the eternal recurrence of white subjectivity

A lot of people really hate Armond White. No less than Roger Ebert declared him a troll. It’s hard not to suspect, at times, that he really is declaring opinions on movies just to piss off other people. I can’t go that far. I’ve known far too many fans of difficult or unappreciated art who have to put up with people saying “you can’t really like that” to be willing to assert bad faith in somebody else’s critical opinions. So I guess it’s enough to say that I deeply, deeply disagree with White most of the time, and that his habit of casting himself as the beleaguered truth-teller speaking out against conformity does him few favors, as far as spreading his opinion more widely goes.

But there’s always value in genuinely different opinions, even if they seem to come from a deliberately inflammatory place. I’m consistently surprised that more people don’t recognize the importance of lone voices in our public conversations. Even those who occupy places of deliberate independence for self-aggrandizing reasons can help to produce deeper engagement and prevent the subtle conformity of mass opinion. I find that opinions on art and media I find totally wrong can be just as useful for my own thinking as opinions I find totally right. More useful, maybe.

So take White’s review of Twelve Years a Slave. His ultimate take is clearly far, far outside of the critical consensus. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course– I’m very happy that minority opinion exists on any movie. (I remember when people freaked out because White’s review changed Toy Story 3‘s Rotten Tomatoes from 100%, and I found it baffling; do people really want literal critical conformity?) But it’s also important to remember that, for example, this is a critic who loved Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. So when you use his review to help you think through your own thoughts on the movie, and when you try to assess its stature, it’s perfectly fair to keep his record in mind.

He has a point in there, though, that I think could be valid. He writes about “the appropriation of historical catastrophe for self-aggrandizement.” One of the consistent aspects of praise for Twelve Years a Slave is that it refuses to give white people a benevolent surrogate through which to release their guilt. Movies like The Help or Glory or Amistad, in this telling, provide white audiences with a release valve, principled white characters with whom they can identify, which prevents them from having to really grapple with the racism and oppression on screen. This take has appeared in review after review; going through some this morning, I was amazed at how consistent that point was, coming from mostly white film critics at prominent places. The message was clear: where once white film critics were bought off by uplifting movies that maintained a space for white absolution, now white film critics were ready to endure the harsh challenge of confronting white historical crimes without the life raft of a noble white character.

For any individual white writer, the point seems valid and fair. But as a culture, the wide-spread embrace of this reading seems to me to prove White’s point. However punishing the film might be to an audience of white critics, the story nevertheless ends with them writing condemnations of some other white people, white filmmakers who made that kind of film in the past and white critics who celebrated them. In this reading, the brutality of Twelve Years a Slave becomes a kind of torture porn for white audiences, a way to prove their toughness and in so doing, demonstrate their superior character to those who made or celebrated less punishing films. As White writes, “Some will no doubt take comfort from McQueen’s inherently warped, dishonest, insensitive fiction. ” The maze-like nature of American race relations leaves us in a place where a film that deliberately indicts its white audience becomes just another vehicle for some members of that audience to declare themselves morally superior.

Now you could fairly make the point that this is just a terribly arch way to think about a movie, that it applies to0 many layers of meta-thinking to the film. I might agree with you. But understand: by comparing Twelve Years a Slave to earlier movies about racism and slavery, and indicting older audiences and critics in doing so, the white critics who celebrate the film for its unvarnished brutality are necessarily invoking their own enlightened natures. White, who is black, might be coming up with one of his trademark contrarian readings, a convoluted exercise used to justify his disagreement with the crowd. But he is also doing us the service of locating his opinion in a social and cultural context that does not pawn off problematic attitudes onto the filmmakers and critics of the past. Whatever its demerits, I find his review to be honest about the actual current state of white cultural criticism in a way that the many reviews lauding Twelve Years a Slave fail to be.

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t: movies that purport to show racial injustice through a framework of uplift and reconciliation become vehicles for white audiences to celebrate their enlightenment. But a movie that shows racial injustice by refusing to hide any of its brutality or giving white audiences a just white character with which to identify can, in the hands of a skilled-enough white writer, be bent to the same purpose, provided that there is always some other segment of the white population with which to cast oneself in superior relief. In a culture that is dominated by white writers and white interests, it becomes nearly impossible for any work of art to exist without being pulled into the service of making certain white people feel morally and politically superior to others.

One of the most moving and disturbing pieces written about Twelve Years a Slave was written by Enuma Okoro and published in The Atlantic. It describes why Okoro has no interest in seeing the film with white people, and it locates the film in relation to the experience of being black in a white culture. Crucially, the culture is not the white culture of explicit or clumsy racism, but rather the subtler racisms of educated, progressive white culture, a culture whose members, like me, are used to being indicted only in the abstract. I’m very glad the piece was written. I thought it was honest and moving and great, and I hated reading it. It made me uncomfortable and it made me upset. It made me feel guilt, racial guilt. Talking about that guilt is the sort of thing that educated white people aren’t supposed to do. There are too many ways in which that admission opens oneself up to the myriad tools which educated white people have developed for the critical dissection of other educated white people’s imperfect racial attitudes.

But I would much rather live in and own that guilt than to do the alternative, which is to celebrate Okoro’s essay in a way that denies my implication within it. I wanted people to read the essay. But the way in which it was publicized and celebrated by white people on my Facebook feed or in the internet writ large felt, to me, like the familiar pattern in which white progressives exculpate themselves from guilt by getting on the right side of a critique that was meant to include them. Okoro did not write her essay for me to celebrate it. The essay is not for me to praise. Reading the reaction to it, much of it written by people who were implicated by it in the abstract but who avoided that implication in the particular by celebrating it, I was reminded of so many classes reading radical feminist literature. As a graduate student, I have several times been in seminars where we’ve read the work of radical feminists like Andrea Dworkin or Helene Cixous. Inevitably, men in the course enjoyed the reading and agreed with Dworkin and Cixous and similar authors. More than agreed– seemed to want to agree to the point in which their agreement transcended the critique of these pieces altogether. So while in an analytical sense I might find myself in perfect agreement with the substance of those essays, I refuse to enjoy them. They are not for me to enjoy.

Or take Tom Scocca’s Gawker piece on how white people ruin everything. It’s a great, great essay, necessary and correct. I’m very happy that it exists, and that it was widely read. But even a cursory examination of how white people engaged with it, in comments or on Tumblr or Twitter, demonstrates how hard it is to escape from the cycle: most white people reacted to an essay about how white people ruin everything with glee, treating it not as a lens through which to examine themselves but a cudgel with which to beat others and thus raise their own relative position. I want to praise Scocca for writing it, and I can’t find fault with any individual who wants to share it and praise it. But I feel a particular kind of despair when I realize the power of the white subject to blunt the edge of a critique that is meant to be so ruthless.

I’m sure anyone reading this is aware of the rise, in the last several years, of a certain kind of politics, or “politics,” that is primarily waged on  social platforms like Tumblr, Facebook, and Twitter. It is informed by critical theory, cultural studies, and postcolonialism. It operates primarily through argument to incredulity, arguing not the correctness of its opinions but the disbelief that there is anyone who could not already see that correctness. It is brutally waged, constantly mistaking the virulence of an argument for its actual capacity to  create change. It is emotive and individual; while it speaks in the language of structural critique and material oppression, its intent is inevitably to make others feel bad and to make the person critiquing feel good. It entails listing the privileges and bad attitudes of the person making the critique, but only insofar as that gets them to “and this is why this other person is worse.” More than anything: while it styles itself as ultra-aggressive, and while it takes the form of a righteous offensive, this brand of politics is fundamentally self-defensive. It is a fortress, a rhetorical structure built on the idea that the best defense is a good offense. Its fundamental dictate is not “change the world for the better” but “get there first.”

I’ve had discussions about radical black political movements with other white people, discussions of African separatists, Black Panthers, Marcus Garvey. I am often struck by a fundamental misunderstanding of the critique these black radicals had and have for sympathetic white activists: radical black activists have never rejected white allies because those allies were insincere. Progressive white people are drowning in sincerity. They rejected those white allies because of the problem of stakes, because no matter how deeply white allies might feel, no matter how righteously they beat their chests, there is a non-negotiable and irresolvable divide between the stakes of racial politics for black people and for white people. You cannot feel your way to being a productive ally. There is no white person so enlightened or pure that they can occupy the black space.

If all of this is too meta or too depressing for you, the path ahead is mercifully easy: work to end the material structures of racism. Identify economic, political, and practical impediments to racial equality and work, either through activism or partisan politics, to remove them. Support politicians who defend affirmative action. Agitate for more stringent enforcement of equal housing laws. Protest governments or business that fail to adequately address racial inequality. Advocate for redistributive economic practices that could chip away at the racial wealth and income gap. Stop pretending that yelling at other white people for using the wrong language has any practical value at all, beyond making you feel better about yourself.

If you feel the need to work through your own racist baggage– and I think you should, because we all do– do it alone. Do it quietly. Don’t put it out there in a place where it could affect your image or reputation. Engage in self-implication. Make a critique that begins and ends with yourself, and that does not lead inevitably to some declaration of why other people are worse than you. If some of us have, with the rise of the internet, taken to doing all of our thinking out loud, we have to be aware of the ways in which certain kinds of thinking are inevitably undone by being expressed for others to see, for others to give credit for. The question for us white people who think out loud is, are we willing to engage in real and punishing self-criticism, if we do it in a way for which we can never receive credit?

9 Comments

  1. I’m surprised you liked Scocca’s piece. In some abstract, absolute sense, he’s right to call out the archetypical New Jersey diner man and the conservatives who spread the shit that makes him think the way he does.

    But the rhetorical valence of a piece like that – dropped into the raging bonfire of cultural superiority that is the Gawker media empire – will obviously be to ensure the white people reading that they are cool, and with it, and progressive, unlike the bad conservatives and diner denizens who are more direct in their condescension to minority communities. And you have to believe that Scocca knew that.

    I guess the broader question is – by necessity, anti-racism in America is, and always will be, primarily a product of the self-regard of progressive white people. I just can’t decide whether that dooms the enterprise entirely or not.

  2. Don’t you fall into a lot of your own traps? Aren’t you “necessarily invoking [your] own enlightened nature” as someone who acknowledges his guilt and realizes that the only “effective” form of action is to change the material relations of race? I agree with the sentiment, but, by and large, I have the same critique of this as I do of Okoro’s piece: it doesn’t see shades of gray and focuses on critiquing the oh-so-annoying sincerity of well-meaning rich white people, because of their proximity to the author, to the exclusion of all else. Ultimately it tells us more about the circles that you and Okoro live in than about race relations in the US. For her piece: what about poor black people who don’t have well-educated progressive white friends that might want to go to the film with them? How do they feel about going to the film with their white friends, educated or not? I am not sure and maybe she isn’t either, but she should have at least addressed the issue (or her ignorance of it). Since not as many uneducated people write, we get a very good picture of what educated people think about each other (disdain and scorn), and not such a great picture of what the rest of the country thinks about all the self-reflective browbeating (which you denounce but proceed to engage in). For your piece: would you prefer white critics who denounce the film for its universal condemnation of whites or the educated whites who laud it for the same reason, albeit to display their own enlightenment? Open race war or status-seeking browbeating? If the answer is the second, then you should start by acknowledging the gray areas and work from there. This will open up possibilities of action instead of paralyzing us with the undeniable fact that white people will always be disseminating some form of racism and aren’t the best agents for change. But note that there is a huge difference between saying whites aren’t the BEST agents for change and saying that whites aren’t agents for change at all. Rejection of racism can work on many fronts at the same time, rhetorical, emotional, material, legal, and so on. Throughout the country, there are people on many different levels of the discussion and issue. Some people live in social environments where just a little bit of browbeating or gentle critiquing is all it takes to provoke barely latent racism out into the open, where praising a film like 12 Years a Slave does actually take some courage, believe it or not. Actually, there are probably a lot more people in that situation than in the so-unfortunate situation of being surrounded by well-meaning naïve white college students. The fact of the matter is that the large majority of white people are not the well-educated progressive elite. That’s not a classist argument that poor whites are all racist: there is a much larger not-so-well or moderately-well educated white middle class and elite, which is the primary vector of racism. For every 1 part critique of educated progressive, there should be 10 parts of critiquing the rest of the white hegemony. The fact of the matter is that progressive elites don’t have that much power in today’s society and, until they do, it’s more useful to go after the people who do have some power. One last thing, if you believe in changing material relations, it shouldn’t matter to you how virulent or emotional people are on Facebook. Many people, due to their social environment, have lost faith in the ability of words to convince anyone and are more interested in upping the stakes of the conflict, which means those are probably the people who are most ready to engage in a more direct struggle to change material relations—they are ready to move beyond chatting about race, which is probably why they are so frustrated and emotional. It seems like you want everyone to stay perfectly calm and collected while they engage in a bitter material struggle.

    1. You might be right. Certainly, I’m the last person to be able to say if I do or not. But I think you’ll concede that, if you are right, my broader point is stronger, not weaker.

      1. You are definitely right that status-seeking and proving one’s superior enlightenment is part of left-wing progressive white culture, and I appreciate that. I also think that denouncing other people’s naïve sincerity or self-aggrandizement is part of the same ego politics, and so is my critique of that denunciation. My point was that I don’t think there’s any way to get around these ego moves, and, in the end, the left in the US is so weak that we need to take our allies where we can get them and focus less on purges of all the lesser mortals. What most bothered me with your and Okoro’s posts was the lack of acknowledgment that this is a minor problem in the grander scheme of American race and class relations, where racism and classism are only barely latent and well-educated progressive elites are a very small minority. The problem of well-meaning naïve college students is a very comfortable problem to have, and most of them are used to being critiqued and willing to engage in as much browbeating as we can throw at them/ourselves, so they won’t reject what you’re saying. What I appreciated about your column (over Okoro’s) is that it calls for changing material relations, which I can get behind enthusiastically. I think, however, that a lot of the people you’re criticizing would also get behind that—it goes back to the German Ideology and is quite a major part of left-wing politics.

  3. I’ve just read White’s piece and, though I think he can be a bit uncharitable, he makes some important points about suffering porn. How dare we make suffering beautiful? I haven’t seen the movie, so I don’t know if/how that plays out in that case, but I remember reading Becoming Abigail by Chris Abani and feeling outrage at the beauty of it. By the end, I felt that was part of Abani’s intention — to implicate the reader in the enjoyment of the suffering. Maybe. I don’t know. I’m not a cultural or literary critic, and that’s what makes “cultural interventions” iffy to me. Most of us don’t approach entertainment with that lens.

    At any rate, we can’t stop doing history, writing, entertainment. I guess as soon as you start typing you’re implicated in some way because you can’t write about the world from a blank-slate. Everyone has a perspective and everyone has some sort of motivation — White ascribes opportunism, which feels narrow because it implies careerism, but isn’t entirely off the mark. I wonder if I (a Jew) have the same reaction to most Holocaust lit/movies that White has to this sort of movie about black experience. Although I don’t have much of a reaction to Holocaust stuff, honestly, because usually I avoid it like the plague, have never seen Schindler’s List, etc. To me, it’s felt like something of a melodrama industry.

    At the same time, since I write about “other people,” I’ve often thought about “who the fuck am I to write about anyone?” But, you know, who am I not to do it? We live in the world. White mentions Chuck D’s take on Middle Passage, and it’s hard to think that Chuck D didn’t have his own motivations/desires, but maybe White’s point is that you can’t use history to pretend it’s just history.

    So, maybe, Freddie, you are right about just getting shit done — which to me has meant try to pass laws, make sure they’re implemented well, defend the wins, etc., etc.. In the end, you have to remember — and I think this applies to everyone — that it’s not about you. Since you’re a rhetoric guy, I’m sure you believe that the language is important for moving stuff, but the point is to move stuff, not to have pretty conversations. So, on that note, I’ll stop talking now.

  4. I find persuasive the idea that self-improvement can work best when not shared.

    However, it also seems to put critics in an almost Straussian position. Surely a work that effectively promotes empathy and encourages self-critique is one that should be praised and shared. Should such virtues be treated like a satisfying late act surprise? To be hinted at and teased but not directly discussed?

  5. The recurrent trope that you note, in which critics claim that 12 Years a Slave refuses to provide white viewers with any “principled white characters with whom they can identify,” is all the more strange given that it’s not even an accurate description of the film. The turning point of the film is when Brad Pitt Canadian Jesus sees the light and does his part to help free the main character.

    1. Well, it wouldn’t be an Armond White review without a glaring factual error about the movie in question. (Note: I haven’t seen the movie myself; I have no interest in it.)

      1. He’s noted that as one of his favorite moments in the movie, and I don’t think he pretends it doesn’t exist in the review.

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