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ours after the tragic death of eight Asian massage parlour workers in Atlanta, my social media exploded: numerous chat groups, clubhouse rooms and discussion posts sought to organize protests, rallies, and actions for justice. Some lamented the lack of political advocacy as one of the reasons for the murders, professing that such tragedies would not have happened if Asians are more politically active. While others argued for mass organizing, countering the belief that getting political is not for Asians. Despite diverse opinions, the term of the discussion continues to center around where the proper venue of political antagonism should be. The perceived lack of political agency is more precisely the lack of specific types of civic and bodily practices. We generally ascribe certain kinds of activities, affect and space as the political proper: mass protests, disruption, public space, passionate chants, or confrontational attitudes. Most media outlets also tend to focus on resistance only when it persists, disrupts on a large scale, or moves fast and becomes chaotic.
While mass organizing is very productive and delivers results that benefit most people. Such spatial practices of politics presume separate spheres of action between the private/public, the intimate/disembodied, the productive/social reproductive, and the visible/invisible. This essay is about dwelling with the mundane, the ordinary, and the intimate in our lives that might not immediately be visible or generalizable, but foster social relationships with transformative potentials. Queer, postcolonial, and feminist scholars have long noted that oppositional resistances take various forms that might not scale up, sometimes participants of such actions might not even describe themselves as resistors. More specifically, we have not fully taken into consideration the creative potentials of life-making for transformative change. Lauren Berlant’s latent agency, for example, orients us to consider activities exercised within the everyday ordinariness, in other words, the space-time of social reproduction (Berlant, 2007: 758). José Esteban Muñoz’s brown common (2020), on a similar note; feature the space where brown people meet, greet and socialize under duress. Mimi Sheller (2012) expands the imagination of freedom and space of politics to bodily practices and music performances in post-slavery Haiti. Perhaps most famously, anthropologist Aihwa Ong observed how Malaysian female factory workers deploy bodily acts such as possessed by spirits as strategies for labour sabotage (Ong, 1988). Their tactic resembles James Scott’s ''hidden transcripts'' as praxis of resistance in Southeast Asia (Scott, 1990: 4). These important interventions gesture towards a concept of action as mundane, ordinary, and banal, which often seem to be outside of proper notions of political activities. Nevertheless, these acts of life-making generate space for certain kinds of relations to emerge and provide grounds to imagine otherwise.
This essay attunes to what happens when political claims, either explicitly or implicitly, are made through other creative or ordinary means; what kinds of spatial futures show up when acts of resistances scale down instead of up; and what social relations emerge when participants feel the warmth, mundanity, and tenderness of political activities. This essay specifically invites readers to consider how everyday, community-based pedagogies reinvent and practice new kinds of spatial relationality for feminist futures. It demonstrates the importance of community-based projects in generating social and affective relations amongst the participants even though these activities might not lead to large-scale mobilizing or generalizability (Tsing, 2015: 42).
The rest of the essay zooms in on two such community-based initiatives to consider the bodily and experiential practices of social groups navigating historical and continuing relations of settler colonialism, gendered violence, and capital accumulation. I deploy feminist activist ethnography to bring to the front embodied experiences and the affective contour of organizing, showing how community pedagogies enable new kinds of intimacy, spatial practices and social relations. This sociality, while ephemeral, is a vital mode of producing collective freedom and change (Muñoz, 1996). For instance, the first act is a dance performance by an indigenous artist in downtown Toronto. I discuss how the bodies of the performer and the audience occupy and slow settler normative time and space of the urban by forming new kinds of embodied, mediated relations.
A feminist activist ethnography also offers a toolbox for reflectivity, countering the distanced stance researchers often take when it comes to social movement studies (Craven and Davis, 2013). Simultaneously, it highlights the unstable encounters between pre-formatted subjectivities in any given situation, attending to togetherness-in-differences as an important feminist lesson and praxis (Yong, 1990). For example, in my second case, I depict and reflect on my experiences participating in a grassroots art project in a rundown shopping mall in downtown Toronto Chinatown. I focus on how mundane acts such as cutting paper, chatting and relationship building are not just practices of self-care but also modes of relating to each other under pressure.
Through these encounters, this essay makes a faithful claim that the potentials for transformation emerge out of critical interventions and mass mobilizing, but also out of community-based strategies from below. This faithful claim calls upon us to bear witness to the pace, speed, and temperature of our actions while we congregate for social justice. It acknowledges the infrastructure of feelings that move, shape, and define what can appear in moments of collective life-making (Gilmore, 2007).
In 2018 October at a teach-in, I experienced a collective hope that spanned across bodies, atmosphere, and the built environment. My dear friend, an Anishinaabe dancer, performed for half an hour at the intersection of Wellesley and Yong Street, the entrance to Toronto’s Gay Village. The performance was part of a four-hour-long, multi-staged program organized by the Switch Project and Buddies at Bad Times. In the event’s Facebook page, the organizers stated they intended to ‘‘explore our relationships to Toronto’s Gay Village, Queer History, invisiblization & ideal futures through interactive multimedia street performance.’’ The multi-sited performances tried to consider urban justice, performance, indigenous and racialized death amid the infamous Bruce McArthur murder and missing and murdered indigenous women.
The connection made between indigenous and racialized death is crucial. For indigenous women and girls, the settler-colonial urban landscape invisiblises their existence while hyper-visiblises their sexuality (Latty, et al., 2016). For immigrant, poor and homeless gay men, the commercialized venues in the settler gay village have never been the space where they belong. The spatial exclusion entangles racist police practices and administrative negligence, enabling Bruce McArthur to continue violence for more than ten years under the radar. Beyond the media’s fascination with the serial killer, many queer of color scholars have pointed out the structural issues contributing to the passing of brown men (Haritaworn, 2019).
Hence, the village is haunted by ghosts of settler-colonial violence and white supremacy. The performance called upon the ghosts to surface from the urban spatial order that displaces them and to occupy building walls, streets, and parking lot. In many ways, the ghosts have never left, they urged us to take responsibility for settler-colonial violence and new kinds of relationality, to which my description will turn.
I arrived at the Wellesley subway station a bit past seven in the evening, it was already dark as the fall sunset fade from the horizon populated by high-rises. I greeted my friend who was preparing for the performance and joined a slowly growing crowd. Shortly after I found a good viewing spot, the narrator began acknowledging the land and introduced my friend to the ‘stage’— a makeshift platform under a tree in a parking lot.
As they started moving their body, pictures of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls were projected onto the wall of a nearby residential building. This act, in my interpretation, was not just representational politics; rather, it surfaces what goes unnoticed: the epidemic violence that took place because of the theft of land, the construction of urban futurism and the masculinist accumulation through which projects of settler colonialism took root.
Many of us in the audience were not indigenous, we were called upon to bear witness to the seemingly unending pictures of indigenous women, evidencing the continuing gendered violence on the land. We are invited to consider how, as settlers, we all write on these bodies, exist on indigenous land and are governed by a system that requires the sexualized and gendered violence. The pictures also called on us to connect anti-trans and homophobic, racist violence to settler colonialism, viewing them as systematically interwoven and relationally reproducing each other (Morgensen, 2011). I looked around to see how many people were participating in the program. To my surprise, some passersby stopped to look at the pictures. I wondered if they thought about the systemic issues the performance tries to address, or if they reflected on their positionalities in relation to settler colonialism. In any event, the ordinary rhythms of everyday life in the city were disrupted by these pictures and the performance, as more and more people started to congregate and occupy the whole pavement.
The dancer suddenly grabbed soil in their hands and splashed it in the wind. The soil fell upon several hundreds of us who were feeling a form of radical politics that seeks to foreground the underside of urban modernity in Toronto. They invited indigenous folks in the audience to say the victims’ names, as a non-indigenous person, I felt the voice enchanting the air, the building and the lost lives. I stood and listened, making eye contact with people next to me, nodding and looking up to the sky. In the end, the performer asked all of us to scream, to vocalize the pain and the anger. The loud, powerful, collective voice stopped everyone around the intersection, creating confusion and disrupting the normality of urban space and time that regards those who fail to conform as perverse, lazy, slow, or non-productive. This urban normality is settler colonial, racist, ablest, and trans/homophobic, it destroys different forms of kinship and relations to favour privatized, nuclear families.
Yet, it was in that scream, a shared, plangent vocal sound that I felt my capacity to envision something else was reverberating while being mediated by others' voices, gestures, facial expressions and embodied movement. It is this mediation that I am holding on to, the production of the self through inter-embodiment, the possibility for knowledge, feelings and emotions to transmit and offer rich repertoire against the official settler colonial archive of forgetting and forgiving (Taylor, 2003). In the creative staging of performative politics, as spector-actors, we were transforming and being transformed by the embodied and affective practices (Boal, 2019). In honouring and bring to the forefront missing and murdered indigenous women — lives bypassed by history, the performance offered, on two levels, space where performers, planners and the audience participate in a collective effort to make the unspeakable heard (Holland, 2000). In the first sense, we collectively intervene into what Michel de Certeau (1984: 98) calls ‘'a spatial order that organizes an ensemble of possibilities.'' That is, we used our bodies and voice to do something else other than what the urban norm requires us to conform to.
In the second sense, our bodies constitute a shared space rubbing the thresholds of visibility, we make the street, building and the parking lot the ground on which new possibilities of spatial and temporal rhythm emerge. Our scream vocalizes the audibility of the life and histories supposed to remain silent. Our solidarity requires using our bodies as mediatory vessels in which the dead can speak to the ongoingness of violence; meanwhile, our communicative, social and affective capacities define and shape the collective sense of politics together. This ability, a form of living labour that resides in our bodies, exceeds the analytical language of labour-power, might be the resources to make collective transformations for socially just life.
In 2019, with dozens of others, I experienced an embodied sense of hope that exceeds our analytical language. Such experiences are beneath the conventional understanding of political agency and citizenship — the self-contained, internally reflective sovereign subjects with citizenship-guaranteed rights. Indeed, my short reflection questions the very categories in which we operate; and considers the limits of what we can do with our words.
In 2019, I joined Asian migrant massage parlour workers to prepare for an art-based event that advocated against a proposed, anti-message parlour and anti-sex work city of Toronto bylaw. While I was there as a volunteer translator for Butterfly, a help network for Asian migrant sex workers, I participated in their activities and conversations. To prepare for the exhibition, we carved paper in the shape of message parlour workers' hands and took photos of these hands in the evening before the exhibition. While cutting papers, I was chatting with an auntie sitting next to me, Auntie Zhang. She shared with me her migratory journey from mainland China, and the hope she had ten years ago when she first landed. Being brought to work as an unlicensed masseuse, she spent ten hours every day, seven days a week in a massage parlour. The desire to bring her family here motivated her ability to overwork and sustain stress and violence of police raids and CBSA questioning. She showed me her hands, now full of callus, and tried convincing me these hands earned the tickets for citizenship for her husband and her son. Her inarticulate negotiations of the seemingly all-encompassing situations she found herself in, however, suggest more complex framing other than ‘someone who taps into the settler mobility myth’ or ‘a victim of global capitalism’.
She was not alone amongst the message workers. The majority of them who participated in the events came from working-class backgrounds in China and Hong Kong. Her story was just one example of the economic imperatives that we all find ourselves in: capital accumulation from cheap labour, desire for a '’better life’ and debilitating state violence. Deportation, detention and police violence were real concerns for immigrant women who work in the service industry where sex work is prevalent. Such settler state power and economic violence attempt to reduce them to mere bodies illegible for personhood, yet message workers, some of them undocumented or on work permits persist to occupy space, assemble and practice a right only reserved for citizens of settler Canada (Cacho, 2012). It is in these activities of assembling, creating space for themselves that I am arguing for in this essay: the daily path of everyday social reproduction, collective, affective and living labour unvalorized by the forces that put them to work, to diminish their hands, arms, backs and shoulders.
Listening to Auntie Zhang’s narrative and sitting amongst so many biographical stories like her, I wondered how their hands, the part of the body they lend out to their boss, not only become part of an economy that reproduces life worth extending but also reproduces themself and their family. In that duality of reproduction, their hands become something slowly depleting and diminishing, yet simultaneously supporting the life chances of those they care about within the preformatted, often heteropatriarchal kinship structure, for example, Auntie Zhang’s son.
Indeed, Asian women's agile hands — hands that are stereotyped for being skillful in motion, in repetitive activities and in servicing other people's bodily needs — are the means through which they are valued in the market of exchanges. And those hands, when not put to work, act differently on other worlds to find new dreams.
We put the pictures, along with quotes from the workers on the wall in the basement of a shopping mall in Chinatown. Hands tell stories of how globalization is felt intimately on the bodies of message workers. Beyond representation, these hands strategically occupied capitalist venues such as shopping malls where gendered Chinese labour tends to go invisible. By bringing front and center the bodies and experiences of message workers, we created a materially grounded affective common where we can sense something new.
We can interpret that ‘something’ as how we produced Lefebvrian space for use-value, for making political claims. We can also think alongside AbdouMaliq Simone on how improvised life making appears transient and complex (Simone, 2018). My intention here is rather to sit with these hands and stories. The women who were creating the exhibition were not radical anticapitalists. Many of them grew up at the turn of market reform in China, and these experiences shape their subjectivities in ways that I, someone who grows up in China at the turn of the millennium, would never comprehend.
Yet their social experiences of confronting the police, the CBSA and the gendered inequality are living labour through which they pass on inter-generationally to people like me, as unarticulated criticality. The point is not to question criticality but to caution the idealist tendencies with it. I emphasise the creative life-making already shaping and shaped by the debilitating violence of global capitalism. The living labour, that is, life’s capacities, collectively produce forms of political agency and notions of community beyond what we can capture with our analytical categories. In the exhibition, all those hands spoke to stories and embodied the depleting effects of racial capitalism; yet they also spoke a hope that witnesses the possibilities these hands can create, that is, the human capacities of making lifeworlds. Such makings have affective and material effects on the present, gesturing a hope that does not rest on a remote future but in the here and now. At another level, the hands called attention to the presence of migrant women workers, who are essential yet disavowed. The photos of hands visualize life and time supposed to be invisible, inaudible and bypassed by the modes of exclusion.
In the last chapter of Fantasy Production (2004), feminist theorist Neferti Tadiar reminds us of a feminist hope — a hope that states a faithful claim of the dynamic, cooperative life making, of here and now, especially for those of us who are working in opposition to the dominant systems. What I see underlying such a statement is the faith in community-based pedagogies and practices despite structural limitations. Besides protests, blockades and wildcat strikes, community initiatives for and by those that occupy the underside of racial capitalism provide fertile ground for collective futures. If making a new lifeworld always involves spatial practices of remaking and undoing (Lefebvre, 1974), then this essay shows how indigenous dancers, massage parlour workers and their supporters hack capitalist spaces such as shopping malls for new kinds of social relations to emerge.
By cruising the ‘actually existed/existing social relations’ in my interlocutors’ collective life (Hall, 1993: 359), I put into language the importance of affective relations in social movements for justice. For instance, in both events, participants’ embodied experiences occur when subjects encounter each other. Such inter-embodiment are testaments to the collective innovations for survival and for making political claims. In Rancierian Pluto, artistic and bodily expressions are ‘involved in politics’ and intervene in the general distribution of making and doing regimes of visibility (Renciere, 2004: 9). It thus requires recognition of everyday life struggle and creative capacities across different social sites as innovations of new space of the sensible and new structures of affect (Sheller, 2012).
This essay also foregrounds acts of resistance that fall away from our optic of political space and antagonism. The embodied feeling of collective screaming, making paper hands or sticking photos on walls are crucial aspects of community-based social reproduction. These activities might not scale up or garner media attention, yet they serve as vital means of being, seeing and feeling each other under duress. In other words, the two scenes point to the subaltern pathways of social experiences that either remain the threshold of visibility or invisibly passed, yet potentially supplement the ‘proper’ political protagonism in the critical transformation of our world (Tadiar, 2015).
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Ian Liujia Tian is a doctoral student affiliated with Women and Gender studies and OISE at the University of Toronto, with interests in social reproduction, queer theory and labour migration in China and beyond.