The role of forced birth in intensifying dystopian labor forms

“A scold is paraded through the community wearing the “bridle,” an iron contraption used to punish women with a sharp tongue. Significantly, a similar device was used by European slavetraders in Africa to subdue their captives and carry them to their ships.”

The U.S. Supreme Court recently created a material and spectacular demonstration of how historical occlusions persist in the present. The people who were not the writers of enshrined documents, including those kidnapped from the African continent or related to them, people with disabilities and many others, are, were, and now will be even more so, at the elusive mercy of legislation, institutions, national borders and predilections of race and class.

As Jill Lepore wrote weeks before the overturn, “Women are indeed missing from the Constitution. That’s a problem to remedy, not a precedent to honor… [A woman] herself does not exist but is instead, as Mary Wollstonecraft wrote, a ‘non-entity.'”

Since the onset of the pandemic, the idea of “essential work” has entered a general consciousness in that people who perform tasks that are crucial to the maintenance of life have become relatively more visible. During the pandemic, workers who do the work that has historically and traditionally fallen to women, including food deliverers and caregivers, continued to endure starvation wages. An understanding seemed to emerge that if their numbers thinned, an already en masse health crisis would significantly broaden. And yet, one year after social media bristled over food deliverers being exploited on the front lines of the virus, and days after SCOTUS paved the way to criminalize abortions and miscarriages, a Door Dash worker was shot by police, thereby putting the essential worker ‘back in his place’ of disposability.

I

Such categories of non-status, “hyper-exploited” or “informal” work, as Maria Mies and others have called them, have been barred from the “worker” definition because tasks that were historically assigned to the bodies associated with motherhood are conferred the same lack of prestige imposed onto those who raise or bear children. Even in contexts that talk about subsistence or workers rights, childbearing, domestic labor and multiple forms of informal labor are still not given minimal protections, or even (until recently) sufficient language for describing thankless conditions of work that are, as a matter of course, unacknowledged, erased, and gaslit.

The existence of a femmes, reproductive, and “housewifized” labor form is an historical reality, not a “natural” one. Although biology is largely founded on the idea that only some bodies bear children, the division of labor that surrounds reproduction is a product of historical and social relations; it is not a “natural” condition. That said, the appearance of ‘natural’ gender grants the authority to exploit gendered bodies as a site of experimentation towards the blueprint for mass violence, slavery and trafficking. Mass disposability is a consequence of the decimation of bodily autonomy.

If definitions of the ‘wage-worthy’ have been narrowly defined, then so has value. The war in Ukraine has also posed a considerable threat to the stability of the idea of value. National entities and representatives are currently pouring enormous sums of capital into visions of how future East/West European and world borders will be shaped. Where Russia follows a regime of sacrificing humanity for an abstract border, the West describes and re-describes the value of the human. Whether or not the ‘human’ is truly a concern for Western governing entities or merely a form of propaganda that veils the preservation of future accumulation remains to be seen, but the discourse itself has a public and social effect that has generated many formal policy-making discussions that involve accepting financial losses in the name of boycotts.

It would not be obstreperous to imagine that between the recently circulating iteration of essential labor under covid and the boycott of previously advantageous business deals with Russia, the global socius might be exhibiting a tendency towards evolving away from living and thinking the numerical values of money in the “normal,” linear or historically predictable sense. Even the possibility of such a development represents an unprecedented threat to entities that thrive on and continue to demand unbridled powers of accumulation.

II

In 1847, when Marx wrote the Communist Manifesto in three weeks, he was commissioned by The Communist League, formerly The League of the Just, a group that was largely composed of guild worker artisans. One of the effects of this influential context is that “worker” in many texts still conjures images of White male woodworkers, bricklayers, stair builders and the like. The conditions of the creation of the Manifesto implicate a transition from the relative leverage that skilled guild artisan labor had against capital to the ‘worker hands’ who were tools of production, disposable, unskilled or de-skilled, and stripped of autonomy. Marx’s iteration of the “worker,” forged via a commission by reasonably nervous White male artisans as an expression of their fear of being instrumentalized as cogs, may well have supplied the material for a Right-wing contingent to abuse, in order to construct itself as the “authentic” worker body. This trace of relatively privileged artisans speaking on behalf of a much broader constituent of workers, in a kind of Napoleonic move according to Marx’s own early construction of the idea of class, re-appears in a mutilated and weaponized version in Steve Bannon’s view that the US remains an exploited colony of Europe in which only American-born White men need to be expressed by the “worker” notion. Entitlements to this definition are obviously at the catastrophic expense of others who perform other kinds of work including more essential and more socially occluded forms. The kinds of entitlements Bannon and other such figures easily reference have produced “replacement theory” and its accompanying gun violence, human abuses at borders, and violence in places structured towards xenophobia, as well as other sectors that have copyrighted authenticity in a multitude of dimensions, including but not limited to the arts, i.e., the masculinized elitism of “artistic technique” and so on.

That terms like “sex work” still require the qualifier “sex” in order to be inserted into the category of “work” testifies to an order of ‘true’ workers that obfuscate marginalized laborers and labor forms. Similarly, the work of slave labor in the 18th and 19th centuries, much of it domestic, was not seen as tool-bearing, which is one of the stipulations associated with what defines masculine labor against the feminine embodied labor that Maria Mies analyzed in the 1980s according to “work with the breasts and the womb.” Similarly, the idea of ‘slave’ is constructed as not a person who works, but as an inanimate tool of production in and of themselves, and is as such written out of the labor definition, with these practices carried into the present in prisons, unpaid overtime and the charge of laziness; an accusation that erases the possibility that a person with physical needs, such as sleep, or a psyche is connected to a body that is supposed to magically produce value for someone else without a personal or labor process. In “One is Not Born a Woman”, Monique Wittig links slave labor with gendered labor, arguing that the construction of gendered biology, including assumptions of ‘nurture’ projected onto childbearing bodies, produce invisibility and non-personhood in order to garner and quietly profit from the free labor value of the erased.

Meanwhile, the authentic, normative, standardized idea of “worker” produces a logic through which economies continue to deprive embodied workers, including starving artists, caregivers and others, of both wages and the dignity of personhood. In sum, a White male class to whom such historical texts referred retains a grip over the notion of ‘worker’ while others labor ‘outside’ or ‘behind’ the text and thus the historical and social. However, this recent attention given to essential work during lockdown highlights the possibility of re-distributing value within a regime in which value and visibility are intrinsically enmeshed.

III

The US Supreme Court majority now seeks to more intensively enforce the withdrawal and sanctioning of personhood of the exploited and unremunerated worker, of which one foundational category is the childbearer, and also those whose bodies are theoretically capable of bearing children but may choose not to birth. Much has been written about “back alley” abortions, and the many who have other talents and contributions but will be forced to become mothers and do the work of motherhood, laboring at domestic work without remuneration, and submitting to exploitative work in order to survive. Meanwhile those bodies who reject motherhood will be submitted to consequences that have been ‘updated’ by increased surveillance in the form of any number of high technology wars, mass violence, increased stalking, empowered white supremacist cells, and general forms of social pressure that can ensure the sanctioning of those who do not submit to norms complicit within patriarchal legitimacy. The surrounding structures that socially and institutionally police bodies are far more forceful today than they were when the constitution was written. And since then, multiple disciplines and fields of psychoanalysis and biology have naturalized hetero-procreation as the mandatory center of life, from Freud and Darwin to reddit discussion that anthropomorphize the natural world in terms of the procreative habits of varying species, and ‘riff’ on what “natural” gendered behavior should be according to imperializing whims.

The spectacle of misogyny in the confirmation hearings of Brett Kavanaugh, and Clarence Thomas several decades prior, including the “innocence” campaign waged by Johnny Depp or the general possibility of defamation and non-disclosure agreements for high profile rapists, form but a few of the exemplary chains of formal signs with increasing powers of social composition.

Making abortion less accessible will further conscript women into fields of invisible and unpaid labor, making childbearer bodies vulnerable to raising children at whichever level of poverty the State sanctions. The State has already realized billions of dollars in value in the unpaid labor of childbearers enduring toil in the name of “labors of love,” as well as the exploitative work of reproductive bodies coerced into states of desperation, as Sylvia Federici has pointed out. In her terms, profit from women’s unpaid and exploited labor, including but not limited to the production of future populations of workers, has been used to feed war machines, thereby moulding social reality into ever more virulent patriarchal forms.

IV

In Caliban and the Witch, Federici argues that these conditions are both historical and intentional: it was cheaper for the Catholic Church, who was for centuries the main land and wealth holder in Europe, to pay only a male laborer rather than the family supporting him. The Church thus organized the family unit and laws pertaining to the body, including marriage, accordingly. This meant that the wives of man-laborers, the people performing maintenance (food production and preparation, childcare, care for the sick and elderly, mental support) as support for the productivity of their wage-receiving husbands, and also caregiving, material tasks, and the work of the body involved in producing the next generation of workers, would never receive their own wage. By being naturalized into biology, the law-holding theistic institution that operated as the main boss and master, created an exploitation economy that has sprawled outward to consume almost all informal and marginalized labor forms. The production of a culture of silence around forced birth and all of the fallout that will follow for the lives of apparently ‘capable’ childbearing bodies will also have consequences across the entire informal labor economy, and for all genders therein.

In Federici’s account, the Church responded to the scarcity of workers in Europe as a result of the Plague by producing policies to benefit the maintenance of church properties and functions that required a plethora of human capital, and thus a social reality built on procreation. In order to create this economy of its own self-interest, the Church walled off common lands that had previously been used for autonomous food production, and created laws around sex, sodomy (ie non-procreative sex) and childbirth. This counter revolution over decades finally managed to force into submission a heretic movement of people who lived relatively more similarly to the so-called autonomies of current life in atheistic and non-fundamentalist contexts.

The Gutenberg Bible emerged to popularize, naturalize and sacralize the family unit and heterosexual marriage, to construct childbearing as the center of social reality in order to enforce procreation and therein the production of human capital.

Abortion has never been fully sanctioned or supported in the US. And yet, given the recent visibility of workers who served to protect and maintain life in the context of the pandemic, it seems no accident that the traditionalists further sanction the life necessities of bodies in this moment of the coronavirus, in which normally invisible forms of labor, including the toil of the body and the costs to the body in health and vitality, are being obviated. Such a sea change in what constitutes valuable and remunerable work would threaten the very basis of the profiteering economy. Moreover, the Church’s protocols, laws and doctrines that produced imperialization over the body, from the walling (‘hedging’) off of common lands to the sodomy laws to the mandate of ‘a marriage between a man and a woman,’ enforced domestic labor and forced birth, were all created during the plague; in the wake of an ebb of labor power in the context of mass death, illness and a worker re-thinking of the value of life over toil and submission. The historical reality of the plague bears similarities to the conditions produced by covid. The pandemic has intensified fundamentalist logic and brought to the fore the 500-800 year old period in which the Church began to realize its need for labor power/workers by re-organizing all elements of economy and a mutually composing social reality, including the relations of production of the present and the reproductive body as the key to controlling the labor relations of the future, especially the unborn worker. According to Federici, racism and misogyny also had to be created in order to keep laborers from uniting in protest, and people with wombs from controlling the future worker population, not only in number but also in temperament.

The fundamentalism that sees reproduction as profit in the form of unborn laborers is not interested in the personhood of women. Neither healthcare nor consent matter or are considered the responsibility or in the interest of the Christian State. While non-fundamentalist views understand forced birth as fiscally catastrophic as a result of what a multi-dimensional influx of traumatized bodies will cost, the traditionalists have a totally different calculation of profit, a different understanding of labor power, and of human aim. The fundamentalist algorithm of accumulation and functionality excise factors that non-fundamentalists find essential. It’s because of a calculation that ignores State responsibility for human life, leading to institutionalized rape and death and privation for religious aims, that even the most dogmatically capitalist arguments that are non-fundamentalist can find no equivalence or commensurability or appeal even along the most material or profiteering lines.

V

Bodies with the capacity to bear children are not responsible for the fact that they are fetishized for sexual abuse across the globe. Along with the elderly, people with disabilities and children, (all of whom are being raped in the Ukraine along with a program that targets everyone), people who get pregnant will suffer an increase in long term material consequences. What emerges in the next 20 years in Poland and the US after rape victims have been forced to bear the children of extreme trauma will shed light on the catastrophe such policies produce. One can only hope that the children of trauma and forced birth will not be compliant in perpetuating such a regime in the future, and that being born out of trauma will produce for them an alternative rather than static vision for the future.

Poland’s forced birth program is directly relevant to the US situation because, in the few States that offer rape exemptions, making use of them will be predicated on the safety of coming forward. A social reality that does not permit abortion is unlikely to provide a safe environment for rape victims to become vocal. Forced birth will strengthen masculine power by making sexual relations higher stakes and by making rape into a more lasting form of abuse, offering the rapist long term control of his victim. By re-instating a culture of shame, and by enforcing the mother role, the family unit, silent suffering and a rigid social experience will bring the capacity to ‘breathe’ well beneath the minimum at which it currently functions.

Women who are rape victims in particular along with any other abortion seekers have not consented to life with a child. The ruling is a crucial violation of life. Those who cannot abort are likely not to have the means or the mental and physical ability for such a life. Within the context of trauma, the State has an opportunity to steer the fate of children too damaged to perform any but the most exploitative labor, to also hyper-exploit mothers living in a state of desperation, or a subsequent population cut off from its familial culture by trauma, to untether and unmoor subjects in order to make them afresh as productive labor aka potential “tabula rasa” for State purposes. In this context, social networks will be necessary to help traumatized children withstand being alive as critical readers rather than menial cogs, and to create collectives of belonging that hold them away from a violent fate of disposability masquerading as depression, ideation or religious fundamentalism.

Materialist feminists have long observed that calculations of demographics place statistics of predicted pregnancies in relation to immigrant influx and other controls pertaining to material economy. Policies relating to abortion and what social discourse shames or encourages, and how that is engineered across forms of current media or in more historical or medieval forms of advertising, are generally steered by how heads of State require a work force or allocate resources. These practices of analysis for the purpose of policy are not dissimilar to the ideology of war in which the body and the human are subjugated for abstract experiments based on human predictions with unknown outcomes.

VI

The US has long fought over abortion as one of the last frontiers of bodily autonomy after what were reintroduced later as ‘rights,’ separated, severed, alienated via preciousness, specificity and class selection, and annihilated in Europe before the Enlightenment. In recent decades, the US holds immigrants at borders as it “processes them” while making considerations about whether to let them in based on demographics. If a class of mostly Black and Brown people too poor to travel to liberal States for abortions is forced to reproduce, the US can shut down its borders without losing out on the global competition for human capital.

Maria Mies summarized how programs such as forced birth are only limited to being misogynistic at their beginning. She wrote extensively on how bodies that have the capacity to bear children were targeted for the State’s experiments in exploitation, to be implemented later in different forms across broader swaths of population. Every non-capital owning body should become aware that policies of forced birth foreshadow an oncoming onslaught of aggression by owners of capital that will produce more categories of intensively exploited labor, that are likely to effect even privileged classes of the iterated White worker who meets the standard definition. It is here that ‘replacement theory’ must stand in as an alibi for the declining labor conditions of the heretofore relatively privileged White worker who uses this notion to retain a position as ‘the authentic’ as his own material stability crumbles.

I suggest that we turn to materialist feminism and its analysis of the evolution of gender constructs in relation to profit. For what Mies calls “time lag feminism,” or the body of work supporting the idea that women need to ‘catch up’ to men, or the idea of a linear history that ought to progress rather than ‘turn back’ can only yield short term gains in the endless tennis match that was designed by the Enlightenment to ensure that a regime of personality cults, class and identity hierarchies remain static. The idea that women are a generation ‘behind’ men constitutes a kind of white feminism in which women seek to supplant men in a machine that is built by imperializing desires and values.

Analyses might henceforth begin with the understanding that traditions are not going to protect the people they promise to exclude. The labor movements of the left must begin to take gender and reproduction much more seriously as intrinsic to how accumulation and profiteering maintain themselves, placing at the fore the understanding that reproduction is future labor power. Consent is also a crucial barometer for how to resist the historical and ideological imperialization with which the church has had a long-term agenda for recomposing a brutally disciplined and imperializing social reality. Consent literally checks in with the habitability of the body as well as its psychic and immaterial requirements.

Any movement that fails to understand that the battle to own and commandeer reproduction is the battle to own the labor, profit and accumulation of the future, and any movement that fails to understand the nuanced relationship between exploitation and consent is doomed to not only fail, but to play into the hands of imperial reality ad infinitum.

(Thanks to Cedrik Fermont for our conversations pertaining to the fact that every sexual identity has been raped in Ukraine, and the impact of abortion law in Poland for childbearing bodies.)

(By Dora Bleu)

(Image Credit: Caliban and the Witch)

I did not need to watch the trial

I did not need to watch the Depp/Heard trial. The endless documentation around it and its live feed are meaningless. Even if the libel defendant were destroyed, aggressive, confused and/or totally without credibility, it would not change my opinion.

In my opinion, the person with gender privilege, more money, more symbolic power and more fame, not to mention more physical torque, is far more at liberty to walk away from a conflict than a person who has less of these things and is dealing with gendered ideology — a thing that lives in the minds of many femmes people, particularly cis-het women, reminding forever that femmes or childbearing bodies can be and are frequently trafficked, femmes minds are not valued; bank accounts not owned by men are precarious (as in evidence in the case of Britney Spears), and that displeased het-men have a social history of violence. Any invocation of the witch trials reminds that those bodies historically described as “women” are constructed as disposable.

Though in many contexts, these fears may be much less relevant, the true lovers of femmes people will understand that this internal siege exists and help us feel safe. Since the “Depp is innocent” campaign, that internal dreamscape has become a more, not less, dangerous place. Now that he has won his case, the dangers of that dreamscape will pierce the membrane into reality with the help of that repository called the internet.

The non-imperial gender and less powerful person in a relationship is far more likely to be stripped of other forms of material and social power if they are the one to choose to leave. Though I have little interest, fascination or even patience for a ‘Hollywood set’ of huge means, this relatively ‘less’ is of great importance when we are talking about ‘the union between a man and woman’ in the spectacle. Because it’s here in cis-hetero-ville that patriarchy finds itself and simmers its eggs against any social or structural change. When the imperially gendered famous person can pay an entire media machine to produce its slogans and re-frame events, his ex-wife has every reason to be and to have been terrified. Breakups for the person with less social power can be exponentially more frightening; they carry with them more potential for exile and violence. With the femmes gender having a history of being property, the gender who has been permitted to feel entitled to that property may construct being left as a form of being expropriated.

At the scale Heard will face here, where one can be certain that such an actress will face an entire regime of misogynistic death threats from other similarly entitled/sex privilege expropriated people, and with the more powerful actor most assuredly knowing that such harassment exists, it’s hard not to assume that his abuses continue.

Since I’m a reader, not a watcher, the bits I have caught pertain to some jocular death threats issued by Johnny Depp for whom the Stanford Experiments defense is suddenly deemed relevant. “Burn the witch” is not only misogynistic, it’s an elemental and originary form of misogyny. It represents a fundamentalist dogma of hate towards life-bearing bodies and a reference to a ‘first cause’ of a gendered regime change that brutalized bodies with vaginas. Team Depp argues that the context for him writing these texts was terrible, and so he became terrible. But why does this line of reasoning not work for Amber Heard? Was the context not also somehow terrible for her?

Indeed, what must a woman do to save her life? Sometimes the material manifestations of such decisions are surprising as, for instance, when Lucy DeCoutere gave Jian Ghomeshi flowers. That she did this was also used to prove Ghomeshi’s innocence in Canada. Fear does a lot of things to people: it can make them hyper-conciliatory, or it can make them enraged. But one thing is certain: the double standard has been holding in case after case.

It doesn’t matter to me that Winona Ryder (an actress I am a fan of as much as I can “like” any of these people) or Kate Moss didn’t experience violence with Depp. Sometimes a rapist abuser has a pattern that is obviously visible among his exes, and sometimes he doesn’t. While the pattern could serve as evidence, it’s not a foregone conclusion that if no one else comes forward, then he must be “innocent.” Perhaps Depp has categories of people he abuses, and categories he doesn’t. Perhaps he felt he could get away with exploring his violent side with Heard in particular; perhaps he was drunk. The reason doesn’t much matter. In any scenario, it still would have been much easier for him to walk away and shut the door than it would have been for her because the world doesn’t punish men, and particularly famous White, powerful men, the way it punishes every other identity at every social level.

Whatever Heard is or isn’t, she isn’t lying when she says that the judgment of this case hurts everyone. The judgement that proclaims Depp as “innocent” hurts abuse victims by making them more afraid to come forward, and it hurts abusers by declaring their innocence and thereby “finishing” the episode in what appears to be their favor. While it may look like a win, it actually deprives the abuser of self-reflection and the possibility of change and growth. More crucially, it deprives all of us because it re-installs the rigidity of gendered roles in marriage, men permitted to be controlling and women expected not to fight back and/or stay silent about what they endure; or that women’s roles remain circumscribed, though perhaps prescribed in kind by the whims of a particular era. Such a judgment reifies patriarchy at the center of the internet tabloid sphere, making a serious matter into a fluff piece about a woman’s derangement. So long as we live like this, there will be more Putins, Trumps, Enrons and all the forms of social destabilization created by excess greed, and a class of mostly White-man-people who are judged immune from ethics.

The raison d’etre of libel cases has often pertained to missed job opportunities. In this case, the consequence of Depp not issuing a libel accusation against Heard might have meant that he no longer would be allowed to make more pirate movies. But he would have assuredly not starved because of this, and indeed, it might be time for a new actor to benefit from such an opportunity. That blockbusters require a star in order to maintain their dominion over what adults and children watch is also problematic, normalizing, exclusionary and controlling.

If Depp were ethical, he would have written a well-considered op-ed back to Heard’s, supporting the social movements of femmes bodily autonomy namely the right to live without abuse and rape. He could have corrected where he thought she was wrong or talked about trying to understand how certain acts could, at least, have been read, understood or felt by her as they were in the context of his own predicament. He, like any other imperial identity in his position, could use such a moment to evolve the conversation, to avow his acts of cruelty or callousness, to read and learn about gender violence and support all of us in the travails and discomforts of what it means to truly and respectfully love the other and co-exist and co-create the world with them.

An onslaught of “Johnny Depp is innocent” is an abuse of the entire systemic socius for his petty battle. It ignores what the power of these signs do and which engines they feed. Maybe Depp did or did not abuse Amber Heard, but the accusation and judgment that supports libel abuses all of us. On that alone, Depp is an abuser.

 

(by Dora Bleu)

(Image credit 1: “Bleeding House Somewhere in Miami-5”, by Marko Mäetamm / The Cotton Factory)

(Image credit 2: “Bleeding House – 10”, by Marko Mäetamm / The Cotton Factory)

Britney Spears and the Limits of Money

I have been ignoring #FreeBritney because I’m not a Britney Spears fan and there isn’t anything about her life I relate to. However, I forced myself to listen to her testimony. It is clear from her speaking style that she is in an intense state of trigger and trauma and is being ritually abused and gaslighted. I understand these signs in the voice that has so much to say that words can’t keep up, repeating phrases and thoughts because it doesn’t seem anyone is listening, speaking rapidly from the anxiety that all caring attention is illusory or time-limited: the sense that the time permitted to speak could end in the next second; and the tremor and shakiness of her articulation because words can’t hold or express the endless marathon of misery she continues to endure.

To be sure, there are things I don’t relate to, references to maids and ‘getting nails done.’ However, it is possible that her mentions of these speak to how abuse disorders personality to confuse non-essential things with essential ones such as the right to be heard, to work reasonable hours, to have privacy and to not be treated like an animal for medical experimentation.

It needs to be said that it’s highly unlikely that this would happen to a White cis-masculine celebrity. Spears is the more predictable victim of such manipulations because she’s an exemplar of cis-femininity in all of its emotional plain spoken nervousness; and because she speaks like a femmes teenager in the sense of neither taking nor imposing any authority with her words or tones.

Were it exposed that a cis-man musician/performer/entertainer was forced to work 70 hours per week, threatened, force-drugged and actively broken down, I believe the musician community would have expressed much more outrage. The expose would have carried with it the indignation of workers’ rights and exploitation rather than been dismissed (or engaged) as privileged ‘fluff.’

Also relevant is that wealth is only one axis in the formula towards avoiding precarity. It is crucial not to forget that for the not White, not cis-masculine, not able-bodied, not neurotypical (etc.), wealth and ownership might be far less potent for reducing exposure to risk. Note that these conditions cannot be classified as rare (or “minority”) given the prevalence of death threats and realized hate in circulation.

Moreover what Spears’s case shows is that the power of money has limits for many subjects. For the one who is denied autonomy with their own money weaponized against them is, during that period, not only not a capitalist and not powerful but without basic rights, even if they are housed and fed. As cases like this become exposed, they undermine a central myth of capitalism: that money guarantees freedom. Clearly it doesn’t if the social world around the wealthy person turns against and dehumanizes them.

This poses the question: If money is at least inefficient if not ‘dysfunctional’ on its own ideological terms, if ownership – the most sanctified and guaranteed of all Western rights – is this easily violable, then what kinds of sacred social promises would need to emerge in order to stabilize freedom in its stead?

(By Dora Bleu)

(Image Credit: Jean-Michel-Basquiat.org)

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)

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)