Sunday, September 30, 2018

Human/decency

          My concern is that even if through some miracle of human decency (an oxymoron) Kavanaugh is not confirmed, there will inevitably be another candidate plucked from the Republicans’ long list of potential Supreme Court nominees. The political system in this way functions as a highly efficient and adaptive machine— no matter what adverse conditions may arrive in the political theater, the algorithm will always be able to produce a coherent and rational response in order to stave off destruction or defeat. 

I use the word “coherent” in particular because a base level of coherence and legibility is required of the subject that emerges within the political theater in order to be believed or even heard. Thus, if a subject is perceived to be incoherent, illegible, and therefore split, they are read in the political theater as ontologically tied to deceit, shiftiness, irrationality, and hysteria (among other subject-eroding classifications). The problem is that the category of the human has always been utterly divorced from decency and thus steeped in greed, vicious cruelty, exclusion, and abuses of power. I draw my critique of the category of the human primarily from Sylvia Wynter’s work on Man as an overrepresentation of the idea of the human and Tiffany King’s work on black fungibility and transformation. I am very interested in Wynter’s dream of the “re-enchantment of the human,” but for the purpose of this piece, I exclusively use the term “human” to refer to that toxic category of Man that Wynter articulates in “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being.”

 I use the word “rational” in particular to invoke a larger genealogy that surrounds the category of Reason, a fundamental concept that appears in various forms throughout philosophy, Christianity, critical theory, and science. To be rational is to make (common) sense—Reason is supposed to be something that we believe in and blindly trust, a concept that becomes dangerously entwined with whiteness and patriarchal power, something that Deleuze and Guattari investigate further in Anti-Oedipus. Reason is what makes Hegel’s philosophy of history “right”— that time is a forward moving progress narrative, that Spirit works to push forward the ambitions of “great men” (such as Napoleon, but not Toussaint L’Ouverture) for the benefit of mankind, that the “slaughter-bench of history” is actually a good thing, and that the “Negro” never had any history at all. I would also link the coherent/incoherent and rational/irrational binaries with the similarly dialectical relationship between order and disorder. In The Terms of Order (1980), Cedric Robinson lays out the relationship between order and disorder in the broader context of global political systems:

"I have probed the ideational structure which both bourgeois and radical thought share: the pre-eminence of political order. I have sought to expose from the vantage point inherited from a       people only marginally integrated into Western institutions and intellectual streams, those             contradictions within Western civilization which have been conserved at the cost of analytical            coherence." (Robinson xii)

           "Currently, at the centers of this civilization, what are now frequently referred to as the core-states: America, Britain, France, Germany and Italy, social crises are extensive and structurally quite deep. Paradoxically, that intelligentsia which has marked as its special province the explication of social organization, has in large measure ignored both the disruptive character of our times and         the fundamental nature of social disorder. Its members persist in the delusion that, beneath the     chaos, ordered systems reign administered by stable political institutions and fundamentally             resilient cultural and economic integrations. As such, the existential experience of the individual        is denied by resorting to an heritage as citizen of a politically maintained social order rationalized       by the authority of leadership. Greater social cohesion, we are instructed, is dependent upon better      leadership." (Robinson xi)

            If we use this framework, disorder is something that is no longer stigmatized—or rather, we can point out that disorder is identified as a negative because the dominant epistemology or world system needs the façade of order to maintain its grip on power. This opens up an additional discussion of how disorderly bodies come in and out of the archive and how disorderly bodies are represented in media, but that’s another essay. My point is that the Kavanaugh hearings and media representations of it rely on maintaining the façade of order quite a bit more than we are told to believe. However, maintaining order is not merely about railroading a keg-standing rapist to the highest court in the country. It is also about controlling the relations of power and conditioning those who are “minorities” (in this case, both those who are population minorities and power minorities in America) into limiting their political imaginaries and reactions to the field of the rational.

When I use the term “political theater,” I am referring to the events in American politics that are presented to us via the (corporate) news cycle and other forms of media, including social media platforms like Twitter and satirical expressions like Saturday Night Live. The particular use of the word “theater” allows us to think about how material political events are so often based in performing relations of power and identity formations (such as race, gender, sexuality, religion, ability, etc). Political theater is the production and reproduction of a series of codes that seem to be sentient but are actually artificially intelligent (I would be interested in thinking/writing more about the intersection of the posthuman, neoliberalism, and politics). 

The realm of politics is a space that generates the laws and norms that govern our lives. This does not mean that I am not questioning the sovereignty or legitimacy of the American State. In fact, I am doing just the opposite— when we abstract politics from the realm of the social, it makes it harder for us to articulate how historical ideas of discrimination and subjugation are materialized through laws meted out (sometimes by force) by the State. There is a symbiotic relationship between the existing power structures that benefit from racialized global capitalism and the realm of politics (an example of this would be Citizens United or the selection of a former Exxon-Mobile CEO—Rex Tillerson—to the position of Secretary of State), and it is important that we use that as a heuristic when attempting to read new developments in the political theater. 

What we see in the political theater via the actual events (such as Kavanaugh’s hearing) and in society’s responses to them (via Twitter and SNL) is only a very small part of the myriad operations (both overt and covert) by the American government. However, if we are able to use the precise tools to observe these developments in the political theater, I believe that it is possible to see the larger symbolism or mythology (Barthes again) at work in order to predict future theatrical and structural developments. The strategic chaos of the Trump administration colludes withthe 24-hour news cycle in order to generate feelings of panic, hopelessness,rage, and retraumatization in those on the left. Often, the immediate and primary response of the left to perceived brutalities performed by Republicans is to open up pain-driven, identity-based personal commentaries through the think-piece industrial complex.

The idea, presumably, is that we are supposed to group ourselves around this experience of shared trauma as a form of coalition building. The voice of this coalition is then meant to appeal to the humanity or decency of the offending Republicans in the hope of forming a more perfect union in which we are all recognized as civil subjects, just as the Founding Fathers envisioned (my sarcasm here is bordering on acerbic. One day I would like to write something about Barthes and the mythology of the Founding Fathers). Two years in, that is clearly not how things work, though the left shows no signs of stopping or developing an alternative and politically viable strategy. I think that a major inhibitor of the left’s ability to respond effectively to Republican actions is that there is not enough consideration of how we internalize the law and the sovereignty of the State in ways that we do not even realize. The law and the idea of sovereignty are just another epistemology, just like science or religion or philosophy. The pervasiveness of this epistemology within our lives is not an indicator of its objectivity or truth, but rather in its ability to enforce its supreme legitimacy through violence and various other biopolitical maneuvers. 

I find it useful to read the senate hearings and our consumption of it as a panoptic experience that, rather than aiming to uncover any kind of “truth” or “justice,” instead serves as a mechanism for passively disciplining the American population, particularly the left for our purposes. I place Senator Chuck Grassley in the position of the anonymous administrator in charge of surveillance, even though his identity is not explicitly concealed. I would like now to trouble the idea of transparency in relation to officials in the political theater. Yes, we certainly know Grassley’s name, biography, and voting record, all of which are meant to distinguish him from other humans generally and other politicians specifically. However, when one reads all of this specific information through the lens of Wynter’s concept of Man, Grassley takes on a level of opacity and ontological power that is immediately disturbing. Because his political beliefs and gender/race identity places him firmly within the category of Man, he also becomes a candidate to be taken up by Spirit (thinking of Hegel) in order to carry out a civilizing progress narrative and add more casualties to the slaughterhouse of history. 

Thus, in addition to chairing the hearings, his actions can also be abstracted to a larger task of maintaining Reason, coherence, and order through his physical body that has been imbued with political power by the State and “the people.” This is getting into chicken-or-egg territory now— are the senators in the hearing supposed to obey his doddering authority because he is chair of the hearing or because he is an old, heterosexual, rich white man? These two positions are inextricably linked within our public imaginaries and material histories. Even though we would sometimes like to imagine that we can “humanize” certain positions of authority by inserting people with marginalized identities, it is crucial that we recognize how these seemingly “objective” positions of authority are tied to the ontological power seized by the various iterations of Man throughout time. 

Order is the material form of Reason within the epistemology of the law. The fact that the Senate’s procedural guidelines (as well as guidelines used in debate, other levels of government, and many community gatherings) are called “Robert’s Rules of Order” is no small thing. Although Grassley is over a century apart from the creator of Robert’s Rules, he is able to use both his subjectivity and his political position in order to make these rules seem contemporary, coherent, rational, and legal. Thus, my issue with these hearings is not merely the fact that Kavanaugh was nominated, but also that there is an entire epistemological system that is simultaneously arcane and hyper-contemporary that is able to set the parameters of what makes a “fit” candidate for the Supreme Court (not to mention the fact that I would like to delve deeper and critique the legitimacy and fairness of an institution like the Supreme Court as an arbiter of “justice.” The fact that we aren’t even able to get to that level of discourse in response to these hearings is further proof of how these epistemological systems contain us and limit our ability to operate on different terms in the political theater). 

To make this more material, I turn to the CNN video of a small portion of the Kavanaugh hearings titled “Fireworks erupt at beginning of Brett Kavanaugh hearing.” Interestingly, in the video, Kavanaugh barely speaks. Instead, senators debate around him about the existence of unreleased documents regarding Kavanaugh’s record. With Robert’s Rules of Order firmly in place, Grassley does much of the talking in the video. But what he does is not as much talking as it is reciting code or performing an act of ventriloquization or divination. He reads off a prepared statement (written by whom we do not know), stumbling over words that seem unfamiliar but necessary. He is a puppet in a big suit, carrying out the long game mission of Spirit in the panoptic space of the (recorded) courtroom. Reason— like Deleuze and Guattari’s Oedipus—can inhabit many forms, and for the sake of the Kavanaugh trial, Grassley inhabits that shell, that armor.

 I pay much attention to the structure that props up Grassley because I am pushing back against the media’s sensationalization of Kavanaugh and his crimes. Yes, he is a terrible person who is probably never going toe punished for his myriad crimes. Yes, Kavanaugh’s existence as a serial rapist is representative of a long history of privileged white men who rape and use their power to silence victims. In addition, I think it is simultaneously important to understand how Order, Reason, and coherence persist as enablers and protectors of a violent patriarchal-political system. I specifically use the term “sensationalize” because I believe that all the corporate/24-hour news stations and print/online media want to extract a traumatized affective response from us in order to keep us feeling blindsided, sucker-punched, helpless, and utterly incapable of autonomous action that will have substantial results. Our entire contemporary media structure—with its paywalls, wine clubs, overpaid talking heads with ties to the military industrial complex, and sound-bite friendly panel screaming matches—is utterly dependent upon its ability to extract trauma from liberal/left audiences. They do this by sensationalizing specific identity-based crimes committed by the Trump administration without giving any substantial analysis of the structural causes or in-depth reporting.

So, we are culled into becoming panicked surveillers in the panopticon of the political theater. Ironically, the belief that we can lay claim to some kind of agency by obsessively consuming each sensational story is actually what reinforces the arbitrary epistemology of the law and limits us to performing only reactionary measures that are based in excavating our own pain to people (usually wealthy cisheterosexual white men) who are operating on an entirely different plane of ideology. Why did we ever think that Rex Tillerson, Steve Bannon, or “Mad Dog” Mattis would ever give a fuck about videos of Latinx children being abused in an American detention center? Their suffering is proof that their ideological trajectory is going exactly according to plan.

Circling back to the CNN video, I found it interesting to trace how different senators used the terms “order,” “decency,” and “minority” and how their interpretation of these words was received by the court (and by the court, I halfway-sarcastically am referring to Grassley. Though I do not believe him to be anyone’s objective arbiter of justice, I do believe that he and other like him wear that lie in order to bludgeon their opponents with the language of Reason). For the purposes of this piece, I am most invested in the performances given by Kamala Harris, Corey Booker, and Mazie Hirono. I select these senators not because I want to idolize them and suggest that they be sublated by the office of the presidency in 2020. Rather, I am interested in how their identities interact with Reason/the court/Grassley.

First, Harris raises the issue of the excluded documents, saying that there are “42,000 pages of documents that we haven’t had a chance to review.” He begins interrupting her almost immediately: “You are out of order. We will proceed.” In that moment, it seemed that Harris’ shallow induction into Reason (through her Senate victory) had run dry—now that she was “out of order,” she was eligible for the erasure, marginalization, and egregiously patronizing disrespect that all black women are forced to endure at some point in their professional lives. Grassley continues speaking over Harris even as she pleads that there has not been a sufficient opportunity to assess Kavanaugh as a candidate. Grassley spits over her appeal with a portrait of the Oedipal family—he drones about Kavanaugh’s “two daughters” and the handful of other people who give a rat’s ass about him. Kavanaugh smirks through the entire exchange.

Next, undeterred by Grassley’s blatant racism and sexism, Booker makes an “appeal to [Grassley’s] decency and integrity.” Booker then states that the events in the hearing seem to contradict the “values [Booker] has heard [Grassley] talk about time and time again.” In this moment, Booker formulates a pretty cut-and-dry liberal argument in the age of Trump—his argument is based on a mutual recognition of humanity and a belief in the myth materialized by slaveowning Founding Fathers in the Constitution. This argument is doomed to fail because not only do history and time exist, but they are also nonlinear—the inclusion of obedient tokens does not “modernize” the political theater as much as it enables its camouflaged existence in the present. In this moment, the ontological split-ness of Booker’s black body reveals itself when he confronts Grassley, the authority-imbued (but coherent and rational) puppet. Almost instinctively (or just the product of years of orderly debate), Grassley exposes this split-ness and calls on histories of anti-black racial stereotypes that depict black men as untrustworthy, swindlers, aggressive, and threatening. Rather than actually responding to Booker’s argument, Grassley instead says that Booker is “taking advantage of [his] decency and integrity.”

Then the screaming begins.

Their words are hard to decipher because they lack the privilege of a microphone, but it is clear that they are speaking in opposition to Grassley’s role in the proceedings. They are women protesters (mostly white, but I’ll give credit where it’s due), and the camera only cuts to their obscured bodies as they are being physically removed from the courtroom by police officers in the interest of maintaining order.

Hirono takes this disordered gap as an opportunity to speak. However, instead of inserting a different possibility of relation (aka something other than asking to be recognized or making an appeal to decency), she pivots back to order. She said that “it is regular order to receive all the documents that this committee is entitled to.” However, she unknowingly exposes how symbols of the epistemology of Order and Reason (like the Senate) are fundamentally incompatible with true equality and decency toward those in the “minority.” She says, “it is not regular order for the majority to require the minority to pre-clear our questions, our documents, and video we would like to use in this hearing.” Though she is not speaking in racial or gender minority/majority terms, the distinction takes on these connotations through the spectacular visual contrast between Grassley and Hirono, Harris, and Booker in the courtroom. This is not just a discussion about documents in the Kavanaugh case. When abstracted, it is also a discussion about the difficulties that people of color and women face in spaces governed by Reason and Order—the responses we are able to give when we encounter egregious acts of racism and sexism are always already tempered by the epistemological system that created Man, the category of the human, and the various symbols and myths that cause us to elevate this specific epistemology to the level of sacred law and common sense.

I think it is important to analyze how Republicans in particular but all contemporary political figures more broadly are operating within the framework of Reason, something that is insured by the existence of particular political procedures (such as hearings, Robert’s Rules, etc). Our national commitment to this framework is only intensified by the sensationalization of news stories such as the Kavanaugh hearings—we are constanly force-fed images of singular Democratic elected officials pushing back against Republicans while still using the language of Reason. There is little substantive analysis that accompanies these de-contextualized images, and our political imaginaries are shrunk more and more with each news cycle that is dependent upon us cultivating a trauma-based relationship with each story. In short, we are left petrified, broken, “gutted” (I see that one a lot), and hopelessly horrified as our search for political action becomes increasingly frantic and desperate in an ever-shrinking space. 

At best, we idealize individual figures like Booker, Harris, and Hirono and make them into liberal myths, ignoring the fact that their participation in the American political system requires that they collaborate with and defer to various financial and political institutions (Wall Street, the criminal justice system, big donors, etc) that harm great swaths of people in all political parties. At worst, we reproduce so-called “conservative” hierarchies of power on the left that reproduce white supremacy, sexism, homophobia, and classism (examples of this include the Bernie Bros, the non-intersectional pussy hat-wearing white feminists at the Women’s March, and the hyper-masculine white male factions in Antifa who are aesthetically indistinguishable from Aryan Nation supporters). 

So how do we move forward from here? Rather than suggesting reactionary and Order-based “solutions” like voting (though it is certainly important), calling senators (I promise your passive aggressive voicemails don’t matter as much as what the various lobbies want), I would hope that we can analyze developments in the political using Wynter’s idea of Man and Robinson’s critique of Order. This way, we will not be taken aback and wounded every time Trump and his cronies do something horrifying (which is often). We shouldn’t be surprised that the Trump administration believes that a serial rapist, liar, and all-around douchenozzle like Kavanaugh would be fit to serve on the Supreme Court. Most men are rapists, whether they realize it or not. This fact only becomes apparent when we examine how the dominant epistemology codes certain bodies as irrational/hysterical and therefore positions them as incoherent objects that can be acted on at will by Man (as an overrepresentation of the coherent subject and the human). Rape is an act that is inextricably linked to a desire for power and domination, and it should be unsurprising that we see these ideas that are tied to rape be reproduced in a seemingly “objective” space like a courtroom.


An “orderly” discussion would never yield this kind of conclusion because Order is designed to hide the crimes and inadequacies of those who belong to the category of man. Both Kavanaugh and Grassley are classified in that category, and therefore are bound to each other in a way that is eerily similar to Locke and Rousseau’s ideas on social contracts. Grassley’s loyalty and consideration is to Kavanaugh in a way that makes him decidedly non-objective and forecloses the possibility of “belief” as a political tool. It is not a question of whether or not Dr. Ford or the other brave women who have come forward are believed. Rather, this hearing is evidence of a larger problem of women being coded as hysterical, irrational, and incoherent. Women cannot be believed or read as legible within the dominant epistemology because our disorderly voices rising to crack the façade of order is a threat to the false placidity of the American constitutional myth. I believe that if we are able to read these horrific events as a large system predicated upon Order trying to minimize the influence of disorder in the political theater, we will be able to anticipate future actions taken by the Trump administration so we can focus on building a better leftist political platform that keeps no traces of the violence inflicted upon us by Reason.