The Promise of Post-Oppositional Politics: A Preliminary Conversation – The Feminist Wire

The Promise of Post-Oppositional Politics: A Preliminary Conversation

By Layli Maparyan and  AnaLouise Keating

Layli Maparyan (LM): How did you come to the notion of post-oppositional politics?

AnaLouise Keating (ALK): I’ve only started using the term “post-oppositional” fairly recently (when I was working on my book, Transformation Now!), but for years, I’ve been attracted to theories, practices, and people who enact resistance and transformation in non-oppositional ways and seek to create radically inclusive communities–for instance, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s relational philosophy, Gloria Anzaldúa’s spiritual activism, Thich Nhat Hahn’s entire life and teachings, Alice Walker’s definition/practice of womanism, your expansion of womanism).  Also, for years, I’ve been concerned by the limitations in oppositional politics, oppositional forms of thinking, and the oppositional interactions I’ve seen in classrooms, at conferences, and among various politicized academic groups.  By “oppositional” I mean binary either/or thinking and us-against-them dynamics that pit one person, one group, or one way of thinking/acting against another–with no room for compromise, for creating new answers, or for developing any type of third space. This dichotomous oppositionality locks us into the status quo and reactionary stance. My concern grew from (1) my personal experiences; (2) my interest in nondual thinking, which developed when I was working on my dissertation; and, most importantly, (3) my belief in our radical inter-relatedness, what I’ve described as a metaphysics of interconnectedness.

In my previous work, I’ve discussed non-oppositionality, but I realized that this term was too limited and subtly oppositional–trapped in a binary framework of sorts.  By definition, to be non-oppositional means not to oppose.  But with “post-oppositional,” I want to acknowledge that oppositionality has been useful; rejecting oppositional politics re-activates the oppostionality which I find so limiting.  We’ve learned a lot from our oppositionality. So, post-oppositional embraces oppositionality, learns from it, moves through it, and develops new approaches.

How about you?  How did you come to post-oppositional politics? How do you define the term?

LM: Well, before I begin, let me just say that I love that last point that you made:  Even though we are talking about post-oppositional politics, we want to “acknowledge that oppositionality has been useful.”  In fact, I might argue that it is still useful in a “palimpsest” kind of way, meaning that, in some places and cases, it is still functioning in a way that makes sense in specific context, while other things (such as post-oppositionality) might also be functioning at the same time.  These things are layered, and they are not necessarily in competition – isn’t that part of our post-oppositional intention??  But a big part of our work –and what has brought us together in this dialogue – is that we are trying to lift the visibility of a post-oppositional way, and we are naming something that has been functioning all along, but in a less overtly articulated way, at least in academia (and, perhaps also, in the world of movement-speak).

Let me name a few moments that were pivotal in the evolution of my thinking about non-oppositionality.  The first text that really got me thinking about this deeply was Chela Sandoval’s Methodology of the Oppressed.    When I thought deeply about her use of the term “oppositional politics,” I saw her as trying to say that, beyond the “point-counterpoint” binary of typical, Western-style politics (which focus on us-them, right-left, in-out, ally-enemy, etc.), there was this group of outsiders whose speech, thinking, and action were outside the binary altogether — whether culturally or for other reasons.  A big part of her text was about “what are these outsiders saying, and how are they communicating, and how are they relating to the binary that they are not part of, and how are they making a different kind of politics because of their location?”  And, importantly, how is this politics that they are making relevant to everybody on Earth right now??  I was thinking about this at the same time as I was doing a lot of my early deep thinking about the womanist idea, trying to flesh it out as its own thing (which I felt deeply but hadn’t yet put words to), and I just started to see this “other space” and this “other way” that could not be named using oppositional politics type language.  There was also a chapter in Chela’s book on revolutionary love that got me deeper into this thinking.  When you are in the love space, whether that love is erotic, platonic, political, or spiritual, you are not in a binary type space.  If you have experienced it, you know.  So, if you reflect deeply on the political possibilities of that, you see a “way” and a “path” that is clearly not oppositional in nature.  So, you have to find different language.

A second read that was pivotal for me was Paul Hawken’s popular text, Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Social Movement in History Is Restoring Grace, Justice, and Beauty to the World  I actually read a pre-print of this book that a friend had found in a thrift store.  Paul was putting language on a relatively inchoate meta-movement that encompasses the environmental movement, global democratic movements (particularly at local, grassroots, community levels), indigenous, and emerging “spirituality” movements around the world — and I saw this whole thing as post-oppositional.  What I loved about Paul’s work is that he was seeing something largely non-academic in nature, seeing something huge in places where academics (especially academics who focus on critical theory and social movement) don’t usually look, and making it visible as “a thing.”

I could go on naming books, texts, authors that influenced me, but like you, a lot of what I came to see and understand about post-oppositional politics came from my own personal experiences, particularly with spiritual things.  In addition to a lot of spiritual study, I had a few “non-ordinary experiences” that were particularly illuminating, literally and figuratively.  What I came to know is that there is truly another reality that we can access and come to know in which the oppositional method is not a fit, not relevant, and not even cognizable, really.  Having had these experiences, I could not turn back and I simply had to find ways to put them into my academic and political work moving forward.

You asked me to define post-oppositional politics.  You did such a good job that I am just going to say, “What she said!!

ALK: I completely agree with you; that with post-oppositionality “we are naming something that has been functioning all along, but in a less overtly articulated way, at least in academia (and, perhaps also, in the world of movement-speak).”  This naming can be very risky because it can seem to fly in the face of common-sense reasoning, especially if we bring concepts of spirit (or “energy,” “life force,” “vibration”) into the discussion.  And yet, I see the willingness to take the risk and name the process as crucial.  I don’t know if I ever told you, but your response to my 2000 presentation at the University of Georgia on womanist self-recovery was really important to my work.  It was one of the earliest, if not the first, times that I had talked (as contrasted with writing, which in some ways is safer) about the role spirit can play in non-oppositionality, transformation, and creating radically inclusive communities.  Your enthusiasm energized me and assured me that I was on a useful path.  So, thank you for that.

I also agree with your analysis of Chela Sandoval’s work, and it’s been very influential for me as well.  I know that she frames her theory as “oppositional consciousness,” and I don’t disagree (because it’s her work and she can name it as she sees fit!).  However, I tend to think of it by another term she uses, “differential consciousness”: the use of various forms of oppositional consciousness (liberal approaches, separatism, and so on) in context- and historical-specific situations.  Foregrounding the work of U.S. women-of-color feminists, she reminds us of the importance of flexibility, context, etc.  And she is so bold, to bring love into the conversation!  Rather than cling tightly to a single approach (which becomes reactive in that binary-oppositional way I described earlier), we need to thoughtfully (mindfully!) respond to each particular situation and figure out what tactics can be most effective at the present time.

LM: Often, when I am talking about post-oppositional methods of social change work, people have a hard time imagining concrete examples because the frame of post-oppositionality is not yet firmly embedded in our social movement culture.  In your recent book, Transformation Now!: Toward a Post-Oppositional Politics of Change, you give a lot of concrete examples.  Can you share some of these?”  







ALK: Sure!  Anzaldúa’s work in This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color is one example.  In this edited collection designed to showcase women of colors’ feminisms and emphasize the ways that they had been erased/ignored from the mainstream women’s movement, Anzaldúa also – and simultaneously – visualizes larger, broader communities, or what she calls “El Mundo Zurdo.”  She does not simply react to mainstream (white, middle-class) women feminists’ exclusion of women-of-color feminists; she responds creatively by proposing an alternative, radically inclusive community (El Mundo Zurdo).  I think that the book she and I edited twenty years later, this bridge we call home: radical visions for transformation, illustrates one form this post-oppositional Mundo Zurdo can take. The contributors represent a wide variety of backgrounds, and we do not all agree with each other. However, we share a broader vision.

Your approach to womanism also concretely illustrates post-oppositionality.  In The Womanist Reader, you include authors with distinctly different (some might say opposing) definitions of womanism, and you are very intentional in doing so.  When I first used your book in class, some of my students were puzzled and shocked by the disparity in perspectives.  As I recall when I asked you about your decision to include such a range of definitions, you used the analogy of the big tent…creating space for all of the voices.   We have to bring the voices/perspectives together, so that we can “hear” what they’re saying, interact with them, and create new knowledge.  (I’m paraphrasing based on memory, and I hope that I have not misrepresented your view.)  In Transformation Now!, I describe this type of contradictory meeting-place as frictional: the contradictions rub up against each other, interact, and ignite sparks–enabling us to develop new insights.  (It’s like an Anzaldúan nepantla.)

In your reply to me when tracing your interest in post-oppositionality, you mentioned the role of non-ordinary experiences.  If you feel comfortable, I would love to read more of your thoughts about this–the non-ordinary experiences and how you see them working with and perhaps inspiring/influencing post-oppositionality.  And here I’m thinking of your sidebar comment to me: “I see a connecting thread in all of these things that helps us think about what can be done politically to change things – by coming into alignment with and even influencing processes such as change, growth, development, and transformation.”  I believe that by inviting these non-ordinary insights/realities, we might gain hints that we can use to move beyond the status-quo and invent political strategies and actions for progressive change.

LM: This is a tough question, because sometimes the non-ordinary experiences are just beyond words, literally and figuratively.  We have this phrase in our language – “seeing the light” – we use it casually, although I realize now there is a literal source for this.  It is a casual way of talking about illumination, although the kind of illumination we are referring to when we say that somebody has “seen the light” or we have “seen the light” is often of a fairly mundane variety.  But there is the non-mundane variety, the quite profound variety – seeing the Light.  There is this other word, “satori,” from the Japanese Zen tradition, that means “instant illumination,” which may arrive as the result of effort or not — but the effects are basically the same.  You see the world differently afterwards.  In the space of that moment, duality is transcended, infinite contentment is experienced, and there is a feeling of universal consciousness.  The Bible talks about “the peace of God, that surpasses all understanding” (Philippians 4:7), and that is a pretty good characterization – it is a non-cognitive space, and when you come back, the world of language feels like a cage, a space of great density and limitation.  People can read about these kinds of things and know about them without having experienced them, but once you have experienced them, it is no longer abstract and no longer deniable – it becomes part of your history of experience, part of your knowledge base.  And because there are other people who have had these kinds of experiences – people from around the world, from different cultures and traditions, whether once or many times – you start to realize that this “dimension” or “reality” is a reliable and very real part of human experience – and you can never view the world, or humanity, or politics the same way after that.  So, this has happened to me a few times, and I have carried the experience into my work for human and ecological wellbeing (however imperfectly!).

If I were to be specific, I would say that the way I presented womanism in The Womanist Idea was heavily influenced by my non-ordinary experiences.  The whole idea of “the politics of invitation” is based on this awareness of the indissoluble nature of everyone’s interconnection and a conviction that we will only solve “it” (whatever “it” is) when we acknowledge that everyone and everything (including ourselves) is a part of “it.”  So, it starts with this challenge of having no enemies and taking responsibility for the fact that everything is exactly where we left it, in terms of the limits of our consciousness.  If we want to change things, we have to change consciousness first, because we always operate within the confines of our consciousness, our logic, and what we imagine to be possible.  I hope I am making sense.

I know that you know something about this because of the work you did with Gloria Anzaldua in Interviews/Entrevistas – because that is the book that let me know I was not crazy for having non-ordinary experiences and, most especially, for allowing them to inform my politics, my critical theory, and my notions of social movement!  Thank you for that!!

ALK: Yes. I understand (intuit? reach towards?) what you’re saying about non-ordinary experiences.  They partially exceed language–hence the difficulty we have in fully articulating the experiences or the insights.  These non-ordinary experiences serve a variety of functions, but for me one of the most important functions has been their ability to enable us to move partially outside existing frameworks (or what I’ve described as the “status-quo stories” which prevent us from imagining alternative ways of living, alternative forms of identity, alternative approaches to social justice, and so on).  You are definitely making sense.  Like you, I believe that it’s helpful to start with consciousness (how we perceive/define reality), and viewing ourselves and the world from a metaphysics of interconnectedness is crucial.  If we posit “the indissoluble nature of everyone’s interconnection,” we take a different approach to identity and to social change.  In this framework, binary (us-against-them) opposition makes no sense and keeps us in stasis.  We posit forms of identity that help us to see the other in ourselves–we re(con)ceive the other.

LM: One day I hope we can have a longer conversation about non-ordinary experiences and their implications.  Indeed, by discussing them, perhaps we are moving them from non-ordinary to ordinary!  The point you make in Transformation Now!  and have referred to many times in our current dialogue about “status quo stories” and how they “inhibit our ability to envision the possibility of change” is really, really germane.  The prevailing notion that “this is all there is” — with the “this” being everything from conflict and violence (attributed to “human nature”) to materialism and inequality (attributed to the “natural” scarcity of whatever exists) to the increasing pervasiveness of depression, physical illness, and general human misery (attributed to a normalized “stressful environment” over which we are presumed to have either too much or too little agency) – falls away completely during and after a non-ordinary experience.  To quote you again (although to change the context), non-ordinary experiences give us a profound platform to “expose, interrogate, and transform our status quo stories and the divisive status-quo thinking which these stories normalize and reinforce.”  In my womanist work, one of my goals – and I think your work has done the same – has been to normalize the “non-ordinary” so that everyone can have access to its gifts and so that we take those gifts as “the new normal.”  One of the most important gifts, for me, has been the notion that everyone and everything is sacred and awareness of how sacredness as a frame changes everything – politically, economically, environmentally, and intrapsychically.

To return to our original subject, post-oppositional thinking and post-oppositional politics are among the “gifts” of encounter with the non-ordinary.  Certainly, this is not the only pathway to post-oppositional thinking or politics, but it is one connection.  I think that we are not alone, and that many people are starting to share similar sensibilities – about post-oppositionality as well as the non-ordinary – and to talk about them in ways that really offer new possibilities to all humanity.

I know that we could go on and on with our conversation – you are one of the people in the world with whom I most enjoy conversing – however, in this short dialogue, I’d like for you to have the last word!

ALK:  I also hope that at some point we can have a longer conversation about these issues, and in fact I think that we should use a term like “a preliminary conversation” in the title to this piece, so that we can emphasize the partial, investigative nature of this dialogue (and, perhaps, our speculations more generally).

It’s interesting (but not surprising) that our conversation about post-oppositionality has taken this turn towards non-ordinary experiences and realities.  As you note, the non-ordinary moves us beyond our status-quo stories – beyond our current paradigms and worldviews, opening up the space to consider alternative possibilities.  And we desperately need additional approaches to social change!

For me, the realization that reality (or realities) is so much larger than we can fathom has fostered an intellectual humility which has been crucial to my post-oppositional work.  As I explain in Transformation Now! I define intellectual humility as “an open-minded, flexible way of thinking which entails the acknowledgment of our inevitable epistemological limitations; the acceptance of uncertainty and the possibility of error; and intense self-reflection.”  Intellectual humility enables me to say, with you, that our status-quo stories about reality have been too limited (and damaging) without feeling the need to provide a completely accurate description of reality and/or a definitive definition/explanation of non-ordinary experiences.  By acknowledging the limitations in my knowledge, I remain open to alternative possibilities – to building new knowledge, to attaining additional insights.

So, to piggyback on your important point about viewing everyone and everything as sacred. I share your view, which I associate with the metaphysics of interconnectedness I referred to earlier.  And, with intellectual humility, I can posit this sacredness without feeling compelled to completely define it or to pinpoint it in everyone/everything I encounter.  This is important because many people/things/events can seem completely lacking in anything remotely sacred or good.  I remain open to the possibility.  This openness plays an important role in post-oppositional work because it prevents us from becoming locked into binary forms of thinking and acting.  It fosters a willingness to learn more, to posit connections (or sacredness) which we cannot yet perceive; it enables us to thoughtfully act, rather than automatically react, to approach others with an attitude of respect.

I love talking with you about these issues, Layli!  As you implied earlier, by putting these “non-ordinary” ideas and perspectives into the world, we help to normalize them.  Or, at the very least, we invite others to move beyond oppositional politics and status-quo worldviews.) We build on the work of our foremothers: Gloria Anzaldúa, Alice Walker, Audre Lorde, Paula Gunn Allen, and many more.

LM:  Thank you, AnaLouise, my cherished sister, colleague, and friend!


Layli Maparyan, Ph.D., is the Katherine Stone Kaufmann ’67 Executive Director of the Wellesley Centers for Women and Professor of Africana Studies at Wellesley College.  She edited (as Layli Phillips) The Womanist Reader (Routledge, 2006) and authored The Womanist Idea (Routledge, 2012).




AnaLouise Keating, Ph.D., is Professor of Women’s Studies at Texas Woman’s University.  Her recent books include Transformation Now! Toward a Post-Oppositional Politics of Change (University of Illinois Press, 2013), Bridging: How and Why Gloria E. Anzaldúa’s Life and Work Has Transformed Our Own (with Gloria Gonzalez-Lopez; University of Texas Press, 2012), The Gloria Anzaldúa Reader (Duke University Press, 2009), and Teaching Transformation: Transcultural Classroom Dialogues (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007).