Benjamin Shepard, Play, Creativity, and Social Movements: If I Can’t Dance, It’s Not My Revolution (New York: Routledge, 2011).
Shepard’s new sociological text theorizes how play has come to be one of the more productive and exciting tools for social change and movement-building in our proverbial activist toolbox over the last five decades. This book usefully locates the creative and playful strategies of contemporary activists in a historical lineage and theoretical framework, while carefully noting the limits and failures of play as a social change strategy. Drawing from theoretical work on play by Huizinga, Bakhtin, Foucault, and, more recently, Ehrenreich amongst others, Shepard asks us how play figures into our social movements and how it might allow us to open up time and space in which new forms of self and sociality could emerge.
From the introduction, Shepard lays out a handful of key questions that underpin a range of case studies. These questions – “To what extent does play really contribute to or undermine social change activism? What is the play of social protest? Has the practice changed and why? What are best practices which have actually shown results in movements? And finally, how does play fit into an organizing campaign, if at all?” (6) – are examined with reference to a range of social movements and activist campaigns. Participant observation and oral histories create a personal tone that draws one into the book’s solid theoretical framework.
Shepard avoids offering a concrete definition of play. In loosely defining play, he is trying to articulate a feeling, a quality, an atmosphere, an experimental way of relating to the world and those around us that defies the exceedingly rational logic of American pragmatic neoliberal political culture. As Kelly Moore summarizes in the Foreword, “Play is the experimental and sometimes joyful quality of activism in which participants imagine and enact new selves, social relationships, and means of politics” (xv). At times the book seems to suggest play can be anything and everything, including charging a line of riot police in a street skirmish during a demonstration simply because it can bring joy to those who are physically confronting the police (18). This exceedingly loose conception of play speaks to its potential as a transformative strategy, but also risks depriving it of any specific meaning.
Each chapter covers a variety of social movements and activist campaigns including the Yippies, Young Lords, ACT UP, Lower East Side Collective, More Gardens!, Zapatistas, Reclaim the Streets, Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army, Critical Mass, Times Up!, Reverend Billy, radical marching bands, and many more. Although references to the Zapatistas and to the campaign of Immokalee workers fighting for better wages for agricultural workers appear in the book, non-urban movements and activist campaigns are largely left out of the analysis. This is likely in part due to the somewhat autobiographical nature of the book as Shepard shares many illuminating stories from his own experience in New York City, but it also points to a larger issue that continues plague left politics in the US: the undervaluing and unrecognized contributions of rural folks.
Shepard tries to address the criticism of play in social movements as a class-bound activity, one that only those with leisure time can enjoy (17). I agree with Shepard’s argument that this claim erases the histories of ludic organizing among economically disenfranchised people, but I’m not completely satisfied with Shepard’s response. I would like to see him address further questions of how resources related to staging playful protests are mobilized between well-resourced and under-resourced people, or perhaps a broader comparison of how strategies of play are applied between differing socio-economic classes. It would be interesting to see Shepard unpack this more thoroughly, but that the issue of class is directly confronted from the outset and more generally throughout the book is quite refreshing.
For activists in their late 20s or early 30s like myself, the final few chapters on the Global Justice Movement of the 1990s and 2000s are a critical historicization and analysis of my activist coming of age years. Shepard puts my experiences, and those of my peers, into historical context of the post 9/11 shift in movement organizing. He captures the roller coaster of emotions felt by many when trying to make sense of the shifting political landscape where play felt less and less relevant or appropriate while feelings of hopelessness, depression, and desperation saturated the collective mood.
While 9/11 brought a shift in the US political landscape, the November 2003 Miami protest against the Free Trade Area of the Americas elicited the wholesale state repression formulated in post-9/11 legislation like the Patriot Act. Tanks roamed the streets of Miami’s central business district, militarized police brutalized thousands, the media was redirected to the Michael Jackson sex abuse scandal, and many activists like myself spent days if not weeks in jail where verbal, physical, and sexual violence were exercised against us with impunity. Perhaps it is because I lived this moment, while Shepard acknowledges he didn’t witness it first hand, that I feel this turning point deserves a bit more attention in the text. This is the only mobilization I’ve participated in where in the aftermath, scores of people once active in creative and broad-based social justice organizing simply checked out and left the movement altogether.
Each chapter contains nuanced reflections on the efficacy of playful actions and organizing models and how they do or do not contribute to lasting radical social change. In his conclusion, Shepard, while acknowledging the limitations of the book’s predominantly urban case studies, lays out his findings on the strengths and limits of play. Most notably he contends that play helps create community, validates different ways of knowing and working in the world, fosters gratification, and supports holistic organizing strategies (266-273). Although he has an affinity for play as a strategy for radical social change, Shepard does not let this affection impede his clever and captivating analysis. In summarizing the limits of play, he notes that play can be co-opted and easily misunderstood, that it performs inconsistently as a strategy, and that it cannot function as a substitute for clear policy proposals or holistic organizing strategies (270).
Although not part of Shepard’s project, an account of the Non-Profit Industrial Complex (NPIC)1 would be useful here. As younger generations of creative activists are being funneled in greater numbers into the soul-sucking, 9-to-5 professional class of career activists, play and creativity are becoming smaller and smaller tools in the activist toolbox. This model of professional activism has its roots in some of Shepard’s best case examples of playful social movements, notably ACT UP and the AIDS activist movement. It would be interesting to see the impact of the NPIC on play and creativity in contemporary social movements analyzed with Shepard’s flair for personal narrative and articulate theorizing.
Lastly, for a book that costs well over one hundred dollars there should be far fewer typos, including Shepard’s name in a few places. It is unfortunate that Routledge would be producing poorly copyedited books whose production quality pales in comparison to the brilliance of its writers.
Reviewed by Ryan Conrad
PhD in Humanities at Concordia University, Montreal
1. A concept popularized by INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence, in their book, The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex (2009).