politics

Defense and Resistance

On election day, I tweeted #breakthewall, which turned out all too optimistic, America choosing instead to reinforce its defenses warranted in important ways (given the economic convulsions wrought by globalization and automation) but ultimately alarming (resistance to the system culturally expressed through reactionary nostalgia—“make America great again”—at its limit white supremacy, but which is not just about race, constituting, rather, a powerless attempt to get back at power through simple solutions, including race, by those who feel like “strangers in their own land”). When the realization dawned on me that this was actually happening as I listened to the news in between bouts of writing, I wrote, We’re going to have to live through this for decades to come, as if the campaign wasn’t bad enough: explicit white supremacy, sexual assault, tax evasion, worker stiffing, the narcissistic cult of personality, vicious and resentful law and order, the undoing of justice in the Supreme Court, schadenfreude as political discourse, the authoritarian desecration of democracy—Trump promising to buttress the wall (ironically enough the “middle” rather than the “establishment”) that proclaims itself as America.

I had to go to work the next day. Even though I couldn’t sleep the night before and didn’t want to get out of bed the morning after, I forced myself to follow my routine, thinking that this was precisely the moment in which I should be with other people. True enough, I had good conversations at the office (not to mention texts, calls, and emails from family and friends), if cloaked (for me at least) by this sense that apocalypse had just happened, and threatens to come soon. I had to teach at the end of the day, and I was worried about what I would say, if I should say anything, and how I would be … With most students overly quiet as if containing something within themselves and at least one so visibly distraught, I decided I would address what had happened before anything else. It was really hard to talk, to say something coherent, especially with a student (one of the smartest in the class) smiling mockingly, as though shaking his head and asking, What’s the relevance of all this?, Aren’t you blowing this out of proportion?, and I hadn’t cried yet so was worried that I would, right there, in front of the class, but after repeating the same phrase quite a bit (“Sad day, dark day …”), I ended up introducing the term “negative emulation” (don’t know where it came from): If you see them up there, doing something bad, something you don’t agree with, something you think shouldn’t be, or maybe you agree in which case this doesn’t apply to you, but if you don’t, then do the exact opposite. If only at the level of personal interactions, your immediate environment, foster a world different from that which they want to recreate. Try to be kinder, more open, genuinely interested in those who are different. Do something different, if only in your local world. Be different.—Hopelessly naïve, I know, but I’d prefer hopelessly naïve or even double-faced over explicitly injurious any day.

As the initial shock starts to wane, I find myself thinking about what’s next. The simultaneous protesting (the electoral college, election conditions, media coverage, systemic rigging by the establishment blowing up on itself, the reactionary ideology that may claim to but, despite post-election demonstrations of crossing across the aisle to uphold the so-called “peaceful transition of power,” is not intended to represent all or, for that matter, “America”: #notmypresident) and acceptance of loss (when we can least afford it, given global warming, race and gender relations, the new Gilded Age, etc.) may lead, especially since it’s “painful, and will be for a long time” (given the legislative damage it will inflict, the cultural reversal it promises, the symbolic injury of the campaign legitimated by the vote), to long-term strategizing beyond electoral politics (in which, yet again maybe I’m being naïve, the humanities can be a focal point, especially in the age of fact resistance) and in electoral politics, which, however, requires that the Democratic Party (the one upended by Trump, after all, registered Democrats crossing over to vote for him) and, more broadly, the left take a long, hard look at itself (even if Clinton won, despite their behavior—the stubborn determination to make Obama fail, the obstructionism, the shutting down of the government, re-districting—the Republicans still won everything: the Senate, the House, Governor’s Mansions, soon the Supreme Court; and they did so under the magnification of the worst, brinksmanship already their order of the day; there remains, of course, the question: would the magnification work with, be had by, or upend the worst?), its tendencies (opportunistic corporatism and progressive marginalization; idealistic self-fragmentation and cynical conflation of all liberalisms), and a way forward (which necessitates, I argue, against defense, polarization and [fact] resistance, that we form the Resistance [as social movement]).

[Update on 11/20/2016]

After the election (11/9 like 9/11?), everything feels different. One of the ways in which this manifests for me is how I can’t seem to brush off the question, Does white mean white supremacist? (Of course it does not, it can’t be, but after the election, it’s harder to tolerate its truth.) It seems to me that the only way this can not be true—and it cannot be—is for those who are identified as white to fight white supremacy. Saying that “I’m not racist” or “No, white supremacy is just a fringe tendency” or “It’s just the ‘culture’ where I belong” or “It’s just a preference” is too easy—racism more insidious when it’s disavowed, racism more able to do its work through a bearer unaware. And “white” is not just an identification of those who are identified as white, white supremacy an investment not only of whites, direct or indirect. In this way, the election calls on all of us to consciously fight white supremacy. This does not necessarily mean fighting whites, who have fought supremacy in the past—but never by themselves. Likewise, this does not mean that racism will not unconsciously outwit us. However, vigilant awareness (which does not have to be paranoid suspicion) of our own complicity may be our best safeguard against the tide that, through simplicity, has already given white supremacy a major victory.

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Theory and Scholarship

In my dissertation, I’m looking at the place of the Filipino in the United States, specifically in the US deployment of a new kind of imperialism. The new imperialism is not easy to define: late capitalism, anticolonial imperialism, globalization, empire, neoliberalism, hegemony—these are only some of the terms used against disavowals such as, “We don’t do empire.” This is symptomatic of US imperialism’s novelty, which renders the designation US empire, made visible only recently and partially, “problematic.” Interestingly, the Philippines is one of the few places in which US empire can be unraveled. After all, the new imperialism has as its precursor the direct, colonial imperialism that the US undertook in the Philippines at the turn of the last century. However, even in the Philippines, empire is forgotten, and it is easy enough for the US to dissociate itself from its imperialist history through the claim that the Philippines was an “aberration.” In fact, the Philippine “disenchantment” changed the way that the US does empire. That is, its experience in the Philippines caused the US to configure a new imperialism, one that is invisible and “problematic.” Drawing from characterizations of aberration and disenchantment, my dissertation aims to explore the ways in which the Filipino itself is problematic, in particular with regards to the US denial of empire. In refuting the US exceptionalist rejection of its imperialist designation, the “problem” that is the Filipino undermines the supposedly “problematic” nature of US empire.

The “problem” is thus the metaphor I’m pursuing in thinking about my dissertation topic, namely the Filipino and the US. What led me to this trajectory? What allowed me to think about such a relation, one that has an entangled, contradictory, and erased history, in a way that makes some sense, and which could be articulated along political lines? Tracking down the mutation of empire aligns with the poststructuralist sense of the world as having changed after WWII, which demands that we think about power, desire, etc. anew, in a way appropriate to the changed nature of things. The old lens brought us this far, and while we should keep their aspirations and lessons in mind, poststructuralism, as it were, points out the ways in which they don’t work anymore, or are in need of adjustment. At the same time, poststructuralism may be in too much accord with its time, of which, after all, it is a product, even in struggling against it. There are thus important ways in which the insights and strategies of older traditions, such as Marxism and psychoanalysis, afford more pointed critiques of the now, especially when this now legitimates itself precisely through its disconnection from history. Empire, in other words, has to be understood in its specific and contingent workings; at the same time, however, it has to be connected to, or studied as a variant of, good old imperialism.

There is thus a need to ask simultaneously: How is the new empire different from old imperialism (the new being poststructuralism’s emphasis, as it were)? And how are empire and imperialism one and the same thing (which calls for the expertise of older discourses of power and desire), as the (mere?) play in words seems to indicate? Poststructuralism provides the tools needed to discern change, the contemporary, its moment; however, many of the political positionalities, tendencies, and strategies at play in the present have a much older origin, from which we cannot simply dissociate, and which teaches many valuable lessons indeed: about the “class” struggle, the relation between subject and object, between conscious and unconscious … The “problem” as response to empire, in turn, derives from queer theory. And what is queer theory if not a hybrid, especially in its positing of the queer (as subject, as object?) as that which is excluded in the system (dissected so well by poststructuralism) because if fails to abide by the norm (the subordinate “class,” the repressed), an anomaly (the invisible, the remainder, the unconscious?) that, in turn, returns as the system’s failure, to make the system fail.

I offer this brief, rudimentary sketch of my project and unravel my method as deriving from theoretical schools in order to make a larger point. What I did to my project description can be done, I argue, to any scholarly undertaking. Is it really possible to carry out scholarship without theory? One can describe one’s project in the way I did in the first paragraph, through a straightforward statement “unburdened” by theory. I wager, however, that paragraphs (not always the same as mine, of course, and not always explicitly) always lurk underneath as the theoretical context of any scholarship. The genealogy tells us that critical theory derives from the Frankfurt School, perhaps the first attempt, dissenting from established philosophy, to integrate or, better yet, intersect Marxism and psychoanalysis, with the goal of “liberat[ing] human beings from the circumstances that enslave them.” This does lend critical theory a certain inflection. Critique, however, goes back even earlier, and critical theory has forked into multiple paths since the Frankfurt School. This is perhaps why the Critical Theory Emphasis at UC Irvine simply describes critical theory as the “develop[ment of] theoretical models” (compare to Critical Theory at Berkeley). If critical theory is the analytical attempt to develop ways of thinking about value, power, desire, rhetoric … more broadly, social forces and structures, and if scholarship, especially in the humanities, is the study of cultural materials (both objects and subjects), can we really disentangle one from the other? Can we really study a work of culture without thinking about our stance and method, about the social conditions of culture? And can we do such work without the political goal of liberation, or at least of critique of the given?

Far from something extraneous added to an argument to make it seem learned or which gains one entrance into an esoteric field, critical theory, in developing ways, modes, and frames of thinking about cultural materials, is the foundation of any project of thinking—and we should assert it as such. Critical theory itself would tell us not to take anything for granted, to not stop asking questions. At the same time, however, the question should not be about how theory is relevant, but about how what we’re doing, whether we like it or not, consciously or unconsciously, is already and thoroughly imbued with and founded on theory. This, I argue, shifts our concerns and affords a stance that sees, and can therefore productively use, the value of critical theory at a time when it is urgently needed, when the humanities are being undermined. We should stop apologizing for being too theoretical; it is them who claim not to be theoretical who are either ignorant or in denial. This sense of the foundational importance of theory is something that a scholar ought to have, and instinctively—you see it in the way he thinks, in her practice … It is, likewise, something that, as second nature, like the way that one carries himself, she fosters, like something contagious. Just as language is his/her primary medium, critical theory is the scholar’s pen.