"Can't Truss It" - Notes @ The Limits of Justice

Last Friday, 8 November 2013,  I came across three posts friends of mine had added to our shared online scrapbook. My initial reaction was to comment on them directly. Had I done so, whatever in them reminded me of Facebook’s scrapbook quality would have been lost. Here is my attempt to bring it out also publicly. Post #1 - MI Police 'Pursue Charges' Against Homeowner Who Shot 19-Year-Old Black Woman Dead After She Knocked on His Door But in a 'stand-your-ground' state, will they stick? (see fulltext here)

Renisha McBride

“He shot her in the head, [and] for what? For knocking on his door,” McBride’s     aunt, Bernita Spinks said to the Detroit Free Press. “If he felt scared or threatened, he should have called 911.”

"Police also reportedly mislead the family about where McBride's body was found. According to Raw Story, they were first told that her body had been dumped near Warren Avenue, some blocks away, where it was later found by authorities. Police soon, however, recanted their prior statement, saying instead that the woman died on the home’s front porch"

Here we go again! This time around the law enforcement arm of the state (which is a name for the public authority) does not even want to allow the killing of Miss Renisha McBride to go before the court. The message to its middle-class-suburban-white[Latino]-homeowners is: kill them on sight/site! This is not only a way a silent legalising of segregation, to make Black People afraid of going into white-middle class spaces' this not only a silent authorising of lynching. 'Stand-your-ground' laws are indeed loud legal-moral authorising of both!

Post #2 - Interview with Lauren Berlant [LB] by David Seitz [DS] for Society and Space – Environment and Planning D (see full text here)

The interview is about Berlant’s very interesting approach to citizenship, which addresses its institutional and intimate moments. I found it revealing of how urgent it is that critical theoretical contributions also theorise racial power; that they go beyond the liberal view  of racial subjugation, which is that it indicates unfulfilled universality and freedom. In short, it reminds me that they need to be prefaced by critique of racial power, which is basically  the disassembling the liberal (transparent) subject, the one implied in the figure of the citizen, the legal subject, and which resists even in most seductive descriptions of the desiring and the feeling thing.

Basically my comments here are questions to the text. I in a way interview the interview, but my [DFS] questions are mostly to Berlant’s readers.

"DS: We have this commonsense understanding of citizenship as legally, juridically endowed. You’re also interested in the murky, the intimate and the banal dimensions of citizenship. And they’re obviously not unrelated. What first oriented you in that direction? What got you so curious about intimate life as a scene of citizenship drama?

LB: I was always interested in the relationship between law and subjectivity. As I was coming out, nobody was working on citizenship as a vehicle for world-building that had anything to do with sexuality, except allegorically. What really interested me was the relationship between conventional form and erotic attachment — people’s relation to the world, people’s need for the world to look a certain way. So I got interested in the history of the law’s orchestration of bodies, and I got interested in thinking about the ways that certain kinds of institutional forms held up the world, with respect to which people in everyday life were extremely incoherent. The same people can be authoritarian, libertarian, aggressive, passive, romantic, and unsentimental about citizenship: and then I realized that the same sentence could be written about love and attachment. I realized that the juridical object and the intimate object were more similar than they were different, because people want their objects to protect them, but they don’t want them too over-present. They want them to be transparent, but they want also to have them to be flexible and improvisatory. People make contradictory demands of the objects that hold up their world. That interests me. That’s the first thing."

[DFS: Is the transparent subject presupposed; does it defines ‘people’ who ‘want’ – it is the desiring thing?]

The second thing is I really do want to understand how to work with political incoherence, and I am irritated by the kinds of arguments that people use about certain kinds of voting blocs voting against their interests, since everyone has conflicting interests. For example, I could love the state because it delivers resources to a whole set of people not really caring about the specificities of who those people are, and I could hate the state because it tries to produce universal citizenship. Those two conflicting thoughts don’t make me psychotic: contradiction enables people to proceed wanting a whole set of things from their institution or from their object.

[DFS: Is this the subject of interest, with conflicting interest – the desiring subject, ‘people’ who ‘want’, is the utilitarian subject?]

"[LB:] Also, if you work on political emotions, one of the things you have to deal with all the time is the pedagogy of emotion. Aesthetics is one of the few places we learn to recognize our emotions as trained and not natural. Fear is natural, but the objects that make you afraid emerge historically. You get entrained by the world. When you’re born, all you want is food, and by the time you’re eight, or by the time you’ve been in primary school for awhile, or whatever, you have feelings about citizenship, you have feelings about race, you have feelings about gender and sexuality. You’ve been trained to take on those objects as world-sustaining perspectives. That interests me. So for you, what looked like a conflict between institutional attachment to the world and intimate models of attachment are not to me in conflict at all but are a part of the problem of imagining and living attachments to lifeworlds. (…)"

[DFS: Here is where I became particularly worried about the lack of a theorizing of racial power. I am not saying that Berlant should have done it in this interview. What bothers me is her distinction between ‘natural’ emotions (fear in particular) and their ‘historical’ objects. Of course, I am biased towards continental philosophy, thus suspicious of a distinction between the ‘natural’ subject (non-rational interior thing) of emotions, the one Kant has placed outside the scene of morality and Herder at its centre and whatever is placed on the side of the (‘historical’) object. I am suspicious because here is precisely where the liberal account of racial power has placed the ‘problem of race relation’ and the solution to it. I really don’t care for ‘feelings about race’. I don’t care because these feelings are what defense lawyers work with in court cases to build their clients’ claim to self-defense when they kill unarmed black persons. The problem is this positing of race on the side of the object. For the subject who has ‘feelings about race’ is a racial subject; hence, race is constitutive of it and not a historical object towards which it has feelings.]

“LB: A relation of cruel optimism is a double-bind in which your attachment to an object sustains you in life at the same time as that object is actually a threat to your flourishing. So you can’t say that there are objects that have the quality of cruelty or not cruelty, it’s how you have the relationship to them. Like it might be that being in a couple is not a relation of cruel optimism for you, because being in a couple actually makes you feel like you have a grounding in the world, whereas for other people, being in a couple might be, on the one hand, a relief from loneliness, and on he other hand, the overpresence of one person who has to bear the burden of satisfying all your needs. So it’s not the object that’s the problem, but how we learn to be in relation.”

[DFS: But if the subject is only constituted as such in relation to an object – with Lacan, if the subject is indeed an effect of desire (which is a desire for an object) – then what is this learning “to be in relation”? What learns to be in relation? Does the subject precede the relation? Does the subject pre-exist the relation with the object (which is historical, sexual, whatever, but always exterior to it? Does the subject that learns (in whichever way it does) knows itself as such, and hence can learn to be in relation differently? Does this subject know itself without/before being in relation to an object, any object? If so then this subject is transparent, a natural thing with/of emotions, which it attaches to objects that it meets along the way? Isn’t this the liberal (transparent) subject, the first casualty of any critical understanding of racial subjugation?

Post # 3 - Dud of the Week; 12 Years A Slave reviewed by Armond White for CityArts (see full text here)




“For commercial distributor Fox Searchlight, 12 Years a Slave appears at an opportune moment when film culture–five years into the Obama administration–indulges stories about Black victimization such as Precious, The Help, The Butler, Fruitvale Station and Blue Caprice. (What promoter Harvey Weinstein has called “The Obama Effect.”) This is not part of social or historical enlightenment–the too-knowing race-hustlers behind 12 Years a Slave, screenwriter John Ridley and historical advisor Henry Louis Gates, are not above profiting from the misfortunes of African-American history as part of their own career advancement.
But McQueen is a different, apolitical, art-minded animal. The sociological aspect of 12 Years a Slave have as little significance for him as the political issues behind IRA prisoner Bobby Sands’ hunger strike amidst prison brutality visualized in Hunger, or the pervy tour of urban “sexual addiction” in Shame. McQueen takes on the slave system’s depravity as proof of human depravity. This is less a drama than an inhumane analysis–like the cross-sectional cut-up of a horse in Damien Hirst’s infamous 1996 museum installation “Some Comfort Gained From the Acceptance of the Inherent Lies in Everything,””

“Some of the most racist people I know are bowled over by this movie. They may have forgotten Roots, never seen Sankofa or Nightjohn, disliked Amistad, dismissed Beloved and even decried the violence in The Passion of the Christ, yet 12 Years a Slave lets them congratulate themselves for “being aghast at slavery.” This film has become a new, easy reproof to Holocaust deniers. But remember how in Public Enemy’s “Can’t Truss It,” pop culture’s most magnificent account of the Middle Passage, Chuck D warned against the appropriation of historical catastrophe for self-aggrandizement: “The Holocaust/ I’m talkin’ ‘bout the one still goin’ on!””

I haven’t seen the film. I will most probably not see it at the theater or on TV. From what I gather there seems to be some controversy out there about the film itself and about this review. I am not really interested in that. Though I share the question Armond White raises, which is about the significance of that stories of black suffering have become a choice of Hollywood’s profit-seekers in the wake of the media announcement (with Obama’s election) of a postracial moment. I wonder how they play – the signifying role they perform - when contrasted with news of ghetto violence in Chicago (see here John Marquez’s formulation of the concept) and legal decisions (in court in Trayvon Martin’s trial case, and in the streets by law enforcement agents as Dearborn Heights cops) that authorize and render just the killing of young Black people. With Saidyia Hartman, in her field-changing book Scenes of Subjection (see here), I find that tales of black suffering, which fail to situate it in the context racial (state or state-authorized) violence, in which it constitutes an effect of political violence, compound this very racial violence by presenting suffering as something that it intrinsic to Black folks’ trajectory and not one of the many ways the state (as a juridical and an administrative entity) works with capital.

To the liberal subject for whom (Hegel has claimed) it is only the formal actualization of his/her freedom (self-determination), the state may be an object – of the kind theorized by Berlant, something exterior, that is a source of desire, something that can be used, appropriated, towards achieving one’s goals or satisfying needs.

To Renisha McBride, her family, her friends, and millions of Black youth, the state has a different kind of exteriority; it is no object of intimate attachment because, before Black youth, it only presents itself as a deadly enemy – We “can’t truss it!”