Thursday, September 18, 2014

Oppression and Thing-Power: Some Thoughts on Robin James' Thoughts on Vibrant Matter

I came into the world imbued with the will to find a meaning in things, my spirit filled with the desire to attain to the source of the world, and then I found that I was an object in the midst of other objects. -- Frantz Fanon, Black Skins/White Masks, p. 77

Robin James has two great posts up over at her place (here and here) on Jane Bennett's Vibrant Matter, and you need to go read those. It's fine, do it now, we'll wait.

Oh good, you read it? Awesome.

So, I started trying to write one long post responding, and that got unwieldy. So, instead I am going to focus on one argument in her post, and ideally I will go back and respond to other bits of James' post. However, if you go and look through my blog titles, you will see a lot of "Part I"s and very few "Part II"s. So, the likelihood that I get around to responding to every part I want to seems small.

So, before we go further, I want to say some thing about how I come to this topic. For a while now, I have been trying to think through four different types of philosophical positions. The first is poststructuralist positions found in thinkers like Judith Butler, Avital Ronell, Kelly Oliver, etc. The second is new materialist/constructivist positions found in thinkers like Isabelle Stengers, Donna Haraway, Karen Barad, etc. The third is decolonial and anti-racist positions found in thinkers like Maria Lugones, Angela Davis, Gloria Anzaldua, etc. And lastly the work of ecofeminists found in thinkers like Lori Gruen, Carol Adams, Chris Cuomo, etc. There are, of course, plenty of thinkers who fit in more than one of those categories (Spivak, Sara Ahmed, Stacy Alaimo, etc.). But the important part is that these four positions often exist in tension with each other, and I don't always have easy answers to those tensions. So, the goal here is to blog out loud about some of the different tensions that James' posts raises for me. One other preliminary point: I am not particularly interested here in some sort of defense of Bennett per se. So, occasionally James' posts seem to move from discussing Bennett and vital materialism, to indicating a criticism of broader understandings of new materialism. And I what I am trying to do here is try to mobilize some of the things I think are helpful or interesting from new materialism (including Bennett). So, this has less to do with disagreeing with James, and more to do with my trying to clarify to myself some of the tensions in my own work. And there is a lot I don't disagree with James about. For example, when James argues:
So while Bennett says “I cannot envision any polity so egalitarian that important human needs, such as health or survival, would not take priority” (104), I’m arguing, via Beauvoir, that precisely what we need to do is de-center the human in practice as well as in theory. And that will probably feel like “death” to those of us accustomed to having our health and survival more-or-less fully supported by the state, by capital, by patriarchal white supremacy, and so on.
I agree in advance.

On the issue of Ideal Theory/Oppression. 

Okay, there is a lot going on here, and I am having trouble with the argument. There seems to be two ways that oppression is working here. One is that oppressed people actually make less of a difference on the world, because of the structures of their oppression. The other concerns this word legible. That would seem to indicate that oppressed people make as much (if not more) difference in the world, it is merely that their difference is disavowed. So, if we take the concrete example given:
For example, women have always practiced creative arts, but for most of history (and arguably even still today) creative genres that were predominantly by and/or for women–needlepoint, chick lit, etc.–have been seen as something other than “real” or “fine” art (see Parker & Pollock’s “Old Mistresses” for an early version of this argument). Women’s work doesn’t really “count” as such–the situation of patriarchy prohibits them from positive development, so to speak.
Okay, so in this example women are producing art, but their art is disavowed as mere craft. This is why there are quotations marks around the word count, right? Because of course important art is being done by women in this example. So, if we mean oppressed people's differences are disavowed, it would strike me that theories that try to undo disavowals of who and what makes a difference would be at least a move in the right direction. So if we follow Beauvoir in saying that oppressed people are turned into things, doesn't the move to talk about thing-power mean that the productions of the oppressed become more legible? This leads us into the discussion of Ranciere's critique post-political consensus.

 Okay, so James makes the following comment after quoting Ranciere:
Universal envoicement actually is “not the liberation” from silencing but the “loss” (Disagreement 102) of political mechanisms for addressing oppression. In giving voice to all matter, is Bennett disappearing vital materialism’s constitutive outside (the out-out-side, so to speak) behind a claim for universal envoicement?
There is something to this, but what does one do with Ranciere's support for declarations of rights? If we look at his article, "Who is the Subject of the Rights of Man?," we see Ranciere supporting declarations of equality of anyone to anyone. Why? Because, to use a phrase from his On the Shores of Politics, it provides the part that has no part opportunities to create syllogisms of emancipation. The syllogism follows this way, This declaration claims we are all equal, this incident of oppression shows us not being equal, therefore something has to change to make us equal. In other words, universal declarations of equality are important because they allow the chance to produce the logic of tort, to force a recognition of the wrong to come to the fore. This, of course, is also a response to James' critique of the politics of exception. It seems to me that Ranciere would believe that a formal declaration of equality is better than a formal exclusion because at least we would have a better chance of recognizing the wrong in the latter. In the same way, I think that affirming the power of things and nonhuman actors provides us with a chance to recognize those beings who have been disavowed. What matters is refusing to close the political order, and staying open to the reality that our distribution of the sensible needs to change. That there will always exist beings that remain from any account, and that resist the counting order.

And that brings us to the amazing opening line of Fred Moten's In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition, where he writes, "The history of blackness is testament to the fact that objects can and do resist." In the introduction of that book, Moten speaks of "animative materiality" (p. 7) and "animateriality" (p. 18). I do not think it would be wrong to say that Moten is forwarding an argument that could be read as part of new materialism. I want to forward this argument a little more by looking at a passage from Moten's later essay, "The Case of Blackness." In it, at one point Moten is exploring the Fanon quotation I used as an epigraph to this post. Moten writes:
What if the thing whose meaning or value has never been found finds things, founds things? What if the thing will have founded something against the very possibility of foundation and against all anti- or post-foundational impossibilities? What if the thing sustains itself in that absence or eclipse of meaning that withholds from the thing the horrific honorific of “object”? At the same time, what if the value of that absence or excess is given to us only in and by way of a kind of failure or inadequacy—or, perhaps more precisely, by way of a history of exclusion, serial expulsion, presence’s ongoing taking of leave—so that the non-attainment of meaning or ontology, of source or origin, is the only way to approach the thing in its informal (enformed/enforming, as opposed to formless), material totality? Perhaps this would be cause for black optimism or, at least, some black operations. Perhaps the thing, the black, is tantamount to another, fugitive, sublimity altogether. Some/thing escapes in or through the object’s vestibule; the object vibrates against its frame like a resonator, and troubled air gets out. The air of the thing that escapes enframing is what I’m interested in—an often unattended movement that accompanies largely unthought positions and appositions. (pp. 181-182)
I'm moving too quickly to give the sort of attention that Moten's texts demand, but I would hope that it might be possible to understand an animative materiality. And this might provide a different way of examining the paradox of both a subject and an object, both a thing and not a thing. And it might also remind us that there is always a fugitive, haunted air that escapes in these vibrating objects.

Okay, two counter-arguments to what I wrote above (remember when I said I am just talking aloud about some tensions that I haven't completely answer to myself yet?)

(1) The movement to try and say, "Well, if oppression proceeds by turning marginalized people into things, then we should understand the power of things" reflects a similar problem that occurs in critiques of humanism within critical animal studies. So, in the beginning of Alexander Weheliye's recent Habeas Viscus: Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human, he argues that animal studies and posthumanism proceed as if Man is a category that all human beings have equal access too, and that the failure to recognize that is not the case undermines their arguments (pp. 9-11). Now, I think he is being a little too dismissive here, but I also think his main point is a serious one. If we look at the tradition of decolonial philosophers like Fanon, Wynter, C├ęsaire, and Maldonado-Torres we see some of the strongest and best critiques of humanism. We also see, however, a constant move to argue for a better humanism, as well. Those of us on the critical animal studies side are always wanting to say something like, "We agree with the critique of humanism, lets move on from there." And this is something I have talked about before (see, for example, here). I don't have a good answer, but I do think that any movement that does not take seriously questions of dignity alongside questions of who has the protection to be able to declare "I am an animal," or "I am an a thing" are going to end up in bad spaces. But, that is still not an answer.

(2) The other critique to what I wrote is linked with the post I made, "The Right of Obscurity Must Be Respected." Making ourselves more attuned to other beings also needs to take into account the sorts of violences that Glissant understood to happen under the idea of comprehension, and also respond to the problem of what Hartman class hypervisibility. There is a type of violence that can come from refusing intersubjective recognition, but there is also a type of violence that can come from refusing the right of opacity (of that air that escapes).