Anticolonial Aesthetics and a Politics of the Impossible

I want to register some reactions to J. Daniel Elam’s compelling World Literature for the Wretched of the Earth: Anticolonial Aesthetics, Postcolonial Politics (Fordham University Press, 2021).

Elam begins form a position almost exactly identical to that of Christina Sharpe—the position of those whose lives are not only not protected by the state, but marked by the state for wretchedness unto death.

“Politics can only be ‘the art of the possible’ for those whose lives are secured by the state, or, in other words, only for those who can confidently know that they will live to see the ‘possible’ attained.  Those whose lives are not guaranteed by the state, or those whose lives the state actively expects to end, cannot afford the luxury of such politics.  The ‘wretched of the earth’ require, instead, a politics of the impossible.  This politics requires imagining and foregrounding, in the face of imminent or certain death, a politics not accountable to regimes of ‘success,’ ‘sustainability,’ or ‘attainability,’ but rather to ‘the meantime’: the time being, the passing moment, and the present” (2-3).

“This is an unsustainable and inconsequential politics.  It is a radical politics of the present. . . . Despair and nihilism are insufficient for an anticolonial politics, but they guard against the equally unsatisfactory politics of optimism and hope.  Anticolonialism is, in this final instance, a project of locating fleeting moments of egalitarian politics in the relative opacity of an unguaranteed future” (3).

In a memorable phrase, Elam writes of recuperating “an anti-nihilist non-futurity”(5)—connected to the attempt “to create a language sufficient to imagine political collectivities motivated by the fact of their current impossibility.  They [anticolonial writers] invented aesthetic forms necessary to imagine a worldwide egalitarianism rooted in the unlikelihood of any future at all” (4).

My first response is to note how closely this tracks Walter Pater’s aestheticism.  Many of the key themes of the conclusion to The Renaissance are reprised here: the focus on fleeting moments, the insistence on the present since the future only brings death, the rejection of the utilitarian calculi that measure the worth of the present in terms of its “fruits,” in the things that effort in the present will make possible, will bring into existence.  Pater’s radical atomism moves toward severing any connection between one moment and another—a dissolution that also unravels the self (which is revealed as an essentially temporal construct, built upon a constructed continuity between past and present, thus creating an entity, an identity, that can be carried into the future.)  Elam follows a similar path when he considers Gandhi’s attempts “to abandon both mastery and self”(73), and recommends “the disavowal of the self-knowing self,” in favor of “the tentative assertion ‘that the something that [one is] should be openly expressed as provisional, revocable, insignificant, inessential, in a word, irrelevant’”(125; italics and brackets in original; the quote is, I think, from Roland Barthes, although Elam’s footnote doesn’t make that absolutely clear.)

To note the similarities to Pater is not to belittle Elam’s project.  My intent, rather, is to clarify the stakes.  The echo here, I think, is the Adorno and Horkheimer of The Dialectic of Enlightenment.  The target is the madness of productivity.  Everything must be turned to account.  Everything we do is in order to achieve something else.  Nothing is done for its own sake.  Elam’s experiment is to ponder—with the help of a series of anticolonial writers—what it would mean to embrace the “inconsequential,” to step aside from the pressure, the demand, to produce a future out of the miseries of the present.  The claim—and here the similarities are to the contemporary work of Fred Moten, David Graeber, and Jack Halberstam among others—is that the effort to produce that better future only guarantees making the present miserable.  It is the very logics of mastery and productivity that render life in the here and now unbearable.  In his most expansive moments, it is that logic of exploiting the present for the future profits it can secure that is the hallmark of colonialism.  To be anticolonial is not simply to oust the European colonial power; the fully anticolonial must overthrow the extractive processes that strip-mine life right now.  It is regimes of accumulation, laying up stores for the future, that must be overcome.

Except that it can’t be overcome—or, at least, won’t be overcome in your lifetime or mine.  Faced with that impossibility, what kind of politics makes sense?  Elam proposes an inconsequential politics, one that aims (only) for “fleeting moments” of egalitarian commonality.  Even putting it that way makes it too utilitarian.  Elam speaks of a non-teleological politics, which starts to look something like Foucault’s “care of the self,” except with a more collective resonance.  Certainly in Graeber and Moten, the call is for something like “being the change you want to see in the world” (the famous charge that Gandhi lays on us).  Elam ponders the possibility (which he derives from Fanon) of “stopping and leaving” (pp. 117-125), of refusing to play the utilitarian game.  Why accept the madness and despair the colonial regime inflicts?  Refuse participation in its mad push for ever more productivity—a push that destroys life in all its forms, human and non-human. 

I want, today, to register all my worries about an inconsequential politics.  But I will in my next post concentrate on the strengths of Elam’s case—and on the specifics of the practices he thinks embody the politics of the impossible, of the meantime, that he advocates.

Elam is way too smart to believe that many people have the option of stopping and leaving.  There is “no escape” (124-125) for the vast majority.  That’s why his is a politics of the impossible.  Which is a nice intellectual legerdemain, but of no consolation (dare I say of “no use”) to those suffering in the present.  To be (most likely) over romantic about it, I am surprised that Elam doesn’t turn to what Hannah Arendt called “the lost treasure of revolution.”  Arendt was referring to the ways in which participation in collective struggle is, itself, a heady and deeply satisfying experience.  And it is so satisfying in large part because it gives individuals the kind of immersion in a collective project that is seldom afforded to us.  In short, revolutionary struggle does not have to succeed to prove meaningful.  But it does have to be oriented to a continual protest against and articulation of the injustices of the existing socio-political structures. For Elam’s purposes, it provides that experience of egalitarian collectivity that he treasures

Elam’s book notably never uses the terms “justice” or “power.”  Maybe that’s because “justice” and “power” are consequentialist in their focus on outcomes.  But I suspect—and here is where I really ground my reservations about a politics of the impossible—it is because politics is always disappointing.  No political effort ever achieves it goals in a perfect, non-compromised fashion.  When full-scaled utopia (the overthrow of all productivity, all sacrifice of the present in order to achieve something in the future) is your stated desire, then it follows inevitably that you will see the goal is impossible and opt for a politics of the impossible instead of the messy politics of the possible.  Your refusal to settle for half a loaf (social democracy instead of a complete dismantling of capitalism, to take one example) means you dream of an (impossible) escape from politics altogether.  Because justice can never be won once and for all, because it can only be secured imperfectly and temporarily by the endless fight against the forces that would withhold it, you want to walk away.  The continual mixture of defeat with (compromised and partial) victories is just too exhausting.  Better to go off (and here I am being really unfair to Elam as tomorrow’s post will show) and read a book instead.

All of this connects to the (only implied in Elam’s book) alignment of power with oppression.  But power can also refer to the capacity to get something done—and point us toward the things that individual could never accomplish on their own, but can accomplish when part of a collective.  We are back to the “lost treasure.”  Feeling powerless in the face of established institutions, routines, and socio-economic demands is the common lot in today’s world (and, undoubtedly, in every society throughout human time).  That’s why experiences of power, of being able to participate in doing something that moves (however imperfectly) toward its goal, are so exhilarating. The imagined and virtual collectivities that Elam celebrates, even as he acknowledges they are “ephemeral and fleeting” (14), look like a simulacrum of what the heart really desires. 

In short, this is a politics of despair, a politics that pursues a “diminished thing” (the Robert Frost poem I keep coming back to) because it cannot see a path to what it truly desires.  Of course, Elam explicitly acknowledges that he is describing a politics of despair.  The question on the table is how to live under terrible conditions, ones that make it impossible to live an affirmable life.  That’s the strength of his book—and of Moten’s work (to take one other example).  And that’s the question—how to live—that I will take up tomorrow.

But, first, let me summarize my objections.  There are two main planks, both of which might be seen as protests against the all-or-nothing position associated with the dream of revolutionary transformation.  First, capitalism, utilitarianism, colonialism, racism are all configured as monolithic totalities, not only entirely evil, but also viewed as coherent overarching wholes that must be felled tout court or not at all.  I am deeply influenced by Gibson-Graham’s The End of Capitalism as We Know It on this score.  We need analyses that abandon totalized characterizations of large abstractions in favor of examination of varied practices on the ground.  To paint all utilitarian thinking and effort as oppressive means, presumably, that the writing of books is as soul-destroying as working in a coal mine. 

Admittedly, when it comes to racism and colonialism, I am not inclined to parse out certain practices that are acceptable or (even) less pernicious.  But do we really have to align colonialism with utilitarian thinking—and then say we have only eradicated colonialism when we have rendered the world free of the tyranny of consequentialism?  When it comes to racism, once we posit that racism is constitutive of American society—and that racism in the US will only be overcome when the whole social order is dissolved—we not only should expect a fight to the death (who is going to acquiesce in the complete collapse of society?), but also (and more much importantly in my view) ignore and fail to recognize as resources the vocabulary of rights and equality built into the American political order—a vocabulary that blacks (and others) have been able to mobilize to their benefit.  In short, American racism exists alongside other components of “Americanism” in ways that belie seeing American society as monolithically racist–or as lacking any internal resources, traditions, or institutions that can be used to fight racism. 

Working the seams is, I am arguing, a more realistic politics than constructing (theoretically) an undifferentiated, non-contradictory, monolith which can then only be dislodged (or even changed) by its complete dismantling.  I have also already said that this alternative politics is frustrating, endless, replete with partial victories, stinging defeats, and soul-wrenching compromises.  But it also offers joys of participation to those engaged in its multiple struggles.  The politics of despair, I am suggesting, comes from a demand for all or nothing—combined with the response that “I’ll take nothing” because I know that getting all is impossible.

Second, the problem with all or nothing thinking in that it locates the problem in “the system.”  The focus is on institutional fixes.  If we just get the design right, then all that messy political stuff will disappear.  Justice, equality, freedom will just flow automatically from the perfect machinery we have established.  (Marx offers a prime example of this kind of thinking.)  But what I am saying is that there is no escape from politics, from the endless need to negotiate among competing interests, competing visions of what is desirable, and also (crucially) between necessary trade-offs among goods.  There are always going to be people trying to game the system (no matter what the system is), but there is also the intractable fact that securing one good must in many cases require sacrificing another good—and there have to be political processes to handle disputes over what sacrifices to make.  The left is all too prone to an unrealistic faith in mechanisms, in design. 

This last way of thinking, I should add, is not offered in any form in Elam’s work.  Instead, his politics of the impossible is addressed to a different critique of revolutionary practice and theory.  Namely, he is concerned that the means of revolution (violence justified by its ends, for one example) or its aims (to gain power in state form, to achieve sovereignty) will doom any successful revolution to merely replicate (even if in somewhat different forms) the oppressions of the prior regime.  If colonialism is characterized by a logic of mastery, of consequential action, then colonialism is not overcome when the European occupier leaves.  The post-colonial nation state, all too often (and inevitably it would seem in this despairing politics), offers new versions of the assaults on life that characterized the colonial period.  Postcolonialism is a social and political condition that has not yet been achieved, no matter who sits in the halls of government.

A good place to end for today because it points to one of the many strengths in Elam’s book.  He is addressing real dilemmas: how to live in an unjust present? How to move us from that present to a future that will not merely reproduce the oppressions of today?  There is a good case to be made—and he makes it—that the traditional politics of struggle and revolution has been unable to deliver on its promises—and so a new kind of politics must be imagined and practiced.  And there is surely a case to be made that sacrificing lives in the present in the name of a better future that is not going to be achieved (that is impossible to achieve?) is madness and unjustifiable.  (We just need to think of Stalin and Mao to see just how mad—and how evil—such sacrifices are.)  So how to live “in the meantime” is an urgent question.  That part of me hates ceding power to the bad actors, hates what looks like the quietism of letting the other side win, doesn’t mean that Elam is wrong.  I just can’t stop asking why the other side’s world (despite its self-destructive insanity, measured in the toll it takes on human and non-human life) is “possible” while our (the left’s) utopian visions are “impossible.”  

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