Living in Contradictions. Notes on Uneasy Alliances
Living in Contradictions. Notes on Uneasy Alliances
To live in the Borderlands means to put chile in the borscht, eat whole wheat tortillas, speak Tex-Mex with a Brooklyn accent;
be stopped by la migra at the border checkpoints (…)
– G. Anzaldúa, To Live in the Borderlands Means You
The Chicana Feminist Gloria Anzaldúa wrote about borderlands and about how the experience of living on the borders changes you, how it is always transgressing, but also progressing; how its experience teaches that it is labels that dismantle unity, not someone’s lived experience of contradictions.1 The institutionalized, policed state borders intertwine in her narrative with those of cultural traditions and result with a hybrid sense of identity, clearly contradicting the clean, homogenic European subject.
The concept of “uneasy alliances” feels like that, but instead of (only) crossing state and cultural borders, it opens to other sides of our lived experiences, such as cultural production, collaborations, meetings, festivals, relations... If we examine it closer, a further possibility appears: perhaps any alliance is uneasy? Perhaps a sense of estrangement accompanies not only the use of language, as Walter Benjamin argued in The Task of Translator, but any cultural activity, including working and allying with others?2
“Uneasy alliances” are a contradiction—a familiar one, as we all intuitively know, what it means. It seems like a rephrasing of Immanuel Kant's “asocial sociability,” the phenomenal tendency among humans to build collectives in pursuit of individual, often simply egoist aims.3 The uneasiness is thus understood as an experience of contradiction between the particular purposes that each of us has and the collective needs of the species. (Yes, Kant was very keen on the human species, he also invited us to limit our understanding to the abilities we might share as species and to build a frontier between what a human mind can know and what other species perhaps can know. This has typically been criticized as a way to preserve human superiority, but I do not read it this way; it is rather a warning not to try to project one’s understanding onto others, such as gods, angels or animals, a very useful suggestion when we try to think with animals, for example, although sometimes a reductive one.)
In our practice during this year’s transmediale festival, we attempted to build an uneasy alliance and share it with others, by means of a workshop, a public event, and some written materials, such as this text and the conversation piece published earlier. It was a difficult task, including, among other things, translation, moderation, sharing, remixing, theorizing, and exercising. The eight to ten of us constituting the Uneasy Alliances working group spent several months discussing and writing, meeting (just once before the festival, but also chatting and skyping) to build infrastructures where discussions, sharing, presentations, and common praxis could be undertaken. One of the purposes of it, at least for me—and I am genuinely grateful to the transmediale curators and producers for allowing this,—was to invent formats and patterns for non-hierarchical, horizontal exchange between many strangers in public, formed in such ways that the errors of more typical public debates would not happen. I believe that our attempts were to some extent productive, yet we definitely worked more effectively and with more satisfying results at a smaller scale, where some 50 rather than 150 people were involved. There is a lesson to learn from that: for the majority of people, taking the opportunity and speaking publicly with microphones and sharp lights is an uncomfortable situation, and the ways we used to breach this particular difficulty were effective for only some participants of our public event, while exhausting for others. The general unease of allying with strangers is a tough one to facilitate.
In the uneasy intersection of activism, artivism, hacktivism, performativity, feminist, and queer inspirations, there were difficult aspects as well. It was definitely uneasy to include films in the conversation, especially without the possibility to show long pieces and only excerpts instead. But, for me, two moments were particularly uneasy: firstly, when difficult affects were invoked in the form of an accusation, and, secondly, when privilege was inserted into our conversations as another means of accusation and endless blaming. The latter involved undermining the participants’ ability to critically engage based on assumptions about “how privileged” we might be. Both of these more uncomfortable moments happened during the public event of the Uneasy Alliances Study Circle, via the interventions made by members of the audience. In these moments of unease I realized that something I really try to avoid is guilt-driven critique. I believe that there is more guilt on the side of culture than we ever imagine, and this guilt-driven critique—undermining any effort to build alliances—is not merely uneasy, it is destructive to such extent that it dismantles any bonds of the common aims we might have. For this reason, I believe in uneasy alliances as requiring some careful agency that contains guilt rather than allowing its shaming spread. The unease does not necessarily have to lead to guilt; it might be a cultural conditioning rather than logical necessity. Thinking about that and the other options unease opens for discussions but also cultural and political actions is one thing that has definitely stayed with me following the debates we held during this year’s transmediale.
One of the main inspirations for our Study Circle was the notion put forward by Raymond Williams, Structures of Feeling.4 This empathetic reading of the social aspects of affect was a guiding concept that took us to different directions; for some it was an affirmation of the collective’s sensitivity, for others an exercise in dialectics. For yet some others it was a way to inhabit materialism, to understand it as inhabited by sensual creatures. Williams’ return to the structures of feeling has a twofold purpose: firstly, to return to the particular and contingent as a part of the social that matters and, secondly, to recognize that part of the experience that cannot be immediately seen either as material or as rational—affect. This is important from the point of view of the history of theory/philosophy, but we should probably ask: why is it important for the main theme of our Circle?
The “uneasy alliance” references the fundamental contradictions of the social. It stresses the individual experience and feeling (of unease) and the experience and feeling of the social (of allying). Thus it does not just bring the individual into the social, it reveals the social affects and the individual as structure as well. I believe that this complexity is crucial here, and I somehow distrust Judith Butler when she suggests that affect, and thus also resistance, can only be individual.5 When she says that: “The social and political transformation starts with the small step, the daily call, the weekly demonstration, moving outside our zone of comfort where we all identify with one another toward the uneasy alliance that stands against injustice”—which was our study group’s motto—she definitely speaks about individual experience. The question is, how can we build a collective notion based on it? These experiences can and should also be understood as social, this is how solidarity is produced.
So: we have an apparent clash between the individual logic of Butler’s resistance and the social logic of Williams. We have two strong philosophical traditions of political thought: Butler’s liberal core versus Williams’ Marxism. And what we wanted to do of course was not to focus on these technical distinctions, but an interesting project. Yet, these distinctions can make our effort to discuss the uneasy alliances simultaneously more boring and more exciting, because the alliance of individualism and Marxism is par excellence and by definition uneasy; it is one where the desire to limit affect, resistance, and experience to the individual has to be given up. It is an alliance where, if we make a small effort, we can perhaps solve certain fundamental problems of both perspectives. It also is an alliance in which we learn to speak anew. A new language, to be specific. A language in which the binary code is replaced with viruses, hybrids, and queerness, as suggested by Anzaldúa or Benjamin, referenced above.
Through this language we gain dialectics. Perhaps not the most beloved term in times of catastrophic posthumanism, yet a helpful one, because it allows the situating of our expressions of affects in the social without artificially separating them as parts of individual experience. It also allows us to see the supposed oppositions in a process, as being formed in interaction.
Let’s take the topic of solidarity. The affect of solidarity cannot be imagined as individual (try it yourself). Solidarity is par excellence a social affect, or at least it requires a person and a group—or at least two groups, as even two persons do not seem to be enough. If we take all the issues we wanted to address in our circle—technology, alienation, false premises of collectivity, artificially created by social media etc.—, they definitely seem uneasy. Especially so if what we also want is alliances.
Unease can be associated with failure. We want the feelings of happiness and joy, because they mean we succeeded. But is it really so? When I finish writing a book, I often feel sad and tired rather than happy. Does it mean I failed? It also happens within collaborations—we often feel tired and sad. All these emails and communications; all the misunderstandings and irritations.
Collaborations are uneasy, because they require effort, yes, but they also go against everything we are taught in neoliberalism. They go beyond our desire to succeed immediately, to have the instant satisfaction, the comfort. Uneasy alliances are thus perhaps representative of all alliances, at least in neoliberal societies of late capitalism as we know it. Tasks such as working in unison not only with the small group of other artists, but also with theorists, activists, and curators, might appear to be easy. Being an international group makes it more complex, but perhaps it also opens up the possibility to further differences and alliances by means of hybridity and transversality. I believe that the somewhat experimental formats we enhanced this year might be a step towards sharing and enabling more openly accessible public debates. I am grateful I could contribute some work and imagination to such “uneasy alliance.”
- 1. Gloria Anzaldúa, “To Live in the Borderlands Means You,” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, Vol. 17, No. 3 (1996), pp. 4-5.
- 2. Walter Benjamin, “The task of translator,”Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn; ed. & intro. Hannah Arendt (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich 1968), pp.69-82.
- 3. See: Immanuel Kant, “Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose”, H. Reiss (ed), Kant. Political Writings, (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1991).
- 4. Raymond Williams, “The Structures of Feeling,” Marxism and Literature (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1977).
- 5. Judith Butler, “This Is What Resistance Looks Like,” Lecture at Luskin School of Public Affairs, UCLA, 2017.