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.