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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Locating citizenship across the city politics of AIDS in Vancouver, Canada Brown, Michael Peter


Chantal Mouffe has proposed a theory of political engagement or “citizenship” that rejects fixed, essential definitions to “the political”. With her pluralistic, non-essentialized political subject, she hopes for a means by which different political struggles can be linked together rather than ordered hierarchically or exclusively. Here citizens are associated in distinct but related struggles, rather than by legal status or community membership. A crucial point in her argument is that political theorists must look for new “spaces” of politics. Since she never expands on this call, we are left with little more than spatial metaphors that fix the locations where citizenship might be found. Political theory typically plots three separate spheres to describe people’s lives: the state, civil society, and the family. By spatializing these metaphorical locations I have taken up her call and explored the emergence of citizenship across these spatialized social relations through an ethnography on AIDS politics in Vancouver, Canada. For each allegedly discrete space in political theory, I note an ongoing restructuring that affects and is affected by the articulation of citizenship with the changes in social relations in place. These restructurings suggest that fixed, essentialized characterizations of space must also be rejected. I sketch the considerable overlap between social relations of state, family, and civil society in locations across Vancouver’s AIDS politics. Radical civil disobedience failed because activists failed to understand the overlap of state and civil society through AIDS service organizations. Within those agencies, political engagement is caught between grassroots community orientations (civil society) and the emergence of a large, rapidly bureaucratizing service system attached to the state. Volunteers who provide all manner of support (from social work to kinship) for people living with AIDS likewise complicate any clearcut distinction between state and family. The overlap of the family with civil society is illustrated by the Vancouver display of the AIDS Quilt. It was at once a fundraising event held in civil society, yet it was also a familial space: allowing families and friends to grieve and mourn their dead. Spatial overlaps enabled (and also constrained) citizenship, as Mouffe defines it. These hybrid spaces articulate de-centered citizens with the ongoing restructurings of state, civil society, and family that are concurrent to the AIDS epidemic. Consequently, I conclude that future work on radical democratic citizenship consider the contexts in which the citizen engages in political struggle.

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