Wednesday, June 20, 2018

A Review of the Emotional Politics Conference

Emotional Politics – The Role of Affect in Social Movements and Organizing took place on 31 May 2018 at the University of Kent in Canterbury. The conference aimed to bring together academics, activists, policy-makers and practitioners to share current concerns and developments in the research and practice surrounding emotion, organizing and social movements. It was co-hosted by the Gender, Sexuality and Culture Research Cluster in the School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research at Kent and kindly sponsored by the Centre for Colonial and Postcolonial Studies, the School of English and the Centre for Gender, Sexuality and Writing. Myself and fellow organizer and PhD student  Angela Matthews had met during a workshop and our joint interest in affect, emotion and social transformation had been the driving force behind the conceptualisation of this conference. 

Veteran activist and scholar Angela Y. Davis (2016) claims that in order for a movement to be effective it needs to mobilize the masses. As such, this conference asked
  • How does one reach the masses?
  • What motivates people to join a movement, especially if they are not directly affected by the campaign’s agenda and the successful implementation of its goals?
  •  How can organizers and campaigners make use of emotion, feeling and affect as these circulate between subjects and objects?
  • What problems may arise in the concrete experience of organizing?

Speakers approached these questions from a variety of ways and their various disciplinary backgrounds ranging from sociology, geography and politics to literature, arts and journalism provided an interesting mix of different methodologies and critical arguments.

Keynote speaker Dr Carolyn Pedwell

The morning panels engaged with the topic of collective and distributed emotion as well as with affective media representations of social movements and protests. Afterwards, Carolyn Pedwell, Reader in Cultural Studies at the University of Kent, delivered her brilliant keynote “Digital Tendencies: Intuition, Algorithmic Thought and New Social Movements”. Pedwell drew on a number of different recent examples such as Occupy and Black Lives Matter to flesh out the role of the digital in contemporary organizing. While conscious of the, at times, certainly problematic connection between social media, affect and neoliberalism, she tried to move away from a narrow analysis of the digital as either negative or positive. Instead, Pedwell argued that the digital can be useful in the development of social movements and ultimately in the adoption of social change. As a medium for communication and continuous engagement it can be used by people to react to that which is in process and may enable movements to “combine a tendency to oppose oppression with a capacity to sense change as it is happening”.

Jennifer Chisholm (Cambridge University) speaking about women leaders in
the Favela Housing Rights Movement in Rio de Janeiro.

The afternoon included panels on organizing and the ethics of care, the scholar-activist, affective sites of communication and the affective struggles of those who sometimes find themselves on the far side of social change and activism. Jennifer Chisholm from the University of Cambridge, for example, presented findings from her PhD research on women leaders in the Favela Housing Rights Movement in Rio de Janeiro. She argued that the women employ what she terms “vulnerability talk” as a form of “patriarchal bargaining” to justify their position of leadership among male community members. Only by presenting themselves as “leaders-cum-caregivers” appear these women to be able to secure their active position within the movement. In contrast to that, Audrey Reeves from Cardiff University examined “the importance of affective connections to material objects” in a series of American war heritage sites. Marked by a dynamic atmosphere and lots of engaging discussion, the day then concluded with inspiring poetry performances by Kat Peddie and Betsy Porritt (both Kent) whose creative work addressed the conference theme in different but equally insightful ways.

Please take a look at this Twitter story board for some further impressions from the conference.

This post initially appeared here in a slightly modified version.  

Friday, May 25, 2018

Quilting as Political Action: The Social Justice Sewing Academy

In a previous post I argued for the need of a critical awareness about narratives of comfort and healing that regularly accompany quilts, particularly those displayed or exchanged in public settings. Today I’d like to showcase an organization that uses quilts and quilting as a form of political action that empowers the maker and provides very clear political commentary. The Social Justice Sewing Academy (SJSA) was founded in 2016 by Harvard graduate Sara Trail. It aims to allow youths to “explore, discuss and express modes of oppression, lived experiences and creativity” through the medium of quilts and quiltmaking (SJSA website). The curriculum of the six weeks summer program or shorter workshops “draws on concepts taught in history, ethnic studies, education and sociology” as a means to make students “aware of systemic injustices” and their historic legacies, while at the same time equipping them with the ability to become active participants of social change (SJSA website). Materials in the workshop section is aimed at raising “student’s [sic] level of critical consciousness” and includes “readings from Angela Davis, bell hooks, Kimberly Crenshaw, Toni Morrison, Patricia Hill Collins, Maya Angelou, Audre Lorde and others” (Hazlewood). The materials selected hope to counter American public schools’ standard history curriculum which, according to Trail, “is not inclusive, ostracizing hundreds of thousands of Black and Brown people whose history lies outside of the dominant American narrative” and does not acknowledge “today’s social, educational and economic inequality as remnants of that history” (qtd. in Britex). Like many African-American cultural critics - for example bell hooks, Alice Walker and Michelle Wallace - Trail implies that a reclaiming of black history and an understanding of how it was and is being shaped through Western Eurocentric discourses, is imperative to social justice. The second part of the workshop then introduces students to sewing, showing them how to cut fabric, use a sewing machine and create appliqué quilt blocks expressive of social justice issues important to the teenagers (Hazlewood). Students are free in the design of their blocks and only receive technical guidance. The finished blocks are then mailed to volunteers across the US that embroider and embellish them before they are sewn together into a quilt top.


For Trail, fibre is an appropriate medium through which to address social justice issues not only because of its deep connection with African-American history (see Macdowell), but also because of its etymological links to concepts of weaving and storytelling which connect people and tie them together. Stories, in this context, are seen as an essential part of social justice activism, because they can be an important tool in getting people hooked to an issue on an affective as well as a structural level. Hosting many workshops in different parts of the US, Trail herself was struck by how students’ experiences differ regionally (Hazlewood). Concerns around social justice for teenagers in private schools are more likely to centre on issues such as climate change or ending animal abuse. Youths in areas like Oakland and Chicago, however, were concerned with police and gang violence as well as drug abuse because they had been directly affected by them in their immediate environment (Hazlewood). Through sending the blocks across the country to be finished off by volunteers, people for whom social justice is “a far more ‘removed’ concept / theory/ issue” as opposed to those for whom it is a “lived reality” come into direct contact with these experiences (qtd. in Hazlewood). In addition, SJSA’s Instagram feed and website offer everyone a glimpse of the many creations as do the ever increasing number of local exhibitions. Eleven quilts from SJSA were even featured at this year’s Quiltcon, the annual international quilt show of the Modern Quilt Guild in Pasadena, California. These quilts very explicitly addressed topics like Black Lives Matter, immigration reform, sexual assault, and gun violence, hoping to “foster dialogue” among viewers (SJSA website). In this sense, the quilt blocks and finished quilts can be the starting point for an affective investment in a cause as they help orient people towards certain affects connected with the lived experience of others. As such, the quilts also consciously play with generic perceptions of quilts as symbols of comfort and love as they openly engage with discrimination, racism and sexism.

I am suspicious of progressive narratives that connect social change to a radical “rupture of consciousness” which supposedly leads to a rethinking of personal and collective politics and a commitment to social change (Pedwell 2011). Indeed, Trail’s hope of mobilizing people into activists on the basis of having them connect on an emotional level with the lived experience of a marginalized people, echoes this problematic narratives to a certain extent. However, the time consuming process of making a quilt also points to the importance of prolonged practices in social justice movements. I believe there is value in conceptualizing routine practices grounded in the everyday as a way to manifest a consciousness or awareness which can lead to active political engagement and eventually social change because, as T.V. Reed states, “surrounding the drama of social change there takes place much undramatic day-to-day activity that alone can consolidate the work of movements' ‘ritual public displays’” (2005: xix). Ultimately, the SJSA hopes to “create conscious art activists who will use their creativity to change their world one stitch at a time” as opposed to inducing an immediate rupture of consciousness (SJSA website). This means that participants (and also viewers), hopefully, reflect not only on how they are personally affected by social injustice, but also become leaders and organizers in their communities that actively work to address and change these issues (SJSA website). As such, quilts can participate in social justice movements through moments of disruption as well as emotional attachment as they move from the personal sphere of the home into the public as part of quilt shows and gallery exhibitions, through sharing images of them online, and through forms of direct action. The textual hereby shapes those encounters between people and material objects and can cause disorientation through its design, background story or the context in which it is created and placed. As quilts are usually connected to comfort, warmth and familiarity, expressive quilts like the community quilts of the Social Justice Sewing Academy disorient through their outright confrontation with questions of gender, race and identity and how these categories are implicated in African-Americans’ lived experience and political struggle.


Britex Fabrics. “Social Justice Sewing Academy (SJSA) Quilts Made with Fabric from Britex.“ 18 July 2017. Web. 24 August 2017.

Hazlewood, Sandi. “Social Justice Sewing Academy {Make a Difference}.” Crafty Planner.  April 2017. Web. 24 August 2017.

Macdowell, Marsha. Ed. African American Quiltmaking in Michigan. East Lansing, Michigan: Michigan State University Press, 1997.

Pedwell, Carolyn. “Transforming Habit: Revolution, Routine and Social Change.” Cultural Studies 31.1 (2011): 32-120.

Reed, Thomas Vernon. The Art of Protest: Culture and Activism from the Civil Rights Movement to the Streets of Seattle. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Ordinary Stitches

The everyday is notoriously ubiquitous. It’s everything and nothing. It may refer simply to the ordinary elements of our daily existence, but in a manner that is also “strangely elusive, resists our understanding and escapes our grasp” (Felski 1999: 15). At the same time, it is also the realm in which the extraordinary takes place and the backdrop against which we define the latter (Highmore 2002: 16; Stewart 2007). For me, it's exactly this ambiguous nature of the everyday that makes it such an interesting and promising concept and. My research into practices of needlework as a form of politics is driven by my observation that needlework is regularly placed within some kind of binary, for example: subversive feminist acts versus the affirmation of conservative notions of femininity; art versus craft; alternative modes of production versus mass produced textiles. While the arguments that place the practice and the finished object in any of those categories are certainly laudable in their own right, I don't find them useful as a means to grasp the century-old, multi-faceted and heavily gendered practice of making needleworks. Placing it into any sort of binary, though potentially useful in certain analytical contexts, is ultimately reductive. Such an approach does not acknowledge that a practice firmly grounded within the everyday signifies as ambivalently as the space in which it is performed and in which the finished objects may be displayed.  

Indeed, sewing machines, piles of fabric and unfinished projects, individual balls of yarn and knitting needles often become part of the materiality of the homespace and the everyday. One of my sewing mentors used to always sew on her kitchen table, which meant that all her sewing materials had to be cleared out of the way before she and her husband could sit down to eat. It also resulted in a ruined fabric cutting board that she accidently used as a trivet for a hot pot. Once, I actually ended up with loose threads in my bowl of soup because I was eating in between finishing up a quilt top and, somehow, threads caught on my clothing found their way into my food. For the average maker, the division between the above mentioned binaries is not as clear cut as some scholarship or media coverage may suggest. What starts out as a hobby may lead to a small business selling handmade products at local craft fairs or on online platforms like Etsy. Others progress from reproducing commercial patterns to designing their own pieces which become included in art shows while still continuing to use some of the many readily available patterns. Similarly, many contemporary practitioners of needlework are very aware of its historical connections to femininity and might consciously play with them in their own practice.

I'm interested in how needlework as a practice becomes part of the phenomenological experience of the everyday as “a life lived on the level of surging affects, impacts suffered or barely avoided” (Stewart 2007: 9). The materiality of the practice and the objects it involves like fabric, yarn, needles and pins are hereby as important as “the immaterial material, [that is], affect, emotion and the senses” (Highmore 2011: 140). As such, the process of making is as important as the end product. It becomes part of the rhythm of the everyday as one habitually picks up the crochet while watching the evening news. Likewise, it resembles an ordinary opportunity to pause, reflect and realign as well as to consciously inhabit a space. 

Felski, R., 1999. The Invention of Everyday Life. New Formations, 39, pp.13–31.
Highmore, B., 2002. Everyday life and cultural theory : an introduction, London: Routledge.
---. 2011. Ordinary Lives - Studies in the Everyday, Oxon and New York: Routledge.
Stewart, K., 2007. Ordinary Affects, Durham, N.C. & London: Duke University Press.