Sunday, August 23, 2015

The Ruse of Analogy

In "The Black Liberation Army and the Paradox of Political Engagement" Frank B. Wilderson III compares Assata Shakur's political communiqué with communiqués issued by the West German Red Army Faction and by the Provisional Irish Republican Army. Unlike the other two documents, Shakur's text is unable to avail itself of what Wilderson describes as the arc of the liberation narrative, a progression from prior equilibrium to disequilibrium and finally to equilibrium restored. Thus the assumed analogy between the Black insurgent and postcolonialist or revolutionary Marxist breaks down because:
...this generic progression, which positions the Human subject within a dynamic, dialogical context (a terrain pregnant with uncertainty and multiplicities of outcomes, a terrain on which one is not merely an object of uncertainty but a subject of it) fortifies and extends the Slave’s "carceral continuum," the time of no time at all. This is why the Black insurgent’s communiqué is a torturous clash between, on the one hand, an unconscious realization that structural violence has elaborated Blacks so as to make our existence void of analogy and, on the other hand, a plaintive yearning to be recognized and incorporated by analogy nonetheless.
In his essay, Wilderson argues that this breach of the "ruse of analogy," with regard to the Black/Slave, exposes how Marxist and postcolonial liberation narratives of armed struggle, "though radically destabilizing of the status quo,,, unwittingly work to reconstitute the paradigms they seek to destroy."

Wilderson's Black pessimism is exhilarating in its bleakness. How bleak? "The way out is a kind of violence so magnificent and so comprehensive that it scares the Hell out of even radical revolutionaries," Wilderson explained in a radio interview in March. He went on to cite Saidiya Hartman "a black revolution would make everyone freer than they actually want to be."

That is bleak. Though it is a sublime figure of speech, there is no such thing as being "freer than they actually want to be."

At the level of analysis, I concur with Wilderson. Grand narratives are narratives of the master. But psychically, such an unrelenting paradox of engagement is too bleak, too stark to endure. The exhaustion and vertigo it induces leads back into apathetic resignation, escapist activism or oscillation between the two. Plaintive yearning fills the void, again and again, with the ruse of analogy. The unwarranted rationalist master narrative is reborn as irrationalist master narrative.  There is no cure. But there will always be yet another placebo.

Although I haven't yet read Ta Nehisi Coates's Between the World and Me, I get the sense from commentary on it that it addresses the same paradox of political engagement. In conclusion, Coates offers a compelling analogy:
I had heard such predictions all my life from Malcolm and all his posthumous followers who hollered that the Dreamers must reap what they sow. I saw the same prediction in the words of Marcus Garvey who promised to return in a whirlwind of vengeful ancestors, an army of Middle Passage undead. No. I left The Mecca knowing that this was all too pat, knowing that should the Dreamers reap what they had sown, we would reap it right with them. Plunder has matured into habit and addiction; the people who could author the mechanized death of our ghettos, the mass rape of private prisons, then engineer their own forgetting, must inevitably plunder much more. This is not a belief in prophecy but in the seductiveness of cheap gasoline.  
Once, the Dream’s parameters were caged by technology and by the limits of horsepower and wind. But the Dreamers have improved themselves, and the damming of seas for voltage, the extraction of coal, the transmuting of oil into food, have enabled an expansion in plunder with no known precedent. And this revolution has freed the Dreamers to plunder not just the bodies of humans but the body of the Earth itself. The Earth is not our creation. It has no respect for us. It has no use for us. And its vengeance is not the fire in the cities but the fire in the sky. Something more fierce than Marcus Garvey is riding on the whirlwind. Something more awful than all our African ancestors is rising with the seas. The two phenomena are known to each other. It was the cotton that passed through our chained hands that inaugurated this age. It is the flight from us that sent them sprawling into the subdivided woods. And the methods of transport through these new subdivisions, across the sprawl, is the automobile, the noose around the neck of the earth, and ultimately, the Dreamers themselves.
This may sound suspiciously like Naomi Klein's yearning for a system-challenging political alliance between Black Lives Matters and climate justice. We are all in this together! Before we are tempted to "link arms and sing Kumbaya," as Wilderson quips sarcastically, consider the varieties of climate denial. Besides the protean "climate change is a hoax" mantra there is the sophisticated "climate change is real, technology will save us" bromide and the radical "system change not climate change" placebo.

The analogy between slavery/white supremacy and productivity/climate change is useful for evaluating the prospects of the several denialist narratives. As Wilderson argues, "the Slave's relationship to violence is not contingent, it is gratuitous..." The Economy's relationship to ecological violence is similarly gratuitous, not contingent. So-called "productivity" is, like the lynching of Black bodies, a "ritual of self-making" not, as economics ideology would have it, an "economical transformation of resources into utilities."

The Dream of productivity is the mechanization of white supremacy.


john c. halasz said...

I'm not making heads or tails of this one. Would you care to elaborate, perhaps in basic English?

Sandwichman said...

Do you think you would have less trouble with the original texts? ;-)

What I am trying to do here is introduce readers to a presumably unfamiliar terrain of thought. To "elaborate in basic English" would require an undertaking that I don't suspect I have the audience for. The central idea is fairly simple: people's expectations and performances are mediated by story templates that they think tell them how the world works.

Some of those story templates and the stories derived from them may be more durable or more empirically verifiable than others.

Sandwichman said...

(and others less so)