Bernard Harcourt is a Chaired Professor of Law at Columbia University, a long-time agitator against the death penalty and litigator on behalf of death-row prisoners, and also a well known editor of Foucault’s work and translations into English. In the final section of Harcourt’s massive new publication, Critique and Praxis (Columbia, 2020), Harcourt ably conveys the dire states of our shared world (politically, environmentally) and the urgency he feels to do something. The reader feels strongly–I think every reader will sense strongly–Harcourt’s struggle with the very terms of his feeling of urgency. Even so, he rejects Lenin’s highly situated charge, “What is to be Done?,” and shifts his injunction to the more limited and more humble question, “What more am I to do?”
This blog post cannot do critical justice to Critique and Praxis, not even to the hundred pages of Part IV that I read for a gathering of faculty and graduate students. Instead, I want to sit with the shift of Hartcourt’s shifting pronoun, and use it to think a bit about the genealogy of the “I” and the politics of agency and representation that are leveraged by its use or non-use.
By Harcourt’s account, one motivation for shifting from “What is to be done?” to “What more can I do?” was pushback from law students concerned about the casualness and consequences of speaking for others. Perhaps this is a valid caution, something like an anxious, furious insistence on the one contradiction that will, I assume, frame and constitute their entire professional lives. At the same time, however, I am skeptical about the pervasive, dense, and commoditized iterations of “self” that are seen and mandated in neoliberal U.S. society. Isn’t the refusal of a collectively-charged question (“What is to be done?”) simply a redeployment of neoliberal subjectivation? Isn’t it a refusal of the appropriation of the other in the name of protecting the mandate to self-entrepreneurialize?
I don’t want to feel this skepticism and resistance, and yet I do. Perhaps it’s because, first of all, it seems rather commonplace to avow that any “I” is always both more and less than itself. Do we not learn this from Foucault himself (and other post-structuralists)? Do we not learn this from Audre Lorde and other Black feminists and womanists? To me, one of the many stunning lessons of Lorde’s Sister, Outsider is precisely how her claiming and speaking an “I” is not the same as any white feminist “I”, that her “I” is collective, inter-relational and saturated with (haunted by) historical collectivities. Differently, and yet harmonically, when Foucault writes about his work with the GIP–as least what we can read of that activism until June 2021 brings us Perry Zurn’s edited collection, Intolerable: Writings from Michel Foucault and the Prisons Information Group (1970–1980)–he doesn’t use “je” but “nous” and “on”.
The very language of social urgency is collective. The very grammar of social transformation is plural and inter- or trans-subjective.
Second of all, I have just finished teaching a large chunk of Denise Ferreira da Silva’s Toward a Global Idea of Race to my graduate students. Silva’s book is hard. It musters and manoeuvers a new vocabulary for her “analytics of raciality” in order to show up and dislodge what she calls the “transparency thesis” of hegemonic subjectivity. Her premise is that raciality is persistently produced through the logics of a specific European epistemology and ontology. Because critics of modernity (postmodern philosophers, critical race theorists, sociologists of race, postcolonial critics) continue to use the grammar of this “ontoepistemology,” they continue to replicate the very thing they critique: raciality. Thus, racial others continue to be held on “the horizon of death,” forever killed without ever being completely eliminated. While Silva never quite denominates the “transparent I” as European-white-maleness, she does stipulate that the Other to the transparent I is “affectability” or those bodies rendered by and reduced to affectability. The transparent I she depicts is the Enlightenment’s and post-Enlightenmnet’s rational, self-determined, free consciousness that uses reason and science as tools for keeping the affectable other at bay, or extracting its matter and knowledge for the transparent I’s own use and benefit.
Silva’s argument was in my head and in my pedagogy when I turned to Harcourt’s Part IV and to the gathering in which we discussed it. Maybe this is why I found it distressing to sense no irony or self-distancing from the white, male, stupendously privileged “I” that Harcourt uses in the name of modesty. Although I do understand and really appreciate his desire to avoid appropriation of the other, what I don’t quite grasp–what I would have asked had there been the egalitarian space to do so–is how a Foucaultian (how a white, male, famous Columbia University professor central to bringing Foucault’s œuvre to the U.S.) could use “I” and not see that it, too, is profoundly appropriative, profoundly immodest.
We float on affects in affects that are historically dense and formative. We navigate functions in functions that torque the flows of power in ways each of us can only partially grasp, articulate, or resist. Whoever “I” am, it includes a massive cauldron of privilege and vulnerability that I did not “choose” and also cannot not choose, cannot un-choose. Whatever is to be done, is to be done on the commons that, as Ariella Azoulay puts it, we already share, but share violently–the fact of dispossessions that forms the contours of our marching orders (Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism, Verso). Whatever is to be done might well require a nagging, unending renegotiation of the “I” asserted by and in this work, as my “I” responds to the claims and critiques of those with whom I link arms. But we do link arms, we act as a plurality, a collectivity. We have to. The dying of the world is too urgent not to.