Unbearable intersections: Blackness, Queerness, Gender and the anti-black State

*I have corrected details in this post after speaking with Rahzie. I apologize for mishearing parts of her story at the rally this morning and I acknowledge I should have checked my version before posting. mea culpa.

On February 23, Syracuse Black Lives Matter leader, long-time community activist and advocate for Black youth, Rahzie Seals, was beaten up by four men. Rahzie is a queer Black woman. She went to the mall with a friend to buy clothes for a friend’s funeral–another queer black woman who died suddenly earlier this year–and she was beaten up in the mall lobby outside of Macy’s department store, under bright lights and in front of a number of witnesses, none of whom did anything to stop the violence.

Calling her “dyke” and “lesbian bitch” a number of young Black men attacked her physically.  Just days before the attack, Rahzie had finished raising money to send Syracuse Black youth to see the opening of Black Panther on February 16-17. She had hoped to raise $3500 and ended up raising about $10,000. Rahzie is known, she has been in the trenches for years fighting for reparative justice for African Americans in Syracuse. The young men who slurred her and beat her ran away, and mall security was less than responsive or helpful. Rahzie’s friend got her to the car and they headed to the hospital. Rahzie’s head was bleeding and throbbing. She had trouble standing up. On their way to the emergency room, the police called her and instructed her to come into the precinct office for questioning. She did as she was told, but she required paramedics to help her get in the building, and despite her pleas and the pleas of her friends, the police did not release her for medical attention until they completed an interrogation. The victim was treated as a suspect.

Rahzie ended up in the hospital with a concussion.

It is clear to me that if she had been white, the police would have met her at the hospital. But of course, it is clear to me that if Rahzie had been white, those mall witnesses wouldn’t have been so passive, and the mall security would have been more helpful, and maybe those young men would not have targeted her.

The truly unbearable aspect of this horrible story, juxtaposed so tightly to the trauma of violent attack that it is hard to think them separately, is the non-choice, the unchoice Rahzie now faces. Should she press charges against these young men, boys whose families she knows? Should she offer up more young, black bodies to a “justice” system that regularly beats and abuses Black inmates, often submitting them to over 200 hours of solitary confinement? How can she? But should she refuse to press charges and let violence against queers go unremarked? How can she? Should she focus on the lethargy and illegalities of mall security and Syracuse police? She is terrified of them.

Rahzie’s very body is on the line and she feels the demands of an impossible calculation: pitting Black lives against queer lives, queer lives against Black male lives, women against men. It’s impossible. Rahzie wouldn’t, she couldn’t, articulate this calculation so starkly. Her voice stumbles and cracks as she tries to talk about what happened to her. Her blood flowed into the gap between identities that should be bolstering each other up, but instead are pulling each other apart. The intersectional particularities of this attack have laid bare the precarities of being Black, of being a Black woman, of being a Black Queer woman.

Rahzie’s utter vulnerability comes from two well-worn truths of American society: the lack of deep reparative justice in Syracuse African American wages, housing, jobs, and schools; and the excess of anti-black racism in the police system.

Know Rahzie’s story. Tell it. Advocate for justice for queer, Black, and female bodies in your communities, and protest police racism, brutality, and lack of accountability.


Willy 1er: The affectscape of grief


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  A few weeks ago, I watched a small French indie film, Willy 1er (Ludovic and Zoran Boukherma, 2016). Billed as a comedy, I find that at its core, the film is about loss and dearth. It’s about the loss that death brings screeching around the corner of your life, crashing into you headlong, and forcing you (limping and bloodied) to take notice. And it’s about the dearth of social connections born (that is, suffered) by society’s marginalized, almost like some sadistic sociological experiment that investigates how many robust relationships can be snipped away before The Human Subject simply goes mad.

  Daniel Vannet stars as both the title character and his twin brother, Michel. The brothers are corpulent, middle-aged men, mentally disabled, and living at home with their parents. They both work at blowing leaves and other yard maintenance at a local park, and Willy loves to watch Michel “make donuts” with his car by spinning round and round in the same direction. It is a simple life. We have to suppose it was too simple for Michel. One day he hangs himself.

Willy takes notice of this death by finally resisting his parents’ counsel. “I’ll move to the city,” he says, “buy a scooter, get an apartment, find some mates, and you can stuff yourselves!”

He does as he threatens. His mates are not, perhaps, the best choices, but Willy I is oblivious to social nuance. At his new job at a grocery store, he meets Willy II, a queer, and it takes Willy I a long time to befriend Willy II and then to understand why his “mates” don’t accept this newcomer to the group. Willy I and Willy II are a different sort of twin. Their shared name only draws viewer attention to the ways in which they share an affectscape of isolation and desperation, and how they both cling stubbornly to small, even negligible, threads of certain identity.

What really blew me away, however, is how the Boukherma brothers generate ghosts as the affective correlates of the two Willys’ grief. A transparent Michel appears outside Willy I’s window, or stands beside him in the road. The ghost conveys the way in which death is carried physically, relationally, and bodily by the one who grieves. We see how that spirit-presence is only sometimes present, even while the grief-work is persistent.

  I wish I could find an image of the other ghost. Here is the scene of his arrival. Willy I is finally telling Willy II about his brother’s death. He talks of a suicide he can’t believe in because he can’t fathom it. It doesn’t make sense, he says. Willy II understands. He tells Willy I his own story, how five years ago he lost the boyfriend he’d lived with for four years. The boyfriend had been a cop, but the death was just a stupid accident. Something went wrong with the car. It doesn’t make any sense, he says, twinning Willy I’s words. The ghost of the boyfriend–the name is James, I think–shows up and looks tenderly down on Willy II. Willy I asks him if he’s ever gotten over it. No, Willy II says. You learn to live with the loss; that’s all. It doesn’t go away.

At the very end of the film, Michel’s spirit sidles up to Willy I on the street and chats with him. We see a ghostly car pull up, and Michel says, “Well, I have to go.” Words cannot transmit very well what happens here, but it’s as if in watching Michel’s ghost drive off in the car, we see Willy I’s grief drive down into his soul.

I’ve never seen a film treat loss and social dearth with such care and loveliness. The film is billed as a comedy (can you believe it?) but to me, its backbone is formed by these ghosts. We are haunted by losses we each carry in agonizing solitude, no matter how many times we tell the story; and yet, telling the story saves us by its salving connection. Especially for those society has already, with a thousand small snips, pushed to the margins, friendship becomes the material nourishment for learning to live with senseless loss.

The Shape of Water: turning the ethics of My Fair Lady inside out

Myths and fairytales are dangerous. It’s a lesson we’ve learned from Freud, Bettelheim, Levi-Strauss, and (as I have done most recently) Roland Barthes. Myths are dangerous because they scoop up social threats and ambiguities and throw them at us like a snowball. It is dangerous to treat with danger. Perhaps, like a snowball, the myth will break apart and dissolve the threat; perhaps it is the means by which danger is reconciled to the ongoing life of society. Barthes asserts something like this in Camera Lucida (# 11), and though he is speaking of photographs, we know from Grimm, from novels, from Hollywood, from music, really from every cultural endeavor, that myths labor against any perceived irruption or intrusion into social status quo. But it also is true that the status quo is stable (a “state” or status) only by means of lived concepts that are always also unstable (the capacious ambiguity of that quo, “in which”). This means that the nearly infinite content of myth always functions concretely and finitely—but also never completely—to reconcile a specific threat back to social stability, an intruding difference back to assimilated sameness, an unfamiliar, unheimlich outside back to the warm, homey inside. The labor of reconciliation proceeds through representation and therefore repeats the threat it strives to mute. But all of this is old hat, yes?*

  Indeed, the very title of del Toro’s film suggests this trivial lesson about myths and social concepts since water, of course, has no shape but takes on the shape of its container. Critics frequently cite the film’s final poem—a paraphrase of Rumi, it is thought—to suggest the pervasive presence of love, or of the divine, and the poem does suggest both of these. And it also suggests the pervasiveness of meaning.

We are literally awash in meaning but we require channels to receive and communicate it to each other.

One of those channels is narrative form. Even though Giles’s (Richard Jenkins) opening narration does not begin with “Once upon a time,” the cadence and content of his words signal immediately that this is something like a fairytale. We settle into our seats expecting a story about how huge, age-old categories, cultural promises, and social ideologies come to bear down on the lives and pains and deaths of very small, single, trivial, creatures. At the end of the film, Giles’s narration doesn’t hesitate to satisfy his audience’s culturally shaped expectation for “They lived happily ever after,” but then through that poem, he parlays it into a deeper comment about meaning’s fundamental relationality.

That this film teaches us about the omnipresence of meaning and the necessity of viable forms or channels to translate and interpret that meaning could not be made more bluntly, more obviously, than by making its star a mute. Elisa (Sally Hawkins) can hear but not speak and this singular fact radically defamiliarizes communication for us, that of both those who talk in the film and, profoundly, Elisa herself. The normal state of things—the status quo—is our human world of speaking and speaking-back (in both senses), but what Elisa’s quiet presence and non-trivial interventions in conversation index is the stark rarity of listening. To quote a song from My Fair Lady, most of the world around Elisa is just blathering “words, words words.” (“I hear words all day through, first from him now from you…”)

Elisa, I submit, is an inside-out Eliza Doolittle. Instead of a social misfit (lower-class)  who is appropriated by a linguistics professor (on a bet with a male friend) to learn the Queen’s English in order for her to catch the eye of masculine Imperial power, Elisa is a social misfit (a mute) who attunes her friends and us to the unhierarchized joys of the world’s profusion of dialects. There is American Sign Language, of course, but also the dialects of neighborly care, of friendship with co-workers, of Hollywood musicals and Bible epics, of painting, of recorded music, of dance, of eggs and pie and other culinary arts, of touch, and (if I can stretch your patience, but I really do want to call this a dialect) of self-care, the self-constitutive syntax of daily routine.

Dialect just means a form of speaking. Dialects are subsets of a language, a term too loaded for me to define here, but in this film, it clearly has something to do with American English in 1950s Baltimore. The film offers other dialects, then: General Hoyt’s (Richard Searcy) dialect of American military power, Richard Strickland’s (Michael Shannon) appropriation of Norman Vincent Peale’s dialect of the power of positive thinking, Dmitri (Michael Stuhlbarg) and Mihalkov’s (Nigel Bennett) Cold War antics (complete with poetic passwords, flashlights, and untranslatable words like “butter cake”), and another use of the bible, this time channeled through a Foucaultian technology of language that establishes the White male norms of Cold War America, particulary aimed at the only prominent Black character, Zelda (Octavia Spencer). Strickland’s casual insertion of White male normativity into the imago dei story, for instance, is not socially, practically distant from his sexual attraction to Elisa in her very status as a mutant, a monstrosity (as he sees her) that might “squawk” for him during sexual intercourse (another kind of communication in the film).

By the time we get to that scene between Strickland and Elisa, the distastefulness of his harassment lies not only in the boringly predictable story of white male entitlement but also in the ugly smallness of his understanding of humanity. Humanism, that liberal periapt of the 1950s, shimmers with universality but behind its curtained facade it chewed up and spewed out anyone who didn’t assimilate to white, male, European values and comportment. The dialects of Strickland, the General, and the Russian bosses are status quo but not relational. Each puffs up the male ego, each claims the right to dominate, each shouts down, makes demands, and humiliates.

The only time Elisa “yells” is when she is desperate for Giles to hear her. She stomps her feet, hits him, pounds the wall. LOOK at me, she says. SAY what I’m saying. Touch my words with your tongue, touch my fingers with your eyes, touch my heart with your heart. Hear me.

Sally Hawkins in the film THE SHAPE OF WATER. Photo by Kerry Hayes. © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

Elisa shows us species being that includes and bursts through Humanism’s limitations. Indeed, expanding the concept of “living being”, of “valued life”, is at the heart of the message of this film and of the reconciling work of its myth. Consider this: we know from Giles’s opening narrative that Elisa is a princess. He tells us. And yet most of us still translated the lines on her neck into the scars of violent wounding, and not gills, into a traumatic past and not the identity and belongingness of an incomprehensible difference. The God-like creature is not assimilated into Baltimore society but instead rescues Elisa for a life of a divine connection.

The reconciling work failed. Or is it cast out of the screen to us?

  • I want to acknowledge Ken Derry’s helpful review of this film, “The Shape of Water,” in The Journal of Religion and Film, 21:2 (Oct 2017). Derry notes his ambivalence toward the film because of its clichéd tropes.

Mike Ott’s Lake Los Angeles (the Antelope Valley trilogy)

 This weekend I had the chance to watch Mike Ott’s trilogy about life in small-town desert towns north and east of L.A. The three films are Little Rock (2010), Pear blossom Hwy (2012), and the best of the lot, Lake Los Angeles (2014). Though all three films use the same actors, only the first two center on teenagers Atsuko and Cory (played by Ott’s co-writer, Atsuko Okatsuka, and actor Cory Lawler, respectively). As a study of teenage wasteland with the lost-hope twist foisted onto Small Town, U.S.A. by neoliberalism’s morbid indifference, Little Rock, and Pear Blossom Hwy are fine films. Intentionally annoying, they track closely these young people who are going nowhere and have nowhere to go.

Lake Los Angeles is different. Starring a character who was present but backgrounded in the first two films, the Cuban laborer, Francisco (Roberto Sanchez) and a youngster new to the trilogy, Cecelia (Johanna Trujillo), this film nails the texture and tonality of a poverty and precarity wrought by the cruel and greedy economic scaffolding of our country. The expansive long shots of the merciless desert; the hazy, smoky, foggy shots that close around Franciscolike a shroud; the silent night-time scenes in abandoned homes where Cecilia finds unstable shelter–these do not simply express an inner despair but also underscore and exemplify structural isolation. They instantiate Francisco’s inability to be the man he was in Havanna and Cecilia’s inability to be the little girl she was with her Mommy in Mexico. Their shared lack of English, money, and a green card renders them each, differently, invisible and illegible to American society.

This is an invisibility and illegibility that doesn’t even make it to the level of micro-aggression. Francisco seems to fold into his cigarette and the haze around him. Cecilia befriends a dog she named Panchito and whispers stories of her life to an old Sailor Man inside a snow-globe.

Francisco will work at anything. We see him cleaning out houses scheduled for demolition, shoveling horse manure, and doing yard work for a wealthy suburbanite. He also assists Adria (Eloy Méndez) shelter undocumented Mexicans until he can gather enough money from their U.S. contacts.   Each time Francisco and Adria meet, Francisco anxiously tells him it’s too many people, or they’ve stayed too long, or he doesn’t have enough food to feed them. He seems unwilling to do this work but does it for the money he sends back to Cuba for his wife and two sons. Cecilia stands out to him because she arrives with no other family. She is supposed to meet her father–or that is the story Adria tells Francisco.

Francisco calls her kitten and worries over her. We viewers do too.

The film is the story of their lives and families, mostly as they are lived in loss and disjunction, in heartbreak and barely missed violence. Ott succeeds in conveying the grain of “this part that has no part,” as Rancière would say, because the camerawork is patient, the tonal palette is somber and just varying enough, and because the soundtrack is not overdone.

One moment remains with me. Francisco asks his suburban boss if he can go inside the house to use the bathroom. Sure, you know the way, the white man replies. But instead of the bathroom, we see Francisco pace slowly around the living room, looking at the paintings and photographs and art objects. He sidles up to the piano and plays a few notes with one hand, pressing just three or four keys. “I’m still in here,” he says softly to himself before his boss calls to him to come back to work. “Estoy aqui, boss,” he calls.

I’m still in here; I’m here. The split is rendered perfectly, and so subtley you might miss it. But it’s that moment, in the bright light and green lawn of suburban America, that I best understood the darkness, haze, and emptiness of the rest of the film.


Feeling the brain feeling the cranium: Didi-Huberman on skulls and sculpture

  In this elegant 2016 meditation, Didi-Huberman considers how artists have considered the human state of being (l’état être) both a brain and a thinking animal. He begins with three pithy and poignant metaphors: Paul Richer compares the brain to a bony box; Leonardo da Vinci schematizes it as an onion, and Albrecht Dürer likens it to a snail’s swirling track. Richer’s box raises the question of interiority, a question that steps over the external forms of anatomy in order to peer into the “folds” of thought. “To open this box,” Didi-Huberman writes, “is to risk losing one’s head” (12) because it forgoes the certainties of external form in the attempt to sense interiority (to feel the brain, to feel thought). Da Vinci dives into these folds. His “culinary” metaphor suggests an equivalence between form and content. As Didi-Huberman writes (and as every cook knows), “with the onion, the outer skin is the core” (20). Thus, da Vinci introduces a fundamental ambivalence between surface and depth, between exterior and interior. Such ambivalence is intensified in Dürer’s mathematical “transfer method,” which uses Euclidean geometry to tackle the problem of drawing an object (a body, a form) from many sides as if one were walking around it. Dürer aims at greater control over space, but in showing the movement or displacement of space, he also “inverts the foundation of visibility itself” (25), anticipating (as I see it) cinema, surrealism and science fiction. Plural perspective galvanizes a reach toward the unimaginable in what Didi-Huberman conceptualizes as “a kind of excavated anthropomorphism” (26).

These three metaphors (box, onion, snail) are the material set-up of Being a Skull, whose argument really takes off with the next chapter, Être aître. A homonym to “being”, aître used to mean “an open space” such as a porch or passageway, and then came to mean “a free and open terrain” such as would be used for a cemetery. Later, the term came to imply “the internal disposition of various parts of a habitat” and finally, “it ended up signifying the intimacy of a being, his inner depths, the abyss itself of his thought.” Thus, when a linguist discusses “aîtres of language”, Didi-Huberman explains, such a scholar is referring “to the ‘nascent state’ of language, of thought–this singularity that the poem, the work of art, proclaims each time” (38-39). This “nascent state” of language continues to exude the “dispositions” of habitat and “open” breezeways of field or corridor, however. In other words,  Didi-Huberman positions aître as the fold between affect and affect, between sensation and emotion, between exteriority and interiority. The term tensely harbors the vibrating vectors of material sensation and immaterial sensibility, surface and depth, place as felt and thought as felt.

* To Didi-Huberman, Dürer’s portrait of Jerome is a dense symbol of this aesthetic problematic that maps the relations between the tactile site (the skull) and the site of thought (the head or brain). Each axis of this problematic is tapped by an index finger of the Saint. If a line were drawn between Jerome’s right and left hands it would transect the fleshy brain in a clear demarcation of mortality, finitude: I who think am this, this dead object, this skull. And yet we also can describe a line from the skull in the foreground to the crucifix in the background, an index of the gift and grace of redemption, that is, the possibility that I am not this skull because the site of thought, the soul, will transcend its tactile site in eternal life. Didi-Huberman reminds us that the human skull at the foot of the cross is an artistic shorthand: “this skull is generally viewed as the skull of Adam himself. It is the human chalice that collects the divine blood, the chalice of sin that collects the flux of its future redemption” (35). This theological fact is doubled by the tactile fact that the site of Crucifixion is Golgotha, the place of a skull.

The author is not a theologian, however; he provides this lesson in Christian art to make a philosophical connection between matter, mind, and temporality. On the one hand, an object is just an object. On the other hand, it is evidence of its coming-into-being, its aître. To flesh out this claim, he turns to the sculpture of Giuseppe Penone a man who is interested in what Didi-Huberman calls the “material ontogenesis of form” (46), a practice intensely self-reflective on process, so that it is not simply vitalist (natura naturans) but channeled through the empirico-immaterial sites of thought, the nascent state of matter and mind, or what Didi-Huberman suggests is sculptura sculpens (50-51).

** With Penone, the Christian relation of time and eternity is translated into the relations among matter, thought, and time. “How does sculpture …disrupt our familiar spaces, disrupt our insides, ‘touch’ us with places, the aîtres it invents?” This question leads Didi-Huberman to other metaphors: being a dig, being a fossil, being a leaf. Each of these words becomes an image for thought, an image of thought. Each conjoins the practices of sculpture and philosophy as affective practices, the sensory touching of the world that moves us to reflect further on the thought, on what matter thinks, on what the brain and psyche know and don’t know about the material substrates of their human signatures on the world. Consider, for instance, Penone’s large charcoal drawings on unwoven fiber of the filigreed insides of human eyelids:


“In front of these works,” Didi-Huberman writes, ” the sensation of place envelops us within invisible space like a landscape, which because of this fact then haptically envelops [environne] our brain, within the blind gangue of our cranial bone.”

I didn’t know the word gangue. It refers to the commercially valueless stuff surrounding, encasing, the commoditizable ore. Showing, in the end, how the question human being is never extracted from questions of profitability.




*[Albrecht Dürer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons]

** Penone cited in Germano Celant, Guiseppe Penone, trans. into French by Anne Machet (Milan/Paris: Electa-L. and Durand-Dessert, 1989), 17. Picture from Being a Skull, p. 51.

***See also Being a Skull, p. 76.


Debaise, Whitehead and Feeling: The Ontology of Valuation

  Between the two world wars, a rather brilliant mathematician turned to questions of metaphysics. Alfred North Whitehead, known best for his 1929 text, Process and Reality, spent the 1920s, and even earlier, worried about the status of scientific knowledge and propelled by his sense that valuation is not a subjective intrusion into scientific objectivity, but an ontological category salient to all life.

Valuation is an odd word. In everyday use, it might connote economics (setting a price? speculation on the futures markets?) or arcane moral systems (adjudicating ethical merit? pursuing virtue?) or even crass utilitarianism (determining pragmatic usefulness? deciding if a thing brings us joy?) In each of these examples, valuation  implies human agency. It is an act by someone that demarcates and ranks the world by denominating values. Didier Debaise’s careful and extended interpretation of Whitehead argues against all of this. For him, for Whitehead, value emerges from vectors of interest and importance, and subjectivity has to do with association and novelty, not agency.

I admire Debaise’s recently translated, slim volume, Nature as Event: The Lure of the Possible. Like Deleuze’s svelte text, La Philosophie Critique de Kant (1963; translated as Kant’s Critical Philosophy: The Doctrine of the Faculties, 1984), an incredible text that articulates and reframes Kant’s three Critiques in a compressed and elegant 75 pages, Debaise constellates Whitehead’s texts on Nature and subjectivity in an impressive, compelling, and mere 86 pages.

Debaise at first seems most concerned to differentiate Whitehead’s critique of bifurcation from a critique of dualism. Dualism, he says, derives from an already accomplished bifurcation, that between primary and secondary qualities (cf. Debaise, 14). To critique this bifurcation is also to critique the “simple location” of things (19) that forms one of the basic premises of the scientific method. Simple location–the notion that my coffee cup is right here in a graphable place in space and time–is an abstraction, Whitehead asserts. It is a useful abstraction, to be sure, but it is not real. To think of things existing at specific points in space-time exhibits what Whitehead famously called “the fallacy of misplaced concreteness.” The cosmos is not a sprawling mass of assorted things and times but an ongoing pulse of becomings from which science can abstract its reified and limited knowledge.

Whitehead calls the ongoing pulse of the cosmos feeling. The word is used in its doubled sense as both touch and e-motion. An older and simpler way of referring to this doubled sense of feeling is affect. The cosmos is full of actualities (“actual entities”) that feel (are affected by) the world around them and react to (e-mote, move out toward, valuate, or affect) it. Whitehead uses the technical language of “prehension” for this ongoing, evolving feelingness of the cosmos but I like to image the process as an ongoing systole and diastole of sensate sensuality (or sensual sensation) that is not (yet) sentient.

Valuation in all of this links tightly to what interests an actual entity–what is important to it–and this Whiteheadian insight bears much in common with Silvan Tompkins’ focus (in his much more human-oriented psychology) on the primacy of protensive interest in shaping the affective-cognitive psyches of children. (Shame for Tompkins, you will remember, is simply the act of punishing or stopping an interest that cannot not be felt.) Every actual entity feels the cosmos and reacts/responds according to what is interesting or important to it, Whitehead asserts. In this sense, everything is a subject, but this is not the same as saying everything is a psyche or a consciousness.

Debaise clarifies this last point because he is concerned to understand Whitehead’s obscure sentence in The Concept of Nature that “apart from the experiences of subjects there is nothing, nothing, nothing, bare nothingness” (39). What might seem like sentience or agency in this appeal to subjects is better understood as the capacity of actual entities to grow and change, a process that requires the ingression of what Whitehead terms “eternal objects.” These are aspects of reality that Deleuze describes as “pure virtualities that come to define the novelty that they carry within events” (64).

I will forego a technical explanation here, but the combination of prehension (the feeling of and by actual entities) and ingression (the insertion of novelty through eternal objects) constitutes the infinite variety of life that Whitehead and Debaise term “manners” of being.

Manners of being are connected to the scale of life or to the societies of actual entities that constitute an individual. The spider and I, for instance, share the same space in this room but we have vastly different milieux that interest us and affect us. We feel (prehend) the same cosmos, but we feel (value) it differently.

Debaise writes, “Whitehead’s gesture consists in making feelings the most fundamental characteristic of nature, rather than a supplement added on to it. The aesthetic becomes the site of all ontology; it is the plurality of manners of being, manners of doing, capacities to be affected, in a word, the modes of ‘feeling’ that are at the center of a theory of the subjects of nature” (58).

The takeaway of Debaise’s careful analysis is a robust and persuasive understanding of the ontology of affect, and affect as valuation–the feeling of the world in its allness and being moved by it according to what is of interest and importance to the societies we are and are becoming.

Civilization and Barbarity in Dunkirk and Grand Budapest Hotel

At the end of his New Yorker review of Dunkirk (Christopher Nolan, 2017), Richard Brody comments on format. If this movie is “not seen in enveloping and engulfing and body-shaking scale,” he writes, [it] may be nothing at all.” I start with Brody’s ending because I saw Dunkirk on a tiny airplane-seat screen as I was hurled halfway across this planet. Indeed, the film was to me barely more than nothing at all. At the end of it, I wondered what all the fuss had been about. Here is a war film, yes, giving way to massive scale, underscoring (and musically scoring) high stakes, tracking closely the small grain of young and vulnerable lives, each one a name, each one someone’s boy. It is a film about brutality and chance, about valor and menace, about the surreal feeling of walking among corpses and feeling one’s life acutely.

And yet, I didn’t feel much of anything. I barely retained the names of the few men singled out by the camera for focus amid the throngs, and their names were just about all I knew of them. Who these men are in the events that catch them up like a riptide seems to matter not at all, only that they are indeed caught up and are forced to react, respond, in a kind of mammalian need, frenzy, or determination. Perhaps we can view this as a different kind of bare life from that foregrounded by Agamben, a bare life of military men who repress their humanness in order to function as obedient cogs, or at least as animals insistent on survival–anything but persons. Saving Private Ryan, this is not. The film did not elicit heart-pumping questions about a people’s right to self-determination, or just war, or the inevitable moral compromises wrought by the brutalities of war. Instead, I just felt war’s stupidity. I felt it a man-made and man-run thing, a bizarre and relentless brutality that reframes civilization as, itself, merely brutal. In the end, I found Dunkirk the most non-dialectical and (I’m sorry, I really am) boring film I have seen in a long time. If the problem was the tiny airplane-screen format, then I suggest that critics are giving far too much credit to the receptive affect of sheer spectacle (“Wow”) and not nearly enough to reciprocal and matrixed affects of engagement, bonding, personality, and story.

On the way back from the other side of our orb that continues to spin through a mostly empty universe, I finally watched Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel. I know, I’m really behind. But I found it an eery bookend to Dunkirk, or perhaps the latter’s Looking Glass Land opposite. Ralph Fienne’s M. Gustave is the full expanse of affective and effective personhood to Dunkirk‘s multitude of hollow men. He is the epitome of eternally cascading love that can be eternal precisely because he is so exacting about boundaries and standards. The opening scene draws the viewer into this robust dialectic and never lets up. Saying farewell to Madame D (Tilda Swinton), an elderly woman who loves him truly, Gustave’s words and gestures are both sincere and compartmentalized. Yes, he loves her–as he loves all the old, rich, blonde and female clients he beds during their stays–but he has a hotel to run. As he ruminates on Madame D and his need to attend to other women and other obligations, he finally focuses on his small interlocutor, Zero (Tony Revolori). M. Gustave is drawn up and taken aback. Zero is a thing out of place and must be dealt with! And yet Gustave’s response is not brutal, it is merely exacting and, in the end, he draws Zero, too, into his circle of love.

The brutalities of war engulf Gustave and the Grand Budapest Hotel as much as they took over the French coastline in Dunkirk, but unlike Nolan’s epic, Anderson’s film amuses me and moves me with its proper-improper tenderness. The entire film seems to me a Gedankenexperiment on whether one man’s insistence on the civility of a love-driven moral code can make a difference.

None of us is surprised that the answer is yes.

I am disheartened by the fact that we need (I suppose) films like Dunkirk, but at least such nonsense (in the literal sense of that word) can be counterbalanced by films that  demonstrate the slow accretion of positive, affective sediment by one man’s (and his protege’s) careful attention to detail–the details of flowers, itineraries, and sex; the details of gruel, marzipan, and closely-hewn gestures of loyalty and love.

Floating Feelings on the Sedimented Affects of Racism

    The time I have been spending lately at various community meetings is not “public scholarship” for me. I’m not even sure, really, how I feel about public scholarship, but certainly it does not (for me) involve making my neighbors into research subjects. Thus, whatever I say below is not about my co-citizens; it’s about me. I want to be very clear about that.

The context for my comments is this: too often, in the doctor and lawyer and scholar-on-the-hill contexts in which I typically swim, I hear poor persons explained and dismissed as uneducated, ill-informed, ignorant. (As Glissant might say, let me open a parenthesis here and bracket the fact that speakers of such statements are powerful cogs in a culpable system that keeps the poor poor in various but sadly unvarying ways, including a direct link between school funding (and thus school success) to property taxes, thereby consciously and unconscionably keeping the poor under-educated.)

My floating feeling is this: I am starting to suppose that positions taken by poor racial minorities are not explained by a lack of information or a misguided willfulness but by a bruised and tragically well-informed distrust of the White status quo.

As a White, educated, highly entitled citizen, I feel trust that the world is not fundamentally rigged against me, and this feeling is pretty well-founded. I could even say that my trust in the world is a path (S. Ahmed) my body uses to spool out into the world. So far, this well-trodden path has rarely thrown up reasons to distrust my trust. Don’t get me wrong, I do encounter rampant sexism and I have reason to fear rape and sexual assault. But the police officers who drive through my neighborhood wave at me and smile. If I wave them down, they will stop and help me or answer my questions. I don’t fear my doctors, I trust them to take proper care of me–and this trust has never been betrayed. My Whiteness exudes unthinkingly from my body and plashes about the world untrammeled. Like echolocation, my radiating Whiteness bounces off the world and confirms my ease of passage, my comfort, my basic humanity through a material semiotics (D. Haraway) structured and interpreted by the vibrations of my Whiteness against the world.

But I wonder what it feels like to be, to have always been, a problem (DeBois), that is, to have never not felt like a problem to the world. I wonder what it feels like to not even know to search for a place to stand to consider what it feels like to be a problem because it’s just what it is to be alive (D.K. Kim). A shrinking corporeal schema (Fanon) could well replace what I feel as trust.

It’s not that affects of trust and hope are absent, or that an open orientation toward the world is impossible. My floating feeling is that these very much are possible. But as paths that allow a body to spool out into the world, the affects of trust and hope and openness are gummed up, clogged, with the sedimented truths of surviving anti-Black and anti-Brown racism. In bodies always already coded as problems, the affects of trust and hope and openness are not absent but are re-routed through distrust, through a distrust that is deeper than words or beliefs or even habits. It is a profound distrust forged from centuries of bruising, from generational wounds of genocide, torture, and dehumanization.

What might seem ignorant or ill-informed is–this is what I suppose–a distrust born from crushed lives and lesioned souls. The question–especially for Whites who cling tightly to the premise that Reason is our best tool, that getting the story straight is most of the battle–is how such profound distrust can be matched? With what can it be matched?

Bidet’s “Foucault avec Marx”

 Many months ago, my colleague William Robert brought me back a book from his sabbatical in Paris: Jacques Bidet, Foucault avec Marx. Bidet is an emeritus philosophy professor at Paris-X and honorary director of the socialist journal, Actuel Marx. I hadn’t heard of him before William brought me the book, but apparently, Bidet is an important and persistent voice in the growing French socialist philosophical subfield that studies the co-thinking and co-implications of the works of Foucault and Marx.

I enjoyed the book, despite my sense that Bidet flattens the name (or what Foucault calls the author-function of), Marx, to refer simply to a specific critique of market economy. I suppose if we suspend critical disbelief and assume with Foucault’s teacher, Althusser, that for Marx it really is the economy in the last instance, then the argument is incontrovertible; but even without this critical suspension, I find Bidet’s argument worth pondering.

The center of his argument is a “metastructural” approach that posits a dialectic between the structural (market) pouvoir-propriété of the capitalist, which Marx emphasizes, and the nominalist (organizational) pouvoir-savoir of labor, which Foucault emphasizes. It would have been intellectually satisfying if Bidet had noted how this same dialectic operates at the level of the authors’ names—that is, how the use of ‘Marx’ and ‘Foucault’ are commoditized objects that sell a certain scholarly privilege by signaling the requisite structure of scholarly production, a structure that stands in dialectical tension with the use of ‘Marx’ and ‘Foucault’ as particular organizational practices that forward thought about certain and various socio-political conundrums. But even as it stands, and even if we disagree with a rather econo-centric Marx, Bidet’s arguments are smart and useful.

I found it helpful to translate the dialectic between pouvoir-propriété and pouvoir-savoir into that between the capacity to hoard or circulate matter (things, machines, money, real estate), and the capacity to withhold or enact various skills, (welder, seamstress, typist), practices (careful listener, never misses work, keeps a neat workspace, good at prioritizing tasks), and attitudes (obedient, respectful, flexible, affable). The first pulse of this dialectic is about capital, its ability to devour and to transform, and its vampiric tendency to suck life from labor in order to reproduce itself to the (material) profit of the capitalist-owners. The second pulse of this dialectic is about competencies, the necessary disciplining of bodies and time (of bodies in time) in order to reproduce the workforce for each day.

One of the most useful parts of Bidet’s argument, to me, is the way this metastructural dialectic between property and knowledge, or valued matter and affective practices transmutes discussion of class relations (relations, in French, which signify micrological, interpersonal relations) to class as a particular set of relations meshed or networked within capitalist society (rapports, in French, which signify macrological and structural relations). I appreciate this restatement of class struggle, because it reminds me that the problem is not just the manager who tells me, “smile and I’ll let you work here another week,” but also the fact that the manager’s manager and the regional cadre of managers, are all stressing to get their employees—under duress of losing their jobs—to smile more, and more genuinely. Very few are exempted from the material-practical dialectic of disciplined norms of life until one peeks at the very tippy top of society. Not the dingy factory room beneath the free space of civil society where workers bid their labor to employers as free and equal humans, and not even Mr. Moneybags at home with his wife and children, recharging for another anxious day of making money, but rather the low-oxygen eyrie of the likes of Donald Trump or a philanthropic celebrity, where cruelty or compassion seems squirted or oozed out at random and where the capacity to feel (much less what is felt) seems raw or alien, that is, unaffected by the matrix of valued matter and affective practices that catch up and bind down the rest of us.

Bidet’s more recent book is on neoliberalism. I am keen to read it.


White Supremacy, Christian Gifts and Misogyny in The Deerslayer

 [Illustration of Judith and Deerslayer by N.C. Wyeth]

Though James Fenimore Cooper’s 1841 novel, Deerslayer, is the last published novel about Nathaniel (Natty) Bumpo, it functions as a sort of prequel to the other four books in the series, the most famous of which is Last of the Mohicans. Set in the mid-1700s, Deerslayer takes readers through the protagonist’s first “warpath” with his Mohican friend, Chingachgook. As the Deerslayer turns from providing food to protecting territory, he comes to kill his first man and this dying Iroquois renames the youth Hawkeye in recognition of the sharp eye that killed him.

It is Indian nature, Deerslayer relates, to give names according to one’s battle skills. A reader might then expect that a white man who befriends a Mohican and takes up this Indian naming practice (preferring Deerslayer to Natty Bumpo) would model tolerance and co-mingling with the peoples who occupied this land before the English and the French. No, no. The cross-racial friendship serves principally as a foil for underscoring the radically different “gifts” and “natures” of the White and Red races.

Consider this early lecture Deerslayer gives to his beautiful but uncultured friend, Hurry Harry March:

“God made us all, white, black, and red; and, no doubt, had his own wise intentions in coloring us differently. Still, he made us, in the main, much the same in feelin’s; though I’ll not deny that he gave each race its gifts. A white man’s gifts are Christianized, while a red-skin’s are more for the wilderness. Thus, it would be a great offence for a white man to scalp the dead; whereas it’s a signal vartue in an Indian. Then ag’in, a white man cannot amboosh women and children in war, while a red-skin may. ‘Tis cruel work, I’ll allow; but for them, it’s lawful work; while for us, it would be grievous work.”

Deerslayer’s constant comments along these lines and indeed his rather perpetual moralizing were difficult for me to stomach in the current U.S. context of rising hate crimes and an unmasked, violent white supremacy that is framed as Christian and given official sanction from the President’s office. Annoyingly, everything in this novel is churned through racial difference. True, the perspectives are phrased in balanced sentences, as if the races are ‘separate but equal’, but really the words provide a clear catechism of reasons why white Christian settlers are more virtuous in gifts and nature and (sotto voce) why the WhiteMen merit this land and its resources more than do the RedMen. Most of the novel was a slog for me. I found myself sarcastically sassing the audiobook, and I felt utter disdain for Deerslayer’s priggish decision to turn himself back over to the Iroquois to be tortured to death.

Then, out of the blue, I found myself caught up in the action of the story. I tried to guess how Deerslayer and his white and red friends would work to save the virtuous young warrior from his Indian enemies. Finally, good will was built up toward Fenimore Cooper and I began to realize why his name survives the erosions of time.

And then the end.

Say what you will about the novel’s celebration of white supremacy and ugly efforts to keep American Indians in their marginalized place, white women still come off the worse. Poor Judith Hutter. No torturous death by heathen Iroquois (to speak the language of the novel) could be worse than the fate handed Judith by WhiteMen when Deerslayer refuses to marry her. God forbid the gifts and nature of Whites be compromised by the sexual improprieties of a lovely young woman who, having no guide into society’s sexual mores, followed instinct and WhiteMen’s proddings, and fell. How far she fell is unclear, but her fate is not. Abandoned by our hero, she hands herself over to sexual slavery in the house of an officer at the garrison. These officers are not the marrying kind, he tells a fellow soldier, thus informing readers that Judith will never have the social rank and security that comes from marriage and a family (not that those thin reeds relieve all anxiety). The novel stresses that her fate is just punishment for the crimes of her family:

“Time and circumstances have drawn an impenetrable mystery around all else connected with the Hutters. They lived, erred, died, and are forgotten. None connected have felt sufficient interest in the disgraced and disgracing to withdraw the veil, and a century is about to erase even the recollection of their names. The history of crime is ever revolting, and it is fortunate that few love to dwell on its incidents. The sins of the family have long since been arraigned at the judgment seat of God, or are registered for the terrible settlement of the last great day.”

White supremacy and White genocide of American Indian are propped up, also, by sexual violence against (white) women.