Book review: Against Purity: Living Ethically in Compromised Times (2016)

Book review: Against Purity: Living Ethically in Compromised Times (2016) by Rosalynd Boxall, comments by Sharon Stein

In Against Purity: Living Ethically in Compromised Times (2016), Alexis Shotwell rethinks common tendencies within anti-oppressive critiques and political practices that seek moral purity and certainty about alternative futures. Instead, she imagines how complexity, complicity, and uncertainty might serve as the starting point for  ethics and action.

Against Purity: Living Ethically in Compromised Times by Alexis Shotwell offers a rich and complex platform for imagining ourselves, our past, and crafting a future otherwise. In doing so, it presents new ways forward for thinking through the complexities, ambiguities and uncertainties of the current historical moment. Published at the end of 2016, a year when many of our expectations, hopes, and assumptions about the world-order were turned on their heads (or perhaps, things we already knew to be true were affirmed, for example, the racism that was stoked by Brexit and the election of President Trump), Shotwell’s book appears particularly timely. We are in a historical moment filled with uncertainty, fear, and turbulence, but also a reaffirmed commitment to crafting different futures (for example, the organising efforts that followed the election of Trump in the US, and the increased political engagement of young people in the British general election following Brexit). As the fiction author Kitty Chandler tweeted in January last year, “The Year is 2017. America is a tire fire. The resistance is led by Teen Vogue, Badlands National Park, and the Merriam-Webster dictionary” (@mightybattlecat, 24 Jan 2017). A year onwards these predictions seem remarkably apt and Shotwell’s work feels particularly relevant.

Against Purity is organised into three parts: Reckoning with a Fraught Past; Living in an Interdependent Present; and Shaping Unforeseeable Futures. The structure of the book warrants comment: at first glance it seems to follow a linear, teleological trajectory (each section corresponds to past, present, and future respectively). But, as Shotwell shows (and this indeed is a central part of her whole argument), the past involves both the present and the future; the present engages both the past and possible futures; and the future relies on the past and is made possible within an ever-shrinking present time: ‘The past involves the present and the future, the present entangles the past and outlines what is to come, bringing the future into the past, and the future rests on a situated past and can only ‘happen’ in the present; tense intermingles’ (16). This is potentially a fruitful lens for grounding discussions of the future, and engaging/implicating history and the present in these discussions. However, if read within a purely western temporal ontology we run the risk of producing only circular futures if we mis-understand Shotwell’s claim that ‘the future’ as something only made possible within an ever-shrinking present moment, and an ever-increasing accumulation of past events. Thinking through her methodology may be a productive way to approach the challenge of how to structure and articulate critiques of existing proposals for different futures; examining how she works through and beyond standard narratives to expose, explore, and generate meaningful and transformative relations with the past, present, and future.

Shotwell draws together a variety of ethico-onto-epistemic challenges produced by modernity within the praxis of responsibility and relationality. Using the themes of ‘classification’ and ‘healthism’ to disrupt the moral binary of ‘good’ vs. ‘bad’ health (both in the classic sense of sickness and disability, but also to disrupt assumptions about ‘modernity’ vs. those ‘lacking’ or unable to catch up to modernity). As she shows, when we link classification, healthism and morality, those deemed to be ‘morally inferior’ people or groups can easily be declared ‘undeserving’, thus justifying their subjugation, exploitation and brutalisation by the ‘dark side’ of modernity, i.e. colonialism. We see that purity is co-constituted as both a meta-physical and onto-epistemological concept, with material/physical realities. She argues for the concomitant existence of an ontology of embodiment and entanglement, and the necessity and complicity of interdependence and co-constitution. Significantly, she argues that this is our way of being whether we acknowledge it or not, although this is experienced differentially for different peoples and groups affected by colonialism.

Moving chronologically through the book, Shotwell explores the role of settlers in taking responsibility for the wrongs of colonialism, particularly through the lens of residential schooling and in light of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in Canada. In her chapter Women Don’t Get AIDS, They Just Die From It, she explores how the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s classification of the disease worked to exclude women from AIDS diagnoses (and thus, care and disability benefits), dwelling on HIV/AIDS activism and its complexities, and concepts of individual and collective memory (the relationality of remembering). In Part II she explores the socioeconomic distribution of pollutants and toxins, and the co-production of race, ability and heterodoxy, deepening her critique against classificatory oppression. The final section argues for ‘relation’ as the smallest unit of analysis available to us. Building on her earlier analysis of complicity and complexity, she articulates the need for a co-produced freedom and future, and for understanding that some of us live the comfortable lives we do because of the immiseration of others, not by coincidence. She concludes by moving beyond the epistemic through activist work as a means for change.

Shotwell invites her readers to consider: what might be possible if we began from the fact of impurity, that is, from the fact that “There is no food we can eat, clothing we can buy, or energy we can use without deepening our ties to complex webs of suffering”? In asking such questions, she does not flatten uneven complicities in harm, or excuse these harms because they are so insidious and overwhelming, but rather emphasizes the futility and colonial circularity of pursuing a place of innocence from which to act: “People are not equally responsible or capable, and are not equally called to respond. But however the bounds of the ‘we’ are drawn, we are not, ever, pure. We’re complicit, implicated, tied in to things we abjure. This is a kind of impurity implied in the sense of ‘compromised living’ that involves making concessions” (6-7)

It is worth defining a few terms here before moving on: for Shotwell, healthism is the tendency to think about individual health as moral imperative; individuals are held responsible for their health and poor health is rendered as a moral failing. Healing (for example, that expected of Indigenous survivors of residential schooling) is thus expected to be an individual exercise, even in contexts of collective harm. It is easier to define what purity is not than define exactly what it is. To be against purity is not to be for harm, sickness, pollution etc., but ‘to be against the rhetorical or conceptual attempt to delineate and delimit the world into something separable, disentangled and homogeneous’ (15). Shotwell’s articulation of purity and purity practises ties into myths of ontological security that is offered by a colonial mode of existence. As Shotwell explains, purity as an ontological orientation is necessarily a fragile fiction; a conceit under constant but disavowed threat. To affirm a commitment to purity is to disavow the entanglement and co-constitution (the impurity) of everything, and to pretend in turn that the world is separate and unconnected. This then enables one to believe that the wrongs and violences of modernity are unconnected and unrelated to its privileges and ‘shine’. Indeed, Shotwell presents purity as essentially modern; arguing that modernity presents itself as pure even if it is not pure at all, and despite the impossibility of it ever achieving that purity (14). Following Maria Lugones, Shotwell quotes that the modern ‘man of purity’ ‘shuns impurity, ambiguity, multiplicity as they threaten his own fiction. The enormity of the threat keeps him from understanding it. So, the lover of purity remains ignorant of his own impurity, and thus the threat of all impurity remains significantly uncontaminated’ (Lugones, 132, 2003). Shotwell is against purity without predicting or prescribing (and thus limiting) the many things there are to be for; this ‘no’ ‘opens the space for many yesses’ (19).

I will briefly summarise each chapter, attempting to draw out some of the broader themes (relationality, responsibility, purity, disability, classification, colonialism, etc.) that guide her analysis throughout. Possibly as a result of my orientation as a historian, I found the points raised in Part I particularly resonant. Reckoning with a Fraught Past connects the past with both the present and the future, arguing that any reckoning with the past that we carry in our present involves reckoning with the ‘colonial ghosts’ in our bones. Shotwell argues for a relationship between memory practises, categories of classification, practises of colonialism and racialisation. She shows how classification was co-produced with practices of colonialism (particularly around residential schooling), and indeed, is a central technology of colonialism. Arguing that when classifications work well they become infrastructure, shaping social relations that appear common-sensical, rather than violently and deliberately constructed. This naturalisation and invisibilisation imbricates with purity politics and the social organisation of forgetting. She posits political forgetting as an epistemology and an ontology, arguing against the idea that we face a ‘knowledge problem’. ‘We don’t just have a knowledge problem – we have a habit-of-being problem; the problem of whiteness is a problem of what we expect, our ways of being, bodily-ness and how we understand ourselves as ‘placed’ in time’ (38). This forgetting enables us to stage a false dichotomy between the harmful ‘then’ practises of colonialism (presumed to be past) and a pure and clean ‘now’, meaning processes like the TRC can address themselves to the historically and socially bounded wrong of residential schools without reckoning or implicating Canada in the entire history of colonialism and its ongoing violence. Drawing on Sue Campbell’s relational theorising of memory practises, Shotwell argues that reckoning with the social organisation of forgetting helps us craft a future different from the horrific past we have collectively inherited and differentially live in the present. She follows Campbell’s notion of forward looking memory/forward looking responsibility as a politically transformative way forwards – repeatedly making ourselves accountable to clean up messes in which we might not be directly involved, but that through our very existence we are complicit with (49). She concludes this chapter by asking how settlers ought to stand in relations of forward-looking responsibility without attempting to stand in the place of Indigenous people (52).

Shotwell raises many generative questions without prescribing the answers, such as: “What would responsibility for the future look like, as a collective practice of producing the conditions for flourishing (rather than the narrow conception of individual health)? What would it mean for the Canadian state to take responsibility and attempt to redress harm not merely for the wrongs of forced residential schooling, but for the histories and ongoing practices of colonization? What could it mean for resurgence from harm to arise without reference to the Canadian state?” (35)

Shotwell puts these theories into practise in the second chapter, Women Don’t Get AIDS, which details the activism of the ACT UP Women’s Caucus to change the CDC definition of AIDS-defining illnesses, which had historically excluded many of the opportunistic infections experienced by women living with HIV/AIDS, thus excluding them from recognition/diagnosis, and thus from medical and social supports and benefits, with real material affects for how these women lived and died. Through these material and social effects Shotwell shows how practices of memory and classification that have become naturalised and invisiblised can dramatically shape peoples’ lives and futures. She counters this by arguing for us to attend to how we remember the past, to consider how and why we remember, and recognise these memory practises as situated and invested rather than natural and inevitable (62). Through this case study Shotwell demonstrates how we can expose and circumvent narratives that have already become naturalised (faded out and become infrastructure) to the point that it is difficult tor recall when and how they were created (and contested); attending to this contestation reminds us that what happened in the past was not inevitable, and that no particular future is inevitable either. Although she is referring specifically to the CDC definition of AIDS, there are broader theoretical parallels with the entire construction of western modernity and colonialism that can be drawn out here.

Part II: Living in an Interdependent Present shifts us away from the past to the present moment, as a ‘continually receding seed for the future: whatever happens now shapes the conditions for what can happen in any given then’ (77). In Shimmering Presences: Frog, Toad, and Toxic Interdependencies she focuses on this ‘toxic’ present through a lens of queer and racialised temporalities, practises which she argues enable us to be in the present with relation to the past and a future offset from narratives about the normalising progression of subject formation and accumulation of capital. Although moving away from the emphasis on relational remembering, Shotwell still draws us back to the idea of relational responsibility, arguing for us to cultivate practises of responsibility for the toxic present we are implicated in creating, and practises of perceiving interdependence that nourish ethical relations to the complex ecologies in which we are implicated and through which we are formed. Again focusing on a specific case study she demonstrates how the rhetoric (and practise) of bioscience (examining sex changes in frogs and toads in response to environmental changes) can (inadvertently) reinforce harmful tropes of sexuality, sex, gender and disability. Specifically, she shows how some efforts to take responsibility for the toxic present rely on anti-disability or trans-antagonistic tropes. In response, Shotwell calls for us to attend to the present to create a more complex, less predictable narrative (again circumventing naturalised and invisibilised dominant narratives), arguing that ‘we need to make different agential cuts that allow us to generate different narratives and different nodes of attention’ (106).

In Chapter Four, Consuming Suffering: Eating, Ethics, and Embodied Ethics, Shotwell applies a relational lens to discussions about food and eating in our current context of climate change and toxic environments. She questions what the embodied experience of recognising ourselves as impossibly situated in interdependent relationships of suffering is like. Arguing that to be embodied is to be placed, sustained, affected by the world, and in turn affect the world, she explores the ethical demands that this implies (107), and offers a grounded discussion of concepts which can often seem overtly lofty and theoretical (and thus obscure their relevancy and immediacy in discussions about climate change and the future), including biocapital and biovalue. This chapter would hold value brought together with discussions about environmentalism, climate change, and the future.

Part III: Shaping Unforeseeable Futures weaves together issues of racialisation, disability theory and gender-based oppression, offering more concrete engagement with ideas of collective action and change to help craft different futures that are only accessible from our damaged present (while still seeking to avoid the unsupported yet urgent imperatives so prevalent on the left/in the genre of future writing, ‘we need’, ‘we must’). In Chapter Five, Practising Freedom: Disability and Gender Transformation, Shotwell offers the concept of ‘open normativities’ as a way of thinking about ethics as collective action and political projects grounded in relationality. As its name suggests, Chapter Six, Worlds to Come: Imagining Speculative Disability Futures, fills out the discussion of collective action and ideas about how we might create a better world within a complex and imperfect present. This section draws heavily on Donna Haraway’s conceptualisation of SF (science fiction, speculative fabulations, scientific facts). Shotwell concludes this section by reminding us that the future is always in dialogue with the present, arguing that ‘the new world we carry in our hearts is always a world grounded in the actually existing present in all its impurity, responsible to the past in all its complexity’ (193).

This book is teeming with intelligent passion, self-critique and self-reflection, compassion, knowledge and an urgent decolonial agenda (potentially more accurately described as a de-modernity agenda). It is difficult to offer a broad, sustained critique of any one aspect of the book, although the final section on imagining the future is perhaps most easy to critique purely by its nature; attempting to ‘imagine the unimaginable’ is always a fraught exercise, if at times also a useful one. Although this book offers a pretty damning critique of modernity, and our current strategies and tools for responding to the past and present so that we might attend to different futures with less harm and ‘more flourishing, Shotwell’s argument is deceptively optimistic. By affirming that although we live in a world full of complexity and suffering, where we are all (unevenly) complicit, there is space to craft better futures. In coming to terms with this (as Shotwell writes), we might find hope is also going to have to be an everyday practise (10).

Shotwell asks her readers to consider what “forward-thinking responsibility” might look like if we understood ourselves as entangled with each other and the world, before will, and derived our sense of responsibility and political action from there?

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