BERTALAN, Hilton. "Dancing to Death : The Ongoing Movements of Emma Goldman and Differential Activism - 1 -

Abstract and Chapter 1.
jeudi 21 février 2008
par  R.C.
popularité : 2%

January 2007


The spaces in which identities and perspectives are affirmed as non-universalizing, flexible, mobile, and constantly drifting is often associated with poststructuralist thought. Yet this language resonates elsewhere. In fact, it can be located in radical spaces, voices, and texts often considered out of reach to the theoretical abstractions of poststructuralist thought. Perhaps most surprising is that it can be found in the work of the well-known anarchist-feminist Emma Goldman (1869-1940). Known best for her assiduous political activity, repeated arrests, sardonic wit, and status as ‘the most dangerous woman in the world’, a different reading of Goldman’s work reveals a side that is often overlooked – one that resonates with many contemporary activists, social movements, and poststructuralist theorists such as Gloria Anzaldúa, Judith Butler, and Gilles Deleuze. My intention with this thesis is to note some resonances between these disparate theoretical and political efforts. To do so, I point out moments in Goldman’s work in which she speaks of ceaseless epistemological and political movement, love as a tool for social change, non-revolutionary politics, fluid identities, variations of gender, and non-coercive, non-hierarchical encounters. My basic argument is that Goldman helps those of us studying social movements understand contemporary forms of activism that do not fit the traditional paradigm. That is, looking back to Goldman can help us make sense of social movements that do not seek state power nor limit their activities and desires to influencing the state. Instead, the contemporary activists and groups I refer to, like Goldman, view meaningful social change as a constant struggle that takes place as much in and between activists and groups as within traditional economic and political spheres.

Chapter 1 – Introduction

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Emma Goldman
Source : Emma Goldman Papers Project

“’What I believe is a process rather than a finality. Finalities are for gods and governments […] life is something more than formulas […] it is the struggle for, not so much the attainment of, liberty” (Goldman, 1998, 49).

“Smooth spaces are not in themselves liberatory. But the struggle is changed or displaced in them, and life reconstitutes its stake, confronts new obstacles, invents new paces, switches adversaries. Never believe that a smooth space will suffice to save us” (Deleuze and Guattari, 1987, 500).

“At first I thought you, the anarchists, were a little strange […] but now that we’ve worked together, I haven’t bathed in a week” (Wagee – Palestinian activist).

In this thesis I argue that Emma Goldman’s notion of anarchism constitutes a unique and nuanced contribution to the anarchism of her era. In particular, I will focus on elements of Goldman’s work (here classified under the term transformation) that resonate with certain contemporary activist-thinkers and social movements. In doing so, I am suggesting that the manner in which many contemporary activists and social movements conceptualize resistance and organization is not entirely new. To be clear, I am not attempting to graft the past onto contemporary theoretical and political conditions, nor suggesting a genealogical line between the two, but rather, locating resonances between fields so as to support still relevant ethico-political projects. [1] What is most important about this task is a reading of Goldman that draws out her commitment to ceaseless epistemological and political change. This commitment echoes not only with many contemporary activists and social movements, but also the poststructuralist thought of Gloria Anzaldúa, Judith Butler, and Gilles Deleuze. [2] Using these thinkers to facilitate the bridging of Goldman and certain contemporary struggles makes possible the additional connecting of Goldman and poststructuralist anarchism (and poststructuralist thought in general). Therefore, a particular reading of Goldman’s work – a reading that I would suggest is rarely undertaken – creates bridges that help those of us studying contemporary social movements understand the ways in which many of them conceptualize resistance and social change. Finally, discussing Goldman through concepts that can be connected to contemporary activism and poststructuralist thought not only introduces her to contemporary discourses, but also provides anarchist thought one avenue into social movement scholarship (and sociology more generally). As a result, I envision this thesis as contributing to a small but growing field of academic thought that takes seriously the insights and relevance of anarchist thought.

Considering the attention Goldman has received during and after her life, as well as her iconic status within activist culture and anarchist historiography and scholarship, it may seem strange to suggest that her work has not been read in the way I am arguing it could. It is strange rather, that this is the case despite the popularity of contemporary activism, poststructuralist scholarship, and the growing field of poststructuralist anarchism. What is of interest, and what will be taken up in Chapter 2, is how Goldman has been read, and therefore, how it has come to be that certain elements of her work have been given little consideration – how particular dimensions have been overlooked. Goldman has come to be identified almost exclusively for her personal and political activities. This is made all the more pronounced by the fact that her activities (lectures, protests, publications) were so effective and thus considered so dangerous.

Goldman was described by the mass media as the “Red Queen of anarchism” (Falk, 2003, 366) while members of the public used more direct and unflattering labels such as “bitch of an anarchist” (Goldman, 1970a, 301). US president William McKinley (whose assassin would later credit Goldman as his inspiration) called her “the most dangerous woman in the world” (Everett, 1901, 230). [3] Assistant U.S. Attorney General, J. Edgar Hoover similarly classified Goldman as “beyond doubt” one of “the most dangerous anarchists in the country”. [4] Goldman’s ability to summon such fear and anger, and her resistance to domination in several spheres (gender, sexuality, education, morality, geopolitics, economics, law) makes it clear why she has been read and celebrated as a unique and inspiring radical. In this thesis I do not wish to undermine this celebration, but rather, contribute to it by pointing out an additional dimension of Goldman’s work from which social movement and political theory can draw.


Throughout this thesis I will use a number of terms to describe certain conceptions and conditions (transformation, multiplicity, interconnectivity, differential activism and differential social movements). Most important is the term transformation or transformative, which I use to encapsulate certain characteristics permeating Goldman’s work, differential activism [5], and poststructuralist thought. When I use the term transformation I am speaking of a commitment to immanent states of, and openness to, change – what Butler (2004) calls “collective sites of continuous political labor” (231), Anzaldúa (2002a) refers to as a “constant state of displacement” (1), and Deleuze (2004) terms “ceaseless opposition” (259). In this sense, transformation constitutes a way of thinking about theorizing, activism, identity, and social change that does not tend toward a particular goal, universal form, or end-state, but rather, holds an affinity for fluidity, ceaseless change, and constantly shifting locations. By this I mean an opposition toward static or hegemonic notions that instead embraces constant conceptual and political movement. This mode of thought does not simply attempt to undermine universals, boundaries, identities, or political praxis, but rather, remains aware of the non-unitary and unfixed character of those boundaries and instead embraces continual conceptual and political production. It is, as the poststructuralist feminist Rosi Braidotti (1994) suggests, the act of “blurring boundaries without burning bridges” (4). The result of connecting Goldman and contemporary activist-theorists to notions that can most readily be attributed to poststructuralist thought is to demonstrate the political implications and applicability of a constant yearning for change, displacement, and transgression.

The two transformative elements that best demonstrate this political commitment are multiplicity and interconnectivity. I refer to multiplicity to describe an ensemble that does not seek to become a whole. [6] For Deleuze and Felix Guattari (1983), multiplicities are not parts of a whole, nor are they the building blocks of a future unit. Instead, multiplicities in themselves represent a commitment to difference that constantly seeks out more (tactics, perspectives, pleasures, or ways of seeing), rather than ways to encapsulate existing fragments. This concept is particularly helpful in understanding and describing contemporary activists who have rejected the notion of embracing diversity for the purpose of building a more broad ‘movement’ – those who instead view a multiplicity of tactics and groups as constituting an important and constant ethico-political commitment rather than simply units of a particular social movement.

The term interconnectivity is used to describe the relationship between groups, activists, strategies, and tactics. This term is used by AnaLouise Keating (2002) (developed from Anzaldúa’s concept of El Mundo Zurdo and Audre Lorde’s concept of interdependency) to describe connecting across difference in non-hegemonic, non-unitary, and non-confrontational ways (522). The notion of solidarity (which is used by some activist-theorists from whom I draw and who also use the term in a way that is similar to how I understand interconnectivity) can be limiting in its sense of connection in exclusively political terms. Interconnectivity, on the other hand, is useful for understanding the openness and connection between contemporary activists and groups in that it goes beyond a sense of political solidarity. Interconnectivity is therefore helpful for connecting a sense of political solidarity with a spirit of social relation that many contemporary activist-theorists simply refer to as ‘love’ (Hardt, 2005 ; hooks, 2000 ; Sandoval, 2000 ; Starhawk, 2001). In this sense, the encounter between activists and groups is marked not only by shared affinities, but also an open, self-reflective, self-changing, and humble commitment to democratic process and social change.

The term I will use to discuss those activists, groups, and social movements that can be understood using the concepts explained above is differential. [7] Chela Sandoval (2000) uses this term to describe social movements that can be identified as being in an immanent state of transformation and which align (or unalign) themselves with other social movements. For Sandoval, the forms of organization and resistance engaged in by differential social movements can be explained in terms of “process and shifting location” (139). That is, differential social movements are non-traditional in that they are not identifiable by a static political location with a particular vision. Instead, they view organization and resistance as a changing and prefigurative democratic process that, as Richard Day (2005) says of ‘contemporary radical activism’, addresses “not just the content of current modes of domination and exploitation, but also the forms that give rise to them” (4). The second aspect that Sandoval assigns to differential social movements is the element of interconnectivity – the construction of literal and conceptual spaces “by which social actors can chart the points through which differing oppositional ideologies can meet, in spite of their varying trajectories” (43). The difference between Sandoval’s use of the term and my own is that apart from speaking generally about social movements, she does not apply this concept to particular forms of organization and resistance (or contemporary activism and social movements in particular). Therefore, when I use the term differential activism I am speaking more generally of the activities, strategies, tactics, and ethico-political framework of many contemporary (from the late 1990s and early 2000s) activists and social movements in which transformative elements can be found. The term differential social movements will be used to refer collectively to these contemporary activists, groups, and social movements. Finally, I am indebted to Day’s (2005) notion of contemporary radical activism for his understanding of the way many contemporary activist groups do not fit the traditional definition of social movements due in part to their “conscious attempts to alter, impede, destroy or conduct alternatives to dominant structures, processes, practices and identities” (4). These groups, Day also argues, have made a “shift away from hegemonically-oriented ‘movements’, and towards non-branded strategies and tactics” (8). Therefore, while I employ Sandoval’s conception of a type of social movement, I draw from Day to help locate the contemporary activities and social movements that fit this type.

Methodology and Interpretive Framework

The manner in which I read texts draws from Foucault’s methodological tool of discourse analysis. A way of reading that looks for what is excluded rather than what is at the center or origin of a text is useful in a project that argues that some of the most interesting and fundamental elements of Goldman’s work are often overlooked. Foucault is additionally useful for identifying resonances across the apparently disconnected discourses of Goldman, differential activism, and poststructuralist thought. The purpose is, therefore, “to define these objects without reference to the ground, the foundation of things,” but rather, to “deploy the nexus of regularities that govern their dispersion” (Foucault, 1989, 53). As Foucault further suggests, the proposed connection between fields “can be regarded neither as an immediate unity, nor as a certain unity, nor as a homogenous unity” (27). By describing what I perceive to be “relations between groups of statements” (Foucault, 1989, 32) that have gone mostly unrecognized, I am pointing out similar currents of thought that stem from related, although not identical, ethico-political projects.

I will speak about the presence of transformation in Goldman and differential activism through the work of Butler (1994/2004), Deleuze (1986/1987/2003), and Anzaldúa (1984/2000/2002). One of the reasons I draw from these three thinkers in particular is because their collective rejection of universals and hegemonic thought in favour of ceaseless conceptual and political movement, as well as their affinity for multiplicity and interconnectivity, provides a theoretical language that helps bridge Goldman and differential activism. The reason I have chosen multiple voices (although these three are my primary interlocutors I refer also to other voices such as Braidotti, Foucault, and Sandoval) is that to do so mirrors the collective spirit of Goldman and differential activism. Additionally, this collective gesture illuminates the political implications of a theoretical framework that has sometimes been considered apolitical and inapplicable to ‘real’ conditions. In this way, I take seriously Braidotti’s (1994) suggestion that :

Letting others speak in my text is not only a way of inscribing my work in a collective political movement, it is also a way of practicing what I preach. The dissolution of steady identities advocated by the poststructuralist generation is no mere rhetorical formula for me ; the dethroning of the ‘transcendental narcissism’ of the philosophizing ‘I’ is a point of nonreturn. Letting the voices of others echo through my text is therefore a way of actualizing the noncentrality of the ‘I’ to the project of thinking, while attaching it/her to a collective project (37-8).

The form of theorizing engaged in by Anzaldúa, Butler, Deleuze and others resonates with the politics of Goldman and differential activism. As a result, poststructuralist thought is afforded one response to the suggestion that multiple, fluid identities, and the loss of a unitary subject, mark the end of meaningful political praxis and agency (Benhabib, 1995 ; Fraser and Nicholson, 1990). By introducing Goldman to contemporary discourses, social theory is also provided with an example of a politically engaged subject that is comfortable with what Anzaldúa (2002a) calls “being in a constant state of displacement” (1).

In this way, the principal chapters of this thesis (Chapter 3 and Chapter 4 ) are figurations of the seemingly abstract transformative elements in poststructuralist thought. In turn, poststructuralist thought provides the lens through which I will view Goldman and differential activism. That is, chapter three and four will stand separate yet engage with Anzaldúa, Butler, and Deleuze on the same ground, thus demonstrating their ethico-political proximity. Chapter 2 initiates this connection by establishing the basis for my suggestion that transformative elements are rarely discussed in texts focused on Goldman or differential activism. The first part of this chapter examines the ways Goldman has been discussed within biographical and anarchist texts. This section suggests that within anarchist theory especially, Goldman’s life and work has maintained a paradoxically stable yet precarious footing. Despite the recognition of her importance (when mentioned) Goldman often remains unexplored in terms of her contemporary relevance and contribution to political thought. The second section of chapter two discusses the various ways in which differential activism is understood by social movement scholarship, orthodox Marxists, autonomous Marxists, anarchist scholarship, and contemporary activists. Both sections suggest that there is a space for a discussion of transformation not only within specific literatures, but most importantly, a space to discuss the way in which it resonates between Goldman and differential activism.

Chapter 3 establishes Goldman’s resonance with poststructuralist thought by discussing her affection for the work of Friedrich Nietzsche. This chapter then begins a reading of Goldman that draws out transformative elements alongside the ethico-political currents in the work of Anzaldúa, Butler, and Deleuze. These elements will be divided into several sections, looking first at Goldman’s non-prescriptive notion of social change. This section examines Goldman’s understanding of resistance as ceaseless rather than goal oriented, that is, as a constant and prefigurative desire instead of a temporary drive. Following this is a look at how such a position affected Goldman’s notions of gender, sexuality, and identity. The latter part of chapter three suggests that Goldman’s conception of ceaseless change extended to her view of the self. Within Goldman’s work there is a view of the political self as multiple and necessarily connected to other political positions and identities. This is a very different conception than the static notion of political identity that has dominated many social movements and much of social movement scholarship.

The structure of Chapter 4 is very similar to chapter three in that it is divided into several sections that point out transformative elements while also referring to these currents in the work of Anzaldúa, Butler, and Deleuze. By drawing broadly from several activist-theorists, this chapter takes seriously the notion of collectivity that characterizes differential activism. In this chapter I refer to two familiar contemporary social movement moments (the 1994 Zapatista uprising in Southern Mexico and the 1999 anti-WTO protests in Seattle) as significations of differential activism. Each of these examples anchor the two sections of this chapter ; one, the Zapatistas’ prefigurative notion of social change and their affinity for decentralized and non-hegemonic forms of organizing, and two, the events of Seattle as constituting multiplicity and interconnectivity. Each of these sections, however, will draw primarily from a collection of activist-theorists to discuss the presence of transformation. The similarity between chapter three and four establishes two distinguishable yet resonating dialogues between particular objects of analysis. As a result, I hope to show that the similarity between these two dialogues (and the fact that they can proceed in much the same way) initiates a bridging of the two.

The conclusion will explain that this bridging is only a beginning ; an initial line of inquiry that points out resonances between fields in the hope that further work could be done to establish genealogical links between them. This chapter will also suggest that this connection illuminates the relevance of Goldman’s work (and the anarchist tradition to which she is connected) for differential activists, social movements, and social movement scholarship. Locating resonances in the past helps those of us studying social movements understand, and take seriously, the notions of social change, difference, and relationships between activists and groups that do not resemble a traditional understanding of social movements. In doing so, the conclusion (and this thesis more generally) suggests that although the transformative elements of differential activism are somewhat unique, they are not entirely new.

Next :
Chapter 2 - Chapter 3 - Chapter 4 - Chapter 5 and Conclusion - Bibliography

[1Therefore, when I refer to bridges and connections between fields I am not suggesting direct lines of influence, but rather, simply that some of what is said and done in these fields is similar, and thus, that one of these fields in particular (the work of Goldman) is worthy of further enquiry.

[2It is important to note that Anzaldúa did not identify with the poststructuralist tradition. In fact, while she appreciated that it “challenged assumptions,” she was concerned that it “leaves certain elements out,” (2000, 283) namely spiritual ones. However, as chapters three and four of this thesis will show, Anzaldúa shared much in common with Deleuze and Butler (and poststructuralist thought more generally). For this reason, I cautiously include her under the term ‘poststructuralist thought’.

[3It was this danger that lead to the many instances of arrest, violence, imprisonment, deportation, and harassment from local police and federal authorities that Goldman documents in both volumes of her biography Living My Life (1931/1970:30, 124-147, 191, 299, 391, 418, 443, 512, 569, 610-625, 652-668, 711, 930, 951).

[5This term, and my use of it, will be explained below.0

[6I also draw from a number of activists-theorists who use the term diversity in a way that is very similar to how I understand multiplicity (Anzaldúa, Day, Graeber).

[7I have borrowed this term from Chela Sandoval’s (2000) concept ‘differential social movements’.