Voyou Désœuvré

I’ve always thought “lumpenproletariat” was a bit of a zombie term. Marx invented the term but never really theorized it, instead presenting it – on those few occasions when he used the term more than in passing – through images of heterogeneity:

Alongside decayed roués with dubious means of subsistence and of dubious origin, alongside ruined and adventurous offshoots of the bourgeoisie, were vagabonds, discharged soldiers, discharged jailbirds, escaped galley slaves, swindlers, mountebanks, lazzaroni, pickpockets, tricksters, gamblers, maquereaus, brothel keepers, porters, literati, organgrinders, ragpickers, knife grinders, tinkers, beggars – in short, the whole indefinite, disintegrated mass, thrown hither and thither, which the French term la bohème (The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte).

Indeed, this untheorizable diversity, which “endlessly proliferates categories to encompass the spectacle of the metropolis,” may be the point of the term, as Peter Stallybrass argues in a dazzling essay on Marx and heterogeneity. But “lumpenproletariat” was taken up by Marxists as if it had a secure place within Marxist theory, as if the lumpenproletariat was a definite class with a particular role or characteristics; usually, this Marxist deployment of the term has served only to give a theoretical cover for moralism. Read more↴

I’m no expert in the nuances of French, but it’s always struck me as interesting that Derrida’s La voix et le phénomène was published in English under the title Speech and Phenomena. “Voix” could also be translated “voice,” as it is in a more recently published translation (and doesn’t speech suggest a different book called La parole et le phénomène?). I find this interesting because of a faint difference of meaning between “voice” and “speech,” which for all I know isn’t reflected in the meanings of voix but which anyway seems relevant to the book, and to Derrida’s work. Speech has a stronger connection with language as social and conventional, whereas voice is more embodied. What’s interesting about this distinction is how it reflects the English reception of Derrida’s work, particularly the way in which connecting Derrida with the “linguistic turn” might have occluded important features of his work. I’m thinking particularly here of the importance of phenomenology to Derrida’s early development of his philosophy. The story I got told when I was introduced to Derrida was one which placed Derrida, and post-structuralism more generally, one one side, and the opponent of this side was phenomenology. This kind of direct opposition now seems to me very un-Derridean, and indeed looking again at his early work, it’s clear that the deconstruction of phenomenology is not a rejection of phenomenology, but retains phenomenology with a deconstructive twist. The narrative which set up an opposition between speech and phenomena, or which posited a linguistic turn against phenomenology, however, has had important theoretical ramifications. Read more↴

Snow White and the Huntsman is certainly not a “good” film, although some of the ways in which it isn’t good I find endearing. It’s in the tradition of genre films that don’t have much narrative coherence – events happen, but there’s little sense of why any event follows from any other, or of any lasting significance to any event after it is over. In this, it reminds me of a few films I’ve seen over the past few years of which I’m rather inexplicably fond, particularly Aeon Flux and Dungeons and Dragons (the “sequence of unrelated events” structure is particularly appropriate in this case, as that is the underlying structure of a game of D&D); but the film that’s really in the back of my mind, and which explains my attraction to these incoherent films, is The Neverending Story. Read more↴

White audience members’ consequent “panic,” she notes, is simultaneously posited as an intended effect, a positing that locates and circumscribes [artist Adrian] Piper as a strategizing subject. Rather than remaining cognizant of how their panic is produced in the moment of their own receptive uptake, white interlocutors instead construe Piper as the sovereign and willful originator of their discomfort, disorientation, and shock. (Shannon Jackson, Professing Performance, 186)

(Note that this video contains repeated uses of the n-word.) Read more↴

I was very happy to see this response from the newly-formed coalition at Berkeley to the stupid College Republican bake sale. As College Republican groups have been doing for years, the Berkeley group decided to sell cupcakes at different prices to people of different races to make some kind of facile point about affirmative action.  The thing about the Republican stunt is that it’s stupid, and intentionally so, which makes it difficult to know how to respond. The coalition, as it turned out, had the right strategy – ignore the ten racist wankers with cupcakes, and organize a few hundreds students, mostly of color, in a striking demonstration of their visibility on Sproul Plaza. Don’t engage with the idiots, just show how pathetic and marginal they are.

I was happy to see this successful response, because the response from the University administration had been (predictably) useless, and the response from Student Government (perhaps not quite as predictably), also awful. Read more↴

Towards the end of this interview with Doug Henwood, Adolph Reed criticizes the tendency to describe the effect of race on contemporary politics using analogies drawn from the racism of the past—as a “new slavery” or “new Jim Crow.” I was reminded of Benjamin’s “On the Concept of History”:

One reason why Fascism has a chance is that in the name of progress its opponents treat it as a historical norm. The current amazement that the things we are experiencing are ‘still’ possible in the twentieth century is not philosophical. This amazement is not the beginning of knowledge—unless it is the knowledge that the view of history which gives rise to it is untenable.

It’s no accident that the description of contemporary racism in terms of past racism appeals to progressives, because the structure of the argument is itself progressive; that is, it suggests that there is a natural tendency for things to get better, and things which are bad are bad because they are outdated. This view presents racism as an atavism, and, in doing so, actually downplays the importance and persistence of racialized inequality; racism, it suggests, should have ceased to exist some time back in the 50s, but mysteriously has failed to do so.