Symposium Introduction

In an inspired, painfully honest short essay called “The Dirty Details of My New Salary,” legal theorist and activist Dean Spade chronicles the struggles of his “class shift” from the stress and trauma of childhood poverty, to making $37,500–45,000 after law school, to accepting a job paying him $120,000 a year.1 The experience did not come without its feelings of survivor guilt, anxiety, and uncertainty. For someone with such a revolutionary passion and commitment to social justice, Spade had to confront a few confounding dilemmas regarding his newfound wealth. How, for example, should one decide whether to redistribute money to close friends and family in need, or to the homeless people you see every day, or to the friend you write to in prison every week, or the people served by the Sylvia Rivera Law Project? To take another example, how should one deal with student loan debt? Do you try to pay it off as soon as possible in order to increase your ability to distribute your wealth in the future? This sounds tempting, Spade writes, but what is to be said about debt resistance? With his students graduating with over $100,000 in debt, he argues, “it becomes a strong incentive for them to take evil jobs defending the interests of the rich.”

The dilemmas only get messier—and more compromising—for Spade. For instance, he wants to send money to his pen pals in prison. So what’s the problem? For every $50 sent to one of his friends, the prison keeps $37.50. Spade, a prison abolitionist, now finds himself supporting “the system that is destroying people’s lives.” And then there’s his employer, who’s offering to commit 9 percent of his salary into a retirement account. Pretty generous, right? Here’s how Spade describes his reaction:

First, I feel like I don’t want to invest in a private future security and would rather invest in collective security for people old and young now and in the future. I would rather put resources into creating a world that cares for old people, and into helping people who are old now, than squirreling away money banking on the idea that things will be just as horrendous for old people in fifty years as they are now. Additionally, I am convinced by Jason Lydon’s analysis that interest inevitably comes from exploitation and I do not want to make money just for having capital. That is exactly the kind of system I am trying to dismantle.

The common theme that seems to be brewing is this: why does it feel impossible to avoid our active, conscious, intentional participation in the very systems we wish to dismantle? And even when we try to be revolutionary—when we try to stick it to the man!—we often exaggerate (to put it lightly) the effects of our supposedly pure and noble acts. After explaining that he never thought he would ever own a home, partly because “I am so fundamentally against everything I see in the professionalization/gentrification/homonormativity developments of my peers in the last few years.” He nonetheless admits, “At the same time, I can’t say that paying rent to wealthy landlords and management companies is some kind of radical political act.”

Alexis Shotwell’s book Against Purity: Living Ethically in Compromised Times, is for the Dean Spades of this world. “Living well might feel impossible,” Shotwell writes, “and certainly living purely is impossible.” For those wishing for an easier time, a time that was less messy, less uncertain, where our economic choices were less contaminated, Shotwell has some words of caution. “The slate has never been clean,” she adds, “and we can’t wipe off the surface to start fresh—there’s no ‘fresh’ to start.”2 Shotwell shows us that our complicity in unjust social structures runs deep. To begin with, many of us live on stolen land, so it’s impossible to untie ourselves from genocide and settler colonialism. We also own pets, get cosmetic surgeries, eat chocolate, and fly on planes.3 We buy clothes at H&M, search on Google, eat at Whole Foods, shop on Amazon, ride Uber, and “friend” people on Facebook. Yet the point of Against Purity is not to expose or educate us about our hypocrisies; that would be too easy. Rather, it is to help us imagine a new way of doing ethics, a new way of imagining better worlds. It is nothing less than a new “starting point for action” that Shotwell invites us to embrace. “There is no food we can eat, clothing we can buy, or energy we can use without deepening our ties to complex webs of suffering,” Shotwell writes, “So, what happens if we start from there?”4

Rima Vesely-Flad offers the first essay in our symposium. Vesely-Flad admits to thinking of purity quite differently than Shotwell. She wonders if it’s possible for oppressed communities to reject dominant cultural views of purity and instead “turn ideas of purity upside down and construct our own definitions of purity.” She further proposes that a desire for purity is not always destructive or individualistic. “Nor,” she writes, “are such notions to be abolished.” Vesely-Flad also examines what the rhetoric of health, purity, pollution, and cleansing looks like among communities of color. She invites readers to “expand definitions of purity rather than disabuse ourselves of the idea that the desire for purity is somehow always individualistic, excluding, and inadequate.” Vesely-Flad leaves readers, resisters, and activists with a very provocative thought: “Is not the desire to ‘decolonize the future’ itself a desire for purity?”

In her reflection on Against Purity, Oluwatomisin Oredein shows how an ethic of care might help us better understand what Shotwell is and is not arguing. Oredein reads Shotwell as reconstructing “purity to not only be its dirty, messy, disorganized self, but to synonymously mean inter-viability—life in between and/as life with.” Then, drawing on Shotwell’s use of the brilliant José Esteban Muñoz, Oredein articulates a queer eschatological vision for what new worlds—new futures—might look like if we learn to embrace the interconnectedness, interdependence, and what she elegantly calls “the rich tangledness of life.”

Heike Peckruhn argues that the work of theology has always involved trying to find God in “impure” spaces. Examples of such theologians practicing these “liberating moves” include Nancy Eiesland, Kelly Brown Douglas, and Marcella Althaus-Reid. Peckruhn also asks us to consider the implications Shotwell’s book has for the un-disciplining or even anti-disciplining of our theological work. “Canons and methodological toolkits need to be purposefully impure, defiled even,” she writes. In pursuing these “messy projects,” Peckruhn argues, we find ourselves able to “continuously move into visceral re-orientations in our world to shift and pull the lines that align us towards flourishing for all we are bound up in.”

Finally, Willis Jenkins connects his reading of Against Purity to the issue of climate justice. Since, according to Jenkins, many people seem to both know and care a lot about climate change, what explains our consistent inaction? It is here where Jenkins tackles Shotwell’s discussions of forgetting and unforgetting, especially in light of the genocide of indigenous populations. “The two cases are, of course, not utterly separate,” he writes. “The same North American settler colonialism that invaded their land and continues to oppress indigenous peoples,” Jenkins continues, “also accelerated the rise of a global carbon-intensive economy which now drives planetary ecological changes, which in turn exert further stress and displacement on indigenous peoples.” “So,” he concludes, “purism in one arena contributes to erasure and delusion in the other.”

Ultimately, Jenkins praises the liberatory potential of Against Purity for freeing us “from making the world come out just right and from atoning for all the suffering tied to your existence.” In this way, he hints at Shotwell’s claim that being “against purity” involves one big “no”—indeed many “no’s”! —but few predictions about better alternatives.5 Yet Against Purity doesn’t leave us paralyzed in thought, nor does it lead us to despair. Another world is possible, even if we don’t quite know what that world looks like. Other than to say that this world, as the Zapatistas remind us, is a world where many worlds are possible. Or as Shotwell puts it: a world of “many yesses.”6


  1. Dean Spade, “The Dirty Details of My New Salary,” accessed from http://www.enoughenough.org/2009/04/the-dirty-details-of-my-new-salary/.

  2. Alexis Shotwell, Against Purity: Living Ethically in Compromised Times (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016), 4.

  3. Ibid., 2.

  4. Ibid., 5.

  5. Ibid., 18–19.

  6. Ibid., 19.

Rima Vesely-Flad

Response

Response to Against Purity

Living Ethically in Compromised Times

Alexis Shotwell’s text Against Purity: Living Ethically in Compromised Times challenges me to think about my personal attempts to care for my body and the bodies of my children; the broader social norms we encounter and internalize; the environmentally destructive systems in which we participate; and the embedded notions of “purism” to which we collectively latch on. Shotwell associates “purism” with whiteness, privilege, the ideal of pristine existence apart from pain, disability, and dirt. The hope of “purism,” she argues, is at best myopic—as it does not allow us to acknowledge polluted elements of our existence—and at worst destructive—as it does not allow us to acknowledge the violent historical and contemporary practices of genocide, colonialism, slavery, racism, gender oppression, and environmental destruction. Our desire for purity and cleanliness is also a rejection of dirt and pollution (see Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger, whom Shotwell references briefly). At bottom, Shotwell argues, the orientation towards whiteness is a perpetuation of colonialism and racism, in thought as well as in social norms and practices. Thus the search for purity depends upon rejecting aspects of our collective existence: those parts that we associate with pollution, dirt, and defilement. Shotwell argues that the search for purity necessitates rejecting communities that are associated with pollution, a practice that rejects historical memory and embraces collective falsehoods of white salvation.

Shotwell’s book is provocative on a number of fronts, particularly as she delves into dietary preferences, colonialism and racism, and the use of memory. These are all prominent themes in my academic and personal commitments. As a scholar who writes on racialized notions of purity, I agreed with many of Shotwell’s conclusions. I especially appreciated Shotwell’s emphasis on memory and “unforgetting” (36–37). Sustained forgetfulness is a form of structured violence that can be seen in the legacies of colonialism and in contemporary social dynamics. Re-membering—that is, giving flesh to the body of a community—can indeed be an act of resistance, a movement to reclaim and recover. At the same time, even oppressed communities have to be held accountable to overarching ideals, and to refrain from implementing destructive divisions. She states: “But however the bounds of ‘we’ are drawn, we are not, ever, pure. We’re complicit, implicated, tied in to things we abjure” (7).

In short, I agree with the overarching scope of Shotwell’s arguments. We should not orient ourselves towards a definition of purity that is offered by a white, dominant culture. We are all implicated in oppressive practices, structures, and systems, regardless of our social locations. At the same time, I am painfully aware that she, as a white, self-identified queer activist, writes explicitly to a white, privileged audience that accesses bourgeois items and experiences, and that resists acknowledgment of colonialism, slavery, and contemporary anti-racist, pro-queer movements (see 37–39). There is a need for this conversation among white people, particularly with regards to racism, poverty, and health systems. Yet, as a Black scholar of mixed-race ancestry who is steeped in liberation theology, I think of purity in different ways than does Shotwell. That is, I reject the idea that we have to adopt the definitions of purity offered by the dominant culture. I think that oppressed and marginalized communities can turn ideas of purity upside down and construct our own definitions of purity; indeed, I argue, this is precisely what liberation theologians offer, and what Shotwell does when she writes on queer identity and disability. I don’t think that we have to be “against purity” to live into the values she identifies. In my own scholarly work and activism, I am more interested in redefining and expanding definitions of purity; indeed, refuting the dominant cultural definitions in order to privilege the critical perspectives of people of color. In short, I propose that the desire for purity is not always individualistic and destructive, nor are such notions to be abolished. Notions of purity, Mary Douglas argued, are conceptual guides in a complicated social sphere; these concepts allow us to order our social spaces, to relate to our own bodies and the bodies of others. Indeed, Shotwell acknowledges the need for conceptual frameworks—her language is “open normativity”—in chapter 5. “What we cannot do, however, is live without norms altogether—and thus normativity will always be a part of our experience” (144). Notions of purity and norms certainly can be and often are destructively racialized and gendered, and thus need to be challenged. But norms (including, I argue, norms of purity) exist, and I suggest that they are not necessarily individualistic and destructive.

Shotwell devotes much of her text to thinking about food practices, and notions of purity that are embedded in certain diets. Her argument triggered a great deal of consternation for me, for I enter into the conversation on health not as someone who needs awareness of oppression, but rather, as someone who intimately understands the destructive patterns of social exclusion and oppression based on race. I am intimately aware, for example, of the need for life-giving dietary practices, as people of color have much higher rates of stress and disease. In short, I engage health practices from a vastly different vantage point. Shotwell acknowledges that people of color experience disproportionate health problems—indeed, she devotes chapter 3 to this topic—but she does not seem to be writing to people of color.

I argue that the desire for “health” (a term Shotwell problematizes) is more nuanced and less bifurcated than what she suggests. Cleansing practices can be life-saving for people who experience severe physical ailments that are, in many cases, due to lack of access to fresh, unprocessed foods, as well as environmental pollution. Even in detailing environmental destruction, which she has personally experienced, Shotwell continues to argue against orienting oneself towards notions of purity. Yet it seems as though the social and environmental movements she examines are focused on achieving a non-polluted environment. Perhaps what she is really saying, then, is that the stark cognitive bifurcations associated with purity and pollution are, in reality, not bifurcations, but part of an existing whole. If we seek to orient ourselves towards purity and away from pollution, without recognizing that we cannot have one without the other, we live blindly and refuse to acknowledge an overarching desire for whiteness or the consequences of our actions. The dominant culture continues to enact racist paradigms. Individual and collective seemingly “pure” actions have necessary “polluting” consequences. Shotwell writes: “To be against purity is, again, not to be for pollution, harm, sickness, or premature death. It is to be against the rhetorical or conceptual attempt to delineate and delimit the world into something separable, disentangled, and homogenous” (15).

But because Shotwell seems to be writing towards a specific audience of white, privileged residents of the United States and Canada, not to communities of color, it is hard to see her argument as applicable to the worldview of people of color who have been themselves associated with pollution, and who disproportionately experience polluted environments. As a woman of African descent, I found the following statement shocking:

“Healthism” [is] the belief that individually we ought to manage our health to minimize or mitigate the effects of being immersed in the toxic soup that constitutes our everyday world. The idea that we can (or should) eat organic food, drink alkalinizing water from personal water filters, or take up other practices meant to manage the effects of exposure to pesticides and herbicides is a version of an individualizing purity politics. Such an approach perpetuates the difficulty of perceiving how bodies are embedded in and fixes of the flows of capitalist production. . . . Healthism as a possible practice is heavily racialized; people who live at the site of multiple vectors of vulnerability have less possibility for individually managing their health to resist the structural context that produces premature group-differentiated death. We should, then, understand calls for personal responsibility for health as racist as well as classist, and deeply imbricated with the purity logics that delineate whiteness as a social location. (95)

This argument, more than any other, led me to wonder: where in Shotwell’s social ethics is there room for personal, everyday practices, particularly for people of color? She states bluntly: “A central argument of this book is, of course, that personal purity is simultaneously inadequate, impossible, and politically dangerous for shared projects of living on earth” (107). In chapter 4, Shotwell problematizes individual ethics by pointing to the gaps in mainstream moral theory. She recognizes that “reasoning about moral matters at the scale of the individual is entirely appropriate in many, many situations” (111). Yet she also argues: “If we orient toward eating as though we can personally exempt ourselves from ethical or physical ill-effects, we’re engaging in a perpetually failing purity project” (113). I strongly disagree with this statement. Shotwell does not ask: How should parents, who are responsible for small individuals, take care to feed their children? Moreover, the world is not as racially bifurcated as Shotwell implies. To be sure, there exist many homogenous communities divided along lines of race and class. I do not dispute her critique of white supremacy and whiteness. At the same time, I think anecdotally of my own multiracial household, which includes two foster children with significant health issues. First, it is imperative that I take care of myself, in order to function well as a parent, a professor, and a community member. When I do not eat well, I suffer from multiple health problems, which impact my ability to parent and engage in social justice work. These days, I eat organic food. I drink filtered water. I follow a Paleo diet. Furthermore, I feed my children—including my foster children—organic food. I purchase organic formula for them and give them filtered water. My point is that seemingly individualistic practices can also be seen as communal, social justice practices, if for no other reason than many of us are parents and we function in a broader community. Indeed, Shotwell suggests this in her discussion about “an ethics of relationality and interdependence” (120).

On some level, we consistently address the scale of environmental injustice by daily, local practices. Too often scholar-activists who see clearly the massive scope of problems in the world dismiss the limitations of people (like myself) who work on local levels and primarily impact oppressive systems by teaching students and providing opportunities for engagement in social movements. But family- and community-oriented practices are not insignificant. Indeed, Shotwell herself suggests this in her description of ACT UP organizing. My point is that daily, routine, individual practices do matter—although they alone are not sufficient for deconstructing the capitalistic state, nor do they take the place of social movements. Daily practices are limited and insufficient, but they are not to be dismissed, as Shotwell seems to suggest. It is not clear to me what is “enough,” as Shotwell states on p. 127: “I read [Donna] Haraway’s call to stay with the trouble in building sustainability as a call to take seriously the idea that each of us, however situated, could do what we can—recognizing that what we can do, on its own, will never be enough.” It seems, then, that there is room for individual practices in relation to capitalistic, oppressive food systems. The commitment to eating local, organic food means that I commit to supporting local farmers who are, in turn, not explicitly reliant on the commercial food industry for their revenue. Of course, even if I support local farmers, I still participate in capitalist economy. But I do not agree that eating organic food is simply a bourgeois, individualistic ethical act. I argue that it is far more than that because eating and feeding people functions—as Shotwell acknowledges—in relation to family and broader community members. I assert to Shotwell, then: perhaps the problem is not “purism”—that individuals are oriented towards individual purity politics and “healthism”—but rather, that too many people do not make the broader connections between personal choices and large-scale ethical problems, climate change, air and water pollution, disappearances of species, shortage of clean water, and disparities between rich and poor (111).

In conclusion, I ask: if we can redefine “purity” on our own terms and shift the definitions of what is considered “pure,” can there still be a role for employing a framework of “purity politics”? For the most salient racial justice movements in the past few years have successfully emphasized purity. Therefore, I propose to Shotwell: if we can accept that all societies are structured along lines of purity and pollution, can we harness the desire for purity to challenge conventional concepts, shift social boundaries, and engage in social justice movements (local as well as international)? Can we work to expand definitions of purity rather than disabuse ourselves of the idea that the desire for purity is somehow always individualistic, excluding, and inadequate? Can we broaden the concepts of that which is associated with purity, and establish intellectual domains that provoke us to constantly challenge our myopia and conceptual frameworks, that in turn lead us to engage in anti-racist, pro-queer, environmental justice movements? Finally, I ask: is not the desire to “decolonize the future” itself a desire for purity?

  • Alexis Shotwell

    Alexis Shotwell

    Reply

    Response to Rima Vesely-Flad

    Rima Vesely-Flad is correct to point to the part of my book where I say it is directed primarily at people who are the beneficiaries of legacies of enslavement, colonialism, and border militarism, who benefit from the harms of ongoing racism, expropriation, and restriction of movement, who move with ease through a world that disables some people to enable others, who never have to fight to have their identity documents fit their gender, who have enough to eat and a place to live. That is, it’s aimed primarily at the white, non-disabled, cis people who have enough money to eat and pay rent. I regard purity discourses and practices as key to the production of these harms. And I believe that white people in particular should not pursue purity because of its use as a tool of whiteness.

    So I support absolutely Vesely-Flad advocating for the possibility that, as she writes, “oppressed and marginalized communities can turn ideas of purity upside down and construct our own definitions of purity.” And I’m excited to read her new book, Racial Purity and Dangerous Bodies: Moral Pollution, Black Lives, and the Struggle for Justice, in part because liberation theology is quite far outside my area—and I would love to hear more about how norms of purity can be not individualistic and destructive. I suspect, because whiteness and its depredations is one of my core preoccupations, that these norms will continue to be counter-indicated for white people because of the specific legacies of individualism and racism that have shaped our subjectivities. Or, at least, I suspect that it is not white people’s work to take up Black, Indigenous, and people of color’s work on life-giving purisms—at least not until there are some pretty fundamental transformations of this world and how it is organized.

    On the questions of whether people should take good care of themselves, eat in ways that nourish them, whether parents should feed their children—including foster children—organic formula made with filtered water, and whether it’s important to have “personal, everyday practices” of flourishing: I think these things are absolutely vital! And I think they are especially potent and necessary for people of color. I was recently rereading a couple of blog posts (from Low End Theory and Sara Ahmed) about Audre Lorde’s now oft-memed statement that “caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation and that is an act of political warfare.” I think Vesely-Flad’s words here resonate with Lorde’s point—that there is a differential weight to staying alive and flourishing under conditions of systemic oppression.

    Still, I remain concerned about the problem that Robert Crawford called “healthism,” which I discuss in the book, precisely because I think it names a move that locates responsibility for collective harm on the people who disproportionately bear the burdens of those harms. Think about environmental racism, for example. If we don’t start from the understanding that toxicity is political in its distribution and uptake we cannot do the work to parse how it’s connected to the ways in which people differentially live and die. The production of group vulnerability to premature death, to use Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s conception of racism, is in part a production based on the distribution of harm. And harm today is not only blunt force and police violence; it’s microscopic.

    So when people are forced to individualize their response to the distribution of harm and try to personally protect their kids or family it may be useful also to frame that protection in terms of the ways that it is political. Consider the water filter; it is important, vital, to filter the water in Flint, Michigan, to take out the lead that was put in that water by Kevyn D. Orr (the emergency manager Governor Rick Snyder put in charge of it) and by the politicians and bureaucrats that participated in poisoning the water there. However, if we think that the lead in the water is not a racial matter, or that just filtering it is enough politically, we’re not going to be effective actors in addressing the root causes of the harm done by water poisoning in Flint. So there’s one part that’s a political question about where we start our work and where we end it. It’s necessary to start with taking care of ourselves and our kin, and that is political especially for racialized people for whom staying alive is an act of political radicalism. BIPOC need to live and flourish, and filtering water is a necessary condition of that in Flint right now.

    Stopping there doesn’t work, because, first, if we only pay attention to our individual situations, we don’t band together to change the foundations of who is being killed. As well, starting there, with individual responses to collective harms, relies on having the resources to buy the filter, or feed the kids organic food. How can we promote access to resources that address collective harms—like filtering water—while actively, collectively defending public access to safe, clean water, food, and air? People who are living in poverty deserve those things as much as the people who can afford a filter, obviously.

    The second reason I’m committed to a critique of healthism and individual responsibilizing as a response to collective harm is that it’s not like the filters evaporate—they all go somewhere. Looking at the distribution of where the filters and other things used to clean up one spill or one toxic problem go, we see that there is also a distribution problem in terms of the people who live with the effects of garbage dumps, superfund sites, toxic dumps. It’s a racial and class problem all the way down, and that is why I am suspicious of injunctions to individual health responses as a way to go.

    Returning to Gilmore’s argument, I think it is useful to understand racism as a matter of the group distribution of vulnerability to premature death. The production of conditions in which groups of people are, in Foucault’s terms, made to live in ways that produce their deaths, cannot be extricated from the necropolitical imperative of whiteness today. That imperative, I argue in the book, is to be insulated from toxicity—whiteness is (in apart) an operation of distributing toxicity and death elsewhere, making “other” people bear the body-burden of the production and circulation of capitalism. Its further operation is to individualize that imperative so that it seems like simply a problem that individual people are failing at solving. People are dying and being blamed for their own deaths, which is to say that capitalism kills people and then blames them. Individualizing responsibility narratives tend to rely on a conception of the possibility of individual purity to hail people into self-maintenance work to protect themselves and their families from harm; the world is dangerous, this narrative goes, but we can defend ourselves and our kids from the harms of pesticides, herbicides, nuclear waste, bad air, and so on—or, conversely, we can be blamed for not giving kids a diverse enough microbiome because we over-cleaned and didn’t have a pet and now they have asthma, and so on. I want a world in which people don’t have to filter their water or make decisions about whether to buy organic food, because everyone and their kids have the basic conditions for flourishing.

    I regard it as beyond my brief and not my work to say what purity is or should mean for people targeted by whiteness—which perhaps just returns me to Vesely-Flad’s point that an awful lot of this book is directed toward white readers who are privileged along various lines. I’m totally open to the possibility that some people—BIPOC people in particular, targeted by health-based racism—can pursue strategic purisms, taking self-preservation as a form of political warfare. At a minimum, though, I would continue to argue that white, rich, non-disabled, straight people in particular should turn away from individual self-preservation to take responsibility for being in the actual, collective world. Since, if you share my views of whiteness, white people are constituted as the beneficiaries of genocidal purity politics, I believe that decolonization and antiracism calls on us in particular to find other registers for our political work. That’s the only place I know to start for imagining how we white people can contribute to collective transformation.

Oluwatomisin Oredein

Response

Against Loneliness

In Against Purity: Living Ethically in Compromised Times, Alexis Shotwell isolates and identifies moments of recognition and misrecognition that have funded the ethical standpoints from which many see and experience the world. She argues that this failure is the material from which we can imagine and construct a future worth having.

She builds this case around the argument of purity as known through the elitist practice of purism (or purity politics). This mode of thought creates distinction and separation based on false moral appeals—think debates around clean eating, fair-trade trends, etc. This notion of purity Shotwell argues against conveniently forgets (and perhaps forgoes) how implicated one is with the totality of the world (7).

Shotwell scatters purity assumptions reconfiguring its dialect and vocabulary and uncovers its imagined existence instead of validating the politics and policies it is most readily aligned with and attempts to assert. Purity is amnesia of connectivity. It is a series of relational failures; and the recognition of these failures open up the potential for us—in sight, memory, responsibility and ultimately collaboration—to create a world where life (human and otherwise) can thrive.

In a work split into two parts, Shotwell introduces us to the errors of purity politics and challenges us to literally think outside of ourselves, to move against a sort of “defensive individualism” (11). It is clear that the mission is recognition of interdependence: how we historicize and treat the world and its inhabitants can tell us about our bodies, how we treat other(ed) bodies, and can expose our complicated embodiment.

If humanity is the product of forces—forces of interrogation, negotiation, domination, and oversimplification—and the by-product of what the earth means to quality of life, for me, the question of Shotwell’s work is this: how can we be present to our constructed realities, starting points, and conditions, but also be open to possible futures that can claim real space, real time, real worldness even in all of its true limitations? The appeal is to reality: How might what actually is, and is actually happening in the world better be included in our assessing our place and function in the world (5)?

Purity is the illusion of individualism. It signals not the singularity and untaintedness of something or the something in itself, but of the miscomprehension of interconnectedness, interdependence, and co-constructed activity and solution-building. If colonial histories, intentionally “forgotten” details of women and the AIDS movement, environmental history as told through frogs and toads, the consequences of nuclear devastation in Japan, the problems of bachelorized eating, and the queering of ability—the respective subjects of reflection in her work—can speak to each other across topical engagement as related to purity myths, then interconnected life has much more to show us, much more to prove, than being a throw-away narrative in order for the myth of purity to survive.

Here is where, I believe, the possibility for community and common life can be understood and interpreted even further in light of the illusory narrative of purity, for through Shotwell’s work, I view purity as carrying with and within it two stories: the narrative of loneliness and the narrative of care. The recognition of other beings is the means of connectivity combatting aloneness; care is the positive action towards such connection. Loneliness and uncaring jeopardize not only the proper reading of self, and another, but also other things. The reach of recognition is all-inclusive, all-encompassing, and requires a tacit understanding of life’s effect.

The argument is granted more weight as I think alongside Shotwell’s hints that purity is predominantly an effort carried forth by white persons. As she asserts early in the book, the white community (in Canada, but also globally) has sight and memory problems—they forget to see others. The problem with whiteness is the problem of actively not seeing (38). As seen historically, it is not uncommon that some white people intentionally de-historicize events in order to elude the consequences of actions that harm not only other peoples, but the earth. Shotwell describes white people as almost selectively a-historical, knowing who and what to omit so the narrative favors their account (38). Whiteness, in this case, exercises a type of selective a-historicity.

Purity, as argued throughout this well-crafted work, resembles what I would assert as a colonial mentality. Its sights are on what it can control towards certain means, what narratives it can craft, make, and re-make (9). Shotwell calls out white culture that benefits from the collapse and ruin of communities of color, whether done intentionally or unintentionally. Thus the problem of purity is the problem of whiteness is the problem of misrecognition—of interconnection, of community, of consequence, of potentials and futures. Whiteness, obsessed with narratives of purity and purism, is an ontology of loneliness and uncaring (in its not being careful). The symbol of purity is, ironically, white.

To believe that one has procured purity is to exist not only individually, not only as an individual, but as a lonely being, alone in the understanding of one’s nature and continual existence in the world. It holds the narrative of being (of) the world without the world. It is, in the social understanding of various cultures and traditions, including religious standpoints, to fail to exist.

We can push this further, then: to be lonely is to embody no body. It is it exist non-existently, for as Shotwell reminds us, if the world is interconnected, especially human life to animal and environmental life, and human life to human life, to exist as a pure being is to relinquish the characteristics of what makes a human, human—the interconnectedness of being as the author and illustrator of what being encompasses in the first place.

The care exhibited for the self thusly includes care for another, or rather extensions of ourselves, other selves, perhaps. The ethics of loneliness Shotwell challenges us to consider lassoes an ethic of recognition and consideration, but most deeply an ethic of care. Care as an extension of sight and site reconstitutes itself as oneself. Our bodies impact and determine the range and movement of other’s bodies (179). The ethics bleed into each other, bleed for each other, share the same cells of ontological condition. To be human is to be a living creature, and to be a living creature is to embody the createdness of the earth as well as inter-terrestrial forms of life, to be in community and communion with those around you (98). Care is not singularly issued. It is not the prize of the dominant species or person (101). Care for one automatically assumes care for the world. To operate an ethic outside of these parameters is to misread oneself, not necessarily the rest of the world. It is, once again, to be alone.

None of us are pure. All of us are complicit in the impurity of this world and the lives we exercise within them. And according to Shotwell, we would do well to follow the quantity or volume of our complicity/ies. But we must be clear: some are inherently more complicit than others as evidenced historically and in various praxes.

Can we remember what it means to be an implication of community? Have we forgotten how to remember? Purism tries to convince us that forgetting that we are lonely is actually living. But perhaps Shotwell urges us to remember that if we think ourselves pure (in the restrictive sense), we think ourselves into loneliness—that we have lost and continue to lose life if we lose those around us, and the stories they hold within themselves.

We are not meant to be lonely, but we must also not to pretend that we are well. We are lonely if we embrace a purism of self over and against narratives of ourselves that require the narratives of others. Our loneliness is bound in our stories of how we live.

If we can forget, practice selective memory, enact un/intentional harm, consume blindly, author normalcy, and ignore possibility and futures especially in light of how they create, define and affect ourselves and others, then the notion of purity is solidified as a mental construction of erasure and disconnection, irresponsibility and invisibility. As Shotwell illumines creatively in each chapter, the problem of purity is in the web of interconnectivity many choose to forgo in pursuit of false narratives of separation and distinction.

I believe that the push of this brilliant book is to reconstruct purity to not only be its dirty, messy, disorganized self, but to synonymously mean inter-viability—life in between and/as life with. Shotwell challenges us to believe that we not only need each other, but that we are each other. The interconnected leaves no room for arguments of distinction that do not require the fullness of other peoples, and other things. The body of the world is the world of our bodies (202).

If to remember the future is to take responsibility forward (48), then what does Shotwell’s work pose for the valences of learning we take part in, uphold, and offer outward? For the work that I do as an American African theologian and ethicist and the questions I ask about the divine’s messy intermingling of earth life and cultures, interrogating and properly dismantling the harmful effects of purism is critical.1

We must think opposite purity as it’s been previously subscribed in order to move towards liberation. Queering purity is the way forward. Shotwell’s use of José Muñoz’s proposition of the potentiality of queerness as speculative futures is spot on. For Muñoz, “queerness is essentially about the rejection of a here and now and an insistence on potentiality or concrete possibility for another world” (180). In my field, queerness might be described as synonymous with the eschatological. It presents the possibility of salvation as future(d) living, living cognizant of the rich tangledness of life. Queerness is a means of coming into being (182). It is a coming that has not arrived yet, and yet insists on continuing to disrupt status quos in the here and now. This queerness transcends time and burrows itself within it. A queer eschatology might be the very thing that theology needs to further encase itself within, not as a means of employing and appropriating queer life towards a particular end, but as a way to better understand and name the elusiveness of the eschatological itself.

To escape loneliness, one must care for other beings. In order to care for another, one cannot be alone. Caring “enough” to learn the world around you in order to know its every detail—its harmonies and its injuries—is a critical form of attention-giving that can aid in the authoring of new futures (97). The question becomes: are human beings capable of doing, of embodying care? Can they be care? Can they see the world closely enough to embody their care, to be careful (98)?

New modes of recognition create new norms (159). As Shotwell reminds us, “The point is to change the world, this world, and so the point is complicated, compromised, and impossible to conceptualize, let alone achieve alone” (196). The joined-ness of both community and care create opportunity for theology, and work in any other field, to reach beyond its common parameters and live into the extent of its fullness, a fullness that, no doubt while beautifully joined, is inherently mixed, surely conjunct, and most certainly impure.


  1. I am thinking of the term “American African” more in line with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s definition in Americanah, as opposed to Toni Morrison’s definition in Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. Though Morrison’s definition came first, I am most interested in examining it less from the “African to American” perspective as a mode of transformational identity and more on the “African in America” experiential angle as one who witnesses and subsequently works to find place within the various modes of black life in the West (particularly the United States).

  • Alexis Shotwell

    Alexis Shotwell

    Reply

    Response to Oluwatomisin Oredein

    Oluwatomisin Oredein writes, beautifully and succinctly: “Purity is the illusion of individualism.” She articulates the central concerns of Against Purity with such precision and generosity I’m a bit at a loss as to how to respond to her engagement! And this clear understanding of the importance of correctly perceiving “interconnectedness, interdependence, and co-constructed activity and solution-building” as a ground for shaping the world is so vital. As with all the other Syndicate responses to this book I spent a lot of time nodding in agreement and consideration and wishing we were in the same room to talk through what’s coming up in these written conversations. I agree with her that the problem of whiteness rides along with problems of purity politics, and that, thus “the problem of purity is the problem of whiteness is the problem of misrecognition—of interconnection, of community, of consequence, of potentials and futures.” For white people in particular, the question of how to recognize the world we’re in is, sadly, still so hard.

    Because of this, I’m captivated by Oredein’s framing of the stories that purity carries with it—loneliness and care (or failure to care, a carelessness). Purity narratives imply, she argues, a lonely existence, a formulation of being in the world without being connected to it. But if we look clearly at ourselves and the world, of course this lonely existence is a lie—we aren’t alone, we aren’t cut off. We’re massively and pervasively and vulnerably connected to everything and everyone. And, as Oredein suggests, we might then stop misreading our self and our situation and begin to care. In this way, if I am hearing her correctly, Oredein offers a way of understanding the experience of loneliness as in fact an experience of yearning for connection, care, and collective life. She suggests that going into the experience of feeling lonely might open for us the experience of being part of community, the world, and life.

    This reframing of the pursuit of purity politics as a kind of twisting response to fear of feeling alone—a false sense of being disconnected that strangely produces disconnection—is useful to asking what other stories we might tell. If the narrative of the isolated, inviolate, individual unit is a story that produces loneliness, Oredein helps me think about how we might turn to narratives of connectivity, collectivity, and community. Among other things, such a turn may be less narratively comfortable for many of us than the hero narratives that we often inhabit. Staying with the trouble of caring can be an expression of inter-viability; it will also almost certainly be more difficult than the alternatives. I have been thinking about how the orientation towards unpredictable futures can inform our present actions; I think of this refusal of a predictable telos as queer approach, and I find hope in it. Since I am not a theologian, I am not sure whether this is the eschatological queerness that Oredein invokes—but I’m sparked by this move to link an ethos of care to attending to the world. She writes, “The question becomes: are human beings capable of doing, of embodying, care? Can they be care? Can they see the world closely enough to embody their care, to be careful?” These are good questions. In turning towards inter-viability, we may need to develop practices of care and attention that we don’t yet possess.

    Here, I think there are questions about how to cultivate the capacity to be with others, how actually to stop being so lonesome in a world structured by hero-narratives of autonomy and the purisms they cultivate. Working with these questions invites us to attend to what narratives, contingently and unpredictably, already actually do this. In the book, I turn towards science-fictional storytelling as a ground for such capacity-building, but lately I have also wondered more about memoir. In the face of pervasive political despair and demobilization, in a context in which many people have no idea what collective political work can feel like and how it can help us win more livable worlds, I am particularly interested in political memoir. People’s reflections on how they, as ordinary people who care about the world, got together with others to change things might give us complex-enough reminders that others have been in quite awful situations—and that they have fought back. Whether through memoir or fiction, asking how we shape stories for resistance and collectivity will continue to be a vital question for us in working for something purity politics cannot offer.

Heike Peckruhn

Response

Unapologetically Compromised Theological Imaginations

Reading Alexis Shotwell’s Against Purity has been an exciting and troublesome read (in the best sense), one of the most stimulating books I found myself immersed in in a while! Shotwell troubles ethical impulses towards purity detected in many moral and political expressions in exhilaratingly fresh and poetic arrangements that are eclectic, yet intimately and poetically connective, from HIV/AIDS work, disability studies, indigenous postcolonial theory and activism, ethics, queer studies, environmental philosophy, and more. Her strategic and pertinent self-locating within her arguments performs her central concern with embodied moral actions in compromised entanglements. She persuasively keeps connecting herself through her explorations whilst tangibly plucking at the connective strings of my own immigrant settler biracial complex embodiment through the pages and into the web of the world.

Shotwell’s book is troublesome, because that is the work she urges us to tune into and stay connected with: the troubling of our memory into complex relational remembering of our implicated past. Troubling simplistic, individualized purity-seeking responses in our present into shifting our entanglements in current local-global crisis to relational accountabilities. Troubling individualized despair in the face of overwhelming global needs so that we may live into and create imagined futures through living responsibilities as entangled and noninnocent communities.

Our moral action, too often merely purifying techniques that to a great extent function as and depend on our understanding and self-account as individual moral actors, is in itself a desperate move of cleansing ourselves from thick webs of complicities in the suffering around us. On this side of colonized turtle island, we fall for this kind of purity despair on various sides of sociopolitical issues. Techniques of purification attempting to eradicate our present physical, social, and moral defilement for a “better” future aim to un-remember what is deemed contaminated and are techniques of disappearance: black bodies moved through the school-to-prison pipeline or violently eliminated off the street to purify neighborhoods; public bathroom spaces, scrubbed into “girl’s restrooms” in the public imagination, sought to be legally purified of dangerously impurely gendered bodies; taking “our” country back by decontaminating it from undocumented and non-Christian elements that pollute our national character; . . . this exhaustive purification requires pulling the strings in the webs of our imagination and keeping it clean from memories of settler colonialism and anglo-Nativist immigration law histories from their entanglement with exclusions of undesirable bodies too foreign, too poor, too queer for the creation of a white, capitalist, Christian, slave-making heteropatriarchy.

Shotwell keeps reminding us that really, impurity is not just on those others. On various sides of sociopolitical ideologies conversations focus on dispelling ignorance and eradicating bigotry. It seems to me that the recent marches for science pulse with the same purity cravings, when in the mobilization to resist climate change denialism and “alternative facts” science itself is positioned with an original innocence: grounded in neutrality and objectivity, with ideologically pure geeks in lab coats saving us from dirty dogmatic ideologies that destroy the planet—forgetting “science” (always embodied) also pulls the strings that classify and eradicate impurities in non-normative life under empire (the aggressive pushback I received from voicing this perspective in a public forum seems to me an indicator of the depths and strength of this longing for moral purity in this overwhelming global crisis).

Shotwell demystifies the romantically held memories and teleologies of purity, and encourages us to take a wider, more intimate look at our impure entanglements. Any of this troubling work, be it the remembering of our pasts, the accounting and connecting of our present, or responsibly living into arguments for world making, is a deeply embodied task. And she accounts for us the ways we are our bodies, yet not the autonomous thinking fleshy-watery skin bags elevated from nature who came to think of ourselves as acting subjects—we are more intimately interwoven into the microbial, toxic, social, ecological, pulsing stuff of the world than most of our living techniques and orientation towards action display.

The perceived moral dilemma of being interminable morally implicated is also the creative ground for ethical action. We are never free of entanglements that compromise our action, we never reach a space of non-involvement from which we can return to stage an intervention. Our being bound up in the systems of our world also makes up response-able, the currents of stuff that run through us will also always vibrate and be troubled with our movements in it.

There are many terrific insights in Shotwell’s work. I want to engage with two concepts Shotwell writes about—purity impulse and classification systems—in two moves, one minor critique for clearer understanding, and one troubling, purposefully aimless, stir of the theological imagination.

In her excellent chapter on memory, weaving together individualized healthism, indigenous experiences of colonial violence, remembering and reparations, Shotwell argues that acting within impure responsibility needs to disrupt two purity moves at work: the closure of the past to disconnect from current implication in ongoing wrongs, and the displacement of settler responsibility by repudiating impure colonizer identities. The latter (e.g., the taking up of indigenous spiritual practices or claiming indigenous ancestry), she asserts, “matter much less than the first, since it has much less material and political effect than the legal or military enactment of the ‘sad past’ closure narrative.” New-agey spiritual appropriation doused in self-righteous guilt fails to practice any particular politics, and reenacts in form the colonial project (45–46).

But since she argues that classification is always a political formation with material effects, I would posit that this kind of leftist new-agey white-washing cultural appropriation has indeed significant material and political effects, and in no sense matters “much less” than defining indigenous peoples out of livable spaces and places. Classifying these two related purity moves in terms of mattering more or less comes too close to separating “spiritual” or “cultural” appropriations from “legal,” “economic,” and “political.” These categorical separations crumble when considering, e.g., the monetary exploitation involved in cultural appropriations, and when tracing the linkages between individualized understanding of spirituality based in Westernized classification of “religion” as “faith adherence,” not communalist practices of balance. At least in the US context, the legal currents that float these kinds of cultural appropriations connect the freedom of religious expression to individualized choice-based faith decisions anyone has a right to. At the same time, it prevents any legal and political claims via place- and space-based communal practices from being asserted—anyone is free to believe anything, as long as your religion does not involve any territorial claims. The dynamics in and around the Standing Rock Sioux Water Protectors Camp might be a good example here: much effort was spent to shift purity practices of settler allies into responsible solidarity work (but also note the beautiful kinds of impure, entangled, and messy alliances we saw forming there!), and the militant and counterterrorist tactics employed by the political machinery of empire both are violent threats from within our web of relations.

(And yes, I latched onto a reading of a single word [“less”] in Shotwell’s work to weave in a critical comment to her outstanding work. It’s great. Read it.)

In my work on embodied experience I insist that it is not intellectual persuasion (hone your argument and your audience will change their mind and behavior) that effects change. Bodily experience is our knowledge, our imagination in the world. Because we are our bodies and as such as part of the world aligned with and by and moved with the currents of stuffs, we need to continuously move into visceral reorientations in our world to shift and pull the lines that align us towards flourishing for all we are bound up in.

Shotwell’s stimulating discussions troubled some of my own recent dabbling with theological im/purities, and so it was exciting to see that in her conclusion, Shotwell nods to religious narratives and concepts to model possibilities for reshaping and crafting our impulse to respond to our living entanglements in an unjust world. She presents “kami” (Japanese word for god or deity, though the concept itself is much more ambiguous than the English words can convey—significantly, it defies our Western exclusionary classification categories of human/nature/deity) as possibly the “right sort of god for us—ordinary, local, powerful, and with whom we can stand in nonidentical and nongenetic relation . . . They are not going to save us, but if we stand in the right kind of relation we might help with some collective and contingent salvation” (201).

Shotwell reaches for a non-Western religious concept, and I believe that move significant for those of us steeped in Western religious imaginations because of the connection between purity/impurity concerns and monotheism (see, e.g., George “Tink” Tinker for the connection between the doctrine of God the Creator “above” creation and the logic of One at work in dualistic hierarchies; “Why I Do Not Believe in a Creator,” 2013). One-God theologies participate in and perpetuate the dysfunctionality of the number one in creating dualistic opposites to abject in order to maintain purity, and manifesting in male supremacy, racial hierarchy, competing notions of single truth, and anthropocentric supremacy of all created life.

With the emergence of modernity and connected scientific and theological revolutions, the Logic of One in Christian theology and notions of creator/creation has not been surpassed in deistic or even pantheistic theological notions. Rather, what emerged with Darwinism, evolutionary theories that charted linear social and natural history in terms of struggle, competition, and survival of the fittest, only buttressed the Logic of One, secularizing dualistic and hierarchical conceptions of creation (social Darwinism being one of the more malignant articulations of this, creating taxonomies and hierarchies of class, races, and civilizations that continue to influence social, economic, and ecological theories today).

The intellectual lockstep between Darwinian evolutionary theory and Christian monotheistic theology shapes our Western thought and practice of dominion over our natural-social worlds, and it continues to feed our evocation of a once innocent past and a possible pure future. When this possibility seems too daunting to achieve for us impure actors in this world, our despair can always find refuge in a suspended salvific intervention of this One purifying God.

Finding god in “impure” embodiments has been a liberating move by theologians who have conjured and constructed liberating images of the divine in marginalized bodily experiences—a god in a wheelchair (Eiesland), the black Christ (Brown Douglas), the queer god as whore (Althaus-Reid). These important and disruptive constructive imaginations trouble the purity of divine images and where/how to experience it—because we often situate our articulations of that which is good, the grounds of our relations, imaginable justice and our path towards it, our grounds for moral engagement . . . that which we desire, that which ought to be increased for present and future flourishing in those imaginations of the divine.

This business of increasing god’s diversity, defiling the divine image even, is not free from desires of seeking purity, even when we hope to contribute to the humanizing, dignifying, and valuing of all our human variations and embodied limits. The purity impulse in much of Christian theology is to subsume difference under the logic of one God (see, e.g., Laurel C. Schneider, Beyond Monotheism: A Theology of Multiplicity, 2008), and it can even run through theologies with liberatory aims when marginalized bodily experiences expand the knowledge/concern of the center (God! Now new and improved!—but still the same old core) with a now expanded, more flexible and capable divine that absorbs the marginal, the abject, into its purifying singular presence. Or alternatively, we pitch from the margins a better god, cleansed of moral impurities, opposed to the defiled/defiling god of white able-bodied hetero supremacy. But either way, the Oneness of God and our purifying impulses are maintained, perhaps even perfected—and find echoes in our arrangement of personal, institutional, social bodies where the margins serve the education and growth of the center.

We need to reckon with the ways in which our embodied stories support purifying one-ness. Resisting the purifying conceptualization of the One God might be an urgent task for theologians today to participate in response-able creative theologizing action towards flourishing possibilities in our messy crisis-laden world. Canons and methodological toolkits need to be purposefully impure, defiled even (I’m thinking of messy projects in body theologies, process theologies, environmental theologies, and others). Exclusive categories (such as nature, human, divine) need to be continuously theologically reconfigured into interlocking fields of life, so we can hum new songs of gods, without fixed telos. We might just provide imaginations to embody and dance within so we can continue troubling our complex and complicit involvement in the world in various registers, falling in and out of step with the shifting meanings of flourishing. That’s some exciting trouble to stay in, and I thank Alexis Shotwell for stirring up my bodily imaginations with some fresh tunes.

  • Alexis Shotwell

    Alexis Shotwell

    Reply

    Response to Heike Peckruhn

    One of my main anchor-reflections over the last few years has been to ask myself what it might mean to “stay with the trouble,” in Donna Haraway’s terms. Heike Peckruhn productively dwells there too, and I welcome these reflections on ways in which Against Purity is troublesome. It’s especially useful to think on the really generative question of how even those of us who care about facts (and think that they exist!) can produce orthodoxies that reconstitute past purisms. The example of how difficult conversations around the March for Science became is excellent. And I appreciated very much the formulation of how we “thinking fleshy-watery skin bags” could begin to understand ourselves as “more intimately interwoven into the microbial, toxic, social, ecological, pulsing stuff of the world than most of our living techniques and orientation towards action display.” I’ve been writing recently about a formulation of “unclean eating” as a way to understand one kind of ethical-political approach to food and our eating practices that follows what I take to be Peckruhn’s lead here; I’m also working on responding to Myra Hird’s provocation when she asks what it might look like to have an ethical regard for our microbiota. Wherever this current work goes, I appreciate the starting point Peckruhn offers, in noting that “the perceived moral dilemma of being interminably morally implicated is also the creative ground for ethical action”—there is so much to work with there.

    Peckruhn productively takes up my claim that new-agey spiritual appropriation matters less than the “sad past” move, which grieves Indigenous genocide as a way to erase ongoing Indigenous presence, resilience, and resistance. In the book, I frame this move as one piece of what I call a “displacement of settler responsibility to take up decolonizing work.” I say about this, “I have seen this most often in the desire of people who perceive the ongoing harms of colonialism to attempt to lay themselves down, symbolically, at the feet of an Indigenous Other—to repudiate their identity as settler colonizers through taking up Indigenous spiritual practices, discovering previously unknown Indian ancestry, or reifying a correct-line Indigenous politics.” And, indeed, I say that these kinds of appropriation practices matter less than the legal and military “sad past” closures, such as the Canadian government’s historical and current practices aiming at extinguishing Indigenous title or identity. I follow Kim Tallbear in attending to vital lines of continuity between spiritual appropriation and material appropriation—they both matter, and the arrogation of ceremonial and spiritual knowledges matters profoundly. For me, the material conditions of ongoing colonial practices are the reason that spiritual appropriation is so significant. Indigenous people who hold relation to places and who practice their spirituality as part of those relations are affected by settler spiritual appropriation because of the effects of material, legal, and military interventions in their lives. So my use of “matters less” there is trying (perhaps clumsily) to say that if settlers were to engage specific ceremonial practices in the places we live with the full understanding of how we are placed in relation to them and without grounding that engagement on colonial expropriation of Indigenous places, relations, and wealth—well. I am not sure what that would look like, but I feel confident that it would not look the way “playing Indian” currently looks. And I feel confident that we would be starting from material redistribution of the land and resources that were and are stolen as part of ongoing colonial practices.

    But all that said, Peckruhn is totally correct to say that this less/more move is at odds with my general mode, which is based on asking how we practice horizontal relations of non-innocent solidarity. My friend Angus McGuire and I have been writing recently about avenues for contesting whiteness using the language of “claiming bad kin.” This work has started from Audra Simpson’s and Kim Tallbear’s discussion of various recent controversies in which settlers identify as Indigenous; they productively articulate the understanding that it doesn’t matter what people claim about themselves so much as it matters what communities claim them. If we start from a position of relationality, we can ask where we come from, what threads of connection bind us, what obligations and commitments we might bear towards one another. I think there is much to do here about what Peckruhn identifies as “responsible solidary work”—which, indeed, will tend to be messy, ongoing, and entangled. And, as Peckruhn notes, such work is always, always embodied and contextual.

    I have less to say about the very generative reflections Peckruhn offers on the question of “One purifying God,” though I agree that there is a tremendous amount to be done about the co-productions of a particular form of Darwinism with Christian monotheistic theology. Donna Haraway frequently mentions in talks being an offspring of Darwin and Marx, bringing a kind of theological attention to parts of our life-making that manifest a refusal of what she calls the “God trick” of a view from nowhere. I am always enticed by people doing serious work on Christian theology in a liberatory mode, primarily because it is quite far from my own intellectual and religious formation. As a daughter of hippie drop-outs who became serious practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism (a totally impure formation), I missed out on developing the capacities to think adequately about Christianity, I think. (I did try, the first time I read Anselm, to convince myself toward Christian faith through reason; I failed.) But I am convinced, from this vantage, of the vibrancy and necessity of, as Peckruhn writes, providing “imaginations to embody and dance within so we can continue troubling within our complex and complicit involvement in the world in various registers and falling in and out of step with the shifting meanings of flourishing.”

Willis Jenkins

Response

filthy purism, strategic purism

I

In the face of evidence that our ways of life are causing grave and avoidable harms, why do so few people in the global North respond meaningfully to climate change? One line of answer diagnoses some sort of information breakdown. Maybe people do not have the correct, science-based information, perhaps because of fossil-funded disinformation campaigns (Conway and Oreskes 2010). Or maybe the cultural frames through which they interpret climate information work to entrench political division (Kahan et al. 2011). Either way, the remedy is supposed to be better cultural cognition.

Another line of answer attributes the gap to moral incompetence. Dale Jamieson’s Reason in a Dark Time (2014) holds that humans have failed to respond adequately to climate change in part because our moral frameworks struggle to accommodate the kinds of responsibilities involved in incremental, cumulative threats unfolding in global scales and intergenerational time. Evolution equipped our minds to track individual liability for discrete harms, Jamieson argues, but not to sort out responsibility for probabilistic outcomes from a diffuse aggregate of nonintentional actions.

While both lines seem right about certain features of climate denial, neither satisfactorily explains a perverse reaction to their remedies. Even when agents are fully apprised of correct information about causes and consequences of climate change, and even when they think themselves responsible for it, a kind of practical denialism sometimes ensues. In fact, informed and concerned moral agents can feel so overwhelmed that they become less likely to take actions than before (Norgaard 2011).

Alexis Shotwell’s Against Purity wants to uproot an assumption giving rise to that despair. “The experience of being overwhelmed by any attempt to understand the knottiness and tangle of entanglement is partially responsible for what I have called a purity politics of despair” (195). Why would entanglement with the world so overwhelm moral agency? Because the agent assumes that she should have separated herself from the causes of suffering, that she could have somehow avoided implication in injustices, and that she is now tainted by those bad things. An underlying notion of purity establishes her liability, from which she seeks exculpation or, in conditions of complexity, despairs of its impossibility.

Shotwell prosecutes three claims against purity, two pragmatic and one more ontological. First, purity is impossible and so misrepresents our moral situation. “We’re complicit, implicated, tied into things we abjure” (7). If we start by accepting that, then our predicament is not simply hypocrisy, doing things we say that we are against, like driving oil-powered machines when we say we are against climate change. Rather our predicament is more conditional; our existence depends on a set of inherited relations and connections from which extrication is impossible.

Second, seeking the morally impossible undermines political responsibility. In conditions of pervasive contamination, the impulse to seek moral purity is not only delusory; it is defeating. “Purism is a de-collectivizing, de-mobilizing, paradoxical politics of despair” (9). Instead of trying to secure the individual from moral taint, a better response seeks to collaborate with others to shift political possibilities.

Third, purity gets reality wrong. Our needy, porous bodies are inextricably involved with the needs and vulnerabilities of other bodies; we are so thoroughly enmeshed in the world that tidy separation is a delusion. Any “rhetorical or conceptual attempt to delineate and delimit the world into something separable, disentangled, and homogenous” (15) runs up against the imbrication of bodies in fluid, interdependent relations. Instead, Shotwell calls for “forms of non-innocent responsibility that do not rest on the lie that we can step outside relations of entanglement that are also always relations of suffering” (121).

II

Consider what Shotwell’s reframing would mean for the ethics of climate change. Suppose ethical consideration begins from the assumption that we are already implicated, that we are, in differential ways, inextricably tied to systems making a worse world. In that case, says Shotwell, we should take responsibility for the future by creating collective practices of producing the conditions of flourishing. Skipping over a futile examination of our innocence would let us turn to “better practices of responsibility and memory for our placement in relation to the past, our implication in the present, and our potential creation of different futures” (8).

Instructive here is Shotwell’s engagement with possibilities of white settler solidarity with historic and continuing oppression of indigenous peoples. How to reckon with unbearable pasts? One way, favored among white people everywhere, is to forget them. “A central feature of white settler colonial subjectivity is forgetting; we live whiteness in part as active ignorance and forgetting” (37). That is not simply a knowledge problem, writes Shotwell; it is a “habit-of-being problem” (38). “That feeling, of wanting to be people unmoored from history, of endorsing the pretense that we have nothing to do with the past that constitutes our material conditions and our most intimate subjectivities, is a feeling that defines us” (39). Whiteness names a way of being that strives to be uncontaminated by the violences of the past while taking advantage of the material present that past has made possible. The attempt to unmoor ourselves from history may happen even in acknowledgment of it, as when continued racial purism shows up in the scramble of guilty white people to discover some marginalized lineage or, as last resort, in the attempt to absolve oneself by learning to articulate the wokest possible racial politics.

The notion that individual absolution or extrication from our ancestors’ history are worthy goals for white settler descendants undermines the sort of responsibility actually needed. It would be much more constructive to ask: “What happens if, instead of disavowing the history that has produced the situation we are in, settlers pursued a practice of memory grounded in impure responsibility” (44)? That could open possibilities for transforming the future of inherited identities, in part by critically remembering the colonial classificatory schemes—the racial purisms—that created those identities in the first place. That sort of “unforgetting” can shape a forward-looking responsibility to collaboratively expand future possibilities in the relations of settler and indigenous people to the lands with which they live.

In the case of global ecological change, people in industrialized societies are implicated in unbearable futures. Again, one response to implication in that which we abjure is denial. We might attempt to unmoor ourselves from the dynamics warming the planet and unraveling its threads of life by blithely living as if our material lives were not in fact connected to the planet’s metabolism of life. Another response, no less purist, may be found in attempts to repudiate our implication—perhaps by installing solar panels or publicly allying ourselves with the correct line on climate politics. Those remain forms of what Shotwell calls purity politics because response to participation in systemically produced harm attempts the delusional (moral extrication) while doing almost nothing to change the underlying conditions.

The two cases are, of course, not utterly separate. The same North American settler colonialism that invaded their land and continues to oppress indigenous peoples also accelerated the rise of a global carbon-intensive economy which now drives planetary ecological changes, which in turn exert further stress and displacement on indigenous peoples (Whyte 2017). So purism in one arena contributes to erasure and delusion in the other.

Were we rather to start from impurity, to accept the ways our present structures of life are already contaminated by injustice and destruction that has foreclosed futures we would have wanted, we might rather look for ways to collectively, collaboratively “enact the worlds we aspire to create” (166) from the histories we cannot avoid inheriting. Prefigurative practices that collectively enact interdependence with alternative circulations of energy and life offer a way of identifying into a different future.

III

Shotwell’s argument is especially compelling because she herself is participant in scenes often riven by purity politics. She eats vegan, practices Buddhism, engages with indigenous solidarity activism, and thinks about the politics of sexuality within antitoxics movements. Those are all sites where the draw to purity politics is powerful and it may be (I speculate) that Shotwell diagnoses so incisively the liabilities of purity thinking because she has sometimes felt their claim.

I have, anyway. I also participate in collective scenes riven by purity politics (food, religion, antiracism, environment). I too recoil from the self-righteous pieties generated in them, sometimes to the extent that I drop away from participating in particular movements altogether. Yet the effect Shotwell’s argument had on me was counterintuitive: it drew me to think that I ought to react less to the purisms in those context and focus more on what the collective work in each makes possible. In other words, her book made me want to defend a role for purity (of a kind), precisely because it moved me toward a political mode that Shotwell encourages.

An implication of Shotwell’s argument is that forward-looking responsibility for unbearable pasts and ominous futures places more priority on skills of alliance building than those of cultural warfare. Sure, post your outrages online, says Shotwell, but don’t mistake your indignant interpretations for transformative action. That is a timely, if difficult lesson for a period of US politics in which the stakes of seeing things clearly and standing against several fronts of injustice seem very high. I appreciate a desire to find just the right register of outrage after white nationalists march through one’s city and enact a torchlit tableau of a lynching party around a monument to white supremacy.1 Just for damned example. Yet Shotwell’s argument points me to notice how tussles over the wokest form of outrage can serve to distance a person from implication in continued white supremacy—a “correct line” purity politics—and thereby undermine the coalitional work needed to transform a city materially and figurally haunted by its confederate past.

However, just because purity politics are exhibited, maybe even by leaders of antiracist movements, is not sufficient reason to drop away and refuse association. At least that was where Shotwell’s argument led my reflection: my recoil might be its own weird kind of anti-purity politics of purity. Those filthy purists.

That reflection led me to wonder: is it possible that even within the kind of responsibility ethic envisioned here there is a role for a kind of moral work that might be called “purifying”? Participants in a prefigurative movement must decide which specific practices expand possibilities of flourishing, and which cannot be allied with their enactment of a future world. Those practices that cannot sometimes may be made to appear as moral contaminants to an enacted world. They also must decide which ways of speaking present the world well and which disfigure it. Shotwell calls out ableist and anti-trans tropes in some environmental justice discourse about toxics. If her view prevails, discursive policing may eventually make transphobic language in that space taboo.

Notice the prevalence of purification rituals across many religious and social contexts. When the white nationalists marched to confederate monuments in Charlottesville, a number of people suggested burning smudges, holding an exorcism, sprinkling water, or otherwise ritually cleansing the park. I do not think that impulse is entirely explained by citizens’ desires to remove ourselves from the taint of white supremacy. A thirty-foot monument to the Old South fairly well rules out that option. Maybe (I wonder) the ritual action helps reestablish commitments to oppose certain evils, to consistently abjure that which haunts our world. I think that is why purification rites sometimes appear in contexts of collective resistance. So maybe there should remain room for a kind of strategic purism?

IV

The answer to that seems to depend on how deeply runs Shotwell’s critique. Again, her three complaints against purity do not all work in the same register. The first two seem pragmatic criticism of dysfunctional response to certain problems arising in contemporary biocultural conditions. The third seems to assert something more universal, the beginnings of an ontology. The several depths raise a question for me: does the mismatch of purity to our problems say something about ethical life in the Anthropocene, or does it reveal purity as a cultural mistake that gets something wrong about human life generally?

Shotwell opens by saying that her proposal for when the Anthropocene begins is “the moment that humans worry that we have lost a natural state of purity or decide that purity is something we ought to pursue and defend” (3). Now, she makes that claim from a goofy label on a facial cleanser so it is not clear how soberly she means it. But if she is at all serious then the Anthropocene and its purity politics have been around for at least as long as there have been axial religions, and likely before. Genesis’s lost Eden is the textual concrescence of myths more primordial and its analogues are found in many other traditions. Purity as a desire for innocence and a recoil from evil shows up in manifest forms, and, if the neuroethicists are correct, may name an operation prevalent in moral cognition, perhaps especially so in conservative brains. The number of traditions and kinds of moral mind dismissed by that sort of claim are vast.

I don’t think Shotwell means quite that. The ontological version of her claim seems to be that, whereas the moral anthropology of the modern North Atlantic imagines a bounded individual who electively enters into relations with world and others, it would be better to see persons as made by relations. “Our canonical moral theories revolve around an agent who is not ontologically relationally implicated with others” (108). Right, that is a peculiarly modern vision—Charles Taylor (2007) calls it the “buffered self”—and one that does indeed seem succored by delusions of purity. But it has never completely taken the day, even in the modern North Atlantic. Theologians of many traditions would insist that such an agent is unrecognizable to their religious communities.

Their claim raises a possibility: within moral contexts that have long cultivated “ontologically relationally implicated” persons, it may be possible that purity sometimes functions differently—perhaps in ways that sustain the sort of porous, implicated selves who take themselves to be made by relations all the way down. By sidling toward theology here in closing I do not at all mean to suggest that Shotwell’s arguments needs or should endorse those sorts of relations. I mean to tentatively raise a question, about whether some of her ontological concerns with purity may have analogies in other contexts—including the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim contexts that explicitly endorse some version of moral purity. Two millennia of conflict over “grace,” for example, represent Christianity’s complex negotiation with the impossibility of purity for embodied creatures born into a sinful world. You don’t have to accept any of the beliefs to see possible analogies of function.

Shotwell’s pragmatic complaints against purity, on the other hand, do not encounter a question like that because few moral traditions, including religious ones, have adequately articulated practical responsibilities for complex, post-natural, planetary problems that emerge from globally networked structures of action, which were themselves fashioned from colonial violence. For those problems, inherited moral conventions seem to obstruct meaningful response, and Shotwell has taught me how squarely purity in particular gets in the way. For those problems, I agree that ethics must look for not simply a different set of actions but a different sort of agent.

Near the end of the book, Shotwell writes, “Global warming is one paradigm case for recognizing our entanglement, becoming overwhelmed, and defaulting to the kind of politics of despair that can result from recognizing that individual purity or actions aiming toward it are not going to solve the collective, complex problems in which we are differentially complicit” (202). In that case, ethics should look to where agents come together in ways that, acknowledging their implication and remembering the histories they made, create ways of identifying into a different future.

Rejecting the question from which I began this essay, about why so few people in the North Atlantic world respond meaningfully to climate change, Sarah Krakoff has argued that a more interesting question asks why, despite the tragic and overwhelming structure of the problem, so many people undertake the responses they do. After observing local collective action projects of several sorts, none of which could hope to significantly change the trajectory of global warming, she proposes: “What all of this activity might reflect is a shift in the way that we conceive of our role on the planet, and the identities that we are constructing to make our lives have meaning” (Krakoff 2011, 156). Krakoff suggests “parenting” as model for that planetary role into which Anthropocene moral agents may identify. While there are liabilities with the model, it helpfully illuminates something: becoming a parent is neither good nor bad in itself, but is rather a new role into which parents identify as they take up new responsibilities. Krakoff suggests that people coming together to respond to climate change are identifying into a new role, and into the world their efforts enact.

Relinquishing purity liberates one to connect with those projects and identify into their possibility. Freed from making the world come out just right and from atoning for all the suffering tied to your existence, you can show up for the everyday political work of making a better world and meeting the suffering of others.

References

Conway, Erik, and Naomi Oreskes. 2010. Merchants of Doubt. New York: Bloomsbury.

Kahan, Dan M., et al. 2011. “Cultural Cognition of Scientific Consensus.” Journal of Risk Research 14.2.

Krakoff, Sarah. 2011. “Parenting the Planet.” In The Ethics of Global Climate Change, edited by Denis Arnold. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Jamieson, Dale. Reason in a Dark Time: Why the Struggle against Climate Change Failed—and What It Means for Our Future. New York: Oxford, 2014.

Norgaard, Kari. 2011. Living in Denial: Climate Change, Emotions, and Everyday Life. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Taylor, Charles. 2007. A Secular Age. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Whyte, Kyle Powys. 2017. “Is It Colonial Déjà Vu? Indigenous Peoples and Climate Injustice.” In Humanities for the Environment, edited by Joni Adamson et al., 88–104. London: Earthscan.


  1. Referring to a white nationalist march in Charlottesville in May 2017, this essay was written before the August 11/12 terrorist attacks.

  • Alexis Shotwell

    Alexis Shotwell

    Reply

    Response to Willis Jenkins

    As with so many of the generous engagements with Against Purity in this symposium, Willis Jenkins offers back to me a better book than I feel I wrote. I am particularly struck by the clarity and generosity of his rendering of the question of why moral agency is so often overwhelmed by recognizing entanglements with the world. As he speculates, we share the experience of working in collective political scenes plagued by what in the book I talk about as purity politics—attempting to manage the entanglements that come with food, sexuality, environmental situation, and more through a kind of self-righteous and fictional abnegation. But Jenkins is not alone in responding to my polemic against purity by defending a possible role for purity, and I have been reflecting on this question. As he puts it, recoiling from the public performance of the “wokest form of outrage” might be its “own weird kind of anti-purity politics of purity.” I think this is an important point, particularly I think on recent cycles of people calling out people for calling other people out, or saying that the forms of what gets called “virtue-signaling” makes them want to give up on participating in left political spaces altogether.

    Jenkins raises the interesting possibility of practicing strategic purism, alongside thinking of purifying as a kind of moral work. Before responding to this, let me start with considering as a separate question the idea of purification rituals grounded in specific spiritual or religious contexts, since as he notes these are frequently touchstones in political struggles. I cannot attempt to gloss any general theory of rituals of purification, but I can say something from my own religious tradition, Tibetan Buddhism, which is heavily committed to purification practices. Indeed, at points when working on this book I felt some concern about whether the community of practitioners with whom I study and meditate would have a bad reaction to the title of my book—the notion of fundamental purity is a core anchor in many practices we do. There is a frequent conception of the self as only temporarily occluded or dirtied, such that practicing the dharma allows us to witness our own pure nature, as one traditional framing puts it, as though we are finding a jewel in a heap of dust: the jewel is not ontologically harmed by its time in the garbage. There are specific, grounded purification and uplifting practices, and one thing I note about these practices is the sense in which they make a practical intervention such that something can be fundamentally pure—and still need purification practices. It’s in this sense that Suzuki Roshi is often quoted as saying: “You’re perfect just as you are. And you could use a little work.” In practical terms, in the Buddhist traditions I’ve studied, thinking about fundamental purity is mostly a reason to work harder on whatever is getting in the way of having confidence that we humans are worthy, fundamentally dignified, and more. Such practices have allowed me to ask myself how much work I’d have to do to be reliably kind, curious, and helpful. They’ve helped me look more clearly at how often I make mistakes, mess up, and hurt others, as a way to try to not do those things. So in that sense, the title of this book could have been “for fundamental purity, and therefore still doing a little work”—which doesn’t scan quite as well.

    I have also participated in cognate rituals, mostly Anishnaabeg and Cree smudging practices in the context of doing Indigenous settler solidarity work as a settler. And I have a number of pagan friends who have talked with me about the ways that purification practices are vitally important for their political work. What strikes me about purification rituals in these contexts is their embeddedness within broader traditions. When such rituals are practiced, they take meaning from their specific context—and this is true even if they are being offered as part of a broader political fight. So, two difficulties here. First, it is too often the case that people (frequently white lefty people, though I wouldn’t want to generalize too strictly) cherry-pick rituals without grounding themselves in context. So while it might be appropriate for a settler to participate in a smudging ceremony when it’s offered as part of a particular event or campaign, it would be weird to get the accouterments for smudging, do the gestures, and think that it had the same meaning. This isn’t to say that individual people can’t make their own rituals of purification, or that self-made rituals can’t be powerful; they clearly are. But, and this is my second worry, political spaces of collective resistance are not automatically places in which people generate spiritual or religious practice together. Without a broader spiritual context to give purification meaning, I would need to think more about what it would mean to formulate rituals around it from a secular stance. And I think it is not workable to call for purification rituals to be a normative part of secular political work if we agree that any power they have comes from their spiritual context.

    So, coming back to the question of whether purification is moral work or if it can function as a kind of strategic purism, I think we need to ask two questions: Is it strategic? How would we tell? I’m open to the idea that we (I) oughtn’t get too strict about being against purity, for fear of reinforcing precisely the move that I’m concerned about—roughly, imagining that there is some operation (moral, cognitive, political) that would get us out of the conundrum of being implicated and co-constituted. As someone said to me on a panel about complicity recently, we none of us can be Jesus, and so we’re all doing the immanent and existential work of dwelling with whatever grace means to us. And I love the sense that Jenkins closes with, of ordinary people humbly showing up to do the work; that has always been the model of political work that I find most moving, most promising, and most liberatory.

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