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.


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.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Literature, Epistemic Democracy, and the Punky Piketty

Instead of Austen and Balzac, the professor [Piketty] ought to read "Animal Farm" and "Darkness at Noon."
--The Wall Street Journal 

Any reading of Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century has to come to terms with the conditions of possibility for its popularity. Why has Thomas Piketty become a “rock star”? In part, Piketty’s text concretizes left-liberal consensus around contemporary capitalism, and does so in a way amenable to the technocratic, social-managerial orientations of left-liberalism: with data, lots of it, stretched over a long enough period to induce a kind of bleak fatalist belief in capitalism’s sempiternality. Like the political scientists about whom I last blogged, Piketty’s work in part repackages the commonly known as the expertly known. But—and here’s the other part, and one that distinguishes his work from that of those whom I critiqued—he does so in a way that validates historically common ways of knowing the economic. Every review has remarked upon the prominence of the cultural within Capital in the Twenty-First Century. The problem has been one of determining the relationship between the cultural object and the economic analysis. For Piketty’s WSJ reviewer cited above, the cultural seems to provide, maximally, a kind of overarching attunement to the phenomena discussed; minimally, a kind of shorthand for the bundling of norms and facts presented in the text. For others, Piketty’s fun with Austen, Balzac, and Don Draper are pedagogically useful, sure, but somewhat ornamental, even superfluous. The reviewer in The Nation writes

“Discussions of Balzac and Jane Austen are mildly helpful as demonstrations of the attitudes toward capital in the nineteenth century, but they offer rapidly diminishing returns and do little to substantiate Piketty’s strange contention that novelists have lost interest in the details of money, a claim plausible only to someone who has never heard of Tom Wolfe or Martin Amis. Other references—Mad MenDjango Unchained, Damages and, repeatedly, Titanic—add even less.”

Culture as attitude, culture as exemplum—ultimately, culture as superfluous.

But that’s not quite right. For Piketty isn’t simply staging the “attitudes” of European bourgeoisies to capitalism in the early nineteenth century. Rather, he is staging the adequacy of their representations of it. (In that, he’s riding the rails laid down by a gang of Marxist literary scholars.) Conversely, I take Piketty’s claim (which struck me as bizarre at first, too) that novelists don’t talk about money anymore to mark less an empirical fact than an epistemological disadequation. That is, cultural objects might represent the economic today, but they cannot know it in a referentially meaningful way. If Tom Wolfe is talking about money, he might as well not be. It’s intriguing, in this regard, that the contemporary aesthetic objects that Piketty is drawn toward tend to be historical fictions (Mad MenDjango Unchained, Titanic), as if art can know economic pasts but can’t get a grip on its present.

With his literary “demonstrations,” I am suggesting, Piketty forces readers to reckon with the constitutive break between the literary and economic epistemologies and forms of representation. Another way of putting this: The novel used to be able to know the economic in a referentially adequate way. It no longer can. What each citation of Austen recalls was a harmonious time in which literary and economic epistemologies weren’t so different, when literary and economic genres of writing could blend together, a time before the literary and the economic were made to part ways. (Defoe would probably be a better example, but Austen was writing through a point of takeoff. On the general relationship between literary and economic writing in the Anglosphere, read this.) It’s a subdued point of the book, but it’s there: the material inequalities associated with capitalism’s takeoff had their parallel in an induced epistemological inequality. Literature became ornamental, literary works mere “demonstrations” illustrative of more robust economic concepts (a la Harriet Martineau’s gawdawful Illustrations of Political Economy [1834]), as a gaggle of political economists reconstituted economic inquiry as an epistemologically and generically autonomous field, a field ruled by experts. In a certain way, then, Piketty’s account of the accumulation of inequality is equally an account—vague, to be sure—of why it takes an economist to tell you that this is the case. Just as capital maldistributes wealth, so too does it maldistribute knowledge. His literary “demonstrations” put us in a position to experience the cognitive disembedding of the economic from the phenomenologies of the everyday, phenomenologies that can be accessed in literature and film.

Of course, questions of epistemology and genres of representation are not Piketty’s primary concern, but he can’t not touch upon them. For two reasons. Piketty is concerned to set off a struggle over method in economics departments, which he sees as too mathematized, too abstract, too ahistorical—in a phrase, too much of all the things that make it impenetrable to lay people. At the same time, Piketty’s own handling of his massive sets of data, his mode of interpreting and his form of representing it, requires that his readers take a relaxed approach to statistical precision. Precision and referential adequacy take a back seat to the omnipresent U curve. Limitations on data, as well as decisions over how to establish and arrange variables, make all figures figural. No matter how dense the data, economists have to play fast and loose with figures all the time—which is why, yes, it might matter whether one is reading Austen or Orwell.

So, if Piketty is a “rock star,” maybe it’s because there’s something a little punky, a little DIY, a little put-together-on-the-run at work in his text. And that’s what I want to hold on to from a book I really truly hated. It’s been depressing to me that people are reading Piketty’s book as if they’re learning something substantive about the world through economics when, as I understand it, Piketty’s work makes legible the primitive accumulation of economic knowledge, the enclosure of a proper sphere of economic knowledge that cut into spaces of the commonly known. Indeed, the last book on economic history to inspire an analogous, but lower-key, kind of pop frenzy—Graeber’s Debt—worked precisely to re-embed economic thinking in the space of the social, to common economic thinking by turning to the genre of the anecdote, the ethnography. Alas, it was written off by a certain socialist publication—“We need more grand histories, but 5,000 years of anecdotes is no substitute for real political economy,” as the banner runs—which, alongside many left-lite publications, is going (to go) gaga for Tommy P. But to posit the non-substitutability of genres of the ordinary for those of the expert is to inscribe managerialism as a guiding principle of our radicalism. It’s also to subordinate one’s epistemic autonomy to experts, thereby foregoing the radical work of developing ways of knowing in common. The enthusiasm over Piketty, in other words, is premised on a refusal of epistemic autonomy, of the work of epistemic communization. Let me be clear: I simply cannot imagine that the US left has learned anything useful or meaningful from Piketty’s book, so I can only understand the book’s enthused reception in those quarters as a ritualization of epistemic lack. Let’s call it the socialist’s Daddy-Mommy-Me: the economist, his data, and the good little boy just so pleased that ma and pa have validated his sense of the real.

Let’s hold on to the punky Piketty, then, the one in the midst of an oedipal revolt against the discipline. The one who insists that “the distribution of wealth is too important an issue to be left to economists, sociologists, historians, and philosophers,” who insists that “[d]emocracy will never be supplanted by a republic of experts.” The literary appears in Capital in the Twenty-First Century as one enactment of this epistemic democracy—a lost democracy, to be sure, one that was never really democratic anyhow, but one that persists as a sign of alternative epistemological ecologies. To read with the punky Piketty—and against the feted prof who insists several times that “[i]nequality is not necessarily bad in itself”—is to continue the work of democratizing economic knowledge. To see in a novel, in an ethnographic anecdote, or in the performative scene of submission conjured on payday the knowledges we need to know. And what we know, in the form of knowledge generated in these encounters, is that economics is ultimately defective for democracy: to democratize economic knowledge is to destroy it.