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Re: <nettime> What is the meaning of Trump's victory?
t byfield on Fri, 18 Nov 2016 18:31:40 +0100 (CET)


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Re: <nettime> What is the meaning of Trump's victory?


One of the quirks of this list, which is one reason I've loved it so much for so long (and that's no exaggeration), is its very European style. For many purposes, the US has served as a weird sort of Orient -- not just in the sense of a trope that encompasses an empirically geographical 'over there,' but also 'an over' there that's been one of the dominant engines of wealth and power around the world. After all, Orientalism really kicked into gear when the worlds it referred became (or at least served as) the origin of European colonial wealth. It's a poor analogy, I know: Silicon Valley and Wall Street aren't fabled Asian kingdoms, and I'm an even poorer version of, say, Richard Francis Burton. But, even so, let me tell you of my travels in the US. The analogy does work in the sense that I've only ever wandered around small parts and learned a few of the countless languages (mainly from generous and powerful hosts, at that), but I'll treat them as the whole anyway as I tell you what I've seen.

Actually, I won't, because that joke only goes so far. But, Angela, what you're describing doesn't resemble what I've seen. The US is an immense country, partly because it genuinely is huge and partly because legends of its imaginary infinity are what drove its expansion, internally and then externally (and then via the internet -- the Declaration of Cyberspace Independence, the Californian Ideology, and all the rest). So there's a paradox baked into talking about the US as a single place. For some purposes it is one place (federal government, and 'foreign' policy -- economic, military, etc), but for many other purposes it's many -- more like, say, Central Asia (overlapping regions, spheres of influence at many levels, states, etc). What's happening now, and has been happening for decades, is a struggle between those two imaginaries: will we be one or many?

The period we're mostly talking about, post-WW2, is the golden age of federalism: it's when Washington DC and the East Coast power corridor asserted a homogenizing political, economic, and cultural power over the rest of the country. The conflicts you mention -- racial, gender understood in economic terms, and much else (notably *labor*) -- took the form of federal assertions of authority over 'state' authority. People often dismiss that 'states' rights' as just a cynical mask for regressive essentialist attitudes, and they were, but not *just* that. What we're seeing now is a culmination of that backlash against (but via) federalism, implemented in part through a systematic GOP strategy of taking control of state-level political machinery. And there will be more, maybe much more -- if Republicans gain control of one more state government, that may provide another 'new' mechanism to amend the US Constitution. Think Yugoslavia, but not too literally.

When you say these political developments "amount to a return (in a different way) to the concept of racial property, and whiteness as a property," it might be helpful to unpack that a bit. The implicit polarized (or at least 'centralized') racial model at work here carries some very Southern freight -- white vs black, where black serves as the ur-non-white category. And the obvious reference is to a time when blackness equaled *property*. But the key now is the "in a different way" part: if whiteness is being reconstructed as a property, then in some sense it's being reconstructed as, or on the basis of, ideas about blackness. That's a terrible step backward, but it's also a tremendous step forward, toward a US in which whites -- I always want to use scare quotes, but that's a bad habit and this now isn't the time -- see themselves *and are seen* as a minority. And in growing parts of the US, that's approaching an empirical fact. So partly what's at stake now, as the federal government becomes 'dysfunctional' in some respects, is the question of which regions of the US will dominate the whole of the US, in ways both practical and imaginary.

I've joked for years that the Tea Party was a sort of 'normcore' Stonewall, a coming-out party for white people who feel they were left behind in the fabulous parade of new legitimacies over the last several decades. I'm not saying they were or weren't left behind. (And BTW, note the prominence of that phrase, 'left behind,' among far-rightists millenarians in the US. If you don't know it, look it up -- it's an obvious allegory). Instead I want to emphasize that, in addition to their assertions of privilege and authority, they can *also* been seen -- etically rather than emically, if you like -- as a sort of necessary step toward a whiteness that's just one minority among many others. It's very hard to interpret these things, in part because we've gotten used to a poor model of dialectics that's based on stages, basically Stage 1 = bad, Stage 2 = silver lining, Stage 3 = speculative, Stage 4 = sci-fi. And those 'stages' usually correspond to the back and forth of debate ("Thesis!" "No, Antithesis!" "Damn you, Synthesis!" "You chump, your Synthesis is just a naive enactment of larger Thesis!"). But all of these 'stages' are happening at the same time, at different speeds in different places. And since we don't know where this is all going (or at least we hope we don't, imo), they aren't even historical stages at all, they're largely props for discursive positioning. Leftoids have spent way too much time and energy on that kind of infra posturing, and we/they need to learn to listen -- kill me now, go ahead -- to Peter Thiel's almost Lacanian observation that "the media is always taking Trump literally. It never takes him seriously, but it always takes him literally." (When people talk about evil geniuses, they tend to focus on the evil part and forget the genius part.) This distinction, literally vs seriously, is very useful for understanding what rightists are saying and how, but this time emically, understanding its 'native' il/logic, rather than etically, by ~translating it into the habitual language of the left. Now is a good time to start.

In any event, there are lots of subtleties here, not least that many people who are now described as white would have been seen very differently just a few generations ago -- not as black in the sense of African-American but instead as not quite white (people of Irish and Italian extraction and immigration, for example). Obviously, that homogenization process treats 'white' in a teleological way: it says that after a few generations certain kinds of people can 'become' white. It's important to recognize that, because the more pluralist multi-everything models of US culture -- in the period we're talking about -- have been moving in the other direction(s): after a few generations everyone, or almost everyone, can become something new, and we don't really know what that is. Of course I'm not suggesting that's been true in any simple, open, or equitable way; it hasn't at all, it's been monstrously unfair, in particular to African Americans. What we need is for a pluralist model, in which categories like race, gender, preference, and attributes I can't even imagine function not as the marks of potential 'property' but instead as the basis of a very different way of understanding *who* (not *what*) a person and people can be.

I'll be the first to admit I'm sentimental about this, but I do think that the runaway measurement of everything human carries within it not just the short-term machinery of dystopia but, in the longer term, the seeds of something a bit more utopian: the 'data-driven' disassembly of traditional / monolithic demographic categories. That, in turn, carries a different set of dangers: the dissolution of ~arbitrary communities (elective or not) on the basis of those essentialisms, a hyper-in/dividuated nightmare, and so on. But that's OK, because we can only plan so far in advance.

I should add here that my ~geographical focus neglects entire worlds that have opened up through gender. La plus ça change... 😕 But this list is TXT, no HTML, so what we say here is linear not 'hyper.'

Cheers,
T

On 18 Nov 2016, at 4:28, Angela Mitropoulos wrote:

As for the latter half of the 20th c in the United States, it was
marked by profound conflicts over the expansion of civil rights,
around de-segregation, access by women to an independent income, a
limited expansion of welfare beyond 'workers and their families,' etc
- and this was followed, in the very late 20th c by a reaction in the
form of what is better described as a wholesale effort to transfer
risk to households, and austerity as a response to the loosening of
credit, among other things that cannot be adequately described as
deregulatory (as with migration controls). I think this is pivotal
to explaining a resurgent racism, its value as a property it were -
because if people are compelled to treat the familial household as
an asset, including not just its role in increasing incomes through
mortgages, but also as an investment in human capital, then this
amounts to a return (in a different way) to the concept of racial
property, and whiteness as a property. This is a far more credible
account of the materialisation of race (which is after all, understood
as a heritable property) than explanations which, as with Polanyi,
draw on Catholic moral economy.

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