Pause and consider this line in a very short post from Jeet Heer, sharing some videos of an interview with Vladimir Nabokov: “Parts of the show are dated: three white men sitting around a fake living room, smoking away while talking about books.”
Honestly: what on earth does the reference to three white men mean, and what value can it possibly add to a post that amounts to “check out these cool videos I found?” Obviously, we’re at a point in media culture where “white men” is meant to contain profound political content, yet I’m at a loss as to how it’s functioning here. I’m not trying to dispute a particular political point that Heer is trying to make. I mean that I’m completely baffled at what that point might be. I’m not making some sort of argument against identity politics or the politics of representation. In order to do such a thing I’d have to have some idea about what actual political message Heer means to convey, and I don’t.
I certainly understand that there’s been a sensible attempt, in recent years, to recognize the huge overrepresentation of white men in literary culture. That’s a good thing, although it’s frequently been waged in a way that’s self-aggrandizing rather than helpful. But what does announcing the racial and gender makeup of a 60-year old video do to advance that project, or any other progressive project? I have no idea what this kind of vague wave in the direction of a particular elite political vocabulary is actually doing for anybody, other than to mark Heer as the kind of person who possesses that vocabulary.
I value the input of people who have a higher opinion than I do of the language and symbolism fixation in left-of-center politics. I don’t at all assume that there’s nothing to those politics, and I often come away more convinced of the value of this type of politics when someone passionate engages me on the issue. But even those who are enthusiastically in favor of this political style should be concerned by how detached these linguistic and social cues have become from actually trying to make the world more just. We’re at risk of the signaling function swallowing the communicative function whole. More and more, these signals seem totally uncoupled from any political project at all, like we’re slouching into a world of privileged people throwing around vague and toothless accusations of white tears and mansplaining with no one knowing who it’s for, what we’re doing, or why.