Writing with Movements

Welcome! Thanks especially to the support of Angus Maguire, this website is now live and looking gorgeous. I’m excited to share it with you!

I want to kick things off here by saying a little something about the title of this site. “Writing with movements” is a phrase that I use in order to talk about written reflection as part of – and accountable to – transformative social movements.

My approach to writing with movements grows out of two kinds of experiences I’ve had as an activist who also spent some time in academia. The first comes out of my participation in movements, where I regularly see the promise of collective reflection and also experience how challenging it is to generate this in grounded and useful ways. Harsha Walia lays this out wonderfully in her new book Undoing Border Imperialism:

Movement building requires reflexivity. And yet it is rare to find open spaces of debate and discussion, outside of insular networks, where movement practices can be rigorously analyzed. I attribute this rarity to a variety of factors: the crisis-oriented nature of community organizing, skepticism about intellectualism stemming from a misplaced conflation with the elitism and inaccessibility of academic institutions, and our own personal fears and defensiveness about unsettling existing movement practices in which we are invested or implicated. Rather than shying away from debate and dialogue, transformative and effective movement organizing requires us to kindle a consciousness within the Left that fosters deliberate thought aimed at effectively challenging exploitation and oppression beyond ritualized “petition to workshop to rally” activism.

The lack of spaces for movement reflection that Walia identifies, as well as her analysis of why this occurs, strongly resonates with my experience. Coming out of this, I think the challenge is to intentionally develop spaces for collective reflection while also generating positive radical intellectual culture not circumscribed by academia, moving away from crisis-oriented organizing, and allowing for frank and compassionate conversations about our hopes and fears. I’m convinced that writing with movements can be a part of this.

The other experience that has shaped my approach to writing with movements comes out of my time in university contexts. When I went to graduate school, I was surprised to discover a whole world populated by left academics largely (but not completely or uniformly) disconnected from movements and day-to-day organizing work. This particularly struck me when I encountered the work of social scientists in the area of “social movement studies.” With some important exceptions, most of that work is astonishingly irrelevant to activists, even though many of those engaged in it are broadly sympathetic to the movements they study.

George Katsiaficas, in his classic book The Subversion of Politics, puts words to my experience:

Seldom in the world of theories of social movements, a world with hundreds of researchers (or perhaps a few thousand) employed full-time, does the idea of changing society get discussed. For most social researchers, social movements are not something they are part of, but merely an object of study. Some of their theories immobilize us, others make us less attuned to dimensions of our lives we know to be significant.

This tendency toward treating movements as objects of study, significantly removed from the goal of changing society, is something I’ve witnessed again and again in academic scholarship. It disappoints me every time. Against this tendency, the challenge I see is to develop a shared practice of reflection and writing not about or even for but with movements. I see writing with movements, at its best, as helping to document movement-generated knowledge, distill lessons, evaluate mistakes, develop liberatory vision, open up difficult questions, and strengthen collective struggles against ruling institutions and relations. That is the kind of writing that I try to support and do, and that is what motivates this blog.