PATHOLOGICAL

Kane Race

{Invited contribution to The Great Moving (Further) Right Show, closing panel discussion at the Crossroads in Cultural Studies Conference, Sydney, 2016}

 

In Mad Travellers (1998), Ian Hacking argued that each historical age produces its own types of madness or mental illness. What happens when a hegemonic social identity – in this case, white and heteromasculinist – starts to lose its presumptive grip on national space and understand itself as an aggrieved and embattled minority?[1]

In the wake of Trump’s election, digital snippets began to emerge that captured white people ‘losing their shit’ in the course of a range of mundane consumer transactions. Losing their shit is a polite way of putting it: those encountering these clips on social media became spectators to a series of highly public, abusive outbursts, precipitated by frustrated feelings of entitlement to special treatment:

  • In a Miami Starbucks, a white man started abusing African-American employees because his coffee was taking longer than expected. ‘I voted for Trump! TRUMP!’ he screamed. ‘You lost, now give me my money back!’ he demanded of the woman behind the counter, calling her “trash” before going on to harangue and harass employees and other customers.
  • In a Chicago store, a white woman went into a highly public fit of vitriol and abuse when an African-American cashier asked her to pay for a $1 reusable bag (as per store policy). She felt she was being discriminated against because she was white. ‘I voted for Trump!’ And look who won!” she announced for all to hear, before launching into a 45 minute tirade directed against African-American and Hispanic employees and other customers, in which she directly compared one store manager to “an animal”.
  • A man flying Delta from Atlanta to Allentown (located in a borderline electoral district in Pennsylvania) subjected passengers to a noisy pro-Trump rant, demanding to know whether there were any ‘Hilary bitches on here’.

In each of these incidents, subjects emboldened by the Trump win fly into highly public scenes of vitriol, rage  and abuse at the drop of a hat. Trump and Brexit-style rhetoric has carefully mapped out sites of external blame for whatever it is these white folks are suffering: racial and sexual minorities, immigrants, liberal elites, independent women and transgender individuals are typical scapegoats.

The documented spikes in racisthomophobic and transphobic violence that occurred after Brexit and the US election can be read as further manifestations of a syndrome or structure of feeling ‘triggered by’ these official endorsements of populist ethno-nationalist sentiment. These violent acts, committed in bids to reassert failing sovereignty, remind us that the idealised nation  is not only racialized (white), but also has a sexuality (heteronormative) that is felt to be constitutively endangered.

(These vigilante posters, which appeared in Melbourne over 2016, could be regarded as Australian symptoms or subtypes of this syndrome.  The Antipodean Resistance describes itself as a youth organisation that opposes “substance abuse, homosexuality, and all other rotten, irresponsible distractions laid before us by Jews and globalists elites”)

 

What I find particularly interesting about these acts of aggression and violence is their adoption of the prism of identity politics to vent out their claims on cultural supremacy and special treatment. These people feel they have been discriminated against: that, were it not for radical intervention, the liberal state would further conspire to reduce their recourse to the terms of abuse that once kept minorities and women in their place and thus served to ensure their own social status and dominance so effectively.[2]

In 1997 Lauren Berlant observed, “today many formerly iconic citizens who used to feel undefensive and unfettered feel truly exposed and vulnerable …They sense that they now have identities, when it used to be just other people who had them.”[3] What has happened in the interim, and what few could have predicted, is how enthusiastically these self-same subjects have embraced the terms of identity politics to understand their own plight and vituperatively restore their hold on cultural privilege.

In Australia, there has been no shortage of privileged white men prepared to line up to whine at length, publicly and pathetically, about their intolerable sense of of having been victimised. white-man-sooksThe federal government actively panders to these sentiments, withdrawing funding from anti-bullying programs offering sex and gender diversity education in schools, and more recently, announcing a parliamentary inquiry into whether provisions that make it unlawful to publicly “offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate” others on the basis of race impose “unreasonable restrictions on freedom of speech”. (Won’t someone please unfetter the poor privileged white darlings?).

safe-schools-hate-speechImage: Cartoonist Cathy Wilcox’s critique of Australian PM Malcolm Turnbull’s intention to stall a vote on marriage equality by requiring a public plebiscite, and de-fund the Safe Schools program, February 2016.

 

The ebullient outbursts I’ve described above are steeped in vindictive and vengeful ressentiment that seeks out sites of external blame upon which to avenge hurt and redistribute their pain.[4] It is very tempting to diagnose these psychotic outbursts as symptoms of a new pathology: Trumpitis? Brexophilia? Post-Trump Manic Spectrum Disorder? After all, anger and violence generated by delusions of grandeur and delusions of persecution are regarded as textbook signs of paranoid schizophrenia.

Pathologising people isn’t my usual style – I’ve spent most of my life contesting the imposition of therapeutic morality – but part of me says, why not? If these folks truly want to qualify as minority identities, bring it on! After all, would LGBT, feminists, and people of colour really qualify as minority identities in the absence of their historical subjection to intensive pathologization, criminalisation, surveillance and brutal treatment? If you’re really a subordinated identity, show me the evidence!

The problem with psychologisation is that it dehistoricizes affective complications, extracting these feelings of the world from any broader sociopolitical, historical trajectories. It’s also patronising, and therefore likely to compound the problem: In 1997, when a ‘highbrow’ journalist asked Australia’s far right politician Pauline Hanson if she was xenophobic, Hanson’s blinking response, “please explain?” resonated with many older, white non-tertiary educated Australians, powerfully embodying a spreading sense of alienation from the structures of liberal power.[5]

pauline-hanson-giphy

One of the most subtle and provocative arguments of Wendy Brown’s (1995) States of Injury – perhaps the least popular among liberal critics – is that the disciplinary genres of US identity politics personalise and naturalise some of the complex injuries of capitalism. In taking the white heterosexual middle class as the standard against which social injury is measured, the North American habit of staging politics through identity makes categories of identity “bear all the weight of … sufferings produced by capitalism.”[6]  I find this insight particularly useful in terms of getting a grip on the present conjuncture, where the capitalist dream is failing to deliver on its promise even for much of the white middle class.  In this instance, the siphoning of socioeconomic and cultural frustrations into a racialised category of wounded identity has generated particularly abusive, vindictive and (dare I say) psychotic manifestations.

What I think would be most helpful now is a more affirmative understanding of identity and difference, a reformulation of the possibilities of identity that equips us for dealing with our multi-ethnic, multi-gendered times – and even take some pleasure in them. (I’m struck, for example, by the factoid that recently came to light that Trump supporters ‘are disproportionately living in racially and culturally isolated zip codes and commuting zones’ and have limited interaction with other social groups.  The point speaks to the critical relevance of contact theory, whose vision of social safety is elaborated most imaginatively and queerly by African American Sci-Fi writer Samuel Delany.[7])

Imagine if identity was conceived, not as a category of victimhood or failed sovereignty requiring the protection and reparative intervention of a (presumptively white and heterosexual) state, but a source of multiplicity and difference – a contact zone – that is valued and affirmed for the occasions it opens up for mutual transformation? Whose promise consists precisely in the unpredictable and exciting possibilities that emerge from inter-class/identity encounters for what nations and worlds and states might become ?[8]

With this more affirmative approach to identity and difference, perhaps we will get a more active, constructive handle on what might become of the present phase of consumer capitalism and globalisation. But of course this will require white heterosexual subjects to renounce their claims on sovereignty and special treatment, and address their present manifestation as retaliatory violence against unknown others – as a matter of urgency.

References

[1] In the Australian context of state multiculturalism, Ghassan Hage theorises this situation as one in which a white majority starts to worry it is losing its grip on the managerial relation it has enjoyed over national space, which it feels is its birth-right. See Hage, White nation: Fantasies of white supremacy in a multicultural society. Routledge, 2012.

[2] For a wonderfully pedagogical and accessible explication of this point see Meaghan Morris, ‘Sticks and Stones and Stereotypes’ http://www.australianhumanitiesreview.org/archive/Issue-June-1997/morris.html

[3] Lauren Berlant, The Queen of America goes to Washington City: Essays on sex and citizenship. Duke University Press, 1997, p. 2.

[4] On ressentiment, see Friedrich Nietzsche, On the genealogy of morals and ecce homo. Vintage, 2010.

[5] For a brilliant discussion of this moment to which this argument is indebted see Meaghan Morris (2000), “‘Please explain?’ignorance, poverty and the past.” Inter-Asia Cultural Studies 1,2: 219-232.

[6] Wendy Brown, States of injury: Power and freedom in late modernity. Princeton University Press, 1995, p. 60. For another brilliant excavation of the trials, tribulations and terms of US identity politics see Cindy Patton, “Tremble, hetero swine!” in Warner (ed.) Fear of a queer planet: Queer politics and social theory, 1993, pp.143-177.

[7] Rylan Lizza, “What we learned about Trump’s supporters this week”, New Yorker, August 13, 2016.  For a queer vision of social safety that draws brilliantly on contact theory see Samuel Delany (1999), Times Square Red, Times Square Blue.

[8] For a more detailed elaboration of the theoretical coordinates of this approach, and an attempt to put it into practice, see my  forthcoming book, The Gay Science: Intimate Experiments with the Problem of HIV, under contract with Routledge.

1 Comment

Filed under Affect, Masculinities, Medicine and science, Random thoughts, Self-medication

One response to “PATHOLOGICAL

  1. Pingback: Traces of Collective Action: An Index | homotectonic

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