On the abuses of consent

I write the following because I am reflecting on different conditions of romantic relationships. In addition to extreme versions of these abuses taking place when I was raped after my father’s funeral in 2011, there are relatively subtler but also in effect brutal and damaging versions that happen far too often to both me and other people in my life who are in (cis-het and sometimes non imperial) relationships.

1) Having sex with someone when you think you are likely to imminently change the social contract with them but have not told them you have feelings of ambivalence is an abuse of consent. Some people may only desire touch and intimacy if they know what the relation is and have agreed to it and will not have sex (or maybe even desire) if the emotional context does not feel safe enough. Knowing what the relation is and deciding whether it is agreeable is the necessary ground for vulnerability and consent for many people, and trauma and rape survivors in particular. It needs to be understood that consent is not only about people and acts but also about conditions and agreements. If you do not express that you are about to change the agreement you had made with each other, you are robbing the other of their capacity to make an informed decision. Consent taken by stealth is not consent.

2) If you both have agreed to a particular form or style of touch, and you suddenly change it, and the other is upset by this, the act will have trouble converting back into consent unless you discuss and agree retroactively. For instance, telling someone you were feeling elsewhere or overwhelmed, and that’s the reason you clutched or grabbed a part of their body they had specified is sensitive, is not enough. If the other is upset by it, you have to take responsibility for the fact that you violated their trust, and try to figure out why you would engage sexually during overwhelm or elsewhere-ness unless you had together agreed this would be ok. It is also necessary to figure out why or how whatever it was you were feeling took on the form of being violating, inconsiderate, abusive (etc). Furthermore, removing yourself from the sexual relationship, ie “breaking up” or ending the relation, as a response to being confronted is unlikely to get that consent granted. If anything, it will deepen the sense of violation, and worse still, give the message that you had assumed control over the conditions of touch while the other is silenced.

3) Making decisions about how the relationship will change without communicating with the other is to steal their autonomy from them. How can the other accept new conditions you impose if they do not know what that new agreement is? If, for example, you communicate daily, but you wish to not communicate for some period of time, it has to be accounted for with some kind of statement. The other does not exist to play a complicated sleuth game in order to determine your hidden wishes: that is an abuse of their time and mental health. To not communicate changes in the tempo of communication is to impose domination on the other, and to treat them as a lesser being. To not communicate is to impose domination. To withhold feeling is to impose domination. These are triggering and exploitative. They force the other to boil over into emotional excess because the other is now tasked with being the one who feels and expresses for both of you and is then charged with the emotional labor of both of you without having volunteered or signed up for it.

4) If you have hurt the other, but then impose on them your own problems, needs or demands, and you only want to talk about yourself, you force the other to do your emotional work while avoiding the work you need to do to restore them after hurting them. Going into a hole of misery and self-loathing is a self-involved and narcissistic response that costs the other not only by withholding substantive accountability to them but by making them feel worse via revoking their freedom to respond to the pain you inflicted. It is thereby also a silencing tactic. Your self-focus in such circumstances privileges your discomfort and life above theirs, giving them the message that their value, trauma and pain is less important than yours. It is also not the other’s responsibility to protect you from your fallen ideals about yourself.

5) In most collaborative contexts, if you make a creative decision that hurts the other with political implications that violate their positions, and then distract by interrogating them on their political views about creativity, art (etc.), you are neutralizing their capacity to decide whether they want to continue being in association with you based on the grounds of that decision. If, for example, you choose to collaborate with someone who has supported a rapist or been complicit in rapist behavior, you should be very clear that this is your intention so that the other can choose if they wish to continue their work or personal relation with you. Grilling the other on their views about art, putting them on the defensive, suggesting that they are ‘too political’ is an aggressive and controlling approach to you dropping alliances and changing loyalties. It obfuscates and confuses the issues so as to “trick” the other into a complicity they may not choose.

6) To those (usually cis men) who feel “overwhelmed” by the subtleties of emotional demand by the other, or remain shut down and refusing of effort, and feel they would rather find someone ‘like’ them, for example White, complicit, willing to steamroll themselves to be with you: whether or not you end the relation, the other is under no obligation to shut up because you have outlawed or marginalized their feelings whether that’s via you being too ‘sensitive’ to deal with them or for another reason. The other does not need to stop feeling or expressing that feeling because it makes you uncomfortable. If you invoke culture, nationalism or norms to justify regulating communication because you cannot let otherness in, it’s you who have a shadow psychology of the alt-right and/or vocel/incel movements. It’s vital for a social reality against xenophobia that you do your own work with regards to allowing the autonomy of the other to be other, to be expressive or emotional as, when and where they need to be, and, very importantly, until they feel heard. Emotional and expressive people should not be made to feel that cold, distant, objectifying ways of thinking are superior, more legitimate or more rational, nor should they be made to apologize for criticisms of you that you find to be “too much”. Unless the other is actually making things up (which rarely happens), treating their responses as excess or something that needs to be kept at a distance is a form of gaslighting. In this respect wanting to stay in contact only under conditions that communication remains simple or uncomplicated is an act of domination and amputation, and also superiority and arrogance. Making the other fight to express feeling as if they are ‘beneath’ a rational gaze or ‘too brutal’ for an overly sensitive one are strategies for gaining power. They further induce the attachment of the emotional other because they are not only fighting for the right to communicate and be heard, but also to exist as feeling people. With you or without you in the room, this is a form of casual violence that can, over time, break down the other’s sense of equality and viability in the world.

7) The gendered manipulation of what (usually) men refer to as “ultimatums” is a means for diminishing the other’s needs. In few circumstances does anyone willingly sign up for a relation in which their needs will be ignored. If they stress that they cannot remain in contact without particular needs being met, constructing this as an ultimatum is to diminish that importance in order to fabricate a tragedy of you having to do something to make your relation habitable for them. 

8) If you are more interested in preserving your ideals about the self than your impact on the other, you are throwing a human under the bus for an egotistical abstraction. This is even worse and more toxic if you posture as a person who deeply cares about the other’s suffering. Under such circumstances, you are using a false presentation of yourself to gain the other’s trust when you are not trustworthy.

9) If you agree to a contract with the other but materially break it at the last minute, you are stealing the other’s right to pull out of that contract or negotiate as an equal party. For instance, if you agree to a face to face meeting with the other under specific conditions they lay out, but you show up to that meeting with zero intention of meeting those conditions, you have manipulated the terms of the meeting and excised and disrespected the other’s needs.

10) Manipulating situations to avoid your own vulnerability in such a way as to force the other to be vulnerable is an abuse of their consent to be mutually vulnerable together. For instance, not lifting a finger to restore or maintain friendship and then claiming you didn’t know if your attempts would be unwelcome is to create a risk free environment for yourself in which the other has to assume all risk to get anything from you, even closure. If you have already abused their consent in other ways, then their undertaking of that risk damages and degrades them.

This list is by no means exhaustive.


In discussions of institutions and bureaucracies, communities of critical discourse have for decades referred to the idea of “casual violence.” In such contexts, formal agencies such as universities, health facilities, housing regulators, intentionally or unintentionally, have few if any procedures in place to engage human needs. Such agencies often use statements about being unintentional and overwhelmed to claim that their actions that have caused human casualties, suffering and pain, are neutral, without agent, or could not have been helped. 

While psychoanalysis has traditionally placed a high proportion of focus on the caretaker or family of a given subject, the family is only one of many institutions to which the subject is exposed. Many of us are born in hospitals, educated in schools, dependent on various infrastructures, and later in life continue to inhabit a large portion of the day in institutional or corporate places of work while navigating other agencies during leisure or down time. As a result, thinking, feeling, being is at least, if not more, ‘born’ and composed by institutional practices that are not the family.  Humans internalize agencies and institutions. In navigating the bureaucracies of the self we must be watchful of how, where and when we use correlate personal forms of casual violence to control others, how we make the other more convenient, justify ill using them, become unaccountable when confronted by them, or get them to meet the needs of the self without reciprocating.

I reject the social reality wide campaign of casual violence that demands that the other should learn more resilience for ignoring her own needs, or accept the confusion of imperial genders that stipulates that violence meted out via “innocence,” unintentionality, lack of precedent or procedure, must be tolerated. Rather it is the imperial genders, often especially White men, who need to strengthen their resilience in the service of being able to deal with being confronted or called out, to aid and listen in conflicts that produce equality, and to recognize that their own situation with the world’s bureaucracies has enabled them to internalize a machine that reduces the other to mere material for their own fulfillment. If one form of toxicity is a masculine rage that habitually refers to enslaving, torturing or killing the other, using the language of military prisons or a brutal history of Catholic discipline and its cinematic derivations, its correlate is the language of the absent bureaucrat who was elsewhere and had nothing to do with a violence that ‘happened.’

How can there be social change if you relegate the other to wandering your own internalized dark labyrinths of inhumane hospitals, disciplinary schools, prison-industrial complexes and churches of rape? The response that says “my damage to you was unintentional, I felt overwhelmed, I had no procedure in place” is both inadequate and structurally violent. If you damage the other, and they have to take on a complex, living and likely painful process that requires them to rebuild, then so must you. You, like them, should desire to undertake in its fullness the invention, difficulty and creativity that healing requires, with the other if they allow it, and by yourself if they do not. 

There may be reasons for a survivor to use a bureaucratic approach, to turn the lights out, to collapse into absence or lack of procedure, to speak through scripts with condescension, in order to fully remove herself from the toxic. It’s a viable and efficient form of protection against abuse and domestic violence. However, the same tactics become a sickening and toxic form of control when the imperial use it against the other in order to maintain for themselves a position of power, to extract the other’s labor, emotions, vulnerability, pliability, agreement or sexuality. 

The bureaucracies of the self that produce “toxic” behavior may be arrived at via means other than malicious intent. To make the net effect not the same, these issues must be dealt with, addressed, reflected on, and fully encountered, not written off with more of the same.

As the author of this piece, I do not claim to have always considered well enough those who were other to me in every instance of my life, or suggest that I make this critique from ‘above.’ Rather, I write this to hold myself to a higher standard, to abstain from practicing the formulaic self-forgiveness that permits imperial violence in order to support my own right to it, a cycle that reproduces an endless sadomasochism of despair, the coldness and cruelty of maintaining narrowed, controlling, mechanical, manipulated and/or starved social bonds. The particular forms of self forgiveness that support the bureaucracies of the self, and its right to exploit and abuse, do not create liberty. 

I write this because I learn. It is when the learning process of relations is refused, toxic behavior and masculinity go from being transient moments to being fixed laws that break down and destroy the other. 

Many of us who are being exploited would like to protect our relationships from these criticisms. In Lacanian psychoanalysis, specifically in the work of Marie-Helene Brousse, the other degrades themselves in order to protect the status of the Master under the conditions of being abused. This means that many of us will try to dig ourselves in deeper with the one who has taken the position of dominance in order to give him the time and space and means to heal the wound and reverse course, if not because he has narrowed our world and broken our self esteem such that alternatives appear far away or unfeasible. It should not be assumed that this further entrenchment, or fear of sustaining further forms of damage, means that damage has not been done and/or is not ongoing.

It should also be stated that bureaucracies of the self need to be attended and scrutinized not out of fear of a lawsuit or a bad reputation, but out of desire to be a full participant in a non-violent social reality, living social bonds, and the possibility for any kind of love as that which founds growth and enables and respects the autonomies of otherness. Social bonds of all kinds, the way we engage, love, fail to consider, casually (or in any other way) violate or abuse others, are our contribution and link in the chains or freedoms of social reality. They are the legacies of the self that will outlast our living and dead presences.

Lastly, the importance of ‘consent’ needs to be extended from the conversation about rape. Rape, as the devastating violation of the life and being of the other, is the flesh and blood of the notion of consent and should not be ignored as its conceptual site of nurture. It’s because of this context, not in spite of it, that consent should be at the foreground of how social relations are thought, and how autonomies are lived. Consent is at the center of any possibility of autonomy because it grants the energy of possibility and limit at every level, radiating from the body outwards. With every abuse of consent, from the officers who steal life, to the hospitals that create more illness under the promise of creating health, to the wars that promise peace, to the lover who uses abuse or control to hide his incapacity to love, comes the further withering of the possibility of collective freedom.

(Image Credit: Firestorm Books)

Who, under torture, is not a child?

I find myself increasingly upset by the emphasis on children in the discussion of current human rights abuses. Though in many cases, it can be more damaging for children to be subject to them, the emphasis needs to be on the nature of the crimes, not the vulnerability of the subjects. Had Epstein lured 30- or 60-year-olds with promises of money and safety in order to rape and traffic them, he would still be committing crimes against humanity. Adults and the elderly are also victims of rape and trafficking. As Epstein’s incarceration records show, anyone can be lured if not by money, then by fear. All humans are vulnerable: the focus needs to remain on traumatizing and unacceptable acts, rather than on the special vulnerabilities of the victims. To continue as such is to run and play ‘catch up’ to the abuser’s discourse; it’s to piecemeal justice.

Adults being held at the border in places far exceeding maximum capacity, without being able to wash, being deprived of adequate nutrition or being recipients of threats and other violence, are atrocities that are happening as I write this. While it’s true that the impacts to children may be more severe, no human can withstand this kind of treatment. 

Though it is a horrific crime to separate children, the focus on them is increasingly being steered into a Christian and Republican framework. With pictures of girl children and innocent victims, the Handmaid’s Tale reality continues to write the rules. Fighting on the platform of the Innocent Victim will not yield a more equally participatory reality. Rather it is a response to crisis that will have the effect of further entrenching patriarchy, allowing its rules and domination to deepen. More than its predecessor, the current administration manipulates by using crisis as the place where populations run back to an illusory safety of ancient ideas about power and order: panic often hosts an appeal to authority and traditions. How can there be an overcoming of these brutal chapters if such defaults are not rejected?

The emphasis on children also demonizes people who are legitimately afraid for their own fates and/or lives by consistently suggesting that the most valid approach to fighting is to fight for others. Women especially are called selfish when we advocate for ourselves. 

There needs to be a sacred universal and thorough law that shields everyone at all times against the infliction of trauma and violently imposed vulnerability. It needs to be bigger, more sacred and more dimensional than human rights. Perhaps it should run deeper than law, be a coda or a primary ethic, at the foundation of human learning that is taught from the beginning of life, present in film, in search functions, apps, music. For no one is exempt from fragility. 

While it’s true that fighting for children can also be seen as fighting for the most urgent of cases, and maybe, seemingly, the most obvious ones to prosecute in the current State, the risk of losing a concept of universal requirements needs to be remembered at all times. And maybe, it also needs to be remembered, that the cruel power that writes and enforces policies of ‘security’ doesn’t now and mostly never has cared about children any more than adults except as bodies for mass experimentation and other forms of human capital. This is not new or exceptional: the State’s rhetoric has always been propaganda. 

So whose game is being played when the idea of ‘children’ is over represented as a quick and rough appeal to sentimentality? What is succeeding when children are scripted into narratives of innocence to mobilize emotions and appeal to the libidinous concept of predator and prey?


(Photo Credit: The New Yorker / Jose Luis Gonzalez / Reuters)

I will not be able to vote for Biden in a general election

I will not be able to vote for Biden in a general election. It is not a question of being unwilling, but a question of being able. I’ll be traveling far away from the US when the election rolls around. I will have to remember it’s happening, print and mail in a ballot weeks before. Others will have to walk to a booth and stand in line.

Accordingto Adolph L Reed Jr and Cornel WestIn 1984, Biden joined with South Carolina’s arch-racist Strom Thurmond to sponsor the Comprehensive Crime Control Act, which eliminated parole for federal prisoners and limited the amount of time sentences could be reduced for good behavior. He and Thurmond joined hands to push 1986 and 1988 drug enforcement legislation that created the nefarious sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine as well as other draconian measures that implicate him as one of the initiators of what became mass incarceration.” According to Reed and West, Biden enthusiastically supported so-called welfare `reform’, military interventions, and cutting both Medicare and Social Security. Meanwhile, Biden opposed reproductive rights and justice, particular abortion rights, actively supporting the Hyde Amendment. So much for pro-union, pro-worker, pro-poor, pro-women.

By humiliating and abusing Anita Hill, Biden put Clarence Thomas on the Supreme Court. Remember the Anita Hill hearing, where Biden satnext to next to Strom Thurmond, the Republican with whom he sponsored the Comprehensive Crime Control Act? Together, Thurmond, Hatch and Biden had collaborated on policies against the interests of women and criminally profiled communities.

At the hearing JC Alvarez, one of four witnesses, delivered a sensationalist and infantilizing attack on Anita Hill’s character, tearing apart Hill for being a loner and having differences with the other “girls”.

Ultimately Nancy Fitch’s statement of “zero probability” won the day as she described an impressive resume of academic achievements to bolster a claim of objectivity, acting to exclude any possibility that Hill’s claims could be on any continuum with truth. At the time academics preferred the language of probability to the language of truth as a more precise way to engage the idea that human witnesses and narratives arrive with built-in limits of interests, emotions, stakes, personal interests and desires. In saying “zero probability,” Fitch reinstated the idea of objectivity to exclude the testimony of Anita Hill as a big ‘zero’ and to insert her own as the unquestionable 100% truth. Fitch had no evidence of how the probability could have been zero. She did not need to. Hill was the guilty party as demonstrated by her failure to participate fully enough in girl talk. With Fitch’s pseudoscience as support, the myth of Hill as a liar sprouted wings and took flight. With Hatch on one side of Thurmond and Biden on the other, they all intoned “zero probability,” closing the conversation, excluding Anita Hill from the realm of probability, a spectacular and formal appearance of the gaslight.

Biden as the formal representative aka ‘champion of women’ failed to dismantle a misogyny party backed by ‘science.’ That women witnesses, including a highly educated woman of color, were brought in to support Thomas and attack Hill speaks volumes and represents the experiment of using implicitly essentialist constructions of identity to dismantle decolonizing interests. If Biden was not intrinsic to that project, he caved into it.

The current iterations of Biden’s sexual misconduct seem to have enhanced his popularity, perhaps because forgiving him re-starts a cycle of letting “old fashioned” behavior slide. It begins a resistance to the new forms of inculcation that #metoo has fought at great expense to instill. A mass of women and non-cis-male figures and voices daily risk social standing, jobs and safety to dismantle the constant and casual violence that has stolen so many different forms of life and autonomy. This gaslight will blink ever more powerfully if Biden gets the nomination.

If Biden wins, his presence in the White House would reinforce that cis-White men are ultimately forgivable, no matter how many people they harm, abuse, traumatize and actively or passively kill. His election would shift the style of violence from Trump’s “alpha” to Biden’s “beta” that hides and smooths rather than struts. A Biden election would close the loop between Beta and Alpha swapping of power.

If Biden got the nomination, I’m quite sure my PTSD and avoidant behaviors would kick in; I would be somewhere else, forgetting, asleep, not there, and not there even if I wanted to be, even with 1000 people shouting the importance at me. I do not believe I am alone in this.

Any other candidate currently in the Democratic running field is better than Biden. Personally, I think Warren is the best and most qualified. She aims to get the candidacy via policy rather than via the machine of the spectacle. Electing Warren, making ‘likeability’ or slickness irrelevant, would be the best way to dismantle the personality cult structures that beget toxic masculinity and Trump.

If Biden gets elected, a third term of a Trumpian figure in 2024 is assured. Maybe the killing machine makes a lateral move for 4 years. But it will go back to its distillations a little further on, as the public begins to integrate and metabolize that toxic masculinities are here to stay in power. Trump needs to be gotten out with difference, not sameness; not the beta-male version. Just as Trump has been the high card for capitalism, Biden will hold the position in its current form until the next Trump comes along.

If Biden gets the candidacy, I’m guessing anyone easily triggered will be in bed with the covers pulled over their heads that day. Even people who want to get out and vote for Anybody But Trump could easily be paralyzed by an unconscious that holds trauma and holds them from being able to act. I will not be able to vote for Biden, but for literally any other candidate in the field I will remember to mail in my ballot.


(Photo Credit: Al Jazeera / AP)

Regarding university admissions racketeering

Universities should be free for students. Teachers should be paid a living wage and their jobs and safety should be protected. Universities should not be hierarchized as better or worse. Reading history, and the history of ideas and talking about social difference and differences of practice between people, cultures, thought, disciplines, eras, being (and so on) should be given more space, not less. Education is a right, not a privilege. The time and a special space to talk about how to make a more human, generous, habitable, livable world, ie one that is not murderous, disciplinary, controlling, violent in the name of profit or anything else, is a right not a privilege.

Were we to have an actual education system, one that did not require individual funds, one that enabled accountability, empathy and mutual transformation rather than superficial displays, it would not be possible to monetize the sub-standard grades of rich people. 

For many reasons the collapse of the current education system as any kind of generator of thinking or learning is intensifying. I invite especially those of us who have worked and lived as adjuncts, or have multiple degrees but now, or at some other protracted time, no job, or who felt trapped by material and immaterial cycles of violence in the University, to think about what kind of place of learning we might want to create and build.

If there is to be a different world, learning itself will need a new shape, not one patterned from moving up in ranks, being evaluated, or being valued as rich and successful, or accumulating without giving empathy via being watched as a spectacle in some form of “fame.” 

I want to ask: What didn’t we get? How can we help each other get it now?


(Photo Credit: Verso)

Nanette is layered, tactical, and lacerating in the most technical sense of the word

Nanette is layered, tactical, and lacerating in the most technical sense of the word.

There are few practices more promising of making an effect, and more crucial, than a rejection of the spectacle, slogans as expectations, reputations: the reputation of the rainbow, of the genius, of high art, of the lesbian, of the way the symbols of pride (as one of numerous examples) have prescribed and controlled the experience of it, for better and worse.

Can the visual prominence of the rainbow be suspended or be made elective for the sound of a clinking teacup?

Without our enfleshed or symbolic kings, who are we? Why do they get to name the sum of all perspectives? Even in perspectivalism, we arrive after they have chosen exactly who and what will populate the field.

Even when violence is finally talked about, its rituals dictate experience, of the dominant and of the would-be victims. Unspeakable pain is as immune to narrative as it is to words, it doesn’t fit into the sections of the world or the genres of expression. It falls out of the sides, hanging for dear life from a raft underneath, wondering if there is a way out of this parallel universe of suffering or whether the overground is as unlivable. How the abuser sucks the abused into his dream-world of pain, obscuring (sometimes) forever paths back to the world.

Identity is not a two-dimensional experience to be cared for with the “right” words, from the politique to the one whose identity is tied to their capacity to fix the other without transforming. No stasis can  hold a wound, or the other dimensions to which the sufferer is relegated. Flat images are thin, slicing, amputating.

Could it be now possible to move to a new language of discovering otherness that is not fixed in the terms of identity politics, but is more resistant and morphing, a deeper more fluid anti-technological mode of being that can hold vastness, change, alterity, feeling, and falling out of life? This is not the stiff stick figure of tolerance or the constellation drawings of coalitions. it’s not held in the endless arrows of blame or even forgiveness. Multidimensional realms of light, air, fluid, inter-psychic confessions held away from the gaze and also perhaps unintentionally traceable (or at least not silenced) are needed to drown the flat realm of understandings and sensibilities that have been colonizing en totale (ad) infinitum; a plasma drifting with celebrity reputations dismantled, fractured, made irrelevant or prosaic by mechanical acts if not felled by named aggressions.

Trauma is a parallel universe: its capacity to re-shape is only a tiny byproduct of this unknown element or being. What could happen if this plasma was not only not ignored but given a place en masse? When can  trauma stop switching between being the conjured nothing and the totally unlivable plasma of everything, and become something else, a lifeworld of its own “rights” (or of something more dimensional than rights)?


(Photo Credit: The Guardian / Meredith O’Shea)

Charlottesville or University of Virginia: The Locations of White Supremacy (2)

In the 1980s, Michael Ryan, a leading social theorist, was denied tenure at the University of Virginia. At the same time, up and coming postcolonial feminist theorist Gayatri Spivak was rejected for employment. In the late 80s, Ryan wrote a piece, for Semiotexte, entitled “Mr. Jefferson’s University”, in which he stressed Jefferson’s being a slaveowner. According to Ryan, the architecture of the University of Virginia had been designed for White Masters, purposefully to deny the body, and to enhance the Master/Slave structure of power. Ryan also noted that much of the town of Charlottesville was built on old slave quarters.

I attended the University of Virginia, later, when Emily Post’s “Manners are how we get along” acted like a purposeful restraint on the possibility of invested exchanges that might not follow specific rules. This social mandate ignored the question: are there only ‘manners’ and violence? Can something else exist? I was told I was un-mannered for saying complicated things, for asking people to listen too hard or read too carefully. My cis-het-man-colleagues were less harshly criticized. These “manners” echo in current discussions of “what happened in Charlottesville”. This echo invokes the socially formalized and reversed restraining order against the traumatized one who says too much. Sometimes the language of trauma, privation and of the imperialized has to be improvised and innovative.

Richard Rorty, the preeminent American philosopher who worked for decades at UVA and with whom I studied, was one of Pragmatism’s greatest advocates. Rorty believed that the world does not need theory, complex notions or any engagement with the analytics of social differences, but only needs the mechanical and usable protocols of science and commerce. His work legitimated a tidal wave of American anti-intellectualism. For decades Rorty held his position in pleasant well-mannered arguments with those of us who saw where his dream was going, and, in the end, he got his wish that theory be seen as useless and be done away with.

When I attended the University of Virginia, the English Department was hostile to most forms of theoretical work, especially those that responsibly carry considerations of the social world.

The famous 90s Hoax by Alan Sokal clarified a multi-decade attack on ‘Theory’ and theoretical methods that analyze historical events and scientific ideas, make predictions, open dialogues, and most importantly enable different approaches. It was a spectacular moment of a well-regarded entity being taken in by ‘fake news.’  It’s time to revisit that discussion. There are millions of ways to misread. If the editors of Social Text were acknowledging their own lack of scientific knowledge and deferring to the title of a decorated scientist, the critique could have been aimed at the acceptance of authority as institutional position rather than the language of theory. The outcome of a critique aimed at positional authority would have been vastly different. It might have opened a dialogue about the toxicity of deference, rather than promoting a widespread attack on diverse schools of thinking suddenly all yoked together as “jargon.”

There has been only one sanctioned way to understand the Sokal affair: that decades of social theory – including identity politics, postmodernism/poststructuralism, materialist feminism, historical materialism, subaltern histories, French sociology, linguistics, hermeneutics, phenomenology, a multitude of anti-imperialist considerations, and many other schools and ideas and combinations thereof – all became de facto fraudulent pseudo-scientific posturing that deserved to be ridiculed. Any iterations of reality outside of the always obviating norm were collapsed into identity politics – as if there were only one way to think social reality against empire. While theoretical work and its difficulty were embattled long before the Sokal Hoax, Sokal managed to produce a sudden, sweeping, universal revaluation of these now fully othered methods. That this revaluation happened could have spawned an enormous study on an instance of the sudden reconfiguration of truth. That so many possible dialogues were so successfully silenced should have provoked more suspicion. Instead mechanical reality has since become the norm. The utility and pragmatism of life have reigned with little opposition: only the technical masters of science are permitted to construct unchallengeable narratives about the world and its progress.

This silencing uber-coherence under the aegis of rational simplicity is White supremacy in its very form and being. Silencing is not what the Antifa are ‘doing to’ Unite The Right. Silencing is being denied engagement with the many variant and possible apparatuses for thinking.

The Sokal Hoax legitimated a major backlash against theoretical work, and seemed to forge part of the ether of shrinking departments and dismissals. Why were questions about being forced to speak Standard English not circulated more? What are the implications of the notion of a ‘transparent’ or ‘plain’ language? Why was this perfect plain simple language with its Emily Post manners of dotted “i”s considered the language of the non-elite? How White is it? Why are some technical languages permitted while others not? Who gets shot down for using big words or complicated sentences? What is wrong with learning, asking questions, reading slowly, looking up words? Why is it discrediting to give an author the benefit of the doubt while reading their work?

All of this has been part of White supremacy’s quiet maintenance program. It was theorists who saw and noted it decades ago, many of whom, including Michael Ryan at UVA in the 1980s, lost their jobs.

The advent of White supremacy in Charlottesville is no surprise, even if it’s not particular to now and not particular to Charlottesville. The University of Virginia has always been a location where White privilege not only perpetuates but strengthens, and where those stamped with degrees help each other into the highest offices. The myth that Universities safeguard histories or that White philosophy engages real questions of ethics was exposed decades ago in the work of thinkers like Spivak and Ryan. Now the substance of their work, their exposes, “call-outs,” concerns and criticisms, are being spectacularly played out.


(Photo Credit: Huffington Post) (Image Credit: The Nib / Nomi Kane)

Charlottesville or University of Virginia: The Locations of White Supremacy (1)

The narrative that occurred during Brexit and the election of Trump that continues with regards to the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville is that “educated people” understand the evils of racism while White supremacy is solely owned by a White working class. But the idea that those with a privileged University education are immune or exceptional is not a given. The violence, cruelty and hate that has appeared in recent and not-so-recent shootings or trolling seems to serve as a screen against which scholars, professionals, and/or the wealthy and prestigious hide their own contributions to social containment and control, and worse.

This kind of hiding halts and dismantles any inquiry into how supremacy gets preserved. Neither racism nor toxic masculinity have been completely eviscerated by any group to date, even if the strategies, methods and frequency of these things differ drastically among different groups. Some activism contexts, and a myriad of campus political movements, have recognized neo-fascism on the Left and within universities, covert forms of maintaining White power, and conflicts of interest when fighting on behalf of imperialized social bodies, identities, cultural realities and genders.

At the “Unite The Right” rally in Charlottesville, The University of Virginia appears repeatedly painted with a broad brush, as if the entire University had, without exception, participated in the counter-protest. I wonder about the role of fraternities, and faculty members and administrators who support them, and budget cuts for departments that analyze historical conflicts or engage social reality. UVA is a locus for producing famous and powerful White people. Even if now the entire University is against Trumpism and its White supremacist supporters, I believe those who practice eugenics, Great White Man reading practices in literature and history, and legalized date rape, among other examples, owe an explanation for how this transformation into an anti-Nazi university en totale came about. How do such miracles occur?

I raise three examples as practices that abound not just at UVA but in many university contexts. First, UVA’s history of eugenics, its “American scientists [who] pushed for the perfection of the human `gene pool’ by influencing the reproductive process” supports arguments of segregation, and justifies violence against and dehumanization as ‘sub-normal’ particular populations whose social conditions of despair and privation are occluded by statements about intrinsic or genetic inferiority. Though eugenics gets dismissed as a history healed by progress, schools of essentialism, the under criticized realism of biology, and speculations as well as the science of DNA remain ongoing obsessions, with DNA uniquely rendered as the profound and concrete analysis of life-being. No stably funded science-critical fields seem to exist to trace the social implications of the genealogies of these sub-fields.

Second, “Great Man Theory” pertains to the order of works and knowledge, most obviously in literary studies where meaning is explicitly granted in relation to authorship, but also in practices that span many disciplines, including history and the sciences. The order of authorship produces a category of special, elite, privileged (usually White, male, often imperializing) figures whose work is read and re-read, from which entire communities that influenced and cultivated them are erased. Ideas ordered around ‘great’ people simplify the reality of social existence, and misleadingly produce, stabilize, and sanitize a supreme actor while erasing the uneven and multi-dimensional thicket of an ever-discoverable social reality.

Third, ‘legalized rape’ refers to a legal system that values and devalues evidence in an order that nullifies the wishes, limits and corporeal autonomy of survivors who are most often of a class of people such as cis-women, people of non-conforming genders, disability, people of color, and those designated to provide informal and exploited labor in prisons, in domestic contexts, and as undocumented workers. The more networked and privileged the rapist, the more the law does not apply to him.

Days after the rally, UVA English Professor Mark Edmundson wrote an opinion piece that broke the crowd down into three types: antifa, fascist and “peace and justice people.” In his telling, the antifa and the fascists are both extremists, each with some good, bad and comedic qualities. He doesn’t align himself within these groups except as basically critical of Donald Trump, though not critical of Trump’s “violence on all sides” phrase, which he agrees with. Edmundson’s position of exteriority in which racism should be condemned, but that the expressions of rage it produces is no better than that which initiates it, aligns with white privilege. The position of his article is almost neutral. For many in the classes of people who fear for their lives in the presence of threatening expressions, a mild temperament such as Edmundson’s may not be an option. He mildly acknowledges this kind of experience but does not meet or encounter it in any sincere way. His statements are un-critical of “freedom of speech,” with ‘speech’ being the supreme right with little exploration of its uses for endangering much more concrete freedoms of those people this right was not written for. What does it mean for a UVA English professor of administrative power to permit and concur with Trump’s whitewashing of life and death matters?

The Nazi March’s main organizer, Jason Kessler, is an alum of the University of Virginia. Richard Spencer attended UVA for undergraduate work. Neither of these men qualify as White working class if education is the gold standard for defining pedigree. Neither of them appear to be the types who can be ignored because, as Edmundson puts it, “they can only spell cat on the third try.” And what does it mean for a highly-celebrated teacher such as Edmundson to suggest that the uneducated can or should be dismissed?

We must not turn a blind eye to the role University administrators have played in producing the current situation, or the role of universities in sanctioning supremacist political stances and forms of being-in-the-world. What is the social role of the Humanities and Social Sciences and why have they been so fully disempowered?


(Photo Credit: The Guardian / Lois Beckett)

I don’t feel sad that David Bowie died

I don’t feel sad that David Bowie died. I find it strange to adjust to the idea that figures like him, Lou Reed and some others are no longer alive. They were present somehow for my whole life. They’re close to my parents in age. I have thought about their personal lives, given hours listening to their music in my youth. But their deaths are like the final stages of fame to me. They mark the inequality of this relationship in which I will live an imaginary version of their intimate details, while they don’t know I exist (save for a strange encounter alone with Lou Reed on the subway.)

Both of them lived with fame and success. They represented the carrots on the end of the stick for the music industry, wielded quietly against a million would be musicians. They “helped” (?) categorize aesthetics and sexuality for even more people. They were part of the way kingliness and godliness sneak back in through the back door at the anti-authority after party, even if perhaps DB may have detested that idea. They represented the men’s cool which allowed some women in for a period in the 90s and then kicked them out after 9/11 when, in ‘Merica (and now globally) women lost yet another fight against being seen as childbearers, mothers.

I may never have started playing music if it were not for Lou Reed and David Bowie and their ilk, depending on who more directly credits their existence, and whether they influenced me. Then again, maybe I would have been something else.

Fame defines talent, not the other way around. There are probably a million storytellers on the planet who, given the right means, could make as (or more or differently) insightful and devastating set of final videos. But much of that group is being maimed and tortured by bad labor conditions; they’re being deported or held in an immigration cell; or they are taking care of babies at home. What would we learn if the resources of Columbia Records were put towards documenting these lives? What kind of music might the least musical among them create?

It’s strange to be in a world from which the glam and rock heroes are departing because death now immortalizes and justifies how out of reach they are. Even if Bowie is the nice celebrity, even if I could have run into either of them in Central Park on a nice day and had a conversation; even if I had friends who collaborated with them, their out-of-reachness is not about knowing them. Their subjectivities have been exploited to watermark the heavens and help produce an eternal return of the Same, in which some figures are Great, and others barely exist.

Why do we keep coming back here? On the tragic side, perhaps this kind of impersonal love is much easier than what’s involved in real human relationships. Or perhaps it’s easier to categorize the self according to the Master figureheads whose clothes, tastes and style were circulated by a mega-profiting industry. On the bright side, perhaps this love can be credited for the self’s brilliant moments as inspiration. I still want to ask: what might any of us have created without God?


(Photo Credit: Niklas Halle / Agence-France-Press / Getty Images / New York Times)