Dancing with Defensiveness

By Scarlet Hall

Social movements are struggling with how to shift a tendency towards defensiveness in response to anti-oppression calling out. Spinoza’s notion of affect offers a different approach to understanding the human and as such shifts how we think defensiveness.

Social movements in the UK and North American are working through a problem: what is necessary for people marginalised by mainstream society to participate, thrive and be empowered in radical spaces? How do we not replicate the same patterns of oppression and injustice? In the 60s and 70s the white feminist movement named how patriarchy manifested as violence in women’s lives, while black feminists challenged the erasure of racism in this analysis. This process of naming domination was met consistently with blocks and challenges, yet today an intersectional analysis of domination is much more common. Political strategies have shifted to recognise that histories and experiences of injustice are complex, and cannot be understood only through one form of domination and as such confronting violence must be intersectional. Such analysis is now much more common, and with that has come a sharp rise in the need and ability to name or call out instances in which people are participating in patterns of structural privilege and exclusion of others. With this has come an acute awareness of how common defensiveness still is, and the challenge this poses to continued collaboration and communality in social movements. For those who name violence, defensiveness is a move which at best fails to listen and at worse, counterattacks – either way it intensifies the harm.

Defensiveness is seen as a problem, and it is common to hear it being dismisses as a bad thing given how it perpetuates existing dynamics of power and privilege (Brown, 2018). Advice is given to not be defensive in response to directed namings of how actions are reinforcing sexism, or racism, or disablism. There are different tendencies at play as to how defensiveness might be overcome. There is one tendency which sees defensiveness as needing to be unlearned and that this takes “wisdom and humility” (Brown).  Gillian Brown argues that unlearning defensiveness is part of deep transformational work. This work is noted as being slow, requiring patience and support, and in need of certain kind of spaces in which transformation can happen. This approach coexists with the tendency which labels defensiveness as bad, childish, immature.  From this tendency there is a collective swell to discipline defensiveness away, to put it out of sight, to expel defensiveness from our presence.  In the tension and ambivalence between these two tendencies, there is a stuckness and frustration: what to do with defensiveness? What might help unstick this impasse?

05. Scarlet image 1Image 1: London Contemporary Dance School  (Photo by Alicia Clarke, https://www.lcds.ac.uk/choreography-improvisation-performance, accessed 4 July 2019).


Meanwhile in cultural geography there are conversations and concepts happening that research how worlding happens through affective ecologies, that is how bodies and ideas are formed through relations, rather than relations emerging as an effect of bodies coming in to contact.  The notion of affect has contributed to enlivening ongoing feminist conversations about emotions, the body and relationality. While there has been lots written about emotions such as anxiety, shame and fear, there seems to be little research specifically starting from defensiveness within the literature on affect. What is more prevalent is psychological research into defensiveness which understanding defensiveness as an internal act of keeping something out – as such is predicated on their being a bounded subject who can keep things out. How might ideas of the human from cultural geography influence and shift how we think defensiveness and how we relate to becoming defensive?

One such idea is that of affect. The affects were first written about by Baruch Spinoza in the 17th century. He was writing at the same time as Descartes, the philosopher for separating mind and body into two separate realms, with a parallel separation of ‘man’ (sic.) and ‘nature’. The legacy of Descartes informs much of the concepts we commonly use in activism, as Genevieve Lloyd writes:

to read Descartes is to read ourselves – to see made explicit some of the basic structures of modern self-consciousness… If to read Descartes is to read what we ourselves are, to read Spinoza is to get glimpses of what we might have been – of possibilities of self-consciousness that run against the grain. (Lloyd, 1994: 169)

Descartes’ philosophy manifests in the idea that defensiveness is a purely mental state that can be changed directly through reason, critique or choice. It manifests in the idea that defensiveness belongs to an individual. Spinoza’s ethics shakes up these ideas. His ideas are experiencing a revival as people search for currents in western philosophy that can free us from the worst of Descartes’ dualist philosophy, while not appropriating indigenous philosophies. I am interested in what thinking defensiveness through Spinoza’s affect may offer to get the problem outlined at the beginning unstuck.

Spinoza’s affect is a different way to think about the relation between mind, body, nature and ideas. Rather than seeing people as bounded, fundamentally separate individuals who can protect their body from others, Spinoza asserts that bodies and thought are composed through relationships. Everything is a relation between bodies, whether within, across or beyond the skin of bodies. We tend to consider the thing as stable. Affect changes the focus. Affects are what moves and shapes bodies. We aren’t first beings who then relate; it is through relating that we come in to being, and this being is always changing; always becoming.

05. Scarlet image 2Image 2: Seke Chimutengwende (https://theatrebristol.net/event/the-improvisational-performer-with-seke-chimutengwende/, accessed 4 July 2019).


Becoming defensive is becoming relational. To be defensive is to be affected. To become defensive is to act from that affective force. Becoming defensive is an act to repel something. There is a force directed outwards. That force is impressed back towards the body of the person who names the violence. (Ahmed, 2013). It impresses along the line of that force, affecting bodies along its path. There is also movement circulating intensely closer in – there may be tensions in habitual shoulders, palms sweating, a pattern of sensations clustering in the limbs. Becoming defensive also moves or reinforces ideas out in the world, into relation. When white people defend against the idea that they are bound up in racism, this idea that racism is not something liberal white people are complicit in gets reaffirmed.

Affect opens up a different space for how we understand our relationships with each other and with our sensate bodies. Rather than centring concepts of reason, or the individual, bodies and ideas are constantly emerging through their capacity to affect and be affected (Massumi, 2002: 213).  The future as such has more openness; there is more potential for transformation in relation. How do we work to increase this potential?

05. Scarlet image 3

Image 3: ‘And Every Night We Dance’ by Contact improvisation , Berlin (http://www.theyog.com/berlin/contact_impro_berlin/, accessed 4 July 2019).


Affect is not just affecting, but crucially the capacity to affect and be affected (Hynes, 2013). The notion of ‘capacity’ brings out how affect changes capacity and this capacity can be affected – it can increase or decrease. As such, affect “involves a transition in the capacity to affect or be affected” (Hynes, 2013: 561). Each body, whether corporeal or ideal, has a changing capacity to affect and be affected.

Research into defensiveness will need to delve in to the sensate and relational worlding of becoming defensive. Improvised movement as research offers a means to explore this sensate life of defensiveness. Yet how do we attune to defensiveness without getting caught in its intensity?  A improvisation score of moving from peripheral vision might be a way to approach it side on.

Movement also offers the space to explore those moments when defensiveness unexpectedly gives way to some other sensate experience. How can we be affected differently by the sensate experience that we feel as defensiveness?  If in the psychological model defensiveness is found in the bounded body, where is defensiveness found in an affective, Spinozan model? How might that be helpful for unsticking things in anti-oppression work? A curiousness to these questions is accompanied by a sense that these questions are dangerous. These questions unsettle the anti-oppression principle that situates defensiveness as fully the responsibility of the privileged person. Research into this field needs to move with sensitivity and an acute awareness of power. Yet experimenting and play might open up new movement of thought and of our sensate relational bodies. Who knows where dancing with defensiveness might go?



Ahmed, S., 2004. The cultural politics of emotion. Edinburgh, UK: Edinburgh University Press

Brown, G. 2018. Don’t Get Defensive: 6 Ways to Respond to Being Called Out Despite Your Good Intentions. Accessed 18th June 2019 at https://thebodyisnotanapology.com/magazine/dont-get-defensive/

Hynes, M., 2013. Reconceptualizing resistance: Sociology and the affective dimension of resistance. The British Journal of Sociology, 64(4), pp.559-577.

Lloyd, G., 1994. Part of nature: Self-knowledge in Spinoza’s Ethics. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Massumi, B. 2002. Navigating Movements” (interview) In Hope: New Philosophies for Change, (210-242) ed. Mary Zournazi. New York: Routledge; London: Lawrence and Wishart; Sydney: Pluto Press.

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