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Todd May recently weighed in on L'Affaire Cogburn. In his comments, Todd May wrote:
As Foucault once remarked, one does not have to be sad in order to be militant. One can go further: a sad militancy is one of those ways the left has developed whose major contribution seems to be to increase our marginalization.Sure, I remember that, from his preface to the english edition of Anti-Oedipus. But May's interpretation here (and perhaps in Foucault's original stance), this assumes we know what joy and sadness are, and that they might be the same thing for the same people.
Let's look at two quick footnotes from Steven Shaviro's excellent book, Without Criteria:
This implies that Whitehead rejects Spinoza’s basic principle of conatus, the claim that “each thing, in so far as it is in itself, endeavours to persist in its own being,” and that this striving is “the actual essence of the thing itself” (de Spinoza 1991, 108: Ethics, Part III, propositions 6 and 7). For Whitehead, things strive not to persist in their own being, but rather to become other than they were, to make some alteration in the “data” that they receive. An entity’s “satisfaction” consists not in persisting in its own being, but in achieving difference and novelty, in introducing something new into the world. (p. 19, n3)And:
Whitehead’s rejection of Spinoza’s monism in favor of William James’s pluralism goes along with his rejection of Spinoza’s conatus in favor of James’s (and Bergson’s) sense of continual change, becoming or process, or what he also calls creativity. (p. 22, n6)We could potentially affirm that both are true, that for some joy consists in preservation of the self, and for others joy (or satisfaction) consists in difference and becoming otherwise. And all of this, of course, will change what you see as sad, or joyful, militancy. If you see joy as persisting in your being, than anything that seeks to change how that being interacts and relates, and anyone who seeks to create new relationships, can only be perceived as killjoys.
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I have written before about Sara Ahmed's provocative and compelling essay, "Feminist Killjoys and other Willful Subjects" (the essay was expanded in The Promise of Happiness, and, Ahmed has just published a new book entitled Willful Subjects). Ahmed wishes to "take the figure of the feminist killjoy seriously." She goes on to argue:
The figure of the feminist killjoy makes sense if we place her in the context of feminist critiques of happiness, of how happiness is used to justify social norms as social goods (a social good is what causes happiness, given happiness is understood as what is good). As Simone de Beauvoir described so astutely "it is always easy to describe as happy a situation in which one wishes to place [others]." [...] To be involved in political activism is thus to be involved in a struggle against happiness. Even if we are struggling for different things, even if we have different worlds we want to create, we might share what we come up against. Our activist archives are thus unhappy archives. Just think of the labor of critique that is behind us: feminist critiques of the figure of "the happy housewife;" Black critiques of the myth of "the happy slave"; queer critiques of the sentimentalisation of heterosexuality as "domestic bliss." The struggle over happiness provides the horizon in which political claims are made. We inherit this horizon. [...] We can consider the relationship between the negativity of the figure of the feminist killjoy and how certain bodies are "encountered" as being negative. Marilyn Frye argues that oppression involves the requirement that you show signs of being happy with the situation in which you find yourself. As she puts it, "it is often a requirement upon oppressed people that we smile and be cheerful. If we comply, we signify our docility and our acquiescence in our situation." To be oppressed requires that you show signs of happiness, as signs of being or having been adjusted. For Frye "anything but the sunniest countenance exposes us to being perceived as mean, bitter, angry or dangerous."You can see two currents here. The first is that the feminist killjoy, or more generally the activist killjoy, is the one who is constantly struggling against situations that are declared to be happy. The second current is that oppression often demands that the oppressed declare their happiness in their own oppression (we will return to this second current later). The first current allows us to examine May's original quotation in greater context. It comes as part of this whole paragraph:
To add another example, I know people whose general commitments I would call feminist reject that label because they see feminists as angry man-hating types who just want to make men feel bad. Now, of course, I don't lay all that at the doorstep of feminists. The right does an excellent job of slurring feminism. But I have had the experience of being language-policed when it seems to me inappropriate (ex. by people who would never have escorted women into abortion clinics, as I have). And I think this does not do us credit. As Foucault once remarked, one does not have to be sad in order to be militant. One can go further: a sad militancy is one of those ways the left has developed whose major contribution seems to be to increase our marginalization.The rather odd thing is the lack of transition that takes us from the discussion of feminism to the discussion of sad militants. He does not do the work to posit why someone challenging his discourse (even someone who lacks May's ethos), leads to sadness. But someone is sad here. Is it May? It is the feminist who "language-policed" him? There exists an ambiguity of where the sadness comes from, and who it is affecting. This leads us to this great blog post by Ahmed. In it, Ahmed argues that when someone points out a problem, it is often the person who perceives the problem who is then perceived by others as the problem. Another long quotation:
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. [...] 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.This last point from Ahmed is interesting and useful. Namely, there is something strangely perverse about the demand that people be joyful in intolerable situations. Of course, such demands for resilience are rather commonplace these days.
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Resilience is rapidly becoming one of the key ways of understanding present ways of governing the world. Robin James has taken up the concept of resilience in understanding how feminism and anti-racism on social media is seen as 'toxic' and 'vampiric.'
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.)This narrative of overcoming can be seen in the way that those who are concerned with inclusive language are labeled as policing language, engaging in newspeak, score-keeping, and political correctness. This posits those who are attacking inclusive language as being rebels, truth tellers, concerned about the issues and philosophy. And the failure of social justice movements get laid at the feet of those who want inclusivity. Yet, I really do believe both groups want to create joyful communities.
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The struggle to build communities that create livable lives is not an easy one. And I do believe that many complicated questions about how to go about building such communities are ahead of us. But, a lot of this discussion is centered around the notion of calling out. Let us look at Todd May's last paragraph:
This last bit should not be taken to mean that we should never confront people on their language. My point is rather that in the question of whether to confront, a little judgment is called for, and perhaps a little fellow feeling for people whose behavior actually puts them in the right (i.e. left) camp. It's one thing to call out a racist who uses an offensive racial stereotype. It's quite another to call out someone who aligns her behavior with a sensitivity to LGBT issues and, among a set of like-minded friends, calls something "gay." We are none of us moral saints (thank goodness), and, if our politics are in the right place, I think we can afford to let some things go. (To be sure, language can shape perception. But not all instances of it do.) And alternatively, we need to be aware that not letting certain things go is no substitute for committed political work.I want to address the last point, first. I am not sure how many people confine their only work to not letting things go on the internet. I am sure there are some. But because many of us primarily only meet each other in our words (I have only briefly met in person only one person I have cited or talked about in this post), it can seem like all we do is reflect on language. Building communities can never be about just getting the language right. I agree with May on this point. But I do believe if we are going to create the sort of inclusive and joyful communities we want, we have to affirm the right to be to those we include. And for people that society has systemically learned to unhear, unsee, and unknow (or to only hear, see, and know in particular pregiven narratives), creating spaces where different narratives can be understood is not a given. And sometimes it is going to require getting the language right. But let us look at May's other point, that we shouldn't call out people whose politics are in the right place, maybe the dialectic is not one of either calling people out or letting things go.
A comment on the original blog post by Cogburn written by "anonladygrad" suggested an article, "Calling IN: A Less Disposable Way of Holding Each Other Accountable," written by Ngọc Loan Trần and published on Black Girl Dangerous. They write:
Because when I see problematic behavior from someone who is connected to me, who is committed to some of the things I am, I want to believe that it’s possible for us to move through and beyond whatever mistake was committed. I picture “calling in” as a practice of pulling folks back in who have strayed from us. It means extending to ourselves the reality that we will and do fuck up, we stray and there will always be a chance for us to return. Calling in as a practice of loving each other enough to allow each other to make mistakes; a practice of loving ourselves enough to know that what we’re trying to do here is a radical unlearning of everything we have been configured to believe is normal. And yes, we have been configured to believe it’s normal to punish each other and ourselves without a way to reconcile hurt. We support this belief by shutting each other out, partly through justified anger and often because some parts of us believe that we can do this without people who fuck up. But, holy shit! We fuck up. All of us.I fully admit to having been called out (and called in) on all sorts of statements, beliefs, and behaviors in my life. Sometimes it has been over stuff that I still passionately think I was right on. Sometimes it has been stuff that was incredibly awful for to have said or done, and I have mumbled excuses and apologies, and felt more than a little shame. And sometimes, I have been called out on stuff, and been sure of my rightness, that I got very defensive. And it wasn't until later that I realized I was in the wrong. In general, I have been gifted with friends, colleagues, and mentors who have been incredibly generous to me. They have understood my mistakes, and have often called me in. They have put up with my bullshit, or confusion, or the sort of epistemic parallax that does not let me understand the weight and scars of certain histories, words, and knowledges. And because they are truly generous, they didn't just put up with, but worked to change me, and in so doing gave me the sort of joy and satisfaction that comes from difference and becoming otherwise. They didn't have to do that. Far too often we expect the most marginalized members of our society to have to constantly explain and justify the necessity of their existence. And I hope we can fumble together, to build different worlds, different futures, and different narratives.