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«by Matthew D. Chin A dissertation submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy (Social Work and ...»

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Spinoza’s understanding of feelings serves as a starting point for scholars seeking to study feelings empirically. Spinoza states, “by emotions, I understand the affectations of the body by which the body’s power of activity is increased or diminished, assisted or checked together with the ideas of these affectations. Thus, if we can be the adequate cause of one of these affections, then by emotion, I understand activity” (1992, p. 102). In making a case for the significance of studying feelings and how this may be accomplished he states, “The emotions of hatred, anger, envy etc. considered in themselves, follow from the same necessity and force of nature as all other particular things. So emotions are assignable to definite causes through which they can be understood and have definite properties, equally deserving of our investigation as the properties of any other thing” (1992, p. 102). In mining Spinoza’s work to construct an approach to the study of feelings, I note two specific points that existing approaches fail to take into consideration. One is the conception of feeling in terms of activity that is not necessarily confined to (though consequential for) the human body. The second is that feelings are amenable to analyses that are applied to the workings of the natural order. In different ways, these two points have been noted by other scholars. For instance, Gregg and Seigworth (2010) maintain that Spinoza “locates affect in the midst of things and relations (in immanence) and, then in the complex assemblages that come to compose bodies and worlds simultaneously…[affect is conceived as] an entire vital and modulating field of myriad becomings across human and nonhuman” (2010, p. 6) The tools provided by existing approaches to the study of feeling are not up to the task of analyzing feelings as conceptualized by Spinoza. For instance, while some scholars have focused on discourse in the analysis of how people communicate in various forms about feelings as a way of conceding to their apparent immateriality (Irvine, 1990), such an approach fails to capture what Spinoza describes as feelings’ naturalistic operations. And while other scholars have embraced practice theory as a way of rejecting the separation of feelings from questions of embodiment (Ramos-Zayas, 2012), they have failed to take into account feelings’ non-human dimensions. In this section, I turn to Actor Network Theory (ANT) as a way of addressing the shortcomings of these approaches and providing a more capacious analysis of feelings. In a somewhat long winded description, John Law (2009) characterizes ANT as “a disparate family of semiotic tools sensibilities and methods of analysis that treat everything in the social and natural worlds as a continuously generated effect of the webs of relations within which they are located. It assumes that nothing has reality or form outside the enactment of those relations. Its studies explore and characterize the webs and practices that carry them. Like other material-semiotic approaches, the actor network approach thus describes the enactment of materially and discursively heterogenous relations that produce and reshuffle all kinds of actors including object, subjects, human beings, machines, animals…” (2009, p. 141) There are two specific traits of ANT that make this approach particularly fitting to the study of Spinozian feelings. The first is ANT’s commitment to relationality. ANT provides a set of tools that levels divisions that are typically taken to be foundational within the social sciences.

One of the ways that such leveling happens is by rendering the social world as flat as possible so that connections and disconnections between phenomena can be clearly rendered (in this regard chemical bonds are not necessarily fundamentally different from legal ties for example) (Latour, 2005). Yet while ANT approaches have collapsed binaries between meaning and materiality, macro and micro and (especially controversial) human and non-human, few studies have turned their focus to the realm of feelings. Yet Spinoza’s metaphysical monism and his insistence that feelings be treated like any other object of scientific/naturalistic inquiry serve as particularly fitting within ANT’s approach. Using ANT is especially constructive in the study of feelings because by tracing the associations (to use Latour’s language) scholars can analyze how feelings are not only individual subjective states of being, characteristics of particular kinds of settings or questions of political economy but also how they may be part of all of these phenomena at once.

Secondly, ANT’s insistence on construction squarely aligns with Spinoza’s emphasis on feelings’ generativity. As mentioned earlier, Spinozas treatise on feelings is oriented toward the achievement of happiness by augmenting “man’s” capacity. In contrast to the deconstructive impulse of much of the social sciences, ANT expresses a commitment to productivity. Latour writes “dispersion, destruction and deconstruction are not the goals to be achieved but what needs to be overcome. It’s much more important to check what are the new institutions, procedures and concepts able to collect and reconnect the social” (2005, p. 11). While few ANT theorists would specifically identify with Spinoza’s goal of cultivating human joy, many nevertheless do articulate the importance of pushing for positive social change. For instance, in her explicitly political material semiotics, Donna Haraway (1991) uses tropes such as the cyborg to undermine politically and ethically problematic conditions. She maintains that scholars make realities through their work and are thus compelled to grapple with deciding on the differences that they seek to make.

Making the case for analyzing feelings through ANT is not to deny the shortcomings of this approach. For instance, while its practitioners insist that ANT is not a theory in the sense that it doesn’t attempt to explain why events occur but rather to describe how relations are assembled (or not), critics have labeled such a stance as apolitical and have pointed out that ANT scholars often end up taking the side of dominant groups (Haraway, 1997). Such a charge is unlikely to be made in the context of this project however, given that the tools of ANT are explicitly being used to analyze relations found among subordinated populations (though these relations are not confined exclusively to these collectivities). It is only by keeping these and other criticism of ANT firmly in view that it’s potential for the study of feelings can be most effectively utilized.



The decision to focus this study on queer and trans people of color was no accident. My first entrée into a social world of simultaneously raced, gendered and sexual difference took place at the doorway of a portable classroom housed just outside one of the buildings at the University of Toronto, Scarborough (UTSC). Based on posters that I had seen around campus, I knew that this was where I could find the “Lounge”, a club for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) students. It was my second year as an undergraduate student in International Development Studies and I had not yet decided to take on an additional major in Anthropology. In choosing to open that door however, I was making an altogether different kind of decision. Having grown up in Kingston, Jamaica and witnessed the casual ubiquity of intense homophobic violence, entering that portable felt like moving into another world. As the majority of the students at UTSC were students of color with immigrant backgrounds, the Lounge was my entry point to a world of queerness that was intimately tied to racialized otherness.

Over ten years later, I still have a strong connection to several people I met through the Lounge and they are prominent characters in the chapters that follow. It was through the people I met at the Lounge that I first came to be involved in predominantly queer and trans of color community art initiatives like Asian Arts Freedom School (AAFS) and Blockorama, both of which are featured in this dissertation. Groups like these were instrumental to developing a deeper understanding of myself in social contexts that often failed to recognize the interconnectedness of my different lived experiences. Initially understanding “gayness” as a “white thing", I was deeply moved by the fact that I could listen to reggae and dancehall in an environment that celebrated African-diasporic, Black and Caribbean queer and trans people.

Feeling confused by Canadians bafflement when confronted with a Chinese person speaking with a Jamaican accent, I found refuge in AAFS creative writing exercises which actively made space for many different permutations of Asian (including considerations of gender and sexuality as the two founders describe themselves as queer women).

While I benefited from taking part in different community programs, I joined the LGBT YouthLine, a telephone support service for queer and trans youth throughout the province of Ontario, as a way to be a more active contributor to the communities that I was fast becoming a part of. My experiences with queer and trans of color community arts initiatives and with supportive counseling led me to ask questions about the role of the arts in improving the wellbeing of subordinated populations. In leaving Toronto to go to the University of Michigan for my doctoral studies, I focused my dissertation project on trying to understand the impact of art programming for people of color with mental health conditions. I was able to find an ethnoracial community mental health agency that had a plethora of art programming and that agreed to be part of the study. Yet after several months of participant observation as a social work intern with the agency, I received the unpleasant surprise that the staff member who had brought me into the organization was fired from her post. I was informed that while I was welcome to stay on as an intern, it was no longer acceptable for me to conduct research there.

In trying to figure out how to salvage my dissertation project, I turned to friends and colleagues to ask about other organizations that I could work with. I consistently received the suggestion to contact the very organizations that inspired my initial project, "what about Asian Arts Freedom School?" my friends would ask. And the suggestions were not just confined to the programs that existed when I was in my early 20s. I was being told about all kinds of predominantly QTPOC arts initiatives that I hadn't heard of before: ILL NANA DiverseCity Dance Company, Unapologetic Burlesque, The People Project, Write On!, Rhythm Roots & Resistance (R3), Crafty Queers, 88 Days of Fortune, Femme Fatales, The Kiki Ballroom Alliance, Mangos with Chili and Raging Asian Women (RAW) among others. I decided to refocus my dissertation on trying to understand the sheer volume of largely queer and trans of color arts group in Toronto.


The fact that I chose to work in a social scene that I had previously been part of for several years has several implications for how this project unfolded. Obtaining consent for participant observation and interviews was generally a straightforward and uncomplicated process. Even for people that I had never met before, simply locating myself in Toronto’s QTPOC social scene was enough for them to agree to participate.

This is not to say that many, even those I had been friends with for over a decade, didn’t have questions for me. As mentioned earlier, many of the people that I worked with have at least some level of tertiary education and a good number of these individuals already had experience with social research. I fielded sophisticated questions about my research objectives, how I planned to disseminate the research findings and the possibility of participants being able to see my fieldnotes. As I write this introduction, I am in the process of revising one of the dissertation chapters to be published in a book edited by one of my interlocutors, who reminded me that some of the people that I worked with on this project will likely publish their artwork in this book and that even more of them will read it. I conducted this study with the full understanding that the entire research process would be open to the scrutiny of those involved.

This was a terrifying thought. As I describe in chapter four, politicized queer and trans people of color in Toronto do not hesitate to "call out" or publically criticize situations and incidents that they perceive to be problematic. Would I be "called out" for my work? Would I damage my relationships with my friends by improperly representing them and/or the initiatives they are involved with? All researchers, especially anthropologists share this concern, but it is especially worrisome for anthropologists who work "at home". For anthropologists working away from "home" the fact that the reception of their work may damage their relationships with their interlocutors does not necessarily impact their relationships at "home". This is not the case for “insider” anthropologists whose friends and family are the focus of their investigation. While critics of insider anthropology argue that these kinds of studies often operate as recuperative projects, highlighting the positive aspects of the social relations under investigation while eliding issues of conflict, one can nevertheless understand this approach in the context of the pressures of conducting “insider” research.(Bunzl, 2004; Jacobs‐Huey, 2002; Narayan, 1993) Yet it is important to note that “privileging the ‘insider’ does not, and never will, privilege everyone on the ‘inside’ equally” (Domínguez, 2000, p. 365). While I consider myself a queer person of color, and while I have experience with community arts organizing in Toronto, in many ways I am very different from the people that I worked with in this study. I am in the position of getting a doctorate by conducting research on community arts, a topic that, for many in this project, form the basis of their relationship to others and for others serve as the foundation of their livelihood. This degree will provide me with the class mobility that many of the people I worked with do not have access to. Thus, while I can grumble with my friends about the increases in our monthly rents and the gentrification of our neighborhoods, in several years, it is highly likely that I will be in the position to be able to afford the housing from which they are currently being squeezed out.

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