Whitesplaining Extinction to Junot Diaz, RECAT, February 17, 2017 —
At REDCAT recently I heard Junot Diaz address a packed house and found myself wanting to whitesplain money. Diaz, the author of Drown, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and This is How You Lose Her, and the winner of a MacArthur Fellowship and many other prizes, geared his presentation to the young artists and activists from black and Latino communities who had made the trip downtown to Disney Hall. Rejecting the typical format of literary readings, Diaz stepped down off the podium and took questions from the audience, calling especially for “African-American sisters” to raise their hands. The ensuing exchanges defended the idea of basic rights, and called for solidarity and collective action against the ongoing and newly intensified campaign of aggression from the white majority. After a while Diaz read briefly from the opening of Oscar Wao, and then took more questions from the crowd. Somewhere in here, toward the end, is where I experienced the impulse to whitesplain money. How it would work: I’d raise my hand and, when called upon, ask the crowd to remember the material aspect of politics. Perhaps I’d even talk briefly about the politics of redistribution. Then, with exquisite humility, I would recommend a rebalancing away from the issues of recognition that have dominated progressive activism since the 1960s, and back toward the unapologetic taxation of the wealthy to fund social programs (see Nancy Fraser’s work on this). I would then circle back and link this redistributory politics to Diaz’s call for a positive political vision, a call I fully support, and one that is undoubtedly rooted in economics. But while this impulse to whitesplain was there, it was countered by a cautious reading of the crowd, and by an authentic respect I felt for the restorative connections Diaz was coaxing into being. I may have also sensed, deeper still, a paradoxical tension in the cultural bedrock, a tension involving the common roots of money and time.
Immediately before the Diaz reading I had been talking to some of the ace writers sponsoring the event—members of the faculty at CalArts—about Roberto Unger and the nature of time. Specifically, I had recommended an online interview in which Unger talks about his work with the physicist Lee Smolin on the philosophical implications of temporality. I first listened to this interview while driving to teach in Pomona through rush hour traffic, and an exchange around the 20 minute mark made me want to pull to the shoulder and dance a little jig. I’ve always been impressed by Unger’s ability to express complex truths with a knife-like precision, and in this interview he described mathematics as a partial and reductive simulacrum of reality, one in which “time and particularity have been sucked out of the world.” Given the centrality of mathematics to Western culture, this is, of course, the most radical of statements. The cosmos, Unger and Smolin emphasize, is historical all the way down; there is no realm of eternal truths or symmetries independent of temporality.
This is hardly an academic matter. Consider how our “supply-side” neoliberal regime roots all values in the certainties of math-based economics and abstract, quantifiable metrics. Look too at how these same values underlie the various pathologies of our hijacked democracy, and drive our accelerating stampede in the direction of species extinction and living systems collapse. Unger’s discourse on time helps to explain our strange allegiance to modes of thought and being that have generated such dangerous imbalances. On the level of human experience, time is anything but a neutral concept, pointing so emphatically, as it always does, in the direction of our own inevitable death and dying. The Siren song appeal of mathematic certainty lies concealed within a kind of magical transposition—an identification we quickly and silently make with the deathlessness of timeless laws. In terms of affect this infatuation with the abstract involves, as do other expressions of idealism, at root, a fantastical denial of mortality. And given where things are clearly heading, this “God trick” (Donna Haraway’s phrase) of disembodied knowing is a habit we must shake as fast as we can, even if it leaves us unable to whitesplain the importance of redistribution at a Junot Diaz reading at REDCAT.
The last question Diaz took from the audience had to do with the writer’s craft—how to select, out of the range of experiences, the most promising material to write about. “It’s not about you,” Diaz cautioned, “it’s about the story you want to tell.” Expanding on this answer, the novelist rejected the ideal of brilliance, and defended instead the value of methodical technique and grounded practice—working always to locate what his characters would urgently care about right now in their imagined lives. Embracing the ideal of the humble technician over the prophetic visionary, Diaz advised his audience to give the reader the freedom to decide what is brilliant, and focus instead on the task at hand. Diaz’s advice aligns nicely with the emphasis in contemporary material philosophy on techne over episteme—these are fancy Greek words for the embodied, practical knowledge of craft (techne) over the kind of disembodied conceptual thought (episteme) that achieves its purest expression in mathematics. On the night I sat in the audience at REDCAT, the resonance between Diaz’s craft-based approach to writing fiction and Unger’s defense of historicity seemed especially strong. In terms of cultural politics, flights of abstraction always involve the projection of death-anxiety onto others, and a dream-like effort to eradicate death and dying through a substitutive assault on the same.
One of my favorite scientists now engaged in political philosophy is Isabelle Stengers, especially her 2005 book, written with Phillip Pignarre, Capitalist Sorcery. Analyzing the anti-globalist “battle of Seattle” of 1998, Stengers and Pignarre describe contemporary neoliberal capitalism as a system of “sorcery without sorcerers,” and focus on what it might mean to “break the spell.” After the 2016 election, these questions are, of course, especially urgent, and Stengers’s materialist view of the challenges confronting progressive activists seems to me especially relevant. Since sorcery is a prime example of techne, this way of looking at capitalism fits neatly within the emphasis Diaz placed on the techne of the writer and of artistic processes generally. The opening paragraph of Oscar Wao, which Diaz read that night at REDCAT, centers around the fuku Americanus—an African spell triggered by the arrival of slaves in the late 16th century. Seated in the audience and exerting some whitesplaining impulse control, I saw instead the way this sequence of ideas points also in the direction of the most important sorcery-object you will ever encounter: the coin, i.e. money. In his analysis of debt, David Graeber has written about these connections, citing recent work by classicists and anthropologists who view philosophy itself as, to some extent, the product of the coin. Greek philosophers, from this point of view, encountered the idea of an impersonal all-powerful realm of truth through their direct experience of metal coinage and the abstract valuations it had recently introduced into the social milieu. Through a diabolical kind of self-cloaking mechanism, this little innovation of coinage thereby gave rise to a mode of knowing in which its actual effects could not be clearly perceived. Chillingly, the Greeks fashioned their first coins out of the metal hubs used to fix sacrificial offering to spits as they were readied for the fire: drachmas these were called (Seaford, 102). The closeness to sacrificial ritual was no coincidence: the sorcery aspect was baked into these flashing talismanic objects from the beginning.
In our relations with the financial object we fall under the spell of timelessness and the alluring idea of immortality. What does it look and feel like to get sucked into the coin’s sorcery spell of abstraction? Our civilization is largely an answer to this question. And yes, it really is a Greek thing, a white man thing, a long, bloody Ahab mission toward the big abyss. To counter the spell of capitalist sorcery Stengers and Pignarre counsel an embrace of yearning as illustrated, especially, by the history of Afro-American spirituality. Yearning, the authors write, “conjugates hope, the plaintive cry and desire, that for which the soul at one and the same time has a thirst and does not have the power to define what it thirsts for” (48). Right on cue this year we have the Academy Award nominated documentary I Am Not Your Negro directed by Raoul Peck and based on the writings of the late, great James Baldwin. In the film, Baldwin, speaking in an interview from the 1960s, delivers a challenge to white Americans that resonates down through the years with an amplifying impact: why did we need to invent the abject figure of the despised negro? The mystery of what could possibly be driving this endless projective aggression is deep and compelling in 2017, a year in which one of the two political parties, not coincidentally, is rushing to trade the gains of the Civil Rights movement, indeed the basic protections of the U.S. Constitution, for a lower marginal tax rate.
To address Baldwin’s challenge, let’s look more closely at the little circuit sketched out above. First, the coin creates an abstract mode of thought. This mode of thought provides a seductive refuge from the alarming ephemerality of life, but the byproduct of this seductive relationship is a separation from the actual world we share with others. I’m haunted by how certain versions of affect theory link separation to the affect we find most challenging, most intolerable to bear—shame. Abstract knowing may thus create two things—an illusory sense of invulnerability on the one hand, and actual shame on the other. We could expect a system such as the American economy that runs almost entirely on the abstract values of money, and on the dream of endless happiness, to constantly generate a monstrous secondary production of shame-affect. This mechanism of abstraction, quantification, separation and shame forms a recursive circuit of violence—a death-logic rooted in the coin and in the financial. The affective economy of each individual requires an off-loading of the intolerable affects of separation and shame, and the projective mechanisms of the human psyche are only too happy to oblige. Okay, so now we need an object, an Other on which to dump this shame we are busily cultivating as a by-product of our marvelous visions of deathless mastery and control. It is this affective surplus, I suspect, that explains the persistence of anti-black racism, from the terrorism of the post-Civil War South all the way forward to the carceral state of today. The injustice of this arrangement is a “hidden cost” we can no longer afford to pay—it must be dragged into the light and disavowed. And, since this would entail deconstructing, as a matter of political techne, the spell of money, our collective future is, as Baldwin puts it, “exactly as bright or as dark” as our success in this project. Understanding these dynamics—this sorcery—with greater clarity would be the first step toward true autonomy for all those who had travelled LA’s long roads to hear Diaz speak about a better future.
Seaford, Richard. Money and the Early Greek Mind. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP. 2004.