Forgotten Place and the Seeds of Grassroots Planning – Ruth Wilson Gilmore

This is a great article, for several reasons.  It’s from a book called Engaging Contradictions: Theory, Politics, and Methods of Activist Scholarship, available free online.  Gilmore weaves together theory and practical examples in a unique way: her whole array of concepts seems to flow from on-the-ground problems and questions that come out of anti-prison activism.  It has implications for the role of researchers and their relationships to communities and activism.  She manages to avoid constituting geography or other academic domains as her primary audience, while still clearly making a contribution to theoretical debates.

This isn’t a very good summary and this article is worth re-reading.  It could be useful for all sorts of reasons.   For one thing, she is explicitly concerned with struggles of land use involving activists, municipalities, etc.  More broadly, she makes explicit the conceptual and practical problems of engaged research, bringing diverse communities together in struggle, formulating problems effectively, constituting venues and audiences for politics, engaging critically with the NGO-industrial-complex (while acknowledging it as an irreducible site of struggle), among other things.  Her concepts of stretch, resilience, and resonance are particularly interesting (and important for a more coherent summary, as the whole chapter is really organized around these concepts and the problems they get at).

Questions: Given ‘organized abandonment,’ “how can people who inhabit forgotten places scale up their activism from intensely localized struggles to something less atomized and therefore possessed o f a significant capacity for self-determination” (31)?  Here ‘scaling up’ isn’t a fetishism of ‘large-scale’ over ‘local’ change; instead she wants to describe the ways in which people create and develop the capacity to formulate problems collectively and act to shape their communities (Harvey might call this ‘the right to the city’).  She is interested in the conditions under which regional coalitions are formed, “partly because their growing understanding of their sameness trumps their previously developed beliefs in their irreconcilable differences” (38).

What capacities might such [marginalized people] animate, and what scales, to make the future better than the present?  What does better mean?  How do people make broadly contested sensibilities—indeed feelings—the basis for political struggle, especially when their social identities are not fixed by characteristics that point toward certain proven patterns (or theories) for action?” (32)

Forgotten places: Gilmore is concerned with “forgotten places:” “marginal people on marginal lands.”  These are obviously not the same everywhere, but Gilmore maps out some compelling continuities.  Not just lack: abandoned places are also “planned concentrations or sinks:” hazardous materials, destructive practices (35).  They’re characterized by layering rounds of dispossession/domination/development – crisis becomes a way of life (36).

She uses the term ‘syncretic’ to describe these places (she prefers this over ‘hybrid’ because hybrid implies originally-pure origins).  The term is also important for research/method: it enables scholarly research as political experimentation (37). Because syncretic compels us to think about problems in terms of their stretch, resonance, and resilience.  She is interested in how “the practice of engaged scholarship necessarily and ethically change[s] the ideological and material field of struggle (55).  Engaged scholarship (and activism) entails constituting audiences at every step, “both within and as an effect of observation, discovery, analysis, and presentation” (55).

–       Stretch: enables a question to reach further than the immediate object without bypassing particularity (e.g. ‘what is development?’ > ‘why do you want this development?’)

–       Resonance: enables a question to support/model non-hierarchical collective action “by producing a hum that, by inviting strong attention, elicits responses that do not necessarily adhere to already existing architectures of sense-making” (38)

–       Resilience: enables a question to be flexible rather than brittle – create questions where surprise can strengthen, rather than ruin them.

She’s interested in how research “combines with the actions of everyday people to shift the field of struggle and thus reorganize both their own consciousness and the concentration and uses of social wealth in ‘forgotten places’” (38).

Desakota – how do mainalized ppl become effective political actor: connect rural/urban in non-schematic way: comparison as a way of bringing together what seems irreconcilable – compare different political/economic/territorial/ideological valences that distinguish (and might unite) places shaped by external control or locaed outside particular dev pathways 33-5

–       rural/urban in relational/linked context: dwellers in more urban areas combine deep rurual roots w/ participation in formal/informal econ

–       she discusses an anti-prison conference and the consciousness of marginalized ppl involved: “their conciousness is a product of vulnerability in space coupled with unavoidable and constant movement through space (43)

–       the desakota region is all about the movement of resources—wether transfers of social wealth from public sectors (welfare to domestic warfare) or migration (voluntary or not) or across supraregional spaces to amass remittances that, once sent, counter the apparently unidirectional concentration of wealth (43)

–       This “respatialization of the social” (rather than automatic recognition based in racial or ethnic categories) “forms the basis for syncretizing previously separate political movements (44)

  • So this reformulation of structure/agency, racialization, space, etc is a way of creating stretch: shared problems w/out bypassing particularity
  • She discusses how this also happened at the anti-prison conference, where activists talked about “how they had come to encounter, identify, understand, and solve the problems where they lived” (41)
    • The final segment involved brainstorming outcomes to life-harming situations of prisons etc
    • This all led to the recognition that “they and their places shared a family resemblance that needed further investigation” 42

–       Prisons and development: she describes the way in which prisons have been created Desakota rural/urban in-between became important for understanding prison proliferation: prisons can reconfigure political jurisdictions, along with other economic/social/cultural effects (44-5).

  • People organized to counter boosterism in the elected leadership, but they had a hard time constituting audiences to make their argument (46).  They engaged with social science methods to rebut data in the environmental review, which represented a narrow technocratic vision substuted for civic engagement (48)
  • This ‘unfunded devolution’ of state powers (the function of the ‘anti-state state’) entails an unfunded devolution of social welfare

–       Desakota (and the precarity, divisions, and movements they entails) aren’t a simple weakness or lack: “people get past certain barriers because they have an already developed sense of the perils and promise of movement, that the practice of circulating within regions underlies potential interpretations of possibility and alliance,a nd finally that multiply rooted people have a sense of the ways that “elsewhere” is simultaneously ‘here’ (another way of saying that ‘I is an Other’) (50).

Complicating identity politics and structure/agency: she critiques the simplistic dismissals of identity politics, while developing a more complicated idea of identity, pointing to: “the contradictory ways in which idnetities fracture and reform in the curcibles of state and society, public and private, home and work, violence and consent (39).  She also refuses a simple division between structure/agency: she’s not saying that agency is an unimportant concept, but thinks it’s too often designated as an attribute of oppressed people against something called ‘structure’ (40).  Structures are both the residue of agency and animated by agents… and the modes through which people organize to resist are (or become) structural.  She points back to ‘stretch’ here: in terms of generalization (thinking about structure/agency) and “in terms of what we must think about to think at all well” 40).

Critique of NGOs – turns out she was a contributor to The Revolution Will Not Be Funded, and she covers some of the same ground here: organizations become competitive and professionalized, stifling potential alliances w/ other orgs.  She distinguishes between becoming legal (under IRS) and using the legal as a tool (43).  This, along with capitalism’s 20th C counter-rev, and waves of criminalization, help explain the brittleness of the present moment.

–       This professionalization has also created the need to generate ‘products’ and and instrumental approach to problems that look for easy (often technocratic) and limited solutions (50)

  • This is a double-edged problem: there’s the assumptions that marginalized communities need roaming specialists (on the one hand) and there’s a flip where marginalized people are assumed to have a latent revolutionary subjectivity waiting to be unleashed (51) (this is a concrete repetition of the structure/agency dichotomy)

–       These result in the loss of stretch and resonance

–       However, this doesn’t entail an abandonment of NGOs: Gilmore discusses the ways in which activists were able to find a ‘provisionally syncretic identity’ through shared problems/struggles, and then these had to be reformed in the context of mission statements, funding streams, and other boundaries: NGOs are both enabling and disabling (42)

–       Against technocratic solutions (or fetishism of marginalized ‘agency’) she suggests that self-determination is created under conditions of “a real engagement of people’s creative thinking mixed with locally or externally available understandings of political and economic possibilities and constrains” (51)

  • The resilience of this question “depends on people’s immediate and longer-range engagement—their own resilience—to realize any outcome (51)

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