Monday, September 02, 2019

Review: Pleasure Activism

[adrienne maree brown. Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good. Chico CA: AK Press, 2019.]

This is an eclectic collection "written and gathered" (as the author credit puts it) by organizer, facilitator, and writer adrienne maree brown. It contains many, many different kinds of pieces – both newly written and older re-published work by brown herself; pieces by other people, and pieces where other people are in dialogue with her; scholarly essays, writerly essays, personal essays, magazine-style articles, blog-style musings, poems, artistic interventions, and many many interviews. They range from Audre Lorde's classic "Uses of the Erotic" to pieces with titles like "Why We Get Off", "Strategic Celibacy", "Fuck Cancer", "On the Pleasures of the Wardrobe", "Experiments in Cannabis for the Collective", "The Pleasure of Deep, Intentional Friendship", "Nipples Are Magic", and "Beyond Trans Desire."

I'm actually quite a bit more ambivalent about this kind of broad and mixed collection than I used to be. I don't know if this is true or if I just happen to be encountering them more, but it at least feels to me like this kind of book has become more common. I have a feeling some of that may be because it allows for re-use in print of formerly e-published material, which often has a broader range of forms than back in the day when everything appeared initially in print in more formally curated venues. Don't get me wrong, I definitely see breadth of voice and a devotion to dialogical character to be political strengths, and breadth of form can certainly be well done. But in recent years, it feels like I have run into instances of books that have taken this approach but done it in a way that just didn't result in a particularly engaging or substantive product. I was a little anxious about starting this book because I really didn't want it to turn out to be one of those – at least aspects of this topic are things that really matter to me, and I didn't want to be disappointed. Thankfully, I wasn't.

As far as I can tell, a central element of brown's approach (here and in a related but not identical way in her earlier book Emergent Strategy) seems to be centering complex, multilayered concepts/practices, and inviting generous exploration of what they might be and what they can do, to fill them in as we go. It is not of the academic form of X said Y and that's not right because of Z, and A said B and that's not right because of C, and building on that here's what I say – it's here is this complex speculative whole that is perhaps not yet fully formed, and oh here's a piece that's light and funny about one little moment of it, and here's a deeply thoughtful essay about how it weaves through a bunch of other stuff, and here's a personal reflection on how someone else reached some of these ideas in their 20s, and really it is all of these things together from which the politics that she wants to convey emerge. Of course some of the individual pieces felt stronger and some weaker, some felt more relevant to me and some less so, but there were enough of the strong and relevant ones and a rich enough whole that I think that it worked, at least for me.

She writes in the introduction, "Pleasure activism is the work we do to reclaim our whole, happy, and satisfiable selves from the impacts, delusions, and limitations of oppression and/or supremacy" and "ultimately, pleasure activism is us learning to make justice and liberation the most pleasurable experiences we can have on this planet" (13).

I understand this as being partly about following a broadened version of Toni Cade Bambara's injunction to writers "to make revolution irresistible," but also partly about the ways in which a centering of pleasure can result in a kind of generative logic that is not only counter to the white supremacist, patriarchal, capitalist reality we live in but that is, like, really appealing to people. Describing the centering of pleasure as anti-capitalist may sound counter-intuitive, because capitalism works hard to sell us things to give us pleasure, but that misunderstands what brown means by pleasure. Yes, pleasure in part means the feeling of eating a delicious treat, of a good orgasm, of a soaring high, of dancing to great music with your friends, but it is also centrally about the deeply embodied, relational, values- and feelings-grounded wholeness that Lorde captures by her use of "the erotic." Rather than the capitalist cycle of predatory/consumptive/violent moments punctuated by distracting/numbing moments of pleasure (the ratio of course depending on who you are), it is about pushing to centre pleasure (understood expansively) in the everyday, for all of us, not just in moments of so-called "leisure" but in all facets of our lives, and struggling for personal practices, movement spaces, and ultimately transformed social relations that enable that. It is about folks who bear the heaviest burdens of oppression refusing the idea that all there can be is misery, and demanding lives, movements, worlds filled with joy and connection and love and possibility. It is, she stresses, not about excess, but "about learning what it means to be satisfiable, to generate, from within and from between us, an abundance from which we can all have enough" (15).

I have to say that it is difficult for me to figure out what lessons to take from this book for movement spaces, at least the kinds of movement spaces that I am likely to be in. I mean, certainly you can connect its lessons to the need for us to be kinder to each other, more generous, less sectarian. You can connect it to the importance of multiplying the kinds of opportunities in our movements for people with different passions and availabilities and desires to get involved, to the benefits of allowing each other to be present as whole people, and to the wisdom of cultivating movement sensibilties that are less invested in masculinist cult-of-the-militant nonsense and that take serously how we treat each other. I hope it pushes me to do better at being present in movement spaces in ways that move towards all of those better practices, but frankly I hope I've already been doing my little bit along those lines. The things is, I'm not sure there is anything obvious that I would take to the next meeting or next demonstration I go to and say, hey, I read this new book, maybe we should give such-and-such a try. It feels more relevant to my own individual choices, though certainly including those made about relating to movement spaces – what better first step to shift away from movements that valourize dour political obligation, for instance, than by changing that for ourselves and seeing where we end up.

Speaking of which, I did find it interesting to note how my uptake of this book differed from what it might have been 15 or 20 years ago. Back then, I used books about...well, they mostly weren't as multifaceted as this one, but books about sexuality and desire and relationships as a way to connect with a sense of expansive possibility for different ways of living. I had moments of that with this book, but fewer of them than I expected. Not surprisingly, I think that is because of where the intervening 20 years have taken me – both not as far into that expansive possibility as I might like, so being reminded of that fact makes me a bit sad, but also rather farther than my tendency towards "Oooooh, nothing has changed" Eyeore-ism is easily able to admit. So it wasn't the big-picture possibility that I latched onto as I read, because I'm already quite aware, but a couple of more concrete ideas that feel relevant to someone at my stage of a long-term journey of trying to unlearn the heavy doses of liberal puritanism, 'shoulding,' and shame that I imbibed growing up. One was a kick to re-think how I make choices about political involvement, work, and other aspects of time use – my search for logics beyond intellectualized shoulding is two decades old at least, and has at least had moments of success, but I think this book offered some new resources that will be helpful. And the other is some new perspectives related to the ongoing difficulties I experience around narrativizing myself – something anyone who has watched me splutter after asking me "How's it going?" or "What have you been up to?" will recognize. That's about a lot more than just pleasure, but it is about pleasure, particularly in that the kinds of active cultivation of and movement towards situations that give you pleasure encouraged by the book – from opportunities for pleasurable work, to the kinds of political involvements that feel positive and give you satisfaction, to friendships where your weirdnesses match up, to the kinds of partners and sex you want to have – are much less likely to happen if you can't clearly communicate the relevant elements of self.

Anyway. I enjoyed this collection, and I think many of us have things to learn from it, perhaps especially those who think they don't.

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