Reading Group Thoughts

I have mentioned before that I am a member of a reading group comprised of political theorists and literary studies folks that has been meeting once a year since 2012.  We missed 2020 completely—and gathered virtually this past Friday for the first time since June 2019.

Our reading for this meeting was five essays written by members of the group that appear in the recently published African American Political Thought: A Collected History, edited by Melvin Rogers and Jack Turner (University of Chicago Press, 2021).  The five essays were: Robert Gooding-Williams on Martin Delany; Nick Bromell on Harriet Jacobs; Jason Frank on Langston Hughes; Lawrie Balfour on Toni Morrison; and George Shulman on Bayard Rustin.

The conversation was far-ranging, but I want to record here four issues that stirred my imagination.

  1.  We spent a lot of time considering how the figure, metaphor, trope of “fugitivity” recurs in black thought and literature.  For starters, it is obvious that an emphasis on fugitivity leads to very different configurations of black experience than an emphasis on slavery.  (Fair to say, I think, that slavery and its after-lives is central to the work of Sayida Hartman, Christina Stead, and many other contemporary black writers in the US.)  The fugitive is more active than the slave, having moved himself or herself into that condition by a chosen action—as contrasted to the passive suffering of the condition of slavery.  Of course, there are possibilities for action (and forms of resistance) within slavery, but the fugitive has made a more dramatic move, one that lends itself to the romanticization of fugitivity.

     But within the shadow of the Fugitive Slave Law, romanticization is forestalled by the ever-presence of insecurity, exposure, and violence for the fugitive.  He or she is always aware of being hunted down, of being on the lam.  There is no safe place—a fate that resonates with the current prevalence of violence in black lives, the absence of any refuge.  Hence the quest for safe environments—and the sense of being constantly under surveillance in most public settings—for blacks in the US.

     George Shulman had taught a class on fugitivity—and his black students protested against the use of that condition as a trope or figure.  This led the group into a long discussion of the tension between abstraction (after all, most of us are “theorists” of one sort or another) and the concrete.  I think there was general agreement that a) some kind of abstraction is necessary for any kind of thinking, any kind of reflection on concrete conditions on the ground; b) that allowing a metaphor to exfoliate is one way of getting thought to move off well-worn tracks, to gain fresh purchase or insight into specific situations; c) that the tension between the generalities of theory and attention to the specifics of actual relationships/conditions is always going to bedevil thinking that aims to intervene in those present conditions; and d) that the resistance to abstraction by those trying to find ways to live in challenging (euphemism alert!) circumstances is completely understandable and to be expected.  How, then, to honor that resistance while still doing some kind of abstraction was not a tension we knew how to resolve.  But perhaps acknowledging and describing the tension could help some.

      All of this was complicated by the fact that Sheldon Wolin’s notion of “fugitive democracy” has been very appealing to and formative for the political theorists in the room.  In the light of the black students’ objection to the metaphor, Wolin’s appropriation of the image of the “fugitive” does seem very romantic.  Wolin’s ideal democratic actors are hardly in significant danger from the powers that be, hardly being hunted down.  It does come to seem blinkered to move the image of the fugitive from its historical grounding in the Fugitive Slave Act to an image of a kind of underground, outlaw democratic practice.  More on that in a minute (under #2).

     Wolin’s appropriation becomes even more remarkable—and more suspect—when Patchen Markell told the group that Wolin’s dissertation advisor was associated with the Southern Fugitives in the 1930s.  (Sorry that I don’t have the name of the advisor handy.  I will try to track it down.)  Our discussion made clear just how remarkable it is that that group of Southern white guys (intellectuals who also liked to fancy themselves Agrarians as well as fugitives) appropriated to themselves the label of fugitive.  I can only marvel at the constancy with which the conservative and privileged make themselves out to be the victims of progress and threatened by the unwashed masses.  The “real” victims here are not oppressed black people, but we whites whose “way of life” is endangered.  Aggrievement is, I come more and more to believe, the one sine non qua of the reactionary sensibility—and what passes for “thought” in conservative circles.

2. Talk of our students and the difficulties of teaching in our politically fraught moment (all moments are politically fraught, but I don’t think it unfair to see 2020—with the Black Lives Matter demonstrations and then the election and its aftermath—as especially intense) led, inevitably I would suppose, to Lawrie Balfour commenting on the “skepticism about democracy” in the current moment.  For the theorists in the room—as for me personally ever since I wrote Postmodernism and its Critics in 1988-89—“democracy” has always been that place of refuge, that site where not only could political aspirations be articulated through developing an account (a theory) of democracy, but (crucially) a value that we could see as embedded in American political culture.  We theorists on the left, if we appealed to democracy (as contrasted to socialism for example), were not importing something into the US, but only striving to activate energies and commitments and values already present (even if sometimes more latent than manifest) in the sensibilities of the citizenry. (This is not to deny that appeals to democracy often served to camouflage smuggling in various commitments indebted to Marx and other non-American socialist writers.)

                   But maybe (probably?) we were fooling ourselves.  A commitment to democracy does not run  deep in the culture.  It hardly seems present at all.  Obviously, this is true of the right wing, a fact we should have known before four years of Trump made is patently obvious.  But it begins to look true of the younger generation of left-inclined students.  This has nothing to do with the fake outrage over “cancel culture.”  That whole charade is just another example of reactionaries (who use their power to cancel votes, and to censor school curricula) accusing their opponents of their own crimes in order to invert who the victims of oppression really are.  No, it is not some kind of phantom anti-liberal left, the bogies of an imagined anti-fa (whose numbers pale in comparison if put up against membership in right-wing militias), who embody a loss of faith in democracy among the young.

                     The problem (or cause) is our utterly broken political system.  There is absolutely no accountability.  Substantial majorities want gun control, action on climate change, increased taxes on the obscenely wealthy, etc. etc.—and our system is completely unable to deliver.  Thus, many among the left are finding themselves in agreement with black thinkers like Fred Moten and Christina Stead, whose loss of any faith in political solutions I have discussed in this blog.  “Democracy” as an idea and as a practice comes to look like the football Lucy keeps enticing Charlie Brown with.  Why place any faith in democracy?  It has not proved up to the task time and again.  Isn’t it simply foolish to think it will work this time after its repeated failures.  Better to walk away than to take another run and attempt to kick the ball, especially since the fetishism of a non-existent and non-attainable “democracy” keeps us from attending to and doing other things.

            What to do if there is this loss of faith in government’s ability to act effectively?  Localism.  Retreat into local communities and try to make life better there.  For some in our group, not surprisingly, such an approach smacks of “participatory democracy,” of what they might even be tempted to call “real” democracy, where the people take power into their own hands and work together for ends forged in common.  So democracy is not voting and not asking a government to do things for you.  It is doing things for yourself.  So, for example, Christina Beltran in our group saw her students as divided between those who were in despair (not just about political, but also about personal, prospects in a declining and increasingly cruel America) and those who were energized activists throwing themselves into various nascent social movements (BLM, climate change activism, LBGTQ groups, and the like).

              This is not the time and place to consider the promises and perils of local, participatory activism—or its relation to what we might theorize as “democracy.”  But it is worth noting that Christina also pointed to the appeal, in our dark times, of work like Anna Tsing’s that meditates on what it means to carve of a way to survive, to live, in the “ruins.”  Our prospects in every way—politically, economically, ecologically—look so bleak that stories about foraging a minimalist existence within worlds that barely offer the means to sustain life have a deep emotional appeal right now.

3. We spent a fair amount of time considering this issue of the kind of stories we tell ourselves—and the kinds of stories that are appealing, that do seem to speak especially profoundly to the moment.  George Shulman, in his essay on Rustin, invokes the notion of “organizing fantasy,” a term that manages to merge both the sense in which “ideology” is used to characterize a worldview based on falsity and a sense that imagination (as the projection of a possible future not determined, but not utterly ruled out, by current facts on the ground) offers ways forward.  Kelvin Black put a more positive, less ambivalent, spin on this (inevitable?) reliance on stories that orient us within a social world and in our relations to others.  Kelvin referenced the notion of “moral ecology” and expressed the hope that an established ecology could ground “good judgment” and a way to move toward some kind of collective understanding of what the situation is and how to address it.  This appeal to judgment—as well as seeing judgment as emanating from the stories we tell—clearly resonates with Zerilli’s attempt to activate Arendt’s thoughts on judgment.

The hope that stories can build community connects with Nick Bromell’s interest (in his essay on Harriet Jacobs) in second-person address—those moments in a narrative where the narrator breaks the frame to address the reader directly.  These moments are a dramatic “call” to the reader, a solicitation of participation, or (at least) of an “amen, brother” (thinking of African-American church practices here).  Nick then connected this kind of appeal to the “deep relational organizing” that has emerged out of Stacy Abrams’ work in Georgia.  As this was explained to me recently by someone here in NC who is part of the effort to replicate Abrams’ work in NC, the basic idea is to embed black activists in various communities so that they are a long-term presence and able to build relationships with the people who live there.  My NC activist-friend said there are one million unregistered black voters in North Carolina.  But you are not going to get them registered (and actually to go to the polls) through one—or even three– encounters.  “Outside agitators” (all right-wing fantasies to the contrary) don’t actually succeed in moving anyone to action.  Shared lives and shared stories are needed, not just the arguments you can set out in bullet points on a piece of campaign literature.

4. Within this talk of despair, or impasse, and of the continual experience of feeling unsafe (the ever-presence of premature death in the black community—attested to in Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped, which I will discuss tonight with my UNC alumni reading group), George Shulman (picking up a theme from Jason Frank’s essay on Langston Hughes) pointed out the vitality in black expressive culture that flows forth from the continual encounter with “mortalism.”  Danger and death are generative—certainly aesthetically, and perhaps politically.  George Floyd’s death (as Vincent Lloyd in our group pushed us to consider) proved generative. 

I have what I guess are the predictable worries.  Freedom in expression is tolerated because it is mostly not a threat.  Yes, fanatics on the far right are agitated (and Fox News strives to stoke the outrage), but non-censorship of expressive content can co-exist fairly easily with the retention of political and economic power in the hands of whites.  The entertainment industry is full proof of that.  The prominence of black musicians, novelists, poets, even actors, doesn’t put a dent in the ownership (and most of the profits) of those businesses going to whites.  I always suspect (as someone devoted to literature only can) that expressive culture simply doesn’t much matter.  It is mostly powerless—and thus safely ignored by the economic and political power-holders, mostly convenient to them as a way of stirring their base.

It is true that the crazies out on the fringes of the right could upset this whole set-up.  It is instructive, I believe, that the American Civil War was instigated by the far right crazies, who couldn’t take Yes for an answer.  Lincoln made it clear that he wasn’t going to abolish slavery—that, in his reading of it, slavery was constitutionally sanctioned and that his oath was to uphold the Constitution.  But the fanatics couldn’t be satisfied with that; they (apparently) wanted the nation to affirm that slavery was a good thing, a righteous and Christian thing.  Our current right wing may similarly overplay its hand—going in for high-handed censorship where an easy-going tolerance would better suit its ends.  Maybe there are outrageous Supreme Court decisions coming—including ones on abortion and gun ownership—that will upset the current political stalemates, the odd and uneasy equilibrium that makes our politics completely static without ever pushing any of our numerous crises to becoming a tipping point toward undoing our multiple dysfunctional institutions and practices. 

Tipping points are never recognized until they suddenly are upon us.  And that’s where expressive culture does seem to do important work of “softening” people up.  Changes in sensibility, in the kinds of stories that people see as making sense of themselves and the circumstances in which they live, do register in altered practices as well as altered attitudes and aspiration.  I just am very impatient for the concrete pay-offs.

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