Monday, February 17, 2014

Feminist, Toxic, Vampiric, Killjoys to the Rescue: Resilience and Perception in James and Ahmed

Two blog posts today that work well together, and I suggest you read them.

The first, from Robin James, "Toxic: on race, gender, and resilient labor on social media." (h/t Peter). The excerpts I am going to post from James and Ahmed do not excuse from actually reading the original posts. Okay, as Robin James argues in her post:
A similar claim has been (in)famously leveled against “feminism,” especially “intersectional feminism”: it vampirically drains the lifeblood of the progressive, radical left. [...] Resilience is a specific form of subjectification that normalizes individuals and groups so that they efficiently perform the cultural, affective, and social labor required to maintain and reproduce a specific configuration of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. More simply, resilience is the practice that makes you a cog in the machine of social reproduction. [...] In both essays, feminists, especially feminists of color, are tasked with manufacturing the raw materials–negative affects like guilt or anxiety–on which “good” subjects labor, and, through that labor, generate human capital (e.g., radical cred, moral/political goodness, proper femininity, and so on). They bring us down so we can then perform our upworthiness for liking, favoriting, clicking, sharing audiences. Resilience is part of the means of production, and the “toxicity” of WOC feminists is the first step in this supply chain. Black women do the labor of generating the toxicity that then becomes the raw material upon which white women work; white women do the affective/emotional labor of overcoming, which then translates into tangible employment (writing gigs, etc.). [...] Social media is, at least in part, an affective economy of upworthiness. Resilience generates both human capital and capital capital (often in the form of data that’s sold to third parties or targeted advertising). It distributes gendered, racialized labor in very specific ways: white women overcome the damage produced by women of color, thus cleansing teh interwebs and making it a sparkly, feel-good place for everyone else…just like moms always do. This also produces a hell of a lot of money and privilege for white women and MRWaSP capitalism in general.

Now, as Sara Ahmed argues in "The Problems of Perception":
When you expose a problem you pose a problem.  I have been thinking more about this problem of how you become the problem because you notice a problem. For example, when you make an observation in public that all the speakers for an event are all white men, or all but one, or all the citations in an academic paper are to all white men, or all but a few, these observations are often treated as the problem with how you are perceiving things (you must be perceiving things!). A rebuttal is often implied: these are the speakers or writers would just happen to be there; they happen to be white men but to make this about that would be to assume that they are here because of that. And so: by describing a gathering as ‘white men,’ we are then assumed to be imposing certain categories on bodies, reducing the heterogeneity of an event; solidifying through our own description something that is fluid. For example: I pointed out recently on Facebook that all the speakers for a Gender Studies conference were white. Someone replied that my statement did not recognise the diversity of the speakers. When perceiving whiteness is a way of not perceiving diversity, then diversity became a way of not perceiving whiteness. [...]  When you perceive a problem your perception becomes the problem. [...]  This is why the feminist killjoy remains such a negative stereotype (we affirm her given this negation): as if feminists are speaking out because they are miserable; or if feminism is an obstacle to our own happiness, such that she is what is in the way (feminism: how women get in the way of ourselves). It is implied that you would become well-adjusted if you could just adjust yourself to this world. Smile! The task then becomes self-modification: you have to learn not to perceive a problem; you have to let things fall. [...]  What organizes this shock is the presumption that the perception is problem: that the perception is wrong. According to this logic, people have the ‘wrong perception’ when they see the organization as white, elite, male, old-fashioned. In other words, what is behind the shock is a belief that that the organization does not have these qualities: that whiteness is ‘in the image’ rather than ‘in the organization’ as an effect of what it does. Note the phrase ‘issues of perception’ again suggests that perception is the issue. Diversity becomes about changing perceptions of whiteness rather than changing the whiteness of organizations.  I think the final comment ‘there are issues of perception amongst certain communities, which are stopping them from reaching us’ is particularly suggestive. The implication is thus that the institution does not reach such communities – that it does not include them – because they perceive the institution as excluding them. The problem of whiteness is implicitly described here not so much as an institutional problem but as a problem with those who are not included by it.

Again, read both the blog posts in the full, but I am sure you see how these are working together. In both cases we see an explanation about how those who bring up problems are seen as the one who actually have the problems. Somehow the problems do not inhere in the institutions, the movements, the organizations and organizers (never the organizers!), but rather they inhere in those who notice and bring up the problems. At the same time, those who oppose 'the negativity' get to adopt an attitude. They get to be the ones who are free of ressentiment, they are the ones who get to be cool, who get to truly radical (or liberal, where that is not a dirty word). And I am in no way saying I am free of ressentiment, or cool, or truly radical. Indeed, are any of us? Are these the things you get to individually? And at the same time, you get such good scapegoats out those killjoys. Is the fact that you are exhausted because the movement/revolution/institution did not succeed in the way you would like? Well, that failure is because the killjoys are creating stumbling blocks. They aren't forwarding their criticisms privately or appropriately (constructively?). I have written about this before in vegan movements. The failure of the movements become excuses for purging ourselves of those who are not true believers. Who are not thoroughly in revolutionary solidarity and/or universal sisterhood/fraternity. And suddenly those vampiric killjoys become the reason that our will/desire is not strong enough to reshape the world. Is there really anything more fucked up than thinking it is women and/or people of color who are keeping you from having your revolution?

EDIT: I meant to link to this as well, but I just forgot. In addition to Robin James on resilience, you should make sure to to check out this post from Jeremy Crampton, which includes several citations and commentary. Very helpful.