This is Why I Speak of “Postactivism”

BayoFrom Bayo Akomolafe, originally posted to social media on February 26, 2019:

A sticky myth of modern activism is that we are human observers looking out upon a world of troubling events from a distance that allows us to think up solutions to, or ask poignant questions about, those critical occurrences. Our popular equations of social change seemingly take for granted the constancy of human subjectivity and agency. We are pillars in the sandy storm: the world outside our skins may roar and thrash and turn, but we are the calm interruptions in the wind – and it is our impenetrable inner world and free-willed consciousness that will bring order to the chaos around us – if only we get our act together. What we do not see, however, is how fluid, incoherent and unstable we really are. For instance, with the problem of environmental degradation, we do not usually notice how we are co-produced in the leaching of dangerous toxins from aquatic bodies in plastic oceans, how these secretions not only penetrate our own bodies but modify them, and how these modifications imply that we are not pure referees of the situation. We are “in deep”, and we must account for the fact that how we even see the problem is part of the problem.

In addressing racism and articulating racial justice, we often cannot notice that we do so as subjects of neoliberal sites of power, that our presumptions about identity, feelings of guilt and constructions of justice are instigated, maintained, and curated by the very material-social structures we want to upend. We will often not notice that just by living in the city we will think like the city; we will often be blind to the ways social media reworks our emotional tolerance for dissent.

In short, with regards to the hot-button issues of the day, it is not just the case that we are affected by these events, by these problems. It is that we ARE these problems in their ongoing metabolism. Climate change is not the swirling grey cloud outside the conference center built to fight climate change. Climate change is the swirling cloud, the conference center and our activism. We are intricately bound up with the world, and nothing is absolved or safe – not memory, not cognition, not feelings, not action, not thought, and not our bodies. What is immediately noticeable in this ‘new’ picture is that we will often fall into the spinning vortices of repetition. Caught up in tautological economies of talking, writing, and practicing responsibility, we will often reproduce the same effects we want to escape – all the while celebrating how innovative and daring we are.

This is why I speak of “postactivism” – not as a departure from activism, or a confident new epistemology and set of solutions to the existential challenge of entanglement, but as an acceptance of our already transient, toxic and troubling bodies. Postactivism investigates the material conditions of how we respond to crises, what makes those responses intelligible or less so, and what other forms of doings (human and non/human) we can pay attention to. What feels clear is that we must hospice that long exhausted human body of the sentient actor, whose noble form has withstood the fierce winds of change since we crawled unto earthly surfaces. We must now notice that we are the monstrous winds we fight against – the tentacles of the monster that stands at the fork in the road. In touching our monstrous bodies, and shedding our neat configurations, who knows what we might then be capable of?

5 thoughts on “This is Why I Speak of “Postactivism”

  1. Geoff

    Appreciate this perspective, but I’m left asking, what is the next step? How does this awareness change our activism? What must we let go of to assimilate this “postactivist” reality, and what must change to create a new reality?

  2. Hello Geoff. Postactivism – as I articulate it – is not averse to questions about “what comes next” or “what to do now”. In fact, it leans into those questions to explore their often shocking materialities. It disturbs those inquiries so that other possibilities are hopefully noticed – and other modes of engagement are seen. This is not then a quest for solutions, a formulaic algorithm for responding to crisis, or a quick path to figuring things out. Our rush to ‘solutions’ – justified by the idea that we modern humans are the ones in charge and that we must act urgently – is often blind to how deeply embedded we are in the realities we confront, and how we will almost always reproduce those troubling situations.

    As a citizen of the so-called “developing third world”, I know all too well how many well-intentioned projects from the West have left our lands even more wounded than they already are. Postactivism thus emerges from the ethics that urges us to slow down in times of urgency. It urges the kinds of practices that bring us to touch the bodies and structures that frame and produce us, as well as the crises we confront. It is about meeting obstacles, being confronted, being defeated, and leaving the highway for the winding path. I would think of many practices today – such as Futures Literacy, to name one – as postactivist.

    I would also add that postactivism is not a new code for interpreting all activist situations. There are contexts that might not be the right conditions for the kinds of work that slowly opens us up to other modes of asking your question and other territories of power. However, we desperately need postactivist sites of inquiry. We are largely stuck, running circles around ourselves and not able to address our most pressing questions. Maybe that’s because we are asking the wrong questions. Maybe what we need is not even the right answer, but the gift of bewilderment – the lostness that cleaves open an entirely different grammar of action we never imagined possible.

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