“Let them eat cake”
taste, taboos, and turn-ons, pleasure and circuitry for a new modality of feeling
Before, i begin, let me say something about words: the style and feel in this passage is literary in nature. This is an interruption. The thing that is interrupted here is a literary conversation, a kinda heady type of thing. In order to properly interrupt that kind of space, i write in that way, as i’ve been trained to do. The book i am reviewing, appreciating, briefly and hardly overviewing, and even criticising is written in plain language by someone with a beautiful way with everyday words, but the concepts and their implications can be deceiving in how potent and even complicated they are. Pleasure Activism is an interruption, in many ways necessary and in other ways whimsical, and in other ways it’s the kind of interruption that really feels like an interruption. In that way, this is an attempted recovery, of work, and of a world where we make meaning and commit to making that meaning, by following a sense of inspiration while putting what we truly believe, as a people, ahead of how we feel in one moment or another, as persons. This is an attempt to recover the beauty of grueling rigor, training, practice, failure, risk, sacrifice, danger, and selflessness in an increasingly shamelessly selfish/self-centred world, a swarm of souls dying, yet desperate for attention.
These are words meant to gain attention in, get access to, and get at a type of class-unconscious dialogue happening, which is detached from my world on the DDOT bus, walking/biking through the streets, toiling in the field. This is an interruption, but not an end, instead the beginning of a set of conversations unfolding, making criticism more public, more accessible and available, and hopefully then making community organising more honest, and more revolutionary.
On Pleasure Activism
Rightly, skeptics of Pleasure Activism might wonder, “do pleasure activists think cake is a solution to food scarcity?” Surprise: adrienne does want you to eat cake, and kale, and feel good doing both. And beyond this cover, a post-modern take on everything from sex-work, to climate-change, to thrifting, to safe drug use in a time of ‘pandemic’, adrienne maree brown’s latest quells Marx’s warning about opiates luring the masses away from political consciousness: drugs in safe consumption can unlock and enhance sensory power. adrienne maree brown’s Pleasure Activism proves the problem is not so much judging a book by the cover, but in making that the only judgement.
The cover is not quite pornographic; it displaces the typical pornographic gaze, (centring penetration as “sex” itself) onto silhouettes of so-engaged varieties of non-human persons (“animals”). The cover declares disregard for respectability, an affront to fear-driven, shame-centred, post-Victorian social repression. Toast the indecorous! And at once the cover of Pleasure Activism betrays the conversations within, complicated, contradictory, ever-unfolding, and deserving of more abstraction.
Audre Lorde is clear in “Uses of the Erotic”: the base elements of the pornographic (the biologically literal idea “sex” which collapses phallic insertion onto the many phases of intimacy) only work to get around rejection and to penetrate, to gain access to what is intimate, and to consume (even through observation or on-looking); in that way, the pornographic experience of sex denies lovers of “pleasure”—the joy of the enthusiastic “yes!”—through the repression of deep feeling which gives way to ‘production’ or ‘performance’ (instead of shared joy, ecstasy, discovery). Flying in the face of Lorde’s very serious analysis, the cover playfully resurrects the image of intimacy as an activation of diverse physicalities, free from judgmental preconceptions. Eventually, adrienne wants to move even beyond “the erotic”, finding it still possibly limited by a sexual connotation, but given the cover, her reach for a more expansive idea of “pleasure” is a surprise, and a pleasant one.
Ultimately, the cover might disconnect the world(s) within its bounds from Lorde’s world-changing work and ironically adrienne’s vision itself. And yet, clothed in contradiction, Pleasure Activism invites enthusiasm for playful rendition, re-imagining positions of relationality altogether. What appears to be “just sex” facilitates an undercurrent of profound possibility. Whatever one makes of this daring book binding, the colour is lit.
adrienne maree brown identifies as a writer, but the literary beauty in Pleasure Activism accuses its co-author of being a painter with a particular affinity for the word as medium on the imaginative canvas. Pleasure Activism salutes a future we are simultaneously working to manifest and a future we are feeling deeply in the midst of the work itself. Through picturesque visioning, adrienne dream-weaves a world where sensory satisfaction motivates in ways pain cannot.
Pleasure Activism threatens by name white supremacy, Hetero-Patriarchy, and class domination with the power of people organising and pleasuriing themselves through an affectionate kind of community-building and the “deep orgasmic ‘yes!’” of an affirmative (not negative) focus, fighting for things, as much as against things. Amid conversations with other activists, writers, and creators, all advocating for pleasure in (dis)similar ways, we find a rare dialogue between two ancestral interlocutors, Audre Lorde and Octavia Butler, stirring the erotic present in our bodies and the imaginative beyond what presently seems possible.
The opening in Pleasure Activism lays out new language. Pleasure is clearly defined as “a feeling of happy satisfaction or enjoyment” and more descriptively as “a measure of freedom” and broadly, but most simply “feeling good time”. Pleasure activism as a practice increases the experience of joy for those most denied by oppressive systems. This is critical.
Pleasure Activism unfolds in form-phases, interview, essay, “homework” for the reader, following atypically pleasurable path: winding in happily restless flexibility. Inso doing adrienne maree brown connects the concept of pleasure to that of liberation. Asking “[i]s it possible for justice and pleasure to feel the same way in our collective body?”, adrienne invites to conversation those who’ve waged definitively revolutionary struggle. How can Harriet Tubman or Fanon or Che Guevara be challenged by this text or Cabral or Assata Shakur? But, we are left to facilitate dialogue between those who instruct our struggle as much as our pleasure.
brown’s echoing question, “[i]s it possible for justice and pleasure to feel the same way in our collective body?” calls to mind the life and work of Amilcar Cabral. A gun-toting, battle-plan drafting, philosophizing revolutionary, and a winner, one who won material victory over a colonial oppressor, not a ideational victory over conceptual systems, Amilcar talked a lot about duty and struggle. But Cabral also instructs us to dig deeply into our souls and do the revolutionary work of creating “culture”, where “[j]ust as happens with the flower in a plant […] there lies the capacity (or the responsibility) for forming and fertilizing the seedling which will assure […] the prospects for evolution and progress for the society in question.” Amilcar argues that to win liberation we must know who we are, defining that question for ourselves through the joyous, meaningful, multi-sensory project of creating culture, embodying the flowers of our own future. adrienne compels me to think further that to win liberation we must also know how we feel, to know the difference between what hurts and what makes us feel deeply alive. We are in the process of knowing ourselves and feeling ourselves. But what comes first, the transformation to feel anew or the knowing feeling which guides our transformation? Both Audre Lorde and adrienne maree brown argue that our deepest knowledge is nurtured by the the sensory and sub-sensory place of knowing. I believe it’s both, but in the context of capitalism, and our being incubated by its toxins, our concepts of what “feels good” cannot avoid ethical scrutiny in the question of what is good, a depth of inquiry where pleasure can be both transformative and itself transformed.
By the power of adrienne’s example, in speaking from a deeply subjective place, I name here that:
I respond to Pleasure Activism knowing it was not written for me.
As a sometimes “macho”-read person carrying often privileged masculinity, I know the thinking and feeling shared in this book is most in service to women and femme-identified folks who bear the burden of a society trying to break the sensual power of our collective consciousness by repressing and breaking the joy of women and femme-identified people in particular. Pleasure Activism is a necessary, unapologetically queer, feminist intervention.
I am a child of an underclass, immigrant, Black Detroit, and I feel that also in that way this book is not written to me or for me, or for much of my family, or mya neighbors.
We should understand the disparate worlds into and from which we reach, worlds we hope to change. Pleasure Activism reads as syllabus, crafted for occupants of the world where academic concepts dominate everyday conversation, a kind of class-creole, inaccessible outside of the confines of the campus. Beyond linguistics, I feel a tendency to disconnect from the disaffected and downtrodden who miss manage pleasure in dire, everyday contexts.
The operationalised concept of pleasure feels individual and secluded, even when it spells itself collective. The self is at the centre. Of her own awakening, adrienne writes, “I began to move toward my own yes, my satisfaction. I examined how my experiences of deep political alignment with people who wanted to collaborate had taught me more than years of battling with people who wanted to dominate me or compete against me.” Me. Lots of “me” and “my”.
Many of us are “robbed” of time to ponder self, and thus disabled from meeting our need to take care of and responsibility for ourselves. Capitalism wars against self-care and -determination. But, many of us are also born of cultures where collectivity prefigures and presupposes the self. I will never centre satisfaction as my own, but as something collectively located, familial, communal. “Satisfaction” proves impossible without my community and family being held. Committed to an African futurity, I move toward our “yes”, our satisfaction, finding self in that above all.
I feel fear that Pleasure Activism divides the underclasses who suffer under the weight of daily, immediate, material subjugation, and the activists who take up too much space in conversations, both literary and communal. I imagine activists reading Pleasure Activism, and being licensed to gaze into their individual desires long enough to forget liberation as a collective project in hard work, one in which our lives are threatened, one which indeed transforms us and unlocks in us new sensations of living and aliveness, but only “in service of the work”.
In a world of “social justice” movement, in Detroit, led mostly by transplants, and nationally steered by many who have not grown up in poverty or sociological abjection, where too often “the Black people” are racially ambiguous and more palatable to those elites (e.g. grant officers at foundations) who keep the gates of White monopoly capitalism, pleasure activism activates and acts as a “switch” in which pleasure is about being turned on, or turning on a circuit of energy which previously was simply turned off. There’s a missing concept of labour, in which revolution itself can be the seeding of deep joy, then harvested in time, through struggle, and uncertainty. I feel H Rap Brown’s speech on “Collectivism and Individualism” reminding us that revolutionary leadership merely exists to serve the collective needs of the people; if that feels good individually, swell. But if our work is guided first by individual desire, as opposed to finding and feeling goodness in a supreme collective vision, that leadership is not revolutionary, or perhaps that kind of “revolutionary” thought is not fit for leadership.
There’s a unbridged gap between being personally turned on, turning on a new modality for collective movement, and an unanswered question as to which of those turnings-on can respond to our commons being turned off: water, heat, electricity, public assistance benefits, etc. I understand my pursuits of pleasure to be in part a response to nights spent sleeping in the dark of a frigid Detroit night, with double socks, and a down coat. I’ve lived in a crumbling “house”, running low on food, and I know that joy goes beyond the material. And I know that creating deeply satisfying community as a revolutionary project must be paired with crystal clear strategy (one that looks as much like battle plans of fronts and flanks as it does flow-charts and cute figurines), labour, and as much organising in the realm of sex-work as it does food chain workers and farm workers. A revolutionary resists trend. Maintain a dogmatic commitment to a future which is not about what organisers find sexy, but what the people determine we need and the power we build in attaining what meets our needs.
We should remain doggedly aware of our contradictions and incisive in cutting out our neoliberal tendencies, like those that re-employ “power of mind” and “positive-thinking” gestures to eclipse the clarity of analysis that arises from historical and dialectical materialism; we do need positive thinking and we have to harness the power of open-mindedness which is affirmed in the positive belief that through heightened collective consciousness and deepened commitments to each other and to our collective longing for freedom, we will win. In this way, pleasure as “feeling good time” must accompany, result from, and result in transformation and the capacity for newly transformative processes wherein goodness itself and the feeling thereof can be decolonised and collectivised, where time itself is shifted from the experience of linear sequence, to the cyclical, the sharing of consistency, commitment, and consequence. Equal parts levity and gravity, both play and those kinds of things we can’t take back.
adrienne states early that “[p]leasure activists believe that by tapping into the potential goodness in each of us we can generate justice and liberation, growing a healing abundance where we have been socialized to believe only scarcity exists”
I’ve heard organisers argue (in communities not their own) that those who talk about “scarcity” are speaking through socialisation and misinformation, not lived experience. This is wrong and should cease. To acknowledge scarcity is to engage in the world devoid of real options for meeting basic needs. Water is being shut off, heat, too, even in the winter. We live under the constant threat of incarceration. Those who talk about abundance instead of scarcity are seldom fulfilling the basic duty of the “vanguard” to meet the people’s needs in the way that the Black Panther Party’s survival programmes did. More than dreaming or speaking of abundance, those optimists should seed, water, and harvest the abundance that changes our material conditions. Those who feel more abundance have a duty to tangibly enhance the pleasure of their community, in the process of remaking the world though the total democratisation of social, public, and communal life, unlocking a sensory commons for our collective sustenance.
The crisis of capitalism is not merely a crisis of perception, but first of material deprivation, which results in disabled imaginations. And so we will not see abundance if we cannot taste, or eat, or wear, or drink it, in reality. As a grower/farmer and organiser, this book does well to address that in part, even addressing food and the tension between happy and healthy eating. I also got excited reading the tips about thrift shopping because there’s revolutionary potential in circular economics (I only thrift or by clothes made by folks with a union rep and lunch break, myself), but purchasing shift by the world’s poorest will not create future of textural euphoria.
Pleasure politicised as a new modality of power which thinks as much about the world we want to live as the world we can’t take anymore enables us to put into practice the feelings we want to define a liberated future, but those practices still live in the shadow of dreadful certainties about our now. I find in Cabral’s concept of culture a bridge between what we hate and love, the medium being not individual entitlement, but collective upsurgence grounded in gratitude for our ancestral lineage, our communities, our passions, and for what is possible, when we live in the right proportions love, labour, hurting, and healing.
I feel grateful for Pleasure Activism, reminded of Foucault’s happy positivism, stirred and shifted to consciousness, ready to reinvigorate our historical struggles and our sense of future. I believe even more than before that as a people, we need “feeling good time”. We have to find and feel goodness in the work that we do to dismantle violent systems and build freedom in our lives. I feel committed to activate a transformed and transformative concept of pleasure, through new practices which White capitalist patriarchal modernity once foreclosed. I am optimistic that we possess a disruptive circuitry of knowledge, power, and heightened consciousness, mixed with a heavy dose of conscience and rigorous reflection and ethical self-critique.
assata shakur “we can win!”
After, a word on happy militancy: whereas some have termed it “pleasure activism”, what is often defined thereafter is not as much an advocacy for pleasure, or pleasing, or being pleased, as much as an escape. However necessary in the mind of the person doing the talking, writing, or even thinking, the retreat is one from difficulty, duty, and audacity within the contexts of the present systems of domination. Pleasure as a measure of freedom in the mind of the individual can be accessed or ‘felt’ by participating in systems of oppression and for many careless culpability in the reproducing systems of extraction, exploitation, or unequal sharings of power has even come to feel like freedom. But through the rigor of analysis and dutiful commitment to shifts in thinking—even against what our bodies have been told they want—we see that what feels like freedom in the system of oppression is not only a deception, but it is the very emotional and sensory means of production which the oppressive system itself has stolen from us. We are fighting to win power to produce joy, to produce our own unique and clear selves through new affirmative actions, and to relate to each other more deeply, more collectively; in that way, we are fighting for those beautiful means of creation, regeneration, the means of affection, the means of relation, the means of elation, but nonetheless, we are fighting.
I call to mind a quote by the inimitable Assata Shakur:
“this is the 21st century and we need to redefine r/evolution. this planet needs a people’s r/evolution. a humanist r/evolution. r/evolution is not about bloodshed or about going to the mountains and fighting. we will fight if we are forced to but the fundamental goal of r/evolution must be peace.
we need a r/evolution of the mind. we need a r/evolution of the heart. we need a r/evolution of the spirit. the power of the people is stronger than any weapon. a people’s r/evolution can’t be stopped. we need to be weapons of mass construction. weapons of mass love. it’s not enough just to change the system. we need to change ourselves. we have got to make this world user friendly. user friendly.
are you ready to sacrifice to end world hunger. to sacrifice to end colonialism. to end neo-colonialism. to end racism. to end sexism.
r/evolution means the end of exploitation. r/evolution means respecting people from other cultures. r/evolution is creative.
r/evolution means treating your mate as a friend and an equal. r/evolution is sexy.
r/evolution means respecting and learning from your children. r/evolution is beautiful.
r/evolution means protecting the people. the plants. the animals. the air. the water. r/evolution means saving this planet.
r/evolution is love.”
Pleasure is always the goal in revolutionary struggle. Pleasure has always been the revolutionary objective. Pleasure has always been and will always be the great motivator. And while many have become obsessed with struggle itself, to the point of struggling just for the sake of struggling, the idea of pleasure as devoid of pain, dullness, numbness, sadness, desperation, brokennes, or even total loss is a middle-to-upper class, White, academic, or even an elitist fantasy of the world. Revolution wins us pleasure, by destroying systems and being willing to “sacrifice to end” systems of destruction and being willing to build new worlds, all at once. Escaping from that duty to destroy and create, to fight, and to love, many are turning to a culture that relies on profitable concepts of self-care and healing, a kind of pseudo-spiritual style or fad, a way of speaking, and a kind of conversation that does not deal with violent systems as the principle cause of harm, and thus revolution as the first act of healing, and an act of collective healing which in itself demands that we be healing all along in small ways.
I call this escape “whatever activism”. “Whatever”, not as much in the sense of not caring anymore (even though I think that’s the subconscious undertone and actually a shared outcome between this new wave of “feel good now” thinking and total resignation), but whatever in the sense of a cosmic menu, in which the person who wants to respond to social problems can do so without direction, analysis, or real stakes. There are no mistakes. Whimsy replaces risk, even in the life-or-death realm of context. Where non-violent extremists once sent kids into the south to die or get their heads smashed in, and where blowhard radicals once sent young kids out into the street to get killed or captured by cops, now it’s a particular class of folks who fit the script because of a surface-level identity politics (all-too-prevalent in the organising world that now lives in the shadows of the ivory tower) and who are appropriately disconnected from everyday life for most of the the “wretched of the Earth”.
Now it is this self-appointed caste of priests and supposed practitioners of renditions of ancient spirituality who send not only the kids to pointless ends, but through the tricky slippage of metaphor send the concept of “revolution” itself out to die a pointless death. Whatever activism poises us against a blood-thirsty state, equipped with nothing but multi-syllable denunciations and a nuanced interpretation of pornography as a post-politics. “whatever activism” is the dominant framework of this moment. whatever you enjoy is activism. there are no limits. no scarcity. Just cheeky phrases, non-stop performances of emotional “vulnerability” on social media, and masturbation (of all kinds).
For the whatever activist, there are perceived threats which (inevitably) can be moved by a simple shift in perception. In response to the fallacious idea that scarcity does not exist, I offer you reality, up and down the streets of Detroit, MI. Where folks do survive, but against odds, in a most god-like way co-creating for real, for real. Not the bullshit. That real shit. I offer you the reality, in line at the water and sewage department.
I offer you reality on the corner outside of the liquor store. I offer you the truth that we are surviving scarcity precisely because we are co-creators of the universe, making something from nothing, with all power and wisdom and glory, and when you rob us of scarcity because of your cushion, you rob the world of its full understanding of precisely the distance between who the world is working to make us and who we are becoming, in real terms, you rob the world of its ability to see us in full, as divine, as triumphant, as overcoming, as the pure reflection of all that is Life, light, heat, and matter.
And a knowledge of the stench in the air, an intimate understanding of the attacks which are set out against us, even before our birth, this drives us to more intimately know self. To know the abomination in the thing we are fighting, drives to tap more deeply into our sense of righteousness, happiness, and ultimately our creativity. Whether we are agrarian workers, food-chain workers, unfree workers in prisons or in factories, overworked and underpaid city workers, we’ve always gotten it done. The community has always been organising itself, setting forth a politics for itself, and motivated to survive and thrive against all odds because of a deep sense of knowing one’s self, loving one’s self, and yes, enjoying one’s self. There’s only something to fight for, if there’s something to live for. I fear, people from the “hood” or “the ghetto” or America’s struggling cities, or the world’s “slums” don’t need a lesson on joy. Instead the world’s bourgeoisie, increasingly at the helm of social movements, needs a lesson in true, day-to-day, instructive, struggle. The kind that shapes warriors and revolutionaries, not in the metaphorical but in the real:
From the ghettos and the world’s slums, i affirm that we create because of scarcity, just as we create in spite of it. It is true for us that less means more, more thought, more intention, more creation, more self-direction, more unique experiences, as we are forced to constantly reach into our lineage for new ideas, possibilities, alternate endings, giving way to totally disruptive beginnings. At the feet of the idols at twilight, peppered with the dust of famines lands, the gods of the ghettos and the world’s slums are adorned.
We have to be known and know ourselves, not through identity, but reality. You must experience this world of which you speak, in terms that one might find inutterable, and there we see the revolutionary as a creative, an artist, a planner, a doer, a mover, and the revolution as a gesture of gestures, in lived experience. And in that reality, that experience, we find all three ingredients for actual (not metaphorical) revolution, 1.) a knowledge of the horror of the status quo, 2.) a knowledge of surviving horror and making meaning and beauty the midst of it all (e.g. blue-grass, blues, jazz, reggae, samba, kompa, soca, ska, punk/grunge, hip-hop, house/techno, etc.), and 3.) a vision of the world we want to create using many of the skills we’ve used to survive. Casting aside the attention-seeking, ill-disciplined practice of “activism”, and putting pleasure in its right context (kin to pain, in every way), we go back and get what Foucault calls, in his preface to a book titled Anti-Oedipus, “A Guide to a Non-Fascist Life”:
Free political action from all […] paranoia.
Develop action, thought, and desires by proliferation, juxtaposition, and disjunction, and not by subdivision and pyramidal hierarchization.
Withdraw allegiance from the old categories of the Negative (law, limit, castration, lack, lacuna), which Western thought has so long held sacred as a form of power and an access to reality. Prefer what is positive and multiple, difference over uniformity, flows over unities, mobile arrangements over systems. Believe that what is productive is not sedentary but nomadic.
Do not think that one has to be sad in order to be militant, even though the thing one is fighting is abominable. It is the connection of desire to reality (and not its retreat into the forms of representation) that possesses revolutionary force.
Do not use thought to ground a political practice in Truth; nor political action to discredit, as mere speculation, a line of thought. Use political practice as an intensifier of thought, and analysis as a multiplier of the forms and domains for the intervention of political action.
Do not demand of politics that it restore the “rights” of the individual, as philosophy has defined them. The individual is the product of power. What is needed is to “de-individualize” by means of multiplication and displacement, diverse combinations. The group must not be the organic bond uniting hierarchized individuals, but a constant generator of de-individualization.
Do not become enamored of power.
This call to action, to de-individualise, to link desire to reality, to struggle toward collectivisms, fluidities, and multiplicity (or infinite options) is happy militancy, or that place where one arrives when you realise, you don’t have to be sad to be a militant; but notice, never once does Foucault give us the option to cease being militant, and that clarity makes all the difference.