2016 Conference on Critical Geography: Situated Solidarities

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I’m taking the Greyhound home right now after attending a very interesting Conference on Critical Geography at the University of Kentucky in Lexington just this last weekend on October 14-16. I submitted an abstract at the last possible moment when I saw that my friend and interlocutor in geographies of religion Anna Secor had shared it from her home department. This made the preferred transportation method from Chicago to Lexington the Greyhound, which unfortunately meant that I missed Paul Routledge’s (Leeds) brilliant keynote, as well as this morning’s pancake breakfast (a tradition of these Critical Geography conferences). However, I have appreciated the University of Kentucky’s generous hospitality, especially the wine and generous helpings of Mediterranean food to which I arrived late on Friday night.

Secor chaired our morning session yesterday on Activist Imaginaries. The abstract that I submitted focused on a key problematic of my second project on contemporary occupy movements and ‘capitalism with Asian values,’ and because it is so provisional, I won’t post it at this time. Indeed, Anna circulated an email shortly before the conference to encourage us to bring to the table a problem with which we have been struggling in our current research. The talk didn’t have to be a polished academic talk; it was a five-minute introduction to our work. I jumped at the opportunity to talk about how the global Left seems to have labeled two of the social and political movements that took place in 2014 in which I am interested – the Euromaidan protests in Ukraine (which started in 2013) and the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong – as reactionary and regressive in their politics. The question that I asked was: can social movements labeled as ‘reactionary’ and ‘regressive’ still be part of the ideological constellation of the Left?

The conversation that we had throughout the day suggested to me indirectly that this was a bit of an elephant in the room. In fact, we did not get around to discussing my question explicitly in the panel. I learned instead that – to the express dismay of some of the more senior scholars at the conference – what is really meant by critical geography at this moment is the attempt to theorize affect – the way that material and bodily masses react to an external stimulus – as political. Affect, as I have been learning from my friends and colleagues in feminist geography, has to be defined this way because it is not the same as emotion, which is the way that the consciousness of your feelings leads to action in space.

Of course, what all this talk about affect means, as one person put it, is that it’s a bit like Marxism without Marx, materialism without material.

But in the discussion about the possibility of affective politics, I heard quite clearly a debate about the Right. Scholars on the Left (especially those associated with Stuart Hall and the Birmingham School of cultural studies) have long shown that the Right has been very good about using affect to make people react politically. If it was the moral panic of the 1970s (as Stuart Hall had it in Policing the Crisis), it’s (as Secor put it in her five minutes) now as much pictures of refugees as the Trump phenomenon. The question, as Paul Routledge raised in his keynote, is whether these affective phenomena can be mobilized; though I missed the talk, what was reiterated throughout the day was Routledge’s prescription to mobilize anger. In one telling quote from a critical geography conference that happened in Palestine, Palestinian scholars and activists were remembered saying to fellow attendees who cried for their plight, We don’t want your tears! We want your anger!

What this affect means, of course, is that the boundaries between Right and Left in terms of political modes are being erased, which I noticed made some people at the conference decidedly nervous about the implications of politicizing affect. One would, of course, hate to be a conservative in critical geography!

But of course, all that’s to say that I came away with tools to continue to probe my question, and for that, I am thankful, although since I’m known as one of the ‘religion guys’ in geography, I’d hate to become known as a ‘conservative guy’ too.

I also decided to take advantage of my time in Lexington to do some other fun things. I discovered, for example, that my friend, the Rev David Moe, had recently moved to Lexington to be the youth pastor at the local Korean Presbyterian Church while studying at Asbury Theological Seminary just up the road. David and his wife Prissila took me out for Korean food, and over coffee afterward, we spent about three hours discussing Asian American liberation theology. I also found out that the Catholic Newman Center at the University of Kentucky houses a fairly diverse parish community called Holy Spirit Parish, and their assistant priest is a very gentle and thoughtful Sri Lankan priest, flanked by a delightful deacon who can really preach and whose participation in the liturgy helped me to see that the Latin Church still does indeed have a use for deacons going between the people and the altar. Finally, I found a place for Kentucky barbecue and bourbon, where I got to zone out after a long day of processing all these thoughts.

I am grateful to Anna Secor for bringing me onto this panel, where more interlocutors in critical geography have been brought into my life. I also want to extend a special thanks to Laçin Tutalar, a PhD candidate in human geography who is doing very exciting work on the soundscapes of Istanbul, for doing so much of the logistical work to make my stay at the University of Kentucky very pleasant – from organizing lodging to making coffee for those of us staying in the residences yesterday morning.

“The Last Acceptable Prejudice” and “The Last Civil Rights Struggle”: Anti-Catholicism, Same-Sex Marriage, and Racial Solidarity (Catholic Newman Center at UW)

I am giving a talk on March 20 entitled “The Last Acceptable Prejudice” and “The Last Civil Rights Struggle”: Anti-Catholicism, Same-Sex Marriage, and Racial Solidarity. The venue for this event is the Catholic Newman Center at the University of Washington, and it is being hosted by Frasatti: UW Newman Young Adults and Grads. The talk starts at 7:30 PM, and the discussion will end by 9 PM. Drinks and refreshments are provided by the Newman.

Let me tell you a little bit more about the talk, what prompted me to generate this topic, and why I’ve chosen to give it first at the Catholic Newman Center.

The talk itself combines three conversations that are unlikely companions: anti-Catholicism in America, the same-sex marriage debate over the last two decades, and prospects for racial solidarity in the twenty-first century. The Roman Catholic Church in America and the proponents of marriage equality seem to have been locked in a die-hard zero sum game. On the Catholic side, there seems to be a push toward a more just society through religious freedom, often invoking the need to overcome the historic American prejudice toward Catholics. On the marriage equality side, there seems to be a push for more sexual equality, often invoking the need to overcome the historic American propensity toward heteronormativity. The discourse goes that if we overcome anti-Catholicism, we will have overcome “the last acceptable prejudice.” If we overcome barriers to marriage equality, we will have overcome “the last civil rights struggle.” The problem is that these two “lasts” seem locked in an epic battle to the finish.

My talk calls both sides to revisit the racial struggles from which they both borrow. The trouble with the arguments on both sides seems to me that they both implicitly think that the struggle for racial justice is a done deal.

But is it? And if it isn’t, what new unlikely solidarities can be called forth? How have Catholic already been tied to racial and sexual justice movements? And if, as Andrea Smith would put it, new unlikely solidarities are developed (or have already been developed!), how would it reframe the epic “last” battle for equality?

I’m a scholar who works on public spheres. Oftentimes, these publics are conceptualized as “secular.” I agree that publics might be secular if we were talking about secularization as a theological process. But if secular means that these publics are non-religious, then I think that’s a mistake.

I came to this conclusion while working on Cantonese-speaking Protestant engagements with the public sphere. It was there that I began thinking about the same-sex marriage debate, as many of my field subjects in San Francisco, Vancouver, and Hong Kong were concerned with opposing same-sex marriage. Far from imposing their religious views onto the public sphere, though, they often adapted their arguments to be more secular so as to attempt to effect maximum impact.

The accusation that religion was entering the public sphere struck me as a very Catholic way of putting things. It reminded me of how many of the founding works in the social science of religion were in fact positioned against the Catholic Church; due to the work of folks like Andrew Greeley, however, I should note that this is much less the case nowadays. It led me to think more about how Catholics approached the marriage equality and religious freedom questions differently from their evangelical allies. It made me curious about how Catholics engage the public sphere differently from evangelicals and yet how they have worked together over the last thirty years.

There was also a lot of talk by the Cantonese Protestants about the race question, accusing LGBTIQ activists of basically stealing from race to advance their “special rights.” That made me think about how some LGBTIQ scholar-activists themselves (such as Judith Butler and Jasbir Puar) were themselves conflicted about whether advocating for things like marriage equality cast the race problem as essentially settled when it was not. At the same time, it made me ponder over whether the religious freedom activism also borrowed from the Civil Rights Movement. It made me think about how all of this talking about the “last acceptable prejudice” and the “last civil rights struggle” may have contributed to a Supreme Court decision like Shelby County v. Holder where race is seen as a done deal in comparison with more purportedly important and contemporary civil rights struggles.

The result is this talk, that is, my musings on topics beyond the scope of my immediate work, has direct bearing on my future work. I see this talk as a place to voice what I have been thinking about for a long time and to get a conversation about this unlikely bundle of topics going.

It’s one thing to theorize all of this in the secular classroom, which I have been doing in my American religion class. There, we have dealt with anti-Catholicism, race, and sexuality issues. It’s another thing altogether to try this topic out on people with faith commitments.

That’s where the Newman comes in. Yes, I think my musings can be developed into an academic paper in a “secular age” (as Charles Taylor would put it), but the Catholic Newman Center is a place to try this out to make sure that Roman Catholics who very much obviously have a stake in the anti-Catholicism part of the talk might be able to give some feedback. With the references to Butler and Puar, I’d be just as happy to shop this around to LGBTIQ activists as well (some of whom, mind you, might also be Catholic).

However, I think there’s something particularly Catholic about this talk that I do want to highlight. It seems that what is intriguing about Catholicism as classically conceived might be its solidarity dimensions. It’s this that I want to explore in this talk.

Consider this an attempt to hear directly from the publics that I research about how I conduct my research. I look forward very much to this talk and especially to the conversation that will follow. My hope is that we will be able to imagine some unlikely solidarities that can be built in order to contribute to a more just and peaceful world.