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Monthly Archives: June 2010

In the United States, and in particular for people who were raised on neoliberalism (roughly, those who became aware of the world during or after the Reagan administration), a commitment to colorblindness and individual achievement make cultural sense. If we are to undermine neoliberalism’s dominance, then, we must start by troubling the assumptions that make it possible.

Beginning with the idealization of colorblindness, Jodi Melamed helpfully explains in her 2006 piece “The Spirit of Neoliberalism: From Racial Liberalism to Neoliberal Multiculturalism” (tragically, Duke UP won’t even allow open access to the abstract) how it is that race becomes invisible under neoliberalism. As “new categories of privilege and stigma overlay older, conventional racial categories, so that traditionally recognized racial identities—black, Asian, white, or Arab/Muslim—can now occupy both sides of the privilege/stigma opposition,” being less privileged (and, indeed, stigmatized as nonnormative) no longer aligns precisely with race, and it becomes even easier to attribute lesser success to individual factors rather than structures such as racism (pp. 2-3).

This move, then, “made it possible to ascribe stigma to segments of African American society without the act of ascription appearing to be an act of racial power,” such that one can differentiate “between ‘healthy’ African American cultural formations (those aligned with idealized American cultural norms and nationalist sentiment) and ‘pathological’ ones” (Melamed, p. 8).

In this way, because some African Americans “get it right,” the status of African Americans as a group is no longer of issue; instead, as Lisa Duggan explains in The Twilight of Equality? Neoliberalism, Cultural Politics, and the Attack on Democracy (2004), individuals are imagined to “choose” to succeed or fail: “inequalities are routinely assigned to ‘private’ life, understood as ‘natural,’ and bracketed away from the consideration in the ‘public’ life of the state” ( p. 5). In this way, neoliberalism can both express a concern for racial inequality and perpetuate it.

Alternately, even if one values only neoliberalism’s economic tenets, it is still based on false premises and fails on its own terms (which, according to Hegelian dialectic, is what brings down each social structure anyway).

Neoliberalism works through an “equation of economic activity with voluntary, uncoerced, private freedom,” such that, if we can show that people are not actually “free” in this sense we can undermine the practice of treating them as if they are (Duggan,  p. 13).

This is to call attention to the structural determinants of decisions—workers don’t really freely choose their working conditions, so the simple supply-and-demand model that says they can just leave if they aren’t getting paid enough doesn’t really match up to reality, and this lack of freedom gets multiplied for criminalized populations such as men of color and welfare recipients.

Moreover, the “free” market isn’t so free either, such that neoliberalism fails at its own premises. As Duggan  points out, “inefficient, unprofitable ‘private’ industries routinely request and receive government support, even direct subsidies” (p. 13), a point that has become crystal clear since the start of the recent economic meltdown.

Individuals can’t “compete” fairly, and corporations don’t; in this way the premises upon which neoliberalism makes sense prove to be illusory.

An idea that has been at the forefront of my thinking of late is of the strangeness of bedfellows: some

By Paul Robinson (New Image, Self made) [LGPL (,

people are in bed together and don’t realize it, others are in bed together and probably shouldn’t be, and still others are could or should be in bed together but aren’t—in short, the bedfellows idea helps make sense of why it is that typical modes of identity-politics organizing don’t really work.

To begin with those who have radically different commitments but operate from and support the same premises—those who are in bed together and don’t realize it—the connections are surprising. In his 2003 book Aberrations in Black: Toward a Queer of Color Critique Roderick Ferguson usefully points out the ways in which “the discourse of black matriarchy” brought together very different groups as, “in addition to seducing black nationalists, that discourse facilitated a conservative blockade of social welfare policy in the United States” (p 124).

This is to say that the Black Panthers operated from a position that, like the so-called Moynihan Report (Officially called The Negro Family: The Case for National Action and available here), saw racism as emasculating and figured its correction as revolving around seizing manly agency, and this stance made them complicit with “U. S. nationalism, cultural nationalism, and the civil rights movement”—people they would never have though themselves like—due to their common “beliefs in heteropatriarchal discourses and practices”(Ferguson, 2003, pp. 115, 113).

Moreover, the black matriarchy discourse construction of the African American family as not only pathological but incompatible with achievement in the American system justified welfare reformers’ refusal to “sanction” it by financially supporting said matriarchs, thus making the Black Panthers in a sense also complicit with neoconservatism (Ferguson, 2003, pp. 124-5).

Similarly, Andrea Smith, in her Native Americans and the Christian Right: The Gendered Politics of Unlikely Alliances (2008) points out the ways in which leftist causes often appeal to the same values as rightist premises—for example, “choice” in the case of abortion presumes universalized choosing subjects just as the conservative personal responsibility ethos does (p. 241).

Moreover, though Clinton was generally perceived as a pro-choice president, Smith  notes that the welfare reforms passed during his presidency, in increasing pressure on poor women of color not to have children, acted to restrict reproductive freedom in much the same way (though the opposite direction) as the pro-life camp seeks ton (p. 243).

In this way, race-based nationalism or choice-based reproductive rights organizing, in taking on only a piece of the structure, fundamentally misregognizes the mutual constitution of the whole and renders one’s stated goals unachievable.

Alternately, some groups think they’re in bed together but aren’t, assuming commonality where in fact it does not inherently or transparently exist. Smith notes that “Native identity is itself a form of coalition politics” (p. 204), which illustrates the ways in which identity-political groups—in general, though some more than others as this example shows—have to elide intragroup difference so that the particular organizational principle becomes the defining feature.

That is, not every member has the same interests, and particularly there are differences in resources and what are the most pressing issues between subgroups, as Smith demonstrates with the difference between urban Indians and those who live on the reservation ( 209).

Similarly, the Combahee River Collective Statement (1981) traces out the ways in which feminist organizing assumed the primacy of gender and excluded race and Black nationalist organizing assumed the primacy of race and excluded gender; in this, each group assumed that Black feminists would join them because of their stake in the issue it prioritized, disregarding as irrelevant (or at least of lesser importance) other issues of vital interest to African American women.

In this way, it is clear that, as Smith argues, we cannot assume who our allies are in the way that typical organizing has traditionally tended to do (pp. 202, 252-3).

However, Smith also notes that we should not assume who our allies are not; the third category of strangeness in bedfellows comprises groups who could or should be in bed together but can’t see it because of how they conceive of what constitutes commonality with their cause.

Thus, Ferguson clearly articulates the links between “the devaluation of African American labor” and globalization (p. 135), showing how African Americans and anticapitalist activism have a stake in the same issues, yet in practice this tends to be obscured by perceiving race and capital as separate systems. Similarly,

pathologizing women of color immigrants as wild reproducers [ . . . ] became a way of justifying cuts to public spending and obscuring the ways in which the United States needed immigrant labor. The theory of black matriarchy, in other words, helped to generate discourses about other nonheteronormative racial formations, legitimating the exploitation of nonwhite labor and devastating the lives of poor and working-class communities of color” (Ferguson, p. 136).

These different nonwhite labor populations, then, have a common stake in contesting heteronormativity, yet are frequently at odds with one another due to operating with a race-based understanding of oppression—as in, for example, Black vs. Asian tensions demonstrated in Los Angeles in the early 1990s and elsewhere.

“The key to developing a mass movement,” Smith contends, “is to convince people to exchange their pursuit of short-term interests (such as the maintenance of their white-skinned, economic status or gender privileges) for their long-term interest in creating a world based on social equality and justice for all” (p. 253).

This is to radically rethink who our bedfellows are, to move beyond organizing around identity-based categories (or, at least, essentialist understandings of them) to frame issues in ways that pull people across traditional boundaries—racial, gender, economic, or ideological.

I went to a lecture on Nietzsche a while back that I found very useful in conceptualizing the contradictions of universality and inequality (and also, incidentally, why capitalism is incompatible with Christianity, though I don’t think Michael Moore argues it quite that way in Capitalism: A Love Story). According to the lecturer, Nietzsche argues that there was, at a certain point, a shift from “good vs. bad” morality to “good vs. evil” morality.

In both cases, those who make the rules set themselves as the norm and treat those who don’t match it as deficient, but in a “good vs. bad” morality those who make the rules define themselves as superior precisely because there is a weak to their strong, a cowardly to their brave, etc. In a “good vs. evil” morality, however, those who embody the norm hold everyone to their standard and want people to change to meet it.

Universality is a “good vs. evil” morality, in which a norm is instantiated and everyone is compelled to live up to it; however, at the same time there persists a “good vs. bad” morality, in which those same people who expect everyone to live up to the norm simultaneously require a constitutive Other to produce their own superiority—that is, they require inequality.

In the context of the creation of desire for the universal position, this is produced through what Emma Pérez aptly characterizes in her 1999 book The Decolonial Imaginary: Writing Chicanas into History as a “Hegelian notion” (p. 20), a teleological narrative in which everyone should and must and will eventually get to the norm if they work hard enough—and if they fail it’s their own fault.

It thus becomes easy to see how the male, heterosexual subject becomes the organizing principle for cultural nationalism. Heterosexual men of color closely approximate the subject of universality, occupying a position of “the other as the same,” of almost but not quite (or white) (Pérez, 1999, p. 20).

Using this figure for a movement makes it much easier to argue for the rights enjoyed by the dominant group; after all, it allows activists to construct their group as differing in only one respect, which is of course then framed as a minor difference.

However, discussing activism in this way positions the turn to universality as a cynical decision, calculated against a reckoning of social tradeoffs, and there’s no reason to suspect that it truly is. Instead, it is essential to recognize that arguing for recognition by the liberal state comes from within the structure itself.

When people turn to the state to make them equal under the law, they have already subscribed to the belief that everyone should be perfectly interchangeable under the law, and consequently have also subscribed to the definition of what interchangeability looks like—white, male, and heteronormative, among other things.

Cultural nationalisms can’t take this entire, but they can change only the part that is obviously incompatible with their perceived goals and identities by excising whiteness. In doing so, they misrecognize the ways in which all of the parts of the universal subject are mutually constitutive and “failing” on any account renders one definitionally ineligible for full citizenship.

In light of this trap of liberal universality, zoot suiters’ resistance through racialized masculinities and delinquency, as described by Robin D. G. Kelley‘s 1994 Race Rebels: Culture, Politics, and the Black Working Class and Linda España-Maram’s 2006 Creating Masculinity in Los Angeles’s Little Manila: Working-Class Filipinos and Popular Culture in the United States, begins to look like a good idea. Rather than applying to the state for relief, African American and Filipino men who found themselves corralled into subservience in their daily and working lives used zoot suit culture as a means of reasserting their control over themselves.

The two cases are also structurally very similar—both groups of young men were even newer migrants to the city environments who had conflict with longer-established people of their respective ethnic groups. The existence of this gap between youth culture and the larger racial communities to which the young people belonged does point to some of the limitations of this mode of resistance (the ill-treatment of women in African-American zoot suit culture being another glaring problem).

As a way of pushing back against dominant culture, it was limited, it was disorganized, and it didn’t necessarily produce broad-scale social change, but it shows one way one might conduct activism without relying on “we’re just like you” rhetoric or appealing to the state.

Looking at The Death of the Author and What is an Author? again side-by-side confirmed to me something that I have suspected for a while now—one needs Foucault to salvage Barthes, or perhaps more broadly poststructuralism to salvage structuralism. This is to say that identifying the structures at work (play?) in a phenomenon is incomplete without an understanding of the power relations that have produced them and, crucially, work to maintain them.

Thus, executing the author and the work by fiat, as Barthes seems to want to do, doesn’t quite work. He says that “we know now that a text is not a line of words releasing a single ‘theological’ meaning (the ‘message’ of the Author-God),” and his characterization of this as something “we know now” positions it as the inevitable outcome of the march of progress: we also “know now” that the earth is round (146). Similarly, he contends that in the face of “the combined action of Marxism, Freudianism and structuralism,” the work must inevitably give way to the text (156).

Foucault, however, cautions that “we must not be taken in by his apparent interchange” in which “the history of thought, of knowledge, of philosophy, of literature, seems to be seeking, and discovering, more and more discontinuities,” arguing that we should “question teleologies and totalizations” of this sort (6, 16). Instead, his position is that we must ask “how is it that one particular statement appeared rather than another?” (27).

This is to ask after power, to recognize that believing in the “theological message of the Author-God” is not arbitrary, a mistaken impression that we must correct, but the product of a particular discursive formation—power relations—which we ignore at our peril.

Barthes figured his intervention as freeing; he believed he had pulled the keystone out of the arch, for “once the Author is removed, the claim to decipher a text becomes quite futile” (147). This is to say that, if we believe that “to give a text an Author is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing,” such that “when the Author has been found, the text is ‘explained,’” dislodging the author removes that “limit” and “final signified” and reopens the “writing” of the play of signification, destroying authority (147). He conceived of “the logic regulating the text” as “metonymic,” as an “activity of associating, continuities [and] carryings-over,” as a “liberation” (158).

However, in these characterizations he missed key workings of power—Barthes himself recognized that “the Author, when believed in, is always conceived of as the past of his own book”; his error was in believing that the author was no longer “believed in” (145).

By the same token, metonymy works through quite specific channels—a word has to have a (socially-produced) meaning in order to suggest related words, which themselves have to be fixed by the same process. Barthes’ famous “metonymic skid” (S/Z, 92) is, therefore, a sliding between necessarily fixed points.

It is this misrecognition that makes Foucault so vital to recuperating Barthes; the former recognizes that discursive formations constitute the objects about which they “speak,” such that merely doing away with one term (Author) or looking into the relations between terms (metonymy) does nothing to trouble the overall structure.

To be fair, Barthes was interested only in uncovering structures, which is the structuralist/poststructuralist divide in essence, yet Foucualt’s rejection of “writing a history of the referent” points out that uncovering what “really” happens is less important than dissecting how we talk about it (47).

Barthes is absolutely right that alongside the “work” there is an “irreducibly plural” text composed of a “network” of untraceable “quotations without inverted commas”—Foucault, too, discards the search for origins and points to the intertextual “network” of which a book is a “node” (Barthes 159, 161, 160; Foucault 25, 23). The trouble comes in thinking that by exposing these facts we are liberated from the system that produced them.

Indeed, Barthes, for all his insistence on displacing the author in favor of the reader and the consumption of works in favor of the production of texts, runs into the intractability of these structures. He argues that:

a text is made of multiple writings, drawn from many cultures and entering into mutual relations of dialogue, parody, contestation, but there is one place where this multiplicity is focused and that place is the reader, not, as was hitherto said, the author. The reader is the space on which all the quotations that make up a writing are inscribed without any of them being lost,” such that, post-author, meaning comes from the meaning of “quotations” and “cultures,” which are “inscribed” onto the reader (148).

He means this to place the reader at the center, but characterizing the relationship in such a way positions the text itself, not the reader, as the agent; though Barthes references “relations of dialogue, parody, [and] contestation,” what is relating in these ways is the “writings.”

Additionally, that the “writings” are nominalized elides the question of origin and positions them as just existing—not the production of the reader after all. Moreover the reader is the object rather than subject of inscription. In this way, overall, agency is foreclosed for the reader.

Barthes tries to uncover how we’ve had the wool pulled over our eyes, and in exposing it he seeks to liberate us to see the real relations between things, yet Foucault contends that “we must show why it could not be other than it was” (28).

That is, categories are “normative rules, institutionalized types,” not “intrinsic, autochthonous, and universally recognizable characteristics,” and it is precisely that normativity and institutionalization which are fundamental to how things have come to be how they are and the means by which they maintain themselves (22).

This is to say that these “themes whose function is to ensure the infinite continuity of discourse [ . . . ] do not come about of themselves, but are always the result of a construction the rules of which must be known, and the justifications of which must be scrutinized” (Foucault, 25).

The construction itself is what matters, its processes of normalization, institutionalization, and foreclosing of other options; this is where our scrutiny must fall rather than declaring that these rules are constructed and stopping at that, as Barthes does.

Works Cited

Barthes, R. (1975). S/Z: An Essay. New York: Hill and Wang.
—–. (1978). The Death of the Author. In S. Heath (Tran.), Image-Music-Text (pp. 142-148). New York: Hill and Wang.
Foucault, M. (1972). The Archaeology of Knowledge & The Discourse on Language. New York: Pantheon.