On Tuesday the lecture for my class on gender and performance focused on theater for incarcerated women (specifically The Medea Project) and AIDS activism (specifically ACT UP). Afterward we had discussion section, and several of us seemed visibly deflated.
For me, the depression came not from hearing once again stark tales of the AIDS crisis, but rather from realizing that I’m deeply out of touch with any kind of activist presence. I’ve always been really drawn to stories of activism, from Vietnam war protests to civil rights marches to queer performance art. And every time I finish watching or reading about some really powerful historical moment, I’m left with a sense of emptiness. I don’t feel connected to anything that earth-shaking in my own generation, in my own life, and for that I feel a profound sense of loss.
In section we tried to tease out why we might feel that lack, and I thought I might share some of our theories with the rest of y’all to open up a little discussion. (Note: anybody should totally feel free to say “You fool! There’s all kinds of exciting activism happening right now!” I would be really open to hearing that, particularly if you’d like to share how I might get involved.) I can’t and won’t take credit for all of these ideas, but I’d also like to protect the privacy of the students involved by putting these out there as more or less anonymous thoughts. I should also mention that this discussion is really limited just to America. I’m woefully unfamiliar with international activism, beyond what I read about one feminist blogs, so none of these theories necessarily applies to any other countries. (But I’d be thrilled if anybody wanted to chime in from an international perspective!)
So, where’s the activism?
1. It’s an economic issue.
Apparently there was a lot of personal wealth floating around in the 60s, and kids who were getting arrested didn’t necessarily have to worry about that standing in the way of their careers and futures. Folks of my generation, on the other hand, know that potential employers are perusing our Facebook profiles. We’re not guaranteed tenure, or a job at daddy’s firm, or anything five years from now.
[Note: I have a really hard time with this argument. I don’t know much about economics in general, but I suppose I’m willing to maybe believe that, say, some percentage of the Berkeley set had the kind of connections and dollars this argument assumes. It doesn’t hold water for a lot of other sites of activism and protest, though, and it strikes me as extremely … elitist? Classist? Stupid? The “only rich kids can afford to be activists” line is about as plausible to me as the “only rich kids can afford to work in public interest” argument, particularly in looking at arenas like the civil rights movement.]
2. Activism evolves.
They say history flows in cycles. Maybe large-scale, highly visible activism just isn’t a part of this generation’s cycle. Or perhaps activism has evolved into a totally different form. Is blogging an activist production? What about social networking? Virtual worlds?
3. Information is widely available.
Organizations like ACT UP formed in the wake of massive government silence and misinformation, which understandably meant the American people were, well, misinformed about the AIDS crisis (among other issues). Now, however, information is readily available to those who know how to access it, and each generation is increasingly more information literate. My generation in particular is made up almost exclusively of digital natives. The kind of activism that sought to inform the people, to shock the general populace into action, is no longer necessary.
4. Visual imagery is readily available.
This is the one that I find the most interesting, and perhaps the most compelling. As one of my classmates pointed out, the civil rights movement (just as one example) was responding to issues that had major visual components. Actual, physical signs segregated space and people. “Color lines” were drawn figuratively and literally. Responding to those barriers, then, was an equally visual task.
And that’s not the only example. Vietnam was our first televised war. The first Gulf War brought us images from night-vision goggles. The AIDS epidemic created bodies physically marked by disease.
But now we’re in an historical moment that’s extremely saturated with imagery, to the point that many of us have become desensitized to certain kinds of images. Cinematic violence is commonplace, advertising permeates every activity, and even the most shocking of images are played and replayed in news broadcasts until they become all but meaningless, or are reduced to mere icons. When MAD magazine can parody the photographs from Abu Girab, how can activists harness imagery that will have any impact on us?