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Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Relating differently (2010)

Relating differently
Jamie Heckert
Anarchist Studies Network
The state is a relationship between human beings, a way by which people relate to
one another; and one destroys it by entering into other relationships, by behaving
differently to one another.
Gustav Landauer (2005 [1910]: 165)
Walking home after a yoga class the other night, a car pulled up in front of me –
one of my classmates offering me a lift home. Having lived only a year in this
neighbourhood where people seem to get through their days largely pretending that
strangers don’t exist, I was moved by her warm generosity and hopped in.
She stopped the car in front of my house and we carried on talking.
Unsurprisingly, she asked that question – ‘what do you do?’ I do lots of things,
of course. Don’t we all? I know that the question usually means what do you do for
a job, for money – that other truth of the self. As in sexuality, I have no easy
answer. Perhaps I am all too aware of how any answer implicates me in a capitalist
‘moral economy’ of person-hood (Skeggs, 2004). Unemployed, I’m awfully low.
A scholar, I’m a bit higher up. An anarchist, I want to be equals. Of course, the
question may simply come from a desire to connect, to understand another’s world.
I pause, and reply, ‘I write about anarchism and sexuality.’
‘Anarchism and sexuality!’ she exclaimed. ‘What do they have to do with each
other?’ A common response. I thought carefully, very aware of a variety of diverse
and divergent approaches being taken to this intersection, not the least in the
articles for this special issue. I decided to go with what seemed to me to be the
most obvious connection: relationships. Inspired by second-wave feminist critiques
of a supposed clear border separating the personal from the political, Jeffrey
Weeks’ subsequent challenge to a separation of the sexual from the social, and
recent writings linking anarchism and post-structuralism (as well as a number of
lived experiences), I found myself replying to her question with a (somewhat rhetorical)
‘How is it that we are meant to spend much of our day being told what to do, or
perhaps telling others what to do, and then go home and be capable of listening
with care to the desires of another, to our own desires, and to negotiate sex as
equals?’ (Leaving aside, for the moment, other mechanisms of governmentality,
other than domestic sexual practices and the irreducibility of sexuality to sex.)
She understood immediately, perhaps because our yoga class is very much about
relating differently to ourselves and to each other. Drawing on the language of our
teacher, himself very much inspired by the radically anti-authoritarian philosopher
Jiddu Krishnamurti, she put it in terms of meeting another – listening bodily, with
empathy, to what is currently alive in them, as opposed to responding to one’s own
thoughts of who another is, one’s image of another. For Krishnamurti, ‘relationship
is direct, not through an image’ (2005: 23). Relationship, in this sense, sidesteps
and undermines a moral economy of person-hood and the ‘the subtle ruse of
power’ (Butler, 1990: vii) on which it depends, for there is neither truth of the self
nor judgement. It is this approach which inspires one activist-scholar’s anarchic
strategy for shifting from a culture of domination to a culture of connection
(Rosenberg, 2003), with which we are invited to hear within the language of judgement
expressions of pleasure for needs met or the pain of life-sustaining desires
unfulfilled (e.g. food and water, equality and autonomy, love and learning).
Likewise, this experience of direct relationship shares a clear affinity with
Rancie` re’s anarchistic understanding of the democratic in contrast to the hierarchical
order, which he calls the police. ‘Politics,’ he argues, ‘only occurs when these
mechanisms are stopped in their tracks by the effect of a presupposition which is
totally foreign to them yet without which none of them could ultimately function:
the presupposition of the equality of anyone and everyone’ (cited in May, 2009:
15). Relating as equals serves as a gentle form of direct action – engaging directly
with others to address oppressions rather than through representation, elected or
imagined. Anarchism, here, acting as an ethics of relationships might also take us
back to Gustav Landauer, subject of the first article in this issue. The state, capitalism,
empire, patriarchy, heteronormativity, the university – these are not simply
institutions; they are patterns of relationships. The question of how to transform,
or even to destroy, the institution, may at the same time be the question of how to
relate differently.
This is not a question that can be answered only in theory. It must be lived. I say
must, for I feel a deep-seated sense of urgency witnessing painfully unsustainable
patterns of relationships with ourselves, each other and the ‘more than human
world’ (Abram, 1997). I say it too, for I have experienced much in anarchist experiments
and in other practices of freedom for which I am deeply grateful and which
cannot be directly translated into words; the mediation of language cannot be the
same as the immediatism of experience. Still, language and theory can be guides.
In a talk entitled The Operating Instructions, the queerly erotic and profoundly
anarchic storyteller Ursula Le Guin laments how reading has become instrumental,
‘so you can read the operating instructions’. No longer interested in the creativity
which has been claimed by the market, she honours instead imagination. ‘All of us
have to learn how to invent our lives, make them up, imagine them. We need to be
taught these skills; we need guides to show us how. If we don’t, our lives get made
up for us by other people’ (2004: 208). Storytelling, and the listening of which the
telling is a part, Le Guin argues, can be the guides we need. ‘Literature’, she concludes,
‘is the operating instructions’ (2004: 210). Might this apply, too, to scholarly
literature? The articles in this special issue have helped me to imagine my own
life, to consider how I might relate differently. Perhaps they will do the same for
This special issue arises in the context of a wider surge in anarchist academic
writing. Anarchist studies is not a new phenomenon. Indeed, the journal by that
name is now in its 17th year, with sexuality being a topic of anarchist research from
the inaugural issue (Cleminson, 1993). The rise of the alterglobalization movement
has fuelled a renewal of anarchism, not only as social movement and topic of study,
but also as a theoretical tradition in its own right (Gordon, 2007). Or perhaps
I should say traditions. Of course, anarchism has never been singular – specific
anarchisms have arisen in different contexts in order to address particular relations
of domination. While in one sense, anarchism is a 19th-century European tradition
of revolutionary thought and practice founded by Proudhon, Bakunin and
Kropotkin and finding its heyday in the anarchist movements of the Spanish
Civil War and the uprisings of 1968, anarchisms are diverse. As Juliet Paredes of
Mujeres Creando, a Bolivian anarcha-feminist group, once put it, ‘I’ve said it and
I’ll say it again that we’re not anarchists by Bakunin or the CNT, but rather by our
grandmothers, and that’s a beautiful school of anarchism’ (2002: 112).
Contemporary anarchist studies, too, are diverse: intersecting, engaging and intertwining
in different ways with a wide range of subjects including anarchist activism
(Franks, 2006; Gordon, 2008; Graeber, 2009), literary theory (Cohn, 2006), religion
(Christoyannopoulos, 2009), disability (Waltz, 2007), criminology (Williams and
Arrigo, 2001), colonialism (Anderson, 2005; Schmidt and van der Walt, 2009),
international relations (Prichard, 2007), environmentalism (Horton, 2006; Smith,
2007) feminism (Acklesberg, 2005; Ferguson, 2008; Lisa, 2008) and of course,
The seven contributions to this issue, and the three books reviewed, each engage
in diverse ways with anarchism, sexuality and possibilities of relating differently.
The first three articles offer theoretical and historical frameworks for engaging with
questions of the forms of anarchist sexuality, focusing in turn on marriage, polyamory
and asexuality. The next four articles engage with issues of sexuality within
contemporary anarchist activism across a range of urban geopolitical contexts,
demonstrating different examples of (and calling for more) cross-pollination
between anarchist and queer. But before that, a return to some of the conceptual
and historical roots of these potentially empowering relationships.
In his exploration of the historical relationship between anarchism and psychoanalysis,
Jesse Cohn’s piece addresses the question of the forms libertarian sexual
culture might take. Noting that anarchists recognize the importance of cultural
traditions for producing convivial social relations, he asks the controversial
question, is marriage necessarily to be opposed? For Gustav Landauer, marriage
and the family represented both a potential source of social ‘spirit’ and one component
of a non-statist order. In saying this, he was strongly opposed to the anarchist
psychoanalyst (and possible predecessor of Reich) Otto Gross for whom
marriage and family life were essentially structures of repression and therefore to
be eliminated. Cohn offers an illuminating and complex account of these
and other lives intertwined in the personal and political challenges of living
out anarchist ideals in relationships with others. I’m particularly grateful to this
article for its gentle reassurance that even famous anarchists didn’t live up to their
ideals all of the time, but that they were still able to nurture radical social change,1
and for its remarkably queer suggestions for a Landauerian social psychology of
Deric Shannon and Abbey Willis’s contribution, like Cohn’s, raises questions
about monogamy, this time, however, in relation to theory. Set in the context of a
social anarchist group where raising queer theory triggered a strong reaction,
including a rejection of postmodernism as incompatible with anarchism,
Shannon and Willis ask effectively, how can they be in love with anarchism without
being married to one particular interpretation of it (i.e. forsaking all others)? And
so their essay, drawing on a rich history of queer and anarchist critique of marriage
and monogamy, develops the metaphor of ‘theoretical polyamory’ as a method for
queering anarchism. Unpacking a clear divide between loving and thinking, theoretical
polyamory serves to avoid the economic reductionism sometimes found in
anarchism, to emphasize the benefits of multiple loving and thinking relationships
for meeting individual and collective needs, and to rectify anarchism’s critique of
borders to include those around identities. In other words, when their primary
partner, social anarchism, becomes too rigid, too identity bound, they have other
loving-thinking relationships to turn to.
The third in this opening triad of articles emphasizing theoretical and historical
perspectives takes a radically different approach to the question of forms anarchist
sexual culture might take. In an article inspired by intersections of radical feminism
and anarchism, Breanne Fahs makes the controversial argument that for women,
an anarchist politics of sexuality might be expressed as refusing sex altogether.
Critical of the ways in which sexual liberation has come to mean conforming to
new norms of sexual expression (e.g. emphasizing clitoral orgasms over vaginal
ones), Fahs highlights a radical feminist tradition suspicious towards sex as a
mechanism of women’s liberation. Arguing for a recognition of sexuality as institution
intertwined with state power and its incumbent capitalist, patriarchal and
racist patterns of domination, refusal to participate in it has correlations with other
radical refusals (e.g. anarchists choosing not to vote.) Drawing on the works of
Valerie Solanas and radical feminist group Cell 16, Fahs argues that a withdrawal
of energies from efforts to conform not only to sexist standards of sexual desirability
but also to profoundly normative notions of sexual desire as natural and
necessary arguably frees women’s energies for other pursuits, not the least being
participation in movements for social justice. Finally, Fahs calls for a recognition
of contemporary asexuality as political, both for its potential to undermine
state-centred rights claims based on sexuality and as strategy for resisting
Opening the section on activism, Sandra Jeppesen also writes about resistance to
normativity, in this case a radical refusal to participate in homonormative consumerism.
Her article engages with, and opens for questioning, the concept of queer
counterpublics. She offers three exhibits of anti-consumerist vomiting providing
both visceral rejections of counterpublics reliant on sex-oriented queer commercial
spaces for their viability and a basis for engaging with questions of what hierarchical
and exclusionary relationships of race, class, gender and ability may be
(re)produced by consumer-citizen sexual politics. In the first exhibit, vomit is
read as emblematic of the unsustainable contradictions inherent in capitalism,
and of the body’s rebellion. It also queers a border of public and private;
Jeppesen’s second exhibit comes from a zine she co-wrote with a friend in the
1990s, Projectile: stories about puking. Punk in style and content, the zine offers
a counter discourses to those that construct the embodied reality of vomit as both
private and shameful. The third exhibit is taken from a direct action of the Pink
Panthers collective, a queer anti-capitalist activist group in Montreal, linking race,
gender and environmental destruction. The article is further structured through a
series of five sections, each opening up new questions about what constitutes a
radical politics of sexuality. Concluding with ‘Queer autonomous zones and participatory
publics’, Jeppesen emphasizes the queer/anarchist values of direct (rather
than liberal) democracy, intersectional anti-oppression politics, ‘and open-ended
processes of. . . becoming-liberated’.
Next, Laura Portwood-Stacer turns to the queering of sexual identity and politics
in the contemporary North American anarchist movement. Drawing on interviews
and ethnography, her article examines particular constructions of anarchist
identity and finds them to be queer indeed. Resistant to colluding with the hierarchies
and exclusions created by compulsory heterosexuality, homonormativity and
monogamy, the anarchists interviewed expressed their sexual identities in alternative
ways, emphasizing openness, queerness and polyamory (at least, in theory). In
doing so, Portwood-Stacer argues that these anarchists are enacting a queer performativity,
making trouble for norms of gender and sexuality, which is at the same
time consistent with anarchist practices of prefigurative politics, putting into practice
in the present the desired values of a free society. The article goes on to demonstrate
how the infrastructure of the anarchist movement (e.g. infoshops,
bookfairs, summit protests, communal housing and skill-sharing events) prevents
this trouble-making from being limited to individual deviance, instead allowing it
to act as a collective force for social transformation. The anarchist politics
described here may well help to answer that perennial question, how can identity
troubling queer theory be practical? At the same time, Portwood-Stacer emphasizes
how a subcultural valuing of authenticity leads to a potentially oppressive ‘anarchonormativity’.
The provocative question she concludes with is: Might this queer
anarchonormativity be wielded strategically?
Continuing south through the Americas, Gwendolyn Windpassinger’s article
examines queer debates in the Argentinean anarchist movement. Argentina
caught the attention of anarchists and other anti-capitalists around the world in
2001 when economic collapse was met with a popular uprising, recuperation of
workplaces by the workers and directly democratic and egalitarian structures for
decision-making in and across neighbourhoods, since popularized by Avi Lewis
and Naomi Klein’s documentary film, The Take. Since the recovery of the official
economy, much of this radical infrastructure has dissolved. Still, the Argentinean
anarchist movement has been energized by these events, and it is in this context that
Windpassinger discovers the queer anarchism of Proyectil Fetal and its resonance
with both a history of Argentinean anarcha-feminism and the recent queer/anarchist
work done in Europe by Gavin Brown, Richard Cleminson and myself. Like
Shannon and Willis, Windpassinger found that the deployment of queer theory by
Proyectil Fetal led to more conflict than communication with fellow anarchists who
prioritize the class struggle. At the same time, she sees great potential for queer
anarchist analyses of sexuality, identity and power to contribute to the wider anarchist
movement in Argentina and elsewhere.
And finally, returning north to New York City, Benjamin Shepard expresses a
shared concern that queer theory has become all too often abstracted from its roots
in social justice movements. Here, he calls for a renewal of queer theory inspired by
contemporary anarchist(ic) queer activist practices and the histories and theories
with which they are entwined. Tracing connections from Victorian sex radicals
through gay liberation movements to today’s queer direct action groups,
Shepard highlights long-standing and significant affinities between anarchists and
queers when it comes to sexual politics. Noting a number of examples where queer
activists have expressed profound frustration from experiences of wanting, and not
getting, some respect and understanding from queer theorists who write and talk
about them, Shepard suggests that academic norms result in a distancing from antiauthoritarian
activism resulting in a divide between theory and practice, and a
subsequent loss of praxis – theoretically informed action. Not only might activists
benefit from an overtly politically engaged queer theory, but queer theorists might
find renewed inspiration in the overlapping values of anarchism and queer theory:
‘a rejection of the paternalistic state’, ‘DIY approaches to community building’, a
‘critical view of capitalism’, ‘a politics of freedom’, ‘a critique of the normative’ and
a ‘respect for pleasure’. Like Jeppesen, Shepard looks at three case studies of queer
activists challenging state and corporate control of public space and deploying
diverse methods to create autonomous queer counterpublics. Drawing on autoethnography
and interviews with activists, he offers three colourful tales of sex in the
city. First, the Church Ladies, born out of Women’s Health Action Mobilization
(WHAM) and ACT UP, sing outside abortion clinics attempting to diffuse ‘prolife’
protests drawing on a long tradition of the political use of camp humour and
playfulness; second, at the 2009 Parade without a Permit, Shepard describes queers
taking to the streets reminding everyone that ‘Stonewall was a riot!’ and third,
direct action coalitions form to defend public sexual culture, including both male
cruising and sex workers of all genders, in response to ongoing efforts by authorities
to promote gentrification. In conclusion, Shepard, alongside the other contributors
to this issue, calls for greater engagement between anarchist and queer
politics in order to develop mutually supportive relationships and to nurture multiple
movements for social change.
To conclude, I would like to return to the question of relating differently. Rather
than simply expressing resentment that state, capitalist and heteronormative patterns
of relationships (intersecting, as always, raciality, age, ability and ecology)
make egalitarian and libertarian sex/uality difficult, the articles in this volume draw
attention to rich and long-standing anarchist traditions of relating differently.
However, as Shannon and Willis note, no tradition has all the ‘answers to the
complex questions surrounding the political project of undoing all forms of structured
and institutionalized domination, coercion, and control’ and as Cohn,
Portwood-Stacer and Windpassinger’s articles amply demonstrate, anarchists,
too, find challenges in their relationships with each other. While both anarchist
and queer traditions emphasize a critique of normalization and an appreciation of
difference, communicating around areas of disagreement can trigger strong emotions
with a consequent decrease in empathy and understanding (Rosenberg, 2003).
Perhaps, then, becoming-liberated might involve relationship skills of listening with
empathy. Otherwise, solidarity becomes an abstract ideal rather than a lived experience.
What might happen if the queer and class-struggle varieties of anarchists in
Buenos Aires come to hear each other’s passions and concerns? Or the anarchaqueers
and the LGBT folk who may be Othered in this identity construction? What
additional coalitions might be possible? But before rushing to invoke the radical
possibilities for a better future, that heritage of phallacized whiteness (Winnubst,
2006), I want to emphasize that clearly, this listening is already under way. It is
what enables the diverse activist groups described in this issue to engage in meaningful
solidarity, to organize non-hierarchically, and to find ways of expressing
themselves that others can hear and understand. What then is it about these
spaces, these queer anarchist counterpublics that enables listening (when they
do)? And can this be practised in other contexts? Can these spaces be created
anywhere? In universities? In my neighbourhood? What might becoming-liberated
mean in my life? In yours?
After reading Shepard’s account of activists’ feelings following the abstraction
and theorizing of their experiences, I am deeply aware of both how much I appreciate
being listened to and how much I love being able to listen to others. I hope
that this emphasis on listening with care will be a central element of all my relationships,
whether labelled personal, professional, political or ecological. Similarly,
his article along with Jeppesen’s and Shannon and Willis’s, in particular, have
inspired me in my efforts of ‘writing differently,’ passionately, in academic contexts
(Game and Metcalfe, 1996; Grey and Sinclair, 2006). Portwood-Stacer and
Windpassinger’s articles bring my awareness to the significance of relating anarchically;
I’m moved reading them and realizing how being able to contribute to
anarchist movements and scholarship opens new possibilities in other people’s lives
(as well as my own). Finally, in laying out separate anarchist arguments for marriage
and against marriage, for monogamy and for polyamory, and even for asexuality,
the combined articles in this issue affirm the creative contradictions within
anarchist traditions, emphasizing for me the importance of a diversity of tactics.
Usually applied to questions about the ethics of fighting with police or breaking the
windows of Starbucks, it seems to me equally valid to the question of forms of
(anarchist) sexualities and intimacies. Rather than simply tolerating the emotional
and political strategies of others that I find hard to understand, this inspires me to
see them as guides that might help me to imagine my own life, my own relationships,
A warm thank you to the Anarchist Studies Network both for financially supporting the
conference organized by me and Richard Cleminson in Leeds in 2006 that, in a roundabout
way, led to this special issue. Thank you, too, fellow ASN members for the ongoing intellectual
and emotional support which have helped me both to carry on doing the research and
writing that I love and to have the energy to support others in their own efforts. Thank you
to all the peer reviewers for your help with this, to the contributors both for your articles and
for your feedback on this editorial piece. How I love mutuality!
1. Landauer was, just to name one example, a major influence in the foundation of the
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of Women. Oakland, CA and Edinburgh: AK Press.
Anderson B (2005) Under Three Flags: Anarchism and the Anti-Colonial Imagination.
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Butler J (1990) Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York:
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Jamie Heckert is an independent scholar living in Poole on the south coast of
England. He is co-editor, alongside Richard Cleminson, of Anarchism and
Sexuality: Ethics, Relationships and Power (forthcoming, Routledge) and contributor
to various activist and scholarly publications on themes including non-monogamy,
queer research methodologies, anarchist ethics, identity politics and sex
education. His key interest, both in research and other forms of practice, is the
development of sustainable relationships with ourselves, each other and the land of
which we are a part. [email:jamie.heckert@gmail.com]

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