Tuesday, December 28, 2010

A Provisional Essay on the Essays of James Baldwin: In Response to Earlier Conversations

     I've been involved in a sporadic conversation with my friend Adam for the past couple years about novelist and essayist James Baldwin.  Our conversation has primarily focused on the essays because until recently, those are the only works of Baldwin's that I had read.  Since then, I've manage to read about half of Giovanni's Room, but my engagement with the fiction is still pretty superficial.  Not surprisingly, since he is writing a chapter on Baldwin, Adam has read a number of the novels as well as the essay work.  Our conversations have focused on a particular interpretation that Adam has suggested about the essay work of Baldwin.  He has argued that there is a shift in Baldwin's work from the early essays that operate within the framework of the New York intellectuals, critiquing the forms of sentimentality in the work of Harriet Beecher Stowe and Richard Wright to his later work focused on advocacy for the struggles of the civil rights movement and the new left.

    There is certainly evidence for this position.  The early essays of Baldwin were sharply critical of the political positions and, more significantly, the aesthetic engagement of the left.  These critiques primarily focused on a critique of sentimentality. For Baldwin, "Sentimentality, the ostentatious parading of excessive and spurious emotion, is the mark of dishonesty, the inability to feel; the wet eyes of the sentimentalist betray his aversion to experience, his fear of life, his arid heart; and it is always therefore, the signal of secret and violent inhumanity, the mask of cruelty."  The early essays focused on this form of ideological critique, focusing on the deception of conventional narratives, and their ability to legitimate systems of domination.  This analysis was turned against the work of Richard Wright, popular film, and popular periodicals.  He also turned it against the hypocrisy of the presidential campaign of the radical Progressive Party.

     Additionally, the later work showed a commitment to a number of political struggles that were previously dealt with a certain level skepticism in the earlier works.  Baldwin wrote advocacy pieces for Angela Davis, the Black Panthers, and in support of the sit-in demonstrations of the civil rights moment.  As Baldwin became more popular, he also became a spokesman for the movement, representing struggles within the pages of journals and on the television.  Evidently, this new stance alienated his earlier audience, who refused to accept that a committed intellectual could also play the role of critic, abandoning the distance that they believed was crucial to the position of an honest intellectual.  From their position, Baldwin had abandoned his role as the proper liberal intellectual, taking the role as activist and advocate.

     However, even the early essays don't fall into the narrative arc of the New York intellectuals.  Baldwin was committed to the same linkage of the narratives, focusing on the relationship between sentimentality, kitsch, and totalitarianism.  But Baldwin's commitment to anti-racism brought in a different dimension to Baldwin's work from the beginning.  That commitment pushed Baldwin towards a critique of European civilization as such.  He recognized that the concept of race, and the forms of domination and colonialism entangled within it, was intimately linked to the European world system, a system that the United States was the latest beneficiary of.  However, the unique role of slavery had disrupted that system, breaking down the border between the colonizer and the colonized.  That contradiction is linked to the breakdown of the system.  Baldwin noted in the final essay of the collection, "The world is white no longer, and it will never be white again." ("Stranger in the Village", 129)  Although, Baldwin's later work would present a far more pessimistic vision of the 'lie' of race, it still turned the critical tools of the New York intellectuals against their vaunted Western tradition.
  Additionally, the linkage between Baldwin and the New Left was considerably less amicable then Baldwin's critics would have thought.  Baldwin was frequently seen as a member of the establishment by groups such as the Black Panthers, and his relationship with the radicals in those movements were frequently quite tense.  Rather than falling into a simple one-sided image of the struggles as advocate, Baldwin continued to attempt to break out of the deceptive structure of conventional narrative structures.  For Baldwin, the advantage of the new social movements was their challenge to the European social order now dominated by the United States.  It was a critique of the lie of whiteness.  Rather than representing a radical shift in the thinking process of Baldwin, the later essays operated as a continuation of both his criticism of the social symbolic order and the conventional narratives that supported it.  The difference between the periods is historical, rather than a shift in Baldwin's thought.  Instead, the real transformation could be linked to a set of challenges to the symbolic system, through anti-colonial struggles, civil rights, etc.

   The new collected set of essays collecting the material unpublished in the earlier set of essays published by the Library of America contribute to a greater sense of continuity in the narratives produced by Baldwin.  That central theme can be reduced to the title of one the essays of the collection, "The White Problem."   Whiteness constitutes the central contradiction, framing the lie called race.  The lie of whiteness and the lie of race refuses to recognize the intimacy of relations that exist in the United States within the forms of domination that define it.  This refusal to recognize this fact is crucial to maintaining these modes of dubious privilege.  Furthermore, they are maintained through the mediocrity of popular conventional narratives.  In effect, the modes of critique offered by the New York intellectuals against mass culture, against the supposed totalitarianism of the 2nd World are turned against the so-called free world of the United States, revealing its untruth, its modes of domination, etc.  At the heart of that system is the abasement and domination of blackness, contributing to the abasement of everyone.  This problematic is probably most directly expressed in a small section of the essay, "On Being White... And Other Lies."  He states,

    "Just so the white community as a means of keeping itself white, elect, as they imagine, their political representatives.  No nation in the world , including England is represented by so stunning a pantheon of the relentlessly mediocre.  I will not name names--I will leave that to you.
     But this cowardice, this necessity of justifying a totally false identity and of justifying what must be called a genocidal history, has placed everyone now living into the hands of the most ignorant and powerful people the world has ever seen.  And how did they get that way?  By deciding that they were white.  By opting for safety instead of life.  By persuading themselves that a black child's life meant nothing compared with a white child's life.  By abandoning their children to the things white men could buy.  By informing human integrity that those who call themselves white were bound to respect.  And in this debasement and definition of black people, they debased and defined themselves.

     And they have brought humanity to the edge of oblivion: because they think they are white."

Interlude (4): The James Baldwin-Malcolm X Radio Debate (There's is a third person involved who remains unidentified.)

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Polemics and Discussion: A Sort of Response to Michael Wood

This is the first of the articles that I wrote for the Arise! Journal.  It was written in response to a polemic written by an unrelated former anarchist, turned Marxist-Leninist.  The influence of Foucault is obvious, and folks who have read some of the other material on the blog will probably recognize continued themes and concepts.  There has been a thread in my writing that has been focused in conceptualizing a radical form of pluralism.  I'm not sure if that has been successful or not, but it's been a constant issue.  To be honest, there are some formal issues with the article.  Most notably, I probably wouldn't have brought in so much of Foucault's text, or at least offer more context for the material.  In any case, here is the article.

At the beginning of Michael’s article he states that he was initially interested in the issue of what he calls “left sectarianism” before he decided discussing the “role of white activists in anti-racist struggles.”  Michael argues that because of recent events, these issues have become paramount.  No doubt they are.  But I am going to return to his initial question as a form of a response.  It may be that it is only in examining the questions of “left sectarianism” that we can begin to address the questions that Michael seems to be interested in.
            To be completely honest, I am not so much interested in dealing with “left sectarianism” so much as I am interested in dealing with the inevitable response of “anti-sectarianism”.  This call for a form of “anti-sectarian” politics is inevitable for all parties involved, from reformists, to Marxist-Leninists, and often even anarchists.  At the same time, the individual that is acting as the “sectarian” is always the other, whether that is a member of a different Marxist-Leninist sect, or someone who believes in a different philosophy.  This is the question I want to investigate, how does a call for an end of fighting become another weapon within that fighting.
Before we try to explain this phenomenon directly, we need to take a bit of a detour.  There is an interesting interview with Michel Foucault, in which he is asked about his aversion to polemics, and he responds,  “I like discussions, and when I am asked questions, I try to answer them.  It’s true that I don’t like to get involved in polemics.  If I open a book and see the author is accusing an adversary of “infantile leftism,” I shut it again right away.  That’s not my way of doing things; I don’t belong to the world of people who do things that way.  I insist on this difference as something essential: a whole morality is at stake, the morality that concerns the search for the truth and the relation to the other.”[1]
            In this section of Foucault’s response, two concepts come up, the idea of discussions and the idea of polemics.  This notion of polemics is defined in the following way, “The polemicist… proceeds encased in privileges that he possesses in advance, and will never agree to question.  On principle, he possesses rights authorizing him to wage war and making that struggle a just undertaking; the person he confronts is not a partner in the search for the truth but an adversary, an enemy who is wrong, who is harmful, and whose very existence constitutes a threat.  For him, then, the game consists not of recognizing this person as a subject having the right to speak but of abolishing him, as an interlocutor, from any possible dialogue; and his final objective will be not to come as close as possible to a difficult truth but to bring about the triumph of the just cause he has been manifestly upholding from the beginning.”[2]
            This creates a specific set of political practices.  “Polemics defines alliances, recruits partisans, unites interests or opinions, represents a party; it establishes the other as an enemy, an upholder of opposed interests against which one must fight until the moment that this enemy is defeated and either surrenders or disappears.”[3] These alliances are implicitly built on a framework that is perceived to be already there.  In effect, this type of alliance is built upon a powerful conception of teleology, and one that does not allow for a great deal of negotiation.  The polemicist is the one who can stand up and say that, “I have the way” and just as significantly, those who question this path need to be crushed.  The fact is that the logical path of polemicist is a politics of control, because after all, they do know better.[4]
            Let’s move back to the issue of “anti-sectarianism” and see how it relates to polemics.  Now what does this term “anti-sectarianism” mean?  It’s one that I have heard bandied about quite a bit, primarily within Marxist-Leninist circles.  It has a sort of circular function within the various circles engaged in that type of politic.  Every section looks out and sees a left sectarian in the form of their opponents.
            When the term “anti-sectarianism” comes up, I imagine to men brawling on the streets, I mean really going at, gouging at each others' eyes, kicking, using whatever weapons they can reach for.  At the same time, each man is yelling at the other one, “We must cooperate!  This conflict is futile!  We must put our differences aside to fight the common enemy!”  And yet they continue to fight.
            This may seem like a bizarre, even contradictory situation, until one realizes that the words that the two men are engaging in are just another weapon that have available to them.  They are engaging in polemics.  When Marxist-Leninists scream the same type of slogans, they’re doing the same thing, using a weapon to dominate the others, because the cooperation that they want is in fact no cooperation at all.
            It’s at this point that Michael’s article becomes relevant.  One can argue that the issues are apples and oranges since Michael ostensibly doesn’t deal with the issue of “anti-sectarianism”, but rather the issue of white organizers dealing with issues of people of color.  In making an attempt to examine this issue, Michael creates a narrative of anti-racism.  At the moments of progress, we find a proper Marxist-Leninist analysis occurring, when there are failures, there was a lack of understanding, and frequently a betrayal[5] of this understanding.  So we are faced with an opinion that change can only occur through a specific form of Marxist-Leninist politics.
            In doing this, Michael makes a strong polemical attack against the Communist Party of the United States.  Now an interesting piece could be written about the CPUSA and the ways that it approached race within different periods of its history.  It would be a history of contingencies, a domination of the Soviet Union’s interests over the interests over the interests of the indigenous party, ambitions, alliances, and yes, even betrayals, but we don’t get that from Michael’s narrative.  Instead we are given an easily digestible narrative that presents a polemic of a shining path forward that has been constantly betrayed.
            The frustrating thing is that Michael asks an interesting question, one that is certainly not a new one, but still an interesting dilemma nonetheless.  The simple fact is that activism has had a propensity to follow that same exclusionary logic of the rest of the country, separate and unequal.  The problem is that this dilemma simply cannot be untangled within a polemic.  Michael puts up a question, what is the role of white activists when dealing with issues that touch upon people of color, but it is clear that the focus of his article is in support of a particular form of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism.
            In fact the issue of white activists working with people of color isn’t really dealt with at all in any substance.  Michael makes a few maneuvers to state that proper activists should act with “principle”, but that’s about all.  Instead, I think that we need to look at this question within what Foucault referred to the “relation to the other.”  
            Audre Lorde makes an extremely cogent comment about this issue, “Institutionalized rejection of difference is an absolute necessity in a profit economy which needs outsiders as surplus people.  As members of such an economy, we have all been programmed to respond to the human differences between us with fear and loathing and to handle that difference in one of three ways: ignore it, and if that is not possible, copy it if we think it is dominant, or destroy it if we think it is subordinate.  But we have no patterns for relating across our human differences as equals.  As a result those differences have been misnamed and misused in the name of separation and confusion.”[6]
            Lorde’s comments present us the problem that Michael’s article never really wants to address.  After all, the attempt to negotiate difference within the framework of equality puts one into rather murky waters.  It’s very possible that in the attempt to do this, he could possibly say something that would take him from his position as the polemicist judge and place him in the position of fallibility like the rest of us.  After all, Lorde is stating rather explicitly that we do not have a way of negotiating difference in front of us, and by implication, it is something that we need to create.  In effect, we must abandon the safety of any teleology, whether that is the shining path forward of Marxist-Leninism or the golden road backwards of primitivism.
            In effect we need to return to Foucault’s second concept to pull us out of this bind.  In his discussion of polemics and discussion, he privileges discussion.  He defines this as a “serious play of questions and answers”, and one in which “the rights of each person are in some sense immanent in the discussion.”  He goes on to point out that “the person asking the questions is merely exercising the right that has been given to him: to remain unconvinced, to perceive a contradiction, to require more information, to emphasize different postulates, to point out faulty reasoning, and so on.  As for the person answering the questions, he too exercises a right that does not go beyond the discussion itself; by the logic of his own discourse, he is tied to what he said earlier, and by the acceptance of dialogue he is tied to the questioning of the other.” Questions and answers depend on a game—a game that is at once pleasant and difficult—in which each of the two partners take pains to use only the rights given him by the other and by the accepted form of the dialogue.”[7]
            This form of communication that Foucault entitles “discussion” is perhaps the way out of the dilemma that Lorde puts in front of us.  It creates a forum for difference to be negotiated in a manner that neither demands assimilation nor destruction of the other.  There is nothing assumed within this relationship.  If a project or telos comes out of it, it will have been created within the logic of the relationship and not beforehand, and more significantly, it will be subject to constant revision within that relationship.
            To return this question to the issue of white activists working with people of color, it seems that the primarily white activist community makes far too many assumptions when it makes contact with communities of color.  These assumptions take a number of forms, ranging from making assumptions on issues and tactics, to making assumptions by not recognizing the complexities and antagonisms that exist within those communities.  Additionally, those activists don't recognize the structures of privilege that there activism is built upon.  It’s not productive to enter into these discussions in a state of abjection, at the same time; neither can we enter under the premise that we have the answers to everything.
            I know that there is nothing contained within that last paragraph that hasn’t been said a hundred thousand times before, and yet, for the most part it is ignored.  The question of why that is true could probably fill a book, but the one thing that I want to return to is the absence of real discussion.  Our primary modes of communication with the other, whether that other is someone who disagrees with us ideologically or simply not an activist, is one of polemics.  We chant at demos, ask choreographed questions at forums, our publications are painfully predictable in content and form, etc.  In short, the responses that we give to questions of difference are really not all that far off from the ones that Audre Lorde describes, we ignore it, and if we can’t do that, we try to assimilate to it if it seems powerful, and destroy it if it seems weak. 
There is nothing simple contained within this model.  It is not just a matter of behaving in a “principled” manner, but changing a whole series of entrenched informal structures in the way that we communicate with each other.  It’s hardly hip or popular right now, but late second wave, and early third wave feminism has given a great deal of thought to the issues of communication and difference, and a return to those discussions and practices might allow for new forms of community to arise.      

[1] Foucault, Michel, “Polemics, Politics, and Problematizations” in Foucault, Michel, Ethics, Subjectivity, and Truth (New York: The New Press, 1997), 111.
[2] Foucault, Michel, “Polemics, Politics, and Problematizations”, 112.
[3] ibid., 112.
[4]I would argue that there is an interesting parallel between the concept of polemics that Foucault describes as a “parasite” to discussion in the way that Antonio Negri points out the way that constituted power (potere) acts in relation to constituent power (potenzas).  In fact, I would argue that there is not just an analogy between the two, but a homology.  (See Negri, Antonio, Insurgencies  and Negri, Antonio and Hardt, Michael, Empire)
[5] ironically, by invoking the tradition of “betrayal”, Michael is engaging in the primary mistake that dogmatic Trotskyists make by ignoring structural problems, for individual faults, and villainy
[6] in Sandoval, Chela, Methodology of the Oppressed (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), 117.
[7] Foucault, Michel, “Polemics, Politics, and Problematizations”, 111.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The last quarter

     I haven't been able to post much this month.  I've been caught up with the process of grading final exams, and preparing the travel to Minneapolis for the holidays.  Additionally, I am trying to finish a chapter of my exam over the holiday season, so I have been spending more time thinking about Judith Merril, and less on the blog.  However, beyond that, I think that I have been caught up in the current malaise that has been defining the current activist milieu within California student activist circles.  This situation has a number of factors influencing it.  The factors that immediately come to mind are as follows.  1. a sense of despair about what the movement (at this point, I think it would be disingenuous to refer to the activism of the year as constituting a 'movement.') accomplished last year despite the level of activity.  2.  substantial schisms within the movement because of personal and political differences.  Along with that, there has been little effort to deal with issues of racism and sexism within the movement.  3.   In addition to these substantial internal issues, there has been a great deal more repression from the administration, ranging from arrests to student conduct charges.
        Those are the issues that immediately came to mind, and I suspect that there some substantial issues that I forgot about or don't know about.  Often its only until well after a situation is over that we can understand its causes.  To be honest, I'm at a loss at how to reorient the current situation to revive the movement from last year (or if that is possible or even desirable.)  At the same time, despite all the issues over the past year, it is pretty clear that our substantial activism was the only reason that there weren't more cuts to the university system or further acts of privatization on the part of the regents.  We are also moving towards a fairly substantial set of struggles in response to the potential austerity program that will most likely be introduced by President Obama, including cuts to Social Security.  Without opposition, there will continue to be a retrenchment of bourgeois class power, a retrenchment that only can be understood in the context of a backlash against the civil rights movement and feminism.  We need to see the struggle at the university within that context.
     At this point, I am in danger of repeating myself, so I thought I would see what you thought about this.  What do you think that we should focus on as student activists next year?  Should this focus on reviving the movement from last year or should it try to create something new, something that might deal with the contradictions and power differences that are inherent to the category 'student'?  How can we effectively communicate our desire to create a new, genuinely public university to a population who are often all too aware of the university's role in facilitation of inequality?  How can we move towards that ideal in some substantial form?  What am I missing out within this analysis?  Thus far, I haven't had much luck in translating this blog into a space for communication, but I thought I would try again.
       As a last note, there are a number of student activists who now face charges for a sit in that occurred last spring.  Whatever we decide on, we need to provide substantial support for those folks. 

Monday, December 20, 2010

Hegel and Gramsci: a brief comment

         It's been a while since I've posted something up here, primarily because of grading, but I've also been trying to finish up a chapter for the dissertation without a great deal of success.  Within that process, I've begun to read Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit.  I've managed to avoid reading Hegel throughout my undergrad years, as well as my years in grad school, but a couple comments my by Gopal Balakrishnan as well as the recent seminar I took on politics after expectation made me rethink that.  I've only gotten through part of the preface at this point, and its been a mixed bag.  There are moments in the text that remind me why I have been avoiding Hegel for so long, moments that I don't grasp, but there are also moments that are quite interesting.  Section 31 of the Preface is a good example of the interesting moments in the text.  It develops an approach to critical thought that Balakrishnan saw as crucial to Hegel's relationship to Marx, as well as a method of thinking that I had unknowingly adopted from Hegel's work through the work of Marx and, perhaps more directly, Gramsci.  Hegel makes the following assertion within that section.  
       "Quite generally, the familiar, just because it is familiar, is not cognitively understood. The commonest way in which we deceive either ourselves or others about understanding is by assuming something as familiar, and accepting it on that account; with all its pros and cons, such knowing never gets anywhere, and it knows knot why. Subject and object, God, Nature, Understanding, sensibility, and so on, are uncritically taken for granted as familiar, established as valid, and made into fixed points for starting and stopping. While these remain unmoved, the knowing activity goes back and forth between them, thus moving only on the surface. Apprehending and testing likewise consist in seeing whether everybody's impressions of the matter coincides with what is asserted about these fixed points, whether its seems that way to him or not." (Hegel, 18)
     Hegel offers a critique of a mode of thinking that Gramsci would later call 'common sense.'  For Hegel, this mode of thinking is dependent on 'familiarity.'  'Familiarity' allows for the thinker to take the categories of knowledge that produces that sense of familiarity for granted.  The thinker no longer considers the possible problems that might be involved in taking such a category for granted.  Through that absence of a process, thought becomes static, refusing to engage substantively with the causal structures of what is being analyzed.  To engage with those causal structures would demand that the thinker recognize the dynamic qualities of the dialectical process, to recognize that once valid categories of knowledge could have potentially been expelled by the spirit in such a process.  Instead, this mode of thought depends on oscillating between cliches of the familiar, producing a coercive form of consensus about the phenomenon analyzed, whether or not it actually makes sense to those who consent.  It can then lead one on a path to self-delusion, to a lack of critical engagement with the reality of the phenomenon in front of the observer or observers.
     Gramsci pushes this mode of thought farther with his notion of 'common sense.'  Gramsci sees the embrace of these familiar cliches, these static categories of knowledge within political terms.  Instead of operating within the categories of depth and shallowness that Hegel engages with in the following passage, Gramsci insists on seeing these forms of thought as ways of establishing consent for forms of domination within political systems, ways of producing consent for an established order.  Challenging such modes of thought is intimately linked with the process of challenging the logic of a particular political system as such.  Additionally for Gramsci, common sense indicates a 'spontaneous philosophy' that is created not only by experts, but by 'everybody.'  Therefore, forms of common sense simultaneously constitute a sort of voluntary servitude, but it also shows that forms of domination are, to some extent, based on the active consent of social forces, primarily through the often unconscious acceptance of specific categories of thought.  Therefore revolutionary practice is dependent on shifts in epistemology.  He states it in the following manner.
     "In other words, is it better to take part in a conception of the world mechanically imposed by the external environment, i.e. by one of the many social groups in which everyone is automatically involved from the moment of his entry into the conscious would (and this can be one's village or province; it can have its origins in the parish and the 'intellectual activity' of the local priest or aging patriarch whose wisdom is law, or the minor intellectual soured by his own stupidity and inability to act)?  Or, on the other hand, is it better to work out consciously and critically one's own conception of the world and thus, in connection with the labors of one's own brain, choose one's sphere of activity, take an active part in the creation of the history of the world, be one's own guide, refusing to accept passively and supinely from the outside the molding of one's personality?"

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Jokes, Hostility and the Production of a Community of Men

         So, my last pair of postings have been focused on the union situation, and I suspect that I will return to that topic as the organizing efforts to create a reform group within the union get underway, but I thought I would get back to some more theoretical questions.   This is an essay that I produced within the context of a psychoanalysis class a number of years ago.  It was my effort to think about the libidinal economy of the joke, and its role in creating exclusionary communities of men.  It also makes an argument for ways to challenge those structures through the joke as well.  I'll leave it there.

Jokes, Hostility and the Production of a Community of Men
“For the destruction of the racist complex presupposes not only the revolt of its victims, but the transformation of the racists themselves and, consequently, the internal decomposition of the community created by racism.  In this respect, the situation is entirely analogous, as has often been said over the last twenty years or so, with that of sexism, the overcoming of which presupposes both the revolt of women and the break-up of a community of ‘males’.”
                                    --Etienne Balibar[1]

            The above quote of Etienne Balibar’s has always been a powerful one for me.  What does it mean to be “a community of men?”  And, what produces a community of men in the first place?  I am going to approach these questions in a somewhat circumlocutory fashion through Sigmund Freud’s Jokes and their Relationship to the Unconscious.  Freud has never been particularly seen as an ally to the feminist community, and his texts are frequently seen as reinforcing the patriarchal gender structures of his time as much if not more than he deconstructs them.  His book on The Joke[2] is not altogether innocent of this.  However it does allow for a radical and productive way of reading community.
Freud’s book on the joke is an unusual one for him.  Unlike the majority of his texts (with the exception of perhaps Group Psychology)[3] it opens up from the small interpersonal relationships to the society at large.  The joke becomes the key to both open the intimate interpersonal forces of desire and aggression that Freud ascribes to the society at large, and to open the discussion of the society at large to the forces that Freud ascribes to the individual subject.  This strategy produces a dynamic that Jerry Aline Flieger refers to as “the joking triangle as social contagion.”[4]
            In effect, the joke must always open up to a form of community, but this form of community is never the organic whole that its advocates desire it to be.  Instead it is a confluence of relationships that is always fragmenting, splitting, breaking apart.  It is built up out of temporary alliances, common resentments, misunderstandings, etc.  It is never something that is, rather it is something always that is becoming, constituting, decomposing, and reconstituting.  In short, community is always a form of production, one that is as fractured and complex as the unconscious itself.
            The joke provides the intersection that allows these to two complex structures of the structure of the unconscious and the structure of the community to be explored. The joke offers a mechanism of contestation and alliance building within something called community.  More specifically I am interested in how the smutty joke produces a certain community of men.[5]  
            In order to get to that point, we first need to look at Freud’s conceptualization of the “joke-work”, that is, the processes that form the joke, and their relationship to the works of both dreams and the unconscious.  From there we will move into a discussion of how the “joke-work” differs from the “dream-work” in that it carries a societal effect.  I will move into a discussion of the tendentious joke, but unlike Freud, I will put less emphasis on the differences between the “hostile” joke and the “smutty” joke and instead explore the congruity of their functions.  However other than that difference, which is perhaps a merely heuristic device with Freud, I think that the text produces an excellent analysis of how a certain community of ‘jokers’ is produced.
            When looking at the production of the joke—or as Freud refers to it, joke work—it is impossible to avoid comparisons with Die Traumbedeutung.  Samuel Weber suggests this approach when he reads some of Freud’s letters to his early collaborator Willhelm Fliess in relation to the writing of Die Traumbedeutung.  Freud is at pains to excuse the “wittiness” of the dreams he recounts by stating that the processes that the unconscious comes up with are inextricably tied up in the same processes that produce wit or the joke.  Although not in the same terms, we find the same concepts within the joke as we do in the dream; some have direct analogues such as the condensation and substitutions that define verbal jokes, whereas others that are associated with the conceptual joke, such as displacement, faulty reasoning, absurdity, and forms of representation are less directly analogous.
            The idea of condensation is the most directly tied to the Die Traumbedeutung, and in many ways is the most important, as that it introduces the most important concept to the joke, the desire to psychic economy.  Condensation takes a number of different forms, from the combination of words, as in the joke of Heine’s “R. treated me quite as his equal—quite famillionairely.”[6]  In this example, the terms “familier” and “millionaire” merge to form a compound word, allowing for contradictory ideas to be contained within one idea. Condensation also allows for a quite tendentious thought to be expressed in an apparently more innocent manner.
The displacement joke is not produced through verbal play the way that the joke built on condensation is.  Instead, it relies on “the train of thought” and “not upon words.”  Freud notes,  “It’s essence lies in the diversion of the train of thought, the displacement of the psychical emphasis on to a topic other than the opening one.”[7]  The majority of the jokes that Freud terms ‘displacement’ jokes can be described as cynical jokes, such as the “Schadchen” jokes, the jokes about the cynical and mendacious matchmaker who is able to dodge around the accusations of the groom through his word play.
Jokes of unification work in a quite similar fashion, where “new and unexpected unities are set up, relations of ideas to one another, definitions made mutually or by reference to a common third element.”  Freud notes that these forms have a great deal in common with jokes built upon condensation in that they condense a number of irreconcilable ideas into a form of unity.
The other form of joke occurs within indirect representations.  Freud separates these between jokes built upon reference to a direct opposite and jokes built upon allusion.  The joke built on the opposite, says something by stating it opposite.  In effect, it says, “yes, but” when it really means no.  The joke built on allusion, on the other hand, plays off of similarities.
All of these joke structures hide something that is unacceptable to say.  The pleasure of the joke is revolves on the unearthing of what is not stated or the allusion to what is hidden or distorted within the joke.  Freud states that “the joke, it may be said, is the contribution made to the comic from the realm of the unconscious.”[8]  Freud continually emphasizes the fact that the joke can not be successful if the listener has to put a great deal of conscious effort into it.  In effect, the same mechanisms that allow the forbidden thought to be expressed in the dream are at work in the production of the joke.
            However the difference between the joke and the dream is in its transmutability, its “contagion” into society at large. There can be some linkages made between the triangular structure of the joke and the triangular oedipal structure, and in its contestations within that structure.  Both structures regulate the flow of desire, placing acceptable and unacceptable objects of desire on the table. As Freud points out, there is a highly powerful reproductive element to the joke, “An urge to tell the joke to someone else is inextricably bound up with the joke-work: indeed, this urge is so strong that it often is carried through in disregard to serious misgivings. A joke must be told to someone else.”[9]
However the analogy only holds at that level. This movement to ‘tell someone else” is not a simple one. Unlike the Oedipal complex, the joking community is not an idealized regulatory model, instead it introduces a highly slippery, antagonistic quality to it.  Freud’s concept of der Witz places contingency within the functioning of its structures:  “A person who is responsive to smut will be unable to derive any pleasure from witty jokes of exposure; Herr N.’s attacks will not be understood by uneducated people who are accustomed to give free play to their desire to insult.  Thus every joke calls for a public of its own and laughing at the same jokes is evidence of far-reaching psychical conformity.”[10]  We can push this contingency farther and more explicitly into the realm of the political.  This conception is already a multiplicity of potentially antagonistic social formations.
            From this brief sketch of the concepts, we can see that the joke operates by expressing the forbidden within terms that escape the purview of the censor, both on the level of the psyche, and on the level of the socio-political.  The question must be finally asked on how a particular community of “men” is formed by the works of the joke.  This community, I argue, is formed out of the interactions within the joking triangle.  At its core, the joke is a triangular formation.  This structure is particularly important for the “tendentious joke,” which is built upon the teller of the joke, the listener, and the person against whom the joke is directed.  In the case of the smutty joke or joke of exposure, this structure relies on a group of “men” directing a joke against a “woman.”  
            Freud begins with an imaginary origin of smut: “Smut is like an exposure of the sexually different person to whom it is directed.  By the utterance of the obscene words it compels the person who is assailed to imagine the part of the body or procedure in question and shows her that the assailant is himself imagining it.”[11]  Two things need to be recognized here.  The first is that we are already operating within a certain ideology of gender.  Freud smoothly transitions from the ambiguous terms of “person” to a “male” “assailant” and a “woman” who is being attacked.  This original act is already an aggressive one, and already accepts that it will be thwarted.
            The non-acceptance of this aggression turns this drive “hostile and cruel.”  This resistance sets up a new scenario that requires a third person, another “man” to plan out a displaced act of aggression.  “The men save up this kind of entertainment, which originally presupposed the presence of a woman who was feeling ashamed, till they are ‘alone together.’  So that gradually, in the place of the ‘woman’, the onlooker, now the listener, becomes the person to whom the smut is addressed, and owing to this transformation it is already near to assuming the character of a joke.”[12]
            This shift in audience is crucial.  In place of the thwarted object of desire, the speaker seeks solace in an alliance with his former rival, while at the same time he attempts to injure the person who thwarted his desire.  Unlike most of the other jokes that Freud relays in his book, such smutty jokes don’t seem to act in what could be termed a liberatory valiance.
Instead, as Freud carefully outlines, sexual desire transmutes into hostility, with surplus pleasure staged for the benefit of the rivals: “In the case of smut the three people are in the same relation.  The course of events may be thus described.  When the first person finds his libidinal impulse inhibited by the woman, he develops a hostile trend against that second person and calls on the originally interfering third person as his ally.  Through the first person’s smutty speech the woman is exposed before the third, who, as a listener, has now been bribed by the effortless satisfaction of his own libido.”[13]
            The act becomes a joke, one that founds a certain type of community.  This crude form of community amongst “men” can not exist without an “Other.”  This “Other” is the “woman”, who resists the sexual aggressivity of an individual “man”, with this refusal, the implicit aggressivity of desire shifts to an overtly hostile form.  The former adversaries for the ‘woman’s’ attentions build a form of alliance.  This alliance arise through an exchange that occurs within the joke, an exchange that offers the listener “the effortless satisfaction of his own libido” in exchange for the support in the hostile attack on the ‘woman’ who spurned the first’s aggression.
            The joke that originated within a certain scenario among three discreet individuals begins to shift as the drive behind the joke takes effect.  As the joke is transmitted on to other men, it begins to produce, or to be more honest, reproduce, a certain community of “men.”  This provisional community is produced in the fragile environment of the joke.  It operates on the assumption of what Freud terms “far-reaching psychical conformity.”  It operates on the common recognition and acceptance of a certain scenario.  Indeed, the joke does not create an inevitable success at forming this community; the listener may read it in a number of manners and its dynamics may misfire in any number of ways.  There is no reason that the joker himself can’t have the joke turned around on him and become the “woman” in a completely different configuration of a community of “men.”
            This expansion and abstraction requires new rules within the community form. 

Freud notes the increase of distortion that is required to allow the joke within the broader society,

“The smut becomes a joke and is only tolerated when it has the character of a joke.  The technical method which it usually employs is the allusion—that is, replacement by something small, something remotely connected, which the hearer reconstructs in his imagination into a complete and straightforward obscenity.  The greater the discrepancy between what is given directly in the form of smut and what and what it necessarily calls up in the hearer, the more refined becomes the joke and the higher, too, it may venture to climb into good society.”[14]

The joking community shifts as the level of displacement and condensation within the joke increases.  The need for the actual woman recedes and frequently the joking community operates behind closed doors in private groupings of men.  Yet Freud notes the woman is still there, as a spectral figure:  “The woman who is thought of as having been present in the initial situation is afterwards retained as though she were still present.”[15]  The imaginary presence of the woman motivates the continued use of coded language, while also charging the joke with a transgressive pleasure, against the putative “repression” of the woman who cannot hear sexually explicit material discussed out loud. 
This regulatory and restrictive force, which Freud calls “repression,” is in fact constitutive of an entire community.  It displaces the erotic and aggressive force that is the source of the joke into an increasingly complex series of secondary formations.  This force however, doesn’t lose its power as it moves along these corridors.  The joke, in effect, redirects and sublimates the individual male’s sexual aggressivity to a more comprehensive program of social aggression.  Despite these societal effects, Freud nonetheless argues that the pleasure around the joke cannot be in any sense connected to power.[16]  I have to disagree, and like Samuel Weber, follow Freud’s theorization within Beyond the Pleasure Principle, which finds in the activities of the child’s play, an underlying will to mastery.  The ‘civilizing’ effect of the joke in this case is only a normalization and intensification of the power taken by the individual male in the originary scene.
What is more, the sublimatory processes that shift the joke from a community that interacts with women in the production of its jokes (no matter how uneven that interaction is), to one that excludes women from this field of discourse, thereby eliminating the direct forms of contestation on the part of women that may have been possible in the earlier form of the community.  The “woman”[17] that is constructed in this community is absent; she cannot contest this joke.  She is posited as someone who is incapable of engaging in this form of activity.  Posited as a repressive force incapable of sexual drive, aggression, or speech, she becomes the despised object of them all.  She cannot contest the joke’s aggressivity, because it occurs through her structural absence: and when the language of the joke becomes public, its terms are so deformed that no direct response is possible.
However, my intent here is not to propose a totalizing community form.  The community of men described above does not constitute any sort of originary or uncontaminatible whole.  In a sense, it is easy to get caught up in the imaginary force of this schema, to buy into the power of its own ideology. But we must ask the question of production: how is this community produced and how does it reproduce itself?  Then we must return to the question of the individual subject, and his role in this economy.  And we must articulate the potential failures and gaps within this productive community as well.
Freud wants us to believe that “the pleasure in the case of a tendentious joke arise from a purpose being satisfied whose satisfaction would otherwise not have taken place.”  Certainly, this is true of the joke in its genesis.  But why are these tendentious jokes circulated?  And what is produced in their circulation?  Freud is diagnoses the “economy” of the joke in terms of its psychic savings, its preservation of libidinal energies.  However, the circulation of the joke suggests another way of making use of this economy.
This circulation requires a continual production of new material.  Without the renewal of material, jokes become stale, and the pleasure taken from them diminishes.  As Freud says, in order for the circuit to remain, new and fresh material must be continually introduced:  
“Thus a great number of the jokes in circulation have a certain length of life: their life runs a course made up of a period of flowering and a period of decay and it ends in complete oblivion.  The need men feel for deriving pleasure from their processes of thought is therefore constantly creating new jokes based on the new interests of the day.  The vital force of topical jokes is not their own; it is borrowed, by the method of allusion, from those other interests, the expiry of which determines the fate of the joke as well.  The factor of topicality is a source of pleasure, ephemeral it is true but particularly abundant, which supplements the sources inherent in the joke itself.”[18]
This circulation is reminiscent of “bricolage,” the using of the ideological material at hand.  This circuit engages in “bribing” the listener and the joker into keeping within its parameters.  It acts as the unconscious force that continues to reproduce the ideological nature of the community.   At the same time, the circuit of the joke is an open one.  The joker constantly pulls in new material in order to replenish ‘the vital force of topical jokes.’  In this sense, the joke is both a reproductive act, in that it preserves a certain structure of desire, while at the same time it opens up the possibilities of different types of community based on this pleasure generated by the different structural instances of the moment.
There is a second and equally important function of the joke within this community, that of policing.  The joke is not only opens a certain pathway for the circulation of desire within this community, but it also cuts off other possible structures and alliances.  It becomes a regulatory structure.  The listener has the option of either acting as the ally of the joker or becoming the but of his joke.
It must be remembered that the joking community of ‘males’, like all communities, is one built upon common notions, not a common essence.  It is a community built upon a commonality of libidinal pleasure contained in the joke, not a common psychical essence or substance, as our neo-Jungian friends would like.  This makes this community both historical and contingent.  More significantly, it is a form of community that can be changed.  
To escape this apparently monolithic construct of the society of “males,” we must return to the individual subject.  What is it that this subject gets out of these arrangements?  Freud’s argument is that the listener of the joke receives libidinal pleasure from the joke in exchange for his alliance with the joker.   As he puts it, “We are inclined to give the thought the benefit of what has pleased us in the form of the joke; and we are no longer to find anything wrong that has given us enjoyment and so to spoil the source of a pleasure.”[19]  This benefit of pleasure allows the joker to direct criticism away from himself, and displace it upon the female subject.  Its economy of shared enjoyment builds psychic homogeneity on perceived gendered difference.
Then how can one break the circuit of the joke?  It is the pleasure produced by the circulation that constructs and permits the continuation of this “community.”  Yet, the pleasure of the joke, and the community that arises out of it can take any number of forms.  The joke, and even the smutty joke, in no way has to follow this patriarchal model of community.  The joke itself can act as a mode of contestation, redirecting desire or hostility onto different series of objects, to construct quite different alliances. 
In a strange way, which is not at all that strange for Freudian thought, the disease itself becomes the cure and to read the joke in this manner is much more in line with the reading that Freud gives to the joke throughout his book.  As he points out, “The joke then represents a rebellion against that authority, a liberation from its pressure.  The charm of caricatures lies in this same factor: we laugh at them eve if they are unsuccessful simply because we count rebellion against authority as a merit.”[20]  The joke can be made into a tool of contestation along these lines.  More over, the joke itself can turn the challenging of the community of men into a pleasurable activity.
There is a deconstructive side to this as well.  In order for the libidinal economy of the smutty joke to collapse, its structure must be broken.  An approach to this may occur by the act of explicating the unspoken structure of the joke itself.  Freud himself apologizes for ruining the jokes through his explication of them.  The explication of the joke accomplishes two things.  The first is that it breaks up the economy of the joke.  It turns what was a joke into a mere statement of fact.  The second thing is it brings the structural logic of the joke out into the light of day to be examined with a critical eye, an eye that has not been bribed through the pleasure of the joke.  
At the same time, an alternative structure of pleasure must replace the old patriarchal one.  Without recognizing, and essentially embracing the discharge that is involved in telling the joke, there is no dismantling this community.  An alternative community is required to disrupt this normative structure, and that alternative community must offer a tangible reward to its members beyond the non-transgression of some form of morality.  Transformation must occur within new forms of desire, and communities built upon that desire.  Yet all too often, in an attempt to challenge the power of the community of “men” that is produced through the joke, the joke itself is made the target of assault.  Such strategies, however “correct,” are bound to fail.  The drive and desire generated by the joke cannot be destroyed, but it can be shifted and displaced onto new objects into new contexts.  Without the recognition and embrace of this desire, the internal decomposition of a community of “men” is not possible. 

[1] Balibar, Etienne “Is There A ‘Neo-Racism’” in Etienne Balibar and Immanuel Wallerstein, Race, Nation, Class: Ambiguous Identities (London: Verso, 1991), 18.
[2] The German word, Der Witz, is strictly speaking, not translatable, it both implies the wit, and the joke.
[3] Although one may even want to ask whether or not the majority of the text looks at the way that good organizations replicate the patriarchal family.
[4] Jerry Aline Flieger, The Purloined Punch Line: Freud’s Comic Theory and the Postmodern Text (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1991), 76.
[5] An interesting parallel to this discussion within a non-Freudian discourse can be seen in James C. Scott’s Weapons of the Weak, primarily in his description of gossip as a form of “small arms fire of the class struggle”
[6] Sigmund Freud, Jokes And Their Relation To The Unconscious (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1963), 18.
[7] Jokes And Their Relation To The Unconscious, 51
[8] Jokes And Their Relation To The Unconscious, 208
[9] Jokes and their Relation To The Unconscious,
[10] Jokes and their Relation To The Unconscious, 151.
[11]  Jokes And Their Relation To The Unconscious, 98
[12]  Jokes And Their Relation To The Unconscious, 99
[13] ibid., 100
[14] ibid.,100
[15]  Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious, 101
[16] Freud primarily reads smut as a way of escaping the restrictive mores of “civilization.”  see Jokes and their Relation to theUnconscious, 101-102
[17]Let’s remember that this construct of ‘woman’ is a classed, as well as raced community.  Freud himself points out that, “We can observe how men of a higher class are at once induced, when they are in the company of girls of an inferior class, to reduce their smutty jokes to the level of simple smut.” (Freud  101)
[18] Jokes And Their Relation To The Unconscious, 123-124
[19] Jokes And Their Relation To The Unconscious, 132
[20] Jokes And Their Relation To The Unconscious, 105

Friday, December 3, 2010

On The Results of the Vote (UAW Graduate Student Union 2865)

      The advocates for the recently ratified contract between UAW 2865 and the University of California are claiming the recent vote shows a resounding support for the process.  At an initial look, that may look correct.  After all, the "yes" vote received a rather substantial 62% of the vote.  However, this doesn't take a number of things into account.  I'll begin by taking the numbers at their face value, and then bring up some potential problems with the numbers.  Even if we take the numbers at their face value, the percentage of yes votes is considerably smaller than earlier contracts.  This points to substantial structures of opposition that exist to the current contract.  Additionally, the campuses that had students on the ground, organizing to reject the contract, overwhelmingly rejected the contract.  78% of Berkeley graduates students voted against the contract, 90% of Santa Cruz graduate students voted no, and 57% of Irvine graduate students voted no, which means the campuses that got to hear a genuine debate over the quality of the contract tended to vote against it.
        Additionally, there are a number of suspicious aspects to the voting totals that came out of the election.  The victory for the contract largely came out of massive votes for the contract at the San Diego, Los Angeles, and Santa Barbara campuses.  Each of these campuses voted for the contract at a rate of over 90%, and more significantly, the voting percentage of members was above 40%, with San Diego at 41%, Los Angeles at 43%, and Santa Barbara at a remarkable 49%.  This means that the schools who voted yes, brought in about 4% to 21% more votes than schools that voted no.  This is particularly striking given the fact that the schools that supported the contract have a reputation for not being active union campuses, contrasting with the strong activist traditions such as Berkeley and Santa Cruz.  The difficulty is that there is very little positive evidence for any accusations for vote rigging.  There have been some problems with the voting process.  In one location, a voting box was clear.  There have been some problems with union officials advocating too close to the voting table, but most of these issues have been relatively minor, probably are tied up with the informalities taken in earlier elections, and don't really translate into any sort of substantial rigging of the ballots in and of themselves.  Perhaps, there are revelations that will appear in the next few days, but without such material, it will be difficult to translate these suspicions into any substantial allegation.  Here is a link with some of the concerns.
       So the question that is put before us at this point is what is to be done at this point?  There has been some muttering on the interstices about a decertification campaign.  I can understand folks frustration about the process, but that is a dangerously bad idea.  It would put the entire history of our bargaining process in jeopardy, in ways that union officialdom could only pretend about the current contract process.  Additionally, for all the problems that have occurred within that process, the problems that we have with our union are relatively minor.  One need only look at the precautions that dissident Teamsters had to take to challenge the official union line at the beginning of the Teamsters for a Democratic, often risking physical violence and death.  I heard of similar circumstances with the custodial workers during my years as a student janitor.  I don't intend to bring up those stores in order to dismiss our current situation, but to point out that organizations such as TDU have been able to make substantial reforms in their unions under much more precarious situations.
       So as you might guess, I think the way forward is through the TDU model.  We need to create and develop a reform organization within the union itself.  We can use this to challenge the leadership in the upcoming elections, through a reform slate.  We can use this structure to produce a new set of activists dedicated to a stronger, more participatory vision of the union.  Most significantly, we can use this as a way to put ourselves in a position where we have activists overlooking the elections for all the campuses, as well as having a more militant voice on all the campuses.  After all, whatever the reason, the absence of such forces on most of the campuses led to the passing of the contract.  We need to capture the remaining energy from the vote no campaign, and use it to create the long term structures needed to work towards a more democratic and participatory union.  There is an interesting example of this structure in Washington.  (Here is their blog.  Additionally, there is a organization in Berkeley.)  We need to recognize that we need structure and resources to transform this small revolt into something that crosses at least the majority, if not all campuses.  Unions are, at their heart, democratic centralist organization.  We need structures to make sure that the leadership is accountable to an active and engaged rank and file membership.
       That being said, I am by no means dismissing the remarkable activism that occurred in this campaign.  Comrades from Berkeley and Santa Cruz came out with excellent material defending a no vote, and Brian Malone was particularly tireless in countering the nonsense from the leadership.  (I'm probably ignoring the labor of a lot of folks who were just as tireless, I apologize, but I probably don't know you as well.)  At Irvine, a small group of activists came out day and night for four days, and probably led to the campus voting no.  My advocacy of organizational formality is no means a dismissal of that substantial labor.  Instead, I see it as a way of creating structures and networks of communication that would allow for that labor to accomplish even more than it did.  Additionally, it would give us a venue to produce a coherent counter-vision to the current business union model of the UAW, a vision that would challenge the logic of privatization that lets the top administration get millions of dollars in bonuses, while workers' salaries are cut and tuition goes up.  When the union accepts the logic of the 'crisis', it legitimates the consolidation of class power that occurs under the name of 'crisis.'