01 November 2011

Hopeful Coalition: a Response to Dustin Goltz and Kimberlee Perez

Yesterday was my three year anniversary with Sam, my favorite collaborator.  I wanted to write today about our collaboration, our work together in art and scholarship, because I believe that “the meanings we make alongside those we love, particularly across lines of difference, allow us to remake our assumptions and widen our vision of the political field” (Goltz and Perez 247).  And we have done that together, continue to do that.  We challenge each other, push back and forth against each other's ideological commitments within our own commitment to each other, to an US.

Although I think our collaborative narrative is an important one, and I do want to write it/perform it, I can't ignore the larger implications of Dustin Goltz's and Kimberly Perez's work.  We are in a unique historical and political moment of radical democracy in action, of collaborative, collective decision-making and grassroots action.
The social, spatial, and of course political 'occupy' endeavor that has swept through the country and the world started on September 17th, 2011 when thousands of people increasingly agitated by the glaring disparity of wealth took to the streets in New York City in an attempt to publicly voice this agitation.  “Occupy Wall Street” started as a small action in the face of a gigantic issue proclaiming that 1% of the population comprised of an economic elite effectively dominate the remaining 99%.  While the economic validity of this claim is questionable and in no way functions as an analysis of class, it is both a broad and accurate enough rallying point. (The Second Psychogeographical Association)
Our own Occupy Carbondale is 17 days old today.

I wasn't always frustrated with identity politics.  At 16, 17, 18 years old, I was a good lesbian and a good activist.  I went to all the right events, wore all the right shades of purple on all the right days; hell, I even started a Gay-Straight Alliance at my high school.  But when my first serious partner Heather became my first serious partner Aiden, the lines in the sand started washing away.  When she transitioned to he, when Aiden occupied those dangers spaces between the poles of the binary, the lines on the stage of identity performance smeared, like chalk under feet that tracks the movement of a body. The name on my body no longer reflected my body's movement.  How could I be a lesbian when I was dating a man?

Thinking a name change may be just the thing to ease my discomfort, I took up “queer” and kept on with the GLBTQIAA leadership trainings, the GLSEN workshops, the drag shows, the AIDs marches... all the trappings of a good activist.  Then at 22, I started dating a bio-male for the first time in my life, and all the sudden, my lesbians friends were nowhere to be seen.  But I was still queer, wasn't I?  My name hadn't changed this time, just the relationships.  I felt rejected and angry; I felt like my activism had been just another waste of time, just another example of effort wasted in the face of a hegemony that knew just how to divide and conquer, or perhaps just conquer regardless.  “I believe in coalition, I do, but most coalitions don't believe in me” (256).

Academia didn't really help.  “Casting ourselves as authoritative critical scholars, we sing tunes of social justice with deceptive ease, erasing the politics of relation between scholars and the bodies from which and about whom they theorize” (255).  I could see why people called it the ivory tower.  My classed body struggled to learn new middle-class decorum, professional dress, academese innocent of swearing (my native tongue), new time commitments that exhausted and drained, and worst of all, I thought, the armchair activists.  Now I know the “armchair activist” thing is too facile a critique, and I don't really mean it, most of the time.  But “I also experience the gap between theory and practice.  I'm sick of talking.  I want to do something. [...] It's a bias.  I have it.  I'm dealing with it” (253).

Needless to say, I have been pretty cynical these last few years, watching the world fall to shit around me with a shrug.  What can ya do?  I thought.  Put a fork in me, because I'm done.

Enter the Occupy.  I started getting Facebook messages and texts from the former Vice President of that GSA I started, excited messages about a new movement starting, about people practicing democracy and camping on the streets, about the 99% and an end to economic injustice.  Messages of possibility from a person I had loved once.  But I didn't want to get my hopes up too high; I've been let down before by revolutionaries and their protests.

So I found Occupy St. Louis, and just a few days after they set their camp up, I drove up there, with my partner, one of my best friends, and another good friend who I knew would be down for an adventure and maybe an arrest.  That first time, I dared to consider hope again, and the second time I went, I realized that it wasn't a consideration anymore—I had full blown, this-shit-is-real hope.  I was deaf clapping at my computer when Dr. Cornel West said, “Don't be afraid to call this a revolution.”  I was moved to tears by the sound of my voice joining with fellow occupiers as we chanted, “Tell me what democracy looks like!  This is what democracy looks like!”

For so long, we have been taught to hold each other apart, to examine each other under microscopes of Oppression Olympics in which we all come out losers, and some losers get held up on pedestals as exemplars of suffering so that the rest of us will learn to quit fucking whining already.  Even when we reach out, “words such as 'man,' 'woman,' 'gay,' 'lesbian,' 'white,' 'brown,' 'patriarchy,' and 'hegemony' work to discipline and shame us back to opposing corners of the space” (264).

But not in the occupied zones.  The Occupation “resists cooption, heirarchical order, singluarily, and definition.  This endeavor is fragmented, altered, singular, and collective; it is autonomous, site-specific and moves both toward and away from recognized goals” (The Second Psychogeographical Association).  It “bring our differential intersubjectivities together over and across the boundaries of identity politics” (Goltz and Perez 250).  It's strength is in its grounding in relationship.

Though when asked, many people would point to the General Assemblies where we perform the consensus decision-making model as the site of our work at the Occupation, but really it's in all the other things that the work happens.  It's in the conversations we have under our canopies in the cold at 3am, the art we make together, the meals we cook and eat together, it's in sleeping next to each other, and telling stories about ourselves. “Listening to one another's stories is a necessary part of the process of understanding across difference, and thus the narration of self in dialogue, in discussion, in contestation, and in collaborative relation is central to our project/process” (248).
Although the tensions of identity politics intervene in the production of our notions of self and other, a politics of relation resituates subjectivity from the social location of individuals to the relations between them (Carrillo Rowe, Power).  It is a gesture that shifts subject formation from the individual toward the relational, and toward a coalitional subjectivity.  […] In generating collaborative personal narratives, relations shift and potentially open up spaces for alternate imaginaries as we dialogue across points that divide and bring us together. (249)
Our General Assemblies are just the formalizing of all that other work we've been doing, in order to come to decisions we all can live with, situated in our relationships with one another, and our acknowledgment of each other's unique positions of empowerment and disenfranchisement.
The complexity of our relations to one another and to these issues [of economic injustice] brings us together and pulls us apart.  Flesh to flesh, our bodies stand and our stories dialogue with and through one another in an effort to materialize a coalitional subjectivity, an US, through a collaborative personal narrative. […] we hold desire, vulnerability, tension, commitment, and a trust that mirrors standing naked in front of each other, hesitating and exposing shames, hopes, resentments, and biases, despite the fear. (250)
But this isn't really about the Occupy movement.  It's about the potential for coalition-building, and our deep need for it.  “The 'I' has no story of its own that is not also the story of a relation—or a set of relations” (262), and my story of coalition doesn't begin with Occupy; it begins with Sam.

It was in this relationship that I began to understand how coalition-building might work, the daily struggle of living together despite of and in love with difference.  I am a BIRACIAL-LOWERCLASS-QUEER-GIRL and he is a WHITE-MIDDLECLASS-QUEER-GUY; we find coalition first in our love for one another, second in our theoretical/aesthetic commitments... then we struggle to keep building.  It isn't about compromise; if we'd been compromising all along, we'd not have made it three years.  It's about creating something new, together.  Like Dustin and Kimberlee, we worked first as a duo to create, write, rehearse, perform, and live together.  And it was this smaller-scale work that allowed me ideological entrance to Occupied space.  We started with dialogue, and now move to a larger community and enter into poly-logue.  “Many of the problems being discussed [there and here] are obvious to anyone paying attention, yet the ability to address them in public civic space is what is missing from the equation” (The Second Psychogeographical Association).  This is where performance comes in, where the occupation comes in, where my relationship with Sam fits in this larger dynamic of social action and change.  Don't be afraid to call this, our intersubjectivity, a revolution.
It's no longer possible to bury our heads in the illusions of suburban life, a righteous government, the goodness of our people, and the uncomplicated threat of others.  As much as that world is the very cause of so much violence, I mourn this too.  The simplicity I felt by drawing lines, building walls, and letting soldiers I don't know go to faraway places and fight people with no name, face, voice, or humanity.  The world was easier then.  Now the hypocrisy of the ways my head is half in the sand most of the time eats me apart, as the world, which was never easy—but was allowed to seem easy—will never seem so uncomplicated again. (262)
The beginning is near.

For Goltz and Perez's full article:
Perez, Kimberlee, and Dustin Bradley Goltz. "Treading Across Lines In The Sand: Performing Bodies In Coalitional Subjectivity." Text & Performance Quarterly 30.3 (2010): 247-268.  Print.

1 comment:

  1. Nichole--

    thanks for sharing your blog with me. I hear loud and clear that your experience of Occupy was far different than mine, and you show me how that came about in various ways.

    I am different from most Occupiers, being a generation older than most. I am a mother, among mostly young adults, none raising kids. There are other things...but for me, the biggest difference is that you engaged in Occupying a new space with others, and I came along a couple weeks later. You speak fondly of your experience becoming friends, exchanging life-stories and much more through the long hours...I feel the significance in all of it. And by the time I arrived, a few things had occurred as a 'natural course of things', which had a downside that greatly impacted my experience within Occupy.

    The first thing is that a group of you had developed intense bonds with each other. This meant a few things for a newcomer: one is, I would never be one of those who were already friends, and who, with joined hearts had laid a claim to Occupy. It was too late to be part of that original friends group. But it proved a greater hindrance to entry into Occupy than I imagined possible, that you had become good friends...OC had become a friends group, not an open political action group. Nothing wrong with this...and it's probably inevitable in a small town where a fairly small group of Occupiers gathers. But the functions of each type of group are somewhat different.

    You had laid claim to Occupy, with other men and womyn, investing yourselves into it--in a real way, it was yours and all newcomers had to get permission to enter (not just yours, the whole group's). Also, you keenly felt your power in the work you did for Occupy. Thus you felt offended when I came along, and saw a group that seemed to have few womyn, and mentioned that I'd like to see more womyn in Occupy. You couldn't see what I was seeing (day after day)--mostly men present, mostly men speaking. You saw yourself and the other brave, spirited womyn you'd bonded with...what I saw with my own eyes, and heard with my ears wasn't real to you. For me to say Occupy was male dominated was my mistake and possibly even a distorted reflection of mere prejudice. It seemed a sort of personal attack, not a voicing of what I saw and heard every day in meetings and in all the Occupying hours I spent.

    Beyond that, I was talking about men you loved, and who loved you. I was talking about your friends. Occupy was a group of your friends, men and womyn both. Here I was, this outsider, this Other...and you thought I was asking you to believe that men you loved were dominating you and other womyn. It seemed I was asking you to agree that men whom you knew loved you, were willfully dominating womyn of Occupy. It seemed I was asking you to agree that you, and other strong womyn, were complicit with men's domination.

    I'm not going to try to explain my intentions again...it's too late for that. What I will say is that because some womyn and men forged deep personal bonds as Occupiers in a small group, Occupy became above all a friends group. It stopped being a political group truly open to all. No one's fault--just the essence of why your experience of Occupy and my own were so very different.