SIEF2019 14th Congress: Santiago de Compostela, Spain
14-17 April 2019

The ongoing brink of transformation - persistent activist aspirations of the same unachieved future
Location Room 26
Date and Start Time 15 Apr, 2019 at 09:00
Sessions 2


  • Friederike Faust (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin) email
  • Justyna Struzik (Jagiellonian University) email
  • Zülfukar Çetin (University of Basel) email

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Short abstract

The panel explores the persistence of activists in the context of constant unachieved goals. We discuss the role of emotions, technologies and social memory in shaping aspirations of future transformation, and possible aberrations in a linear narration of social movements' success.

Long abstract

The term "ongoing brink of transformation" describes a phenomenon within social movements across different times and places: Activists find themselves in situations where the aspired future seems to lie within reach but nevertheless remains unachieved. E.g. activists keep on predicting the end of AIDS since decades, without ever having reached this goal. In this panel we will discuss how activists deal with the persistence of this situation, and the role of temporalities and time. We are particularly interested in the interplay of narrations of the past and aspirations of future transformations within social movements. Potential questions include (but are not limited to):

- What needs to be remembered and how (e.g. as milestone, momentum) in order to imagine future transformations? What and whose pasts are forgotten or trivialized in order to keep on aspiring? How do postcolonial, economic and geopolitical relations effect the concepts of time, and impact disparities within social movements?

- How do emotions and bodily conditions im-/mobilize people to keep on aspiring?

- How do devices (e.g. political documents, data visualisations, communication technologies) shape the aspired future? How do inequalities assemble around the access to these devices?

- How do activists navigate through desired utopias and anticipated unintended consequences?

- Who has the right to define "in which times we are in" (Butler 2008), while other times are marginalized?

- What if a linear progress is obstructed by present circumstances and the future appears to "move backwards"; when repetition and reversal replace progress?

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


From Protests Failure to Disengagement: Activists Narratives on the (Un)Changed in Belarus

Author: Alena Minchenia (Lund University) email
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Short abstract

The proposed presentation reflects on connections between perceived failure to achieve desired political changes and activists' stories of disengagement from a movement. To do so I address to the ethnographic data collected in Minsk (Belarus) in 2015-2017 in the framework of my doctoral research.

Long abstract

My research concerns with emotionality of political protests and is focused on street actions occurred in Minsk in 2015-17. Because of the apparent stability of 24-year presidency of Lukashenka's and seemingly unsuccessful and rather small protests, the Belarusian case opens a number of theoretically interesting challenges, such as a chance to reflect on emotional work associated with participation in protests that are seen as bound to fail in achieving their goals.

Indeed, scholarships on Belarusian nation, protests and political situation are saturated with the language of historical failures and deficiency. The dominant explanatory framework connects failure of Belarusians to become a "proper nation" (e.g. develop a strong national sentiment, speak Belarusian language, etc.) with unsuccessful democratization and absence of mass mobilization of opposition (e.g. Silitski 2012). These are just some examples of concepts used to define contemporary Belarus: "national failure" (Snyder 2004), "failure of democratization" (Marples 2009), "failed revolution" (Kalandadze and Orenstein 2009), and "a failure to sustain the development of social movement" (Kulakevich 2014). Moreover, my interviews with political activists in Belarus echo the presented academic narrative.

But instead of joining my voice to this perception, I would like to reflects on an emotionally charged idea of failure and inquire on how it is experienced by activists. I show that "failure" manifests itself as "burnout", "withdrawal", and "alienation" from activism and politics, it also leads to construction of a protest subject as a victim that in turn makes social and political changes unimaginable.

Living Utopia? Insights into the Discursive and Performative Negotiation of Visionary Future Drafts at German Festivals

Author: Ina Kuhn email
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Short abstract

Festivals are non-daily spaces where, for a limited period of time, supposedly utopian and more desirable ways of living can be explored and put into practice. How do (activist) participants negotiate, establish and materialise collectively aspired visions of 'a better life' during festivals?

Long abstract

When constantly unachieved goals - utopias - can't be pursued in everyday life, a potentially escapist but logic consequence is to transfer them into non- daily spaces where different and unusual lifestyles, manners and forms of interactions are permitted - at festivals. But not any kind of festivals: "Tage der Utopie" ("Days of Utopia"), "Festival der Utopie" ("Festival of Utopia") or "Utopival" (a fusion of 'utopia' and 'festival') are some of the names of festivals in Germany which focus not only on negotiating but also on living utopian future drafts during the festival days. Within the framework of my PhD project with the working title "Living Utopia? On Discursive and Performative Negotiations of Alternative Life and Future Concepts at Festivals" I focus on the question, how collectively aspired visions or drafts of a better life and future are negotiated, established and materialised at utopia-themed but still quite heterogeneous festivals. The results of an exploratory field study during the festival season of 2018 suggest that these uncommercial, rural festivals are much less about music, consumption and simply having a good time, but about participants of different ages and with different backgrounds and degrees of education raising concerns, discussing and shaping aspirations of future transformations. As the festival organisers assign their events to be "grassroot movements" or "movements for living utopia" I will, inter alia, discuss whether the festivals' participants can be considered 'activists' and elaborate on how socio-cultural transformations and movements manifest themselves in festivals today.

Future in a monotown. Activism and civic engagement in monofunctional Donbas towns

Author: Justyna Szymanska (University of Warsaw) email
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Short abstract

In my paper I would like to show the phenomena of activism in Ukrainian government-controlled territory of Donbas region and actions of young activists which future-oriented forms of activism aim to create the change in a challenging environment of single-industry towns.

Long abstract

I would like to show the phenomena of activism and civic engagement in monofunctional towns situated in Ukrainian government-controlled territory of Donbas region. A mixture of post-conflict reality and old stereotypes about the region clashes with recent intensive implementation of civil society-strengthening projects that started to flourish after recapturing frontline towns from separatists by Ukrainian forces in 2014.

I intend to specifically highlight actions of young, formal and semi-formal groups which future-oriented forms of activism aim to create the change in a challenging environment of monotowns, where they weave between two main actors: the state and town-forming enterprises. The influent external models of activism create new modes of engagement functioning on intersection of foregoing and alluvial models of 'being a citizen', new patterns of adjustment to political and social reality and re-gaining agency. In my consideration I turn to the meanings of counter-spaces understand as 'spaces occupied by the symbolic and the imaginary' (Lefebvre 1991). In this approach activism must not be grand nor be in total opposition to political power - its power lies not in the ability to turn things upside down in an instance, but in that they 'open up cracks in the totalizing logic of the capitalist city' (Tonkiss 2005, p. 64). This is especially a case of vulnerable places like post-conflict Donbas monotowns where Jeffrey C. Goldfarb's (2006, 2008) theory of politics of small things and James C. Scott's (1990) theory of infrapolitics seem to be more appropriate in describing this 'creeping change'.

"Shut it Down!" How an abolitionist campaign navigates the imprisoned present, the segregationist past, and envisions radical futures

Author: Mihir Sharma (University of Bayreuth) email
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Short abstract

This paper explores how a prison abolitionist campaign navigates the immediate goal of shutting down a pre-trial detention facility by engaging in a politics of (dis)inheritance, articulating the continuities and ruptures from antecedent struggles to envision a radical abolitionist future.

Long abstract

"Close the Workhouse" is a grassroots campaign based in St. Louis, Missouri, which has as its stated goal the closure of a notorious jail referred to as "The Workhouse", which primarily detains inmates awaiting trial and unable to pay bail. Based on recent fieldwork in the St. Louis Metropolitan Area, Missouri, this paper will examine the ways in which actors working with the campaign mobilize the rhetoric of (prison) abolition; how the struggle for an abolitionist society is formulated as part of an abolitionist tradition with its antecedent agendas - abolition of slavery, de-segregation, and de-carceration, and is so doing; how they re-signify previously canonized narratives and figures from and since the Civil Rights era, effectively engaging in a politics of (dis-)inheritance toward the radical present and envisioned futures. Specifically, the paper explores how the continuities in forms of oppression - from the Slavery Era through the Jim Crow era to the "Age of Mass Incarceration" (Alexander 2016) are transcribed for a contemporary manifesto of the abolitionist agenda, as well as how the ruptures therein are articulated for the immediate spatial and temporal present - a present which appears to place concrete limits on the possibilities of the horizon of democratic politics (Mouffe 2000).

Linwood B., a court case of HIV-transmission and the ignorance of racism

Authors: Eugen Januschke (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin) email
Ulrike Klöppel (Humboldt University Berlin) email
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Short abstract

To date, German courts punish HIV-positive persons for transmission of the virus. Activists criticise that criminalisation undermines HIV prevention. However, racial or ableist dimensions of the judgements remain largely unacknowledged. What does it tell us about political bonds and aspirations?

Long abstract

According to German law, the intentional or negligent transmission of HIV is punishable if the HIV-negative person did not know about their partner's infection. German AIDS activists fight since three decades against the juridical discrimination of HIV-positive people. With it, they scandalise, how the judgements contradict prevention work based on the mutual responsibility of sex partners and anxiety-free sexual communication.

As important as this political fight is, what strikes us is the far-reaching lack of memorialization of the earlier cases of juridical discrimination. With it, the accumulation of sentences against persons of colour, disabled persons, or sex workers does not gain political attention. Many AIDS activists seem to neglect the racial, ableist, or sexist discrimination entangled in the judgements.

In our presentation, we want to look back at the early court cases and analyse how, in the 1980s, activists from different backgrounds got involved with the cases and developed diverging political strategies. We want to scrutinize the potential influence of different (political) socialisation and the material as well as emotional conditions of relationships between activists and the affected HIV-positive persons. Who engages with whom and with what kind of intensity? What aspects are turned into a political problem? What accounts for the differences in relating to the court cases? The ways of political mobilization entail a prioritisation of political problems and a diagnosis of what counts as "our" time and futurity.

Los Niños Robados. Gendered crimes and hierarchical justice in Spain.

Author: Katja Seidel (University of Vienna) email
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Short abstract

This paper examines the gendered crime of systematic child theft in Spain. Based on my work with Alumbra and the court case against Doctor Vela, I argue that in contemporary Spain women are faced with 'hierarchical justice', in which their right to truth and justice is silenced as affective trauma.

Long abstract

This paper examines silenced victims, criminal prosecutions, and the recuperation of the stolen children in post-Franco Spain. Since 1936, an estimated total of at least 30.000 children were stolen from their parents and sold for adoption. The practice of systematic child theft started during the Spanish Civil War and continued far into the 1990s as an organised crime facilitated by the Church, political, medical, and judicial entities.

Today, human rights activists, lawyers and judges struggle for the recuperation of the 'stolen children'. Affected women collectively demand their rights from the government and before court. On a legal level, since 2008, more than 2000 lawsuits have been brought in and show their aspirations for adjudication in Spain. With national courts opposed to hearing women's cases and the lack of support in DNA testing and access to archives, processes of identity restoration without evidence are complex and female victims are largely silenced.

Based on my fieldwork with the organisation Alumbra (Asociación por la Lucha de Madres de Bebés Robados de Andalucía) and the recent court case against Eduardo Vela, a doctor-perpetrator regularly mentioned in connection of victims' testimonies on child appropriations, this paper examines Spain's polit-historical narrative transformations that exclude particular actors and gendered events. I argue that within the contested field of Spain's uneven second transition we find what I call a 'hierarchical justice', in which gendered crimes lack acknowledgement and female victims are discriminated against because of the emotional and affective character of the crimes they suffered from.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.