Activist Reflexivity and Imagined Subjectivities: Toward a Marxist Approach
Paper short abstract:
Debates on reflexivity in activism ask what kind of subject position the activist should imagine for its target (e.g. the suffering victim, the rights-bearing individual, the political subject). We reframe this debate by focusing on the structural conditions for the subjectivities in activism.
Paper long abstract:
There is an ongoing debate in anthropology on the kinds of subject positions which are ascribed to marginalized actors and the political consequences this has. The critique of humanitarianism (e.g. Didier Fassin) puts forth the idea that ascribing the subject position of the suffering body marginalizes people more than that of the rights-bearing individual (as in human rights activism). Critics of the human rights approach to international politics (e.g. Kamari Clarke) argue that the rights bearing individual (as a Western liberal construct) is similarly disadvantaging non-European subjects. Those critics make a plea (at least implicitly) for taking on the subject position of the politically conscious actor (as in political activism). We argue that this debate should be reframed. Instead of finding the 'right' subject position for the individual, ethnography should — in the tradition of Marxist anthropology — focus on the material conditions in which the subject is embedded and which structure the subject's consciousness. We draw from ethnographic research on how political activists engage with asylum seekers in refugee shelters in Berlin as well as how human rights activism shapes perspectives on justice and legal pluralism in Northern Uganda. We argue for a Marxist approach on ethnographically conceptualizing political subjectivity and propose a materialist reading of what the approaches of humanitarianism, human rights activism, and political activism overlook.
Marx @200: historical materialism for today's world [IUAES Commission on Global Transformations and Marxian Anthropology]