Idiot Joy Showland

This is why I hate intellectuals

Tag: identity politics

Savages, savages, barely even human

It is worth noting that tribal peoples tend to feel that it is they who depict and we who symbolise.
Thomas McEvilley, Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief

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What does capitalism actually look like?

There’s a standard leftist answer to this question, from the great repertoire of standard leftist answers: we can’t know. Capitalism has us by the throat and wraps itself around our brain stem; we were interpellated as capitalist subjects before we were born, and from within the structure there’s no way to perceive it as a totality. The only way to proceed is dialectically and immanently, working through the internal contradictions until we end up somewhere else. But not everyone has always lived under capitalism; not everyone lives under capitalism today. History is full of these moments of encounter, when industrial modernity collided with something else. And they still take place. In 2007, Channel 4 engineered one of these encounters: in a TV show called Meet the Natives, a group of Melanasian villagers from the island of Tanna in Vanatu were brought to the UK, to see what they made of this haphazard world we’ve built. (It’s almost impossible to imagine anyone trying the same stunt now, just twelve years on. The whole thing is just somehow inappropriate: not racist or colonial, exactly, but potentially condescending, othering, problematic.) Reactions were mixed.

They liked ready meals, real ale, and the witchy animistic landscapes of the Hebrides. They were upset by street homelessness, confused by drag queens in Manchester’s Gay Quarter, and wryly amused by attempts at equal division in household labour. They understood that they were in a society of exchange-values and economic relations, rather than use-values and sociality. ‘There is something back-to-front in English culture. English people care a lot about their pets, but they don’t care about people’s lives.’ But there was only one thing about our society that actually appalled them, that felt viscerally wrong. On a Norfolk pig farm, they watched sows being artificially inseminated with a plastic syringe. This shocked them. They told their hosts to stop doing it, that it would have profound negative consequences. ‘I am not happy to see the artificial insemination. Animals and human beings are the same thing. This activity should be done in private.’

I was reminded of this episode quite recently, when reading, in an ‘indigenous critique of the Green New Deal‘ published in the Pacific Standard, that ‘colonists were warned by word and weapon that a system of individual land ownership would lead to ecological apocalypse, and here we are. What more could you ask from a system of truth and analysis than to alert you to a phenomenon like climate change before it occurs, with enough time to prevent it? That is significantly more than colonial science has offered.’

It’s not that the substance of this claim is entirely untrue (although it should be noted that many indigenous nations did have systems of private land ownership; land wasn’t denatured, fungible, and commodified, as it is in today’s capitalism, but then the same holds for European aristocracies, or the Nazis for that matter). Non-capitalist societies have persistently recognised that there’s an incredible potential for disaster in industrial modernity. Deleuze and Guattari develop an interesting idea here: capitalism isn’t really foreign to primitive society; it’s the nightmare they have of the world, the possibility of decoding and deterritorialisation that lurks somewhere in the dark thickets around the village. ‘Capitalism has haunted all forms of society, it is the dread they feel of a flow that would elude their codes.’ Accordingly, the development of capitalism in early modern Europe wasn’t an achievement, but a failure to put up effective defences against this kind of social collapse. You can see something similar in the response of the Tanna islanders to artificial insemination. What’s so horrifying about it? Plausibly, it’s that it denies social and bodily relations between animals, and social and bodily relations between animals and people. The animal is no longer a living thing among living things (even if it’s one that, as the islanders tell a rabbit hunter, was ‘made to be killed’), but an abstract and deployable quantity. It’s the recasting of the mysteries of fecund nature as a procedure. It’s the introduction of what Szerszynski calls the ‘vertical axis,’ the transcendence from reality in which the world itself ‘comes to be seen as profane.’ It’s the breakdown of the fragile ties that hold back the instrumental potential of the world. When people are living like this, how could it result in anything other than disaster?

This seems to be the general shape of impressions of peoples living under capitalism by those who do not. These strangers are immensely powerful; they are gods or culture heroes, outside of the world. (The people of Tanna revere Prince Philip as a divinity.) At the same time, they’re often weak, palsied, wretched, and helpless; they are outside of the world, and lost. In 1641, a French missionary recorded the response of an Algonquian chief to incoming modernity. One the one hand, he describes Europeans as prisoners, trapped in immobile houses that they don’t even own themselves, fixed in place by rent and labour. ‘We can always say, more truly than thou, that we are at home everywhere, because we set up our wigwams with ease wheresoever we go, and without asking permission of anybody […] We believe that you are incomparably poorer than we, and that you are only simple journeymen, valets, servants, and slaves.’ At the same time, the French are untethered, deracinated, endlessly mobile. The Algonquians territorialise; everywhere they go becomes a home. The Europeans are not even at home in their static houses. They have fallen off the world. ‘Why abandon wives, children, relatives, and friends? Why risk thy life and thy property every year, and why venture thyself with such risk, in any season whatsoever, to the storms and tempests of the sea?’ And this constant circulation is a profound danger. ‘Before the arrival of the French in these parts, did not the Gaspesians live much longer than now?’

There’s something genuinely fascinating in these encounters. Whenever members of non-capitalist societies encounter modernity, they see something essential in what’s facing them. (For instance, Michael Taussig has explored how folk beliefs about the Devil in Colombia encode sophisticated understandings of the value-form.) But it seems to me to be deeply condescending to claim that this constitutes an explicit warning about climate change, that the methods of ‘indigenous knowledge systems’ are the same as the physical sciences, and to complain that ‘Western science has a lot of nerve showing up just as we’re on the precipice of a biospheric death spiral to brandish some graphs.’ The argument that the transcendent vertical axis estranges human beings from the cycles of biological life, with potentially dangerous results, is simply not the same as the argument that increased quantities of atmospheric carbon dioxide will give rise to a greenhouse effect. It’s not that there’s nothing to learn from indigenous histories, quite the opposite. (I’ve written elsewhere on how the Aztecs – definitely not the romanticised vision of an indigenous society, but indigenous nonetheless – prefigured our contemporary notion of the Anthropocene.) But the claims in this essay set a predictive standard which ‘indigenous knowledge systems’ will inevitably fail; it refuses to acknowledge their actual insight and utility, and instead deploys them in a grudge match against contemporary political enemies.

Most fundamentally, the essay doesn’t consider this encounter as an encounter between modes of production, but an encounter between races. In the red corner, white people: brutally colonising the earth, wiping out all biological life, talking over BIPOC in seminars, etc, etc. In the blue corner, indigenous folk, who live in balance with the cycles of life, who feel the suffering of the earth because they are part of it, who intuitively understand climate atmospheric sciences because they’re plugged in to the Na’vi terrestrial hivemind, who are on the side of blind nature, rather than culture. This is not a new characterisation. The Algonquian chief complains that the French believe he and his people are ‘like the beasts in our woods and our forests;’ the Pacific Standard seems to agree.

This shouldn’t need to be said, but indigenous peoples are human, and their societies are as artificial and potentially destructive as any other. Being human means – Marx saw this very clearly – an essential disjuncture with essence and a natural discontinuity with nature. Ancient Amerindian beekeeping techniques are as foundationally artificial as McDonald’s or nuclear weapons. When humans first settled the Americas, they wiped out nearly a hundred genera of megafauna; the essay is entirely correct that ‘indigenous peoples have witnessed continual ecosystem and species collapse.’ Indigenous beliefs about the interconnectedness of life and social relations between humans and nonhumans are the mode of expression of their social forms in agrarian or nomadic communities. (Although some American societies were highly urbanised, with monumental earthworks, stratified class societies, and systemic religious practices. All of this is, of course, flattened under the steamroller of pacific indigeneity.) They are not transcendently true. They can not simply be transplanted onto industrial capitalism to mitigate its devastations.

The ‘indigenous critique’ suggests that, rather than some form of class-based mass programme to restructure our own mode of production, the solution to climate catastrophe is to ‘start giving back the land.’ (Here it’s following a fairly widespread form of reactionary identitarian discourse on indigineity.) Give it back to whom? To the present-day indigenous peoples of North America, who for the most part have cars and jobs and Social Security numbers, who have academic posts and social media, who do not confront capitalism from beyond a foundational ontological divide, but are as helplessly within it as any of the rest of us? (And meanwhile, what about Europe or China? Where are our magic noble savages?) Is ancestry or identity an expertise? Is living in a non-capitalist society now a hereditary condition?

Some indigenous beliefs about the interconnectedness of life and so on persist, long after the modes of production that gave rise to them have vanished. As we all know, the tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. But they’re also an artefact of modernity, which ceaselessly produces notions of wholesome authentic mystical nature in tandem with its production of consumer goods, ecological collapse, and death. Unless this relation is established, beliefs are all we get. ‘Real solutions require a rethinking of our global relationship to the land, water, and to each other.’ Think differently, see things differently, make all the right saintly gestures, defer to the most marginalised, and change nothing.

This racialisation is particularly obscene when you consider who else has made dire warnings about the environmental effects of private ownership in land. The encounter between capitalist and non-capitalist society didn’t only take place spatially, in the colonial world, but temporally, during the transition from feudalism. And the same critiques made by the Ni-Vanatu, and the Algonquians, and many more besides, were also expressed by insurrectionaries within Europe. Take just one instance: The Crying Sin of England, of not Caring for the Poor, the preacher John Moore’s 1653 polemic against primitive accumulation and the enclosure of common land: this would, he promised, lead to catastrophe, the impoverishment of the earth, the fury of God, the dissolution of the social ties that keep us human, the loss of sense and reason, the decoding of all codes. The ruling classes, ‘by their inclosure, would have no poore to live with them, nor by them, but delight to converse with Beasts; and to this purpose turn Corne in Grasse, and men into Beasts.’ He, too, saw things as they were. And he was right. Here we are, in a world in which the ruling classes have disarticulated themselves from society in general, in which cornfields are swallowed up by the desert, in which people pretend to be like animals in order to be taken seriously. The solution is obvious. Find the descendants of John Moore, and give back Norfolk.

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Writing and identity

There are also others, an infinite number of them, the innumerable generality of others to whom I should be bound by the same responsibility, a general and universal responsibility. I cannot respond to the call, the request, the obligation, or even the love of another without sacrificing the other other, the other others… As a result, the concepts of responsibility, of decision, or of duty are condemned a priori to paradox, scandal, and aporia.
Jacques Derrida, The Gift of Death

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0. To write feels like violence. All of us are mortal, but the text can survive long after its author: who are you, fleshy and contingent thing, who wants to live forever? To write is to stain clean paper, press sticks in smooth clay; in some sense always, to deform the world. To write something down is to turn the limitless possibility of what could be into the dead presence of what turned out to have been. A line in Beckett’s Molloy which I always find myself returning to, because it speaks what it isn’t: ‘You would do better, at least no worse, to obliterate texts than to blacken margins, to fill in the holes of words till everything is blank and flat and the whole ghastly business looks like what it is, senseless, speechless, issueless misery.’ Writing obscures the ghastliness of what is, which is speechlessness; it weaves a flimsy veil of presence around the eternal nothing. Writing is a lack, but the lack is not in words but the world that surrounds them.

1. One form of the discourse in question, an instance: Don’t write thinkpieces about Beyoncé (or whatever) if you’re not a black woman. You will not understand the subject-matter, not properly, it will be a waste. It isn’t for you. (As if the commodified culture-object is ever really for anyone.) The really notable thing here is where the demand is placed. What’s needed – and what’s generally articulated – is a critique of the journalistic economy and its deeply unequal hiring and commissioning practices, the thorny nexus of social practices that create a class of profession writers that generally looks like the class of the bourgeoisie from which it is mostly drawn. But what can often occur with it is a metaphysics of the text: illegitimate writing is not even itself, but an absence, the absence of everything else that could have been there instead. Any one person writing means another who can’t; the sin is in its having been written, the fault belongs to the writer as such. But while most writing really is inexcusably bad, the one mark in its favour is that the possibility of writing is limitless. It’s the industrial complex of writing that is restricted, along with the number of people who can sustain themselves in this fairly shabby trade: here, as everywhere, the task is to reproduce in the economy at large the infinity that already exists in the economy of language, to abolish the distinction between the professional writer and the public they serve or negate, to make sure that nobody will ever go hungry again.

2. Instead, a general trend within those discourses that claim to have justice as their aim is the selective and demographic apportioning out of the field of human understanding: black writers may and must write about black celebrities, music, and their own experiences; women writers may and must must write about lifestyle trends, feminism, and their own experiences; trans writers about their own experiences; Muslim writers about their own experiences; disabled writers about their own experiences. In one avowedly intersectional-feminist online publication, female writers are given an ‘Identity Survey,’ a monstrous questionnaire in which they’re asked to list every horrifying experience they had ever survived, and are then told to turn it all into short, shareable, fungible articles for $90-a-day wages. I was raped, I was in an abusive relationship, I had an abortion, I suffered; a strip-mining of saleable identities, a kind of primitive accumulation across the terrain of trauma. Meanwhile the universal subject, the one that need not suffer to be heard, remains white and male. The right of black women to write about Beyoncé is important. But they must also be able to write about deep-sea ecology, Kantian philosophy, writing itself, and what they do not know – and while there are many who do precisely this, the under-representation of writers of colour, queer and trans writers, and other marginalised people on the topics of oceanography, German idealism, deconstruction, and ignorance is significantly more marked. Overwhelmingly it is white men who are afforded the privilege of being other than themselves, of not having to continuously say ‘I’ – not least because the validity of their self-identity is already assured, because the world is already in their image. And while the ability to declare oneself in the face of a world that would prefer you not to to is essential, the dogma that writing must and can only be a self-declaration resigns marginalised people to this condition. My critique here is very limited: within this discourse it has become the case that it is the presence and particularity of the ‘I’ that legitimises writing, that makes it appropriate or inappropriate, that makes it either it either presence itself or the lack of something else. And this is not helpful.

3. If there must be a rule, then it should be that we must not only write what we know. If we don’t write an ignorance other than ourselves, in the end all that remains is a mute, gnashing, helpless, final I. There is no writing that is only legible to and can only be created by people occupying a particular subject-position; there are experiences that are unique and incommensurable, even incommunicable, but if this were the case here there would be no possibility of writing: everyone who could understand would already know.

4. Derrida notes in Plato’s Pharmacy that ‘the speaking subject is the father of his speech […] Logos is a son, then, a son that would be destroyed in his very presence without the present attendance of his father. His father who speaks for him and answers for him. Without his father he would be nothing but, in fact, writing.’ There is no speech without its anchor in the person that speaks and her physical presence, but in writing – the ‘breathless sign’ – the author is always simply not there, even if she has an active Twitter account. It persists without its creator; what faces you is the text, something entirely different. I speak and say ‘I’ and you know who says the word, but the written ‘I’ is always indeterminate, a tangle of lies and fantasies and ironies and pretences, a person just like you half a world away, the person that you are yourself, an immortal and changing thing. If you speak and someone interprets what you say in a way you didn’t intend, what’s taken place is a misunderstanding. If you write and someone interprets what you’ve written in a way you didn’t intend, what’s taken place is literature. The demand that any text be legitimised by the self-identity of its author is the demand for a text that behaves more like speech. And not just any speech. The writing that responds to this demand is ‘testimonial’ or ‘confessional’ writing, and the place in which one testifies or confesses is in a court. In a courtroom logocentrism holds sway; the preference is for a speaking person, whose truth is guaranteed by a spoken oath, who is present to speak for and answer for their own speech. The discourse here is not one of justice, strictly speaking, but the law. It is the law that, first of all, demands to know who a person is before deciding what to do with them. These are not opposing concepts, necessarily, but they are not the same. The law can be deconstructed. Justice cannot.

5. Whose voice is allowed to speak? Only yours. In Beckett’s novels the reader is lost and confused, stranded in a mire of words that seem designed to be inhospitable and to exclude, accompanying something that speaks its unquestioning I-say-I while forbidding any identification – until you realise that the strange tormenting voice that is mentioned sometimes, the one that tells people what to do, the one that is constantly trying to bring itself to an end but is never able to stop speaking itself, is the same voice that’s been in your head the entire time as you read. It’s shocking, but there’s a sense of joy at the same time. What distinguishes real writing from a legal deposition or a laundry list is its occasional capacity to provoke a kind of joy, even in evocations of sadness, loneliness, misery, loss, repression, and horror, the sheer pleasure of something entirely alien and entirely intimate, of a voice that is nobody’s and everyone’s and yours, there with you in your solitude, of language in the infinity of its play and substitutions, a moment of the freedom that’s still to come.

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