Protestors in downtown Los Angeles on June 3, 2020. Photo credit: Willy Sanjuan / Shutterstock.com.
This is the final seminar of the “Sentencing the Present” series. For previous seminars, see part one, part two, part three and part four.
A sentence is protean: It can describe, question, or cry out. A sentence is critical: In passing judgment, it names wrongs, makes decisions, and declares publicly. In a spirit of both open inquiry and political advocacy, and inspired by the response of readers to our own “Theses for Theory in a Time of Crisis,” we are convening an ongoing conversation of critical voices reflecting on the history of the present and the possibilities of the future. To start, we asked some of today’s most pressing thinkers to offer a “thesis,” raise a question, or reconsider a word. The texts that follow have come in response to this prompt:
In light of Marx’s 1843 conception of critical thought, how does your perspective contribute to “the self-clarification of the struggles and wishes of the age”? In a time of social breakdown and uncertainty, we find that critique comes almost too easily. Hence we also take inspiration from the historian E. P. Thompson, who wrote in his 1959 call for the New Left, “It is always the business of the Left to foster the utmost aspiration compatible with existing reality — and then some more beyond.”
Our contributors answered our call with concepts to think with and visions, however small, to mobilize us.
To make this a truly public seminar, we are interested in our readers’ contributions. If you would like to propose a thesis or suggest a topic for consideration, you can do so through this form. We imagine an expanding series of texts that will form new adjacencies and prompt new insights as time passes — new constellations that shed light on our moment and what’s possible beyond it.
— Jonathon Catlin, Berlin
— Benjamin P. Davis, St. Louis
June 4, 2020
Benjamin Bernard / Jodi Dean / Shannon Hoff / Micheline Aharonian Marcom / Zein Murib / Nancy Scheper-Hughes / Rocío Zambrana
Publics & Practices
Protest (in translation): “The pandemic will change the way we relate to our bodies,” says Achille Mbembe in an interview about the COVID-19 crisis. “Now we all have the power to kill.” Isolation and distancing are ways to “regulate” this power. How to understand a protest in this context? 2019 and the beginning of 2020 were combative in Puerto Rico and in the region. Protests in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico — as well as in Ecuador, Bolivia, Mexico, Colombia, Chile, among other countries — indicate a great crack in the hegemony, at least ideological, of neoliberalism. Abandoning party lines, the protests were organic, multiple focused on the differential impact of neoliberalism, and on its intensification of the racial and gender violence distinctive of capitalism in all its iterations. The body as a weapon complicates and pauses — if not completely dismantles — resistance. On April 17, La Colectiva Feminista en Construcción, a collective rooted in a black feminist, decolonial praxis, did a “Compra Combativa” (Combative Grocery Shopping). Addressing citizens standing in line at two supermarkets in the San Juan area, La Colectiva discussed the lack of coronavirus tests, the lack of resources in the homes, and government corruption. Complying with the rules of physical distancing, the Compra Combativa focused on the body. Six feet apart, wearing gloves, wearing masks — bodies in resistance, bodies denouncing, bodies in solidarity. Recalling the Black Feminist Friday of 2016, the 2018 Plantón, and the 2019 Feminist Embargo, La Colectiva has inverted the power of the state and capital. They generate power by subverting capital’s technologies of subjection as well as the temporality, desires, and forms of perception that those technologies institute. Consistent with this tactic, the Compra Combativa subverts the body as a weapon, making it a site of solidarity. “If the body is precisely the danger and the threat,” Shariana Ferrer-Núñez of La Colectiva notes, “if it is going to become a weapon, then we are going to use the body precisely in a confrontation to generate a social bond that allows us not only to survive a pandemic but also to directly challenge power and with it, to trace other futures where solidarity is the compass of change.” To protest in times of a pandemic is to build power by nurturing solidarity around life. Poner el cuerpo, staking one’s own body, in this context, is to expose oneself both to the virus and to being a weapon, to yielding one’s power to kill. To protest in times of COVID-19 requires turning the being-weapon that undermines the social bond, that isolates, that feeds fear, into a weapon that attacks hunger, loneliness, repression, dispossession, violence. To protest in times of pandemic is to capture life itself, to generate bonds in relation to it. Since May, people in Chile, Haiti, Bolivia, and Puerto Rico are back in the streets, protesting escalating hunger, precarity, violence. We also saw anti-lockdown protests in the United States — claiming the right to freedom, the need for services such as hair salons, rejecting government intervention. Since May 26, however, thousands are protesting the killing of George Floyd by four police officers in Minneapolis. The organizations that compose the Black Lives Matter movement demand justice for Floyd, condemn the ongoing police killing of black men and women, propose defunding the police. These remarkable protests index the anti-blackness at the root of modernity/coloniality, one that manifests itself in the “premature death” of black people, as Ferrer-Núñez often reminds us, quoting Saidiya Hartman. Hartman writes:
If slavery persists as an issue in the political life of black America, it is not because of an antiquarian obsession with bygone days or the burden of a too-long memory, but because black lives are still imperiled and devalued by a racial calculus and a political arithmetic that were entrenched centuries ago. This is the afterlife of slavery — skewed life chances, limited access to health and education, premature death, incarceration, and impoverishment.”
The Black Lives Matter protests turn the being-weapon that undermines social bonds into a being-weapon that attacks racism, apathy, sheer violence, and the priority of property and capital over life. To affirm that Black Lives Matter in times of a pandemic that has disproportionately killed black people is likewise to capture life itself, to generate bonds dismantling racism, the racial state, its modalities of violence, its production of this world.
— Rocío Zambrana, Bogotá
COVID-19 revolution: During the first two months of the U.S. shutdown to prevent the overloading of its weakened and ill-prepared hospital system by coronavirus patients, activists struggled to adapt to the new conditions of organizing: Zoom sessions, webinars, live streams, car caravans, carefully orchestrated physically distanced actions. The solution to the problem came from the streets in the last week of May. Outrage over the ceaseless murder of black people led tens of thousands of people across the country to pour into the streets demanding justice for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. These uprisings were not the first demonstrations of the COVID-19 era. Right-wing protesters had already staged multiple gatherings calling for reopening in the name of liberty. Everyone saw through the ruse: the demonstrations in Michigan were organized by a group funded by the billionaire DeVos family. The demand for a return to work was a demand made from the position of bosses. It wasn’t liberty or death, it was liberty and death, the truth of freedom in the United States: The liberty of some depends on the death of others. The May uprising breaking out in Minnesota and quickly spreading throughout the country ruptured the confining expectations of shutdown life. The tens of thousands of people marching, assembling, and rioting, taking highways and bridges, and burning police cars and stations, demanded more than life. They demanded justice. The demand for justice superseded fear of infection. To say Black Lives Matter was not to conclude that everyone should remain isolated. It was to come together to fight for a new society. In Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder, Lenin says that “for a revolution to take place it is not enough for the exploited and oppressed masses to realize the impossibility of living in the old way, and demand changes.” Revolution only occurs when the people “do not want to live in the old way,” that is when they are prepared to die for it. The last few days of May 2020 showed that thousands of people were willing to risk their lives in the struggle against the racist capitalist system. Between the virus and the economy, there was nothing left to lose. And there is a world to win.
— Jodi Dean, Geneva, NY
Value & Re-valuing
Good science and bad faith: Commentators are still debating what kind of untruth we’re dealing with here. Is he earnestly clueless or science-illiterate? Is he a wily genius or a compulsive liar? Does he simply not care? To lie, in politics or elsewhere, one at least considers the truth first. “Democracy insists on the idea that truth both matters,” historian Sophia Rosenfeld has observed, “and that nobody gets to say definitively what it is.” But not everyone agrees that truth matters in the first place. I’m speaking of those who act in bad faith. Consider Trump’s praise of hydroxychloroquine, in which he implied, without stating outright, its efficacy as a prophylactic and treatment against the coronavirus. When challenged as to why he promoted an unproven drug, he retorted: “I’m not. I’m not.” By positioning himself in the shadowy chasm between his propositions and their performative implications, he exploited the reasonable doubt that any good expert would maintain, construing the margin of error as a failure of expertise. Epistemology is secondary, even irrelevant, in this “coded speech and innuendo.” When left unchallenged, bad-faith actors accrue power. Critique must shine floodlights into that chasm. The gas-lighter may brush off accusations of abuse, but feminist philosophy and political memoir can expose the rhetorical sequences leading to cruel subordination. The troll, when owning the libs, betrays himself with a smirk; a critical typology of trolling differentiates levels of disingenuousness. Yet such diagnoses gather dust on the shelf of righteous moralizing unless they can be leveraged in politics. Since the troll requires an opponent to frustrate and an audience to cheer along, correctives may lie in mutual recognition. Four years ago, Trump invoked “Second Amendment people” without much censure. This time, Twitter flagged his dog-whistle, “when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” for “glorifying violence.” Backed by state power, this threat ought to have seemed more, not less, legitimate. Why not? What changed? As a social movement affirming black lives against police violence gained traction, the life-or-death implications of disingenuous speech have become more shame-inducing to overlook. Yes, perhaps bad faith can never be fully isolated because even earnest people harbor contradictions. While that may be true for particular individuals, it is no foundation for a polity in crisis.
— Benjamin Bernard, Princeton, NJ
How does an active ethnographer deal with immobility? Not very well. Sheltering in place seems like prison. Why is it so difficult to concentrate and write during what some would see as an experiment in semi-quarantine? I think of Nelson Mandela, who managed to define a model for the coming democratic South Africa while he was in prison. Or Anne Frank, who wrote her diary in an attic hiding from Nazi police. Never have I felt more totally useless. Eventually, we accept our stripped-down selves. The epidemic is us. Yet we know that we are the privileged ones. Our complaints are pitiful. We miss our favorite restaurants and cafes in the “gourmet ghetto” of North Berkeley. “I got a large can of pinto beans and a box of oatmeal,” my husband said of his morning hunt at the local grocery store. “I had two cans of pinto beans, but I gave one to the woman behind me with three little children.” Later I snuck out to the same grocery store, mask in place and six-foot space behind the handmade chalked lines. But truth be told, I joined the waiting line without looking for anything except to be next to people. The shops still hang signs that announce “Closed Until April 7” — although it is May 28 and no one is there. While sitting in Berkeley’s former junkyard, now the restored and beautiful César Chávez Park, the rain had stopped and the sky opened to a brilliant blue sky amidst a few fluffy white clouds so close one could almost touch them. The air was so clean I could taste its sweetness. With most cars and trucks off the road, the lungs of the air are recovering and the earth is sleeping.
— Nancy Scheper-Hughes, Berkeley, CA
Feminist theory and praxis urges us to resist the impulse to make universalizing statements, with intersectionality in particular calling attention to the costs of homogenizing tendencies when identity is mobilized to make political demands. Drawing on intersectionality, I proceed by juxtaposition to highlight and hold identity and legibility in productive tension: the universalizing narrative of the novel coronavirus, which states that viruses don’t see race or class; the brutal reality that COVID-19 deaths disproportionately affect black people, with one in 2000 dying from the disease. Uprisings in Minneapolis and the spectacle of a burning police station on loop; images of white militias armed and on the steps of the governor’s mansion in St. Paul while heeding calls to “liberate Minnesota” from a shutdown instituted in the name of public health. The NYPD distributing masks to white park goers in the East Village; an NYPD plainclothes officer crouching with his knee in the neck of a black man in the East Village who was allegedly violating social distancing orders. The 7 p.m. clapping to thank essential workers performed by those who are presumably non-essential and home-bound; the absence of communal mourning and rituals for the 100,000 people who have died. Alarm over growing unemployment; the realization that people collecting unemployment insurance and pandemic relief are finally able to afford their daily living expenses. Parents taking to social media to lament the lack of childcare and underscore the ways the pandemic affects their careers and daily lives; families packed into crowded apartments in the Bronx due to exorbitant rents and the rapid spread of COVID-19 in those communities as a result. The use of tear gas against people taking to the streets in anger and grief for yet another black person choked to death by police. A dog walker on camera, leveraging her identity as a white woman and raising her tone to a frenzied pitch to incite a police response; the circulation of a nine-minute long video documenting the murder of George Floyd by police. This list of observations suggests that the utopian project for left-wing politics to take with respect to identity might be the simple recognition of an insight Audre Lorde offered in 1982: “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not lead single-issue lives.”
— Zein Murib, New York City
To be a human being is to be a porous receptivity, a site of exposure. It is to be formed prior to any awareness that one has been formed — when it is too late to do much to change the conditions of one’s formation — and it is to be exposed to a magnificent wealth of meaning circulating locally and at a distance. It is to be a part of a world, where one’s status as part is key to who one is; where the world, always already existing, is also being reshaped by the shared and overlapping pursuits of the parts; where one can be intimately affected by the slightest things happening at the greatest distance. To be human, in other words, is to be entrusted and exposed to the world, prior to one’s choice. To protect and support that human being, then, is not simply to assert her autonomy as an individual and her capacity to choose, but to build, work on, and cultivate her capacity for receptivity to the goods already circulating in that shared world, and to build, work on, and cultivate the shared world to which she is exposed. It is to support all that empowers and facilitates interaction between part and world, between parts and other parts, and to condemn and oppose the violence, such as that so dramatically on display in the institutionalized violence against black Americans, that renders inevitable exposure to others and the world deadly for some, rather than sustaining. The individualizing political discourse of modernity has impoverished our capacity to see our fundamental receptivity and interdependence, and it has produced a global culture where the fertile connections between us have become occasions for exploitation rather than cooperation. It is up to all of us, individually and collectively, to fight to change that.
— Shannon Hoff, Toronto
Quarantine time: For the last several years, I have been working on an oral history project about the migration of Central American children to the United States, and also finishing a novel on a similar subject. During these two months of quarantine, which made live interviews impossible but also allowed for more time at home to read, inquire, and reflect more deeply, I have been thinking about underlying — often unseen — larger migrations, connections, and hybridities. I’ve been contemplating the familiar but unknown (to me at least) Latin alphabet I use every day to write and read in English. I’ve been inquiring in this manner because I am curious how this set of signs, and the very idea of an alphabet, came about through a long and complex migration. I suppose I always sensed, perhaps based on my own mixed ancestry, that the migration of human beings and the resultant exchange of knowledge, information, technology, DNA, and stories — for old and newer myths also traveled across the ancient world to appear in various guises and retellings in slightly altered versions — enhanced one another, influenced each other, built on and metamorphosed what had come before, across space and differences of language and religion and states, and across time. The stories of our species are in many ways a long history of migration, narration, adaptation, and syncretism. I write this very paragraph in the old signs first adapted for a West Semitic language and altered for another thousand-plus years in one and then another Indo-European language, evolving over time and in space, all of it taking place thousands of miles from the country I hold citizenship in, signs I employ for this and other purposes, not least of which is thinking about how the alphabet made possible, via its comparative ease of instruction and dissemination, an increased and widespread literacy and all that entails (a much longer story than this paragraph), because of something still magical, strange, and striking: using black marks in the Baskerville serif typeface (my favorite, designed in Britain in the mid-eighteenth century) to record the sounds of language, shareable in silence, inside individual minds, as the marks are read and make meanings.
— Micheline Aharonian Marcom, Sausalito, CA
Jonathon Catlin is a PhD candidate in the department of history at Princeton University writing a history of “catastrophe” in modern European thought. Follow him on Twitter @planetdenken.
Benjamin P. Davis is a PhD candidate in the Department of Philosophy at Emory University. He will be the 2020-21 Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Toronto’s Centre for Ethics. His writing can be found on his website.