No, Crisis




The following essay is part of the Los Angeles Review of Books special series “No Crisis”: a look at the state of critical thinking and writing — literary interpretation, art history, and cultural studies — in the 21st century. Click here for the full series.

 

Be attentive to the voices of the oppressed, the slaves who possess the key knowledge, and be patient for the most opportune moment for slitting the tyrants’ throats.

— Chris Chitty 

 

1.

WERE I STILL invested in the weird pathos of being deep into deconstruction a generation too late, I would probably ask for the red slash between “No” and “Crisis” to be rotated 45 degrees clockwise and moved left a bit, leaving the “No” struck-through and under erasure. Likely for the better, I now find such gestures cloying. Still, a sense of unease with this series’ framing has lingered since I was asked to contribute, one I’m unsure of how to mark in writing. That unease doesn’t come from any opposition to celebrating incisive and necessary criticism that deserves a first, second, or nth look. It emerges instead from my suspicion of any framework that structures the continued production of such thought and texts as if they happen in spite of austerity. As if the persistence of the former might obviate the severity of the latter, accidentally proving, in answer to the clarion calls of a thousand regents, that we can indeed tighten our belts, narrow our gaze, and plow ahead because, they remind us, we don’t do it for the money anyway.

I hope this criticism gets taken close to how it’s meant — as the start of a dialogue, as taking something seriously enough to engage with it — rather than as merely pissing the pool. Because it ultimately concerns a problem against which we’ve been butting our heads for years but which never seems to go away. Simply enough, how to understand a relation between crisis and criticism? In the series’ introduction, one version of that relation appears, however obliquely, and it does so in two distinct modes worth calling into doubt.

First: “It is hard to make a living in criticism these days, yet there are some of us who can hardly imagine living without it.” I don’t disagree with either clause. Real critique, rare thing that it is, usually pays dreck, in no small part because it threatens systems of valuation. And indeed, I can’t much imagine a life separate from trying to articulate that critique, even though it only sometimes takes a shape called criticism. It’s the “yet” that troubles me, because it risks confirming a structure already mobilized in this moment, within universities and far beyond: that one will be asked to soldier on and ultimately comply because one cares, because one loves it, rather than because one is paid. Historical record is unfortunately clear about the infinite quantities of bullshit, abuse, and humiliation that people put up with — or, when they have the means/capital, violently displace onto others further down the hierarchical steps that end at social death — in order to get paid and get by. And that record is equally clear about the ways that such ordeals are often excused by reference to love or duty, be it monogamous or national. The problem with that “yet” is that it can too easily be tuned otherwise to do this work of naturalizing and mitigating. As if to say, yes, crisis happens, yet criticism is what we love to do and who we are at our best, so we find a way to keep the fires burning when the power cuts out.

Moreover, when we say, however correctly, that people find a way to write necessary criticism during crisis, we have to be extremely lucid about the enormous differences contained in that phrase — especially when a lot of people just can’t find a way. For instance: all the other entries in the “No Crisis” series focus on works of criticism written not just by living professors but tenured full professors.[1] I don’t doubt that most, if not all, of those professors have found their places of work and intellectual communities under attack in a number of frustrating and disturbing ways. All the same, for them to write criticism during a crisis describes a situation where no matter how toxic the mood, they can remain comparatively secure in continuing to be paid to do so — and to continue as such.

What doesn’t continue, though? Who doesn’t get supported enough to even start? Not because these have been crisis years within the humanities, and, hence, within criticism, but because these have been crisis years for the global north and, hence, for its universities and their labor? If we want to take account of whether “the art of criticism is flourishing” in such years, we have to recognize that the tenured professor is hardly the primary figure with which to do so, let alone one that crisis has made especially active use of to restructure its terrain. That would be the adjunct, the freelancer, the thinkpiecer, or, in austerity’s grammar of hyphenation, the cleaner-writer, baker-critic, debtor-dealer-scholar, nurse-theorist, and on from there, in countless permutations of predicates. The fact that many of my favorite thinkers and writers inhabit such positions is no accident, as their thought moves through spheres of experience that too many forms of scholarship are loath to handle. But they’re always stalked by another situation, the one where you have to drop the -writer or -critic portion because you cannot make it hang together and must indeed learn to imagine how to live without it. The crisis of criticism, in other words, won’t show itself in the quality of the written. It’s in what no longer gets written, in what never gets written in the first place.[2] 

The fact remains that for all the disarray of the humanities and for all the compelling work that happens online or in small publications and new presses, most criticism — including my writing, too;including this essay — still takes place in a zone of cultural production materially predicated on a stable university salary. Most academic journals, for instance, pay literally nothing for essays, with the expectation that the author receives or will receive that salary, and, hence, that her free labor helps solidify or advance her position. Yet it’s a salary that I, like a lot of the writers and critics I know, haven’t had, a decision largely made for us by the logic of the times. Without that salary, how does one do criticism? Perpetual adjunct work is so stressful and poorly paid that it leaves scant time for writing, let alone extensive research. If you try to make a go of it as a critic further from the university, you navigate between the Scylla of the think piece — a.k.a. an essay that knows it shouldn’t exist, and not in some Maurice Blanchot “writing the impossible” mode — and the Charybdis of genuinely interesting publications who sadly can only afford a nominal fee at this time, but we hope that you’ll …[3]

In short, you can only do it for love for so long, and that time comes a lot quicker when you lack job security or a job to start. A question of how to write criticism is, in this sense, a question absolutely inseparable from how to critique, from how to resist the most fundamental mechanisms of social domination. Those are the mechanisms that determine who gets to enjoy the relative and anticipatory comfort of a safety net, whether woven of tenure or white privilege, and whose struggles to write and live involve a bitter, fraught sense of precarity.”[4] Austerity measures may be imposed generally, but cuts never fall on some uniform body of the nation, the populace. They go deepest into those already expected to bear the brunt of quotidian social violence.

The second thread I’ll pull on comes in here: “we hope to show that the art of criticism is flourishing, rich with intellectual power and sustaining beauty, in hard times.” In this schematic, hard times are something to be weathered like a winter, lean years in which we take sustenance in thought that flourishes in spite of everything. It’s hardly a unique sentiment. One can find the trope in Alain Badiou, for instance, albeit in a more agricultural-meets-partisan register: “philosophy is like the attic where, in difficult times, one accumulates resources, lines up tools, and sharpens knives.” There’s also something of an older sense of the word “crisis” at work too, coming from a medical designation (the krisis) of an illness’s turning point, like a fever’s peak, where the already-dire becomes starkly binary: the fever breaks, or the fevered dies. Criticism, in that version, would be the life-giving broth that sees us through, or, conversely, the spiritual reminder of beauty and a vita intellectualis worth living — a model of faith, say — that won’t bow under the travails of flesh. Crisis and criticism are set against each other, but not in the sense of a pharmacological interaction or cure. One weakens us, one sustains us, each with designs on the patient in question, but never the two should meet, ships in the night of a single life. 

However, I’m struck by how among the best theorists, critics, writers, artists, and organizers I know, the operative relation between crisis and criticism is nearly the opposite. Crisis isn’t something one stoically endures. It is the point of departure for the work of critique, an injunction to read differently. To write through crisis means grappling with how it throws us into disarray, scrambling and reorganizing our daily priorities, but it also clarifies the situation we’ve been in for years, bringing into relief a fundamental cartography of quotidian circuits — like prison <—> university — that can fly under the radar in easier times. In crisis, the stakes feel higher, and we, too, start to feel indissociably like a we, however briefly. (The fact that the majority of those who think this way are communists is not, and could not be, incidental.)

I start with this gesture of criticizing my hosts — never invite a vampire … — in part because it seems something that should be raised. But in larger part, it’s because this essay concerns Chris Chitty, one of those rare thinkers in question. Chris and I met in Santa Cruz, where we were both doing PhDs, though it’s perhaps more true to say that we met in an international context of organizing in the past decade: talking, arguing, and laughing in meetings, marches, parties, and cramped occupations. Chris wrote once that Foucault’s project and method involves asking, “whether there can be a kind of speech with an alternate relation to truth, speech that is engaged in the struggle and no less committed to truth.” It’s an old goal and one that never gets old, insofar as the answer is surely yes, there can be, and there must be, yet it will always be threatened by everything arrayed against it. It has to be sustained, not by retreating to the attic, but by insisting anew that speech learn to listen and take its cues from struggles, rather than demand that struggles follow the dictates of speech.

This April, we lost Chris, suddenly and atrociously, and, in him, one who understood this in all its difficulty. 

2.

When Foucault starts his 1975–1976 lectures at the Collège de France, lectures Chris knew as well as anyone, he opens with an introduction not to the themes of the year — social war and race struggle, biopower, the birth of the dialectic, and on from there — but to why he gives these lectures. He insists that what he’s doing is not teaching, especially not when faced with a lecture hall so packed he tried moving the lectures to early morning to thin the crowd. No, Foucault claims that he is offering the chance for his research to be held accountable, to have his ideas used as those present and elsewhere felt necessary. The gesture strikes me as important, avoiding both proprietary mastery and the false humility of acting like he had nothing special to offer. As he says, “word always gets out” — the ideas will circulate, with futures beyond his control and use of them, singularly compelling as that use was.

Writing about Foucault’s earlier 1971 lectures, Chris notes: “If it’s hard not to hear artful references to his impending death in some of the final lectures at the Collège in 1984, it’s harder not to feel a deeper sense of loss with these lectures, of which there are no recordings, only notes.” Losing Chris puts us in a similar position. We are left with essays, talks, remembered conversations, and notes, all marked by his brilliance and originality. But the picture is incomplete, a partial mosaic of his critical project’s full sweep. And yes, word always gets out, but sometimes it needs a push, especially from those for whom the thought matters. I can’t claim to know what Chris would want to have happen with his work, and I won’t pretend to synthesize, steward, or even summarize it. Instead, all I can do is write an attempt to come to grips with what I think was and is so necessary about it.

News of his death reached me in the middle of the night in Copenhagen, three days before I was due to speak on a panel with him in New York. The next day, walking through a sunny park and wanting to spit in the face of literally anything that smiled, a single thought looped through my head: that beyond Chris being a friend and a comrade whom I’d missed since I left California, I also literally learned the meaning of comrade from him. How it came from the Spanish camarada, the French camarade, from roommate, sure, but also how this was literal and physical. How it came from the real sharing of a space together, bound to the bonds formed by men who didn’t have security or wealth or private homes and so bedded down in the same small and rented rooms, who were friends and strangers, who fucked or didn’t.

This seems a keystone of Chris’s queer history that doesn’t begin with, or ever settle into, the clarity of an identity. Instead, in his work, the categories of intimacy and the blurry bonds of friendship, as well as society in full and its possible dissolution, are never given. They are always produced. He asks: what happened in the bedroom, the bathroom, the kitchen, behind the barricade, down the alley, within the occupation, in the commune? How were these sites and their activities both real and concepts, both practices and discourses? How were they mobilized in the processes of historical transformation, made into categories, and redeployed? How did they become causes for incarceration or rebellion, entangled in what Chris calls “the functional unity of the forms of appearance of power,” whether as support or crack? And what can happen: what are the contours of the possible, not in flight from these spaces but through them?

The possible range of this sort of inquiry can be seen in a single object, a table around which to gather. In the first chapter of his dissertation, titled “Homoeroticism and the Mediterranean World,” a table stands at the very beginning, forming the point of historical departure: in Crete’s communal mess halls of men, which Aristotle writes, in the Politics, “encouraged sexual relations between men” through “a system of common meals, which the Spartans, in former times, used to call andria.”[5] At the end of this chapter, we find ourselves at another table: that of Caravaggio’s Cardsharps, a painting whose triangulated “sweetness and fraud” Chris reads for the smallest signs — the dirt under the fingernails of one of the boys, the “delicate (and, no doubt, expensive) needlework,” the threadbare gloves of the man — that sketch the trails of tremendous historical shifts, a transformation of the contested Florentine sphere of sex between men.

It’s the kind of reading that shares its answer with a question that haunted the whole of Aby Warburg’s — and later, Harun Farocki’s — research: how do we see the motion of history in a still image? Warburg’s answer remained consistent: We see such motion because no image is ever alone. It is always in a sequence, and a genealogy means reading the world as montage. So too for Chris — and so the table will appear again, never meaning the same thing but with enough rhyme to open up a chain of reading across time and social situations. In its third appearance, it’s the table at the center of industrializing capitalism’s transformed domestic sphere, a product of that process of breaking feudal form and its specific relation of family and property. In this situation, the table must, as Chris writes, “buttress the new social form, as the household was transformed into a center of industrious activity and consumption.”

Triangulating these three tables, we can glimpse something of the scope of his project and its capacity to range across and through instances. Just what is that project? In a basic way, it is to develop a material genealogy of homosexuality — and of heterosexuality, too, or what he calls “heteroeroticism,” a sexual formation in trajectory — as both practice and concept. More precisely, I’d say it is to construct a rigorous and ranging account of male homosexuality, a history both of actual sex between men and of how a notion of that activity — as what could be abstracted into a category, an identity, a felony, a crisis — gets produced through long processes that fold in a huge array of elements, operations, and sites, from wharves to poetry, rent to war, urinals to tribunals. Yet it also concerns, in a crucial reversal, how what he once referred to me as a “specter of buggery” can itself produce a certain mode of the political. That specter could spur geopolitical transformations that exceed the seeming purview of conventional histories of homosexuality, and it functioned as a knot of care and moral panic around which social space was formed, fought, and defended. 

This sense of homosexuality as at once produced and productive is a crucial reversal at work throughout his research, and I think it reveals how genuinely he followed Foucault in not just content but method as well. For too many who “work on Foucault,” that work just means cherry-picking terminology without any sense of the method that generated it. In Chris’s words:

Since his death, the intellectual portrait of Foucault has been drawn by interpreters invested either in making his thought more palatable to liberal quietism — the “resistance is everywhere; all resistance is futile” Foucault — or in a cottage industry that has mined his work for fashionable academic buzz words (panopticism, biopolitics, governmentality, normativity, etc.).

Chris, however, worked in the opposite direction, drawing out a version of Foucault crucially attuned to the forms of research needed for active intervention in times of both crisis and seeming peace. In Foucault, he saw “genealogy’s ability to juxtapose radically different conjunctures” to not only cut across a range of those conjunctures but also to articulate what he called, following Foucault in a stunning article and translation for Viewpoint, the “mesh of power” that sustains and reaffirms the texture of social normalcy. In his own words, from the Viewpoint essay: 

The oppressed, Foucault argues, also make use of an immense “network of power.” They are not passive victims of a historical process; in fact, power is historically contingent. The resistance of the oppressed has shaped the present organization of power. Revolution, according to this view, is a rare bird indeed.

The strength of this approach, one which is not just Foucault’s but Chris’s too, doesn’t lie only in its insistence that power is multidirectional. It’s also based in how it permits a crucial reading of class dynamics itself, one not restricted to interpretation via periods of historical accumulation (as potentially suggested by the broadly Giovanni Arrighi-esque schema through which Chris periodizes). Instead, it offers an angle of approach onto how social form continually works through, not on. Social control’s “distended organizational calculus,” in Hortense Spiller’s words, makes vectors, not victims, we might say, and the work of revolt has neither recourse nor exodus to any structure wholly of its making, let alone a prelapsarian commons, transhistorical species essence, or human community (the notorious, if slippery, Gemeinwesen found in Marx). It must instead make use of the very discursive, circulatory, and spatial patterns that its prior resistance helped form and which now array against it, comprising the weave of society’s flexible and homeostatic power.[6]

In this regard, the comparison between Foucault and E. P. Thompson made by Colin Jones and Roy Porter seems relevant to the particular way that Chris picked up on and extended Foucault’s method, given the dual emphases on how class is made, not discovered, and on how a loose aggregation of disparate behaviors become a category of condemnation, such as homosexual or witch, primarily in order to veil even larger processes of accumulation and upheaval. So while Chris’s thought shares more obvious overlaps with queer militant theorists, like Guy Hocquenghem and Mario Mieli (and involves compelling and almost classical echoes of attention to minor details of rhetoric and text, reminding me of Hans Blumenberg), I’ve come to see in his work the same spirit of inquiry into social formation and rebellion that marks the work of Silvia Federici and Peter Linebaugh. As in their thought, the task of research is to take history apart at the seams, inverting what could appear as constants, or at least as methodological points of departure — like the queer in queer history — and reveal them to be a messy index of the discrete instances of insurrection and punishment yoked together by that term.

That’s the gesture with which Chris’s ambitious project begins: not only with the ancient Mediterranean sphere and that first table (the Cretan andria), but also with a sense of how a history of homosexuality drags a number of other crucial social forms into uncomfortable light. One of those is the relation between the communal and the military, a proximity that persists to our own days — think the reversibility of the barricade, for instance — and which in ancient Greek formations forged a particularly strict bond in terms of sex between men (part of that Grecian “martial type”). His crucial turn, however, is a more expansive move, grounding the martial type’s civic and erotic construction on the economic foundation underwriting it. Specifically, on the utterly fundamental role of both slavery and gendered domestic work for the kind of transformations that were to enable the very notion of a Greek citizen, and with it, I’d argue, the opposition of theory and praxis that still haunts discussions of crisis and critique. 

Reading Chris’s discussion of this term sent me back to Aristotle and the Politics, where I found the observation confirmed, both in content and the structure of the text itself. Consider, for instance, the progression of Aristotle’s argument that claims to consider the state from the ground up (because “a composite has to be analyzed until we reach things that in composite, since these are the smallest parts of the whole”). It begins with two binaries that function as those first principles, the state’s barest elements. Each consists of “those who cannot exist without each other [and] necessarily form a couple”: “female and male” (who “do so for the sake of procreation”) and “natural ruler and what is ruled,” or master and slave: “For if something is capable of rational foresight, it is a natural ruler and master, whereas whatever can use its body to labor is ruled and is a natural slave.” Immediately after, however, the threat of category error rears its head, as the question is posed as to the “natural distinction […] between what is female and what is servile.” The answer given is that nature “produces nothing skimpily, but instead makes a single thing for a single task.” So follows its allocation of “natural poiesis” (reproduction) and household management (economics) for women, praxis for slaves (as ktêmata, or property that lets one carry out action), and theory for male citizens.[7]

In this regard, Chris’s return to Greek origins doesn’t just retread the ground that Foucault, and many others, have crossed. It also reads a tense nexus of civil society itself in the constantly mutating figure of homosexuality. It’s what lets us better see how a triangulation of women, slaves, and men (as citizens) becomes and remains a necessary structure on which to erect a notion of citizenship and, with it, a “productive” public sphere — one that capitalism’s requisite triad of home, colony, and factory will later amply mobilize in its own way. The Greek formation especially serves as the point of contact and departure for one of the central topics of Chris’s project, a reading of the “Mediterranean model of homosexuality” that he sees as predominant from the 12th to the 17th centuries, articulated especially through Florentine history. Reading across legal code, literature, political theory, and labor formation, he argues for the emergence of an “economic type” of homosexuality, as “cultures of sodomy” and “merchant-dominated social formations” came to be seen as necessarily associated and became actually connected through the spatial and discursive sites of the city, the market, and all the outskirts, alleys, docks, and communal zones that formed both their shadows and functional points of circulation. In particular, his project comes to detail how the forms and hierarchies of labor at work in those sites produce a novel relation of “sexual freedom and constraint,” resulting in a sexual culture able to a) libidinally capitalize on such labor divisions and b) pose them in a classical republican framework where they are available for political use, far from an opposition of public and private that will dominate bourgeois sexuality. The politics of that, however, were not only, let alone primarily, exercised in a theater of calumny, revenge, or getting one’s opponent out of the way. They also functioned as a form of seizing assets and raising revenue from rich and poor alike. Similar to Federici’s understanding of the persecution of witches as indissociable from processes of primitive accumulation, Chris reads the history of Italian sodomy law to discern how the penalties functioned as an extra-market accumulation via fines, one that could be pushed too far, as in Venice, whose draconian fees encouraged sailors to avoid the Ufficiali di notte and find laxer ports in which to work and enjoy themselves.

This account and its readings deserve far more space and time than I can give here.[8] Yet perhaps the element of his thinking that most captivated me, and certainly the one we talked of the most, was how all of these dynamics moved through, and became crystallized in, social space, a theme central to other thinkers like Kristin Ross, Sharad Chari, and Giuliana Bruno, from whose texts I’ve learned a lot. Not that Chris and I agreed on spatial matters, particularly when it came to deciding whether spaces temporarily snatched from normal use or disconnected from markets constituted real breaks from those structures of value and power.[9] All the same, we agreed on two fundamental points. First, we cannot write histories inattentive to the real force of mass affects, in particular creeping panics over social transformation, whether that means white privilege nervously watching its social power ever-so-slightly diminish or a petite bourgeoisie alarmed by the coherence and strength of proletarian communities. Yet this doesn’t mean entering into classical ideology critique and truffling for symptoms. It’s rather to see how those who aim to be architects of society, whether fascists, neocons, or liberals, have historically capitalized on this in extremely practical and technically sophisticated ways, no matter how vague their rhetorics of mythic ethno-nationalism and pseudoscience. Fundamentally, they work in order to effect changes whose aims are not to ameliorate anxiety but eradicate dissidence. In a book I can’t recommend highly enough, Anarchism and the City: Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Barcelona, 1898-1937, Chris Ealham writes of the Spanish situation prior to the Civil War and how,

For the ‘men of order’ (gent d’ordre) among the bourgeoisie, the moral panics were a guide to repressive action: they profiled the ‘danger’ represented by ‘recalcitrant’ and ‘diseased’ groups (hence the positivist concern with classifying, cleansing and civilising), which had to be excluded from the full rights of citizenship and isolated from ‘healthy’ and ‘respectable’ individuals. They were also a justification for closing off the nascent proletarian public sphere, creating a moral and political climate that legitimated the extension of state power on the streets and the establishment of a new system of bureaucratic surveillance to regulate civil society. 

The strength of Ealham’s analysis in that book, one visible in Chris’s research as well, is its attention to what he calls “spatial militarism” and how it requires we grasp the ceaseless interchanges between two senses of police. There are the productions of a managerial and sanitary cordon, as with the work of the “medical police” of 18th-century Europe, that served to subdivide populations. However, this remains the companion of a concrete and extensive policing of lived space itself, from literal cops forming neo-centurion riot shield formations to the less obvious forms of cordon sanitaire, like the subject of one of Chris’s talks, the barriers between urinals intended to make sure that men do not become comrades, so to speak. Even as the two must maintain an appearance of separation, allowing the image of police as objectively and apolitically justified, they maintain an actual mutual dependence, taking alternate turns in plain view without ever ceding ground to what threatens them.

This gets to the heart of the other aspect of an understanding of spatial politics that I discussed at length with Chris and others in California. First, no element of the social world is neutral. Nothing can be treated as if it just does what it does: all things are partisan toward one vision of a world, one specific reading of it, its histories, and its possible futures. Arguing otherwise is what underpins, for instance, what a logic of austerity measures as “objectively necessary.” Second, an attempt to practically change the meaning of those elements, to reverse them and make them not ours but no one’s, requires a thick understanding of their history, especially the variant ends for which they were designed and put to. Such an understanding can only be gained collectively, in struggles against whatever declares itself neutral and necessary, and in the networks of care that both support and are created by those struggles.

For example, reading back over our correspondence after his death, I found something Chris sent to a few of us in the fall of 2009, back at the start of the sequence of occupations that marked the year. It’s a text he was writing called “Barricades Are Everywhere,” one designed to be read interspersed with chants, so that it kept shuttling back and forth between the speaker and the crowd. Cutting against an easier, if wholly tempting, radical imaginary of the barricade, he points out: “But we are not the only ones who have built barricades. Those in power have been building them for years,” whether in Iraq, around Wall Street, surrounding Palestine, or at the G-20. However, he writes,

We do not oppose the use of barricades. Indeed, they are essential for anyone seeking to liberate the spaces currently occupied by power. We are fortunate in that this very tactic of power can be reversed upon the ruling order by those who know how to use it.

In other words, the barricade has never been a neutral thing to be deployed. It is used in moments of rupture and in sequences designed to circumvent and deny them. But if it is not neutral, it is also not wholly determined and stuck in an easy flipping binary of for us or by cops. It requires we open to another problem, a longer one: to understand what all has played the role of cops, what constitutes the full network of the cordon sanitaire, and how we can grasp who and what has been historically excluded by that notion of us, what kinds of policing of our own we’ve been complicit in. This is a problem that historians like Foucault and Chris struggle with. But historians like them really matter because they know that it can’t be answered in works of history. It will be elaborated in struggles over and through the meaning and organization of those objects, sites, and concepts, in efforts that pose those necessary questions: how can hospitals be reorganized to serve those who need them? How do we stop circulation while getting what is needed to sustain that stoppage? (And a less difficult but still important question how do you make a barricade of urinal dividers?)

One of the things I, like a lot of people, took away from studying deconstruction was to challenge easy oppositions of speech and text, and with it, an untroubled sense of presence as the mark of an expressive, identifiable subject. But it was a unique force and generosity of Chris’s thought and life that helped me think through this schematic differently, to treat the act of reading as inseparable from an articulation of us all as better antagonists of the present, and that articulation as itself requiring that we attend to the real material force of discourse. How has what’s been said and written shaped what’s possible? How has what was never said or written done the same? In this, we start to see historical arrangements of revolt and repression, of buggery and blasphemy, as themselves articulating theories of contestation, not just something to be theorized after the fact. Chris reminded me that the work of genealogy is no labor of Enlightenment. It’s a process of listening close, above all to those who weren’t asked to speak in the first place, to those who insistently made their voices heard all the same. We’re all the better for having heard his.

¤

[1] A note: after I wrote this, I noticed that a new addition didn’t follow the pattern, as it concerned a dead writer (Vilém Flusser) who was a professor among other things, rather than a career academic. The author of the piece is Kenneth Goldsmith, however, which I can’t let pass unnoticed. The ground has been plenty covered, but still, one has to note: his unwillingness to seriously address the extensive criticisms of his performance at Brown this March; his evident refusal to consider saying either yes, actually, that performance was racist (as the performance was) or simply, that was a terrible, terrible idea; perhaps above all, his apparent assumption, whether convenient side-step or sincere, that the anger behind the critiques was a sign that his critics felt “uncomfortable” or had misunderstood something about conceptual poetics, rather than an all-too-clear recognition of a well-worn operation that disavows any complicity with histories of anti-blackness under the sign of knowing appropriation. All of which is to say that unlike the other entries in this series, I can’t take seriously any ideas he might offer about a relation of crisis and criticism. For a number of responses solicited by CA Conrad to both the performance and the subsequent lack of response, see here.

[2] Anne Boyer’s recent and necessary book Garments Against Women, has a remarkable discussion of “not writing.” It is excerpted here at Bookforum, but I recommend getting the book as highly as I recommend all of her writing. It can be found here.

[3] Flight into that great unregulated market known as the art world is hardly more promising. Offers to give talks or write catalog essays are often paid decently but not enough to plausibly stitch together a living. (The situation is markedly worse for those involved as artists: in an echo of the academic publication as verification for tenure-advance, many of the most famous museums pay artists nothing whatsoever, including for solo exhibitions, because, after all, they are giving them “free publicity” to be hypothetically capitalized upon in the open market.)

[4] In The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study, Stefano Harney and Fred Moten argue that, “the only relationship one can have with the university is a criminal one.” In their text, the “only” at hand is largely a tactical injunction for the “subversive intellectual” to “go into the university and steal what one can.” It also increasingly seems to plainly describe the situation available to most who might be critics, theorists, or historians, a relationship that comes under the sign of either hustling or no relationship at all, having left it fully behind. Harney, Stefano and Moten, Fred.

[5] Chris’s translation.

[6] This approach to thinking power has become central to my work as well, albeit from a different source: from my translations of and work on Italian postwar communist theory, in particular the militant sociologist Romano Alquati, who spoke of postwar labor management and its spatial distribution as a gabbia flessibile, a “flexible prison.” More broadly, I’d say that a heterodox version of workerism – one certainly not centered on the specificity of waged work but still attentive to the dynamics Tronti’s “Copernican inversion” – forms a significant element of the thinking of a number of us coming from Santa Cruz, seen in varied forms like an interest in communist historiography to histories of “workers’ inquiry.”

[7] It’s fitting that “barbarians” first appear in Politics in this context, as those who don’t draw adequate divisions between women and slaves, because “they do not have anything that naturally rules[…] their community consists of a male and a female slave,” and hence, Grecian domination over them is, of course, not just excusable but morally necessary.

[8] And where it moves from Florence is equally compelling, with the outpacing of the Italian mode by an “Atlantic” mode of homosexuality in the sixteenth and seventieth centuries that involved complicated set of transformations: a nostalgic late Renaissance “rediscovery” of the ancient form (the homoerotic “essence”); a new “geographically coextensive social formation” with an attendant erotics of circulation; a “transitional world” of European colonizing encounters with, and decimation of, indigenous populations; a complex reading of those comradely boarding rooms and the attempted moral hygienics of public toilets; and the emergence of a notion of “taste against nature” (le gout anti-nature) which came to be associated equally with “elite boarding schools” and “primitive societies.”

[9] This primarily involved a (mostly) good-natured ongoing debate over Burning Man. He described it to me as opening a zone of play and duration beyond the market. I think that given the $390 ticket cost, that’s like buying all your groceries for the week on Sunday and then acting like you eat beyond the value-form Monday to Saturday …

¤

Evan Calder Williams is a writer, artist, and translator.


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