Exhaustion and Its Entanglements: Relational Ethos, Minoritarian Positionality, and These Political Times

Asif Majid
University of Manchester

I wrote the earliest drafts of “Entangling the British Muslim Woman” in mid to late 2017, before the article underwent a peer-review process and was accepted for publication in March 2018. At the time, I was in the throes of a doctoral program in which I was examining the relationship between Islam and performance through devising theatre, working primarily with British Muslim youth in Manchester. The thesis was built on a practice-based process that was tied to a particular place and set in a particular time. During my fieldwork, which included 18 months of ethnographic participant-observation and an overlapping 6-month process of devising theatre, Muslim youth were being vilified because of a number of extremist attacks that had happened on British soil, including the events at Westminster Bridge in March 2017, Manchester Arena in May 2017, and London Bridge in June 2017. Moreover, the British government’s Prevent Agenda — and its disproportionate consequences for Muslims and communities of color — was in full force. Since that time though, government officials have bowed to public and activist pressure, establishing an independent committee to review and deliver recommendations about the policy.1 The guidance on this review process was released in September 2019.2 Sadly, many of the themes of vilification that made such activism necessary are still alive and well in contemporary Britain.

In the interim between the article’s acceptance by CTR in March 2018 and its publication at the end of 2019, much has changed, both personally and politically. Personally, after being forced back by burnout and its associated exhaustions, I have returned to the US in an effort to recharge and regenerate my scholar-artist-activist energies. Aside from the monastic and mental health marathon that is a PhD, the process of making theatre with British Muslim youth in a highly surveilled and counterterrorism-oriented context wore on me, perhaps more heavily than I cared to admit. There is an added layer of stress and wear that must be recognized, cared for, and healed from in terms of individuals in positions like mine, akin to a reference I made in “Entangling” to anthropologist Emma Tarlo’s work on the “representational challenge” faced by British Muslim young women who are visibly Muslim.3 In my case, that “challenge” manifests in my intersectional identity as a Muslim-American scholar-artist-activist of color. My creative and research work put me directly in contexts and conversations that contest — or at least experiment with — dominating social discourses, narratives, and practices like Whiteness, toxic masculinity and patriarchy, neoliberal capitalism, imperialism, coloniality, and heteronormativity. There is a blurry line between the intersectional identities that we minoritarian scholar-artist-activists hold and the work that we do. Those individuals who inhabit dominant social categories – white, male, Judeo-Christian, straight – do not experience the academic disjunctures and personal exhaustions of having to constantly scrutinize and make intelligible one’s own identity for a scholarly community.

Were that not enough, the political situation on both sides of the Atlantic has become increasingly urgent and traumatizing — recognizing the flippancy with which that term is often deployed — for the marginalized. In the US, we started 2018 with the upholding of the so-called “Muslim Ban” and the continued detainment of children in cages before graduating in 2019 to impeachment inquiries, the steady judicial erosion of LGBT rights, and the literal re-burning of California. In the UK, Brexit oscillated between being on and off and delayed and imagined and confused and real, Parliament was suspended, and a general election was called. And amid all this, Rep. Elijah Cummings passed away on my birthday. Not only was the late Congressman a giant in the impeachment investigations and a moral political renegade, he was my Congressman. I reside in his district and have voted for him in every election for which he was on the ballot. High school friends and classmates of mine worked as his staffers on Capitol Hill. The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, whose concert I attended that evening, offered a video tribute in which the Congressman was shown speaking about the importance of the arts, because he himself did not have access to them as a child. The audience’s emotion was palpable in its standing ovation. The overlap between and the different intensities of the nation’s political grief, the grief of friends and local communities, and my own experience of this particular loss has been eye-opening, at once enlivening for me the country’s cultural chasms and the remaining work needed to bridge them.

Not all is doom and gloom, though. Drawing on the theme of this issue of Interventions regarding political times and activist temporalities, I want to use the remainder of this Postscript to put these times in conversation with the relationality and communitarian ethos that is also palpable at this moment; it is an ethos that the women in Octopus embody. A great deal of heart must be taken from the narrative of resistance that Octopus forwards. When faced with a dire situation in which their lives are being upended and their identities are being redefined by state intervention, Sara, Sarah, and Scheherazade take solace in each other: ripping up their state entitlement forms, committing to punk’s ethic of self-reliance, and building solidarities despite the state’s slippery arms. Punk has always been a countercultural discourse, one that relishes the chance to satirize society and create a counterpublic community. Indeed, the relationships that the three women establish among themselves contribute to the audience’s imagining of such a community. The women form, cliché intended, the beginnings of a beautiful friendship.

In fact, in revisiting “Entangling” and putting it in dialogue with contemporary times, it becomes clear to me that I did not give enough space to a key lesson from Octopus when writing the essay. There is, of course, the importance of Scheherazade’s interest in “Protest. Direct action. Revolution,” which she voices in the play’s final scene when all three women are in the agency’s waiting room.4 But a few lines earlier, Sarah’s insistence on the complexity of British identity — à la sociologist Tariq Modood’s idea of British values being “woven in debate and discussion”5 — results in a conversation about the possibility of multiple national dishes, which is worth quoting at length:

SARAH: I mean…chicken tikka masala has to be a / contender –
SCHEH: Spotted Dick!

Beat.

SARA: It’s a pudding. Spotted Dick.
SARAH: Or I mean, okay think of it like this, even though I know we can’t agree. And Spotted Dick is a pudding. But that’s okay, some people have a sweet tooth. Point is, we get to decide. What the national dish is.

Pause.

SARA: Dishes.
SARAH: What?
SARA: Plural. Then you can keep curry. I quite like a biryani myself, but I’m sticking to fish and chips.
SARAH: I don’t think I’ve ever had a…bury-ani.
SARA: I’ll take you for one some time.
SARAH: Will you?
SARA: (To SCHEH.) As for you, you should give her your form and get out of here. You’re the only one who isn’t in trouble.
SARAH: She’s right, you should.

SCHEHERAZADE tears up her form.6

Rereading this excerpt, I was struck by Sara’s line “I’ll take you for one some time” and Scheherazade’s action of tearing up her form. At the beginning of the play, it would have been impossible to imagine Sara and Sarah willingly sharing a meal, so off-kilter was their relationship. Yet here, they come together in the possibility of minoritarian solidarity. Scheherazade, too, joins them as the only one who — up until this point — has not earned the wrath of Interviewer. Her destruction of the form shows a preference for community-building over and above self-interest.

As I suggested at the end of “Entangling,” there starts to be evidence, then, of the formation of a counterpublic in Octopus. By that, I mean what communication theorist Catherine Squires has defined as a minoritarian group that “engage[s] in debate with wider publics to test ideas and perhaps utilize traditional social movement tactics (boycotts, civil disobedience).”7 Similarly, performance theorist José Esteban Muñoz has articulated counterpublics as “communities and relational chains of resistance that contest the dominant public sphere.”8 In the Muñozian definition, the dimensions of community and relationality are crucial. To breed resistance and contestation of dominant social norms and practices, it is vital to build relationships that sustain those undertaking such resistance. Scheherazade’s decision to tear up her form is one both emerging from and contributing to the solidarity that the three women express in Octopus’ final scene. Sara’s decision to invite Sarah for some biryani comes from a similar place, in line with other meal-sharing and bread-breaking activist initiatives, such as the Black Panther Party’s free breakfast program. These are networks that work, connections that heal.

Another way of thinking about this relationality was recently articulated by filmmaker Michael Moore in a live podcast recording for The Intercept. Alongside Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, Moore was interviewed by journalist Mehdi Hasan. Hasan asked Moore for his message to people who want “to stand up to the Trumpification of politics, to the rise of the far right and these ‘populists,’ but are exhausted, beaten down by the daily craziness, the daily hate.” Moore had this response, which is also worth quoting at length:

Well, in the words of Mick Mulvaney, I’d say get over it. There’s no, this is not the time to be exhausted. We are all in the French resistance…you don’t get to say jeez, I’d like to come and help out at the demonstration but I gotta, I gotta take the kids to soccer. No, from now till next November the kids can walk to soccer…nobody in the French resistance ever said jeez, I’d like to go help you blow up that Nazi bridge but I got couples therapy at four…Focus all your attention on not just getting rid of Trump but getting rid of that which gave us Trump. The system that gave us Trump whether it’s the electoral system, whether it’s the economic system. This is what we have to focus on. We all have to pull together…not hope. I’m against hope…Quit feeling like ‘Oh, what are we going to do?’…It’s action and it’s the belief in yourself and the people with you that you can make this happen. We will make this happen. Don’t hope for it. Act on it.9

Moore’s call to action is stirring. I am, however, not entirely convinced by it. For starters, it is important to take into account the particular position from which Moore comes: that of a white, upper-class man from a working-class background. Moore’s political engagement is not seeded in an intersectional minoritarian positionality, but rather from one solely seeking structural transformation.

Despite my hesitation, I read Moore as highlighting relationality. His invocations of “the French resistance,” “the belief in yourself and the people with you,” and us “all hav[ing] to pull together” point to solidarities similar to what the Muñozian counterpublic calls for. The emphasis is on action, because Moore’s audience at the podcast recording was an audience of young — primarily white — liberals in Washington, DC who may well be looking for excuses like “tak[ing] the kids to soccer” or “couples therapy,” excuses that remove them from the possibility of direct action. But underpinning Moore’s sensitivity to the urgency of these political times is a recognition of the importance of horizontal relationships that sustain such action. If Moore’s focus is on shaking the audience out of its slumber, mine is on the relationships that support those who are already awake. Minoritarian exhaustion and yuppie apathy are not the same thing, and must be read through different lenses.

It is this point — that the intersectional positionality of minoritarian activists be considered on its own merits, rather than on the terms of white liberal ideologies — that I neglected to give space to in “Entangling.” To do the resistant work that is needed to dismantle oppressive structures, it is necessary to have sustaining networks and communities and connections beneath that work. Constant pushing can only be effective if it is seeded in a horizontal sense of solidarity that comes from and exists across those who are working for justice. Exhaustion and a sense of isolation, as many minoritarian activists experience, can be a real problem. Though Moore attends to relationality, it is the women in Octopus who make clear the necessity of community. They go through a series of trials that brings the three of them together, and ultimately are stronger in their links to one another, despite whatever the state might throw at them: arrest, a stripping of citizenship, an erasure of benefits, and deportation. In sharing an intersectional minoritarian position, they choose to build solidarities as well as “communities and relational chains,” with which they resist the state.

As I conclude, I am careful to separate the actions of the women in Octopus from Moore’s call to action, for the world of the play is a fictional one that is in complex relation to and dialogue with current political times. Yet, it is linked to the everyday and ongoing activism that the filmmaker references, through the concepts of relationality and hope. Not the apathetic hope that Moore rightly decries, which encourages a disconnection from marginalization and oppressive structures. Rather, we are in need of a hope-oriented activism, what education theorist John Dewey referred to and revolutionary Mahatma Gandhi lived as “practical idealism.”10 The political engagement of today’s minoritarian scholar-artist-activists requires a return to and an enactment of this practical idealism in an intersectional and decolonizing way. Doing so while building the relationships that underpin such action — networks that work and connections that heal — are vital for the essential and ongoing efforts of dismantling, deconstructing, and decolonizing the 21st century’s oppressions.

Asif Majid is a scholar-artist-educator who researches, teaches, performs, and makes work at the intersection of performance and politics, particularly in terms of devising and participatory theatre with marginalized communities. Asif is pursuing a practice-based PhD in Anthropology, Media, and Performance at The University of Manchester, earned an MA in Conflict Resolution from Georgetown University, and completed a self-designed BA in Interdisciplinary Studies at UMBC. Performance credits include work with The Stoop (US), the Kennedy Center (US), Convergence Theatre (US), Royal Exchange Theatre (UK), Unity Theatre (UK), and Action Transport Theatre (UK). Asif is online at www.asifmajid.com.

 

 

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Notes:

  1.  Home Office, 2019, “Government Announces Independent Review of Prevent,” HM Government, January 22, https://homeofficemedia.blog.gov.uk/2019/01/22/government-announces-independent-review-of-prevent/
  2. Home Office, 2019, “Independent Review of Prevent: Ways of Working,” HM Government, September 30, https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/independent-review-of-prevent/independent-review-of-prevent-ways-of-working/
  3. Emma Tarlo, 2010, Visibly Muslim: Fashion, Politics, Faith, Oxford: Berg, p. 11.
  4. Afsaneh Gray, 2017, Octopus, London: Oberon Books, p. 62.
  5. Tariq Modood, 2007, Multiculturalism, Cambridge: Polity Press, p. 153.
  6. Gray, Octopus, pp. 61-62.
  7. Catherine R. Squires, 2002, “Rethinking the Black Public Sphere: An Alternative Vocabulary for Multiple Public Spheres,” Communication Theory 12 (4): 446–468, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-2885.2002.tb00278.x, p. 448.
  8. José Esteban Muñoz, 1999, Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, p. 146.
  9. Deconstructed, 2019, “Deconstructed Podcast: How to Resist: Live With Ilhan Omar and Michael Moore,” The Intercept, October 24, https://theintercept.com/2019/10/24/how-to-resist-live-with-ilhan-omar-and-michael-moore/
  10. John Dewey, 1917, “The Need for A Recovery of Philosophy,” in Creative Intelligence: Essays in the Pragmatic Attitude, edited by John Dewey, 3–69, New York: Holt, p. 68.

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