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Winter in America by Jack Halberstam

10 Nov maxresdefault

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“And now it’s winter

Winter in America

And all of the healers done been killed or sent away

Yeah, and the people know, people know

It’s winter Winter in America

And ain’t nobody fighting

Cause nobody knows what to save.”

Gil Scott Heron, “Winter in America” 1974

 

“Winter is Coming.”

Game of Thrones, 2011

 

We do not know what to say or do. We who are usually so full of words, ideas, programs and plans of action, we too fall silent in the face of such devastating news. Donald J. Trump, the clownish buffoon who has been caught on tape berating people of color, women and even babies, for God’s sake, will be the next president of the United States of America. If we thought George W. was bad, wait until we see what a government stacked with right wing Republicans and led by an egotistical fool might do to all semblances of intellectual exchange, economic redistribution and racial justice.

 

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Is this how the Fascism starts, as a creeping, insidious mood of hatred slipping into everyday conversation? Does it begin with the eschewing of complex explanations in favor of simplistic ‘us against them’ accounting? Does Fascism begin when white supremacy is courted, relied upon, solicited but never named as such? Or did this particular political disaster begin when Donald Trump’s outrageous, sexist, misogynist, racist comments were played for the whole nation…and many people did not care because they hear worse everyday, in their homes, at their work places, in public? How about when FBI Director, James Comey, decided to revive the inquiry into Hilary Clinton’s email despite no new evidence compelling him to do so? Has this all been a coup initiated by the FBI, ratified by law and carried out by a rabid group of white men, endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan, cheered on by David Duke and involving millions of mostly white voters, including a majority of white women, who happily, cheerily cast their vote for a liar, an avowed racist and a failed businessman who has cheated, shouted and shoved his way into the spotlight?

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We are in checkmate because we turned our backs for a moment and when we did Donald J. Trump moved chess pieces at will, taking the queen and cornering the king. We are down for the count, lost in translation, behind, bewildered, frustrated and legitimately scared. Trump’s election is bad for women, bad for all people of color, bad for business, bad for immigrants, bad for the environment, bad for the economy, bad for babies, bad and getting worse. Donald Trump is good for himself, good for his scary and much more ideologically extreme running mate, Mike Pence, good for angry white men, good for tax dodgers, global warming deniers, corporate elites, unrepentant white supremacists, good for nothing.

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As we near the end of the first day of the new order of Trumpocracy, we better ask ourselves what is to be done. We better meet and sound our outrage, we better establish a plan of action. We need to find better leaders – Hilary Clinton was not the leader many of us wanted even as we felt she would be a capable and reasonable presence in the White House. Where are the young, impassioned, visionary leaders who can, unlike Hilary, outline a detailed opposition to Trumpocracy, give people the argument for universal health care coverage, arm people with not statistics but a critical way of thinking? We need a representative who will actively assuage working class resentment without stirring up racial antipathy; someone who will explain why we pay taxes rather than boast about not doing so. We need someone who does not feel entitled to win office but who rides to victory on a coalition of explicitly leftist platforms. We need a smart, informed speaker who understands the history of race in America, who opposes prisons and demands gun reform and who refuses to apologize for working on behalf of the most vulnerable populations and in opposition to the most entitled.

Republican Presidential Candidate Donald Trump’s Rally in Mobile Alabama

There have been many shocks this week, shocks that reminded us that “we” are not at all united and “we” will often be defeated. For example, Five Thirty Eight reports today that while Hilary Clinton won women’s votes by 12 points, she lost the votes of white women overall. This is a devastating reminder of how effective compulsory heteronormativity is in this country. Heterosexual white women, despite being regaled by audio tapes of Trump boasting about “grabbing pussy,” despite numerous women stepping forward to give accounts of being molested or harassed by Trump, despite his public and open contempt for women he dates, women he rejects and women he would not even consider, many of these women voted willingly for boorish, violent, contemptuous masculinity. They voted with their men; they voted their racial investments in whiteness, they voted against the security of Roe v. Wade, they voted to continue being helpmates rather than agents, they voted to be cheerleaders and mascots rather than players in the game, they voted against the first female president of the United States. They voted to continue being what Simone De Beauvoir called “the second sex.”

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We have faced political winters before and winter will come again. In 1974 in the wake of a horrifying series of political murders in the US, after the deaths of Martin Luther King, JFK, Bobby Kennedy and Malcolm X, Gil Scott Heron penned, “Winter in America,” an anthem for dark times. Shana Redmond’s book, Anthem, provides a rich account of the adoption of anthems by Black groups in the diaspora. In the history that Redmond provides, the anthem is wrenched out of its role as a universal statement of belonging and national aspiration and transformed into a rallying cry for a disenfranchised group and a spiritual call to action. We need an anthem now and “Winter in America,” unfortunately, has become relevant again. In the liner notes for his album, Gil Scott-Heron explained his title and connected his music to the political climate around him:

Winter is a metaphor: a term not only used to describe the season of ice, but the period of our lives through which we are traveling…Western iceman have attempted to distort time. Extra months on the calendar and daylight saved what was Eastern Standard. We approach winter the most depressing period in the history of this industrial empire, with threats of oil shortages and energy crises. But we, as Black people, have been a source of endless energy, endless beauty and endless determination. I have many things to tell you about tomorrow’s love and light. We will see you in Spring.

We are now facing our own winter; we too have just put the clocks back to save Eastern Standard time; we too approach a deeply depressing season run by snowmen buoyed by a “whitelash” (Van Jones); we too want to believe that Spring will come but fear that only more winter lies ahead. In this our own “most depressing period,” we watch bankers and realtors and politicians convince working class people that callous disregard for the public good, outrageous extravagance and corrupt racially skewed economic practices will “make America great again.” They will not. They will confirm us as a confederacy of rogues, a global bully, a white supremacist nation committed to rewarding the rich, locking up the poor and handing everything to the clowns, the snowmen, the would-be kings, the small minded men with small hands, big wallets, self-centered dreams and willowy, empty women on their arms. Gil Scott-Heron looked to Black community for hope and termed Black people as a “source of endless energy, endless beauty, and endless determination.” He promised “love and light” in the potentiality of tomorrow even as he mourned the experience of “living in a nation that just can’t stand much more.” Now that democracy is once more “ragtime on the corner,” now that peace is out of reach, now that white men have their fingers on the scales of justice, now that white heterosexual women are standing by their men, now that we know that many gay people and some people of color must have voted for Trump, we better find some coalitions that will still offer the possibility of “energy, beauty and determination.”

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As Game of Thrones warned us in season one, episode one, 2011, “Winter is Coming.” For the House of Stark, this was a warning that political peace is fleeting and unreliable. For us it is a terrifying future that we now confront. In Game of Thrones, winter came and went, men were slaughtered, spirits raised the dead, and women rulers rose up as fighters, witches, as young queens, as rape avengers. Even in this most patriarchal of medieval fantasy worlds, there is space to imagine female sovereignty and a better world forged out of a coalition of the very old, the very young, women, queers, native peoples, people of color, trans people, disabled people, wildings, wolves and dragons. We need to tap into our utopian fantasies now, our freedom dreams (Robin Kelley) to find small channels of potential running through the political architectures in which we are currently imprisoned. I am worried we will not find a way out, and I know you are too; but I also know that we are all ready for the fight of our lives.

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Trigger Warning: Toxic Masculinity in the U.S. Gun Phallocracy By Eng-Beng Lim

2 Aug No Guns

If there was any doubt about the virulence of colonial machismo or its inoculation in U.S.-American white, supremacist masculinity, one need only look at how recent murders rely on three of its most recognizable tropes – the hunter, the gunsman, the police – that have turned decidedly murderous and terroristic against animals, women, kids, and people of color, particularly African Americans.

To say there is an epidemic of toxic masculinity in U.S.A, the world’s leading gun phallocracy, is to say the least. Week after week, we read about police officers as the lawless hitmen of Order (Ray Tensing, Brian Encinia, Darren Wilson et al), the rampage killer (Dylann Roof, John Russell Houser), and the animal torturer and killer (Walter Palmer). These men are getting their fifteen minutes of shame as they are caught in flagrante delicto but their capture or release only begins to tell many stories yet untold. The news isn’t so much that these murders are happening or would continue to happen. It isn’t even that the system is corrupt. We already know that. What is striking about their recent social media exposé is the sense of public outrage at discovering them, and learning how widespread they are.

That is to say, while the willful and anonymous execution of disposable lives is an everyday occurrence by the police state, racial capitalism and colonial violence, a history of the present well documented by thinkers and activists, bodycam, dashcam and videocam recordings of a few incidents are helping to generate a collective consternation:

“We didn’t know, actually didn’t want to know, just how bad it is but here is murder staring at our faces.”

To murder is to end another’s life or the conditions of possibility for life. It is to force the other to die, whether instantly or slowly and unbearably, by force or self-destruction, and then to perversely care that that death is justified in rational, economic or procedural terms. It is to disregard life itself and to strip away everything that constitutes a person’s humanity. For those whose lives are severely disenfranchised by systemic racism, compulsory heterosexuality, and cisgender privilege, historic and quotidian versions of this murder are all too common.

But to see through the eyes of the dead, the eyes of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Walter Scott, Sandra Bland and Sam Dubose, is to see these murders (literally and figuratively) as simultaneously uncontrollable and targeted.

Toxic Masculinity

It is to see the workings of a toxic, supremacist white masculinity as ordinary and terrifying, self-centered and godlike in complex, cowardly and frightful in constitution. There is a silver lining even in this extreme violence. That these murderers would now grab the headlines as murderers indicates that the seemingly unimpeachable white masculinist complex is finally losing its absolute legitimacy, and subject to public scrutiny and judgment.

The much bigger problem about the gun phallocracy is the internalization of colonial machismo in U.S.-American psychic, institutional, regulatory and relational structures. There is more to do than catching or shaming a few of its murderers – U.S. gun violence is the worst in the world.

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The chart above doesn’t include suicides with firearms that are twice as likely to happen than homicides. According to researchers at Harvard University and Stanford University, there is a correlation between gun availability, right-to-carry gun laws and firearm homicide. It is as simple as that:

more guns = more violent crimes = more homicide

Even though common sense gun laws significantly lower self-inflicted as well as homicidal violence, such studies advocating evidence-based gun safety are often successfully discredited by the gun lobby and the National Rifle Association. Much of this has to do with money, money that is also going into the militarization of the police as an apparatus of the neoliberal state. This includes university campus police units that are increasingly outfitted with the same militarized gear such as those at the University of California campuses during the crackdown against student protestors in 2011.

In particular, the pepper spray cop at UC Davis who casually assaulted student Occupy protestors became emblematic of cavalier, campus corporatization rising in tandem with a militarized police presence that is not only out of line but rewarded for their transgressions. For instance, the aforementioned cop was awarded $38,000 for the “emotional suffering” and “psychological injuries” he endured for pulling the trigger of his pepper spray can on 21 students. His notoriety was so widespread that memes ridiculing him and the morally bankrupt decision of the court’s disability settlement saturated the internet.
Pepper Spray Cop Meme

In spite of the public outcry, there is little reform in the police force or cutback from its brutal militarization. One could say that the unmitigated violation of students and their rights by the militarized cops on the campuses of California in 2011 abetted University of Cincinnati police officer, Ray Tensing’s violent extraction of Sam Dubose’s civil and human rights with a fatal gunshot in 2015. Both cops casually or involuntarily clicked on the triggers provided to them by the neoliberal state but it took four years and hundreds of other violations before any misbehaving cop was even deemed potentially criminal.

Meanwhile, civilian gun stock per capita has roughly doubled since 1968, from one gun per every two persons to one gun per person. The proliferation of guns has made the industry a powerful, profiteering bloc that is worth 31.8 billion dollars in 2012. Its initiads have more than the defense of the Second Amendment in mind when they do gun talk. The mean salary of a gun worker is $140k/annum (compare that with university pepper spray cop’s 120k/annum salary, which is well above what most professors make). But on the topic of money, what does gun violence really cost?

The human toll and direct and indirect costs of gun violence are estimated to be 229 billion dollars.

It does not even make economic sense to support the gun industry considering its costs. As the above video shows, this negative economic burden exceeds even Apple’s worldwide revenue in 2012. Who, one might ask, are the benefactors of this gun regime?

The entitlement and privatization of gun rights have reached such a point of phallocratic idiocy that cops and vigilantes like George Zimmerman are able to turn their guns at anyone they deem unlawful, and then claim self-defense or right-to-carry guns as their bullet-proof mantra. Everyone is sick of this morally bankrupt rhetoric. No student and kid should have a gun pointed at them, and no one should be walking in fear of cowardly men possessed by gun machismo. To police the police, counter-movements on the street like Copwatch are stepping up. Others are using social media as a kinetic platform to create swift public justice. While these interventions are effective in the performance of public outrage, so much so that Walter Palmer has gone into hiding, the righteous thrill of digital vigilantism has its limits. Predictably, the gun phallocracy’s pullback against the public’s pushback has rendered Palmer a sympathetic figure who has to “endure [the] latest onslaught from the social media mob.” The hunter, as many observe, has become “the hunted.”

The indistinguishable “social media mob” vis-à-vis the singular Walter Palmer only reinscribes the narrative of the white man as exceptional and blameless, which Palmer himself tried to invoke in a statement released by a PR firm he hired. (All PR firms have since distanced themselves from this case.) His defense is a form of colonial oblivion or high delusion – he has “legal” paperwork obtained with an expensive bribe ($50,000), he is unaware that Cecil is important, and besides it is all just game in the Safari. His fellow Great White Hunters have come to his defense saying the man is in fact protecting and preserving the “trophy” species: “Nobody is going to spend $50,000 to $75,000 on a photographic safari. All the parks in Zimbabwe are run on hunting dollars.”

But why won’t the rich use their wealth to fund research and sustainability projects rather than posing with their $50k exotic kills in Africa? The manner of Cecil’s killing provides some answers. Palmer shot the animal with a crossbow and tortured it for 40 hours before shooting, beheading and skinning it. He also tried to hide the GPS collar that a team of researchers from Oxford University had attached to Cecil, effectively destroying years of research and a local tourist attraction. A Zimbabwean law professor based in the UK notes that Palmer is part of a “lucrative hunting industry,” a “horrible blood industry” that operates like a “cartel” and “Mafioso.”

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Donald Trump Jr, Eric Trump and Walter Palmer with their exotic, trophy kills in Africa.

Cecil the lion may be anthropormophised and even Disneyfied. But “the mob” is responding to the vileness of a cavalier machismo so ordinary and godlike, so violent in its method of killing and capitalist entitlement that there is little distinction between the hunters’s “We pay to kill” and the police officers’s “We get paid to kill.”

These kills are allegories of colonial violence in the transnational present.

To go after Palmer as a lone ranger is therefore to miss how the colonial hunting of African animals is part of a triumvirate of self- and system-justifying U.S. hunters, mass killers and police on the prowl for blood. These men are duly weaponized and ever ready to boost their frightened manhoods by hunting, hurting and hitting. For who would kill for sport, be triggered by imagined racial assault, and assert the law to shore up the schizophrenia of this unholy trinity? Who else but those threatened by the disappearance of their own relevance and entitlement, their bitterness at the myriad failures of compulsory heterosexuality, and structural inequities biting them back in their asses?

No law will change colonial machismo or the imperial white, male ego purchased with blood. For every Palmer, Roof and Tensing caught in the act, many others like them will continue to roam the streets under the radar. What, then, is to be done? Do we need more bodycams, more surveillance, and even more overwhelming evidence of excessive force to indict the bad apples of the state apparatus? Do we need more laws that are enforced by the lawless? Or do we need to dismantle the gun phallocracy by incinerating those damn guns and all macho b.s?

No Guns

*

“Why are you trying to make sense with crooks?” my dad asked me as the rogue movers from New Jersey held my things in hostage, and demanded twice, three times and finally quadruple the price of the original quote. Each phone call from the company sent me to the nearest town on my drive to Michigan where I had to wire them the money through Western Union. A few weeks later, as they dropped off my things, much of them broken, the movers acted like nothing bad had happened. I kicked myself for going with the lowest bidder but money was tight and the contract seemed binding. There was apparently no legal recourse because the move crossed several state lines, and all I could do was file a complaint with Better Business Bureau and write a really bad Yelp review. As with all good scams, the moving company staged such a flawless execution that fooled even my ex-boyfriend, an attorney in New York City who negotiated on my behalf only to turn on me for not paying them enough as if their quote was my fault. His indictment – “how could you? why didn’t you pay them more” – reverberated in my ear with resonances of our recent break-up.

Months later, an exposé news team did a segment on moving scams and shamed this rogue company on national television. It was unreal to see the company on TV. I felt vindicated though not much better. I was reminded of being attached to broken things. Besides, the corrective justice focused on one company out of thousands that used predatory and extortionist practices. For instance, over 8500 complaints were filed in 2012, and many more hoaxes go unreported. What does it take for institutions to take action? What the news segment did was to confirm my account all along but the power of televisual validation turned the tide against the rogue mover, which closed down. A year later, it morphed into another company.

Are the recent exposés of U.S.-American policing doing something similar or different? Are the cams making visible what has been concealed or are we simply refusing to see the actuality of lived violations?

The eyes of Sam Dubose, and the dash cam of the Dallas police.

The eyes of Sam Dubose, and the dash cam of the Dallas police.

Who’s looking – the eyes of the dead or the colonial gaze?

Is the camera a form of deterrent or deferment of justice? Is it an imagined corrective for bad behavior with no transformative effect on the culture of policing? As much as we think we know what we see, the Rodney King video in 1991 indicates that a visual economy of proof does not get at the “truth” of the matter. Like documentaries, surveillance cameras tend to promote empathetic responses about the verisimilitude of representation. They assume the seamless merging of the viewer and the viewed, or the character and the subject. We could understand this through Brecht’s account of the street scene, a cornerstone of epic theater. The demonstrator in the street scene is the one who “acts the behavior of driver or victim or both in such a way that the bystanders are able to form an opinion about the accident.” But rather than being stuck in the “he did that, he said that” element of performance, the charge is to generate consciousness about difference by demonstrating through performative documentation, the “social function of the whole apparatus.”

As a window to the street scene of policing, the cam’s realistic frame is entrapped in the engendering of illusion, and its interlocutors have used its recordings as a matter of representation, or the truth, rather than as a resource for a direct changeover from representation to commentary. What the camera is demonstrating is the method of murderous policing coming undone because its agents are unable to contain the virulence of the racist and misogynist state. They are acting on its deadly colonial machismo as if its labile affects are beyond control. And they are out of control.

In the latest murder case, University of Cincinnati police officer Ray Tensing moved from monotonous flatness one moment to compulsive rage the next before blowing the face off Sam Dubose with one shot. Dubose is the 534th person shot dead by the police in the U.S. this year. Tensing joins a long line of angry white men who “lost their temper” at being disobeyed or disrespected, and then immediately pulled out their guns for self-protection.

If ever there was a need for trigger warning, this is it.

It does not take much for these guys to snap. While they may seem “senseless and asinine,” the pathology of pride and fear, panic and rage is the racial complex of colonial machismo trying to suppress its own terror by shooting away every schizophrenic episode involving an imagined, unarmed black assailant looming large like a criminal, a monster, a wild man. This paranoia and its hallucinogenic references have a long, colonial history, and they are deep symptoms of colonial guilt. As Alfred Métraux notes in his classic study, Haitian Voodoo:

“Man is never cruel and unjust with impunity: the anxiety which grows in the minds of those who abuse power often takes the form of imaginary terrors and demented obsessions. The master maltreated his slave, but feared his hatred. He treated him like a beast of burden but dreaded the occult powers which he imputed to him. And the greater the subjugation of the Black, the more he inspired fear; the ubiquitous fear which shows in the records of the period and which solidified in the obsessions with poison, which throughout the eighteenth century, was the cause of so many atrocities.” (New York: Schocken, 1972), p15.

The U.S. obsession with guns in the twenty first century substitutes for the colonial obsession with poison of the eighteenth century, and both are tied to the “anxiety… of those who abuse power.” Each murder in the U.S. gun phallocracy continues the atrocities of colonial violence. The falsehoods and fabrications of the police in their reports of murder echo the “imaginary terrors and demented obsessions” of the slave master. Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, for instance, characterized Michael Brown as a “demon,” and said he “felt like a five-year-old holding Hulk Hogan” even though both men were 6 ft 4. Perhaps Wilson is articulating a nation’s anxiety at being coddled by a black President or perhaps he is so shaken by the broken spell of colonial machismo that he has to murder to make the spell work again. Either way, the toxicity of white, supremacist masculinity has become an extremely dangerous contagion, and is in desperate need of medical, social and rehabilitative treatment.

“Man is never cruel and unjust with impunity”

May the ghosts of the dead rise up to forever haunt all deadly white man, the hunter, the gunsman, the police, and their imitators with their smoking guns in hand every minute of their waking days.

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).

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!)