The Dear Love of Comrades

I find myself struggling for words about the murder of forty-nine people in the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. The violence, the hate, the mechanisms, the stalemate non-conversations are all too repetitive to memorialize these individual human beings or to count as effective political action. I need words I haven’t said before–words that aren’t simply a reiteration of the language we held between ourselves and the horror at Sandy Hook or Mother Emmanuel or or or or…

 I don’t have that language now. The obscene slaughter of our LGBTQ brothers and sisters in Orlando should provide a karotic moment, a juncture at which speech and action can create new practices and new institutions by shaping collective will in response to collective problems. It should, but it doesn’t: the massacre of our neighbors has moved from the exigent time of kairos into the periodic time of chronos; the problem remains, but the unique urgency of the present has passed.

Real political action does not appear in mundane chronological time, and, if we cannot invoke kairos and its “fierce urgency of now” (as King phrased it), then we are left with the eschatological hope of the future to come or the moment of appearance (what Derrida calls l’avenir). L’avenir is not a future moment of the mundane chronos, not an abstract or distant hope that the future will be better than the present. L’avenir is the present moment’s participation in a future appearance that will fracture the everyday and bring about the deferred presence of Justice. It has much the same relationship to the future that Benjamin’s revolutionary history holds with the past: both reject a notion of empty time filled like a container with historical events and insist, instead, that the unending work of Justice always hangs in the balance of the present, that the past and the future take their shape from and give shape to actions taken in the present.

This week I have been thinking of a messianic future dreamed by Walt Whitman in 1860 as part of the “Calamus Cluster” in Leaves of Grass: 

I DREAM’D in a dream, I saw a city invincible to the attacks of the whole of the rest of the earth;

I dream’d that was the new City of Friends;

Nothing was greater there than the quality of robust love—it led the rest;

It was seen every hour in the actions of the men of that city,

And in all their looks and words.

Whitman has many names for this “robust love” in the Calamus Cluster: the love of friends, brotherly love, manly love, the love of comrades, even American love. This love is intimate without being private, public without being impersonal; it is bodily, embodied and accepting. This is the love Lin-Manuel Miranda spoke of in his sonnet at the Tony Awards the night after the massacre in Orlando, a love that must live now, a love whose promise is always the future.

My wife’s the reason anything gets done

She nudges me towards promise by degrees

She is a perfect symphony of one

Our son is her most beautiful reprise.

We chase the melodies that seem to find us

Until they’re finished songs and start to play

When senseless acts of tragedy remind us

That nothing here is promised, not one day.

This show is proof that history remembers

We lived through times when hate and fear seemed stronger;

We rise and fall and light from dying embers, 

remembrances that hope and love last longer

And love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love 

cannot be killed or swept aside.

I sing Vanessa’s symphony, Eliza tells her story

Now fill the world with music, love and pride.

Terrorism is an Anti-Speech Act

I woke up this morning (as most Americans did) to news of the terrorist bombings of Brussels’ airport and mass transit system. At the time I am writing, we still do not know who is responsible for the attack or how many people were killed and injured. As always, though, we know that the effects of this attack will reach far beyond the airport and subway, far beyond Brussels, even far beyond Europe. After all, I woke up this morning, as did most Americans, to the news of those terrorist bombings.

I am reminded this morning of the attacks in Beirut and Paris, both because of the similarities of the attacks and because one of the terrorists from Paris was apprehended only this week. After those horrific events I wrote that terrorism is a speech act, and I stand by that claim. We are all feeling the illocutionary effects of today’s violence, and the next several hours, days and months will reveal its perlocutionary consequences. At the same time, it is important for us to also see that terrorism is at one and the same time an anti-speech act, and that its anti-speech effects operate very much like the speech act itself: terrorism silences in ways we can describe as locutionary, illocutionary and perlocutionary.

While my mind is with the victims in Brussels–the dead, the injured, the traumatized, the displaced, the bereaved–I am also thinking this morning about the rally I attended yesterday evening to protest the recent activity of a 150-year-old terrorist organization in my small Virginia town. The Ku Klux Klan’s active presence in America is a reminder, among other things, that our present moment is not the first or only age of terrorism.

Continue reading

Social Reality, History and Confederate Monuments (Part II)

This is a much belated follow up to a previous post about Confederate memorials that erase rather than preserve history. The two initial quotes are from Stanley Fish. The beginning of black history month (and only weeks after Lee-Jackson Day shared a weekend with the MLK holiday here in Virginia) seems like a fitting time to dust it off and post it. Black history is American history, and any memorial that obscures the black presence in American history steals our past from all of us. The ideas are not entirely polished (so some transitions are merely breaks), but I’ve been sitting on this too long already.

One final bit of throat-clearing: As Benjamin notes in his Theses on History, “Not man or men but the struggling, oppressed class itself is the depository of historical knowledge,” and “In every era, the attempt must be made to wrest tradition away from the conformism [the interests of those in power; the status quo] that is about to overpower it.” History is not an objective science recording events that occur in an empty, homogenous expanse of time. History is a struggle, and the present moment is (and is always) the crisis point that will determine the past as well as the future. On to the argument:

It is not just that anti-foundationalism replaces the components of the foundationalist world-picture with other components; instead, it denies to those components the stability and independence and even identity that is so necessary if they are to be thought of as grounds or anchors. Entities like the world, language, and the self can still be named; and value judgments having to do with validity, factuality, accuracy, and propriety can still be made; but in every case these entities and values, along with the procedures by which they are identified and marshaled, will be inextricable from the social and historical circumstances in which they do their work. (Fish, “Anti-Foundationalism”)

The objective facts and rules of calculation that [for “foundationalist” theory] are to ground interpretation and render it principled are themselves interpretive products: they are, therefore, always and already contaminated by the interested judgments they claim to transcend. (Fish, “Consequences”)

A more thoughtful, better-intentioned and intellectually serious response to the Confederate monument issue that is nonetheless closely related to the idealist/solipsist argument (“It never meant hate to me”)  takes the form of the now exceedingly common suggestion that we install explanatory plaques, etc. that will “contextualize” existing Confederate monuments. The claim is that, by contextualizing the statues, etc. and explicitly recognizing their white-supremacist origins, we will gain control over their meanings and their continued effects within our lived day-to-day environments. Once we mark it as a product of its white-supremacist times, then it ceases to be a white-supremacist component of ours. Briefly put, we will disarm the monument by showing it to be a part of a particular moment.
Continue reading

Toni Morrison and Hannah Arendt as Public Intellectuals

I recently presented a version of this text at the Modern Languages Association Convention in Austin, so I thought I would also post it here. The other presenters on the panel were fantastic (particularly the paper about Adiche’s fashion sense and the gendered mind-body problem). Many thanks to the Doris Lessing Society for making it possible. The text of my presentation follows:

“Toni Morrison, Hannah Arendt, and the Collaborative Public Action of Fiction”

I want to start by thanking the Doris Lessing Society for sponsoring and Cornelius for organizing this panel on women writers as public intellectuals. This afternoon, I will talk about Hannah Arendt and Toni Morrison, perhaps an odd couple, but two writers who are intensely committed to the hard work of thinking and to doing that work in public. As I will argue shortly, both Arendt and Morrison imagine intellectual work as a necessarily communal and collaborative endeavor, a necessity that results from that fact that, as Arendt says near the beginning of The Human Condition (in a passage with definite verbal irony for the current panel) “men, not man, live on the earth and inhabit the world.” For both Arendt and Morrison, the role of the public intellectual is not Ivory Tower thinking for the public but, by contrast, responsible thinking with the public. I can push this claim a step farther: for these writers, the role of every intellectual is to think with the public, and solitary cognitive activity—however much it lights up an fMRI—does not actually qualify as thinking.

Continue reading

Merry Christmas (In the Bleak Midwinter)

This is going to start off bleak, but stick with me.

Christmas is a rough time of year, and it’s made rougher by the insistence that it’s a great time of year, perhaps even the most wonderful time of the year. We’re exhorted to remember the reason or the spirit or the meaning of Christmas, and here it is, the meaning of Christmas: human beings are useless and pointless.

Continue reading

Judith Butler on theory and culture

In her second preface (1999) to Gender Trouble (1990), Judith Butler describes a change in “the face of theory” that took place near the turn of the century. The change she describes in terms of the integration of critical theory and cultural studies could stand as the mission statement of this blog, so I am posting a portion of her preface here as a somewhat belated charter for this project:

There is a new venue for theory, necessarily impure, where it emerges in and as the very event of cultural translation. This is not the displacement of theory by historicism, nor a simple historicization of theory that exposes the contingent limits of its more generalizable claims. It is, rather, the emergence of theory at the site where cultural horizons meet, where the demand for translation is acute and its promise of success, uncertain.

Terrorism is a Speech Act

Terrorism is violence as speech act. It may seem odd, especially in the wakes of the horrendous attacks in Paris and Beirut, to turn to a relatively esoteric theory most associated with literary studies and a decades-old fight between deconstruction and analytic philosophy, but we need J. L. Austin’s theory at a time like this. Especially at a time like this.

Terrorism is a speech act. Terrorism is more than violence: it is violence with a meaning, violence with symbolic significance. Sometimes that symbolism attaches to particular targets of the attacks (the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon are prominent examples), but, even when the target of an attack is not itself a symbol, terrorist violence is symbolic, and it functions like all symbols within a discursive field of signs and signifiers. The significance of a symbol or sign (as Saussure showed us) comes from its position within a system of signs, and individual signs (words, concepts, etc.) take on their meaning by performing a difference from other signs. For instance, the word “dog” is what it is because it isn’t “dig” or “fog,” and a dog is a dog because it isn’t a cat or a wolf. Austin extended Saussure’s analysis by showing that acts, like symbols, generate meanings through differences within systems, and, at the same time, he showed that speech itself is an action. While we tend to contrast words and deeds, Austin makes a compelling case that words are acts and that acts take on their significance through the same operations that give meaning to language. Austin lets us extend Saussure’s linguistic theory to encompass terrorism and recognize it as a speech act, as a form of speech. We recognize terrorism within a system of possible actions because it is neither military action (it does not achieve tactical goals) nor criminal violence nor political protest. Terrorism is an attempt to effect change in the world by performing an act of violence that aims at goals beyond its immediate physical impact. The intended effects of any act of terrorism exceed the immediate physical effects of its violence, and that is how we know it is terrorism.

Austin lets us do more than label terrorism as speech. Austin’s theory breaks every speech act down into three discreet though simultaneous acts (Austin calls them effects of the action), and recognizing those different acts or effects helps us both to better understand a terrorist act like Friday’s rampage in Paris or Thursday’s bombings in Beirut and, more importantly, to judge our responses to terrorism as either continued effects of the terrorist violence (a contiguous extension of the terrorist act) or as legitimate resistance to terror.

Continue reading