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Just caught myself wondering, what is it that I am dreading?

I feel something pressing. There is something specific.

A problem I could not solve. An enemy I’d forgotten. A deadline.

Or is it something in the headlines?

I draw a blank; there is too much to track.

 

collage

 

she who laughs loudest

If she laughs loud enough, will Jeff Sessions fall over and die? If she laughs long enough, will Paul Ryan throw himself under a train? If she laughs in his face, will Donald Trump dissolve into a puddle of slime?

Evil Baby

The gleeful troll, the smug right wing extremist who casts “political correctness” as the enemy of fun — this is not a new formation. Racists, sexists and homophobes like to claim satire for themselves — the genre allows them to disguise their genocidal lust. That they enjoy their hate makes them more frightening, not less. A reminder: for those holding the rope, for those gathering to watch, a lynching is not somber affair. 

It’s not that he lies but that he loosens the collective grip on a sense of truth. With the psychotic pleasure of an evil baby, he picks apart the threads that hold us together.  He appears before us — stories seem to spore and float off his body. But these things — headlines – click holes – are poisonous agents nested inside a paper-thin, mottled story-skin. An ugly balloon holding pure sensation. A quick, dirty little high. 

Stories bind us together, often in opposition.  Stories give us access to a sense of shared truth and send desire in its direction. In the troll’s mouth, meaning itself becomes an enemy as we move into a zone of pure war-of-words: doxing, death threats, rape threats. A shitstorm of racist asburdities.

Ursula Le Guin once imagined a city of pure peace — a world of unending contentment. “The One Who Walk Away from Omelas” describes a place without conflict. The narrator invites the reader to supply this perfect world’s details. Does your perfect world have music? Washing machines? Farmer’s markets? Orgies? The place she describes accommodates whatever “comfort, luxury, exuberance” one can imagine, as long as it is “undestructive.” It is all so nice, really, that it is unbelievable. “Let me describe one more thing,” the narrator says — offering something that might feel real and true. 

The happiness of this place is entirely dependent on the captivity of a small child who is locked away in a basement room in a situation of infinite solitary confinement and grinding misery. Everyone in the city knows this; their knowledge of this bargain is part of the deal. 

The enjoyment of this personal and civic form of peace is extracted from a collective commitment to the steady state of another’s suffering. A few — very few — walk away. They walk right out of the story: Le Guin does not tell us where they go. “The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness.” 

Who are we in this story? Who do we scapegoat in the name of collective security?

The society Le Guin describes is bound to this sense of the true: the world needs this child which has no other future than the misery of its present condition. That future has been sacrificed to “the greater good.” In its shared commitment to that story, a society finds its coherence. 

This thought experiment — what if the violence of a world were concentrated onto a single, knowable body? — is borrowed from William James. In this deal, each person gets to have peace; each person — except this child — is freed of want, misery, injury and grief. The problem, the story’s crisis, is this notion of perfection — the idea that a society is only a defense against harm, that in a perfectly working world there is no grief, no loss, no pain.

That child slaps the reader: is the problem that I suffer? That you know that I suffer? That you agree that I should suffer? Or, is the problem that you insist on not suffering yourself?

Might a perfect society be one in which we hurt? 

“The Ones Who Walk Away” describes the problem with thinking society as — only — a defense against injury. For, within the story we are being given, what is a family, a group, an institution or a nation but a bounded structure organized against the idea of what it is not. It needs its enemies and its victims. It needs a sense of its own skin.

Peel away another layer, however, and “The Ones Who Walk Away” reveals the sense of injury which organizes a society, a public: each society, each public imagines itself through this child — as this embodiment of pure pain. A society romances a sense of injury and loss. At what point does the sentimental culture organized around pain turn into a horror show? At what point does one get out?

That child is a warning. The public — which can never truly know itself, which can never know where it begins and ends — is at risk of tearing itself apart over this very question. The sense of a public’s boundaries articulates itself in the face of its internal terror — projected outward, that internal terror becomes a terrorist. Our relationships to the institutions, the organizations, the ideas that organize us are hijacked by pure panic.

Le Guin’s story describes the psychic treaties we strike with each other and ourselves as we avoid confronting these fears. The nightmare of “The Ones Who Walk Away,” in which everyone knows exactly the harm they inflict shadows the reality of a world in which one does not. The purity of its victim makes that child a monster — a ghost — an image — a closeted horror — a singularity which condenses the spectacularized forms of suffering that parade through our media. The pain that seems to be everywhere substitutes for a grasp of actually existing suffering.

It is not that the man is crazy, but that he forces to the surface the psychotic tendencies of the public — its terrifying proximity to madness, its bottomless appetite, its endless capacity to harm in the name of its own sense of injury.

Notes on Open Casket

Dana Schutz’s painting Open Casket is, at the moment, the defining controversy of the 2017 Whitney Biennial. It is an oddly blank, quasi-expressionist painting based on the photographs of Emmett Till’s body that were published in Jet in 1955. A community of artists, scholars and concerned people have asked that the painting be removed from the exhibit — some have suggested that it be destroyed. Below are some thoughts about this.

The Schutz painting is controversial — offensive — for a lot of reasons. A section of Hold It Against Me centers on Carrie Mae Weems’s work (“From Here I Saw What Happened…And I Cried”) — there I take up how Weems navigates just this overdetermined terrain — making anti-racist work about emotion/affect, sentiment and racism. That section was hard to write because Weems’s work is challenging. If I have anything to say about Open Casket, it’s because I spent a lot of time thinking with “From Here I Saw…” 

A white woman artist made work which reproduces the photograph of the brutalized face of a black boy who was murdered in a lynching provoked by a white woman’s false accusation. Right out of the gate, the scenario is overdetermined. Black artists’ work is read all the time as “about” blackness — all the time. And often by critics who are not equipped to say anything on that topic at all. (Thinking of NYT art critic Ken Johnson, for example. Jerry Saltz is no better.) Reading a work as “about” race, racism, racial difference is no easy thing — what is that word “about” about? What is blackness is this work? How does the artist’s identity and location matter? In the art world, presenting work as “about” race is often done in such crude terms — this is powerfully true when that presentation unfolds in an art space in which there is not enough expertise re (for example) the 300+ years of debate regarding aesthetics and politics where anti-racist forms of representations are concerned. Debate staged within communities of abolitionist thinkers and artists, debate staged within black communities in, say, the 19th C. In my experience, a lot of people in positions of power and authority in the art world know next to nothing about that body of knowledge. (You can see this changing in at least leadership of some LA institutions. Oddly, I think museums are maybe “getting it” faster than Art History and Art departments?) Artists of colors are routinely put in such intense representative positions vis a vis race/ethnicity. White artists are not. White artists are rarely held to account for the place and function of whiteness in their work. Open Casket is absolutely about whiteness — it is a perfect expression of the relationship of white authorship to black suffering. In this painting, in the artist and museum discourse about it, a very white sentimental formation takes shape around the dead body of a black boy murdered by white men in the name of protecting a white woman. It’s in the zone of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. A modernist, painterly version of what Baldwin called a catalogue of violence (“Everybody’s Protest Novel” — helpful reading for “getting” this particular debate.) It is actually right that a white woman artist take up this subject, but taking up the subject alone is not enough. Doing so meaningfully takes an active commitment and a lot of expertise. Working with that particular image archive — the photographs of Till’s body — comes with a lot of responsibility — a responsibility to the history, and to a canon of artworks and performances by mostly (but not only) black artists. Billie Holiday, Charles Chesnutt, Nina Simone, James Baldwin, Leon Golub, Carrie Mae Weems, William Pope L., Aaron Douglas, Bettye Saar…the list goes on and on. Making anti-racist work requires fluency. There is a large, meaningful and important bibliography of criticism on this subject — Stuart Hall, Saidiya Hartmann, Audre Lorde, Elizabeth Alexander, Lauren Berlant, Eric Lott, Kobena Mercer, Hortense Spillers, Angela Davis, Fred Moten — that list goes on and on. Almost none of these artists and writers figure into the education of BFA/MFA tracked artists; almost none of these writers have figured into the curriculum of art historians, critics and curators. I mean, what art historians not working in African American Art History read The Souls of Black Folk — or Langston Hughes’s essay “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain”? What art historians not working in African American Studies know Baldwin’s essay on Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Native Son? Outside of the communities of artists of color and art-workers of color, there are too few people who can do a studio visit with Schutz and break down where a painting like that goes off the rails.

A lot of racism goes into the creating the conditions of possibility in which people can’t see what’s wrong with the painting until it’s too late.

hate’s favorite genre

The gleeful troll, the smug right wing extremist who casts “political correctness” as the enemy of fun — this is not a new formation. Racists, sexists and homophobes claim satire for themselves — that genre allows them to disguise their genocidal lust. That they enjoy their hate makes them more frightening, not less. A reminder: for those holding the rope, a lynching is not somber affair.   

A Waste of Good Shoe Leather?

A Waste of Shoe Leather?

On the afternoon of May 22, 1970 forty seven student protestors were arrested, charged with unlawful assembly for blocking traffic along Shaw Avenue outside Fresno State University. The students were protesting issues that ranged from the war in Vietnam to the removal of the university’s lone Black Studies professor, Marvin X. My father, who was among the arrested, always maintained that the protest was infiltrated by police provocateurs, that is, counter-demonstrators hired by the cops to hurl rocks, incite mayhem and discredit the aims of the protest. For his involvement, my father would pay a heavy price; expelled for his role in the demonstration, he lost his scholarship and his draft deferment and was subsequently drafted to fight in the very war that he had protested that day in May.

The case against bringing bodies into the streets begins here, with the susceptibility of spectacular protest to sabotage.

The week that Philando Castile was shot dead by police in front of his girlfriend Lavish Reynolds and their daughter, the same week that Alton Sterling went down to police bullets, protest marches and rallies were convened in cities across the country, some under the banner of Black Lives Matter, some under no banner whatsoever. Almost wholly peaceful in their demonstration of righteous indignation at not only these but several videotaped killings of unarmed black men by police, the protest actions were capped by the incongruous act of a lone wolf murderer in the early Dallas evening: Micah X. Johnson, a military veteran with advanced weapons training, positioned himself outside the perimeter of the protest and fired upon police, murdering five. At least for some, Johnson’s act overshadowed the message of the protests themselves, despite the fact that Johnson had no affiliation with BLM or any other widely recognized organization.

The afrocentrist historian John Henrik Clarke once called protest marches a waste of good shoe leather. This might be too dismissive. But given that their only barrier to entry is the perimeter that the police set and even this is permeable, their resultant susceptibility to infiltration and re-direction from all manner of forces makes street protests seem like the lowest, commonest fruit on the tree of resistance.

In the days after Donald Trump secured the electoral college majority and became President-elect, spontaneous street demonstrations, some peaceful, others riotous, broke out nationwide. Now, with his inauguration, an estimated 200,000 demonstrators converge on the nation’s capitol to protest Trump’s race-baiting and misogyny, his xenophobia, and ultimately his victory in an election where the popular vote tally tilted against him by more than 2.5 million votes cast. But what, if anything, will all these planned protests amount to? Obviously, no one tactic will turn ripe what is rotten in our Denmark, but are there better tactics than taking ourselves into the streets to hurl our bodies upon the gears of the system?

Certainly, there are other ways, as demonstrated by the anti-Obamacare town halls of 2009. Deemed vitriolic and out-of-control by many in the media, these protest forums nevertheless provided conservatives a highly televisable forum to harangue the Affordable Care Act and to foment a relentless opposition that has culminated in Donald Trump’s promise, however flimsy, to repeal ACA. Activists on the left would do well to take up the town hall formula: Its controlled, enclosed space has some advantages over the streets, among them that weapons can be kept out, limiting the lone wolf element, and that TV cameras can easily capture the fervor and specific thesis of the proceedings, whereas street protests are often portrayed by TV news as more diffuse than in fact they are.

It should be noted that street protests of police shootings have resulted in several city police departments deciding to equip their officers with body cameras, a significant concession to police oversight advocates. Whether this reform can withstand the back-sliding that is likely to take place across police departments nationally once Trump starts beating the law and order drum from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is another matter.

It remains to be seen what will come of all the post-election protests. In view of the vulnerability of street protest to sabotage and lone wolf actions, the blood and treasure expended will seem, to many in the mainstream, too heavy a price to pay, resulting in the marginalization both of the protestors and their message. Witness, for instance, the widespread and false notion that Black Lives Matter is a radical front organization for cop killers, responsible for the murders of police in Dallas and Baton Rouge when, in fact, BLM is a nakedly stated sentiment and crowdsourced concept without headquarters, centralized leadership or fixed agenda.

In Oakland after the election, street demonstrations against Trump’s multiform assault on decency themselves turned ugly, with scattered but spectacular acts of violence, windows broken, a building set alight. We have a bad reputation, by the way: According to FOX News, the city of Oakland has been nuked to the daisies by its own inhabitants at least five times annually since forever yet, amazingly, enough of us seem to survive the carnage to do it all over again come the next crisis in the American conscience. Point being, the substance of Oakland’s protests is typically subsumed in the national consciousness by the fits of violence that follow close in the wake of the on-message protesters like an anarchic second line. Not just the political right, but mainstream folks of all stripes, driven to moderation by their jobs and the responsibilities of parenthood and property see Oakland’s street protests as something to stay clear of. I mostly stay away, for my own reasons.

As my dad, who was only kept out of war by the congenital condition that would one day kill him, grew older, he decided that John Henrik Clarke was right about protest marches wasting sneaker tread and shoe leather, and, heir to that line of experience and thought, I find myself thinking not about when the march will meet, but what comes after the placards go back in boxes and people return to the everydayness of living.

After the first two nights of protest, the Oakland police came out in force. It was a Saturday night and in gentrifying Oakland that meant people with money would descend downtown to dine at pricey restaurants. Prime commercial hours can never, in America, be jeopardized. The police presence was impressive in the full meaning of that word and the night went quietly as a nodding drunk. A day or two before, a Facebook invite had gone out calling for a silent Sunday afternoon demonstration at 3-mile wide Lake Merritt near downtown. It was estimated that thirty-five hundred people would be needed to ring the entire lake. By my count, three times that number showed up to silently express their disquiet with the turn our national politics has taken. We nodded at one another, smiled, held hands, bowed our heads, and abstained from chucking Molotov cocktails at glass windows. And we wondered what, beyond simple solidarity, this well-organized, on-message, highly mannered, mostly middle-aged, less than urgent demonstration achieved.

For me, there was nothing more. For me, street protest, whether malicious or milquetoast, serves the singular purpose of fortifying the protestors, of reminding each lone person that “You are not alone because I am here, too. All of us are here. We together will stoke this fire.” But the spectacle becomes obsolete precisely at the point where solidarity is no longer enough.

Just above our heads, drones of unknown origin orbited. It was a low-tech reminder that the state no longer exerts and replenishes its power through crowding bodies into the streets to see men crucified or drawn-and-quartered. Instead its power is maintained through systems of surveillance that are, if not always over our heads, often virtual and invisible. Ed Snowden exposed a host of semi-secret surveillance programs, all of which the American public has been assured are laser-focused on the bad guys abroad and in our midst and not on us. One is free to draw one’s own conclusions about America’s bedtime stories— the point is that the technological complexity by which the government girds itself against dissent renders primitive the grassroots left taking to the streets whenever injustices become too obvious or brutal to bear.

In the saga that will be Donald Trump’s season in power, various injustices will come to pass. It is in the nature of power, especially when held by a vindictive arbiter in a nation as powerful and as anxious as ours. Many on the Left fear Trump’s threats made against the press, against undocumented immigrants, women and individuals whom he personally dislikes. But if Trump’s policies prove ineffective or, worse, indifferent to the wayward working-class voters he’s excited, Trump may find that he has loosed political forces he cannot control. And then his authoritarian tendencies will be that much more troubling. Given that presidential powers have seen rapid expansion over the past several presidencies and given the post-9/11 expansion of the government’s capability to surveil us, the prospect of a malign individual given to retaliatory rage serving as Commander-in-Chief is, in Trump talk, very bad. Maybe the Donald once in Office will return to his roots in absurd celebrity. But if President Trump is the man he sold himself as on the campaign trail, there is great cause for concern.

But there is also cause for hope. And that hope is not in the protest actions we’ve seen of late, but in protective, restorative and ameliorative organizations and their sustained campaigns against injustice.

I wish my dad could have lived to see the water protectors at Standing Rock. The conflict at Standing Rock is not a protest action. It is not a march. It is a renaissance in the Goliath and David struggle for Indian dignity and sovereignty in their native lands. It is being engaged on the levels of legislation, land occupation, peaceful protest, confrontations with the police, and sabotage. As with the struggle for black freedom and freedom struggles throughout time, everything is on the table, including disorganized acts of resistance. And here the enemy is clear, and the resistance is not for a season alone.

There is not yet reason to oppose Trump to the degree that one sees the Dakota Access Pipeline battled at Standing Rock. But if Trump challenges the denial of easement decision of the Army Corps of Engineers on Standing Rock, and if his presidency turns as his campaign did to America’s most terrible motive forces, isolationism, xenophobia, and a draconian law and order politics, then taking to the streets will serve as little more than a first head count.

Germ Theory and the Erotics of Hate

He can’t shake a person’s hand for fear of being contaminated by it. He is himself so revolting that one winces at the idea of his touch.

At some point in the distant past he came into contact with his loathsomeness. Disgust with his fat. Anger at the blotches of his skin. The awful shape of his lips.

He buries his awfulness under a wig. A thin disguise. It is his mother’s hair — he is her baby; he wears her pussy on his head.

Their last moment of contact.

A hirsute emblem for his boundary problems.

Because he cannot contain himself, in the middle of the night he furtively cycles through a handful of stock obsessions. These are public figures — people who are loved, powerful, charming. People who appear to be at ease with themselves and with the world. People he sees as having what he deserves, people he sees as not getting what they deserve.

Because everything we have is his, we should have nothing. A storm of debt, he is himself less than nothing. He sucks the world down a gold toilet — we are, in this story, so much shit.

He commissions a ritual in a fancy hotel: he makes ‘whores’ piss on those he hates. He sits in a chair at the edge of the room. He does not touch a thing — not even his own horrible self.