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Moving Politics: Emotion and ACT UP's Fight against AIDS

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In the late 1980s, after a decade spent engaged in more routine interest-group politics, thousands of lesbians and gay men responded to the AIDS crisis by defiantly and dramatically taking to the streets. But by the early 1990s, the organization they founded, ACT UP, was no more; even as the AIDS epidemic raged on. Weaving together interviews with activists, extensive rese In the late 1980s, after a decade spent engaged in more routine interest-group politics, thousands of lesbians and gay men responded to the AIDS crisis by defiantly and dramatically taking to the streets. But by the early 1990s, the organization they founded, ACT UP, was no more; even as the AIDS epidemic raged on. Weaving together interviews with activists, extensive research, and reflections on the author's time as a member of the organization, Moving Politics is the first book to chronicle the rise and fall of ACT UP, highlighting a key factor in its trajectory: emotion. Surprisingly overlooked by many scholars of social movements, emotion, Gould argues, plays a fundamental role in political activism. From anger to hope, pride to shame, and solidarity to despair, feelings played a significant part in ACT UP's provocative style of protest, which included raucous demonstrations, die-ins, and other kinds of street theater. Detailing the movement's public triumphs and private setbacks, Moving Politics is the definitive account of ACT UP’s origin, development, and decline as well as a searching look at the role of emotion in contentious politics.


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In the late 1980s, after a decade spent engaged in more routine interest-group politics, thousands of lesbians and gay men responded to the AIDS crisis by defiantly and dramatically taking to the streets. But by the early 1990s, the organization they founded, ACT UP, was no more; even as the AIDS epidemic raged on. Weaving together interviews with activists, extensive rese In the late 1980s, after a decade spent engaged in more routine interest-group politics, thousands of lesbians and gay men responded to the AIDS crisis by defiantly and dramatically taking to the streets. But by the early 1990s, the organization they founded, ACT UP, was no more; even as the AIDS epidemic raged on. Weaving together interviews with activists, extensive research, and reflections on the author's time as a member of the organization, Moving Politics is the first book to chronicle the rise and fall of ACT UP, highlighting a key factor in its trajectory: emotion. Surprisingly overlooked by many scholars of social movements, emotion, Gould argues, plays a fundamental role in political activism. From anger to hope, pride to shame, and solidarity to despair, feelings played a significant part in ACT UP's provocative style of protest, which included raucous demonstrations, die-ins, and other kinds of street theater. Detailing the movement's public triumphs and private setbacks, Moving Politics is the definitive account of ACT UP’s origin, development, and decline as well as a searching look at the role of emotion in contentious politics.

30 review for Moving Politics: Emotion and ACT UP's Fight against AIDS

  1. 4 out of 5

    Bek MoonyReadsByStarlight

    This is definitely a dense read and an emotional one, but it is well worth it. This book goes through so many aspects of activism around the AIDS epidemic and discusses the rise and fall of ACT UP. There is a clear focus on emotional framework, which is something often left untouched when looking at social movements (but so important). But in order to discuss the emotional framework, she has to discuss many other things going on. So, there is a really clear picture of the movement and many of th This is definitely a dense read and an emotional one, but it is well worth it. This book goes through so many aspects of activism around the AIDS epidemic and discusses the rise and fall of ACT UP. There is a clear focus on emotional framework, which is something often left untouched when looking at social movements (but so important). But in order to discuss the emotional framework, she has to discuss many other things going on. So, there is a really clear picture of the movement and many of the sides to the story (particularly as she describes ACT UP's decline). I would not recommend it to people who are unfamiliar with academic texts, but if you are looking for social science/social movement/political science texts, I would definitely recommend this.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Dont

    Deb Gould's Moving Politics has sat on my shelf waiting to be read since it first came out. I was thrilled to find a study that put the emerging analysis around political affect into practice in relation to a specific political movement. But reading scholarship on a political history in which I have invested most of my adult life, well, that has required mustering some measure of courage to dive into. That said, Moving Politics is crucial reading not just for AIDS activists and people invested i Deb Gould's Moving Politics has sat on my shelf waiting to be read since it first came out. I was thrilled to find a study that put the emerging analysis around political affect into practice in relation to a specific political movement. But reading scholarship on a political history in which I have invested most of my adult life, well, that has required mustering some measure of courage to dive into. That said, Moving Politics is crucial reading not just for AIDS activists and people invested in the history of queer politics. The book is also an exemplary inquiry into what Gould terms "the emotional pedagogy" at work in social justice movements on the whole. At the center of Moving Politics is the term, "emotional habitus." Drawing on Pierre Bourdieu's notion of the "habitus," an emotional habitus is the landscape of feeling in a community or social group. Affects are themselves ambivalent by nature, conflicted and contradictory. The emotional habitus provides the consensual terms by which that ambivalence gains meaning. In the process, the emotional habitus defines the realm of possibility in terms of social action. Within this conceptual framework, Gould sets about to study how the emotional habitus of the AIDS crisis within lesbian and gay communities shifted over the course of the first ten years of the epidemic in the United States. This leads her to closely examine the discursive practices that either helped to maintain the emotional and ideological status quo or those practices that reorganized the habitus of emotions -- namely, direct action politics. The lesbian and gay community press, lesbian and gay civil rights organizations, and movements like ACT UP, each participate in a kind of emotional pedagogy; teaching, sustaining, and reorganizing the meanings given to an ambivalence about the AIDS crisis, an ambivalence marked by shame and despair as much as by anger and fear. By interrogating activism and AIDS activism in particular through the lens of emotions, Gould is able to greatly expand the usual analysis of ideology, moving beyond strictly intentional and calculated strategies and tactics. She begins by rejecting a series of binary oppositions that tend to frame sociological sholarship on social movements. She calls into question the way a binary around emotions and reason get collapsed onto an opposition between the irrational and rational. Rather, Gould argues that at least in the case of the direct action AIDS movement, emotion was very much a condition of reasoned and collective action. Likewise, to the familiar claim that a movement needs hope (versus despair) to spring into action, Gould counters that ACT UP proved highly effective at mustering its collectivity and creativity at a moment of profound hopelessness when it was evident to all that the established narratives about respectability had lost all legitimacy. In other words, with nothing to lose direct action militancy became the new normal. In addition to confronting the familiar topes used in the analysis of activism, Gould also addresses a number of myths around ACT UP specifically. Here is where I found her book to be incredibly compelling if not downright revelatory. For nearly two decades it has been argued that the collapse of the national AIDS direct action movement known as ACT UP came about as a result of two conditions; one or both. First, many have claimed that ACT UP lost coherence around the fight for HIV treatment dispersing its energies within a broader social justice vision. Depending on who tells the story, the blame is placed either on a diffused social justice agenda that placed the rights of women and people of color over treatment activism. Or, one blames ACT UP for having not aggressively enough embraced a social justice platform. As Gould demonstrates convincingly through examining oral histories as well as written accounts both within the movement and in the press, it becomes clear that social justice (e.g. the needs of women with HIV, people of color, and the poor) were always a part of ACT UP's political horizon. Rather, what she shows is that in the final years of ACT UP a growing sense of collective despair produced a sense of scarcity of resources, energy, and time. As it become more and more clear that the fight against AIDS would go on for much longer than anyone realized and as the deaths of large numbers of activists escalated in the early '90s, how to fight AIDS became an argument into which people channeled their despair and sense of hopelessness. Gould also addresses, albeit implicitly, the often-told myth that once the Anti-retroviral therapies became available, the majority of activists (namely, middle class gay white men) abandoned the fight or became comfortable in their AIDS-incorporated positions. While there may be some measure of truth to this argument, as Gould shows, the timeline doesn't quite work. Cracks in ACT UP's highly effective emotional habitus around anger had already begun to appear in 1990. By 1992, key leaders in the movement had passed away. News from the scientific community seemed particularly bleak. And what emerged was an overall sense of the very real limits to what was possible in the face of the virus and science. Even as the government directed more resources towards research, a growing pessimism began to deplete ACT UP's ranks a full two years before the introduction of combination therapies. It is here, the latter part of Moving Politics, that Gould's argument is perhaps the most insightful (as well as the most challenging for those of us who have been involved in the struggle since ACT UP). For much of Gould's analysis of the pre-ACT UP days of the AIDS crisis and during the heyday of mass direct action, she insists that the affects of the epidemic were experienced in a nonconscious way. The direct action AIDS movement made those feelings conscious through the specific articulation of anger as a means for the lesbians and gays to achieve respect, dignity, pride, not to mention, HIV justice. For the first years of ACT UP, direct action proved enormously successful. Civil disobedience and protest yielded real concrete victories -- the details of which are a crucial component of Gould's book as a way to counter the reactionary sentiment that militant activism never accomplishes anything. Direct action also produced a new kind of queer subject the effects of which remain with us to this day. As Gould comes to the latter chapters about the end of the national ACT UP movement, she makes clear that the feelings of despair never so much as went away but remained unconscious. As the horizons of possibilities grew ever more bleak in the early 1990s, that unconscious sense of despair had a devastating effect on the movement. For Gould, the lesson here is that a movement needs to make space for disappointment and hopelessness rather than moralizing about those feelings as somehow regressive or depoliticizing. Rather, how might a movement prepare for the inevitability of disappointment? This is where I would proffer a critical response to Gould's overall analysis. The book develops an incredibly complex and useful discussion about the affects of activism within a society that marginalizes and stigmatizes those who dare to agitate for a world beyond the pale of the status quo. In many respects, the subtext of Moving Politics is a study of the emotional habitus of activism itself. However Gould never discusses or acknowledges any distinction between activism and organizing. By failing to make such a distinction, Gould overlooks the very structural conditions of the status quo and how groups organize the conditions for world-making as distinct from agitation or mobilization. By ignoring organizing, we end up with a two-dimensional view of ACT UP as a collection of tactics disconnected from the processes by which communities were brought to the table and coalitions were organized. Solidarity itself is not just a structure of feeling by a set of procedures and processes needing to be interrogated and assessed. By overlooking the role of organizing, Gould never has reason to question the conceptualization of the state that determined the kind of tactics pursued by ACT UP. She alludes to this and to the tensions within the movement around dependency and the state as a black box, as theorized by Ronald Dahl. But without a clear analysis of the role of the state, activism sets itself up for a rude awakening when the movement reaches the limits of what the bourgeois state can accomplish even under the most progressive regimes. Over all, this is where it would be useful to connect the sociological analysis with a political science of movement building. Barring that connection, Gould reinscribes probably the most symptomatic erasure enacted by liberal discourse, the occlusion of political organizing and its very material debates about the function of the state. I also find it frustrating that Gould does not go further into the issues of double consciousness, to use Du Bois's term. Here I am thinking of the often-impossible trap encountered by queer women and AIDS activists of color. Gould goes to some lengths to explore this issue in her rich discussions of the politics around the Women's Caucus and the Majority AIDS Caucus in ACT UP New York. However, the author fails to consider how activists resolved the pressures to choose between the needs of lesbian and gay communities and those needs of communities of color in the fight against AIDS. Many queers of color and their allies organized within ACT UP around housing, incarceration, and needle exchange. Oftentimes those efforts resulted in the formation of break-away organizations like Housing Works in New York and Clean Needles Now in Los Angeles. This history helps to explain the decisions made by ACT UP Philadelphia to aggressively pursue an agenda informed by people of color concerns. That decision on the part of Philadelphia AIDS activists resulted in it being the longest standing ACT UP chapter in the United States through to the present. Tragically, none of these matters receive any mention in Gould's book. Today we have empirical evidence that poverty, racism, homelessness, migration illegalization, drug prohibition, and mass incarceration function as determinants of HIV disease as much as homophobia and gender injustice. For a more in depth analysis of how those determinants impacted the emotional habitus of queers of color in the direct action AIDS movement, we will have to wait for another study. (Cathy Cohen's The Boundaries of Blackness is an excellent starting point for that research.) Finally I want to mention that my complaints about the above omissions stem from my profound admiration for Gould's book and my own conviction that it is the single most important study on the AIDS activist movement yet to be written. I offer my critiques knowing the rightful impact it will have for decades to come. I cannot recommend the book enough to anyone interested in getting a more complex understanding of the AIDS activist movement in the United States and of activism in general.

  3. 4 out of 5

    C

    This book started life as a thesis, and still reads like it. It's dense, jargony, and written for academics. However, I'm still glad I struggled through it. Dr. Gould was part of ACT UP/Chicago during its peak and decline, and I think that first-hand experience adds a lot of depth and credibility to her analysis of how the emotional landscape within the LGBT/queer community affected ACT UP's political choices. What shook me the most was her account of the emotional dynamics that accompanied the or This book started life as a thesis, and still reads like it. It's dense, jargony, and written for academics. However, I'm still glad I struggled through it. Dr. Gould was part of ACT UP/Chicago during its peak and decline, and I think that first-hand experience adds a lot of depth and credibility to her analysis of how the emotional landscape within the LGBT/queer community affected ACT UP's political choices. What shook me the most was her account of the emotional dynamics that accompanied the organization's decline - because I see those exact same dynamics playing out in my climate and land use activism communities today. Respectability as a concern/strategy? Yep. Despair and moralizing? Yikes. Conflict between (mostly white men) and (mostly women people of color) disagreeing about whether we should be addressing racism and sexism, with a mutual sense of betrayal? Hell yeah. I don't think we're dead yet, though. In the closing chapter, Dr. Gould states that she thinks ACT UP didn't have to end the way it did. The basic insight of this book is that there's an emotional dimension to organizing work (maybe all work). Dr. Gould focuses a lot on how that affects what actions/outcomes are imaginable and acceptable, but my 201X lens unsurprisingly locks in on the idea that you can't neglect the emotional dimension. That is, we have to consider emotional growth and emotional work as much as we think about our organizational growth and physical work. This is greatly simplified, but it seems like ACT UP's emotional work was really effective when the landscape was one of righteous indignation and faith in scientific progress, and became less effective when their landscape slid into despair. That's definitely happening in the climate world. But there are also people doing great emotional work around despair (and I'm pretty sure that there have been folks doing the same in so many other civil rights organizations for a very long time) - and I hope that more people will embrace that work. There's so much to learn from movement history and analysis, and with that in mind, I really appreciated this retrospective.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Neil H

    I watched The Normal Heart in 2016. I cried at certain moments. I watched The Normal Heart in 2018 three quarters of reading Moving Politics. I cried none stop. Whats the difference? I questioned my affective feelings. The non articulated, amorphous and ill defined feelings coursing through my body during and after the movie. It was a heavy hitting, incisive combination. I lived in a city state where the archaic law of MSM is punishable (Singapore). Where I/We distanced/disown my family for the I watched The Normal Heart in 2016. I cried at certain moments. I watched The Normal Heart in 2018 three quarters of reading Moving Politics. I cried none stop. Whats the difference? I questioned my affective feelings. The non articulated, amorphous and ill defined feelings coursing through my body during and after the movie. It was a heavy hitting, incisive combination. I lived in a city state where the archaic law of MSM is punishable (Singapore). Where I/We distanced/disown my family for the clear reason of my sexuality. Moving Politics is a beautiful read of how in prosperous times, tacit illiberal pragmatics the Singapore state employs to silence and provide non recognition to the LGTBQA community is so ingrained into the domestic obedient psyches that every lurch of sunlight seems like a hugh gasp of air before it forecloses to the dark and the community slouches back to invisibility and the consumerism of body. My environment analogues America 30 years ahead. I read on Borrowed Time and cried (again)not for the disgusting neglect to see the epidemic in the 80's but how we can be so burrowed in our paradox of being, acting different yet so wanting to be accepted by main society it borders on infantility. This book is about affective emotions, mustering them in cohesive suggestive movements. About our need to be mindful of the stated and unstated currents of minute influences that courses through our individual and collectives subjectivities. If we acknowledge ourselves of the limits of despair and denial which can be manifest in ways hopeful and sometimes a little too late.

  5. 4 out of 5

    sasha

    Okay, so this was a very long but very interesting read. I did indeed take about 1,5 months to get through it, since it was emotionally loaded and densely written (and also academic and I read it for a term paper I'm now fully prepared to write), and it was worth it. Gould herself was an activist with ACT UP, so her analysis comes from a very personal perspective, which also fuels her thesis that all activism is somehow connected to affects and emotions. Still, her book was comprehensive and bala Okay, so this was a very long but very interesting read. I did indeed take about 1,5 months to get through it, since it was emotionally loaded and densely written (and also academic and I read it for a term paper I'm now fully prepared to write), and it was worth it. Gould herself was an activist with ACT UP, so her analysis comes from a very personal perspective, which also fuels her thesis that all activism is somehow connected to affects and emotions. Still, her book was comprehensive and balanced personal experiences (not only her own but other activist's), primary sources such as newspapers and speeches, and other academic texts, making it a good read not only for research and a more comprehensive understanding of ACT UP's functioning and HIV/Aids in general, but also quite enjoyable.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Maxine

    A very dense but eminently readable look at the power of emotional politics and political emotion. Gould uses her own experiences in ACT UP AIDS activism to explore politics in both a very personal and infinitely expansive way. I was inspired as both a (future) scholar and a (potential) activist; in many ways, the theoretical and historical topics in Moving Politics are more than applicable to our current social climate.

  7. 5 out of 5

    David Leonard

    A really powerful examination of ACT UP, and the struggle to demand action throughout the 1980s and 1990s in the face of the nation's AIDS' crisis. While wanting a bit more on race and class, the book offers a powerful examination of the dialectics between emotion, habitus, and militancy, Gould primes readers for understanding the struggles over health injustice and the fight against systemic homophobia. Beyond documenting this important history with stunning details, she offers an important fra A really powerful examination of ACT UP, and the struggle to demand action throughout the 1980s and 1990s in the face of the nation's AIDS' crisis. While wanting a bit more on race and class, the book offers a powerful examination of the dialectics between emotion, habitus, and militancy, Gould primes readers for understanding the struggles over health injustice and the fight against systemic homophobia. Beyond documenting this important history with stunning details, she offers an important framework for examining social movements in much more complex ways. The discussion of the links between state violence, identity, and social movements is compelling; the focus on emotions as not antithetical to rational politics all represent a powerful intervention. More than this, the work is a stunning reminder of what it took to compel action in the face of death, trauma, and the AIDS epidemic. The details, the depth of research, and the persuasive argumentation are but a few reasons why this is a powerful book

  8. 4 out of 5

    Sean Estelle

    This was a moving account of the history of ACT UP. It was fairly dense and academic at times, and took a while to get through, but still highly recommended (especially for those interested in the intersection of emotional labor and movement history/strategy). Lots to glean from an understudied and underappreciated, but extremely crucial time in movement work in the U.S.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Alexa Trumpy

    Definitely not for a general audience. I would not recommend unless you are really interested in (1) emotions in social movements or (2) ACT UP and the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. If that is the case, this is a good read.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Clio

    Deborah Gould's history of ACT UP! is firmly grounded in her experience organizing with ACT UP! Chicago. I loved the interview-based research, and the painstaking account of how emotions motivate political action. A very important movement history. Deborah Gould's history of ACT UP! is firmly grounded in her experience organizing with ACT UP! Chicago. I loved the interview-based research, and the painstaking account of how emotions motivate political action. A very important movement history.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Scott Neigh

    Reviewed here. Reviewed here.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Eric James

  13. 4 out of 5

    Katie

  14. 5 out of 5

    Justin

  15. 4 out of 5

    Domina

  16. 5 out of 5

    Kevin

  17. 5 out of 5

    Theresa Alimi

  18. 5 out of 5

    Ryan

  19. 5 out of 5

    Jonathan

  20. 4 out of 5

    Caitlin

  21. 5 out of 5

    Lupe Marin

  22. 5 out of 5

    Bonnie

  23. 4 out of 5

    Magalie

  24. 5 out of 5

    Vee Vee

  25. 4 out of 5

    rose lyddon

  26. 5 out of 5

    Ashley Kuenneke

  27. 5 out of 5

    Cody

  28. 4 out of 5

    Amanda

  29. 5 out of 5

    Eliot Scott

  30. 5 out of 5

    Jade

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