The Political Aesthetics of Abstraction
It is easy to change the appearance of political arguments by abstracting them from the historical context in which they emerge. Just as the apparent colour of an object can be changed by altering the light in which it appears (an object under ultraviolet light looks to be a different colour than under infrared or sunlight) so too serious political arguments can be made to appear frivolous when separated out from their historical background. Certain figures in the media are masters of the parlour trick of cherry picking titles and argument-fragments that, in abstraction from the argument as a whole and a longer-term view of history, sound absurd. Margaret Wente is a paragon of this intellectual non-virtue. In a recent article she makes fun of academic cultural studies for making what sound like non-sensical critiques of the “whiteness” of pumpkin latte and the sexism of glaciology.
Let us be fair: if you only read the title, and you do not link the particular claim (about lattes or glaciology) to longer term histories of racism and sexism, then it does sound ridiculous to claim that pumpkin lattes are racist or the study of glaciers sexist. But is it ridiculous to argue that there is a history of sexism in Western science or that Tim Hortons has built a coffee empire on an advertising construction of a very white Canadian cultural practice: early mornings drinking coffee at the rink while your boy (and now girl) plays hockey. How many women scientists were there in 1820? How many black Canadians do you see in Tim Horton’s commercials? Not many, because the image of Canada those commercials are conjuring is an anachronistic image of the cultural essence of Canada as the small town arena and hockey as a democratic cultural glue. Now, there is some truth to that picture (I lived it in fact) but it is only one fragment of a much more complex cultural picture, and it leaves out of the frame everyone who cannot afford to play hockey or who does not care about it.
When we put the deconstruction of the pumpkin latte in this context its claim is not so silly. What makes it seem silly is the micro-focus on a drink, and peoples’ assumptions that something so trivial as a cup of coffee cannot be so pregnant with offensive symbolic meaning. But a cross abstracted from context is just two pieces of wood intersecting at a right angle. What could be more banal? But put that banal construction in a Christian Church and it becomes symbolic of the suffering and redemption of humanity. The same general process of the inflation of symbolic value is at work in the Tom Horton’s commercial. When set in the context of the construction of Canadian culture around spaces and practices that are predominantly white, the symbolic value of the coffee cup rises, and it can be a fit subject for cultural criticism. So: seemingly insignificant elements of a culture can have profound symbolic importance, and the value of work that brings this importance to light is that it opens a space for critical reflection and the democratic construction of new cultures in which more voices are heard and new practices born.
This critique is liable to get people’s backs up, because they sometimes think that if the symbolic value of something which they enjoy has racist implications, then they are being called racists for enjoying it. Sometimes claims of cultural appropriation are made with an air of self-righteousness moralism that makes them easy targets for rejection on these defensive grounds. It is certainly not the case that every white person who wears dreadlocks is a racist any more than heterosexual white transvestites are sexist for wearing women’s clothes. In matters of politics, intentions matter as much as actions, and sometimes the intention is just to look a certain way, or respectfully (and playfully) participate in a practice that one finds valuable even though participation demands a certain degree of transgression of cultural or gender-boundaries. Sometimes a dreadlock is just a dreadlock.
But sometimes not, too, and again it will be context and intention that determines the political meaning. Wearing dreadlocks because you love reggae is one thing, going in blackface to a hallowe’en party is another. Wearing blackface has an undeniably racist history; reggae, while rooted in a trenchant critique of the slave trade and colonial domination, nevertheless (at least in its original expressions) preaches a universal set of values: peace between nations and cultures and the equality and dignity of all people. Burning Spear’s magnificent song The Invasion begins with the line “They take us away from Africa, with the intention to steal our culture,” but continues with the invocation of the need for “Love in Africa, Love in America, Love in Canada” i.e., not retreat into a closed community but openness towards difference and reconciliation (but without forgetting the history of violence, either).
So: the problem of cultural appropriation is real, but becomes pernicious only when it involves the permanent appropriation of essential elements of a group’s conditions of life and self-understanding, as in the history of colonial domination. The aim of opposing cultural appropriation should not be to prevent real communication, inter-cultural dialogue, and the creation of new forms of expression and identity, but to ensure that all members of all cultures have secure access to that which they require to live freely.
Against the Politics of Banning and Apology
Unfortunately, the goal of cultural critics is not always to widen the space for novel cultural interactions and inventions but to justify banning and silencing and to demand apologies for arguments and theories that give offense. It would be wrong to argue that there are never grounds to ban certain forms of speech or representation. However, the bar must be set very, very high: 1) There must be demonstrated and pervasive harm to an identifiable group and not a merely asserted harm to a random individual or individuals claiming to speak for the whole group, and 2) harm must be understood as equivalent to a physical barrier preventing the group from exercising its full range of life-capacities. So, it would be reasonable to ban Ku Klux Klan outfits from a university campus, because the Ku Klux Klan is inseparable from a history of racist violence, and any black student who saw people walking around in Klan gear would reasonably fear for their safety, and this fear could well prevent them from freely enjoying campus spaces and feeling safe enough to think and study. Racist jokes, on the other hand, while offensive, should not be banned, but their teller challenged, because it is not always the intention of the teller of racist jokes to promote racial intolerance. Often times the teller does not think that they are racist, because they think that humour changes the literal meaning and implications of words– a not unreasonable position that must be answered with a reasoned critique. The ensuing argument can thus be a moment of productive political engagement and education rather than the regressive alternative: censorship imposed by the ruling powers.
This argument applies with double force to the lamentable and frankly reactionary practice of trying to silence theories and political positions which might give offense to some group by banning speakers from campuses or trying to control the content of courses. Academic freedom is not a liberal platitude but has been, overall, a force of progressive change, and a crucial contributing factor to why there is any political criticism on campus at all. There would be no women’s studies department without the struggles of women academics, but those academics would never have survived the wrath of the boy’s club without the protection of academic freedom, because it gave them the space and time necessary to defend the integrity and value of their work from charges that it was intellectually weak. There is no doubt who will be swept out the door if academic freedom is fatally compromised by misplaced political outrage and moralistic whinging: feminists, queer theorists, Marxists, and critical race theorists as well as heterodox critics of the history of science will be gone and universities returned to what they were formerly: transmission belts of the ruling ideas of the age, taught to the sons (and only much later) daughters of the ruling class.
Thus, activists and critics need to recover the value of political argument. If there are fault lines in a society, then it follow as a direct consequence that there will be groups on the other side of an issue, and they will not go away unless the fault line is sealed through some sort of fundamental social change. Silencing the opponent through whatever means has never worked (even revolutionary attempts to ‘liquidate the class enemy’ have never succeeded). There is no alternative but to argue (not only argue, obviously) and convince the opponent to change their position. Hegel is correct: the conceit that refuses to argue impedes political progress because the “achieved community of minds” which our rational nature makes possible depends upon the “power of the negative,” his name for the ability of philosophical thinking to detect and overcome contradictions. If the other side does not speak, the contradiction is hidden from view but not resolved. The strategy of banning and silencing is therefore self-undermining and must be rejected save in the most extreme cases of overt advocacy of violent assault on vulnerable groups.
However, rejecting a self-undermining politics of the silencing (but not defeat) of the opposed position leaves open the more difficult question of how the positive programs of movements against different forms of oppression can be brought together in some sort of coherent political synthesis. A coherent political synthesis would allow for the elaboration of shared goals without requiring the submerging of particular histories or subordinating the particular identities to an imposed agenda. It is crucial to remember that the emergence of radical feminism, Black Power, the American Indian Movement, and the gay and lesbian rights movement in the 1960’s was in part made necessary by the woeful failure of the Marxist left to acknowledge the political reality of different histories of oppression. Of course, these movements were made necessary by those histories, and their successes owe to the intelligence and energy of their organizers. At the same time, part of the reason why these movements had to split off from the Marxist left was due to a mechanical and dogmatic insistence on the “primacy of class.” There is a non-dogmatic argument to be made for the primacy of class, but I am not going to make it here. Instead, I want to conclude with a different account of how solidarity might be built in the present, which draws on some core ideas of Marxism, but re-interprets them in light of contemporary political realities.
The core problem of building real solidarity is how to identify real common interests and articulate them in such a way that their pursuit does not demand subordination of particular identities to another identity presenting itself as universal. The historical problem of the dogmatic Marxist approach was that, from the perspective of a radical feminist or black power militant, class was itself an identity as particular as the Marxist charged feminism or black power with being. If a common interest is to be found, it has to be deeper than class. I think we find this deeper ground in the idea of a shared set of socio-cultural human needs whose satisfaction allows anyone to realize their latent human power of living as a social-self-conscious agent; i.e., a person who has the power to shape their own identity rather than than be dominated as an object of oppressive power. When we focus on needs first, it becomes apparent that oppression is essentially about demonizing specific groups of people and using that demonization to justify the fact that they are systematically deprived of one or more of the set of fundamental human natural and social needs. They are oppressed because they can live as full social self-conscious agents, and they cannot, not because they are not essentially social self-conscious agents, but because they are deprived of that which they require to live as such.
So, to give only one example, when women were denied the vote (their need to participate in the determination of the laws they were forced to obey) sexist ideology argued that women lacked the intellectual capacities to effectively participate in government. When African Americans were denied the same means of satisfying their need to participate, racist ideology argued that they were similarly intellectually unfit for self-government. Here we have two distinct groups denied the same means of satisfying a political need by reference to a false construction of their nature and possibilities. The details of the histories of their respective deprivation differ, but the cause is the same: the system-need of the ruling class to ensure the conditions of its own rule. If the ruling class is primarily white and male, then the demands of women and blacks for political power is a threat, and racist and sexist ideologies a means of warding off that threat. Solidarity in the struggle can be constructed by appeal to the shared need, while the specific identity of the group is preserved because they orient their contribution to that struggle on the basis of their own particular experience of the general causes of the deprivation.
This example abstracts from a great deal of complexity of the contemporary political terrain, but I believe that if people examine fundamental problems of structural oppression, they will discover at the root of that oppression deprivation of needs that are also felt by other groups. I have defined and defended a theory of what fundamental human needs are in two previous books, Democratic Society and Human Needs and Materialist Ethics and Life-value. The practical implication of the argument is that all the particular histories of oppresion converge on the control of natural resources, social wealth, and social institutions by a ruling class. Solidarity in struggle is rooted not in everyone identifying themselves as working class against the ruling class, but in all oppressed and exploited groups articulating the specific ways in which they experience the deprivation of their needs, and working together to reclaim the resources and institutions that can satisfy them.
Politics cannot ensure that no one is ever offended, and if it tries to do so, it will degenerate into irrelevant squabbling (or worse, demands that the authorities solve the problem through repressive measures). Progressive politics is about people seizing the power to solve their own problems by changing the system at the foundations. It would be best if this were a simple and swift problem to solve, but it is not. Because it is not, and because opponents cannot be wished out of existence or completely destroyed, the patience of argument will always have to be part of the tools of struggle.