Living the Political
Issue #21, October 1995
What constitutes a 'political' act? And how do we know when we are being 'political'? Over the last decade, for example, I have been involved in a number of political organizations, yet I rarely consider myself (or, I suspect, am considered by others) an overtly 'political' person. Certainly, I have performed acts that had real material effects — such as writing letters and making phone-calls when I was told it would help, working in a drop-in resource center for the queer community, cooking food for the homeless and hungry, donating and/or soliciting money and labor to various progressive organizations — but these acts have frequently seemed isolated from my everyday life. Too often I was left with the sense that despite being important and necessary, such political gestures served me more than they served the organizations themselves.
My fear, I guess, is that I simply 'visited' — and with wildly fluctuating degrees of regularity — the political realm, but that 'politics' itself remained as something I could leave behind and forget about when I was not there. Like any visit, therefore, it was separate from the rest of my life and something I participated in only when it fitted into my schedule. Indeed, some of my more 'grand' political gestures now seem to me to perfectly demonstrate the dangers of visiting — rather than living in — the realm of the political.
When I was in my early twenties, for example, I spent two months doing 'outreach' with some progressive and alternative communities in India. I went with two female friends, and we were sponsored by several Australian organizations to visit groups in India working on sustainable development, anti-logging politics, and women's rights. The three of us were already involved in these issues in Australia, so the trip was intended as an opportunity to share knowledge and resources. Part of the time was spent on a Quaker farm in Madhya Pradesh where I worked with cows — although I no longer recall exactly what I did with them. My most vivid memory is instead of the rats, which were large, plentiful, and very bold. I never thought it could happen, but I actually got used to them running over my sleeping bag as I lay in bed at night. It was the rats more than any of the work I did that convinced me I was doing something truly righteous — I was suffering for a cause, and all in the name of politics.
We also spent a month on an international community in southern India called Auroville. In Auroville there were no rats, but we did live in a tree-house, pumped water from a well, lived without electricity (or at least communal areas could use only as much energy as was generated from human and animal biomass waste), and survived without our daily fixes of caffeine and sugar (which for all of us was almost as difficult as living with rats). Many of Auroville's members were not Indian nationals, but had made Auroville their home because the community offered an opportunity to live in a place where each person's spiritual, emotional, and material needs could be met in an environmentally sustainable way. My friends and I visited with various local groups, shared stories, and tried to learn as much as possible to take back to people in Australia. And with varying degrees of success we did this, although my suspicion is that we took more than we ever gave back. The experiences seemed to satisfy our personal needs and desires, in other words, rather than facilitating some larger sense of social and political transformation.
The trip was amazing. Certainly there are ways in which it could be characterized as merely an instance of 'slumming' (although back then I had no such language to describe what I was doing). My notion of political activism was deeply rooted, in other words, in my own sense of guilt about my economic privilege and a desire to disavow my class background. If I could live 'simply' and without the material excess that had marked my middle-class existence, then perhaps I had transcended my own particular class background and contributed (in my own small way) to the breakdown of the class system. But clearly I had transcended nothing — I was as invested and implicated in relations of exchange and production in India as I was anywhere else. At the time, however, these kinds of actions were the only way I knew to deal with my feelings of guilt and shame about being so economically privileged, and underscores the sense of contradiction I now feel about knowing that my politics have often been an acting out of that privilege.
But I also learnt a lot from the trip. It's impossible not to appreciate the value of water when every drop you need for cleaning, cooking, and drinking is pumped by your own hand. This awareness has stayed with me to this day. Similarly, living in a tree-house in the middle of a forest for a month fosters a sense of connection with the surrounding environment that is difficult (if not impossible) to sustain in the city where I now live. My obsessive habit of recycling every scrap of paper is one positive side-effect of living with people for whom logging was a very real and vital issue, and for whom the forests were not simply a place to visit, but a place to live.
The two months in India were incredible — one of the best experiences of my life. Neither before nor since have I felt so connected to the world around me or so open to new experiences. But, at the end of the day, it was just a 'holiday' with two girlfriends and an opportunity to take a much needed break from a relationship back in Australia that was slowly heading for disaster. The question I later found myself asking was whether the trip had any 'political' effect beyond my own personal education. Certainly, I don't want to underestimate the intense effect the two months had on me — in particular, an education about the devastating effects of transnational corporate capital more profound than anything I could glean from reading post-colonial theory or watching PBS documentaries. These kinds of shifts in consciousness have, moreover, very real material effects. But, in spite of my desire to write the trip off as 'political work' I was probably little better than any other post-colonial traveler — a tourist with a conscience indulging in a different world for my own personal pleasure and edification before I returned to my 'regular' life.
No different, therefore, than the two months when I lived on a kibbutz in Israel. Even though my ostensible desire was to participate in a community based on shared responsibility for labor and an equal distribution of resources, my motives were actually less pure. Sure, I worked in the factory and banana fields and lived communally with everyone else — but I was also seduced by the opportunities to party-down with other non-kibbutznik volunteers and enjoy the cheap alcohol and cigarettes. No different, perhaps, than the month I spent on the work crew at the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival. At least there I felt a more immediate sense of connection to the people with whom I lived and worked. I was deeply committed, in other words, to the vision of a community created by and for women that was safe, healthy, and environmentally responsible. Since most of the women there were feminists and lesbians/bisexuals the festival also offered women an opportunity to live 'personal' politics in a very immediate way. We were able, in other words, to integrate the erotic, social and political dimensions of our lives in a way that was usually difficult, if not impossible, in the outside world. But any notion I had that this was a form of political activism must surely take a backseat to my own personal investment in the festival — to take time-out from the 'real world' so I could meet and live with thousands of women from across the globe.
So why tell these stories of 'failed' political endeavors? Why confess what now seem to be misplaced acts of social conscience? My point is not that any of these acts were 'bad,' or that alternative communities should not be taken seriously, or even that attempts at transnational outreach are always doomed to failure. My point is more that I now realize political acts also need to be firmly situated within the context of one's life and not separated off as isolated moments.
Indeed, on returning home after each of these trips I fell into a deep depression over my inability to make sense of what I had experienced. The 're-entry' to the real world was way too harsh and painful, and it was almost impossible for me to situate and contextualize what I had learnt and experienced. Often I could only find value in these experiences by talking about them with the very people who had shared them with me. Indeed, since the first two trips required transplanting to another country and the last required living apart from men these experiences could only ever be integrated meaningfully into my life if I supported separatism as a viable form of politics. My attempts at alternative communities became, in other words, contained in space and time, and remain to this day mostly separated from the rest of my life. Indeed, 'visiting' politics in this way often only serves to see the rest of one's life as resolutely outside of the political realm. Politics simply becomes reified and objectified — an experience to be consumed in much the same way as one takes a holiday. Such a perspective only remystifies the entire political process by masking the many opportunities for political action in the context of daily life. Certainly the large public political gestures are important, but I have also learnt to re-value the opportunities that my 'regular' life also offers for political action.
Everyday life is, after all, also a political realm. Like many before me, I learnt this lesson from feminist consciousness raising — i.e., that the personal is indeed political. Such a belief does not, however, apply only to questions of gender and sexuality. Certainly, this was how I first came to understand it — that my individual experiences of oppression were not some weird aberration but instead part of a larger patriarchal system that perpetuates male privilege. But I also learned that the ways I experienced the world are specifically related to the fact that I am not simply a woman, but that I am a white, bisexual, middle-class, English woman and that oppression based on class, race, gender, sexuality, and nationality dovetail in complicated ways. Sometimes I experience my privilege as a white, middle-class graduate student, other times the marginalization I experience because of my gender or sexuality is more apparent. But the lasting lesson that women's studies and feminism taught me was that these personal experiences — both of marginalization and of privilege — are deeply political.
It is often difficult, however, to know how to actually make the personal political, and how to avoid what Jonathan Sterne refers to (in his introduction to this issue) as personal politics as a giant therapy industry. Often, the only way we can identify political acts is to make them highly visible. Certainly there is value in this, and many of the defining moments of my political activity have been when I have marched — for unions, for peace, for the environment, for women, for queers, for students. It almost doesn't matter what the cause. The value comes from that sense of coming together with like minded people, the rush of adrenalin when you are shouting the same chant, cheering the same goals, and sharing the same dreams. Clearly, however, the cause does matter, as does the purpose behind the public display. Being political in a public and collective way can have enormous value, but the fact that the 'high' I might get from a rally for peace is analogous to the one I get when attending a concert underscores the fact that there is nothing inherently political about a crowd of people with shared ideas and beliefs. It can merely become another version of visiting, rather than living, the political. Public displays of activism often end up being, in other words, merely a spectacle that becomes a stand-in for (rather than an impetus towards) political and social transformation. The point, therefore, is to what end such public and visible gestures are put.
Frequently, the reason I chose to live in various alternative communities, or participated in different political groups, came not only from my sense of shame about being middle-class, but specifically a sense of shame about being an academic. For too long I had no idea how to reconcile the fierce and painful sense of injustice I felt about the world with the equally passionate belief that I wanted to be a scholar and teacher. Since academia seemed to offer no obvious political opportunities, instead I visited politics during my vacations, or on the weekends. But the sense of disconnection I inevitably experienced from living my life in this compartmentalized way meant my political endeavors always remained resolutely outside of my everyday life — which was, afterall, in the academy. More recently, however, I have come to understand that being political is not incommensurable with being an academic, and that life in academia does not simply (or only) confer privilege. Indeed, as a graduate student, the way I now experience my class location is both conflicted and contradictory. It is only recently, moreover, that I have been able to understand and articulate the extent to which my notion of what is political is intimately bound up with my class position as a graduate student — in Pierre Bourdieu's words, "as a member of the dominated segment of the dominating class."
Others in Bad Subjects have already written about the kinds of political opportunities available within academia (see Joe Sartelle's 'Public Intellectuals' in issue #3 and Jonathan Sterne's 'Leftism and the Love of Academia' in issue #14) so I will not repeat their excellent points here. I will merely reiterate that there are numerous opportunities for political action in the academy on both the interpersonal and social levels. Certainly, it is possible to hold extremely radical political ideas within academia but with those ideas frequently remaining contained within the space of the seminar or academic journals. Political critiques do not, in other words, automatically extend beyond the academy. But academic life is not — clichés notwithstanding — located in an ivory tower. We may work in the academy but we also have lives outside of it — we have family and friends who live and work elsewhere, we live in communities outside of the campus, we have affiliations with organizations that are not academic. Indeed, I am deeply committed to the possibility of coalitional politics and do not intend my critique of political visiting to be read as promoting an 'insiderist' view of politics — in other words, that if you're not indigenous to the community you're working in you should get out. Such a view of politics only reinforces the kind of disconnection and separatism I now firmly resist. Working with others across the inside/outside divide is an important form of political involvement, and certainly better than non-involvement. There are many opportunities to actively extend radical ideas beyond the realm of our academic work lives and into the other communities in which we live and work. These opportunities may not be as visible or provide the same sense of euphoria as attending a rally. But they nevertheless serve to extend the political realm into the everyday.
Certainly, highly public and visible forums for group solidarity are invaluable for any political organization. Rallies and marches boost morale, promote a sense of connection between people, and can spread the word to people who might not otherwise hear your message. But private and isolated acts can also be profoundly political, even if they do vary in their degree of difficulty or political import. Recycling, reusing, repairing, eating healthfully, donating money, challenging someone on their racism/sexism/homophobia, sharing material and intellectual resources, having safe sex, learning self-defense, being neighborly, writing letters to Congress, using public transport etc., all contribute in important ways to the transformation of society. "Coming out" is a good example of an action that is highly personal but one that also has deeply political effects. In and of themselves these isolated acts may not change the world — for example, the benefits of individuals recycling are minimal if large companies don't also do the same — but they are acts that can be performed within the context of daily life and are therefore to be encouraged. Certainly, there is a danger that claiming everything is political can flatten out the realm of politics to the extent that the term becomes useless. But political actions such as these nevertheless enable a world-view where politics is within the reach of everyone. When politics remains only in the realm of the public and the highly visible it serves to perpetuate the sense that there's no point doing anything because one person cannot make a difference. It's true — one person can't make a difference. But when we can all look to the opportunities for political action in our daily lives the realm of the political opens up and offers instead a sense of possibility rather than constraint.
Ultimately, I guess I'm still left with questions and contradictions about how to best live my own politics. My political 'visits' were, after all, attempts to live the political and I am not trying to rewrite my history by retroactively claiming them to be 'bad.' At the time, I experienced all of my political work as extremely empowering, valuable, and socially productive. And I don't want to pretend otherwise. But I now have a very different understanding of the kind of political work I want to do, and have a greater need for politics to speak more immediately to the community of which I am a part. Through writing, teaching, and coalition work I believe I can make a difference. Certainly, I have not dispensed with public displays of solidarity or activism. Indeed, I recently joined with thousands of other students at UC-Berkeley for a public walk-out in protest of the UC Regents decision to end Affirmative Action. But I have also come to question my investment in such public displays of politics and look to a form of political activism that is more integrated with my life and my community. I have also come to realize how unproductive my sense of guilt about my class background really is. Certainly, it is 'shameful' that capitalism creates and perpetuates a system of economic oppression based on unequal classes. But my personal shame and guilt have too often either paralyzed me into inaction or contributed to my acting out my shame in problematic or unproductive ways.
Working with Bad Subjects over the last three years has been one place where I can more meaningfully integrate my political beliefs with my work as an academic and put into action my desire to work with others outside of academia. Participating in the community of Bad Subjects, where work and time are freely given, and shared political beliefs are part of our everyday life, is one way I have found to live the political. Writing accessibly and collaboratively are not generally encouraged in the academy. At Bad Subjects, these qualities and beliefs form the basis of much of our work. The 'alternative community' of Bad Subjects is also not one I have to 'visit' and leave behind. One of the reasons my visits to various other communities now seem problematic is that by their very nature they remain 'alternative' to everyday life rather than a part of it. When the only progressive forms of community are firmly situated outside the realm of most people's lives, their utility and purpose are severely curtailed. Bad Subjects, on the other hand, is a community of like-minded, progressive people with whom I 'live' every day (either in real time and space or via the Internet). The Bad Subjects community is not, in that sense, 'alternative' at all but in fact very much 'everyday.' Political acts experience of the world — they should enable a sense of power about the ability to change the world. To that end, living the political, rather than visiting it, is one place to begin.
Jillian Sandell is a graduate student in the Department of English at UC-Berkeley and co-director of Bad Subjects. She has articles forthcoming in Bright Lights Film Journal, Film Quarterly, and Socialist Review, and can be reached at the following internet address: firstname.lastname@example.org.