Sunday, June 18, 2017

Blockbuster Feminisms

Lori Marso
Professor, Union College
Wonder Woman, directed by Patty Jenkins, was one of this summer’s biggest surprise hits.  It was enormously successful at the box office with both critics and moviegoers in awe of its fabulous female superhero role model played by Gal Godot.  Many women said on blog posts and in reviews that they were moved to tears to see Diana and her sister warriors (including the glorious character Antiope, played by Robin Wright) on the Amazon island of Themyscira.  These women are powerful, confident, peace-loving, athletic, and in charge. Caroline Framke’s comment in Vox is typical: “After watching movie after movie where men saved the day with a well-timed punch while women cleaned up the mess around the edges, Wonder Woman is a goddamn revelation.”[i]
Wonder Woman was not without its detractors and controversies, however.  Israeli actress Gal Godot served two years of compulsory service in the Israeli Defense Forces during the 2006 war when the IDF fought against Hezbollah-allied forces in Lebanon.  The conflict killed more than one thousand Lebanese and one million were removed from their homes.[ii] This painful recent history was stirred by casting Gal Godot as the star of her own Wonder Woman movie, resulting in the film’s ban in Lebanon. Gadot’s vocal support of the IDF has garnered additional negative attention beyond Lebanon. Media outlets have seized on the fact that in 2014, Gadot posted to Facebook: "I am sending my love and prayers to my fellow Israeli citizens," "Especially to all the boys and girls who are risking their lives protecting my country against the horrific acts conducted by Hamas, who are hiding like cowards behind women and children...We shall overcome!!! Shabbat Shalom!”[iii] In a review published in Aljazeera, Hamid Dabashi, the Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, provocatively writes: “Suppose you are a father or a mother living in Gaza, and like any other parent from Florida to Oregon you wish for your daughters to have a positive role model - then what? You hear there is this amazing Hollywood blockbuster championing the cause of a young female superhero. Could an Israeli soldier who learned her martial arts skills by helping drop bombs on your brothers and sisters, maiming and murdering them, be perceived as an Amazonian princess who is here to save the world?”[iv] Dabashi’s question upends any naïve wish that Wonder Woman could be a superhero for all young girls.
Jessica Bennett ignores the fact that Gal Godot can’t possibly be a superhero to girls in Gaza when in the New York Times she appreciatively cites Stacy L. Smith, a communications professor at the University of Southern California, whose research focuses on diversity in media: “Anytime we see women in powerful roles on-screen it challenges narrowly defined and antiquated views of leadership . . .” “Whether women are serving as C.E.O.s or, in the case of Wonder Woman, striding across ‘No Man’s Land’ and taking enemy fire, it broadens our notions of who a leader can be and the traits they exemplify.”[v]


But what kind of a leader is this? What kind of feminism does Wonder Woman signify?  I greatly enjoyed the movie, and in particular I loved watching Diana grow up on her all-woman, peaceful island paradise, learning to fight for justice and equality (only, though, when absolutely necessary) at the heels of Antiope. The first part of the film depicts a powerful group of woman warriors, working together, preserving their better world, and hoping to never fight again.  Other than situating her story in the midst of World War I rather than the aftermath of World War II, the film’s vision is true to the Wonder Woman origin story as historian Jill Lepore recounts:

“In Amazonia, women ruled and all was well.” Alas, that didn’t last: men conquered and made women slaves. The Amazons escaped, sailing across the ocean to an uncharted island where they lived in peace for centuries until, one day, Captain Steve Trevor, a U.S. Army officer, crashed his plane there. “A man!” Princess Diana cries when she finds him. “A man on Paradise Island!” After rescuing him, she flies him in her invisible plane to “America, the last citadel of democracy, and of equal rights for women!”[vi]
The fact that in the movie the world is saved by an American soldier allied with an actress who was an IDF soldier should give us pause. But this is to read beyond the movie.  Taking the film on its narrative merits alone, we might still worry that Wonder Woman leaves her Amazonian sisters, experiences sex for the first time with the American soldier (might she not have had sex with other women on the island?  why do we end up in a heterosexual romance yet again?), naively believes that killing one bad man/god will bring world peace (she is subsequently schooled by two man-splainers, the American soldier and the god of war, that this is unfortunately not the case), and is not at all averse to killing lots of people.  Is this the path to bringing down patriarchy?  Can one woman-warrior save us all?  And save us from what?  And from whom?
Let’s consider another Hollywood fantasy from this past summer, Guardians of the Galaxy Part 2, and another from two summers ago, Mad Max: Fury Road.  In Guardians of the Galaxy Part 2, we get a ragtag group of weirdos who stumble, quite literally, into their roles as saviors of the galaxy.  Gathered together are Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) who has cheekily named himself Starlord, Rocket (a raccoon thief voiced by Bradley Cooper), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), the one woman in the bunch and the only green-skinned one, Groot (a baby tree voiced by Vin Diesel), and Drax (Dave Bautista), a tough guy with a soft heart.  In some ways, their group is a cliché, but at the same time it’s the best kind of feminist fantasy possible, one that reminds me of the pleasures of watching Stranger Things on Netflix last year.  Like in Stranger Things where a bunch of bullied queer kids and the excluded, seemingly crazy, members of the community are all proved right and join together in solidarity, in the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise, women join with others, others like trees and animals and even men who fight against injustice, inequality, discrimination, and who all have good hearts.  And not only do the marginalized come together; they add another woman along the way (Gamora’s sister Nebula, played by Karen Gillen).   It turns out that the seemingly cruel Nebula all along just wanted her sister to welcome her to the fold.  In this film, sororal and queer solidarity wins over patriarchy.
Likewise in 2015’s summer blockbuster, Mad Max: Fury Road.  Here we get a combination of Wonder Woman and Guardians of the Galaxy, with stunning results for feminist politics.  Furiosa’s (Charlize Theron) superhero skills exceed Wonder Woman’s by a long shot. Like in Guardians of the Galaxy, Furiosa needs others (and in this case, other women) to rescue the world from an even more dark, foreboding, and explicit vision of patriarchal excess where women are reduced to their roles as child-bearers or for sex.  Like our queer friends depicted in Guardians of the Galaxy and Stranger Things, Furiosa is a heroine for the 21st century.  She joins with others to seek justice and restore peace for the disempowered, rather than garner power for superheroes or first world nation-states.  She, and they, are the kind of bad-ass feminist collective we need so badly today. 
In spite of its emphasis on female power and possibility, we might say Wonder Woman offers a realist, or at least very sobering, perspective.  The movie opens and ends with Diana receiving a photo from Bruce Wayne (Batman) as she works at her desk.  At this point Diana is not dressed as Wonder Woman nor as an Amazon, but as a high powered, expensively clad executive.  Importantly, she is alone.  She is isolated from her sisters, having left her home out of curiosity and responsibility.  Although she has friends in the superhero community, she has lost the love of her life.  In too many ways she fulfils the patriarchal demand that if a woman does have power or possibility, she must be isolated and remain unattached.  Where is Wonder Woman’s gang of weirdos?   To make Diana’s story more like Furiosa’s, she could return to Themyscira and gather her sister-forces, or lead her superhero friends into advancing feminist futures.  This is the task of a feminist superhero. 

[i] Caroline Framke, “Wonder Woman isn’t just the superhero Hollywood needs.  She’s the one exhausted feminists deserve.” https://www.vox.com/culture/2017/6/7/15740804/wonder-woman-amazons-feminist

[ii] Max Bearak, “Lebanon bans ‘Wonder Woman’ in protest against Israeli actress Gal Godot.” Washington Post, 1 June, 2017: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2017/06/01/lebanon-bans-wonder-woman-in-protest-against-israeli-actress-gal-gudot/?utm_term=.02aef6fbae04

[iii] Cited in Hamid Dabashi, “Watching Wonder Woman in Gaza.” Aljazeera. 10 June. http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2017/06/watching-woman-gaza-170610082618366.html.

[iv] ibid.

[v] Jessica Bennett, “If Wonder Woman Can Do It, She Can Too.” New York Times, 5 June: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/05/opinion/wonder-woman-movie.html?action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=opinion-c-col-right-region&region=opinion-c-col-right-region&WT.nav=opinion-c-col-right-region

[vi] Jill Lepore, “The Last Amazon,” New Yorker, 22 September, 2014: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/09/22/last-amazon
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Monday, May 29, 2017

Thomas Dumm — Grotesque Sovereignty and the Specter of Donald Trump




Thomas Dumm
Amherst College

Sometimes a side observation by a major thinker is worthy of further reflection and consideration under the light of current events. Here I am thinking of an observation made on January 8, 1975, in the first lecture Michel Foucault presented in that year’s series for the College de France (eventually published in English as Abnormal (NewYork: Picador, 2003)). There, he briefly introduced — and then set aside — a remarkable idea, the idea of grotesque sovereignty. 

For Foucault, grotesque sovereignty can be thought of as “. . . the maximization of the effects of power on the basis of the disqualification of the one who produces them.” He does not consider this phenomenon to be an exception to the usual exercise of power, but to be inherent within its mechanisms. “Political power,” he writes, “at least in some societies, and anyway in our society, can give itself, and has actually given itself, the possibility of conveying its effects and, even more, finding their source, in a place that is manifestly, explicitly, and readily discredited as odious, despicable, or ridiculous.”


Foucault goes on to suggest that “The grotesque is one of the essential processes of arbitrary sovereignty. But you know also that the grotesque is a process inherent to assiduous bureaucracy.”

Foucault understands grotesque sovereignty not to be a ritualistic exercise of power through the humiliation and abjection of the ruler, as in archaic societies. “Rather, it seems to me to be a way of giving striking form of expression to the unavoidability, the inevitability of power, which can function in its full rigor and at the extreme point of rationality even when in the hands of someone who is effectively discredited.” 


In a strange, almost uncanny observation concerning this grotesque sovereignty at work, he writes, “But once again, from Nero, perhaps the founding figure of the despicable sovereign, down to the little man with trembling hands crowned with forty million deaths who, from deep in his bunker, ask for two things, that everything else above him be destroyed and that he be given chocolate cakes until he bursts, you have the whole outrageous functioning of the despicable sovereign.”

Foucault immediately dropped the subject, though not without regret, saying, “I have neither the strength, not the courage, nor the time to devote this year’s course to such a theme.” Too bad! (One wonders whether the examples he had before him, of the then quite recent set of events that had led to the resignation of the American president Richard Nixon, and the more general passing through history of the decrepit Mao of China, the decrepit Brezhnev of the U.S.S.R., and the absurd clinging to power of the ancient fascist Franco in Spain, were his models for the grotesque at the time he wrote.) At any rate, he may have had more to contribute to our current understanding of the recrudescence of the grotesque in our time in the form of the presidency of Donald Trump, a man well acquainted with chocolate cake.


Foucault briefly mentions the buffoonery of Mussolini as being essential to this way of enforcing power. We can see a similar buffoonery in Trump. His grandiose expressions of the superlative character of everything he does, his extreme self-pity, his vulgarity, his sprayed-on suntan, his hair, his “why-does- everyone-laugh-at-my-mighty-sword” red tie, his exaggerated claims of accomplishments, his obvious lies, his denigration of his opponents as enemies of the people, his history of sexual assault and braggadocio about that history – any sentient adult human being in the United States who has failed to avoid the bombardment of Trumpisms and Trumpian moments over the first months of his administration can add to the list – all operate, in their very clumsiness, to advance the project of grotesque sovereignty.

Some claim that Trump is artful, clever, playing three-dimensional chess, fooling his opponents into thinking he is preparing some sort of trap for them. After all, the claim is, he did win the American presidency. But this claim is mistaken. The phenomenon of grotesque sovereignty does not depend upon the skills of the subject assuming power, but is inherent in the exercise of power under conditions of disqualification. That is, when the dysfunctionality of the system of power and administration reaches a certain point -- we might call it a point when its operation is no longer competent, as measured by a variety of factors -- the possibility, indeed, one might argue, the likelihood of grotesque sovereignty arises. This is when there is a disqualification of the system itself. This is a moment when a disqualified power continues to operate while the operator becomes an object of ridicule. 


Power operates. In the case of Trump and other buffoons in power there is a disjunction between power’s operation and the operator that advances that operation, because within the regime of grotesque sovereignty there is a continuous exposure of the gap between representations of power and its actual operation. (The experience of this gap is both hilarious and terrifying for those of us who find in Trump the apotheosis of the ridiculous: we feel a combination of affect that I think many others have felt during his early period of rule.) This exercise is quite different from what has been assumed by many, that the buffoonery and absurdity of Trump is at its core a tactic designed to distract the attention of the polity onto the representation of sovereign power, while power itself operates as we are distracted by the spectacle.

This is what cannot be emphasized enough: Trump, like other grotesque sovereigns of the modern age, whether they be fascists like Mussolini or Communists like Stalin, is dangerous because he is ridiculous. His ridiculousness exposes the wildness of power that is framed within the legal regime of the state. And the ridiculousness is quite likely to continue upon his departure from power by whoever replaces him, until this system is broken or transformed.


(A side note: the operation of grotesque sovereignty could be considered obscene, in one of the folk etymological senses of the word -- as being off scene, left-sided, inauspicious. That is to say, while it can be seen, the grotesque is indecent even as it is exposed, and is not supposed to be seen at all, even as its essential function concerns being seen.)

We might think about it this way: the inciting of violence against minorities, the ongoing ransacking of the public treasury, the blatant embracing of corporate power over democratic accountability, the flagrant undermining of the respectable institutions of constitutional government, the aggressive reversal of federal policies designed to ease the country out of the era of mass incarceration, the reversal of environmental regulations, the gutting of public education, to name but a few of the ongoing accomplishments of this administration so far, are not happening because the public is distracted away from these activities, but because the attention we are paying to these actions, of which we are all aware at one level or another, is contained within this larger system of power’s exercise.


All of these policy initiatives are followed and acted upon by agents within the system, even as the grotesque sovereign continuously demonstrates the disqualification of the system. It is as if it goes on by itself. Because it does, and will go on, at least for an indeterminate length of time.

I would suggest that the plea for a return to normal politics is intrinsic to the exercise of grotesque sovereignty. As if we somehow know what the normal is. Indeed, many of us – I admit having been seduced by this idea – initially pleaded that Trump not be normalized by our national media, especially by the electronic media (for me, especially by the denizens of MSNBC). But grotesque sovereignty does not depend upon the sovereign becoming normalized – in fact the normalization of the sovereign would be a sign of the decline of the grotesque. 


No, the grotesque sovereign represents a certain termination point of power, a radical disjunction, which in the late modern era has been synonymous with fascism, a politics well suited to the spectacular, which operates through those media of mass communication through which the grotesque finds its fullest expression. That the spectacular now is digital in character, and that the medium of choice for Trump is Twitter, only underlines this point. In fact, it is as a fascist that we can best understand Trump’s own politics.

Some American political scientists, such as Steven Skowronek and Corey Robin, have tried to put Trump within a more common frame of American political development. Skowronek has used his own justly famous theory of the evolution of presidential political power (first presented in The Politics Presidents Make (Harvard, 1997)) to suggest that Trump is what he would call a “disjunctive president.”  In that sense, he suggested, Trump is like Jimmy Carter, an outsider who performed a hostile takeover of the party he nominally represented, but who, as an outsider, could not control the levers of power and who also failed to have a coherent understanding of what needed or could be done to change the old order. 


In this cycle of presidential politics, Carter was replaced by Reagan, who indeed repudiated the decayed New Deal and reconstructed politics along the lines of neoliberalism. But now we can recognize that the neoliberal order itself is coming to a dissolution.

Skowonek, when he discusses the cyclical form of time -- he calls it “political time,” which is associated with presidential succession -- contrasts it with what he calls “secular time.” It is in secular time that we can see the increasing inviolability of presidential power as it operates within the frame of American sovereign government. In such moments, a systemic change in the framework of governance itself becomes possible. Perhaps the last such moment in the history of the United States was the crisis that gave rise to the New Deal (though we have had other possible moments since then, and there is nothing in the Skowronek thesis that give good account to the politics of the post- 9/11 American presidency).


We could also remember something else: it was also during the New Deal that we saw the rise of the American politician who most clearly resembles in his rhetoric and affect, and who at least rhymes with, Trump. That is Huey Long, often called a populist, but who called for and exercised dictatorial powers as governor of the state of Louisiana during the Great Depression, and who was posing the greatest challenge to FDR within the Democratic Party at the time of his death (by assassination).

In other words, it can happen here, and has, indeed, in its own fashion, happened. While many point to Trump’s incompetence as a sign that he couldn’t be what he is, we need only rebut this idea by pointing out that one need not succeed as a fascist to be a fascist. Even better, we could say that it is in failure that Trump, in his perverse way, succeeds.


Trump, at the moment of this writing, appears to be somewhat contained by what seems to be the increasingly rickety institutional frame of American constitutionalism. (Who knows how many twists and turns his tale will take?) But we may ask ourselves another question: what if Foucault is also prophetic about the grotesque power of what he referred to as the assiduous bureaucracy? The appointment of a special counsel by the assistant attorney general of the United States to investigate criminal charges could itself become a site of buffoonery and ridicule. (One need only think of the work of Special Prosecutor Kenneth Starr during the Clinton era.) 


And regardless of Trump’s individual fate, there seem to be plenty of potential replacements for him waiting in the wings. (Calling Mike Pence!) If Foucault is right, this is not a coincidence, but a sign of the systemic dysfunction of a political system, our system, as it works its way through the eventual dissolution of this form of sovereign power, and its overturning by something perhaps less obscene. We can always hope. But our hope should not be based on a fantasy that it is only Trump who is the crisis, and that he removal will end it. Grotesque sovereignty is not dispelled by a mere change in personnel, but only by a deeper change, a radical change, in the system of sovereign power.

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Sunday, March 12, 2017

Rachel Sanders — Decoded: What My Seattle Womxn’s March Sign Means



Rachel Sanders
Rachel Sanders is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Portland State University. Her research and teaching center on critical race and feminist studies, biopower, health and body politics, and popular culture.

From what I saw live and via social media, the tone of the January 21st worldwide women’s marches presented a striking counterpoint to the previous day’s inaugural proceedings. The signs bearing slogans of defiant protest, searing wit, and intersectional solidarity punctured the dark mood Donald Trump’s first presidential speech, like his campaign, has engendered. Trump’s tone was vividly morbid, eliciting optimism only after prolonged decline and promising safety only in the midst of great danger. 

I took part in the Seattle march. I meant for my sign to denounce and resist the uses of state power Trump has championed, and the terms on which he has rationalized it. The text of my two-sided sign read: Border walls / immigration bans / racist policing / criminalizing people of color / bathroom bills / racial and gendered narratives of protecting cis white women: Not in my name.



I view Trump as articulating what Iris Marion Young and Anna Sampaio have called a racial and gendered logic of protection. In this logic, the state positions itself in the masculine role of protector of a citizenry it positions as subordinate, dependent, obedient, and grateful, in order to legitimate a range of executive and legislative actions that it frames as vital to “homeland security.” The head of state that invokes this logic implicitly identifies with a particular brand of strong-but-chivalrous white masculinity poised to defend a vulnerable populace against dark forces threatening its safety or honor. (To be sure, Trump’s history of bullying women like Megyn Kelly and Heidi Cruz and bragging about committing sexual assault betrays qualities of predatory rather than protective masculinity. His victory, however, suggests that his self-portrait as an executive who will “take care of women” overshadows his record of aggression against them.)

This logic is historically specific to a post-9/11 America defined by a growing Latinx population, systematic police brutality against black and brown Americans, and pervasive unease about foreign and domestic terrorist threats. Yet the notions of race and gender it relies on date back at least to the late nineteenth century, when white lynch mobs’ regular practice of brutalizing black men (and women and children) found convincing justification in what Angela Davis calls ‘the myth of the black male rapist.’ Though there are marked differences, the core racial and gender subject positions of lynching rationales pervade the contemporary racial and gendered logic of protection. Both narratives figure white men as chivalrous protectors of white women’s physical safety. Both demonize men of color as sexual predators, criminals and terrorists. Both valorize white women as worthy of protection while implying their subordinate status as sexual prey in need of male protection. And both devalue women of color by discounting their endurance of systematic sexual assault at the hands of white men since slavery, and by implying that they are unworthy or less worthy of protection.


This logic was the cornerstone of Trump’s candidacy. His campaign kickoff speech portrayed Mexican immigrants as “rapists” and “bad people” who are “bringing drugs” and “bringing crime” across the U.S. border and vowed to build a two-thousand-mile-long wall barring their entry into the country. Among many instances of exploiting tragedies for political profit, Trump seized on the fatal shooting of San Francisco visitor Kathryn Steinle by Juan Francisco Sanchez, an undocumented immigrant who had been deported from the U.S. five times and who had aimlessly fired a stolen gun on Pier 14, as a case of a “beautiful woman” being “viciously killed” and as “another example of why we must secure our border.” Likewise, Trump referred to the gunman behind last June’s Orlando nightclub shooting, who was born in the U.S. to parents who had emigrated from Afghanistan over thirty years ago, as “an Afghan” and cited the tragedy to justify his calls for sweeping immigration bans against all Muslim immigrants. Trump’s geared-to-white-ears stump speech portrayals of “inner cities” as fearsome zones of crime and violence, his proclamations that he is “the law and order candidate” who will make police forces and civilians safe again, and his praise of stop-and-frisk practices (which disproportionately single out black Americans) as a “proactive” and effective policing tactic all contribute to the demonization of black men and women. (As dual threads of racial and gendered narratives of protection, the Charleston church slaughterer Dylann Roof’s assertion that “blacks are killing white people on the streets… and raping white women every day” and Trump’s campaign trail lamentations of endangered police officers and of “Kate, beautiful Kate” share similar premises and invigorate similar stereotypes.

"'Cuckservative' is a neologistic term of abuse formed as a portmanteau of the word cuckold and the political designation conservative. It has become an increasingly popular pejorative label used among alt-right supporters in the United States." (source)
By continuously conflating mainstream Muslim Americans and Latinx citizens with Islamic terrorists and Mexican migrants (he has accused American Muslims of failing to report “people who they know are bad” to security authorities); by peddling a campaign slogan evoking nostalgia for an earlier era of unchallenged white and male economic, social and political supremacy; and by framing America’s greatest threats as Arab terrorists, violent black urbanites, central and south American immigrants competing unfairly for scarce jobs, and Asian nations who have roped the U.S. into “losing” trade deals, Trump’s protectionist narratives racialize not only their villains – people of color, citizens and foreigners alike – but also their victims. They implicitly construct as white, that is, the portion of the American citizenry deemed legitimate and deserving of protection. At the same time, these narratives feminize all members of that worthy citizenry as docile, physically and economically vulnerable, and thus subordinate.


Trump has not been an outspoken proponent of municipal and state policies limiting transgender bathroom access, but he has signaled he will let such laws stand as matters of local sovereignty. In so doing, Trump sustains the logic of masculine protection underpinning recent bathroom bills, which claim to protect cisgender women vulnerable to spying and sexual assault by male and transgender restroom-goers. The conservative lawmakers promoting these bills not only depict trans and gender-nonconforming people as sexually deviant and dangerous and reinforce notions that cisgender women need men’s physical and legislative protection. They also conceal cisgender men’s and women’s practices of harassing, intimidating, and assaulting trans and gender-nonconforming people in bathroom settings. Trump’s inaction on this issue sustains these dominant safety narratives. And his incendiary rhetoric and campaign rally antics have invited ordinary citizens to act as vigilante bullies and law and norm enforcers.


In his first days in office, President Trump continues to demonize black, brown and Muslim Americans and to exalt a select, authentically American constituency in need of protection. By portraying this constituency as the weak and grateful beneficiary of gallant masculine guardianship and vilifying virtually all people of color in the process, Trump plays a powerful role in reproducing the racial and gender stereotypes that perpetuate the inequalities a truly “great” America must shatter. His rhetoric is more threatening to social justice than the forces he so starkly depicts.


As a white woman, I am unwillingly but inescapably part of the constituency President Trump claims to protect. My sign was one way of saying: not in my name. Blanket immigration bans and border walls that unduly criminalize Muslims and Mexicans in order to protect “native” Americans (oh, Mr. President, tragic irony eludes you): not in my name. A “law and order administration” that disproportionately targets and brutalizes black people in order to safeguard “good” communities: not in my name. Upholding “states’ rights” to enact bathroom bills in order to shield girls and women from hypothetical violation by predatory restroom users (while open-carry gun laws remain on the books): not in my name. I stand against, and I must find new ways to resist, the policies and executive actions being staged, or at least legitimated, on my behalf, and I urge other white Americans to do the same.


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Friday, March 3, 2017

George Shulman — Horror & Blackness



George Shulman
New York University




Last night I saw Get Out, an amazing “horror” movie about race in America. Get Out pairs nicely with Raoul Peck’s “I Am Not Your Negro,” because Peck’s movie ends with Baldwin saying, “What white people have to do is try and find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a ‘nigger’ in the first place, because I’m not a nigger, I’m a man. But if you think I’m a nigger, it means you need him. The question you’ve got to ask yourself.....is, if you invented him, you the white people invented him, then you’ve got to find out why. And the future of the country depends on that, whether or not it is able to ask that question.” 


So Baldwin’s question is, who is the monster here, really? The horror genre in movies typically expresses white fear of blackness, and typically punishes those who cross Puritan norms of sexual propriety. White audiences experience the thrill of transgression, and then enjoy its punishment. But in Get Out the horror derives from, is inescapably tied to, whiteness. The white characters in the movie perform enlightened racial attitudes, but they are vampirish, committed to an operation that sucks the life out of, and controls, black bodies, by literally removing black brains and suppressing black agency. (Jordan Peele has said he was inspired by The Stepford Wives as a model.) The souls of black folk, hidden inside these occupied and docile bodies, try to warn our hero to “get out” before it is too late. There is much more to say here, but the horror is the whites and their obsession with black bodies, and the audience is drawn to identify with the black hero, and his struggle to escape the clutches of his white tormenters. He is not a Jeremiah Wright; but is the Obama era black man. The horror begins because he trusts his white girlfriend, who is the lure to draw him to his destruction. It is as if the Obama era romance -to “get out” of race, embodied in symbols of mixing- is here exposed as a fantasy that enables horror. 


When I saw the film at BAM the other night, the crowd was truly mixed in a way unusual for that theater, and I could hear whites readily identifying with the black hero and embracing his positionality toward the white characters. The construction of the film at once displayed and reversed the white gaze, but I wondered: did whites in the audience imagine themselves as exceptions, as exempt from the portrait of whiteness in the movie? When we were laughing at the fabulous humor, and when we felt terror at white predation, did we divide ourselves from whiteness by a kind of self-protective knowingness? Is that division exactly how Obama era politics could proceed while leaving the deep structure of white supremacy intact? The movie seems a fitting epitaph to the Obama era, when white supremacy acquired a veil, now dismissed as mere political correctness. All the more necessary, then, to see this film, whose central horror remains powerful and pointed: as Ishmael saw, the horror is whiteness, which absorbs all color and vitality into blankness and creates living (walking) dead. The irony Baldwin saw is indeed horrific: these people who call themselves white, who do so by making monsters to envy and consume, are themselves the horror. 


Richard Wright’s “How Bigger Was Born,” composed in March 1940, ends with an incredible final paragraph about the meaning of horror in America. “I feel that I’m lucky to be alive to write novels today,” the paragraph begins. Why? After all, he notes, Henry James and Nathaniel Hawthorne had “complained bitterly about the bleakness and flatness of the American scene,” and it is “true” that “we have only a money-grubbing, industrial civilization.” So what is good for a writer and for him as a writer? “We do have in the Negro the embodiment of a past tragic enough to appease the spiritual hunger even of a James; and we have in the oppression of the Negro a shadow athwart our national life dense and heavy enough to satisfy the gloomy broodings even of a Hawthorne” -whose insight into human depravity Melville called a “blackness ten times black.” So Wright concludes: “And if Poe were alive, he would not have to invent horror; horror would invent him.” In Playing in the Dark, fifty years after Wright, Morrison says that horror did indeed invent Poe, in the sense that his work is inconceivable without the absent “Africanist” presence to organize stories of fear, fascination, and death. So the source of “life” in American fiction is indeed condensed in the “horror” (thus also fascinated attraction and use) associated with the black body in the white imagination, which mediates every aesthetic and political issue. 

One could say that in Native Son Wright himself tried to write a horror story about Bigger, as if to embody the white nightmare in a way that exposes the nightmare of whiteness. But Baldwin objected that Wright had inverted Harriet Beecher Stowe, retaining a metaphysically anchored blackness- as-damnation, and so retaining a “melodramatic” structure of evil and redemption. Wright thus remained trapped within the white nightmare of blackness, and failed to escape the nightmare of whiteness. Baldwin proposed a different kind of novel, that would express the richness of a black life not reduced to its relation to whites and whiteness. Baldwin suggested that would involve a “tragic” view of American history, plotted as novelized tragedy, or voiced in prophetic speech. But brilliant as Baldwin was, the claim of Get Out is compelling. Nothing short of Horror will do.


The question of how to represent that “shadow athwart our national life,” a shadow falling across and so uncannily entwining both black and white lives, remains our most important aesthetic and political question. In contrast to writers like Hurston and Morrison, or to a great film like Moonlight, which focus on black life, not whiteness, the gift of Get Out is that its humor about the absurdities of race, and its playfulness with Hollywood genres of horror and thriller, displays the possibility of facing - exposing - this horror in ways that cross racial lines, and by evoking affects other than self-righteous reproach and guilt. But the question remains whether this movie can - what act, event, or artifact possibly could - undo the knowingness by which Obama-era whites protect themselves from their implication in the horror, the horror. “I would vote for him a third time” says one heinous character in the film. And he would.

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Saturday, February 4, 2017

Romand Coles & Lia Haro — Trump-Shock, Resonant Violence and The New Fascism

Romand Coles (left), Professor at the Institute for Social Justice at Australian Catholic University & Lia Haro (right), Research Fellow in Sociocultural Anthropology at Australian Catholic University.




Something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is, do you Mr. Jones
Since the U.S. election, daily surges of Trump-shock – awful disorienting blasts – have regularly defied our standard ways of making sense of political life. Something is happening here, indeed. But, each unpredictable wave throws our paradigms into disarray. We are perpetually swept into the wake of an event that scrambles the measures of consistency and inconsistency we desperately try to employ. Trusted weapons of analysis and resistance cannot find their aim fast enough to keep up with the whirlwind.
While the new regime bears important similarities to classic fascism--rapid intensifications of white supremacist nationalism, dismissive attacks on reason, autocratic leadership, deepening entwinements of state and capital, disenfranchisement, the attack on liberal and representative democratic institutions, and the increasingly open right-wing populist violence – this new fascism relies on distinctive dynamics that must be illuminated to move toward understanding – and ultimately transforming – our current condition. To this end, we offer the following theses as a modest, preliminary contribution to a theory of the emerging fascism:

1. Beyond the substantive elements of what is shocking about Trump himself, he is a hyper-intensification of shock politics as such.  Neoliberal shock politics, as described by Naomi Klein in The Shock Doctrine, functions by creating and capitalizing on crises that send shockwaves throughout the polity that disorganize, dismantle and subsequently reorganize lifeways, institutions, and spatio-temporal regularities. While previous shocks have typically had at least the illusion of a substantive character – financial meltdowns, fiscal crises, terrorist threats, natural disasters – Trump-shock manifests more in the very character of the waviness itself, the chaotic aggressively disjointed temporality, of 140 letter pulses, refusing accountability, disavowing predictability, with a serial blast-like character that disorients all who are geared toward ordinary political reasoning and conduct. 
The chaos of Trump-shock sends waves of distracting, disorganizing, and dispersing energy through the polity in ways that defract and overload the circuits of critical response to the emergence of an extreme right-wing political regime that will consistently enhance capitalist circulation and vilify difference beyond all bounds. As the regime moves steadily toward the extreme right (a climate change denier takes charge of the EPA, Goldman Sachs steps in to head the Treasury, a multi-billionaire moves to privatize education, and a rabid purveyor of white supremacist hate assumes control of strategy ‘to see what sticks’), minute by minute twitter flares and ‘protocol smashing’ phone calls repeatedly draw away energy and attention. By incessantly provoking frenetic scrambles to react to each appalling new event, Trump-shock disables proactive movement and oppositional initiative.

2. Most fundamentally, Trump unleashes an extreme sovereignty of perpetual disruption, confusion, and contradiction, rather than embodying a power that imposes and is bound to a single order or a coherent, consistent ideology (though his regime surely orders and ideologizes).
  
 We can understand this as a nominalist mode of shock sovereignty that operates through radically disordered ordering, which simultaneously exceeds order and transforms ordering itself. While efficient and formal causalities of state and leader are still highly operative, technologically intensified and diffused modes of resonant causality assume transfigure the fascist machine. 
Trump-shock admits of no otherness, not even of himself an eyeblink prior to the present. In that way, Trump exemplifies power as instantaneous event with no stable form. This perpetual hyperspeed exceptioning makes Agamben’s State of Exception seem quaintly stable. Trump-shock is like the sovereignty of William of Ockham’s God, manifested in the fact that he can be bound by no law he had made, even to the point of totally changing the past willy nilly.
    In the extremity of Hobbes’ explication, such sovereignty is epitomized in the fact that there can be no law prior to nor uttered by the sovereign to which the sovereign can be held accountable, because law can be none other than the sovereign’s interpretive event at each instant. Hobbes writes: “To him therefore there cannot be any knot in the law insoluble, either by finding out the ends to undo it by, or else by making what ends he will (as Alexander did with his sword in the Gordian knot) by the legislative power; which no other interpreter can do.” (Lev., XXVI) Trump displays this power in an endless series of chaotic tweets, spinning out myriad unpredictable, ephemeral, and contradictory stances. 
   Analysts and opponents, missing the performativity of this power and the power of this perfomativity, often scurry to measure the veracity of his missives according to traditional frameworks (law, ideologies, empirical facts) - or even their consistency with his own past statements. Thus, for example, when Trump claimed to The New York Times that “the law’s totally on my side, meaning, the president can’t have a conflict of interest,” pundits jumped to reference U.S. Code, presidential tradition and constitutional law to assess the correctness of the claim. We suggest that the substance of his claim adheres to the nominalist event - the energized sword that Hobbes describes. The affective energies and powers of this event, however, are not missed by those hungering to unleash themselves from all restraints of democratic norms and accountability.

3. The power of nominalist shock functions through a modulation of resonant violence that is ubiquitous and also unaccountable. 

The affective energies of this movement of will to power animate significant portions of the polity – particularly on the neo-fascist right. As Trump’s Twitter shocks surge directly into the pockets of over 17,000,000 followers, many are propelled into barrages of raging threats against those he vilifies--directly or indirectly. In this way, the violence of shock-sovereignty exceeds the formal channels of the state (themselves horrifying). For example, when Trump tweets condemnation of a union organizer in Indiana or a woman at a rally, hundreds of threatening communications (including murderous violence) to the targeted follow almost instantaneously. 
Picture by Johnny Silvercloud
Just as Trump-shocks come anytime and all the time – these expressions of resonant violence can emerge explosively from anywhere and everywhere. This unpredictable ubiquity is amplified by the intimate relationship between the Trump regime and neo-fascist right-wing media outlets like Breitbart News, which spontaneously launch their own call and response shock waves that vilify, threaten, and enact violence. Rather than being met with condemnation from the president-elect, they resonate with and are amplified by previous and coming 3 a.m. kindred tweets from Trump Tower. In turn, these frequently drive mainstream news cycles that perpetuate the resonance in more subtle and insidious ways. 
Operating according to resonant probabilities, these shock waves have a Teflon-like quality in relation to calls for accountability that follow logics of formal and efficient causality, for they come less from a single location and more from resonances among nominalist shocks that move too quickly in and out of being to be caught at rest.

4. This form of power both draws on and transforms what we conceive of as a neoliberal smart political energy grid that has been taking shape in recent decades. 

A smart energy grid is one that employs a variety of modes of (political) energy production, transmission, consumption, and blackout in highly flexible and responsive ways to maximize power. No longer relying on a few central nodes of power generation, they work with increasingly interactive forms of energy production to create even and usable flows of power across a wide area. Elemental to the neoliberal grid are mutually amplifying currents between overwhelming episodic energies of political economic shock, on the one hand, and myriad quotidian energies associated with radically inegalitarian circulations of goods, finance, capital, bodies, and media resonances. 
Each shock wave simultaneously summons new flows and resonances that maximize capitalist power and profit, energize vitriol, and enhance capacities for future shocks while shutting down impediments to capitalist metastasization. These amplificatory currents are immanently connected with affective currents of fear and rage that both energize and are energized by capitalist intensities - particularly in manifestations of xenophobia, white supremacy, and fundamentalisms that are hostile to reasoning and science. Trump draws on and proliferates these existing flows of power as well as intensities of shock. 
As shock politics moves from being episodic to becoming itself quotidian and accompanied by dispersed resonant violence, the neoliberal dynamics are at once amplified and rendered more unstable in ways that may ultimately short-circuit the grid itself with intensities and counter-energies it cannot handle. 

5. 

Efforts to parse truths, reveal contradictions, or selectively negotiate and collaborate with this mode of power are both 

blind to and disguise what it fundamentally is - a new fascism that exercises and enhances nominalist sovereignty 

through disordering ordering and hyper-prerogative power


The Italian term fascismo referred to the fascio littori--a bundle of rods attached to a battle ax symbolizing strength through unity and the bolstered authority of the Roman civic magistrate. In the Twenty-First Century, the ax becomes the chaotically moving nominalist cyber-sword of shock plugged into the neoliberal power grid of circulations and affective resonances, such that even within government all that is solid melts in the air. In the first
weeks of the Trump administration, the nominalist cyber-sword has been quickly turned on the agencies and processes of American government. In this process, chaos is not only a means of dissolving the recalcitrance of other branches of government and agencies but also a principle of governance itself.
Consider the example of the so-called Muslim ban executive order, the “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States” order issued January 27, 2017.
Preceding the release of the order, different members of the regime leaked multiple, contradictory versions—sowing seeds of speculation and confusion. Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway even claimed it may never be released. In rolling out the order, Trump did not consult department heads including the very relevant State Department nor did he vet the order with the Office of Legal Counsel. The Department of Homeland Security saw the text of the order only shortly before it was released. In the midst of all this interpretive confusion, the execution of the Order was left largely to the judgement of officers of Customs and Border Protection. What all this begins to show is the extent to which the Trump regime enables, deploys and tolerates a high degree of chaos and unpredictability as a mode of reinventing government. While such mayhem in an earlier moment would be an indication of weakness and disarray, the new fascism operates through disordering-ordering, which simultaneously exceeds order and transforms ordering itself. Nominalist sovereignty seeks to liquify government to the ever-changeable will of the sovereign. In the ceaseless exercise of prerogative power and its chaotic effects, Giorgio Agamben’s notion of the state of exception almost seems quaint. Prerogative power doesn’t quite capture this phenomenon. Rather, it is a kind of hyper-prerogative power in which each communicative and ordering action intensifies and proliferates a whirlwind of contradictory and confusing qualities that endlessly call forth new exercises of prerogative. 
   Clearly, radical democratic politics must target the classical manifestations of fascism we noted at the outset. As we do so, a monumental challenge will be imagining how to resist and contest the unprecedented apparatus of surveillance, security, and militarized policing whose potentials have been constructed since 9-11, but whose uses are likely to take countless new and horrifying forms. 
    Yet, we believe all of this will hinge upon our capacities to counter the shock politics and resonant violence characteristic of the new fascism. This will require engaging in a double politics. On the one hand, we must escalate sustained modes of direct action carefully-targeted to short-circuit the worst aspects of the regime. On the other hand, we must develop a radical democratic politics that shocks in a different way, that overwhelms the unaccountable vitriol of Trump-shock with dramatic engagements and magnetic enactments of receptive solidarity. This will take great creativity among those who oppose Trump and neo-fascism. Stay tuned.
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