Sign, sign, everywhere a sign

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?


4 Responses to Sign, sign, everywhere a sign

  1. alden says:

    i think the real thing preventing activism is all the po-mo stuff about information and imagery clogging up kids’ heads.

    haha i kid! but seriously, huh? i’m pretty sure that all the anti-war protesters, people in the black power movement, feminists, unionists, gay rights activists, american indian movement activists, etc, etc, etc would be pretty surprised to learn about all the personal wealth they apparently had.

    i think the other points really don’t add up to much, either, and seem to define ‘activism’ as the exclusive domain of college kids, which ignores the majority of people involved in social struggles.

    people do stuff when they think it’ll make a difference. i think the main thing is not that people are unwilling to do anything, or unable to make an impact due to image saturation or anything, but see no evidence that their own activism will change things.

    also- remember that the biggest single day of protests in american history was in 2006, so shouldn’t be too down on our generation!

  2. kkrahel says:

    (i guess i should have been at this discussion, in Thursday’s section we just talked about the exam/final papers mostly.)

    Being someone who is pretty personally and “professionally” invested in the answer to this/these questions, I have thought a lot about this. Specifically, I think there is a certain historical perspective that is playing out here. What I mean is that “our parents” (meaning baby boomers, who are the dominant cultural “parental” age group right now) lived through a lot of the big activism and have mythologized it (the agents of this mythologizing are mostly elites- media and such- I think).

    However, there is also something exceptional about that era, too. I would say there were two main waves of activism during the 50s-70s era that I think we are talking about: the Civil Rights Movement and the anti-Vietnam War Movement. I think these were exceptional social movements in American history. The Civil Rights Movement involved a large, rather discrete segment of the population that was “legally” being oppressed in pretty obvious ways; this provided (along with post-war prosperity, historical particularity, and liberal political hegemony) a large, active group of people who rose up in a very visible way. The Vietnam War is special for two main reasons, IMO: the recent/contemporary example of the Civil Rights Movement and the draft. The first part is pretty self-explanatory. The second has been explained better than I can, but basically the draft dragged a lot of middle class kids into a relatively unpopular war (compared to WWII; the Korean War is similar to Vietnam, but I think it didn’t spark the same huge movement because it didn’t last long and because the Civil Rights Movement hadn’t provided an example yet).

    ANYWAY, so that era was special. A lot of things came together and powerful forces pushed people to do things they wouldn’t normally do. I think the stakes for most Americans are much less (or are less visible) now. If a draft were to be instated or an economic depression were to occur (I am actually somewhat convinced of the high likelihood of this in the next year or so), I think you would see massive protests and unrest. People in this country are already really really fucking pissed, there just isn’t something unifying enough and with enough stakes to push them to mass open revolt. But we will see how long “we” can avoid that…

    (ah, that was a nice break from writing my paper!)


    PS: Your most recent post (on mental health/depression) was very moving. I would really like to talk to you about it sometime if you want (preferably non-digitally). You are amazing!

  3. pandanose says:

    Thanks for stopping in, Kyle! (I was beginning to wonder if you did, in fact, still exist.)

    I’m so glad you mentioned mythology, because that was something I wanted to get into but couldn’t figure out how to approach. Because another theory (#5? Also I just realized my numbering is out of order- fixed!) would be that, outside of the difficutly of recognizing events within our own generation as historically relevant, we’ve mythologized the activism of the past to such a degree that our own actions have trouble living up to that mythology.

    So are you saying that your somewhat convinced we’ll have an economic depression in the next year or so, or that someone will try to reinstate the draft?

    (I’d love to talk non-digitally! Skipping town early to be with the folks for Christmas, but I’ll be back by the end of the month.)

  4. wtto says:

    I think activism is still going on huge amounts, but for some reason (relatively) privileged college kids aren’t taking part or joining in.

    Particularly, I see some strong activism around housing issues and around CORI issues in the Boston area.

    There’s also LGBT stuff, particularly LGBT youth stuff going on. I think that we (meaning young people with access to the net) expect every event to arrive in our inboxes but it doesn’t work that way because the folks leading the way don’t always have access to or focus on the internet. If you commit to getting involved, you can.

    Personally, I just started with a grassroots group I knew of and quickly after going to a few months of meetings (in person, not just waiting for an email), I had been invited to join in way more stuff than I could actually have taken on.

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