Murmurs and Antagonisms

Orthodoxy via Heresy

Month: December, 2014

Criticism as Immanence

Criticism, deconstruction, breaking down are never in their own right truly right. There’s always a need (a demand) for a rebuilding. It’s well and good to complain or critique but what positive change is the dissident effecting? There exists a demand to fix, to rebuild. Even the French Revolution centered on fixing problems by instituting a new social order (being). Same goes for the Reformation, the American Revolution, etc. It’s always deconstruction to an end. This impulse/desire for the new, for the better, for the alternative to what is seems problematic to me. It’s fundamentally a negation of what is by raising high a brand new transcendent narrative. This is why the Reformation wasn’t really a shift, at least not beyond the surface level of existence. All it was was a replacement of one form of transcendence with another. It’s the “common installation of a transcendent plane” instead of an “immanent affirmation of the world” (Barber, On Diaspora).

Fundamentally, then, the criticism of criticism centers on the lack, the lack of a positive alternative, a plan of action. The criticism leveled at criticism is one of transcendence and the always already present desire for a new plane of transcendence. What the critique fails to appreciate is that deconstruction/criticism/whatever one calls the action of breaking down is the purest affirmation of experience, of living now. Criticism centers on the fact that whatever transcendent claim is being advanced fails to meet the needs now of persons, of the world. So, to replace it with a positive better way of being would be to counteract the purpose of criticism.

The Blindness of Language

[Note: citations were not copied over due to footnotes not being copied. I’ll add them later if I remember. Main citations are Gadamer, Critchley, Robert Williams, Beauvoir, Foucault, a friend’s thesis, and Butler.]

The Blindness of Language

“Can language simply refer to materiality, or is language also the very condition under which materiality may be said to appear.” — Judith Butler

According to Gadamer, language is fundamentally not a tool. It is a mode of being by which humans operate in the world, how they be in the world. In a very real sense, then, language is essential to being human, to grasping onto the world, an operating system for existence. But what, then, are the essential characteristics of this operating system? Primarily that language is, by nature, self-forgetful. As Gadamer states it, “The real being of language is that into which we are taken up when we hear it — what is said.” Any good operating system is invisible, barely noticed. From this, though, two problems stem. Since we are not aware of language when we use it, we “get lost” in it, we tend to fall into 1) self-deception which leads to 2) the distancing and alienation of another person from herself. I’d like to focus on problem two and expand it beyond interpersonal interactions. My basic contention is that self-forgetful language in the hands of the powerful always forms the world of the oppressed. But how does it do so? How does this language shape? I think Critchley’s discussion of Hegel via Blanchot provides a helpful albeit hyperbolic starting point. My basic tenet is that, a la Butler, language refers and makes materiality knowable and framed and that the powerful have the ability to use language to shape and define the oppressed.

My first encounter with the concept of language as dominance was in Critchley’s Very Little…Almost Nothing which is his reflection on death and literature, to summarize it crudely. The clearest expression of Critchley’s explanation of how language dominates is this:

“…that language is murder, that is, the act of naming things, of substituting a name for the sensation, gives things to us, but in a form that deprives those things of their being. Human speech is thus the annihilation of things qua things, and their articulation through language is truly their death-rattle: Adam is the first serial killer.”

(Critchley, and Blanchot, use the hyperbolic language of “death” and “murder” which I find problematic since, within the context of a discussion on literature it works, but when trying to apply these concepts to the daily use of language these metaphors seem inane. So, instead, I’d like to reframe the issue using Critchley’s thematic analysis as a starting point without the language he uses.)

This hyperbolic summary comes at the end of a discussion of Hegel and Blanchot on dialectics and the Subject. As Critchley summarizes it, to Hegel, the Subject is one that can “…mediate the immediate.” This basically means that Subjects can take things as things and translate them it into things for use or understanding. Even more, (I’d contend) Subjects can, with language, (re)define the world of other persons with the progression of time. This taking as one’s own, making something one’s own and/or re-imaging, is pure dominance. How is this done? For Critchley, it is language. It’s more than that, though. Because language, according to Gadamer, always take place in the “we” our thoughts are always already formed by and in language, even before we can understand and differentiate between these thoughts/ideas and determine rightness or wrongness. Essentially, we are always already being given thoughts, ideas, and language by which we define and grasp onto this world and its parts. Our mode of being has already been pre-set by those in power. The immediate has always already been mediated without our consent. The language-being has been made normative in such a way that it excludes.   By examining a few parts of the idea of the “savage” (as discussed by Robert Williams) we can begin to see how a people group can have their language-being redefined without consent such that it excludes them. 

Savages

“Long before we possess the cognitive ability to decide whether this way of talking and thinking [caricatures/prejudices related to race] about others is rational or personally acceptable, a good number of ethnic and racial stereotypes and caricatured, cliched images still prevalent in our society have become nearly ineradicable features of the way we see this world.”

For Williams these unwanted caricatures manifest themselves in the idea of the savage. Without the idea of the savage Western civilization wouldn’t know itself, it can only know itself through that which it is not (self-deception on Gadamer’s reading). The West needs the language-being of the idea of the savage otherwise it will not exist as it does. There is, of course, more to this.

A clearer example is the link between the language of original sin and the idea of the savage. The language of sin belonged to the Western Church, a white Church. When missionaries came to the “New World” their encounter with indigenous peoples confirmed their pre-experience notion of the savage as “…unredeemed by the Christian God…” The language of sin led to the language of redemption which simply meant redefining existence in Western Christian (white) terms. This forced conversion never really meant becoming a Christian, it simply meant leaving one’s culture and identity behind and being re-made and shoved into the language-being of white culture. This is a clear case in which language(s) of (sin and salvation) functioned as justifications for violence, physical and otherwise. It all goes back to pre-held notions of the savage. As Critchley states, dramatically, “…to grasp things as such entails that those things must be dead on arrival in the understanding.” Essentially, missionaries used language to reimagine realities of Native persons. To phrase it for our purposes: Already missionaries (read: the powerful) had an idea of the savage an understanding of which alienated indigenous persons of North America from themselves and did not allow Native persons to be who they are because that method—the how of existing—was associated already with sin. Essentially, these persons were defined already, which left no room for interaction, only domination and coercion. These persons were already sinful, exotic, simply because they were “savages” which made them ripe for the message of salvation unto whiteness. Western Christianity, when coming to the “New World”, brought with it ideas about good and evil, dark and light, all these oppositions and tensions that were built into the Christian understanding of the world but not into the Native language-being. Missionaries then painted these ideas onto a world they walked into with disease and guns. The death of the “savage” was a fulfilling of the already dead personhood of Native persons in the language-being of white settlers.

Inherited language that is self-forgetful gets used as a way of mediating the immediate, a way of grasping onto experiences for other persons who are then othered from themselves. White settlers mediated the immediate for indigenous persons by applying the language-being of sin to native persons method of being. They were hellbent on convincing these Native person’s that their way of existing, their language, was inherently wrong. Missionaries wanted to attack indigenous persons understanding of how to be in the world and label it depraved for the sake of white washing. It was dominance by language-being for the sake of replacement with a white language-being.

But this applies to more then just persons of color and race. Take the idea of the gender binary, that there exists only male and female. Most members of modern America have grown up with a Christian notion—a particular interpretation of Genesis 1-2—of there only being man and woman. No in between. This notion comes to many unwillingly, and usually with little thought about its legitimacy. But the effects are horrid. When we perpetuate the notion of manhood and womanhood as being strict categories we unwittingly de-legitimize and delimit people outside this binary and their lived experiences. The binary always already mediates the experiences of trans/non-binary persons before these people can mediate the experiences themselves. Labeling a trans woman a “he” is a way in which we tell her that she isn’t really a woman. She’s just a fake. She doesn’t really exist. Her experience is invalidated. This is akin to Beauvoir’s notion that only men exist, women are particularities. Women have no sense of being, at least no being without some form of justification being needed. And when people don’t exist meaningfully, when they are associated with sin, language will always be used that makes them exotic and different. So, for the trans woman, existing in a world of the binary she has no way to be herself because no one wants to understand and instead uses pre-reflective, inherited language-being to “understand.” This act of supposed “understanding” is really an already decided “understanding” and thus no understanding. Her experiencing of the world has already been mediated for her. It was given in language and in language it is held.

However, about both of the previous examples there must be something said for how language use by the Other subverts and empowers. Because language is always tied to hermeneutic situations language is entirely subject to change and therefore being is subject to change. Language, because of it’s accessibility to everyone, is always open for contest and re-imagining. Thus, indigenous persons can use the unwillingly inherited white culture forced on them to refocus the conversation on their actual language and culture. Trans persons can use the language of the gender binary to expand the definition of manhood or womanhood, or even exist outside those categories. Either way, the language of the powerful, despite having already mediated existence for marginalized groups can be used against the powerful since everyone has access to this language now. Trans women and native persons have the power to turn language on the powerful and remake the world in a very meaningful sense. Language reclamation is a reclaiming and mediating of one’s own experiences.

Remarks on Jesus’ Blood

Blood is weird.

Anidjar thinks blood exists everywhere and he’s not wrong. Blood functions within Christianity rather oddly. This function is summarized nicely by the line, “Oh, how precious is the flow/that makes me white as snow/no other fount I know/nothing but the blood of Jesus.” I’ve been thinking about this line, about the ironic ability of red blood to make white (or is it white blood making white?). Even that phrase, “makes me white as snow,” seems odd. Making white, odd. In American history blood and sin tie together in intimate ways that reflect a strange back and forth between blackness as privation and salvation as life in whiteness.

I think my hesitance with this hymn stems from the fact that it bears a similar line of argument to that of Samuel Cartwright’s abhorrent argument regarding the blood of African Americans. His argument goes as so:

It is the red, vital blood, sent to the brain, that liberates their [African Americans] mind when under the white man’s control; and it is the want of a sufficiency of red, vital blood that chains their mind to ignorance and barbarism, when in freedom.

Earlier Cartwright states that the blood of a person of color is darker than that of a white person. And if Anidjar is correct in states that “Blood must become a category of historical analysis,”(44 of Blood) then the logic of Cartwright and the hymn go hand in hand and a brief look at the function of blood seems apt.

Without the white washing blood of Jesus one is unable to be “saved” which really only means, in American Christianity, being more white. “Christian master, enter the dark cabin of thy servant [read: slave], and with the lamp of truth in thy hand, light up his yet darker soul with the knowledge of him, whom to know is life eternal…” (A.T. Holmes, “The Duties of Christian Masters”). The gospel no longer stands as an end, but a means to extract labor, to civilize. The ultimate goal of the message of Jesus seems to be: blackness is the privation of the saving blood of Jesus that makes white as snow the “still darker soul” through enslavement’s catalyzing effect on blood flow.

My friend Melanie has written much more beautifully, and holistically, along a similar vein of thought here.

To White People: Protests

This is not the end of the conversation. It is not even the beginning. This is not me laying down truth but trying to understand American history. The accusation and condemnation of riots/protests in the wake of Ferguson speak to an ignorance of our nation’s history. These condemnations speak also to a misunderstanding of the current age, of the function of protests. However, I can’t explain protests, I don’t have anywhere near the definitive grasp on the subject. But I do wonder if (a mild rereading of?) Nietzsche might offer some helpful explanations of the function of protest, in any form (race related, wage related, etc.)

…the underprivileged have no comfort left; that they destroy in order to be destroyed; that without morality they no longer have any reason to “resign themselves” – that they place themselves on the plain of the opposite principal and also want power by compelling the powerful to become their hangmen. This is the European form of Buddhism — doing No after all existence has lost its “meaning.”

This “doing No” presents itself as a subversion of purpose and meaning. Nietzsche casts aside the notion that meaning/purpose are mind independent metaphysical truths or facts. Instead, meaning, like most anything else, is a construct, an invention. And for the underprivileged resistance functions as an active negation of meaning. So too with morality. What has been said of meaning can be said about morality.  Meaning and morality are made by those in power.

Example: Mike Brown’s murder served as a catalyst for protest. But it’s not an isolated incident. Reactions were not so much shocked, it seemed, but angered. And rightfully so. But in the case of Eric Garner it seemed inevitable that an indictment of some sort would be leveled. There was video evidence showing what appeared to be a choke hold, showing police using excessive force, but once more: no indictment. The protests that erupted seem to stem from the fact that the morality handed to persons of color by white supremacy failed. Because of this resignation can no longer be the answer. Instead, forcing the oppressor into a damned if you do or damned if you don’t situation becomes inescapable.

But I’d like to make clear: persons of color have known of this oppression for the entirety of American history. They have been on the receiving end of the violence of whiteness. This post is a white person attempting to make sense of riots and their meaning for other white persons. I’m trying to argue that any riots at any time are a reaction at the failure of morality given by the One (whether that be the State, Company, or Police).

Riots and protests are the cry of a positive nihilism of sorts. I think, for me, this is why discrediting the protestors seems inane. Criticizing the protestors misses the question of Du Bois, asked in their actions: “Would America have been America without her Negro people?” That question is being asked still today, Is America really America without its’ minority populations? David Walker was right in his “Appeal” in saying that African Americans were the only ones who truly appreciate the notion of liberty.

UPDATED: An Open Letter To Carroll High School

[Due to frequent misreading and complaints I am removing three sentences that appeared here originally. This is a generic post and reading it as anything other is a misrepresentation of my intent here. This is not about a specific incident, but about general experiences I have had and that have been relayed to me.]

I’m ashamed to be a Patriot.

No, this isn’t about America (that’s an entirely different issue).

I’m ashamed to have been a member, if only for a year, of the Carroll community. I graduated from Carroll High School at the end of the 2013-14 school year. There’s no way I can deny that I received an excellent education. In fact, my English teacher is arguably the best teacher I’ve had from a purely academic standpoint. And I know that the teachers I had have good hearts. From my government teacher, to the gym teacher, to the prayer teacher and many more I never had the privilege to sit under. But I’m ashamed.

I’m pissed off.

When I attended Carroll I was stupid with my Twitter account. But, regardless, rumors had started before then. And after my Twitter account I was called into the administration’s office to talk to the Dean of Students. He was concerned about my safety. That’s all fine and good. But at no time were the students starting the rumors talked to. At no time were students talked to for harassment within earshot of a teacher. And I know this has happened. In fact, daily I saw men touching women without that woman’s consent. In a classroom, too. This can be a hug, playing with hair, anything, but guys have no right to do that. Were they dealt with? How does this make the community safe for women?

And now that I’m in college I’ve found out rumors have started about me again and my younger brothers are taking heat for it. Carroll, I expect more from you. But my experiences, as minor as they are, lead me to speak of something more serious that has come to my attention and a trend related to this.

This is a trend of victim punishment in numerous situation and letting the person commiting the abuse remain a student. This is about lack of pro-activity. This is about stigma. These are my suggestions, based on my experiences, the experiences of friends, and what I know of Carroll. These are not slanderous or defaming anyone. This is generic as can be.

I have a few things to say related to this to the administration and to the Carroll community, current and alumni/alumna.

1). To the administration: Expel the students who distributed the images. Start actually being proactive in dealing with harassment and bullying. Start taking it seriously and dealing with it swiftly. Don’t wait to just hear from a student. Be involved, don’t sit aloof. But most importantly please, please do not punish the victim for anything. Start teaching people that victim’s are never at fault. Catholicism has a history of siding with the oppressed, from Oscar Romero to Mother Theresa. Embrace that side of the faith you hold in such high regard. And start having mandatory sexual assault courses. Start teaching people about consent. Stop shaming people for their choices. And finally, love mercy and seek justice for victims, I say again.

2). To the students: stop circulating images of minors. Stop circulating images, stories or anything without express consent (this happens more often than not). Even then, don’t spread images which are revealing or harmful to the victim. Stop bullying. Stop being assholes. Start taking seriously the simple idea of: love other people. This means don’t start rumors. This means stop acting high and mighty because you went to PATS. This means stop using slurs. This means stop mocking mental health. This means not objectifying people. This means listening to others. This means remembering you’re in high school. This means what you do now could harm you and others for a life time. Start being decent. Have some respect. Respect the people around you. Respect yourself. And to the boys (I don’t even want to call you men) at Carroll, stop thinking with your genitals, stop using women for your gain. No means no. Alcohol means no. Start seeing women as human, too.

3). To fellow alumni/alumna: please hold your alma mater accountable. Demand justice. Demand that your community protect victims of sexual harassment and violence. Demand that mental health not be a stigma. Demand that sexual orientation, gender identity, personality, age, ability, religion, or appearance not be shamed. Demand that your alma mater become more proactive. Demand that those who bully/oppress/harass are punished and removed from the community. Make Carroll a safe place. Make it safer.

I think Carroll has potential. But if it isn’t a safe place then I have no reason to ever claim the greatness of it. As long as victims are hurt, as long as teachers remain aloof in the lunch room and in the locker rooms, as long as teachers see students as only educational objects and not humans on equal footing deserving of respect, as long as platitudes are spread, as long as the administration tries to soften truths and patronizes students, well, frankly, nothing is going to change anytime soon.

Seeking justice,

Jonas Weaver