of it. I was expecting something quite different. You allude to it toward the end in your critique of the book: some kind of discussion around a different way of doing practical politics and political organizing. Instead, the book - from I can gather - offers a rereading of identity politics from a deconstructionist perspective. I am reminded of a book I read in the mid-1990s that was published in the early 1980s:

Scott Neigh said...

:) Thanks for making it 80% of the way through! Generally when I write reviews on the blog, it's primarily with the aim of wringing as much meaning and benefit as I can from the book for myself, and consideration of anyone else who might read the review is very secondary, so I always appreciate it when folks put in the work to read what I have to say.

Yes, it wasn't really focused on the practicalities of organizing, unfortunately, though the experience of that kind of work is certainly part of what it draws from. And the book doesn't situate itself in the tradition of the one you link to, but some of the other folks I've read whose work feels like it is trying to come at related things via a different path are heterodox marxists who try to learn in one way or another from insights from the more clearly materialist side of poststructuralism.