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Triggering Me, Triggering You: Making Up Is Hard To Do

15 Jul

by Jack Halberstam

30 Rock - Season 7

I was re-watching 30 Rock the other day (yeah, right after I finished my Monty Python marathon) and I came across the episode where Liz Lemon’s show, TGS, is accused of “hating women.” Liz Lemon is outraged, and reminds her crew that their last episode was all about women – cut to Jenna as Amelia Earhart crashing her plane because “oh no! my period.” And then cut to Jenna as Hilary Clinton messing up a press conference because “my period!” Liz Lemon explains: “that was an ironic appropriation of…oh, I don’t know anymore.” The skit continues with another humorous twist of the screw with which I won’t bore/amuse you but perhaps this is a good place to start: we often don’t know anymore, when something is an ironic appropriation of…and when it is just more of the same.

The responses to my recent Bully Bloggers piece “You’re Triggering Me: The Neo-Liberal Rhetoric of Harm, Danger and Trauma” have pretty much polarized people (at least those who have responded publicly) into camps that break along that kind of division – people who hear humor and irony in the piece and are in favor of “ironic appropriations,” and people who think that the humor is just fancy dressing for odious and hurtful dismissals of real experiences of harm and pain. Obviously the wide range of responses to the post suggests the virality of the topic in the first place and perhaps justifies my attempts to make an intervention. And obviously I wrote a polemic so I cannot claim now to be surprised when the polemic polarizes!

But I was surprised by some mis-readings and dismayed by some of the more vicious responses, and I was very sorry, in particular, that some of my characterizations smacked of a dismissal of disability rights claims or discourse.

Some of the best responses to my piece include:

  • Andrea Smith’s wise “Beyond the Pros and Cons of Trigger Warnings: Collectivized Healing” (not a direct response to me at all) where she asks: “How do we create spaces to experiment with different strategies, as well as spaces to openly assess and change these strategies as they inevitably become co-opted? How do we create movements that make us collectively accountable for healing from individual and collective trauma?”
  •  Another excellent post that did directly respond to mine, and critiqued it, came from Natalia Cecire who offers that I am missing the way that neoliberalism also counsels us to “suck it up” in relation to harm and pain that we may feel. And she usefully points to the ways that the modes of expression that I critique are often associated with the feminine and therefore draw out a sexist response that she associated with my article. Finally, Cecire proposes that it is ridiculous to point to and intensify a generational split, one that older people have in many ways created and exploited and then blame it on a younger generation and all while accusing people of lacking a sense of humor. Fair enough.
  • Julia Serano, the author of the fabulous Whipping Girl, a book I regularly teach, calls my blog a “kitchen sink” piece and reminds us that activism can be messy and difficult but that the quarrels over language and feelings are ultimately worth the effort. She also memorializes her dead parrot while trigger warning the memorialization and joking about her own trigger warning. And she has funny inter titles, and is always worth a read, even if she is ripping you a new one!whipping_girl
  • Finally, Valéria Souza’s excellent blog on “Triggernometry” charts the history of some of these debates and she situates triggering as an almost necessary part of learning and something that we cannot shield ourselves from but that we should not ignore either.
  • You can also read other great posts by Brandy Daniels, and Matthew Nelson.

In response, and quickly because I know people are somewhat sick of this topic by now:

  • warning-humor
    1. I apologize to all those offended by my article. And to those who were not offended, it was not for lack of trying (joke).
    2. In trying to express frustration with some of the ways in which we engage each other in public around safe space, trigger warnings and appellations/pronouns, I realize that I made a straw person out of the environmentally sensitive people who object to perfume in public spaces. On this point, I have been re-reading Anna Mollow’s excellent article “No Safe Place” in Women Studies Quarterly (2011). My point was not to critique people who have environmental allergies  but to question how we make room for each other, or don’t, how we interact in public spaces and how important it is to find ways to communicate our needs without shouting each other down. This is something that I believe disability rights groups have done gracefully  and not simply by yelling at others in spaces fouled up by toxic odors. It may also be a good time to return to Todd Haynes brilliant film, Safe (1995), which managed to situate environmental illness not as a metaphor but as a part of an emergent landscape of differentiated vulnerability to all kinds of social and chemical toxicity. safe
    3. Generational conflict is an important topic. In my book, In a Queer Time and Place back in 2005, I actually wrote about the potential for emergent queer youth groups to pit old and young against each other in queer communities that were not actually organized along generational lines. This kind of conflict, I said then, is organized within Oedipal structures that make one generation see the other as their rivals/replacement. Consequently, these Oedipal structures substitute for other more queer, fluid and entwined relations between young and old, relations moreover that were often intimate and that, in the past, allowed for knowledge (prior to the internet) to be passed on from one generation to another. I still think that some of the impact of queer youth groups comes in the form of Oedipal conflict and I am committed to thinking with others about how to communicate, exchange and theorize beyond that Oedipal frame. I reproduced the framework in my essay for sure, but that is an inevitable consequence of struggling over a term like “tranny” that many people in their 40’s and 50’s use and other younger people often detest.Emperor-Penguins
    4. After reading through many responses to my original piece, I also agree that “censorship” might be too strong a word for the work that trigger warnings do, but censorship can mean not simply preventing someone from speaking but also insisting on what they say when they do speak. Trigger warnings originated in more local contexts and certainly warrant more conversation as and when they move from those contexts to public discourse. On this front, we might want to think about the provincial nature of these trigger warning/safe space debates and their specificity within North America – as several people pointed out in comments to my original blog, perhaps it is worth considering how American the demand for and expectation of safe space really is and whether we should dialogue about the centrality of injury to political claims made here in the US as opposed to elsewhere. But also we might consider how demands for safety in the US all too often come at the expense of others within a security regime.
    5. Julia Serano’s parrot is an important reminder of the stakes in these debates. Serano suggests that while she did lose her parrot in a way that was sad for her, she would not claim “that I was “traumatized” by her death. Nor am I “triggered” these days by watching Monty Python’s “Dead Parrot” sketch. But,” she continues, “do you know what would upset me? If somebody tried to dismiss my feelings about Coby and the grief that I felt after her passing.” I can very well understand that, no one wants their feelings dismissed but we should not confuse sad feelings with uncontrollable grief and so, I want to validate Julia’s feelings about her pet, Coby, and I want to propose that if I was at a play or performance where someone’s parrot became an ex-parrot and it was part of a humorous sketch about our attachment to animals, we should not have to have a town hall meeting about the performance later on account of the fact that it was disrespectful to those who have suffered the loss of said avian companions…if you catch my drift.monty_python_dead_parrot_sketch_by_seekerarmada-d5muzjm
    6. And if you don’t, no worries, to follow in Julia Serano’s footsteps, I will now be known as Whipping Boy or Jock Halberslam or, as my favorite tweet put it, “ the sports dad of queer theory.” Or we could all move on and work harder to understand each other, to trust each other and to believe that even if we cannot shield each other from harm, we can at least make the odd dead parrot joke in good humor and with impunity.67Z94Svt



You Are Triggering me! The Neo-Liberal Rhetoric of Harm, Danger and Trauma

5 Jul your_trigger_warnings_are_triggering_me_by_meiharu-d5j2mey

by Jack Halberstam

I was watching Monty Python’s The Life of Brian from 1979 recently, a hilarious rewriting of the life and death of Christ, and I realized how outrageous most of the jokes from the film would seem today. In fact, the film, with its religious satire and scenes of Christ and the thieves singing on the cross, would never make it into cinemas now. The Life of Brian was certainly received as controversial in its own day but when censors tried to repress the film in several different countries, The Monty Python crew used their florid sense of humor to their advantage. So, when the film was banned in a few places, they gave it a tagline of: “So funny it was banned in Norway!”

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Humor, in fact, in general, depends upon the unexpected (“No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!”); repetition to the point of hilarity “you can have eggs, bacon and spam; spam, eggs, spam and sausage; or spam, spam, spam and spam!”); silliness, non-sequitors, caricature and an anarchic blend of the serious and the satirical. And, humor is something that feminists in particular, but radical politics in general, are accused of lacking. Recent controversies within queer communities around language, slang, satirical or ironic representation and perceptions of harm or offensive have created much controversy with very little humor recently, leading to demands for bans, censorship and name changes.

feminist_humor_fbDebates among people who share utopian goals, in fact, are nothing new. I remember coming out in the 1970s and 1980s into a world of cultural feminism and lesbian separatism. Hardly an event would go by back then without someone feeling violated, hurt, traumatized by someone’s poorly phrased question, another person’s bad word choice or even just the hint of perfume in the room. People with various kinds of fatigue, easily activated allergies, poorly managed trauma were constantly holding up proceedings to shout in loud voices about how bad they felt because someone had said, smoked, or sprayed something near them that had fouled up their breathing room. Others made adjustments, curbed their use of deodorant, tried to avoid patriarchal language, thought before they spoke, held each other, cried, moped, and ultimately disintegrated into a messy, unappealing morass of weepy, hypo-allergic, psychosomatic, anti-sex, anti-fun, anti-porn, pro-drama, pro-processing post-political subjects.

Political times change and as the 1980s gave way to the 1990s, as weepy white lady feminism gave way to reveal a multi-racial, poststructuralist, intersectional feminism of much longer provenance, people began to laugh, loosened up, people got over themselves and began to talk and recognize that the enemy was not among us but embedded within new, rapacious economic systems. Needless to say, for women of color feminisms, the stakes have always been higher and identity politics always have played out differently. But, in the 1990s, books on neoliberalism, postmodernism, gender performativity and racial capital turned the focus away from the wounded self and we found our enemies and, as we spoke out and observed that neoliberal forms of capitalism were covering over economic exploitation with language of freedom and liberation, it seemed as if we had given up wounded selves for new formulations of multitudes, collectivities, collaborations, and projects less centered upon individuals and their woes. Of course, I am flattening out all kinds of historical and cultural variations within multiple histories of feminism, queerness and social movements. But I am willing to do so in order to make a point here about the re-emergence of a rhetoric of harm and trauma that casts all social difference in terms of hurt feelings and that divides up politically allied subjects into hierarchies of woundedness.

 

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At this point, we should recall the “four Yorkshire men” skit from Monty Python where the four old friends reminisce about their deprived childhoods – one says “we used to live in a tiny old tumbledown house…” the next counters with “house!? You were lucky to live in a house. We used to live in a room…” And the third jumps in with: “room? You were lucky to have a room, we used to have to live in a corridor.” The fourth now completes the cycle: “A corridor! We dreamed of living in a corridor!” These hardship competitions, but without the humor, are set pieces among the triggered generation and indeed, I rarely go to a conference, festival or gathering anymore without a protest erupting about a mode of representation that triggered someone somewhere. And as people “call each other out” to a chorus of finger snapping, we seem to be rapidly losing all sense of perspective and instead of building alliances, we are dismantling hard fought for coalitions.

Starsearch

 

Much of the recent discourse of offense and harm has focused on language, slang and naming. For example, controversies erupted in the last few months over the name of a longstanding nightclub in San Francisco: “Trannyshack,” and arguments ensued about whether the word “tranny” should ever be used. These debates led some people to distraction, and legendary queer performer, Justin Vivian Bond, posted an open letter on her Facebook page telling readers and fans in no uncertain terms that she is “angered by this trifling bullshit.” Bond reminded readers that many people are “delighted to be trannies” and not delighted to be shamed into silence by the “word police.” Bond and others have also referred to the queer custom of re-appropriating terms of abuse and turning them into affectionate terms of endearment. When we obliterate terms like “tranny” in the quest for respectability and assimilation, we actually feed back into the very ideologies that produce the homo and trans phobia in the first place! In The Life of Brian, Brian finally refuses to participate in the anti-Semitism that causes his mother to call him a “roman.” In a brave “coming out” speech, he says: “I’m not a roman mum, I’m a kike, a yid, a heebie, a hook-nose, I’m kosher mum, I’m a Red Sea pedestrian, and proud of it!

And now for something completely different…The controversy about the term “tranny” is not a singular occurrence; such tussles have become a rather predictable and regular part of all kinds of conferences and meetings. Indeed, it is becoming difficult to speak, to perform, to offer up work nowadays without someone, somewhere claiming to feel hurt, or re-traumatized by a cultural event, a painting, a play, a speech, a casual use of slang, a characterization, a caricature and so on whether or not the “damaging” speech/characterization occurs within a complex aesthetic work. At one conference, a play that foregrounded the mutilation of the female body in the 17th century was cast as trans-phobic and became the occasion for multiple public meetings to discuss the damage it wreaked upon trans people present at the performance. Another piece at this performance conference that featured a “fortune teller” character was accused of orientalist stereotyping. At another event I attended that focused on queer masculinities, the organizers were accused of marginalizing queer femininities. And a class I was teaching recently featured a young person who reported feeling worried about potentially “triggering” a transgender student by using incorrect pronouns in relation to a third student who did not seem bothered by it! Another student told me recently that she had been “triggered” in a class on colonialism by the showing of The Battle of Algiers. In many of these cases offended groups demand apologies, and promises are made that future enactments of this or that theater piece will cut out the offensive parts; or, as in the case of “Trannyshack,” the name of the club was changed.

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As reductive as such responses to aesthetic and academic material have become, so have definitions of trauma been over-simplified within these contexts. There are complex discourses on trauma readily available as a consequence of decades of work on memory, political violence and abuse. This work has offered us multiple theories of the ways in which a charged memory of pain, abuse, torture or imprisonment can be reignited by situations or associations that cause long buried memories to flood back into the body with unpredictable results. But all of this work, by Shoshana Felman Macarena Gomez-Barris, Saidiya Hartman, Cathy Caruth, Ann Cvetkovich, Marianne Hirsch and others, has been pushed aside in the recent wave of the politics of the aggrieved.

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Claims about being triggered work off literalist notions of emotional pain and cast traumatic events as barely buried hurt that can easily resurface in relation to any kind of representation or association that resembles or even merely represents the theme of the original painful experience. And so, while in the past, we turned to Freud’s mystic writing pad to think of memory as a palimpsest, burying material under layers of inscription, now we see a memory as a live wire sitting in the psyche waiting for a spark. Where once we saw traumatic recall as a set of enigmatic symptoms moving through the body, now people reduce the resurfacing of a painful memory to the catch all term of “trigger,” imagining that emotional pain is somehow similar to a pulled muscle –as something that hurts whenever it is deployed, and as an injury that requires protection.

k5715Fifteen to twenty years ago, books like Wendy Brown’s States of Injury (1995) and Anna Cheng’s The Melancholy of Race: Psychoanalysis, Assimilation and Hidden Grief (2001) asked readers to think about how grievances become grief, how politics comes to demand injury and how a neoliberal rhetoric of individual pain obscures the violent sources of social inequity. But, newer generations of queers seem only to have heard part of this story and instead of recognizing that neoliberalism precisely goes to work by psychologizing political difference, individualizing structural exclusions and mystifying political change, some recent activists seem to have equated social activism with descriptive statements about individual harm and psychic pain. Let me be clear – saying that you feel harmed by another queer person’s use of a reclaimed word like tranny and organizing against the use of that word is NOT social activism. It is censorship.

In a post-affirmative action society, where even recent histories of political violence like slavery and lynching are cast as a distant and irrelevant past, all claims to hardship have been cast as equal; and some students, accustomed to trotting out stories of painful events in their childhoods (dead pets/parrots, a bad injury in sports) in college applications and other such venues, have come to think of themselves as communities of naked, shivering, quaking little selves – too vulnerable to take a joke, too damaged to make one. In queer communities, some people are now committed to an “It Gets Better” version of consciousness-raising within which suicidal, depressed and bullied young gays and lesbians struggle like emperor penguins in a blighted arctic landscape to make it through the winter of childhood. With the help of friendly adults, therapy, queer youth groups and national campaigns, these same youth internalize narratives of damage that they themselves may or may not have actually experienced. Queer youth groups in particular install a narrative of trauma and encourage LGBT youth to see themselves as “endangered” and “precarious” whether or not they actually feel that way, whether or not coming out as LGB or T actually resulted in abuse! And then, once they “age out” of their youth groups, those same LGBT youth become hypersensitive to all signs and evidence of the abuse about which they have learned.

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What does it mean when younger people who are benefitting from several generations now of queer social activism by people in their 40s and 50s (who in their childhoods had no recourse to anti-bullying campaigns or social services or multiple representations of other queer people building lives) feel abused, traumatized, abandoned, misrecognized, beaten, bashed and damaged? These younger folks, with their gay-straight alliances, their supportive parents and their new right to marry regularly issue calls for “safe space.” However, as Christina978-0-8223-5470-3_pr
Hanhardt’s Lambda Literary award winning book, Safe Space: Neighborhood History and the Politics of Violence, shows, the safe space agenda has worked in tandem with urban initiatives to increase the policing of poor neighborhoods and the gentrification of others. Safe Space: Gay Neighborhood History and the Politics of Violence traces the development of LGBT politics in the US from 1965-2005 and explains how LGBT activism was transformed from a multi-racial coalitional grassroots movement with strong ties to anti-poverty groups and anti-racism organizations to a mainstream, anti-violence movement with aspirations for state recognition.

And, as LGBT communities make “safety” into a top priority (and that during an era of militaristic investment in security regimes) and ground their quest for safety in competitive narratives about trauma, the fight against aggressive new forms of exploitation, global capitalism and corrupt political systems falls by the way side.

Is this the way the world ends? When groups that share common cause, utopian dreams and a joined mission find fault with each other instead of tearing down the banks and the bankers, the politicians and the parliaments, the university presidents and the CEOs? Instead of realizing, as Moten and Hearny put it in The Undercommons, that “we owe each other everything,” we enact punishments on one another and stalk away from projects that should unite us, and huddle in small groups feeling erotically bonded through our self-righteousness.

I want to call for a time of accountability and specificity: not all LGBT youth are suicidal, not all LGBT people are subject to violence and bullying, and indeed class and race remain much more vital factors in accounting for vulnerability to violence, police brutality, social baiting and reduced access to education and career opportunities. Let’s call an end to the finger snapping moralism, let’s question contemporary desires for immediately consumable messages of progress, development and access; let’s all take a hard long look at the privileges that often prop up public performances of grief and outrage; let’s acknowledge that being queer no longer automatically means being brutalized and let’s argue for much more situated claims to marginalization, trauma and violence. Let’s not fiddle while Rome (or Paris) burns, trigger while the water rises, weep while trash piles up; let’s recognize these internal wars for the distraction they have become. Once upon a time, the appellation “queer” named an opposition to identity politics, a commitment to coalition, a vision of alternative worlds. Now it has become a weak umbrella term for a confederation of identitarian concerns. It is time to move on, to confuse the enemy, to become illegible, invisible, anonymous (see Preciado’s Bully Bloggers post on anonymity in relation to the Zapatistas). In the words of José Muñoz, “we have never been queer.” In the words of a great knight from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, “we are now no longer the Knights who say Ni, we are now the Knights who say “Ekki-ekki-ekki-ekki-PTANG. Zoom-Boing, z’nourrwringmm.”

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Transfeminist Marcos By Beatriz Marcos Preciado

11 Jun

Marcos For Ever

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On 25 May, Subcommander Marcos sent an open letter to the world from the “Zapatista reality” announcing the death of Marcos, who was constructed to act as a media representative and voice of the revolutionary project of Chiapas. “These will be my last word in public before ceasing to exist.” The same statement announced the birth of Subcommander Galeano, a name borrowed from José Luis Solis “Galeano” – a colleague murdered by paramilitaries on 2 May. “One of us has to die”, explained the Subcommander, “so that Galeano can live. And so that the impertinent death can be satisfied. In the place of Galeano we put another name so that he may live and death takes away not a life but just a name, a few letters emptied of all meaning, all history and all life.” We know, of course, that José Luis Solis Jose borrowed his own name from the writer of Open Veins of Latin America. The Subcommander, who has always been miles ahead of the egotistical elders of French poststructuralism, operates within the realm of the political production the death of the author that Barthes proposed in the realm of a text.

 

In the last few years, the Zapatistas have constructed the most creative option for confronting the (failed) necropolitical options of neoliberalism, as well as those proposed by communism. The Zapatistas, unlike any other movement, is inventing a political methodology for “organizing rage”. And reinventing life. In 1994, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (ELNZ) – through the figure of subcommander Marcos – began to conceive of a new means of doing decolonial philosophy for the twenty first century that distanced itself from the treatise (inherited from the ecclesiastic and colonial culture of the book that began in the sixteenth century and declined towards the end of the last) in order to act from an oral-digital techno-indigenous culture that is whispered across the social networks as rituals, letters, messages, stories and parables. The Zapatistas are showing us one of the central techniques of production of political subjectivity: deprivatizing birth names with borrowed names and undoing the individualist fiction of the “real and natural” face.

 

Amos Mac

Amos Mac by Elisa Shea

Not so far from the subcommander, resides another political space where the stability of one’s given name is also challenged in the same theatrical and shamanic gesture – a space where the truth of the face as an ultimate reference of personal identity is disrupted: the transsexual, transgender, gender-queer, drag king and drag queen cultures. Every trans person has (or had) two (or more) names: the one they were assigned at birth by the dominant culture seeking to normalize them and the one that marks a process of dissident subjectivity. Trans names are not so much an affirmation about belonging to another sex, rather they are the detonators for a process of dis-identification. The subcommander Marcos, who learnt more from the pen of the queer Mexican writer Carlos Monsivais than the manly beard of Fidel, was a drag king personality: the intentional construction of a masculine fiction (the hero and the voice of the rebel) through technical performances. A revolutionary emblem without a face or ego: made from words and collective dreams, constructed with a balaclava and a pipe. The borrowed name and the facemask are methods of political parody that work to denounce the masks that cover the faces of the corrupt police and the hegemony: “Why is there so much scandal about the masks?” Said Marcos “Is Mexican Society really ready to take off its own mask?” Just like the balaclava undoes the individual “truth” of the face, the given name is unraveled and collectivized.

 

Photo by Del LaGrace Volcano

“Gender Optional: The Mutating Self Portrait,” Photo by Del LaGrace Volcano

For the Zapatistas, given names and balaclavas work in the same way that the wig, the second name, moustache and heels work in trans culture: as intentional and hyperbolic signs of a political-sexual transvestism as well as queer-indigenous weapons that allow us to confront neoliberal aesthetics. And this is not through a notion of true sex or an authentic name, rather through the construction of a living fiction that resists the norm.

 

The experiments of the Zapatistas, queer and trans cultures invite us to deprivatize the face and the name in order to transform the body of the multitude into a collective revolutionary agent. From this shared common body, I would like to respond to Subcommander Galeano with the proposition that from now on I will sign with my trans name – Beatriz Marcos Preciado – harnessing the performative force of the political fiction created by the Zapatistas and letting it live in the queer guerrilla of a decomposing Europe: so that the Zapatista reality is.

 

Beatriz Marcos Preciado.

Bullybloggers on Failure and the Future of Queer Studies

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On March 26, 2012, Gayatri Gopinath at NYU convened a panel of queer scholars to discuss “Failure and the Future of Queer Studies.” Using Jack Halberstam’s new book, The Queer Art of Failure (Duke, 2011) as an occasion to think about negativity, failure, anti-disciplinarity and other bully-ish topics, the panelists all provided commentary on the past, present and potential futures of queer studies. We reproduce the presentations here in order and we add another commentary by bullyblogger extraordinare, Tavia Nyong’o.

Jack Halberstam

Our aim tonight is to be bold, provocative, polemical and preposterous. We come to bully not to please, to bludgeon not to persuade, to renege on politeness, rigor, the reasonable, the rational, the enlightened and the un-invested. I am honored to share a space with these colleagues in this space, here and now. From each, I have learned valuable lessons not just about how to think but also about what to think and why. They have each, in their own way, and through their innovative and risk-taking work, taught me and taught us all how to fail and why we should and must fail in order to not establish ourselves as a new institution:

Gayatri Gopinath – Gayatri’s work, with its bold refusals of the static and normative relations between nation and diaspora has given us new and vital formulations of space, race, migration, mobility, sexual ecologies and cultural production. The diaspora after Gopinath is not the inability or failure to reproduce the nation elsewhere, it is a refusal of the diaspora as always a shadow of the nation, as its inauthentic other, its lost and loser child.

Lisa Duggan – Duggan’s body of work over the last two decades has changed completely the ways in which we understand relations between the economy and the sexual, the state and the individual, violence and identity, marriage and queer activism. A quintessential public intellectual, Duggan has trained a whole generation of scholars in modes of writing history beyond the discipline, against the grain and in and alongside the contradictions of sex, politics and activism.

Tavia Nyong’o – Tavia’s latest work has brought punk to queer studies, queerness to punk and has examined all of the fertile intersections engendered by queer punk in relation to race relations and radicalized cultural production. Nyong’o’s work manages to produce and nurture crucial links between brown and black aesthetics and queer practice and he writes a mean bully blog!

Ann Pellegrini – has allowed us to think about sexuality alongside, through and against various states of devotion, spiritual callings and religious feelings. Rather than accepting a clear connection between queer communities and the secular, she finds contact zones that link the passion of religious calling to the intensity of alternative queer communities.

Jose Muñoz – Muñoz, perhaps more than anyone here tonight, has taught me personally how to fail well and fail better. With his virtuoso readings of eccentric queer culture through and with eclectic archives of continental philosophy, Muñoz has actively, relentlessly, wildly refused to stay in the playpen of queer culture and he insists on dragging white dead philosophers into the mix—Althusser, Heidegger, Agamben, Jean Luc Nancy—to name a few, to create fabulous blends of imaginative archives and sophisticated theoretical models.

The Queer Art of Failure

My book: to the extent that my book makes an intervention, it does so by cleaving to counter-intuitive ways of thinking, anti-disciplinary forms of knowledge production, uncanonical archives and queer modes of address. The basic interventions are:

1) The naming of failure not as the negative space opened up by normalized modes of success but as a habitable space with its own logic, its own practices and the potential for new collectivities: success is individualized but failure is collective – 99 %!

2) The book understands failure as a practice that builds upon queerness in the sense that queerness is always a failure to conform, to belong, to cohere. Rather than reorienting queerness, we should embrace failure.

3) The Queer Art of Failure tracks an aesthetic through works by queer artists who focus on awkwardness, limits, disappointment, loss, losing and it identifies an archive not in relation to generic specificity but in relation to the theme of failure itself.

4) Failure suggests a historiographical method within which we must write queer history not simply as a record of heroes, martyrs, forebears, but also as a record of complicity, cowardice, exclusion and violence – in other words, any history, LGBT history included, contains episodes that are shameful, racist, complicit with state power, orientalist, colonial and so on. To leave that history out is to commit to normative models of self, time and the past/future.

5) Anti-Social: Finally, failure as theorized by my book alongside work by Jose, Rod Ferguson and many people here tonight, pushes the so-called anti-social strand of queer theory to a place it never wanted to go. And so, if Edelman, Bersani, Tim Dean et al really wanted to follow a negative strand of queer thinking, we are saying, they would have to make peace with the denizens of the dark side who are not the masterful heroes of theory and high culture but are motley crews of gender deviants, misfits, punks, immigrants, the dispossessed, the disinherited, the uninvited, the down and outers. Our work makes a collectivity out of that motley crew and speaks the anti-social as a kind of curse or protest.

The Death of Queer Theory?

While some people, no names, have been pronouncing queer studies dead and done, there are meanwhile a whole slew of amazing new books by younger scholars that prove this pronouncement to be premature and even immature! Not only is queer studies not dead, but it was never trying to be the kind of thing that would eventually be bypassed or made redundant later. That notion of a set of ideas that have currency until they are replaced is part of a straight temporality that queer studies has tried to upend and decenter.

Queer studies has failed to coalesce into a discipline – it has failed to produce programs, MA’s, PhD’s, majors, minors; and in this failure, the failure to formalize our relations, our procedures and our productions, we see, to quote Muñoz, horizons of possibility. And so, what now for queer studies? If indeed another version of queer studies has “passed,” has been declared dead, what new forms will rise in its wake?

New books include: Chandan Reddy’s Freedom with Violence; Jafari Sinclair Allen’s Venceremos; Dean Spade’s Normal Life; Omi Tinsley’s Thiefing Sugar; Karen Tongson’s Re-Locations and many more. These new books have completely reconceived of queer studies and shifted the focus away from identity, textuality and community to time/space, relations to the state, globalization, the suburbs, immigration and so on.

Queer studies of the variety that the people gathered here today have created was always a dynamic set of conversations; a set of mentoring practices; a rehearsal without a performance; an improvised and ephemeral cluster of ideas that form and deform, circulate and collapse around a shifting un-canon of cultural objects and a constellation of subjugated knowledges.

Queer studies as practiced by myself, Lisa Duggan, Gayatri Gopinath, Tavia Nyong’o, José Muñoz and Ann Pellegrini was never supposed to “succeed” in the terms established for success in the academy – it was doomed to fail and happily so and in the wake of our often dazzling and deliberate failures, new forms of knowledge can flourish and grow. In fact, it is all too often the success of an area of knowledge, its development into programs and disciplines, that cuts off the next generation and that, like a wave of gentrification in a formerly impoverished but happening neighborhood, stabilizes what was dynamic and seizes what was common to all.

And so, here tonight at NYU, the center of a certain strand of queer diasporic critique and queer of color theory, we announce not an end but a new beginning and we do so as surly, grumpy, weathered survivors of an old order that has declared itself dead—and that we are happy to bury—and as the happy benefactors of new intellectual movements, as the supporters of younger rebellious colleagues and as the instigators of forms of disciplinary ruin.

My colleagues and I practice queer failure daily and we refuse to commit to a model of queer theory that demands success, institutional recognition, longevity and the centering of identity. And so, I would like to name a new queer theory that does the following:

1) Promises to never declare itself dead in the face of the impending irrelevance of its senior practitioners. In other words, if a senior group of queer theorists becomes outmoded, then hurray for the onward march of knowledge and innovation – know when to step aside and let others through.

2) Practices what Stuart Hall calls “Marxism without guarantees” but what we can call “queer theory without a safety net” – this means taking risks, maintaining queer thinking as an open field – open to new forms, outside influences, broad transformations, unknowing, undoing, unbeing.

3) Collaborates rather than competes – queer studies should not only be about raw ambition, the race to the top, elbowing everyone else out of the way. Hopefully we can learn better how to collaborate, share authorship, circulate ideas rather than branding them, copyrighting them and jealously marking them as property.

4) Thinks in terms of collectivities rather than just individuals, multiplicities rather than singularities, new modes of associating as well as the inevitability of division, differences, disagreements.

5) Survives: We have all been doing QS for a long time now and we are all in some way survivors of the various struggles that have engulfed the field. So I conclude here by turning to one of my favorite films of all time, a film with much wisdom about desire, struggle, queerness and survival –  and one I have now committed to quoting whenever I give a talk, yes, you guessed it: Fantastic Mr. Fox.

 

This film is not only about fighting the law and the farmers, it is also about stopping and going, moving and halting, inertia and dynamism; it is about survival and its component parts and the costs of survival for those who remain. But one of the very best moments in Fantastic Mr. Fox, and the moment most memorable in terms of queer theory and survival, comes in the form of a speech that Mr. Fox makes to his woodland friends who have outlived the farmers’ attempt to starve them all out of their burrows. The sturdy group of survivors dig their way out of a trap laid for them by Boggis, Bunce and Bean and find themselves burrowing straight up into a closed supermarket stocked with all the supplies they need. Mr. Fox, buoyed by this lucky turn of events, turns to his clan and addresses them for the last time:

“They say all foxes are slightly allergic to linoleum, but it’s cool to the paw – try it. They say my tail needs to be dry cleaned twice a month, but now it’s fully detachable – see? They say our tree may never grow back, but one day, something will. Yes, these crackles are made of synthetic goose and these giblets come from artificial squab and even these apples look fake – but at least they’ve got stars on them. I guess my point is, we’ll eat tonight, and we’ll eat together. And even in this not particularly flattering light, you are without a doubt the five and a half most wonderful wild animals I’ve ever met in my life. So let’s raise our boxes – to our survival.”

Not quite a credo, something short of a toast, a little less than a speech, but Mr. Fox gives here one of the best and most moving–both emotionally and in stop motion terms–addresses in the history of cinema. Fantastic Mr. Fox is a queerly animated classic in that it teaches us, as Finding Nemo, Chicken Run and so many other revolting animations before it, to believe in detachable tails, fake apples, eating together, adapting to the lighting, risk, sissy sons, and the sheer importance of survival for all those wild souls that the farmers, the teachers, the preachers and the politicians would like to bury alive.

Like Mr. Fox, and I hope I can always try to be the Mr. Fox of queer studies, I too would like to say: “And even in this not particularly flattering light, you are without a doubt the four most wonderful wild and queer animals I’ve ever met in my life. So let’s raise our boxes and drink to our survival.”

ON QUEER FAILURE

Lisa Duggan

            Jack Halberstam assures us that queerness offers the promise of failure as a way of life, then goes on to provide us with unique insight into why Zizek is so wrong about Kung Fu Panda.   And this is just the tip of the iceberg of risk The Queer Art of Failure takes:

1) The risk of the ludic.  There has been a lot written from Marxist materialist quarters about the ludic nature of much of queer theory.  The definition for ludic that I found at Dictionary.com is “playful in an aimless way,” as in “the ludic behavior of kittens.”  What could be a more ludic archive than animated films for children?  Halberstam’s “silly archive” walks right up to this charge spoiling for a claymation fight.  What, after all, is mutually exclusive about silly archives and political economic analysis?  As the text of Chicken Run clearly shows, cartoons can launch calls for collective resistance to labor exploitation.  But there is a particularly queer angle to this kind of political economic analysis.  As Jose Munoz has so eloquently argued in Cruising Utopia, imagining and creating alternative life worlds is central to the project of social change.  It isn’t enough to critique neoliberal capitalism’s devastating impact on the quality of life of the 99%, as OWS has shown at Liberty Plaza and elsewhere, beginning to actually live otherwise is crucial to generating a sense of political possibility.   Imagining alternative life worlds–other ways of living, being, knowing and making, beyond conventional arrangements of production, intimacy and leisure–is the primary work of queer politics and queer theory.   Given these goals, it is not surprising that the arts are central sites for queer imaginings—the commercial arts in their experimental or populist modes as well as the fine or alternative arts.

But if we can establish that this kind of queer work is not aimless, what about the charge of playfulness?  There does seem to be a division on the left between those continually suspicious of imaginative playfulness—and thus of postmodernism, queer interventions reductively described as “lifestyle” politics “utopianism,” and sometimes “cultural studies”—and those engaged in play *as* politics.  Halberstam tags Zizek as the former kind of left intellectual, but we have to include many others including David Harvey here too.  Such left intellectuals dismiss the ludic rather too quickly as universally unengaged with political economic analysis—their critique is shallow.  But there’s more.  There is a suspicion of playfulness or silliness on the male dominated left that I would indentify as a rejection of the feminine.  The emphasis on seriousness, on rigor, on hard reasoning, on difficulty and mastery in general, strikes me and my queerly feminist comrades as a variety of masculinism.  And as we know the masculine among us are not to be concerned with “lifestyles,” these are attended to by the women, or with the sillier realms of culture, as these are inhabited by the flagrant homosexuals. 

So the risk that The Queer Art of Failure takes is the risk of condescending dismissal by the Real Men of the Left and of the Academy (some of whom are women and gay people, of course).   But here we have a challenge to that kind of dismissal issued from the quarters of queer masculinity, from someone not interested in competing in the manufactured shortage economy of smartness.  Masculinities against masculinism!  Must be confusing to some…….

2) The risk of anti-disciplinarity.  The disciplines are the zombies of intellectual life right now—like capitalism, they keep coming back from devastating crisis and critique.  We are encouraged to describe our work as interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary or transdisciplinary, so that the disciplines may survive alongside our critical practices, fundamentally informing them.  The Queer Art of Failure dares to be postdisciplinary and anti-disciplinary instead.  It also evades another major boundary that cross cuts the disciplines—that between the advocates of theory, and the practitioners of “plain language.”  In our classrooms in SCA, we often have a rift between students who wish to read and make use of “theory” and those who want to write in ways designed to reach a wider audience.  The Queer Art of Failure exposes this division as a false dichotomy through its deep engagement with cultural and social theory (Benjamin, Gramsci, Foucault, among others) alongside its silly archives and evasion of discipline.  The audiences for this kind of work are multiple—Halberstam has presented it at art conferences and museums, feminist and queer activist settings like Bluestockings book store, as well as in a wide variety of academic settings (probably in dungeons and discos as well).  Sometimes it is the non academic audiences who are hungriest for theoretical engagements, and academics who can be most anti-theory in the name of a “public” imagined somewhat condescendingly as unable to understand more abstract formulations of political thinking.  Here we have an example of promiscuous relations between the “high” and “low” without resorting to a bland linguistic and analytic middle.

3) The risk of betrayal.   Following on the groundbreaking example of Licia Fiol-Matta, whose book A Queer Mother for the Nation first demonstrated how queerness could be deployed in the interests of domination and inequality (specifically, racial nationalism in Latin America), Halberstam’s Queer Art of Failure takes on the volatile subject of gay Naziism.  The appeal of fascism to romantic masculinism has included an historical relation to both gay and lesbian masculinism.  Big surprise.  Halberstam’s foray here helps expand the critical reach of queer studies, as it catches up with the transnational feminist critique of historical feminisms aligned with empire and war.  This betrayal of allegiance to an identity formation is required, if we hope to engage in left political alliances.  LGBT populations are not the subjects of queer politics, any more than women are the subjects of feminist politics.  Queer politics is about dissent from normalization, so it must include a critique of normalizing masculinism that applies to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender figures.  Though LGBT sites are privileged sources of queer critique and invention, the solidarity that we mobilize is ultimately on the ground of politics, not identity.

In conclusion, despite various declarations of the death of queer theory, The Queer Art of Failure is a clear sign of continued vitality.  It occupies a place amidst a continuing stream of new engagements for queer scholarship and politics.  There are three overlapping areas of particularly lively ferment and publication right now:

1) Queer of color critique.  Following on now classic texts by Jose Munoz, Roderick Ferguson, Martin Manalansan, Licia Fiol-Matta, Gayatri Gopinath and others, we now have new work by Nayan Shah, Chandon Reddy,  Karen Tongson, Kara Keeling and others.

2) Global political economy.  Earlier work by Ara Wilson, Jacqui Alexander, Beth Povinelli and Arnaldo Cruz-Malave is joined by new work by Jasbir Puar, Tavia N’yongo, Scott Morgensen, Jenny Terry, Eng-Beng Lim, new work by Judith Butler and others.

3) Economic austerity and queer feeling:  Lauren Berlant is setting new standards here all the time, in company with Ann Cvetkovich, Jose Munoz, Sara Ahmed, Heather Love, and others.

In addition, work is pouring forth now on trangender politics (ref. Gayle Salomon and Dean Spade) and on queer disability (Robert McRuer, Eli Clare, David Serlin).

If a certain kind of queer theory, emanating primarily from the English departments of elite universities, is dead, we need not mourn.  What we have now is a plenitude of promiscuous engagements across disciplinary and institutional boundaries now remaking fields and politics in ways the queer theory of 10 years ago could not have imagined.

Never Mind the Buzzkills:

Here’s The Queer Art of Failure

 Jose Muñoz

In Negative Dialectics Theodor Adorno explains that thought as such is, before all particular contexts, an act of negation.  Its function is to enact a resistance to that which is forced upon it.  Adorno makes the case that thought is always risking failure.  He explains that philosophy can always go astray, but that going astray lets it move forward.  So we can conclude that if we aren’t failing, we aren’t going anywhere or doing much of anything.  He also doesn’t think that philosophers should impose a rational take on the world—because that is too violent in its totalization—echoing man’s violent domination of nature.  Adorno is of course famous for being the key proponent of the Frankfurt School’s withering critique of the culture industry as a mechanism that lulls the masses into malleable passivity. For these reasons and others, Adorno is regarded as something of a buzz kill.  (More on that term later.)

By commencing my comments on my comrade Jack’s excellent new book The Queer Art of Failure through an invocation of Adorno, I don’t mean to totally cast him as our new queer Adorno.  They aren’t totally alike.  But they do share some characteristics.  I think its safe to say that both Halberstam and Adorno share an interest in the power of negation.  Both thinkers respond to the smugness of rationalist thought through a robust skepticism.  Both aren’t afraid to write failure and have it clearly demarcated as something that not only happens, but also needs to happen for us to think otherwise.  That thinking otherwise, an attentiveness to the potential of a non-identity that Adorno proposed, resonates with the weirdness of Jack Halberstam’s “silly” archive of cartoons, “bro” movies and other kid’s stuff.  Adorno instructed his readers in how to look out for the many ways that beauty and representations of nature can be scams that are meant to keep us from grasping the severity of the present moment.  Halberstam is always turning away from the natural–nature for Halberstam is a stop motion animated were-rabbit–to look to the absurd and the comical to tell us something else.

Adorno, as many of the readers of his work can testify, was kind of hilarious and cranky.  The same can be safely be said of Halberstam, a scholar who isn’t afraid to go for the laugh when he is deadly serious.  Certainly the plot summaries of Chicken Run are quite replete with humor as Halberstam describes the animated “classic claymation” feature Chicken Run’s opening sequence.  But we also hear this tone when Halberstam describes himself debating a colleague in Sweden at lunch. The topic of the discussion was the fascist tenets of Tom of Finland’s work. Halberstam reports that “In [his] typically subtle and diplomatic way” he proposed that any reading of Finland’s über-masculine leather daddies that made a detour around a discussion of Fascism was skirting a general component of the work.” Halberstam’s interlocutor shot back that such a proclamation was nonsense since Tom of Finland is “pure eros.”  Jack responds in his “gently persuasive way” that the eros was linked to a politics. And the back and forth persists. This moment in the book is indicative of Halberstam’s authorial voice in the project, the way in which he is willing to play with irony, poke fun at himself, but also never lose the trajectory of the argument.  Halberstam’s point is summarized as this: “This is not to make a Catherine Mackinnon-type argument that sees power-laden sexual representations as inherently bad.  Rather I want to understand why we cannot tolerate linking our desires to politics that disturb us.” In this passage Halberstam isn’t only what Sara Ahmed would call a feminist killjoy, he is also, in that tradition of Adorno, a full on buzzkill.  Not so much in that he is simply trying to shut down the Tom of Finland fan’s erotics or make him feel guilty about them, but instead because he is asking his lunchtime companion to own up to the more disturbing aspects of his erotic attachments.  In the same way Adorno would call out the insidious politics of authoritarian irrationalism that is bred in a seemingly harmless interest in Astrology.  Adorno is not going to let us off the hook and not think about our complicity in the escapism of astrological thinking.  This is harsh.  No Rob Bresny for you!  If you love your astrology it’s a buzzkill.  This is what Halberstam is doing too to some degree.  Not so much because Halberstam wants to shame the Tom of Finland devotee, but because he wants to insist on a very real linkage between desire and history.  Halberstam’s lunchtime debate is a pretty apt example of playful self-effacement running parallel to a critique or an engagement with the real imbrications of desire and politics.

In an article published The Chronicle of Higher Education Michel Warner remarks on the title of a special of issue of Social Text that Jack and I edited along with David Eng.  He sites our title, “What’s Queer About Queer Studies Now?” as displaying bitter  “queerer than-thou competiveness” that is borne from a typical scarcity of resources. He points out how ironic it is that queer theorists can strike such “postures of purity.” We ourselves have a few critiques of our issue, most prominently the absence of scholars not based in North America.  But I think one of the things about that issue that my co-editors and I are most happy about was the way it helped foster a lot of queer of color theory.  Many of our contributors did what Jack did when talking to his Swedish colleague.  They insisted on linking desire and politics, often in the form of thinking about sexuality as coterminous with race, empire and few other modes of particularity.  Our purpose in publishing the issue was to provide an auto-examination of the field, an attempt to take critical stock of where the conversation was headed. Participating in this kind of critique opens one up to a little name-calling. You can’t please all the queers all the time. In this way queer failure is in the cards.  We must just cop to being buzzkills in the cranky tradition that I see Jack and Teddy Adorno belonging to.

One of the more moving moments in The Queer Art of Failure occurs when Halberstam closes out chapter three by citing a line from Benjamin: “[E]mpathy with the winners invariably benefits the rulers.” Benjamin and Adorno shared a rich twelve yearlong correspondence. But they had very different styles. There is a melancholic sadness that runs through Benjamin’s prose that I don’t hear in Halberstam.  I think of Adorno as being kind of proto punk, despite his passion for classical music. Punk in that he was willing to fail, interested in a certain infidelity to form and genre. This is another reason I link these cranky buzzkills beside each other. But let’s be clear, I have stretched this comparison to the limit.  Jack and Teddy are very different.  As any reader of The Queer Art of Failure can attest, they have very different relationships to the culture industry. But beyond that, I think it’s pretty clear that if we had a time machine, brought Adorno to the present and forced him to have lunch with Halberstam, they would hate each other. That lunch would be a splendid failure.

“We’re gonna die”: Not not an ending

Ann Pellegrini

“Failure loves company,” Jack Halberstam proclaims midway through The Queer Art of Failure.  The new directions in queer theory charted across these blog entries not only refute the obituaries some others have proclaimed about the end of queer theory; they also show just how richly varied the band of scholars remaking queer theory for today and towards tomorrow are.  The question, then, is not whether or not “queer theory” is dead (it isn’t), but why some have apocalyptically conflated a change in focus, analytic orientation, (inter)disciplinary location with the end of the world as they know it.   C’mon people, let’s practice losing, and loosing, the reins.

Failing is not as easy as it seems.  So, for some additional help, let’s even turn, as Jack Halberstam did early on in The Queer Art of Failure, to Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” with its famous assertion that “the art of losing’s not too hard to master.”  Bishop’s poem is an exercise in as-if: practice losing often enough (“Lose something every day….Then practice losing farther, losing faster…”), and you’ll discover that the greatest blows are survivable.  And the poem even presents writing itself—Bishop writes: “though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster”—as one of those practices through which we master the loser’s art.  Bishop’s parenthetical exhortation—“(Write it!)”—and that second “like” are a kind of stutter-step in the poem’s movement, belying the asserted ease with which the art of losing can be mastered.  Because it can’t.  That’s the poem’s lie, and its bluish ray of hope: to act as if loss can be mastered is, paradoxically, to let go of fantasies of mastery.

The Queer Art of Failure picks up this exhortation and runs with it.  It is a clarion call to and for failure.   Halberstam proffers failure as a vocation.  As he powerfully and poignantly reminds us at book’s end: “To live is to fail, to bungle, to disappoint, and ultimately to die.”  I found this strangely uplifting—what this says about me, I leave to your discretion—especially as it was followed by: “rather than searching for ways around death and disappointment, the queer art of failure involves the acceptance of the finite, the embrace of the absurd, the silly.  And the hopelessly goofy.”

And The Queer Art of Failure is a very goofy book with an unabashedly absurd archive of failure: Finding Nemo, The Fanstastic Mr. Fox, and other animated feature films (in a genre Halberstam identifies as “Pixarvolt”) appear alongside the work of such visual and performance artists as Tracey Moffat, Yoko Ono, and Collier Schorr.  SpongeBob Square Pants does a duet with the Sex Pistols.  This is not your grand-pappy’s archive nor your gay uncle’s, and that’s precisely the point.  In the place of canonized texts and disciplinary—and disciplining—knowledge-formation, Jack takes us on a wild goose chase (or should I say chicken run?), lingering and malingering in the detours, the chance arrivals, the libidinal pulse of the useless, and the highways and by-ways of stupidity.  I suppose this is the moment to rev up my engine and cue Dude, Where’s My Car. As Wittgenstein (a great lover of the silly) writes in Culture and Value: “Our greatest stupidities may be very wise” (qtd in Landy and Saler, The Re-Enchantment of the World, 67).  Wittengenstein would have found this book very wise.

The diversity of Jack’s archive and its willful reclamation (not the same thing as redemption) of the junked and jettisoned reminded me of the “garbage-picking or ‘reusing and recycling’” that Jane Bennett practices in her 2001 book The Enchantment of Modern Life as well as her more recent Vibrant Matter.  In both books, Bennett mines the leftovers of the world, the everyday, for sites of enchantment and vibrant possibility.  Bennett is interested in cultivating wonder and joyful attachment, moods that could not, at first glance, be more different from the negativity tracked (and even solicited) in The Queer Art of Failure.  What all three books both share, though, is an orientation to the discarded and overlooked—to the refuse of the world.  So many possibilities are contained in that word refuse.  Throughout The Queer Art of Failure we can hear its variants: the trash pile of refuse, the negative force of refusal, the new assemblages courted (re-fused), and, of course, the slow burn of the fuse ticking down 3-2-1, to a whimper, not a bang.

This is low theory; but, don’t confuse that with frivolity.  At its playful heart, The Queer Art of Failure is also a very serious book, with life and death stakes.  If  Halberstam concludes by calling for queer failure as a way of life, he also calls attention to the unequal terrains on which failure operates.  All failures are not equal.  Throughout the book he thus moves to deconstruct failure, to show how failure as a badge of shame is, in his words, “levied by the winners against the losers.”  At an historical moment when some of the biggest losers in economic history are getting public bail-outs, the public, as Lauren Berlant puts it and as Halberstam underscores, the public itself as living breathing bodies and not as some Habermasian abstraction has become too expensive for the state.  Structural failures and structural inequalities are recast as the bad moral choices of whole populations (those lazy Greeks) and individuated classes (the white working class is “coming apart,” to cite the title of Charles Murray’s new book, because of serial bad choices: out of wedlock births, crime, and joblessness).

And death is the ultimate failure.  Still, if we will all face the ultimate failure that is death, this does not make death the great equalizer.  I want here to link Halberstam’s beautiful closing observation—which I cited earlier but which bears repeating—that “rather than searching for ways around death and disappointment, the queer art of failure involves the acceptance of the finite, the embrace of the absurd, the silly.  And the hopelessly goofy.”  This queer art of ultimate failure is not a solo performance, even if, ultimately, no one can die for us—heroic pieties of giving one’s life for one’s country to the contrary.

These questions were very much on my mind as I was preparing for the NYU panel on The Queer Art of Failure.  It took place on Monday, March 26, the very day the U.S. Supreme Court began its extraordinary and, as it turned out, extraordinarily distressing, three days of arguments about the constitutionality of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, a law that is not nothing, even if it is not enough.  Recall that one of the first and most potent rhetorical bulls eyes scored by opponents of the law was to circulate the absolute fiction that President Obama’s health care reform would institute “death panels.”  Sarah Palin decried the “downright evil”of the entire health care law, asserting that the elderly would have to appear before a “death panel so [President Obama's] bureaucrats can decide … whether they are worthy of health care.

In fact (if facts still matter in an age of truthiness and thinking from your gut), what the offending provisions (a mere 10 pages out of a 1,000-page bill) would have done (and they were stripped from the bill before it reached the President’s desk) was to reimburse doctors for sitting down and talking to their elderly patients, every five years, about their wishes for end of life care.  These “advanced care planning consultations” were not about faceless bureaucrats coercing helpless Granny and Gramps onto the iceberg.  They were about giving elderly people some kind of agency about their own end of life care.  And yes, the consultations and reimbursement structure were also, as Jill Casid points out in a forthcoming essay, about “put[ting] at center stage the reassuring prospect of the doctor with a better bedside manner, even as this traditional image of doctor re-dressed as empathetic performer also works to keep off-scene the larger and less easily salved problematics of care under the austerity state and within the ostensibly new immaterial economics of sensations and affects.”

These new economics are only ostensibly immaterial, because behind the scene of the medicalized deathbed stands an array of workers, some paid (barely), some not, whose affective and material labor, Casid stresses, carries and cares loved ones as well as strangers to their death.  The slow and living deaths enforced both by the withdrawal of state care and by the imperative to choose life at all cost (especially when the state passes the cost on to others) blocks possibilities for imagining and enacting the good death, the dignified death.

Halberstam’s discussion of queer negativity and the inevitability of failures, large and small, is thus in important conversation with the still unfolding queer work on precarity by scholars like Jasbir Puar, Lauren Berlant, Judith Butler, Martin Manalansan, Casid, and others.  The art of losing, to return to Bishop’s poem and to borrow from Casid again, also entails the art of “letting go and being let go” (Casid).

To Halberstam’s archive of the queer art of failure I accordingly want to add—and I think he is explicitly inviting us to continue making a necessarily incomplete and “failed” archive—New York-based artist Young Jean Lee’s hilariously harrowing shout-out to death in her 2011 performance piece cum cabaret “We’re Gonna Die.”  The piece was developed and performed with her goofy band of male hipsters Future Wife. You can watch the entire performance on line at Lee’s website; I especially recommend fast forwarding to the rousing final number, the song “I’m Gonna Die.”  Start the video at the 39:50 mark and listen to the way Lee sets up the song.  The song transforms from being a solo number into a goofy and barely synchronized group dance.  Watch it all the way through, and behold the awkward, silly, and plain beautiful propping of one body upon another as Lee and her band show us how luminous and vital failure can be.

Young Jean Lee & Future Wife at Joe’s Pub

Sometimes the best way not to fail or—more to the point—the best way to fail well is to know when to quit.

Let’s Pretend that Everyone’s Dead

By Tavia Nyong’o

I wasn’t on the panel, but from where I stood in the standing-room only audience, queer failure was a contagious idea, drawing more people to listen and react to it than I have seen attend an academic talk in awhile. Perhaps this was because, as Lisa noted to me afterward, and as the above posts make clear, the tone of the evening was decidedly open and unstuffy; we were in but not of the university.

Precarity has gone from an exotic European theoretical import to a recognized identity for politically self-conscious American twentysomethings. The queer art of failure — with its use and abuse of library privileges, its creative mishandling of high and low theory, its predilection for fierce polemic of the “shit is fucked up and bullshit” variety, and its antisentimental refusals of equality and rights politics — is precarity with a twist, a flagrantly homosexual skill-set for when you are strapped to the roof of a society quickly careening off the edge.


In Q&A the question was raised whether the tenured professoriat should be extolling failure. The query is pertinent, but mostly as a means to clarify that failure is not something to be aspired to. The queer art of failure is not success on opposite day. Indeed, Jack’s book is positioned alongside other recent feminist broadsides including Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-sided, books that detect an air a pervasive contempt for failure around our self-help, self-improvement, and positive thinking gurus. Professors, insofar as we are thought to recuse ourselves from the rigors of the market and the blandishments of God’s, can be seen as just another variety of failure, in society’s terms. So it is less a question of choosing failure than choosing what to do with the failure that has chosen us.

Jack partly agrees with the abuse heaped on professors, insofar as he points out the only rationale for the protections of academic freedoms are to take risks, including the risk of failure. The unpalatable alternative is to let queer studies settle into a secure set of theoretical protocols that obtain what political relevance they claim from the rapidly receding moment of its emergence. Much as queer theory destabilized the lesbian and gay studies that preceded it (albeit destabilizing it in such a way that intersected with a brief publishing boom) it in turn needs to be destabilized in content, form, and location. By this I mean to second the calls made above to see queer critique take on new topics and methods (although I’d like to keep formalist methods and literary topics among them), to experiment with new forms of dissemination (like that meme and this blog but also ideas and arguments posted to Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and, hopefully someday, their open source non-profit alternatives), and to relocate the practice of queer criticism inside and outside the academy, and across the Global North/South divide.

Queer studies is, as Jasbir Puar asserts, an assemblage. And while Deleuze’s original conception of that term holds a sense of overall effectivity, I like the shambolic connotations of the English translation. An assemblage (unlike, for instance, an assembly) is a sort of mess, easily dismissed as a failed attempt at streamlined coherence. Even this overlong, multi-authored blog entry, with its unnecessary, repetitious and excessive conclusion by me, is kind of a shambles.

With the image of assemblage as a shambles in mind, let me stumble towards my conclusion by evoking the punk spirit that animates many of us, and that also resonates in some respects with the insurrections and occupations that have pockmarked the face of our new Gilded Age. Punk is obviously aligned with failure, art, and a certain alternative conception of the future that begins (but does not end) with the performative utterance “No future for you!” What comes after that realization cannot be prescribed in any single vision, but I find one clue in punk film auteur Bruce La Bruce’s recent zombie flick Otto: Or, Up with Dead People. I find it specifically in the films rollicking theme song, “Everyone’s Dead” by the Homophones (performed below “live” as an even more laconic shambles than in the version in the film):

The Homophones have a thing or two to teach us about life after the death of queer theory as we knew it. Sure, their anthem — “There’s no one around, except the policeman in our head” — extols a certain romantic conception of gay male public sex and cruising that might not exactly measure up to the pervasive reality of surveillance and privatized “public” space today. After all, we live in a moment where even an app transparently designed to assist anonymous hook ups has to pretend it is about anything but sex. But it is precisely in the midst of this depressing and dystopian present that the homophonic power of a negative assertion — “let’s pretend that everyone’s dead” — is a necessary hammer in the toolkit for making what José is calling a punk rock commons. In drumming out the policeman in our heads we also hear the creaking sounds and shambling swerves of the queer zombie, that is to say the de-zombified zombie, the zombie quickened by the silly, and somewhat disgusting literalization of same-sex sex as embodying the death drive. But if the future is kid stuff, then the zombie precariat doesn’t so much disavow as disembowel it, and play in its entrails. Swing sets and lollipops and very unsafe sex acts combine to form a queer assemblage indeed, one that sets the art of failure to a tune that might just prove infectious.

Kony 2012: Inaudible Children

12 Mar

By Tavia Nyong’o

CNN Headline: Hunt for warlord goes viral

Can the subaltern speak? No, but she can certainly sob, with cries of raking loss and, a few rapid film cuts later, tears of heartwarming gratitude. I learned that much watching Kony 2012 this morning, even if, like most people from the region, I learned little else by way of information or context.

Why did I wait so long to actually watch the film I’d been stewing about for the last week? I actually started to watch once, but was foiled by a bad Internet connection and the off-putting opening sequence (which resembles an ad for Facebook or Google more than a documentary about Uganda). And in a way, these obstacles told me something. I am not the target audience for this film. American youth with ubiquitous, high speed internet access willing to watch 30 minute films on computer screens, cell phones and (probably soon?) wristwatches are. But my exclusion from the film’s emotional community isn’t about age or tech savvy, but because I’m an African who happens to be neither a victim nor a villain, and simply doesn’t fit into either the audience or the subject matter of this overnight, worldwide success.

The almost uniformly ticked-off reaction of Africans like Rosebell Kagumire (above), Maureen Agena, Teju Cole — at least those Africans not on the payroll of Invisible Children — must seem like a bizarre and offensive form of ingratitude to those Americans caught up in the enthusiasm to “make Joseph Kony famous.”

If I had to sum up our bad attitude it would be thus: We feel like the vision of the world acting in unison extolled in the film Kony 2012 doesn’t include us.

After all, the film tells its viewers that no one knew or cared about the Lord’s Resistance Army before three twentysomethings from California stumbled upon some terrorized children sleeping outdoors. Kony 2012 doesn’t imply that Kony is still in Uganda, as some critics have claimed. But it does recycle powerful but outdated imagery from their earlier films about Northern Uganda. It does make exaggerated claims for the leading role of Invisible Children in the peacemaking and post-conflict process (taking full credit, for instance, for the recent deployment of 100 US military advisors to Uganda). And it does assert that only continued US intervention now — compelled by a worldwide youthful grassroots mobilization — can end the regional conflict by “arresting” Kony.

But its not the questionable geopolitical analysis of the film that gets to me so much as its affect. Those who haven’t been able to bear the thought of watching it really should make themselves, if only to grapple with the escalating power of images to affect us. It is that power that makes the informed, learned critiques irrelevant, as both the filmmakers and Noam Cohen in today’s New York Times make clear. Cohen casts this irrelevance in the familiar frame of obscure complexity versus compelling simplicity. But the truth is that emotions can be as complex as ideas. And it took Invisible Children, Inc. years to craft the sophisticated images and participatory campaigns they have mobilized, as a viewing of the evolution of their prior efforts shows. Simplicity has nothing to do with it.

So, while I do have an informed, professional response to the claims made by Kony 2012, but that response is short circuited by my feelings at seeing East and Central Africa explained by showing two mugshots to an adorable blond boy from San Diego: a good African victim and a bad African warlord. The film expects its audience to identify with the little blond boy. Indeed, it obliges it to. Africans however, must identify with those flat images on the table. With Jacob Acaye the former child soldier, yes, but with Joseph Kony too. We know that these are two side of a single coin, and that when we are seen as the one, the face of the other is always lurking beneath.

Still, once I finished watching the film I abandoned self pity and ressentiment. This is a trap for the contemporary African subject. After all, we are wired into the same communications networks and feedback loops of emotional intensity as everyone else. We are no longer colonial mimics, calculating how best to reflect back Western ideas and images for our own ends. We are now all neoliberal perverts, in the sense of perversion developed by the critic Slavoj Zizek, perversion as the “inverted effect of the phantasy.” Sounds “complicated” and maybe it is.* But insofar as films like Kony 2012 invite us to see ourselves in the gaunt visage of a horror film monster like Joseph Kony — who acts at the direction of no cause, not even his own, but at the command of the Lord — and then to reflect back that image in a bizarre, pseudo-Situationist campaign to emblazon his name and image everywhere, from streetlamps and public monuments to our laptops, cellphones and bodies, I think we get the point.


The objective today is not to give Africa it’s voice but to traverse and escape the fantasy that “voice” can endow us with agency in a society controlled by the imperatives of war and capital.

* For those interested, I develop an account of perversity in the global circuits of vicarious participation in Africa’s crises in this forthcoming article (you can read uncorrected page proofs here).

Occupying Gender in the Singular Plural

21 Jan

By Tavia Nyong’o

Call me a sissy, but I’ve never particularly cared for being referred to as cisgender. Still, the work of transgendered activists within Occupy Wall Street has been one of things that keep me optimistic. At a November 13th teach-in at Zuccotti Park, just days before the brutal eviction,  trans activists took over the people’s mic for an hour-long lesson in occupying gender, educating their non-trans listeners on the unearned privileges we enjoy whenever we conform to ascribed gender; outlining the work that groups like the Sylvia Rivera Law Project have long been engaged in, against police violence and medical pathologization; and outlining pragmatic and principled tactics for an occupation open to trans and cis-gendered people alike.

The teach-in ended with a song by Justin Bond, who has charted a post-Kiki and Herb career as a singer-songwriter in the tradition of Judy Collins and Joni Mitchell. Between releasing the 2009 EP Pink Slip and last year’s full length album Dendrophile, Bond has adopted the middle name Vivian, begun to transition, and chosen the pronoun V to represent this new stage of life. Bond’s OWS appearance took what a therapeutic and individualistic culture calls “finding one’s voice” and performed it against the affective grain.

Justin Vivian Bond performing “The New Economy” at Occupy Wall Street

The pronoun V, and accompanying honorific Mx., occupy a linguistic elsewhere to binary gender, an elsewhere that Bond’s memoir, Tango, makes clear V has resided in since childhood. Tango is not a narrative of being trapped in the wrong body, however, but only of being trapped in the wrong society, and Mx. and V are linguistic foils with which to parry that society’s imprecations.

Such singular departures from accepted usage antagonize those who assume that they represent instances of amour propre. But coming from a Quaker tradition that rejects the second person plural “you,” and holds onto the archaic singular forms of “thee” and “thou,” I understand the purpose such speech acts serve. Much like the Society of Friends verbally resist the hierarchical, royal we, Bond’s neologisms dispel the ease with which binary gender preoccupies the ordinary. These dissenting gestures trust that the lateral bonds of the common can sustain the twists and torsions they exact. They are a kind of sit-down in grammar, a linguistic and literary demand to be served as we are, not according to how we are seen, surveilled or counted. They disrupt common sense in order to find a commons.

The song Bond performed at OWS was “The New Economy,” with it’s pugnacious opening lines “They say it’s a new depression, so why am I filled with glee? Everybody coming down quickly, now they can all join me.” Glee is an affect that a certain television show has made ubiquitous in recent years, but it is not often associated with the style of OWS. Bond took glee and detached it from the ethos of aspirational participation and the compulsion to please, and restored its disaffective and disaffiliative charge. Bond was, by Vs own account, homeless at the time of the December performance, having lost an East Village apartment to gentrification’s wrecking ball. But the glee Mx. performed was not schadenfreude but an invitation to queer conviviality, a living and breathing together in conspiratorial difference, a new economy of bodies and affects pitched toward the ethic, as V sang, of “take what you need and give a little back.”

I think it matters that a trans person delivered this communist message, insofar as the grain of Vs voice reinflected the conventional rallying cry. Unison singing at rallies and marches, like pledges of allegiance, tend to be rites of assent: sentimental conflations of the one and the many. But the singular grain of Bond’s voice, echoed through an enthusiastic crowd serving, sometimes with duty and sometimes with joy, as the human amplification system of the people’s mic, defied the sincerity of singalong.

This ability to perform the singular plural, occupying gender without staking a representative claim of speaking as or for any particular position in or betwixt a binarism, leads me to the question I am dwelling with these days. The banal version of this is the journalistic question: if OWS is a new movement, where are its songs? The question betrays a nostalgia for the 60s that was initially helpful in getting people to take OWS seriously at all, but which now presents an obstacle to the emergence of what is new and different about this moment. I want to speculate just a little about what that emergent sound might be.

People are having a field day redescribing the occupation in the preferred jargon of their fields and professions. So why not me? Occupation is a performative: it doesn’t so much represent the 99% as it conjures that figure into being as a speculative object of public attachment. This feeling for numbers is non-majoritarian and post-democratic insofar as it expresses a anarchist and antinomian preference for consensus decision making over majoritarian and electoral process. Excluding the 1% certainly articulates a healthy and appropriate smash the rich mentality. But the Lacanian in me also sees the 1% as yet another stand in for object a, the irreducible antagonistic remainder around which the social composes, and which is forever decomposing it. After all, wouldn’t claiming to speak as or for the 100% be fascism?

99% is a multitude composed out of antagonism, not identity. Taking what they needed, and giving a little back, the transgender activists reminded those who would hear that cis privilege is not restricted to the 1%, but a necessary fractures within occupation just as other divisions of race, citizenship, and class are. Trans and queer glee become part of the affective work of occupation, not so that occupation can become more inclusive or safe, but in order to keep those minor feelings quilted into the banners and broadsides of the many, both as a formal reminders of precarious bonds that stitch us together, and as an audio analogue of those visible seams.

A version of this blog post was presented at the MLA 2012 roundtable, “Affecting Affect.” Thanks to Lauren Berlant for organizing that occasion.

Darth Vader and Occupy Wall Street: A TwitterEssay by Ira Livingston

13 Nov 9259211-large

1.

There’s a new Volkswagen ad in which a child dressed as Darth Vader tries to use “The Force” to control objects in the world.

Dad comes home from work and, standing with mom at the kitchen window, sees his child

trying to mind-control the family car in the driveway.  The car starts as if by magic,

then you see that dad has secretly started it with a remote-control device, validating the child’s belief in his own super powers.

This is a classic postmodern ad in that the viewer is shown exactly how the trick is played but made to believe it anyway.

Presumably, even for dad (whose role is otherwise limited to going back and forth to work), starting one’s car remotely

still bestows the feeling of having superpowers.  But just ask power to do what? and you see

that what’s being sold as magical omnipotence is just the ability to start a car with a button instead of a key.

At worst, this pitch is allied with what is recognizable as the fascist tendencies of capitalism

insofar as fascism is defined by the way it offers people an inflated, mythic sense of themselves– and a phantasmatic sense of belonging–

while systematically stripping them of any real agency and political power.  Go to work. Buy a new car.  You’re a superhero!

Of course I’m not suggesting a fine company like Volkswagen could now have or could ever have had anything to do with fascism!

But there is another side of this.  What makes the ad work is its psychological validity.

Unless parents serve their children’s sense of magical omnipotence, their kids will be pathologically depressed at best, or simply dead.

The infant cries and food appears.  He squirms in frustration because he wants a toy but lacks the strength and coordination to reach it,

and mom or dad see this and magically make it happen.  The fantasy of sovereign agency and omnipotent power

precedes, is necessary to, and continues to underlie the acquisition of actual agency and power– the alternative is learned helplessness.

Given these two opposed perspectives, how can we think through this?

Even if you consider the ad a trivial matter, the contradiction is stark and the stakes seem pretty high.

To take the question to another register: do Occupy Wall Street and related actions empower people?

Do they contribute to mobilizing and opening up political discourse?  Or can they be described as simple venting, or worse,

part of some systemic damage control mechanism that offers aesthetic or symbolic shows at the expense of real political mobilization?

As if the revolution were a car and O.W.S. the remote control device that will turn it on?

2.

As you’d expect, many right-wingers but also some so-called leftists are bending over backwards to to assure us

that this is just an infantile display, that we are clutching at straws, that no sustained movement can come from it.

In the face of contradiction, or even just because it’s early days, how can they be so sure?

What makes these little Darth Vaders pretend to knowledge that one couldn’t possibly have at this stage?

As philosopher Jacques Derrida put it, “coherence in contradiction expresses the force of a desire.”

Whatever else its content, the desire seeks “a reassuring certitude” by which “anxiety can be mastered.”

The anxiety comes from “being implicated,” from being “at stake in the game”– as it seems to me we are all at stake here.

Taking off from Derrida, we can speculate that what the dismissers desire, what they have to lose,

is the structuring fantasy of a single center, a single origin or ground or goal, a single line of causality,

a single kind of political agency, a single public sphere, a single rationality and discourse, a single left and right–

all of what Occupy Wall Street defies.

A famous prayer asks for courage, serenity, and “the wisdom always to know the difference” between what can be changed and what can’t.

Better pray instead for the folly not to know the difference!

And as my old pal William Blake put it, “if the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise.”

3.

What if politics–  what if the world– did not work exactly as we know?

What if things were more intricately, globally and locally networked in a complex ecology,

so that we could not necessarily predict how events in one realm might reverberate in another?

What if the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil could Set Off a Tornado in Texas?

What if a mathematician’s algorithms could trigger a stock-market collapse?

What if tiny, hyperlocalized genetic mutations could, through a process of natural selection, lead to collective evolution?

Wouldn’t that be incredibly weird?

What if Occupy Wall Street could be described as a metaphor (the usual phrase is merely a metaphor)

for the movement in which we are hoping it will participate, meaning that the occupations of particular places,

such as Zucotti Park near Wall Street, resonate with how one tries to establish a livable foothold in any inhospitable space–

whether it be the economy, the academy, the family, identity, theory?  And what if these resonances are real and contagious?

What if The Coming Insurrection will take “the shape of a music, whose focal points,

though dispersed in time and space,

succeed in imposing the rhythm of their own vibrations”?

What if what we consider solid realities– like bridges of steel and concrete– could one fine day begin to undulate and break apart?

And when we ask why, what if it turned out that the answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind?  And what if, in the present conjuncture,

we could gain more leverage not by asserting knowledge but by persistently asking questions (as that song famously does)?

What if even God appeared to his faithful out of a whirlwind and addressed them with an epic series of questions,

designed to expose their presumption to knowledge they could not possibly have?

4.

Occupy Wall Street has never suffered from a lack of rational plans and proposals, as some allege.

Here’s some for you: progressive taxes, financial regulation, health care, jobs, socialism.  Take your pick.  I have more.

If the left suffers from anything now it seems more like the lack of emotional coherence,

part of what Raymond Williams called a “structure of feeling.”   This is part of what OWS is helping to discover, to invent.

Assorted already-existing emotional coherences are available, of course.

The sober left intellectuals, with their reassuring certitude that Occupy Wall Street is a flash in the pan,

have their manly stoicism and depressive clarity.  The Tea Party has its righteous indignation,

or as historian Joan Scott translated the Tea Party stance into psychoanalytic terms, the outcry “they’ve stolen our jouissance!”

As for the rest of us: well, at least nobody has stolen our jouissance!  If you visit Occupy Wall Street,

you will hear hundreds of lively political conversations– in fact, this is one of the hallmarks of the occupation–

and among them will be careful analysis, magic thinking, policy proposals, paranoid ramblings, theorizing, new-age spiritualism, and so on,

but over them all, under them all, behind them all, running through them all is not exactly righteous indignation,

which comes from more privilege–  more wounded sense of right and dignity– than most of those present possess.

There is the everpresent tenor of surrealism, which comes from the sense that dominant discourse is so thoroughly locked down–

so foreclosed–  and political speech so narrowly defined that one cannot restrict oneself to the use of these tools

without undermining from the outset what one hopes to accomplish.  Ultimately, as Audre Lorde said,

“the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”  But this is not only a matter of tools, of instrumental strategies.

Surrealism arises when what counts as reality itself is so impoverished,

when what passes for intelligible politics, viable social identities, reasonable careers and aspirations

are so hobbling, corrosive and suffocating as to make the reality of neoliberal late capitalism uninhabitable.

When you can’t inhabit it, occupy it!

5.

Over all the conversations, under them all, behind them all, running through them all

there is at least– a vitality.

As Brooklyn artist Dread Scott said about OWS: “there’s oxygen in the room again.”

Of course, I have to point out, you can’t recognize constructive politics by vitality alone.

I recently watched a Wagner opera and was struck by the histrionics, tragic gender politics, erotic intensities

of hierarchy and duty and family: very lively indeed!  I was mesmerized– but I also understood for the first time

something about the aliveness and emotional intensity captured by Nazism.

Much of the work of politics is affective labor, the work of translating vitality into a stance.

Lately I’ve been listening to old Woody Guthrie songs (more my style, admittedly) and marvelling at how seamlessly

the songs combine the stances of worker, empathic ally of immigrants and outlaws, socialist, proud patriot, anti-fascist–

a combination mostly unthinkable today.  But I bring this up not at all to say those were the days.

For one thing, they never were the days– and for another, they’re still the days:

Rich man took my home and drove me from my door

And I ain’t got no home in this world anymore.

In any case, fascism remains and will remain one of the ongoing tendencies of capitalism, and not only as a distant spectre.

Even if you were inclined to discount clearer and nearer dangers that demagogues can be elected, scapegoats systematically targeted,

people mobilized in favor of symbolic but deadly wars, or perpetual warfare sold as Manichaean good-versus-evil struggle–

what about the demagogues, scapegoating, symbolic and perpetual wars we already have?

What about the mazes we run to get the cheese and avoid the shocks, the levers we push to get the pellets

of whatever it is, the simulacra of identity and belonging being sold to us, and behind all that, underneath it all,

the dark energy pushing all of us apart?

What if, at the most fundamental level, we are engaged not so much in an attempt to enact specific reforms

nor to foment a one-off revolution, but in an ongoing struggle against fascism, to make the world livable,

and what if, in this, we are most aligned with the everyday work of various other queers, workers, culture-crossers, women,

immigrants, and other displaced people?  What if, in our own lifetimes, we will only know small and local victories,

that resonate only faintly, sparks that crackle and wink out, glowing embers that never burst into flame?

Would that warmth be enough to sustain us?

6.

In the interests of full disclosure, let me acknowledge where I’m coming from: I’m a writer.  It’s an interesting moment for me.

The presidency of George W. Bush, as you may be aware, was also a nightmare for anyone who cares about language.

Language itself seemed to be in the process of being continually, systematically evacuated of meaning and life.

After that, to hear Obama speak with intelligence and presence– even with precise grammar– could bring tears to my eyes.

That’s not enough, but it is something.  So it’s interesting to me to discover that the discursive spaces at Occupy Wall Street

are mostly not my spaces.  Even though I make my living speaking (as a teacher, anyway), I’m not inclined to speak there,

and the intellectuals I have heard speak there seem somewhat out of their element too.

In fact, the durational performance– the occupation– at the heart of OWS seems actively somehow to disturb and displace speech,

to make it plural (like the human microphone), to make no one iteration definitive.  But although I’m not inclined to speak,

it feels good to me!  This is partly because the massive, single acoustic space of traditional protest rallies always felt to me

like Hitler or Mussolini should be haranguing the crowd from a balcony.  You really want a unified public sphere?

I experience this displacement of speech, of all that it is now possible to say, as  something more like thinking,

more like writing, a process of reaching for what wants to be said but is not yet possible to say.

You there, with your head bent down!  Why are you mumbling inarticulately to yourself?

I’m thinking.

7.

If the fantasy of magic superpowers underlies all agency, then yes, at some level I must believe the world turns around my words

and around all words that move me.  On the other hand, I know Auden was right:

“poetry makes nothing happen.”

If language can be understood as a parasite or a symbiotic entity that co-evolved with our brains, then yes,

I am one of those traitors to my species that serve the entity known as language. That’s the extreme version, anyway.

But what if writers and intellectuals are also neither servants nor traitors nor leaders but just one kind of lifeform among many,

each of which, even in the name of simple diversity, has a claim to life,

or even more simply, what if a text makes no claim at all but the bare fact of its aliveness in the moment of its being written and read?

This is why I want to say to those occupying Wall Street, and occupying and animating these words and thoughts, thank you.

As a Word Person, it’s taken me 50 years to admit– as various therapists and lots of less verbal people have been telling me–

that the words themselves are always trumped by the ways they are wielded, the feelings that animate them.

“In those days,” as Virginia Woolf wrote wistfully about the days before the First World War,

“every conversation seemed to have been accompanied by a sort of humming noise,

not articulate, but musical, exciting, which changed the value of the words themselves.”

So what is it, over all the conversations at Occupy Wall Street, under them all, behind them all, running through them all?

Perversely, one of the most notoriously difficult writers of all time, psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan,

gives me slogans for the placards with which I want to march out of here:

THE FUNCTION OF LANGUAGE IS NOT TO INFORM BUT TO INVOKE.

WHAT CONSTITUTES ME AS A SUBJECT IS MY QUESTION.

(Acknowledgements: Many thanks to Thad Ziolkowski for insight into the VW ad, Jennifer Miller for citing Dread Scott, and apologies to Jayna for the Woody Guthrie references!)

Riots and Occupations: The Fall of the US and the Rise of The Politics of Refusal

19 Oct

BY JAYNA BROWN AND JACK HALBERSTAM

If there was an Arab Spring, it has been followed by a US Fall, not simply an autumn of increased political protest and widespread dissatisfactions but also literally, the fall of the US. When some demonstrators decided to sit down on Sept. 17 in Zucotti Park to protest corporate greed and the continued looting of US working people by investors and bankers, a certain North American propensity for indifference, ignorance, obedience was punctuated at last by a multi-racial alliance against a ruling class that sometime around the mid-90’s began its latest assault on global peace and domestic shared prosperity. In this spliced parallel conversation, Jayna Brown and Jack Halberstam exchange ideas about the London Riots, Occupy Wall Street/Occupy LA, Anarchy, uprisings, looting and the folly of Zizek.

JAYNA BROWN (JB): 

August of this year there were a few days of looting, burning and general chaos in London. These events, as with previous upheavals, were called ‘riots’ in Britain, but here in the US,  Left wing commentators  tried to use other terms like rebellion or insurrection. But thinking about these riots, Brixton and Handsworth in 1981, Broadwater Farm in 1985, and the banlieus of France in 2005, I’ve taken to actually preferring the term “riot” after all. It is bleak, it understands what it means to live in conditions of permanent and violent oppression. After all, ask any black person, “No Future” was not a sentiment first articulated by Sid Vicious!

(Handsworth Songs, part 1):  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L3jPGI3uIWQ

The term ‘riot’ provokes something different than the more euphemistic and hopeful ‘uprising’ or ‘insurrection’, both of which capture the spirit of irrepressible resistance, but seem to me infer the eventual need for centralized political and tactical organization and carry with them a nascent militarism. What I embrace about the term riot in our current moment is that it points away from a politics of resistance to a politics of refusal. The boys in the streets refused to behave, or even to complain properly. They were not demanding the state fulfill its promises or mend its ways, for riots are not about state recognition or redress, in fact they refuse a dialogue of any kind with authority.

The boys (and girls?) also refused to shop properly, gleefully looting everything from H&M to consumer electronics stores, sorting out goods in the back gardens of neighboring houses. And, as the Situationist Guy Debord observed following the Watts Riots in 1965, “Looting is a natural response to an unnatural and inhuman society of commodity abundance. It…exposes what the commodity ultimately implies: the army, the police and the other specialized detachments of the state’s monopoly of armed violence.www.mara-stream.org/think-tank/guy-debord-the-decline-and-fall-of-the-spectacle-commodity-economy/

These were not, as Zygmunt Bauman described them, “defective and disqualified consumers,” gratifying a “longing” to be part of the system, but snatchers, defying the terms of appropriate accumulation. (Zygmunt Bauman, On Consumerism Coming Home to Roost) http://www.social-europe.eu/2011/08/the-london-riots-on-consumerism-coming-home-to-roost/

JACK HALBERSTAM (JH): 

New theorizations of political protest emerged after the riots in the French banlieu in 2005, and took the form of a pamphlet called The Coming Insurrection authored by an anonymous group called The Invisible Committee. In The Coming Insurrection, the group dissected the revolts that had just happened and mused about revolts still to come. They blamed the collapse of the global economy for the revolts and suggested that “the economy is not the CAUSE of the crisis, it IS the crisis.” They critiqued conventional forms of political protest and called for wide recognition that everything must change – that everything has changed and that work, social life, the economy, aspiration, hopes, dreams, melancholia are all ready to be reinvented through new relations between people and between people and institutions. They also named political domination as less a logic or a set of actions and as more of a “rhythm that imposes itself, a way of dispensing reality.” To offset the rhythm of domination then we need, they said, an insurrection that gathers form after it flares up and resonates: “it takes the shape of a music, whose focal points, though dispersed in time and space, succeed in imposing the rhythm of their own vibrations…”

It is this model of political (in)action that manifests in the riots of London and the occupations in US cities – a set of vibrations rumble through urban zones and gathering force they emerge in a blast of sound.

The exhaustion of conventional forms of protest has left people with a few different options out of which to craft a viable, dynamic and show-stopping movement: people can riot and literally block up the city; and, they can loot in the aftermath of the riot as a way of taking back the wealth that has been stolen from them; people can exchange information on facebook, twitter and other social networking sites and find new ways of flooding the media with our discontent; finally, people can simply “be there,” show up, show off, refuse to leave.

And while commentators like Slavoj Zizek in his piece titled – “Shoplifters of the World Unite” – http://www.lrb.co.uk/2011/08/19/slavoj-zizek/shoplifters-of-the-world-unite — have criticized the London riots and the looting that followed for “expressing Zero-degree protest,” it is more likely that the message is clear and loud, but Zizek, saddled as he is with his nostalgia for a more binary mode of leftist politics, cannot hear it.  “The UK rioters had no message to deliver” he said. And it is true, the rioters, like the OWS movements around the country, have no succinct and unitary message to deliver: instead they speak in a babble of voices all rising in volume and intensity to say “no.”

JB: 

The riots in London have been referred to repeatedly as “pure anarchy” in the conservative British press (Michael Nakan). Anarchy is a perfect term in fact because itis always in process: anarchy depends on improvisation, and creates fluid decentralized forms of organization. It is against not just economic exploitation, as with Marxism, but of all forms of domination. “Anarchy is not society without rules — it’s society without rulers,” writes Thomas L. Knapp at the Center for a Stateless Society, “If true anarchy is present in the riots, and I believe it is, it’s to be found in ad hoc mutual aid societies springing up in affected neighborhoods.”  This is an exciting idea, as it gestures to the ways disenfranchised communities, especially black people, already live in alternative relationship to the state, embrace anti-state practices, and engage in creative forms of cooperation.

JH: Are the Occupy Wall Street/Boston/Los Angeles movements participating in a new mode of political protest, one more closely aligned to anarchism than to conventional leftist protest politics? Are they truly multi-racial or do we find a split between racialized rioters in London and Paris and white protestersin the US? Can we find new forms of revolt registering in the lack of a list of demands, the mode of occupation and the preference for general assemblies and no leaders? Is the “human microphone” technique of amplification a brilliant metaphor for the multitude or a sign of the propensity for consensus politics to weed out eccentricities while centering pragmatic and “reasonable” statements? The markers of this new form of politics are the lack of a clear agenda or list of demands and the strong presence of a clear belief in the rightness of the cause. In other words, the occupation groups do not need an agenda, their pain and their presence isthe agenda. They do not want to present a manifesto, they actually are themselves the manifestation of discontent. The 99%’ers simply show up, take up space, make noise, witness. This is a form of political response that does not announce itself as politics, instead it enters quietly into the public sphere, sits down and refuses to leave.
JB:  On October 17, we celebrated one month of the Wall Street occupation. Like the riots, its decentralized organization, its refusal of spokespeople or leaders, suggest a movement that is as Jack says, “more closely aligned to anarchism” than any traditional Leftist models. But this is about as far away on the ground as you can get from a riot. Visiting the LA branch of the occupation, I was struck by how calm and orderly everything was. People were lounging around, reading, silk screening t-shirts. There are sign-up boards for volunteers, even a library. I was fine until the band started up with warmed over Woody Guthrie songs, and the Oathkeepers tried to hand me a leaflet.Despite the few brown and black faces amongst the crowd, there is a divide, most of those disproportionately affected by the vagaries of global capital are not here. And btw, who is this poster meant to speak to, exactly?

A frail, pale ballerina, en pointe atop a raging bull, my god, Adbusters, you couldn’t get much whiter).

Apart from Cornel West’s performance, perhaps we should remember that there is a lot more at stake for black people in getting surveilled and/or arrested, considering the history of blood and terror that has accompanied black protest. Julianne Malvaux says that black people are generally more concerned with concrete causes, such as the execution of Troy Davis and other cases of police brutality than an abstract, general protest of the financial system. But this sounds condescending to me. No doubt black people are more than aware of the larger picture, yet not that interested in joining in the somewhat smug, and grubby, Woodstock of it all.

Perhaps the disproportionate absence of people of color also speaks to their very different relationship to money and the financial system, one that is much less intimate, less expectant and less entitled than most white people’s. For African Americans, as Greg Tate writes in his “Ten Reasons Why So Few Black Folk Appear Down to Occupy Wall Street,” it’s “no newsflash here” that elites will sell you (out). Yet I often lament the deep grain of economic and social conservatism in my communities as well. The last era of black conservatism substituted the financial success of a few for actual social change.

JH: While pundits and mainstream media puzzle over the Occupy Wall Street/LA movements and wonder about what they want and about whether the whole thing is just a side-show to some “real political movement” still to come, the occupiers, many of whom are now without occupations, are standing witness to the crime of the millennium: while we were all sleeping in homes we could not afford, the investors and brokers were draining the bank accounts of the professional class and sending the service classes into ruin and onto the street; they then recruited the government to the role of lookout and getaway driver while the Goldman Sachs Harvard graduate coolly wandered through the digital vaults of the nation’s banks and investment firms, pocketing the cash as he goes and called his activity “work.” When poor people rob banks they get life imprisonment, when Harvard grads do it, they get bonuses.

There is no doubt that the riots in London and the new Occupation movements are filled with opportunists as well as sincere activists, drunks as well as revolutionaries, people who want new goods as well as people who want to break down the structures of capitalist greed. But there is also no doubt that after the occupations have dispersed and the parks have been cleaned, the rhythm will continue, the vibrations will spread, the song will rise and the message will be, will always have been, the noise of many voices not speaking as one but speaking all at once the language of refusal.



Poly Styrene, 1957—2011

26 Apr

By Jayna Brown

Poly Styrene died Monday night at the age of 53 of what was originally breast cancer. Going to the GP for back pain, she was told to take some painkillers. So she put up with the pain for a few months, as many of us would do, and when she went in again it was cancer that had metastasized to her lungs and spine. Her last tweet reads quite sadly now: “Slowly slowly trying 2 get better miss my walk along the promenade. Would b so nice 2 sing again & play.”

Poly Styrene’s death invites a meditation on mortality, which we all face, even punks like us who swore we were going to die young. Punk flayed mortality, flaunted youth in its face. Yet it’s ephemeral nature also affirmed death’s inevitability. An 18-year-old Polystyrene had the most profound insight into the ephemerality of life itself. “ I do it and that’s it,” she said. “I go on to something else.”

In 1977 the daughter of a Somali father and white English mother from Brixton by way of Bromley gave a high-pitched driving dystopian critique of capitalist consumption and sexist violence. “Some people say little girls should be seen and not heard,” she begins, with a girlish lilt, “but I think,” and her voice rises to a bellowing screech, “Oh Bondage, Up Yours!”  In thick braces and stiff plastic dress, Marianne Joan Elliot Said, better known as Poly Styrene, screamed precociously into the face of a mostly boys only club of misfits. Bind me tie me/chain me to the wall/I wanna be a slave for you all/ Oh bondage up yours!”

In this song as in many others Poly Styrene linked pithy critiques of slavery, authoritarianism, patriarchy and plastic, “It was about being in bondage to material life,” she explains about Oh! Bondage! “In other words it was a call for liberation.” Poly Styrene’s keening voice, riding atop the band’s signature saxophone, created a barrage of high-pitched sound. Carrying her consistently articulate, socio culturally astute lyrics, the sound of Poly Styrene and X Ray Spex continues to resonate, weaving its way insistently through the intervening years.

Poly Styrene called out patriarchy from within a counter culture that was supposedly subversive, yet was indeed heavily invested in masculinist performances of power. Poly Styrene’s politically awake compositions disrupt in some very interesting ways the smooth patrilineal narrative constructing what gets remembered as rebel music, and also challenges the calcifying racial orthodoxy of white riot memory.

Poly Styrene’s lyrics politicized the mundane, the prosaic, the quotidian, the everyday. Her prescient visions were of a world turned dayglo. “My thing was more like consumerism, plastic artificial living,” she explains. “The idea was to send it all up. Screaming about it, saying:  ‘Look, this is what you have done to me, turned me into a piece of Styrofoam, I am your product. And this is what you have created: do you like her?’” Art-I-fical:

She speaks to the specific ways consumer capitalism targeted women. Her imagery in songs, like Artificial, swirled with the plastic products of a woman’s domestic everyday—nylon curtains, perspex windows, acrylics, latex gloves. “My mind is like a plastic bag,” she sings. Plastic Bag:

After seeing a pink fireball in the sky—a UFO as she called it, though not a machine, and with no aliens—she felt electricity vibrating through her entire body. Her prescient dayglo vision was harbinger to the nuclear nightmares those of us stranded in the 1980’s had. And she told people about it. Her personal experience with mental illness, about which she was very open, also bears traces of the medical profession’s treatment of ‘mad’ and ‘hysterical’ women; she was sectioned, and misdiagnosed with schizophrenia. Poly found a spiritual home in the Hari Krishna movement, and it wasn’t until 1991 that she was properly diagnosed with bipolar, known as the ‘genius condition.’ Whose to say what a vision is? identity

Poly Styrene’s new album, Generation Indigo had just come out, and before I knew how sick she was I was hoping she would grant me an interview. Now, I will just do the best I can to speak of her music for the ways in which it disrupts, interrupts, provokes a history of punk. What is identified as punk, from the fleeting moments of the late 1970’s, is constantly eulogizing itself, writing it’s formative artists, almost always as that of men, with the exceptional, or token, women. Poly, like many other female artists, put up with male jealousy and sabotage from fellow male musicians. But her lyrics, her scream, will not be contained. RIP Poly Styrene, as you move onto something else.

BB documentary, “Who is Poly Styrene?”

Why Mubarak is Out

1 Feb

A primer on police, military, gender and capitalist dynamics behind the Egyptian uprising

by Paul Amar

(cross-posted by the author from Jadaliyya.com)

The “March of Millions” in Cairo marks the spectacular emergence of a new political society in Egypt.  This uprising brings together a new coalition of forces, uniting reconfigured elements of the security state with prominent business people, internationalist leaders, and relatively new (or newly reconfigured ) mass movements of youth, labor, women’s and religious groups.  President Hosni Mubarak lost his political power on Friday, 28 January. On that night the Egyptian military let Mubarak’s ruling party headquarters burn down and ordered the police brigades attacking protesters to return to their barracks. When the evening call to prayer rang out and no one heeded Mubarak’s curfew order, it was clear that the old president been reduced to a phantom authority. In order to understand where Egypt is going, and what shape democracy might take there, we need to set the extraordinarily successful popular mobilizations into their military, economic and social context.  What other forces were behind this sudden fall of Mubarak from power? And how will this transitional military-centered government get along with this millions-strong protest movement?

Many international media commentators – and some academic and political analysts – are having a hard time understanding the complexity of forces driving and responding to these momentous events.  This confusion is driven by the binary “good guys versus bad guys” lenses most use to view this uprising. Such perspectives obscure more than they illuminate.   There are three prominent binary models out there and each one carries its own baggage: (1) People versus Dictatorship: This perspective leads to liberal naïveté and confusion about the active role of military and elites in this uprising.  (2) Seculars versus Islamists: This model leads to a 1980s-style call for “stability” and Islamophobic fears about the containment of the supposedly extremist “Arab street.” Or, (3) Old Guard versus Frustrated Youth: This lens imposes a 1960s-style romance on the protests but cannot begin to explain the structural and institutional dynamics driving the uprising, nor account for the key roles played by many 70-year-old Nasser-era figures.

To map out a more comprehensive view, it may be helpful to identify the moving parts within the military and police institutions of the security state and how clashes within and between these coercive institutions relate to shifting class hierarchies and capital formations. I will also weigh these factors in relation to the breadth of new non-religious social movements and the internationalist or humanitarian identity of certain figures emerging at the center of the new opposition coalition.

Western commentators, whether liberal, left or conservative, tend to see all forces of coercion in non-democratic states as the hammers of “dictatorship” or as expressions of the will of an authoritarian leader.  But each police, military and security institution has its own history, culture, class-allegiances, and, often its own autonomous sources of revenue and support as well.  It would take many books to lay this all out in detail; but let me make a brief attempt here.  In Egypt the police forces (al-shurta) are run by the Interior Ministry which was very close to Mubarak and the Presidency and had become politically co-dependent on him.  But police stations gained relative autonomy during the past decades. In certain police stations this autonomy took the form of the adoption of a militant ideology or moral mission; or some Vice Police stations have taken up drug running; or some ran protection rackets that squeezed local small businesses.  The political dependability of the police, from a bottom-up perspective, is not high. Police grew to be quite self-interested and entrepreneurial on a station-by-station level.  In the 1980s, the police faced the growth of “gangs,” referred to in Egyptian Arabic as baltagiya. These street organizations had asserted self-rule over Cairo’s many informal settlements and slums.  Foreigners and the Egyptian bourgeoisie assumed the baltagiya to be Islamists but they were mostly utterly unideological.  In the early 1990s the Interior Ministry decided “if you can’t beat them, hire them.”  So the Interior Ministry and the Central Security Services started outsourcing coercion to these baltagiya, paying them well and training them to use sexualized brutality (from groping to rape) in order to punish and deter female protesters and male detainees, alike. During this period the Interior Ministry also turned the State Security Investigations (SSI) (mabahith amn al-dawla) into a monstrous threat, detaining and torturing masses of domestic political dissidents.

Autonomous from the Interior Ministry we have the Central Security Services (Amn al-Markazi). These are the black uniformed, helmeted men that the media refer to as “the police.” Central Security was supposed to act as the private army of Mubarak. These are not revolutionary guards or morality brigades like the basiji who repressed the Green Movement protesters in Iran. By contrast, the Amn al-Markazi are low paid and non-ideological.  Moreover, at crucial times, these Central Security brigades have risen up en masse against Mubarak, himself, to demand better wages and working conditions.  Perhaps if it weren’t for the sinister assistance of the brutal baltagiya, they would not be a very intimidating force.  The look of unenthusiastic resignation in the eyes of Amn al-Markazi soldiers as they were kissed and lovingly disarmed by protesters has become one of the most iconic images, so far, of this revolution. The dispelling of Mubarak’s authority could be marked to precisely that moment when protesters kissed the cheeks of Markazi officers who promptly vanished into puffs of tear gas, never to return.

The Armed Forces of the Arab Republic of Egypt are quite unrelated to the Markazi or police and see themselves as a distinct kind of state altogether. One could say that Egypt is still a “military dictatorship” (if one must use that term) since this is still the same regime that the Free Officers’ Revolution installed in the 1950s.  But the military has been marginalized since Egyptian President Anwar Sadat signed the Camp David Accords with Israel and the United States. Since 1977, the military has not been allowed to fight anyone.  Instead, the generals have been given huge aid payoffs by the US. They have been granted concessions to run shopping malls in Egypt, develop gated cities in the desert and beach resorts on the coasts. And they are encouraged to sit around in cheap social clubs.

These buy-offs have shaped them into an incredibly organized interest group of nationalist businessmen. They are attracted to foreign investment; but their loyalties are economically and symbolically embedded in national territory. As we can see when examining any other case in the region (Pakistan, Iraq, the Gulf), US military-aid money does not buy loyalty to America; it just buys resentment.  In recent years, the Egyptian military has felt collectively a growing sense of national duty, and has developed a sense of embittered shame for what it considers its “neutered masculinity:” its sense that it was not standing up for the nation’s people.  The nationalistic Armed Forces want to restore their honor and they are disgusted by police corruption and baltagiya brutality. And it seems that the military, now as “national capitalists,” have seen themselves as the blood rivals of the neoliberal “crony capitalists” associated with Hosni Mubarak’s son Gamal who have privatized anything they can get their hands on and sold the country’s assets off to China, the US, and Persian Gulf capital.

Thus we can see why in the first stage of this revolution, on Friday 28 January, we saw a very quick “coup” of the military against the police and Central Security, and disappearance of Gamal Mubarak (the son) and of the detested Interior Minister Habib el-Adly. However the military is also split by some internal contradictions.  Within the Armed Forces there are two elite sub-branches, the Presidential Guard and the Air Force. These remained closer to Mubarak while the broader military turned against him. This explains why you can had the contradictory display of the General Chief of the Armed Forces, Muhammad Tantawi, wading in among the protesters to show support on 30 January, while at the same time the chief of the Air Force was named Mubarak’s new Prime Minister and sent planes to strafe the same protesters. This also explains why the Presidential Guard protected the Radio/Television Building and fought against protesters on 28 January rather than siding with them.

The Vice President, Omar Soleiman, named on 29 January, was formerly the head of the Intelligence Services (al-mukhabarat). This is also a branch of the military (and not of the police). Intelligence is in charge of externally oriented secret operations, detentions and interrogations (and, thus, torture and renditions of non-Egyptians). Although since Soleiman’s mukhabarat did not detain and torture as many Egyptian dissidents in the domestic context, they are less hated than the mubahith. The Intelligence Services (mukhabarat) are in a particularly decisive position as a “swing vote.” As I understand it, the Intelligence Services loathed Gamal Mubarak and the “crony capitalist” faction, but are obsessed with stability and have long, intimate relationships with the CIA and the American military. The rise of the military, and within it, the Intelligence Services, explains why all of Gamal Mubarak’s business cronies were thrown out of the cabinet on Friday 28 January, and why Soleiman was made interim VP (and functions in fact as Acting President).   This revolution or regime change would be complete at the moment when anti-Mubarak tendencies in the military consolidate their position and reassure the Intelligence Services and the Air Force that they can confidently open up to the new popular movements and those parties coalesced around opposition leader Elbaradei. This is what an optimistic reader might judge to be what Obama and Clinton describe as an “orderly transition.”

On Monday, 31 January, we saw Naguib Sawiris, perhaps Egypt’s richest businessman and the iconic leader of the developmentalist “nationalist capital” faction in Egypt, joining the protesters and demanding the exit of Mubarak. During the past decade, Sawiris and his allies had become threatened by Mubarak-and-son’s extreme neoliberalism and their favoring of Western, European and Chinese investors over national businessmen.  Because their investments overlap with those of the military, these prominent Egyptian businessmen have interests literally embedded in the land, resources and development projects of the nation. They have become exasperated by the corruption of Mubarak’s inner circle.

Paralleling the return of organized national(ist) capital associated with the military and ranged against the police (a process that also occurred during the struggle with British colonialism in the 1930s-50s) there has been a return of very powerful and vastly organized labor movements, principally among youth.  2009 and 2010 were marked by mass national strikes, nation-wide sit-ins, and visible labor protests often in the same locations that spawned this 2011 uprising. And the rural areas have been rising up against the government’s efforts to evict small farmers from their lands, opposing the regime’s attempts to re-create the vast landowner fiefdoms that defined the countryside during the Ottoman and British Colonial periods.  In 2008 we saw the 100,000 strong April 6 Youth Movement emerge, leading a national general strike. And in 2008 and just in December 2010 we saw the first independent public sector unions emerge. Then just on 30 January 2011 clusters of unions from most major industrial towns gathered to form an Independent Trade Union Federation.  These movements are organized by new leftist political parties that have no relation to the Muslim Brotherhood, nor are they connected to the past generation of Nasserism.  They do not identify against Islam, of course, and do not make an issue of policing the secular-religious divide.  Their interest in protecting national manufacturing and agricultural smallholdings, and in demanding public investment in national economic development dovetails with some of the interests of the new nationalist capital alliance.

Thus behind the scenes of the non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and Facebook-driven protest waves, there are huge structural and economic forces and institutional realignments at work.  Egypt’s population is officially recorded at 81 million; but in reality goes well beyond 100 million since some parents do not register all their children to shield them from serving in the Amn Al-Markazi or army.  With the burgeoning youth population now becoming well organized, these social and internet-coordinated movements are becoming very important.  They can be grouped into three trends. One group of new movements are organized by and around international norms and organizations, and so may tend toward a secular, globalizing set of perspectives and discourses.  A second group is organized through the very active and assertive legal culture and independent judicial institutions in Egypt. This strong legal culture is certainly not a “Western human rights” import. Lawyers, judges and millions of litigants – men and women, working-class, farmers, and elite – have kept alive the judicial system and have a long unbroken history of resisting authoritarianism and staking rights claims of all sorts.  A third group of new social movements represents the intersection of internationalist NGOs, judicial-rights groups and the new leftist, feminist, rural and worker social movements. The latter group critiques the universalism of UN and NGO secular discourses, and draws upon the power of Egypt’s legal and labor activism, but also has its own innovative strategies and solutions – many of which have been on prominent display on the streets this week.

One final element to examine here is the critical, and often overlooked role that Egypt has played in United Nations and humanitarian organizations, and how this history is coming back to enliven domestic politics and offer legitimacy and leadership at this time. Muhammad ElBaradei, the former director of the United Nations International Energy Agency has emerged as the consensus choice of the United Democratic Front in Egypt, which is asking him to serve as interim president, and to preside over a national process of consensus building and constitution drafting.  In the 2000s, ElBaradei bravely led the IAEA and was credited with confirming that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and that Iran was not developing a nuclear weapons program. He won the Nobel Prize for upholding international law against a new wave of wars of aggression and for essentially stopping the momentum for war against Iran.  He is no radical and not Egypt’s Gandhi; but he is no pushover or puppet of the US, either.  For much of the week, standing at his side at the protests has been Egyptian actor Khaled Abou Naga who has appeared in several Egyptian and US films and who serves as Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF.  This may be much more a UN-humanitarian led revolution than a Muslim Brotherhood uprising. This is a very twenty-first century regime change – utterly local and international simultaneously.

It is a good time to remind ourselves that the first-ever United Nations military-humanitarian peacekeeping intervention, the UN Emergency Force, was created with the joint support of Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser and US President Dwight D. Eisenhower (both military men, of course) in 1960 to keep the peace in Gaza and to stop the former colonial powers and Israel from invading Egypt in order to retake the Suez Canal and resubordinate Egypt.  Then in the 1990s, Egypt’s Boutros Boutros-Ghali served as the Secretary-General of the United Nations. Boutros-Ghali articulated new UN doctrines of state-building and militarized humanitarian intervention. But he got fired for making the mistake of insisting that international human rights and humanitarian law needed to be applied neutrally and universally, rather than only at the convenience of the Security Council powers. Yet Egypt’s relationship to the UN continues. Notably, ‘Aida Seif Ad-Dawla, one of the most articulate, brave and creative leaders of the new generation of Egyptian social movements and feminist NGOs, is a candidate for the high office of UN Rapporteur on Torture.  Egyptians have a long history for investing in and supporting international law, humanitarian norms and human rights.  Egyptian internationalism insists on the equal application of human rights principles and humanitarian laws of war even in the face of superpower pressure. In this context, ElBaradei’s emergence as a leader makes perfect sense. Although this internationalist dimension of Egypt’s “local” uprising is utterly ignored by most self-conscious liberal commentators who assume that international means “the West” and that Egypt’s protesters are driven by the politics of the belly rather than matters of principle.

Aida Seif Ad-Dawla

Mubarak is already out of power.  The new cabinet is composed of chiefs of Intelligence, Air Force and the prison authority, as well as one International Labor Organization official. This group embodies a hard-core “stability coalition” that will work to bring together the interests of new military, national capital and labor, all the while reassuring the United States.  Yes, this is a reshuffling of the cabinet, but one which reflects a very significant change in political direction.  But none of it will count as a democratic transition until the vast new coalition of local social movements and internationalist Egyptians break into this circle and insist on setting the terms and agenda for transition.

I would bet that even the hard-line leaders of the new cabinet will be unable to resist plugging into the willpower of these popular uprisings, one-hundred million Egyptians strong.

Paul Amar

Associate Professor of Global & International Studies

University of California, Santa Barbara

His books include: Cairo Cosmopolitan ; The New Racial Missions of Policing ; Global South to the Rescue ; and the forthcoming Security Archipelago: Human-Security States, Sexuality Politics and the End of Neoliberalism.

TAG WORDS:  Mubarak, Soleiman, Egypt, Military, investment, military, police, ElBaradei

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