U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Post-Trump Teach-In, Week Three: Wiegman, Fanon, Gordon

In this installment of the Post-Trump Teach-In, I would like to continue by taking up some of the questions that were raised as we reviewed Robyn Wiegman’s great essay on whiteness. 

We zeroed in on one dimension of Wiegman’s argument that seems especially pertinent to the rise of Trumpism: the conquest of the language of civil rights by aggrieved whites. I tried to gather my thoughts, a little, in the comments (I have edited this a bit for style):

For Wiegman––writing in 1999––the white cooptation of civil rights language sought to establish an isomorphism, a one-to-one relationship, such that the denial of public representation to African Americans (which, with the advent of Jim Crow, took the form of disfranchisement, exclusion from public facilities, denial of equal opportunities at school and work, and exposure to state violence) could be compared to the ostensible denial of public representation to whites (in the form of a kind of a politically correct pattern of “discrimination” that denies to whites the opportunity to take pride in their white heritage).

By borrowing from the Civil Rights Movement’s language of rights and fairness, whites identify an injury––denial of access to the politics of representation––and attempt to turn it into a tort: a legal grievance presented before the state and demanding immediate redress.

Wiegman emphasizes that the white demand for recognition does not simply ratify a previous articulation of whiteness, but, in fact, forges a new white subject, convinced of the urgency of threats to the survival of the white race, which then licenses retaliatory violence.

This is clearly a map to the logic of the alt-right.

Wiegman’s analytic intervention allows us the opportunity to think a bit about “representation” and “recognition.”  In particular, it prompts us to reconsider ideological commitments to “representation” and “recognition” as goalposts of political struggle.

The Black Radical Tradition provides many alternatives to a “representation”- and/or “recognition”-oriented ethics.

We will consider one such alternative––that laid out by Frantz Fanon and elaborated upon by Lewis Gordon. This is a politics of “anonymity”: a politics centered around the right to be anonymous (and the right to contest practices that render non-whites hyper-visible to the punitive arms of the state).

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Ato Sekyi-Otu writes: “Quite recently (the Canadian philosopher) Charles Taylor, citing Fanon as ‘one of the key authors’ in discourses of ‘the politics of recognition,’ asserts that ‘Fanon recommended violence as a way to [the] freedom of the colonized.’”

As Sekyi-Otu suggests, just about everything is wrong with Taylor’s analysis. Fanon’s writing on violence was not prescriptive, but process-oriented and empirical; he was no more prescribing violence than an engineer prescribes metal fatigue: violence and metal fatigue are things that happen. When the subaltern rebels or the bridge sags, we find ourselves in the middle of a certain story of force and action, not the beginning. And Fanon was not, as Taylor proposes, at all interested in the “politics of recognition” (at least not on Taylor’s pseudo-Hegelian terms). Fanon says of blackness: “There is in fact a ‘being for other,’ as described by Hegel, but any ontology is made impossible in a colonized and acculturated society.” Finally, Fanon’s writings on violence were not a solution to any problem in that “politics of recognition,” which would have been impossible, because Fanon was not interested in its terms or parameters.

In my own political education (as a young man who would come to discover myself a Marxist) I found “representation” too watery and vague, without quite knowing why. “Representation”––in its soft deontological form–– was all the rage at McGill University, where, clumsily and inconsistently, I tried to learn something about political philosophy in the 1990s from Charles Taylor and his disciples.

That frustration led me to seek out different kinds of political theory and to explore different political traditions. (In the Canadian context, that led to a transfer from the liberal bastion of McGill to the Marxist hothouse of York University).

As grateful as I was for having found Marxism, I quickly learned––as all my friends also learned––that the Marxist focus on social property relations (as opposed to the “representation” school’s emphasis on correcting against dishonor) did not suffice when trying to make sense of the complexities of racial capitalism.

To my great fortune, I found myself at the University of California Santa Barbara, where the presiding political theorists (Cedric Robinson, Clyde Woods, George Lipsitz, Avery Gordon, and Howard Winant, among many other brilliant thinkers) offered their students access to different modalities. With the help of their students, in reading groups and over coffee, and with their varied experiences in Chiapas and Los Angeles, with the War on Terror and gang ordinances and the California prison archipelago in the rearview mirror,  I tried to grapple with the writings of Fanon. And from them til now I have remained certain that it is in Fanon’s books that we find the tools with which to think, concretely, about the dilemmas of the current moment.

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I wrote a bit about Fanon and about Lewis Gordon, the great Fanonian existential phenomenologist, at this blog several years ago. I want to return to some of my notes, not because they are particularly remarkable, but because it will help me to measure the distance between where I was then and where I am now, to revise, and to speed up the process whereby we move from theoretical reflection to applied analysis.

I continue to reflect upon Gordon’s striking phrase, from Fanon and the Crisis of European Man: “In the eyes of anti-black racists, blacks suffer a hemorrhage in their facticity. A consequence is that there is no black autobiography in anti-black worlds.”

Here, we return to the politics of naming, named-ness, and anonymity. We might think of James Baldwin’s 1972 text, No Name In The Street. (Reading through the wonderful work of Jordan Camp, a treasured friend from those days in Santa Barbara, brought Baldwin’s book to mind again last night).

In the terms that Gordon favors, this ordinary everyday functionality of names testifies, paradoxically enough, to the generality of anonymity.

To be “John Smith” is to be able to participate in the business of daily life.

To sign “John Smith” on a check or write “John Smith” on an envelope’s return address is to be just as ontologically filled-in as the structure of mundane life requires.

Access to anonymity––to “John Smith”-ness, maybe––is withdrawn when the gaze of the state registers some evidence of non-whiteness. Thus, to have “no name in the street” is still not to have access to anonymity: an insult added to injury.

I thought about this when I came upon this quote from Khalil Gibran-Muhammad’s The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America (Cambridge: Harvard, 2010). It is taken from the 1928 writings of the white racial liberal social scientist Thorsten Sellin on the unreliability of racial crime statistics:

We are prone to judge ourselves by our best traits and strangers by their worst. In the case of the Negro, stranger in our midst, all beliefs prejudicial to him aid in intensifying the feeling of racial antipathy engendered by his color and his social status. The colored criminal does not as a rule enjoy the racial anonymity which cloaks the offenses of individuals of the white race. The press is almost certain to brand him, and the more revolting his crime proves to be the more likely it is that his race will be advertised. In setting the hallmark of color upon him, his individuality is in a sense submerged, and instead of a mere thief, robber, or murderer, he becomes a representative of his race, which in its turn is made to suffer for his sins.

To not be able to enjoy racial anonymity means––as Gordon suggests in his analysis of Fanon’s texts as exercises in an impossible genre––to never be able to write an autobiography.

Whiteness works to make every inscription a testament to some organizing fantasy of racial reality.

Thus there will always be a “hemorrhage of facticity”––not enough facticity, leaking facticity––when the author of an autobiography is black. Put another way: whiteness means that there can be no such thing, for whiteness, as a Black autobiography. And that means that the game of recognition and representation is, in fact, a variant of three-card monte, with whiteness itself moving the pieces around.

Fanon comes to understand this as he writes. Gordon suggests that this revelation leads Fanon to shift his focus from Hegelian dialectics to the phenomenology of ultra-visibility and anonymity.

Fanon is interested, Gordon insists, in the asymmetrical distribution of anonymity in the real world––what we might call, using a term favored by Fanon, anonymity’s “scissiparité.”

What Fanon reminds us is that philosophy (and politics, too) claims to integrate an adequate variety of “biographical situations” as it launches its inquiries: but this is a conceit. The community of inquiry, it turns out, is limited to white men. Not only that, the apparatus of investigation is shared with the machinery of conquest and torture, exclusion and enslavement.

There is ontology for the white male subject (discoverable, in different ways, via the common participation in projects of knowledge cultivation) precisely because there is a denial of ontological presence to others. As Fanon wrote:

In the Weltanschauung of a colonized people there is a impurity, a flaw that outlaws any ontological explanation. Someone may object that this is the case with every individual, but such an objection merely conceals a basic problem. Ontology––once it is finally admitted as leaving existence by the wayside––does not permit us to understand the being of the black man. For not only must the black man be black; he must be black in relation to the white man.

Fanon  suggests that a revolutionary philosophy upends the edifice of the “representation” and “recognition” games by pointing to the foundations of Western thought in racialized bad faith.

***

I worry that, here, I have merely returned to some old thoughts and have not connected all the dots that would make these reflections pertinent to the crisis of Trumpian whiteness. And, I am sure, even, that this is the case. But in times of crisis, I think, we have to force ourselves to think aloud, to eschew perfectionism, to put thoughts in motion in fragmentary form so that we can think with one another with as much clarity and creativity as possible.

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Poster spotted at SUNY Albany, late November 2016

Poster spotted at SUNY Albany, late November 2016

(Note: I do want to head off one possible misreading of what I am proposing here at the pass. I am not, at all, intending any criticism of anti-racist and left-egalitarian efforts to fight against hurtful and demeaning cultural depictions of African Americans, Jews, gays, lesbians, and trans people, and immigrants [this left is not meant to be exhaustive]. We should attend to the powerful argument laid out in M. Alison Kibler’s Censoring Racial Ridicule: Irish, Jewish, and African American Struggles Over Race and Representation, 1890-1930 (2015). Kibler reminds us that efforts to push back against the humiliations of racial and ethnic caricature––all predicated, as Clyde Woods used to say, on the notions that despised people are the authors of their own suffering and that the aggrieved enjoy their torments—mobilized millions and dramatically reshaped the contours of US culture.

In my dissertation, I argue that such efforts have been systematically delegitimized by labor scholars who failed to recognize that contesting ethnographic libel—what Cedric Robinson called “forgeries of memory”––constitutes an important part of the political project of cultural workers. This agitation against demeaning representation is, indeed, one of the pillars of the radical politics of twentieth century “cultural workerism.” It was no accident that the Du Bois who wrote the stunning sections on Dunning-school historiography in Black Reconstruction had spent the previous several decades engaged in various kinds of cultural work (as an author, lecturer, and, as David Suisman has shown, as a mentor to Harry Pace, the founder of Black Swan Records). At the conclusion of World War One, we find the Chicago Defender publishing articles on “Jazzing Away Prejudice.” James Weldon Johnson, perhaps the most fascinating of the politically engaged cultural workers of the pre-Civil Rights Era, would soon write of the “Art Solution to the Negro Problem.”

The explosion of African American proletarian culture in the 1920s must be understood as a concerted pushback against the re-invigorated machinery of blackface minstrelsy, energized by the new media of narrative film, phonography, and radio. In swing and bebop, in various forms of comic entertainment, in dance and cinema, African American cultural workerism fought back at the machinery of exploitation and the machinery of racial ridicule. African American cultural workers––from Du Bois and James Weldon Johnson to Paul Robeson and Dizzy Gillespie to Harry Belafonte and Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee––understood that, in historical materialist terms, the two machineries were codependent; to disable one was to disable the other.

When I take issue with “representation,” as it functions in contemporary political philosophy and law, I am thinking of something very different. The idiom of “representation” that I don’t like has a profoundly neo-Kantian cast: it adjudicates from one centralized office, and scans the social and political field through a single lens—that of the cyloptic State. Contemporary “representation” talk looks to properly arrange all of the social actors before the gaze of the State itself, like a Sears photographer readying a family for its annual portrait. So long as nobody is out of frame, blurry, obscured behind an overbearing relative, or caught making a strange face––so long as everyone is more or less discernible in the photograph––then the will to just “representation” has been satisfied).

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Kurt, this is great stuff. I really hope you continue to explore Fanon’s relevance to our present moment. I’m learning a great deal.

    I am particularly taken with the unavailability of anonymity to African Americans and the (quasi-paradoxical?) corollary: the unavailability of the autobiographical form. I’m not sure that I have anything profound to add, but this resonated for me with so many different things: with the titles and themes of both Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man as well as Invisible Man; with the subtitle of Du Bois’s Dusk of Dawn: An Essay toward an Autobiography of a Race Concept; and with the old tendency (also common to those other groups Kibler wrote about) to produce prosopographies of “race men” almost in lieu of the biographies or autobiographies of single individuals.

    But I was also thinking about the classic makeshift construction of legal anonymity: John Doe (or Jane Roe). And it occurs to me that this construction is used in two kinds of situations: one where the person (generally a corpse) cannot be identified, and one where the person (generally a plaintiff) wishes not to be identified. But in either case, anonymity is linked to being the injured party; one can’t, as far as I know, sue a John Doe, and law enforcement has an entirely different nomenclature for unknown persons who are the perpetrators rather than the victims of an injury or crime (suspect, person of interest, etc.).

    And this led me back to one of your initial points, regarding the desire on the part of the alt-right to imagine themselves as not only injured (by “reverse-racism”) but injured in a legally recognized way: whatever reverse-racism is, they imagine it to be a kind of tort, for which they can seek damages, exact compensation. Much is made of “Twitter eggs” and anonymous handles for alt-right trolls, as if that desire for anonymity is mere cowardice, but perhaps this line of thought gives some insight into a deeper logic at work.

  2. Andy: thanks so much for this wonderful comment.

    I particularly like this insight: “But I was also thinking about the classic makeshift construction of legal anonymity: John Doe (or Jane Roe). And it occurs to me that this construction is used in two kinds of situations: one where the person (generally a corpse) cannot be identified, and one where the person (generally a plaintiff) wishes not to be identified. But in either case, anonymity is linked to being the injured party; one can’t, as far as I know, sue a John Doe, and law enforcement has an entirely different nomenclature for unknown persons who are the perpetrators rather than the victims of an injury or crime (suspect, person of interest, etc.).”

    This is so important! (And, as far as I know, not much written about in the law and humanities literature: would be a great article for you to spin out for the Yale Journal of Law and Humanities, e.g.). Especially in connection to your larger point–which is to highlight the connection of these structural elements of legal anonymity to the Wiegmanian point about white injury as legal grievance.

    Here, I think we are in the presence of a classic psychoanalytic contradiction: the desire to be anonymous (the Twitter Egg syndrome) coincides with the desire to be always be recognized, to not be forgotten as other identities emerge to compete with white normativity. I am reminded of Michael Scott of The Office, in the “Golden Ticket” episode, wherein he has a good idea that turns out to be a bad idea (at which point he shifts blame to an innocent co-worker) and then turns out, finally, to have been a good idea–at which point he turns to his boss, pompously, not realizing his own ridiculousness, and says: “I DO want the credit without any of the blame.”

    And what strikes me as so interesting, here, is that this structure of anonymity/recognition is identical to that of capitalism: it wants to be recognized as the economy’s only “job creator” but wants no responsibility for environmental catastrophe or abandonment of the cities. And this is so familiar, even banal, a point, and yet it can’t quite be made in respectable outlets without inviting ridicule.

    Thus, Trump-as-capitalist-in-chief and Trump-as-white-man-in-chief overlap–in ways that I think are well worth exploring further.

    • Since you are lit-crit fluent, I wonder, too, if you think there are connections to be made between anonymity and “the crowd” as discussed by John Mullan? Trumpism is about crowds, isn’t it, in ways we don’t understand? And crowds are anonymous, in important ways…

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