Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Selling Loosies, Stealing Cigars, and Cribbing from Hamilton

The other comment I want to make concerning this relationship between police and, let’s say, urban existence, is that you can also see that police, the establishment of police, is absolutely inseparable from a governmental theory and practice that is generally labeled mercantilism, that is to say, a technique and calculation for strengthening the power of competing European states through the development of commerce and the new vigor given to commercial relations.- Michel Foucault, Security, Territory, Population

Eric Garner sold loosies. Sold individually, priced from fifty cents to a dollar, loosies enable folks who want to smoke but can’t afford an entire pack at once to fill their lungs. They may also, per pack, secure to the seller a tidy profit on top of what a pack normally goes for. Given that lots of loosie vendors are supplied with untaxed cigarettes from states like Virgina, they make a tidy profit indeed. So they’re illegal.  And so it was that cops went to Eric Garner’s market, in part, to pick him up for selling untaxed cigarettes. He was then murdered. We know that a black man can be killed by a cop for just about anything—and, of course, for no reason at all—but the fact that Garner’s death was touched off by individually-sold cigarettes struck many of us as ludicrous. Rightfully so. Ordinary cops are rarely called upon to enforce tax laws. The US has a host of agencies responsible for enforcing those such laws: the IRS for income tax, US Customs and Border Protection for the taxation of trans-border commerce, etc.  Thus, even as there was something grippingly, urgently present about Garner’s murder—the intensification of antiblack policing, the consolidation of the New Jim Crow—there was something excessively strange about it, too, about how selling a loose, untaxed cigarette could have such consequences. Kind of anachronistic.

One might even say mercantilist.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Eric Garner since reading Christian Parenti’s “Reading Hamilton from the Left” today. Through a reading of Hamilton, Parenti recovers a Founding-Dads idiom for critiquing the neoliberal withdrawal of the state from the field of the economic. Hamilton’s work, as he puts it, “reveals the truth that for capital, there is no ‘outside of the state.’ The state is the necessary but not sufficient pre-condition for capitalism’s development. There is no creative destruction, competition, innovation, and accumulation without the ‘shadow socialism’ of the public sector and state planning.” And so the remainder of the article is basically a listicle of the dope things Al demanded, some of which he got: central banking, protective tariffs (eventually), industrialization (such as it was), and so on. Unlike Thomas Jefferson, who “feared the proletariat” (insofar as, well, he didn’t want to see white Yankees proletarianized), Hamilton leaned into a pro-industrial, protectionist, nationalist development model. And it would’ve worked, if it weren’t for those meddling Jeffersonians. (Then Jacksonians. And then a war happened.)

Fine. Look, I get nostalgia for mercantilism. Really truly. I’m writing a book about a bunch of West Indians who wanted nothing more than the retention of the British mercantilist policies, the very ones a putatively progressive Hamilton attempted to mimic in ‘Merica. (Indeed, Parenti’s article was basically published in every planter newspaper across the British West Indies by 1854.) And I get that our neoliberal world is so imaginatively depleted that one might have to look back to look forward, Marx’s prolie poetry of the future be damned. But when I try joining Parenti in looking back to Hamilton in order to look forward to a socialist future, all I can see is a lot of folks getting killed for doing things like selling untaxed cigarettes.

I think of Eric Garner, in other words, because state-interventionist economic policies have always involved the police. Even in the neoliberal world left behind when the welfare state cheesed it.

Indeed, the police sit at the origin of all mercantilist policies. It’s what “police” meant. When Adam Smith offered his lectures on “justice, police, revenue and arms,” police referred to forms of economic governance. As he puts it, “The [analytic] objects of police are cheapness of commodities [and] public security and cleanliness.” The police, in this sense, refers to the “policy of civil government,” or more specifically “the regulation of inferior parts of government,” those that dealt with material provisioning of the population. It was utterly conventional usage, hardly unique to Smith. And so we get in Wealth of Nations: “The police must be as violent as that of Hindostan or Egypt…which can in any particular employment, and for several generations together, sink either the wages of labour or the profits of stock below their natural rate.” Examples can be proliferated. Today lazy critics and lazier supporters of neoliberalism tend to think of Smith as anti-state; he wasn’t, or not in those terms. Indeed, when he uses the term “state,” he is most frequently using it to describe a level in a stadial progression, or in the diffuse sense of a politico-ethico-economic totality akin to the Hegelian Stadt. He almost never used “state” to describe the machinery of governance. He did talk about police, though, and he didn’t like what he saw.

Of course, the violence that Smith is talking about in his complaint about EIC-ruled Hindostan has little to do with the forms of embodied violence visited upon folk who couldn’t get with the program; he’s talking about how laws, protections, tariffs, and bounties shape markets. But the immaterial violence Smith laments always entailed actual, physical violence against ordinary people in British South Asia, in Egypt, in Britain, in New York. In a very simple way, all mercantilist programs for development entailed the extension and intensification of the powers of the fiscal-military state. This isn’t an abstract conceptual thing; mercantilist policies mobilized a lot of people who did a lot of things, all for the state. Surveying land, counting bodies, collecting taxes, inspecting ship bottoms. No statist development without police, because it’s through surveillance and force that the state directs, in quite quotidian fashion, value from one sphere to the next. The state doesn’t work through the market, as a producer of value, so force latent or actual is what it has—all to make the market work. Passes on market days to prevent glutting. Restrictions on purchasing to prevent specie drains. Officers patrolling wharves to ensure that goods aren’t being smuggled in tariff-free from non-treatied, driving domestic prices down. High taxes on cigarettes to shape biopolitically normalized bodies; cops making sure cheap smokes aren’t being sold singly.

To say “mercantilism” is to say “police,” as Foucault suggests in what I’ve tagged above, and modern police forces are one of the most vibrant vestiges of the era that liberals like Smith hoped to call quits with. It’s not a huge leap from the forms of petty peculation that West-India merchant and police theorist Patrick Colquhoun attempted to interdict on the eighteenth-century Thames—theft that both diminished private profit and state revenue—and that the NYPD attempted to interdict on Staten Island. The gallows at Tyburn or transportation for the former; extra-judicial murder for the latter. (Tobacco remains a constant.)

My point, of course, isn’t that liberal critiques of “the mercantile system” were somehow anti-police. They weren’t, and they haven’t been. Smith’s theory of value was first articulated in the sections of his lectures on police, and the liberal value theory it originated basically attempted to calibrate British forms of policing, making them adequate to what all those Scottish guys thought of as a commercial society. We know, too, that neoliberal economic policy in practice requires the mass policing and incarceration of people, most of whom are of color. Indeed, the opposition between neoliberal and statist economics is best viewed not as an abstract conflict of doctrine, but as opposing strategies deployed by different states in different constellations of and from different positions within the world-system. This was Friedrich List’s point, whom Parenti wants to recover but for all the wrong reasons. (You might get the impression, from the article, that Marx and List were somehow on the same page. They weren’t. The latter hated the former, and was an anti-anti-free-trader to boot.) The analytic assumption underlying all of List’s arguments is that all markets are products of (nation-)state policy. Whether free-market or mercantilist, whether derived from the Manchester School or aligned with the American System, the state is right there—after all, it’s the state that “mercantilist” or “free-trade” would grammatically predicate. Indeed, List’s critique of Smith wasn’t that the latter was methodologically individualistic, as Parenti suggests, but that the free-trade tenets of British political economy were simply the form that mercantilist practices took for the hegemon of the world-system. Free-trade Britain was just the global cop, and they have a roster of small wars throughout the Pax Britannica to prove it.

The “state” versus “anti-state” economic binary, in other words, is a false binary, and the primary subject that unifies these seemingly opposed parts is the police. From the petty smugglers hanged to prevent poorer folk from enjoying a bit of baccy in the heyday of mercantilism, to the black bodega owner killed in part because he sold loosies in the era of antiblack neoliberal penality, the most basic, transhistorical, and violent agent of state economic development has been the police.

What’s weird to me about the Parenti article is that, ultimately, I think he gets that. As he put it in a line I’ve already quoted: “for capital, there is no ‘outside of the state.’” But he does so only to conclude: “Like Hamilton, we face a profound crisis rooted in an economy that demands to be remade.” But why indeed would we want to remake the economy at this moment, which would necessitate remaking the state, when we might call quits with both?

This question becomes all the sharper when we consider what we’ve seen of the state in the midst of being “remade” over the past few weeks—the murder of Eric Garner, yes, and then the murder of Michael Brown. It can’t be forgotten that, when the rebellion in Ferguson set off, it was small business owners who demanded the saturation of the area with police—small capital demanding the state to reappear in what might have been a neoliberal, post-state paradise. And then, when a harassed police department attempted to produce post mortem justification for the murder of Brown, they reached about in the grab bag of mercantilist ideological material.


He stole cigars, they said.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Katy Perry and the Self-Abolition of Whiteness

What’s the line between appropriation and self-alienation, a consumption of another so as to inflate oneself and a throwing of oneself to others so as to get rid of what you are? This question, I think, haunts the short long arc of Katy Perry’s career, and it’s one that anyone interested in anti-racist action needs to linger with. Because Perry offers us, in however mutilated and compromised a form, a master class on the (im)possibility of the self-abolition of whiteness.

Perry appropriates, and does so through the invocation of terribly racist signifiers—there’s no doubt about that. Derrick Clifton has offered an overview of Perry’s career in racial drag, and the globality of her racial reach is truly amazing. Black, Native American, Japanese, Egyptian… Wherever whiteness isn’t, Perry will be, transforming alterity into a costume to be donned as she likes.

So, an appropriator. To be sure. But I’ve never been very comfortable with the critical heft that the term appropriation provides, participating as it does in a paradigm of culture that treats the latter as a kind of property—which is to say, participating as it does in a paradigm of culture structured by white-supremacist capitalism. Critiques of appropriation rely upon—and performatively produce—an understanding of a racialized cultural field as a regime of property, one populated by self-proper collectivities and regulated by modes of navigation and behavior deemed appropriate. Within this imaginary underwritten by the concept of property, raced forms of identification and belonging are construed as formally equivalent to all others. Norms derive from this conceptualization: as in all property regimes, one must recognize and respect, not transgress upon or steal, the racial properties of others—history, culture, language, a style or a feeling. But we know that that’s not what the world is, that substantive inequality is the norm, that dispossession by whiteness is the rule for darker folk, that dispossession is what racialization is. So, the conditions of formal equality necessary for a rule against appropriation to be in force (or enforceable at all) are substantively undercut by the superordinate rule of white supremacy. The efficacy of the imperative “Don’t appropriate” relies upon a becoming-sovereign of raced subjects, but the very enunciation of the imperative indicates the endurance of racial non-sovereignty.

There’s also the problem, evident in the Miley Cyrus debacle, that critiques of appropriation of black cultural property tend to valorize certain forms of blackness as proper. How many people, for instance, raised eyebrows at Cyrus’ aspirational attachment to crunk and Southern hip hop? Lots, and with the implicit claim that she should have chosen a more worthy objects to emulate, appropriate, and pervert. The anti-racism (when it is anti-racism) of Cyrus’ liberal critics is laudable, but their liberalism isn’t, and the multiculti politics of recognition that charged their critiques quickly became a racial policing operation—not simply of interracial interaction, but of blackness itself, which it defines and delimits and helps turn into a stable, proper object. If Miley Cyrus’ desired object—something, recall, that “feels black”—was less crunk and twerk and more Miles Davis, especially the Kind of Blue Miles recognizable to anyone who has passed through a Starbucks ever, it’s doubtful the outcry over appropriation would be as robust as it is. It’s possible that people would not even recognize it as appropriation. So, in effect, the demand that the white-supremacist culture industry recognize and respect black cultural property becomes functional for the disciplining and production of forms of blackness that are recognizable as respectable—a kind of value-adding operation that in the long run facilitates more appropriation.

My final problem with the term in relation to Perry is that charges of appropriation tend to reconstitute the appropriator into a stable subject who could have appropriated or not appropriated—and should not have done so. But, as Perry herself puts it, she doesn’t really have a choice. For a white person to be a person, to feel like a person, she has to be in proximity to blackness. Whiteness is thrown away, albeit temporarily, in an act of self-abolition that is necessarily an act of appropriation, because the void nullity that is and was whiteness requires filling. Miley “want[ed] something that feels black” because being white doesn’t feel like much; Perry turns to racial drag because the alternative is “just stick[ing] to baseball and hot dogs, and that's it”—that is, sticking to nothing. We can, and should, pay critical attention to the ways in which whiteness affectively recharges itself through fantasies of animated racial others. But, in offering these critiques, we also shouldn’t foreclose the possibility that these white desires for the racial other—to be the racial other—mark an attunement to a tonality and affectivity that resonate as the inappropriable source of even the most appropriated stars of proper black American culture. I’m talking, of course, about the refusal to be appropriated, to become property, about the willed and unwilled function of being property’s persistent problem, about the radical origins of black culture, about the quotidian sounding and resounding of the black radical tradition. I’m talking, then, about the perpetual parabasis of whiteness, the force that interrupts it, that calls it out from itself, and calls it to be(come) other.

I mean, really, looking at her career, is it much of a stretch to suggest that Katy Perry can’t stand whiteness? That her career is simply an attempt to get away from it, even if (or especially if) her attempts ultimately “fuck [her] in the ass,” as she put it, because she’s also, clearly, a racist? She’d rather be some kind of alien than an ordinary white lady—a transspecies maneuver that itself necessitates mobilizing drum and bass, dubstep, and Kanye. It’s in “E.T.” that Perry literalizes her program of appropriation as one of self-alienation.

But my point here isn’t to exculpate. It’s rather to think through the imbrication of appropriation and self-alienation, of the co-presence of taking and giving away in the field of whiteness. Whiteness has a peculiar ontological status: it is the only thing that can give itself away without giving anything at all because it is in fact nothing. (Compare this to the work of people like Fred Moten and Nahum Chandler, for whom the originary dispossession that is blackness converts into an originary generosity, a fecundity, a giving-without-taking, an intimation of a post-property undercommons.) If whiteness gives nothing when it gives itself away, this giving-away always is a taking.

As with Perry, so with anti-racist politics. All of this stuff on Perry might be a long way of trying to figure out how I find myself typing on a blog initially about CLR James, how I’ve come to write through the black radical tradition, how I have come to take part in anti-racist work at all. The intensity of the structural collapse of white appropriation and self-alienation reaches a fever pitch in the figure of the radical anti-racist white, the figure for whom the abolition of whiteness is simultaneously an abolition of self. For, quite simply, the force that incites the radical white to undo his whiteness, to give it away, to get rid of whiteness as such—this force is never immanent to whiteness but is always taken from its outside. A list of names and movements could follow here, all traces of some force I’ve appropriated, incorporated into myself as my self’s undoing. To learn to desire the undoing of whiteness is already to be taking a lesson from the black radical tradition. Whiteness takes even when it wants to give itself away, to get rid of itself, to get lost.

I’ve taken this lesson from Du Bois. In one magical sentence in his biography of John Brown, he writes, “Of all inspiration which America owes Africa, however, the greatest by far is the score of heroic men whom the sorrows of dark children have called to unselfish devotion and heroic self-realization…above all, John Brown.” An “inspiration,” a “call[ing]” to “unselfish” acts, to acts that will ultimately result in the undoing of his self, John Brown’s life, a life dedicated to the death of whiteness, is structured by an impossible debt to Africa. To be inspired to the abolition of whiteness entails assuming a debt to blackness that can never be cancelled or repaid. In this sense, we might read Du Bois’ willingness to memorialize Brown’s life not as a yet another hagiography but as a kind of debt forgiveness, an act of impossible generosity that, again, can never be paid back. And Du Bois doesn’t demand repayment. Just more John Browns—which is to say, more inspiration from, and more impossible debt to, what he names “Africa.”


Again, my point isn’t exculpation. Far from it. It’s rather to suggest that Perry’s trajectory lays bare a structuring feature of white anti-racist politics in our white-supremacist world, a feature whose import vastly exceeds the representational problematics of cultural politics. Operating in a zone of indistinction—where appropriation and self-alienation, giving-away and taking-again, collapse into one another—white self-abolition names an impossible politics that remains, nonetheless, the only possible politics for white folk. A pessimistic politics that only persists through the generosity of those from whom whiteness only ever takes.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Dad Rule: The Hatred of Students

This commencement season, the dominant narrative has centered on successful student campaigns to force withdrawals and disinvitations of commencement speakers. Haverford, Rutgers, Smith, Brandeis. It’s the wrong narrative—or, at least, it’s incomplete. What’s shocked me has been the extent to which these examples of student self-activity have incited university professors and administrators to publicize a barely concealed disdain for students. This disdain saturates every stupid, snarky word of Stephen Carter’s “Dear Class of 2014: Thanks for Not Disinviting Me”; it resounds in William Bowen’s commencement sermon to Haverford College. In a world where dads and the dad-like wring their hands over those sillybilly millenials, apathetic spoiled and self-absorbed, somehow students' attempt to recode the parameters of public spectacle has been troped as an exercise in narcissism. It’s the selfie generation, after all.

If the university once (understood itself to have) functioned as the place where humans left their self-incurred immaturity, as Kant might put it, if it once served as the place where students prepared themselves to participate in public life, the Dads of higher ed are now insisting with the primness of a period-piece dowager that students should be seen and not heard. Literally. Bowen recalls a commencement protest over the grant of an honorary degree to a Nixonite in the 70s. (You can hear the daddishness: “back in my day…”) Happily, the “protestors were respectful (mostly), and chose to express their displeasure, by simply standing and turning their backs when the Secretary was recognized.” If ed gurus today salivate over tech-leveraged “disruption,” what Bowen admires about these human swivels is their decision “to express their opinion in a non-disruptive fashion.” No noise, just image, and the spectacle went on, with Princeton investing a Nixonite with an honorary degree.

I’ve been insisting on the term spectacle because, as everyone knows, the operative fiction of Carter’s letter and Bowen’s sermon is bullshit. Not even your liberalist liberal, your deliberativest deliberative democrat, could in good faith claim that commencement speeches are scenes of open debate. They are, rather, capstone moments where the university takes on a body, incorporates itself, and seeks to establish the conditions of its corporate reproducibility. A lovely experience validating 240k in cash or debt, a spectacle for parents and future donors—but hardly a scene of debate or discussion! Just a droning message, some platitudes, and the implicit promise that the fundraising office will soon track you down.

Thus, Carter’s sarcastic reminder that students are “graduating into a world of enormous complexity and conflict,” his sarcastic injunction that childish student protestors not “sweep away complexity and nuance’”—all of this is the height of cynical bullshit. I can’t imagine that there’s a student protestor who would not have jumped at the chance to address the middlebrow dads of the world in the august pages of BloombergView, to be recognized as mature enough to participate in the dads’ super-smart high-intensity debates, nuanced and complex as they are. (I can’t imagine, moreover, that there’s a single student protesting the IMF’s Lagarde who is not aware of the US’s historical involvement in it, I can’t imagine that there’s a single protestor who would not be happy to disinvite the US—as Carter suggests students would not be—should the Statue of Liberty or something try to give a commencement speech. But Professor Carter insists on his students’ stupidity, their lack of sophisticated thinking. Ad te fabula…)

To demand nuance from those without secure access to official publics is to inhibit access to publicness as such. But Carter and Bowen don’t want publicness; they want an ideological plebiscite. One in which students are free to say yes or no (or nothing, which counts as a yes) to the options presented, sure, but they first need to be presented with the options—options cooked up off screen, in the President’s office, with the Board of Trustees, with the Dean of Student Life, wherever. They can turn their backs, give a thumbs down, maybe the unruly will even boo (with pearls clutched at Princeton), but first they have to listen. Bowen reserves particular ire for the students’ decision to send Birgeneau a list of demands—that is, for their attempt to intervene into public discourse in a way exceeding the axiomatics of yea or nay. In a certain way, then, universities are preparing students for the forms of depleted publicness available to Mature Nuanced Dads across ‘Merica: raging at television screens and the de facto binary act of punching holes in ballots. (Let’s keep that in mind: the pinnacle of official political being for most US subjects is so semantically winnowed that its activity is prelinguistic. Nuance not required.)

And so the bankrupt cynicism of claims that students immaturely, impulsively, undemocratically violated the norms of democratic publicness. To think that fostering a culture of public debate is a university pedagogical ideal is by turns hilarious and desperately sad when we consider the story that put Bowen on Haverford’s stage and the story he told while up there. Bowen spoke because Haverford students didn’t want Birgeneau, the former chancellor of UC Berkeley who let his cops baton student Occupiers in 2011, to speak. Bowen’s good-ole-days memory, meanwhile, recalls the chill in campus activism in the 70s—in the wake, that is, of Kent State. (The dignified, “non-disruptive” protest of turning one’s back is also one that won’t get you shot or beat.) The campus public has been structured dismantled; when it threatens to reappear, it is hyper-policed. Or University Dads write letters in the rag of a billionaire’s news corporation.

This round of student disinvitation performatively refuses the pseudo-conversion of an ideological plebiscite into an ersatz public. That they can recognize the difference is miraculous, because it would appear, from Carter and Bowen’s responses, that university educators flip to the end of Kant’s “What is Enlightenment?” when assembling their pedagogy: “Argue about whatever you like as much as you like, but obey!” This time, though, the obedience that University Dads demand would entail students forsaking the already minimal space they once possessed.

I’m not being as coherent as I‘d like. Maybe not as nuanced as Carter would demand. There’s much more to be said about the decimation of publicness in the US, the way it’s been militarized and policed to hell. About the university’s betrayal of its mission. About how nuance is meaningless in a world subsumed into the idiotic violence of pure command. And on and on.

But I’m more just angry, pissed off, that my colleagues in higher education are so committed to maintaining their dad-power that they write off those students most committed to opening a democratic horizon as democracy’s greatest traitors. The idea persists that any student with an idea is actually a kid with a tantrum; that student protesting is super chic and just a blast; that responding to administration power is a kind of oedipal thing that silly kids do, because they must, to feel (but not actually be; no, not yet) like adults.  

What Carter and Bowen refuse to acknowledge are the doubtless long hours students spent in self-organized meetings, arguing, drafting and re-drafting statements, figuring out what it was they in fact wanted. What they can’t feel, and don’t care to feel, is the scorn reserved for student activists on campus. But the scorn isn’t as bad as the indifference, an indifference experienced in more long hours trying to hand fliers to people who will probably trash them immediately, in conversations with unreceptive classmates and student groups and, yes, most professors and administrators. An indifference induced by the discourse that students are just consumers, and primarily consumers of booze and sex—a discourse of the dads that pretends to lament what it secretly hopes to reproduce.

And what they really, truly cannot see is the fear, and the extraordinary and ordinary courages that match it. The fear of isolation and mockery, to be sure. But also the simple fear that necessarily runs alongside the act of becoming political in a space that abjects politics—of becoming public in a world evacuated of publicness. The voices that trembled when they first began mic-checking a speaker, only to crescendo by the end. The moment of doubt that arrives just before the email is sent to the student paper…but sent it is. Even just approaching someone with a flier is a small breech of neoliberal norms, an act requiring a corresponding charge of bravery.

That these students exist at all is miraculous. As always, it’s the educator who must be educated. Carter and Bowen should thank them for the lesson. For it might not be too long, perhaps, before they take Bowen’s advice and turn their backs on these spectacles of depleted publicity—only to make a break for the undercommons from which they emerged.


#NoDads

Monday, May 5, 2014

On the Locution "Check your privilege!"

In the wake of responses to Tal Fortgang’s “Why I’ll Never Apologize for My White Privilege,” I want to think, very briefly, about what kind of locution “Check your privilege” is. What do we mean, and mean to say, when we say it? What’s at stake for me, as should be obvious and as is usual around here, is not coming to an apologetics for a terrible bourgie racist, but rather honing the efficacy of a key instrument of today’s anti-racist repertoire—which is to say, interrupting the process by which an anti-racist technique becomes functional for racial liberalism. 

As is evident in his essay, Fortgang responds to the charge “Check your privilege!” as a misinterpellation. That is, the locution charges him (by “reprimand[ing]” him, as he puts it) to inhabit a position with which he cannot identify. The reasons for this inability to identify are in part ideological (meritocracy is a thing for him) but are, more robustly, biographical: “So to find out what they are saying, I decided to take their advice. I actually went and checked the origins of my privileged existence, to empathize with those whose underdog stories I can’t possibly comprehend.” His move, basically, is to oppose his privileged present with his family’s underprivileged past. To be sure, Fortgang’s recourse to narration disavows the privilege entailed in inhabiting legible and stable kin structures, structures that transmit themselves in and as time, but let’s let that slide for the moment; it’s the method that I want to think about. Interrupting privilege talk’s synchronic present with the temporality of a family’s history, Fortgang’s point is to mark the gap between contemporary modes of mapping structure and lived relations to it. For Fortgang, the locution “Check your privilege!” violently closes this gap. It’s not for nothing that he figures its use as a high-speed missile, a missile to be lobbed from a drone—“The phrase, handed down by my moral superiors, descends recklessly, like an Obama-sanctioned drone, and aims laser-like at my pinkish-peach complexion, my maleness”—for the locution traverses the space between structure and subjectivity that he cannot cognitively or ethically travel. But the phrase, as a missile, misses what it hits; or, rather, it hits by missing. For Fortgang is not privileged, no, not a bit, for his roots are with the underprivileged, the unprivileged, and he lives his relation to the world as such.

If Fortgang were to give a linguistic term to this locution, it would be “insult.” I’ve written about the insult before; what I want to return to here is how insulting functions precisely through the lack of fit between sign, referent, and signified. As Agamben puts it in his little essay on friendship, an insult “is effective precisely because it does not function as a constative utterance…it uses language in order to give a name in such a way that the named cannot accept his name, and against which he cannot defend himself.” For Fortgang, the performative locution (“Check your privilege!”) is underwritten by an unearned constative (“You have privilege.”) that, in his case, converts privilege-checking from a mode of regulating discourse to a form of insult. An imposition of an improper name, a forced inclusion into an improper set. Put differently, an alternative title to his essay could easily have been “Why I am not an Asshole”—for Fortgang, the linguistic operation of privilege-checking and name-calling are functionally identical.

Fortgang’s inability to accept “privileged” as a proper naming of his social position can help us think through some limits to how privilege checking functions today. We can see these limits, for instance, in one Salon response to Fortgang, which begins, “A college student who doesn’t believe in the existence of structural racism or white supremacy wrote an essay about why he would “never apologize” for his white privilege…” We see them again in Jezebel’s response, “To the Privileged Princeton Kid,” which takes the form of a letter, a second-person address intended to educate this “kid” into an alternative form of subjectivity. In both cases, what’s at stake is inducing an imaginative relationship (he “doesn’t believe”) or an ethical relationship (the proper “you” who would non-allergically get his privilege checked) to social and political structure. The problem is that Fortgang’s point persists: he cannot maintain an imaginative or ethical relationship to structure. And with good reason. After all, he’s being asked to claim authorship for, and mark his authorization by, a structure that he didn’t will, a structure that exceeds his capacity to will—a political structure that is indifferent to the ethical relationship one establishes with it. In other words, Fortgang’s anti-liberal reception of “Check your privilege!” usefully marks the disarticulation between the ethical and the political, between an individual’s lived relation to the world and the political structures that sustain or constrain it. When Fortgang asserts the excessiveness of history to privilege’s present, what he’s saying is: I can’t do shit about it. And he can’t.

The problem with the kind of privilege-checking that Fortgang critiques is that it asks subjects to maintain an ethical relationship to a dispersed structure that exceeds the practical or phenomenological horizons of the ethical. Fortgang’s allergic reaction to privilege-checking is the mirror image of white anti-racist liberal voluntarists—the kind we all love to critique—who posit their reformed ethical relation to whiteness as a politics. In either case, the substitution of the ethical for the political obscures the fact that it’s not possible to maintain an ethical relationship to whiteness, because whiteness is nothing less—as we get from Fanon—than the dissolution of ethical relationality. Just think: What would it actually mean for someone like Fortgang to maintain an ethical relationship to his whiteness, his maleness, his money? Why would we even want him to? Put in phenomenological terms, I can only live right with my whiteness when I live against it, but this counter-action is never derivable from myself. It comes from outside, in the establishment of an oppositional political relationship, one that exceeds my individual capacities of cognitive, imaginative, or ethical relation.

And it is maintaining a political relationship, I think, that the locution intended from the beginning, from its origins in activist practice. “Check your privilege!” is an activists’ tool for activists. It functions less to put power into an ethical relation with its own terribleness than it works to keep our counter-power free from residual traces of the world we’re trying to destroy. It’s not a locution intended to traverse the friend/enemy divide in order to call the powerful to dubious acts of moral accountancy. It’s neither a reprimand nor an insult. Rather, “Check your privilege!” is a speech-act that intends the maintenance of anti-racist, anti-misogynist, anti-capitalist groups against the persistent threat of auto-corruption. One only says “Check your privilege!” to comrades, to those with whom you co-incline. It’s a locution that keeps political lines of communication clear from all of the fucked-up shit we bring, and can’t not bring, to our collectivities. In Jakobson’s terms, the function of “Check your privilege!” is phatic, a way of saying, “I can’t hear you; you’re adopting an idiom unintelligible from the perspective of our politics.” That is, the locution informs the addressee of the conditions under which his words will be legible as a communicative act, and does so after those conditions have been broken. The point of the locution is to repair a political relation that has been interrupted, not simply to regulate discourse or inspire an ethical consciousness that can never actually be ethical. And it only makes sense within this political frame, where it works powerfully. Otherwise, it’s just a liberal moralization of the political.


A simple way of putting this: One checks the privileges of one’s friends. One destroys those of one’s enemies. One does the former in the service of the latter.