Alexis Shotwell: Against Purity

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Something there feels important to me about...doing what we can from where we are, building our capacity to do more, and refusing to be convinced that it’s hopeless for us to do anything if we can’t solve everything.
Alexis Shotwell

Alexis Shotwell discusses her book Against Purity: Living Ethically in Compromised Times with Chris Richardson. Shotwell is an associate professor at Carleton University, on unceded and unsurrendered Algonquin territory. Her political work focuses on queer liberation, Indigenous solidarity and decolonization, and feminist community education.  She is the author of Knowing Otherwise: Race, Gender, and Implicit Understanding (Penn State Press, 2011) and Against Purity: Living Ethically in Compromised Times (Minnesota University Press, 2016). She has published in Signs, Hypatia, The International Journal of Feminist Approaches to Bioethics and Sociological Theory. Her academic work addresses racial formation, disability, unspeakable and unspoken knowledge, sexuality, gender, and political transformation.


I read this book for the first time as an undergrad, and it remains a text I return to over and over again for its dense, generative engagement with race, sexuality, the erotic, solidarity and coalition politics, and the work of personal and political transformation. Lorde’s work continues to offer so much, especially for the ongoing work of not just theorizing but responding to the upswell of anti-Black racism facing us today.

Tallbear’s vital work on the politics of DNA testing (especially as manifest in white settlers claiming Native identities) models one of the best practices of engaging with scientific practice and knowledge-making I’ve seen. This book remains for me a touchstone in thinking about the ways ordinary people practice racism while thinking they are simply learning something interesting about their lives. Also super useful for any white people’s next conversation with their racist grandmother about supposed “Cherokee blood” in the family tree.

Kafer’s brilliant writing is foundational for anyone who wants to think about time, our entanglement with the world, and how the social relations of places and people shapes our subjectivities. Organized around the question of what a politics of crip futurity might be or become, Kafer’s book offers a coalitional and rich opening for imagining what worlds we might craft in which many beings can flourish.

I read Sharpe’s engagement with how we inherit the past, hold the present, and shape possibilities for the future this past summer and I think about it at least once a week. This text examines “the wake” of enslavement - the wake of the slave ship, sitting in wakes because of the unjust distributions of death, being woke and doing “wake work” - in ways that open so many points of attachment. A dense work of grieving, this is one of the most generous offerings of theory I’ve read in years.

Haraway’s thinking is impossible to contain, always sparky, and generative. This book is a key text for those of us who look at the state of the world and despair, offering space for collectively responding to ontological entanglement and connection. It’s another one that works on reckoning with the past and present while resisting the boring forked paths of either hoping for some technological triumph or taking refuge in helpless defeatism as we try to imagine the future.