Transcribed from the 9 March 2019 episode of This is Hell! Radio (Chicago) and printed with permission. Edited for space and readability. Listen to the whole interview:
How do we structure society so we’re not in this cycle of having to burn ourselves out completely and then step away as individuals and then come back? What would it look like to structure our movements so that they feel good and they sustain the people who are a part of them?
Chuck Mertz: There is political power in our passions and our desire for pleasure. We can actually feel good about ourselves and the world we live in by engaging in what our next guest calls “pleasure activism.” Yes, activism can feel good, and if political activism can actually give you pleasure, then guess what people will actually want to do more?
Here to explain, social justice facilitator focused on black liberation, emergent strategist, doula, healer, auntie extraordinaire, and political activist adrienne maree brown, author of Pleasure Activism: the Politics of Feeling Good. Adrienne is also the author of Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds, and co-author of 2015’s Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction from Social Justice Movements, an anthology of sci-fi written by organizers and visionaries.
Welcome to This is Hell!, adrienne.
Adrienne maree brown: Thanks for having me, Chuck.
CM: Let’s start with the really obvious question. What is pleasure activism?
AB: It breaks down in basically two ways. One is reclaiming our god-given, nature-given birthright of pleasure. All of us are wired for pleasure, and it is only oppression and colonization that have made us believe otherwise. The second piece is leaning into the things that give us pleasure and thinking about how we bring a whole analysis into those things so they are not compromising or numbing us, but helping us feel more satisfied and content and joyful in our lives.
CM: How does colonization undermine pleasure? When you’re talking about colonization, you’re not just talking about the history of colonialism, you’re talking about something larger than that.
AB: There’s the colonialism that got us into the US, and the Western control over most resources in the world. But there’s also the colonization of white supremacy over our imagination and our sense of self; there’s the colonization of patriarchy over our sense of equality; there’s the colonization of heteronormativity. There are ways that our sense of self and our ability to create an identity that is about being empowered and fully alive and fully awakened gets taken from us in the process of oppression.
As a black woman, for instance, in this country: the way my ancestors, my lineage came into this country was as three-fifths of a person, able to be raped, able to be bred, able to be used as a body in any way that a white slaveowner wanted. That’s the legacy of bodies that look like mine in this country. What I’m talking about is how to reclaim from that a wholeness, a whole self, and have the right to pleasure.
Audre Lorde is one of the fundamental voices in this text. I include her essay “The Uses of the Erotic” as a foundational text in the book. One of the things she talks about is how once we’ve actually experienced that complete aliveness, that total erotic awakening, it becomes impossible to settle for second.
CM: You write, “Pleasure activism is the work we do to reclaim our whole happy and satisfiable selves from the impacts, delusions, and limitations of oppression and/or supremacy.” Does pleasure activism, then, prioritize the pursuit of happiness? Does it make social happiness its goal? And is it more about an activist’s individual pleasure? That’s three questions. Does pleasure activism prioritize the pursuit of happiness?
AB: It doesn’t prioritize the pursuit of it. It prioritizes relaxing into it, relaxing into the idea that we get to be content, that that’s not something we should have to be fighting for, that we get to experience this joy. It says that suffering is not the total purpose of our lives here. It shouldn’t be the way that we bond with each other, that we come together—that we’re only in community because of how horrific our lives are. It’s saying, let’s come together because we can bring each other joy and pleasure and contentment. How do we organize our communities and our lives around that, and how do we make sure that those things that bring us contentment are not things that then cause a great harm.
There’s a framework in the book of harm reduction, which is something that I was taught and I’m so grateful I was taught. How do we reduce the harms of those things that bring us pleasure, and acknowledge that we live in a world that is actually really difficult, so there are a lot of people who turn to drugs, turn to escape? How do we acknowledge that there are all these reasons that drive people to that, that we live in a harsh and unequal world? And how, from that place, do we still get reclaim—I have the right to be here. I have the right to feel good, and I don’t want to cause myself harm while I’m doing that. I don’t want to cause others harm.
Much of it is about getting in right relationship with each other, and right relationship with the planet we live on.
CM: Is this about individual pleasure? How can you have collective pleasure?
AB: It’s one of the things I’m trying to explore. There’s a lineage in this book that goes back to Octavia Butler, a black science fiction writer who has heavily influenced everything I’ve done. She wrote science fiction where, in story after story, the answer to most of the problems was, in some way, community. It is about finding those places in community where you felt like you could be whole, and felt safe to be your entire self—you aren’t compromising some aspect of yourself in order to be a part of the community.
The only way that we’ll get to experience abundance and pleasure and collective contentment on this planet is if we start to orient ourselves toward collective pleasure. If we orient towards individual pleasure, we go down a path which takes us towards individual excess, and individual greed. The way capitalism works in this country is rooted in the idea that we’re individuals, that we’re not interdependent and interconnected on this planet. Some people take too much, and overindulge, and others are left with not enough.
I love a good hot tub. I’m not advocating for a world in which no one has a hot tub. I want a world in which everyone has access to a hot tub. Right now I live in a collective home where there’s a hot tub that we can all share. Now it’s broken, so we all have to share getting it fixed. But the idea is how to identify these things that give us pleasure and release, that are a balm to our systems and that make life worth living—how do we make that available to everyone?
CM: Do you think you can truly experience pleasure, then, individually? Is it a different kind of pleasure when it’s a collective pleasure?
Pleasure is one of the things that makes us truly resilient. Not just rescuing and covering the ground that we won’t have covered by elected officials and people that we have invested in to support us—we’re just covering that ground of survival. We push past that into thriving when we’re able to find humor and connection in community in those cases.
AB: You absolutely can experience it individually, and a lot of people do that. I do a bunch of social justice work, and what I see happen a lot is people work themselves to the bone and then they go off as individuals and have a sabbatical, take a break, take a vacation, and do individual things to nourish themselves and try to recover, and then come back into movement like “Okay, I’m well rested!”
I did this. I took a sabbatical in 2012, and came back like, “I’m restored! I’m renewed! I feel amazing!” But I was coming back into a space where no one else had taken a break. Everyone else was so exhausted. And we don’t even have a practice in place to stagger this. Let’s make sure that we’re working but that we’re really sharing the load, to make sure that everyone gets a break.
How do we structure society so we’re not in this cycle of having to burn ourselves out completely and then step away as individuals and then come back? What would it look like to structure our movements so that they feel good and they sustain the people who are a part of them? That question led me into this study. What are the things that do feel good? What can we learn from that?
You have to be able to feel. A lot of us are just numbing. We’re numbing our way through our entire lives. And we think that’s the best we can get: work hard, be miserable, come home, numb yourself out, go to sleep, next day do it again. We have to begin to practice the kind of lives and pleasures and communities that we want to create, so that we get that into our system and we won’t settle for anything less.
CM: Earlier you were saying that we only connect through suffering, and I want to ask you a couple questions about that. First of all, can we connect through suffering in the same way that we can connect through pleasure?
AB: There are so many things that can bond us. In the past year I have gone through losing a number of people. Last night I was at the memorial services for a long-time member of my community. It was incredible to connect with all the people who were grieving for her. Inside that moment, I was very aware that we’re grieving for this person who brought a ton of pleasure to all of our lives. She was a vibrant human being; she was always smiling—even when she was working so hard, you got the sense that she felt blessed by the work that she was doing, that she was enjoying it. She is another model for me. Even in that moment of suffering and grief, what we were really longing for, and what we were grieving for, was something that brought us great pleasure and joy.
I don’t think the two things are fully disconnected, and I don’t think they should be disconnected. But what I often see happen is great culminations where, for example, this person has been shot or this attack has happened on our community, or this funding has been cut, and in that moment we come together and complain—we are continuously enforcing that our power belongs to someone else, and we have to demand back from them our joy, our equity. I want us to come together around the things that actually bring us joy, make us feel powerful, make us have a sense of abundance together. I want us to grow from that place, deepen from that place, and understand that what we pay attention to, grows.
If we pay attention all the time to the things that make us suffer and the things that make us feel powerless, what grows is the sense that “there’s nothing I can do.” I can only grind in this way. I’ll never get to experience joy in my lifetime. But I’m testament to the fact that another way is possible. I know what it is to be in communities that are centering themselves around loving and caring for each other and lifting each other up. Those movements are having a huge impact in black liberation work right now.
CM: Do you see that reinforced in the kind of media coverage we see, where they talk about the “resilience” of a town after a tornado—or here in Chicago, if there’s a big snowstorm, you’ll hear news anchors saying it’s great when there’s a huge snowstorm, because you see how much people support each other by getting out of each other’s way on the sidewalk, or helping dig out of the snow, or whatever.
What do you think the impact is of the media constantly celebrating resilience after disasters and the shared suffering of the public?
AB: One of the sad things with the media is that resilience gets told as an individual story; we’re told it’s one small act someone is doing for another person. I live in Detroit, and often that narrative of resilience is used to avoid actually coming through and providing support and resources to people.
But it’s interesting you mention that, because the story I see much more often in the media is the story of our suffering and the violence that we’re doing to each other—what I think of as the “bad news” or the “crisis news.” When I (and most of the people in my life) listen to the news, especially these past few years, it’s so much more traumatizing and damaging than it is informative, exciting, or invigorating, something that makes me proud to be human or alive.
It’s one of the things I pay attention to: what are the stories we are co-creating, and what are the stories we’re telling? Are we telling stories of our own victory? Are we telling stories of the ways that we’re supporting each other? I look at Puerto Rico and think about New Orleans; I think about the places that I’ve been, and it’s that combination of great suffering, and great recovery from harm. And pleasure is one of the things that makes us truly resilient. Not just rescuing and covering the ground that we won’t have covered by those elected officials and people that we have invested in to support us—we’re just covering that ground of survival. We push past that into thriving when we’re able to find humor and connection in community in those cases.
CM: You write, “Pleasure activists seek to understand and learn from the politics and power dynamics inside of everything that makes us feel good. This includes sex and the erotic, drugs, fashion, humor, passion, work, connection, reading, cooking and/or eating, music and other arts, and so much more.”
Why are politics that make us feel good necessarily good politics? Can’t people who are bad people feel good about bad things and then that creates bad politics?
AB: Yes, Chuck, work it! I see you working around in this question. I made a note in the beginning, a word about excess. Because everyone does deserve to feel good—but when you talk about “bad” people, a lot of times bad people are folks who have gotten twisted; their relationship with other humans or their relationship with the planet has gotten twisted, so they believe they can take without having to give. But it is this mutuality, and being able to sense what is enough, that actually brings pleasure. If you’re never satisfied, you’re not actually getting pleasure. You’re going through the motions. You might be pleasing someone else, but you’re not actually experiencing that for yourself. That’s the cycle that I want to break.
For me and the communities I’m in, there’s a sense of having to hold each other tight through this moment. We have to make sure that we feel good and that we stay connected to what feels good, because this is a really horrific time.
There’s also a huge question in the book about sex in the #MeToo era. What do we do about the fact that nearly half of the species has been socialized to engage in bad behavior when it comes to intimate relationships? The trajectory over the past few decades of my lifetime as been to desexualize everything—desexualize the workplace, make more rules, shut down the energy. I don’t see that work very often. What I see is stuff getting repressed and then it comes out in other ways, often in harmful ways.
So one of the things I’m interested in is how we create processes and structures and begin to really practice them so that bad behavior gets shut down without having to dispose of human beings. We understand if you’re swimming in the water of toxic masculinity and you become a toxically masculine person—how do we rescue you from that water?
The way you do it is by beginning to practice something else. Instead of saying, “You should never, ever feel attracted to anyone,” you need to learn to accurately communicate around attraction. You need to understand how to hear a “no” or a boundary, how to tell if someone is not interested—and how to continue the relationship. That happens so often: you express attraction, and someone’s not into you, and then it’s like the relationship has to be over. There are so many human beings. Keep it moving. We can be friends. There might be another option.
Because masculinity has become so toxified, any form of rejection can lead to violence. Again, when we think of that bad behavior—it’s the behavior, it’s the harm that we want to remove. There’s a teacher, Mariam Kaba, who is a mediator, and does a ton of work around conflict transformation—we had her as a guest on the podcast I do with my sister, How to Survive the End of the World, last year. And she talked about how the focus has to be on reducing the harm, and ending the harm, rather than pathologizing human beings and saying this person is bad and can never be saved.
We’re all in this system. There are a ton of us who have been harmed inside this system. There are a ton of responses and distortions to our humanity that have emerged from that. Now it’s time to reclaim—what do we want to raise up our children in? What do we want every human being to feel that they have access to? How do we design a world that is centered around what feels good to as many of us as possible?
CM: You write that your intention is to get the reader “to recognize that pleasure is a measure of freedom.” How is pleasure a measure of freedom?
AB: I think of it in a very tangible way. I think about my own body, my own experience. I’m a black woman. I’m a fat woman. I’m a queer woman. That’s four strikes against me in terms of how I’m supposed to access pleasure. I also wear glasses. I don’t fit into any pornographic images I ever saw, I don’t fit into what is represented in a magazine as a sexy person, or someone desirable. On top of that, we have these waves of oppression. You’re supposed to be in service. The role of a woman—in a lot of ways what I have been trained up to do—is to please a man. Every magazine cover: here are the thirty ways to give the best blowjob that a man could have. There’s no comparable article about thirty ways for men to…none of that was what I grew up in.
And then being black: your role is to be in service; you are an inferior person in this country. And you keep adding to that. As a queer person, the way you want to make love is illegal. It is an abomination. You add all these different oppressions…
So for me to wake up in my house, have an incredible bath, have an incredible orgasm, love my body, and love my life: it’s a measure of every single way that I have rejected that socialization, rejected the myth of white supremacy, rejected the myth of some norm-body that doesn’t look like mine, and reclaim the truth, which is that I’m a miraculous human being, and I’m wired for pleasure, and I deserve to feel amazing.
And when I’m happy, it’s good for everyone else. It really is. I look at it in my life that way, and then I look at the Combahee River Collective Statement, which posits the idea that if black women are free then everyone else would necessarily be free, because of the structures of this country. I love this idea as applied to pleasure. If every black woman, if every fat woman, if every non-binary person, if every trans person, if every person with a disability—if I knew that all of us had access to total pleasure, to feeling good in our lives, it would mean that our entire society is structured in such a way that now abundance is available for all of us. That’s what I’m fighting for.
CM: You write, “Many people are orienting toward and around radical pleasure in this political moment.” Why? What about this particular political moment is leading people to orient toward radical pleasure? Is this in reaction to what we’re seeing right now that seems like an epidemic of depression?
AB: Right now, for me and the communities I’m in, there’s a sense of having to hold each other tight through this moment. We have to make sure that we feel good and that we stay connected to what feels good, because this is a really horrific time. We have a racist, white supremacist president, who is also heavy on misogyny, in office, and we have an administration that’s surrounding and supporting that, and a Republican party that won’t pull themselves away from him—being in this political moment, such a shameful moment for the country in terms of what’s happening internally (and also how the rest of the world views us), it could be easy to become depressed and feel like nothing matters, or feel like all the work that we’ve been winning on and making advances on is being pushed back.
I take great inspiration from indigenous communities, because this time is so hard, but it’s nothing compared to what indigenous communities have had to survive and live through on this land. One of the interviews I have in the book is with Dallas Goldtooth, who is part of the Indigenous Environmental Network and was a major organizer at Standing Rock. I interviewed him because all the videos that he was posting throughout that time—he was posting such informative stuff, but he was also posting hilarious videos and pictures of folks sledding and having a great time, and showing what the community felt like, and they were in a lot of pleasure and joy with each other. And that was one of the ways they were able to sustain themselves through winter in this freezing cold setting.
There aren’t enough people right now who can feel and express their feelings in real time, much less move towards pleasure. But in the future I’m thinking of—even if it’s just like, on the road, trying to find water—I want to be with people who I can trust to feel their feelings, and with people who will crack some jokes and make it a good time.
It’s actually a fuel. It’s another kind of nourishment that we need. Also, our bodies are the thing we have. Everything else will come and go, but our bodies are the space that we have, so learning how to redirect your attention, redirect the experience of your life from feeling overwhelmed and crappy and depressed to feeling content and joyful and satisfied—to me that’s freedom. I don’t tune into what the president is doing and saying all the time. I know most of it is not even true. And I’m experiencing a huge amount of contentment and liberation in my life, and I’m really focused on and supporting movements that are doing work that makes me feel content and satisfied.
I love supporting the Movement for Black Lives. I love supporting The Majority, I love supporting BYP100. I love that they are in the struggle on the front lines but dancing with each other, singing with each other, making black joy mixtapes. When we make decisions, we put on nineties R&B and we dance together. This is an important time to be cultivating black joy in the face of oppression, and remembering that we’re not alive to suffer, to fight, to struggle. We’re alive to love each other and build community, to evolve.
CM: How can pleasure activism better prepare us for the changes that we’re already facing on a warming planet? How can it help us better prepare ourselves for climate change?
AB: I don’t know about you, but for me when I look at the climate reports, it’s really easy to get overwhelmed—like why go on, why continue? One of the things that inspires me is that I come from a lineage of people who lived through slavery, people who survived slavery, and four generations into slavery there was no end in sight, and it felt like this is what it’s going to be, there’s no reason to hope. And those folks still found love. Found marriage. Ran away together. Raised children together. Taught those babies how to read. Made sure they laughed.
You keep going. You can’t actually perceive the whole future. I think preparing for the apocalypse means preparing for deeper intimacy. A lot of individualism is what capitalism is all about; everyone has to have their own, but when everyone has their own, there’s actually not enough for everyone. There starts to be this accumulation of greed. The kind of collectivism we need is going to rely on us being able to be in authentic intimacy. I have to be able to say, “Chuck, how are you feeling?” and for you to be honest about it. That requires intimacy. For a lot of people, telling the truth about how they feel in real time is harder than laying down and having sex with someone.
These things are connected. What does it mean to get naked—truly naked? What does it mean to actually be seen? What does it mean to actually say, “I want this, I don’t want that”? “Don’t touch me like this.” “I’m triggered right now; this is what’s happening.” There aren’t enough people right now who can feel and express their feelings in real time, much less move towards pleasure. But in the future I’m thinking of—even if it’s just like, on the road, trying to find water—I want to be with people who I can trust to feel their feelings, and with people who will crack some jokes and make it a good time.
CM: You write, “All organizing is science fiction: we are shaping the future we long for and have not yet experienced.” How is organizing viewed differently when we see it as science fiction?
AB: I love this question. A few years ago, Walidah Imarisha and I put out the book Octavia’s Brood, and this is one of the core things that we realized as we were putting it together. We think of activism as this very serious engagement; you read Marx once a year, you watch Malcolm X, you do very serious things, you think serious thoughts. But what’s actually happening, when you’re an activist or an organizer, is you’re saying “I am going to take responsibility for shaping the future.” Shaping the future? Well, now you’re talking about science-fictional behavior. It’s answering the question, “What if this were to happen?” or “If this goes on, what will happen?”
To me, it all gets much more exciting when you think we are actually in this imagination battle. We live inside a world that someone else imagined was going to be correct. They imagined that white supremacy was going to be the way. They imagined that black people were terrifying, they imagined that women were inferior. But it’s all imagination. It’s not true. And if we want to have a different world, we have to imagine something else.
I love that the work of organizing actually matters more if it’s rooted in vision. I just came back from doing a series of workshops in Northern Ireland. I asked people, “What is the world that you actually want to exist in, that you want to create for future generations? And how will we know when we’ve achieved that world, when we’re living in it?” The answers to that are not that everyone will be driving a green car. It’s about how we will feel. We’ll feel free, that we’ll feel safe, we’ll feel that our children can go out and be in the street and we know that there are a million people with their eyes on them, loving them, caring for them, not trying to turn them into consumers but trying to focus on how they can grow and be the best that they can be.
Gloria Anzaldúa is a teacher in our lineage, and she says that nothing happens in the real world unless it first happens in the images in our head. A lot of what we’re doing with Octavia’s Brood, and a lot of what we’re doing with science fiction is visual fiction work. We’re really thinking, what are the stories we tell over and over again that reinforce the current power dynamic? What are the new stories we have to tell if we want to remind people that they’re actually born free and that freedom is a given? They’re born to feel pleasure, and pleasure is a given. We’re born to be in community and interdependent; individuality is a myth.
CM: One of the things I was thinking about is that science fiction is often seen as utopian, something that is unreachable. And activists and organizers are so often labeled as being too utopian, being too impractical, not being pragmatic enough.
What happens when activism and organizing isn’t utopian?
AB: When it isn’t utopian, I find that it’s fear-driven. And fear doesn’t get us where we want to go, it doesn’t liberate us. Fear makes us smaller, when what we need to be is growing in deep relationship with each other. Fear makes us competitive with each other. Once we start competing with each other, this is how we end up with some of what we have in our movements right now, which is everyone fighting over dollars instead of fighting for freedom. I’m in the midst of writing a piece about this for those in philanthropy right now, because I want to completely transform the way the work of organizing gets funded, and how it happens.
There’s never a “utopia” without a dystopia that’s supporting it. You don’t get heaven without hell. You don’t get white power without a bunch of people who are building and supporting and working that. It’s one of the binaries that we hope to bust out of. How do we create something that’s not utopian, and it’s also not dystopian, but it’s a future that is compelling and that we actually want to be a part of and work inside of?
I always say I’m not really that interested in a utopian version of things, because I’m a problem-solver. I’m a Virgo oldest child. I like figuring things out. I want to be in a collective, a community of people where we all take responsibility for the future, and we’re all going to figure it out together. That’s what I’m up to.
CM: Adrienne, I really enjoyed your book and I can’t thank you enough for the conversation we’ve had this morning. I really appreciate it.
AB: Thanks, Chuck, have a good one and tell all your folks out there to have a great day.
Featured image: resistance in Douma, Syria, June 2017. Photo: Hasan Mohamed