Saturday, January 27, 2018

Perceiving the world as an embodied capacity...and movement-building

Being able to perceive complex elements of the world immediately around us isn't something we're just automatically able to do – it's a capacity, or really many different capacities, that we must develop.

That may sound like a pretty abstract thing to say, but I wonder if there might be value in activists and organizers, and politically inclined writers and educators, paying more attention to it as we figure out how to do our work. Let me start with a few ramdon-ish examples of the many different kinds of things I mean by "complex elements of the world around us", and then a bit later I'll talk about why this way of understanding things might be politically important.

In general, I mean perceiving things that are more complex than "X is blue" or "Y is big." I mean perceptions that generally involve integrating multiple elements of the scene around you (sometimes the whole thing, sometimes as it moves) and assessing that emergent whole for characteristics that are complex and contextual.

A very basic (and mildly embarassing) example: The other day, I went to get my eyes checked. I knew my prescription had changed a little, and that it was likely that I would be ending up with new glasses. I don't mind the check-up and everyone at my optometrist is lovely. But I really don't like the up-selling inherent in the business model. And I really, really hate being asked to make the rapid aesthetic judgements necessary to choose new frames. I hate this because I can't do it. I cannot look at my reflection in the mirror and do the near-instantaneous observing-plus-processing that the situation calls for to develop an aesthetic response that includes things like "I like these!" or "Thinner frames, please" or "The same but in black." I will sometimes be able to reach some kind of aesthetic judgment – "Eww, no" perhaps, or "I'm not sure about that colour" – but it is very inconsistent, and much less than what someone who has this capacity in full measure can do.

Which probably sounds ridiculous to those of you for whom this kind of judgement feels instantaneous and automatic. But trust me, it is a skill, a capacity, and it is one that I don't have.

Interestingly, I had already been thinking about this issue prior to my check-up because of an instance in which I have recently, without really intending to, developed the beginnings of another such capacity that I previously lacked. This instance involves, of all things, dance...something that I have never personally had much to do with. There have been a few occasions when sufficient amounts of alcohol plus a sufficiently charming encourager have managed to coax me onto a dance floor, but not in many many years, and I've never paid much attention, in terms of being a spectator, to dance as an artistic practice.

One consequence of the kind of work that I do is that I spend many hours each day in front of a computer, and sometimes when I need either a break from or musical accompaniment to what I'm doing, I turn to YouTube. At some point in the last six months, I think I must have been searching for some particular pop song, and a video came up that involved young people in a dance studio performing to whatever the song was. I liked the song, so I watched it a few times, and YouTube's video suggestion algorithm started offering me other, similar videos, some of which I chose to watch and others of which were brought to me by the relentlessness of autoplay and my own inattention. One feature of this particular nook of YouTube is videos in which different groups of dancers successively do the same choreography to the same song. This means that watching them induces comparison, which becomes at least one sort of raw material for learning about and developing the capacity to perceive the dancing in a new way. Which has in fact, in a small way, started to happen for me. When I started I could tell "can do the choreography" from "can't", but that was it, whereas now I at least sometimes can distinguish between "great athletes doing a good job" and "wow, that was amazing." Yes, that's a small thing. I am still mostly clueless – mostly not able to perceive in a sophisticated way, mostly not able to articulate anything of interest about what I've seen. But it is a shift, and it surprised me. (The fact that there also seem to be signs in these videos of interesting politics related to embodiment, race, gender, sexuality, and hustling to make a living as an artist under neoliberal capitalism also caught my interest from time to time.)

And – to move away from examples that my teenage nieces would be equal parts amused by and scornful of – it made me think of other instances where I have observed similar phenomena, in these cases in reference to people with highly developed perceptive capacities. So, for instance, I remember reading a theorization of Wayne Gretzky's remarkable hockey skills (notwithstanding his terrible politics) that suggested that what he could do differently than most players was connected to how he perceived what was going on, on the ice. And this made sense to me, because my high school basketball coach was someone who had played on the Canadian national team, and on the rare occasions when he would scrimmage with us, it was obvious he saw the court and the play way, way differently than we did. I even think of my father, who was a world-class musician in a particular niche area, and when he would talk about how a piece was to be performed in a fine-grained kind of way, it was clear that part of the capacity that he had was not just wiggling his fingers adroitly, but also perceiving the music in a way that most people wouldn't be able to – a capacity built by years and years of devoted work.

From the breadth of these examples, it should be clear that by "complex elements of the world immediately around us" I intend to capture a lot of different things. Really, I mean any situation in which someone with the right capacities can derive meaning – complex meaning – from an instance of observing the world in motion around them, in a way in which perception and processing happen tightly together.

So. How does all of this relate to activism, organizing, and political writing and educating?

Well, there are probably lots of ways, but I am thinking in particular of how that understanding of perception relates to how we perceive (or not) the micro-political moments that are ubiquitous in our lives. These are the moments in which oppressive power along all of the different axes shapes our interactions with others and gets reproduced and resisted. This certainly includes moments of microaggression, of everyday ___ism, of social regulation, but I think it is also about perceiving aspects of the shape of our interactions and relationships that are less immediately harmful but still crucial to understand.

It's a piece of commonsense in anti-oppression politics (from their more liberal and reified versions on down to their revolutionary, relational roots) that the targets of these micro-political shenangians are much more likely to perceive them than anyone else. So why is that? Why are those of us who are not targeted in a given instance so much less likely to be able to perceive the situation accurately?

There is, of course, a lot that goes into the not-perceiving of people who are unaffected or who benefit from whatever is happening. In part, we don't perceive these dynamics because nothing about the situation forces us to. In part, we don't perceive these dynamics because it is often in our self-interest not to – not-perceiving supports our power and privilege in that moment. And in part, at least sometimes, we don't perceive these dynamics out of a sort of semi-conscious dishonesty – on some level we know exactly what's going on, but hold on to our denial of that perception very tightly. So, innocent or willful, it is a not-perceiving that itself is shaped through the operation of unjust power in how we are formed as people by our experiences.

This means that having the capacity to perceive such things is not the only thing that's going on. But I would argue that it can very much be part of the mix. Constantly being on the receiving end forces your attention to turn in certain ways, and forces the development of those capacities by (unwelcome, unchosen, unjust) repetition. Not having to notice, and in fact having various incentives not to notice, means not developing those perceptive capacities.

This is where it might be useful to do a better job of recognizing that this is, in fact, a capacity -- an embodied ability that cannot be acquired simply by learning some fact or other, but only through repeated practice. If we think it's useful to get more people more able to perceive these micro-political dynamics – and I think that, even if some approaches overemphasize the micro-political, it is still important – then this recognition will shape how we intervene. It means shifting from an implicit "knowing/not-knowing" paradigm where conveying facts has the potential to be sufficient, to a paradigm that recognizes that such capacities can only be built through close attention and repeated effort over time.

What does that mean in different contexts? Well, I don't really know, but I can imagine in classroom or anti-racism/anti-oppression training situations, for instance, that it would point towards some different expectations and practices. And certainly for people who are doing this work for/on themselves, it points to the need to recognize, for instance, that I don't get better at seeing the racialized & gendered dynamics of activist meetings just by reading the right book, although that might a useful early step. I get better by paying close attention, by listening closely, and by recognizing early on that there's probably lots I'm just not getting even before I have any idea quite what. And then doing the same the next week, and the next week, and so on. And it does NOT point towards a new kind of excuse-making – "I don't have that capacity..." is no more a good excuse than "I didn't know..." or "I didn't intend..." when you've done something messed up and caused harm.

However it plays out in specific contexts, I think it points strongly towards a need for humility when it comes to recognizing the limits of our ability to read situations, and it points towards the kinds of work that need to happen to improve that ability.

And, yes, this is all very micro-political and very focused on the individual, at least on its face. But it is, I think, quite relevant to movement building. This is, after all, about getting better at perceiving and understanding the interactions that build the relationships that build the movements and communities that build the world that we need. And perhaps we can figure out ways to collectively foster the development of these capacities. I'm not sure, to be honest...but it feels like it's worth thinking about.

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