Friday, November 20, 2015

Review: Learning Activism

[Aziz Choudry. Learning Activism: The Intellectual Life of Contemporary Social Movements. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2015.]

For a long time, a unifying thread in many different-seeming activities that have filled my days has been the complex and vital relationship between social movements and knowledge -- this was true in an increasingly conscious way after I realized that I had oral history interviews with 50 long-time activists and no clear sense of how to make use of them, but I think it was the case even in an inchoate way before that as I engaged in various writerly, grassroots media, and activist endeavours. Certainly today, it underlies my radio show, much of my blog writing, and the the writing project that I'm slowly attempting to build from the incredible pool of material that the radio work is amassing.

Given that, I was tremendously excited to stumble across mention of this book in the couple of weeks after it was published. I first encountered Aziz Choudry's work 15 years ago or more, when he was living in New Zealand and doing movement-based research and writing relevant to global justice struggles. He's now a scholar at McGill University in Montreal, and his work continues to be focused on movements and communities-in-struggle in the sort of real, grounded way that simply is not true for far too many academics for whom movements are a topic and radical verbiage their basic tools.

Learning Activism, in how it talks about movements and how it talks about knowledge, is very consistent with my own sensibility about such things. The book's four chapters are, roughly speaking, a general introduction to movements and knowledge, followed by examinations of knowledge produced about/from movements, teaching and learning within movements, and research done in and by movements, with a brief epilogue tying some of the key issues together. Throughout, I found it thoughtful, provocative, and carefully attentive to actively and practically supporting struggles for justice and liberation as the point of this kind of work.

It was an interesting experience to go back through the book in preparation for writing this review -- interesting because it became clear to me that I had been so absorbed by its ideas during my initial read that it hadn't really registered that the book is not the sort of relentlessly linear argument that I so often expect to see in a scholarly monograph. Which may sound like a criticism, but it is not. Rather, I think it's an embodiment of the book's political commitments. By this, in part I mean that it is committed to refusing to erase both the complexity and materiality of movements and knowledge. Capturing complexity in your writing, particularly if you aren't interested in the sort of dense academese that just replicates it and offloads the work onto the reader, means a document that is structured in some way other than a simplistic straight line. And materiality means a responsiveness to partial, limited, but real inputs from the world that hold the potential to result in knowledge that is actually useful for creating social change, but that can mean taking some of that real-world unevenness into your text in a way that flights of detached abstraction never have to worry about. More important than any of those, though, is that -- at least in my reading of it -- the goal of this book is to create a document that can be useful in thinking through the politics of knowledge in the context of movements in a variety of different ways, from a variety of different places, to a variety of different ends. So it's not a relentless drive to prove or disprove some abstracted hypothesis, but a collection of interwoven meditations that are designed to be able to be taken up by lots of different people in lots of different ways.

As such, the book brings together and contributes to a wide range of important discussions. It adds to a genre of critique of Social Movement Studies that I'm in firm agreement with. It talks usefully about the relationships between movements and the academy. It had some important critical things to say about the NGOization and professionalization of responses to need and to oppression. It contributes to conversations about Indian historiography, which may sound obscure but it shouldn't be -- I actually know a little bit about these debates from reading a few things by Dipesh Chakrabarty, Himani Bannerji, and one or two others, and I think they are quite important questions for the left in the West to think about. It offers some important reflections on popular education and critical pedagogy, not just in the simplistically adulatory way that has become so common among progressive scholars in North America, but in a way that is quite sharply critical of how it has become ritualized, squeezed into institutional contexts which are inconsistent with its basic mission, and subordinated to a celebrity-system and an uncritical worship of Paulo Friere -- while definitely acknowledging that Friere did important work, Choudry encourages grounding popular education in a broader understanding of the centuries of history of such work and also in a way more engaged with Antonio Gramsci's thought.

The book also talks in some very useful ways about the importance of knowing and deploying historical knowledge, with a particular emphasis on the centrality of critical history to the process of turning everyday experience into radical analysis. In the same vein, I really appreciated the book's emphasis on the fact that a grounding in everyday experience, particularly everyday experiences of struggle, is absolutely essential for developing a radical understanding of the world, but it is not sufficient; we also need engagement with to-the-root ideas. Moreover, too often we don't look to movements as a source of such ideas, but listening to theory that movements themselves have developed, as well as to movement opinions about what theory produced in other contexts is useful, is actually one of the most important ways we can develop movement-grounded knowledge.

The book also made good use of practical, in-depth examples. I particularly appreciated the lengthy account of how experiences of state repression plus collaborative engagement with communities resisting colonization helped shape the analysis and strategic approach of participants in global justice organizing in New Zealand. And I thought the interview-based examination of existing examples of movement-based research were useful and even inspiring, particularly the case study of such work in the Philippines, where things are much more developed than in Canada.

So, as you can see, it covers a real mix of ground for what is a relatively short book. How exactly you might want to make use of it, and which elements you might want to take up, will depend a lot on why you're reading it. This is an area where there remains relatively little work, though, or at least relatively little in this spirit. So if you are at all interested in knowledge production, learning, teaching, and research in the context of social movements, this is a must-read.

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

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