Abandoning Unity: Pursuing Partial Alignments and Resistance

In the aftermath of the presidential election, as many of us struggle to comprehend what a Trump presidency might mean for our country, our loved ones, and ourselves, I’ve heard many calls for unity from voices situated along different party lines and disparate social positions. I’ve heard calls to unite behind our president-elect, to put the ugly campaign behind us and to give Trump a chance to lead. I’ve heard liberal voices criticizing the Democratic Party for failing to unite the party with a candidate and a platform capable of adequately appealing to the myriad perspectives of densely interconnected economic and social justice issues. Hillary Clinton herself has called again and again for a country united and not divided. And yet, as the days after the election continue to pass, I find myself skeptical of the ideal of unity.

What if a united population is a socio-political fantasy? What if unity is an unachievable imaginary ideal toward which we can strive but which we can never fully accomplish? Perhaps any unity is always marked with dissonance — with difference and division — and thus all unity is an exercise in failure. Unity comes from the Latin unitas meaning “oneness, sameness, agreement,” an etymology that might provoke us to ask: to what extent does agreement depend on sameness? What must take place to transform multiplicity into singularity — many into one? What do we lose in the pursuit of unity, if sameness and oneness are integral to the actualization of unity? And perhaps more importantly, are their other models for sociality and coexistence that do not depend on oneness, sameness, or unity?

In contemplating other models for togetherness, I turn to the concept of responsibility, specifically the view that our responsibility originates in our ability to respond. How we respond now, specifically to those who are different from us, will be integral to the kind of world in which we find ourselves living. When unity is unachievable, two possibilities for responsiveness suggest themselves: partial alignments and resistance.

I want to live in a world in which agreement need not be total, permanent, or absolute. I want to be part of a society in which we find and act on partial alignments and incomplete agreements as modes of social organization and political activism. In their analysis of choreography of a dance by William Forsythe, the research team for Synchronous Objects for One Flat Thing, reproduced define alignments as “short instances of synchronization between dancers in which their actions share some, but not necessarily all, attributes.” In Forsythe’s dance, these shared attributes refer to multiple actions executed with the same timing, moments when multiple dancers do different things while moving in the same direction, or moments when different dancers pass through similar shapes with their bodies while performing different choreography, for example. In other words, in moments at which many different things are happening simultaneously, alignments identify the partial ways in which similarity or shared properties punctuate those differences.

Animated annotations of alignments in William Forsythe’s One Flat Thing, reproduced from Synchronous Objects

This approach to organization and difference unfolds within Forsythe’s dance, but also suggests ways of thinking about the complexity of our current national climate. Yes, I am suggesting that dance here — and elsewhere — offers frameworks for thinking critically about our world, how we move through it, and how we coexist. What if when we encounter difference — different values, different perspectives, different actions, different political platforms — rather than attempting to convince someone of our own perspectives, to make the other more like ourselves, what if we sought out the small, partial, even temporary ways in which we can align with one another? Without aspiring to unity, if we can find some values or attributes that we share, we have the opportunity to act in solidarity, even if that which we share is fleeting. Using this model, we might imagine a future together in which the substance of our collectivity is not unity but the ongoing distribution of temporary acts of partial agreement — at the scales of bipartisan legislation, coalitional activism, interpersonal connections, and everywhere in between. When we encounter those who hold views and values different from our own, we might begin by asking: what can we do together?

Along with seeking partial alignments, another form of responsiveness is resistance. If we cannot remake the others with whom we share this country and this world in our own image, if we cannot foreclose or prohibit the differences of others — although there are certainly those who will attempt to do so — we must then consider how we will respond when alignment or agreement eludes us. To be sure, we must resist the overwhelming rhetoric of misogyny, racism, xenophobia, hate, and fear that incites violence. So then the question each of us must answer will be: how will I resist? For some, this has involved public demonstration and marching in the streets. For others, this has been the call to public service, to run for office or to volunteer with political campaigns. For many, resistance has meant relentless calls to their elected officials, voicing concerns and demanding representation of those concerns. Resistance may mean speaking up in the presence of hate speech, giving voice to the counter-positions of acceptance and justice. Resistance may take the form of caring for those we love, particularly those who are most targeted by political rhetoric and violent acts. Or as Audre Lorde writes, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation and that is an act of political warfare.” However we resist, we are given a choice: will we respond to violence with further violence? As Judith Butler has asked, “What role will we assume in the historical relay of violence, who will we become in the response, and will we be furthering or impeding violence by virtue of the response that we make?” Where impeding violence requires struggle, struggle becomes our mode of togetherness. “Stronger together” now becomes a challenge, a provocation to ask: how do we move forward together, when “together” does not mean united, when “together” involves struggle with and for one another, when the strength that “together” can offer is formed precisely in and through such struggle?

Whether we resist or seek alignments, our capacity to respond is in our hands, and our choices have consequences for us all. One way or another, we will live with the very material reality that none of us live in this world on our own; we live in this world with others, and we are making a world together in which we will all continue to live. That world cannot and will not be formed from a single perspective, from any single set of values. Whatever our country becomes will be worked out within our day-to-day encounters with others who desire a country that might radically diverge from the country that we desire. The world to come will not be built in the placid patterns of unity; it will be wrought in the push and pull of difference and disagreement, in the exchange of action and reaction, in a dance of ongoing, active, deliberate — and I hope, nonviolent — alignment and struggle. It will emerge not only from the irresolvable differences and partial alignments between people who consider themselves Democrats and people who consider themselves Republicans, but also between people who have different racial histories, different gender identities, different modes of ability, different national or religious affiliation, different economic situations, who have lived for different periods of time — and also between different species with whom we share this planet. I believe the question we must ask again and again remains: how might we live together without eliminating our differences, without sacrificing difference to unity? The alternative is totalitarianism. The alternative is fascism. The alternative is the cisnormative heteronormative imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy — to borrow a term from feminist philosopher bell hooks. Any insistence on sameness or unity that eliminates difference becomes the ideological starting point for countless forms of violence. I want to believe that we can hold space for our differences, and in doing so, move together in struggle and sharing that is never total, pursuing a world that emerges from between multitudinous modes of living on this planet.

artist, scholar, Visiting Assistant Professor at Denison University, genderqueer/nonbinary (they/them/their) http://michaeljmorris.weebly.com