Quick Links: Salon Article on the Antibiotic-Free Future… Now

There is a new article out in Salon that highlights a disturbing reality: multiple drug resistant infections are the future, and already the contemporary.

Article Here:

http://www.salon.com/2014/12/05/the_post_antibiotic_future_is_here_chilling_report_highlights_the_reality_of_a_global_crisis/

Scientists have known for a while now that overuse of antibiotics has led to drug resistant strains of microorganisms (especially bacteria).

Apparently, the situation has already begun to grow dire in India.

(Caveat: I did have some scruples about posting such an article, as the sensationalization of infection in the Global South and East is a longstanding cultural prejudice; however, the content seemed important enough, especially for this blog.)

ASA 2014 Paper: (Un)Healthy Competition: Video Games and the Mediation of Neoliberal Structures of Feeling

I know, the title is a doozy. I always seem to do that, don’t I? (Note to self: shorter paper titles in the future.)

A big thanks to Amanda Phillips and Anne Cong-Huyen for acting as sounding boards, helping me in the process of writing and revising.

This paper was a real pleasure to give, although a great source of anxiety leading up to the conference, as I felt a bit out of my element — not being much of a digital humanist or a game studies scholar by trade.

Please keep in mind that this was written to be presented rather than read, and it had quite a helpful bit of visual aid. It is a work in progress, in a new direction, presented out of context, so it’s not the optimal way to come across this; however, I offer it here in the hope that some of you find it helpful.

———

Steven Pokornowski

(Un)Healthy Competition: Video Games and the Mediation of Neoliberal Structures of Feeling

Outline:

This paper is in 4 parts: a truncated personal story; an examination of how video games at large function to make us better Capitalists and competitors; a brief rumination on how we are trained to be more flexible gamers/laborers; and finally, an analysis of the virtual reenactment of the structures of neoliberal, neoimperial capitalist violence as mediated by Resident Evil 4. So, this paper will start thinking economically and conclude thinking racially and politically, so forgive me if there is a disconnect or a caesura, this is a new direction for my scholarship and I’m trying to bridge a few different strands of thought here.

 

  1. Heroic Capitalism: Exceptionalism and Accumulation by Dispossession

So, originally a good portion of this paper was taken up by my account of becoming aware of the way that video games had begun to structure my affects, making me embrace intense competition, violence, and inequity in my virtual life, while being politically opposed to them in ‘real life.’ I kept rewriting this section until I realized I was really offering up a caveat about my own privilege in the form of a transformation narrative. So, I will do that more briefly and directly instead: As someone who is constantly read and identified as a heteronormative, white, male – as a child I identified to a large extent with the exceptional protagonists in the video games I grew up playing: like Mario or Link, I thought that I was exceptional, privileged, and powerful (though unconscious to the political impact of buying into such an overvaluation of myself). As I became aware of my privilege and its relation to the protagonists of video games, I remained oblivious to a byproduct of the narrative of exceptionalism, privilege, and power inherent in video game heroics (or anti-heroics): this structure had been socializing me to the tenets of neoliberal capital, and training me to feel the affective intensities of winning and losing in violent competition. Unbeknownst to me, video games reinforced my socialization into a capitalist economy founded on “accumulation by dispossession” – which David Harvey attempts to outline as a reordering of the forces of Capitalism into a new mode of imperialism.[1]

 

  1. Virtual Bodies, Real Accumulation

David Harvey begins “The Right to the City” by talking about human rights, setting up his analysis of the ability to access and reshape the city as an oft overlooked human right. What he mentions in that setup, though, can shed some light on the work of video games in socializing us to neoliberal economics and ethics. Harvey writes:

“We live in an era when ideals of human rights have moved centre stage both politically and ethically. A lot of political energy is put into promoting, protecting and articulating their significance in the construction of a better world. For the most part the circulating concepts are individualistic and property-based and, as such, do nothing to challenge hegemonic liberal and neoliberal market logics, and neoliberal modes of legality and state action.”[2]

The same, certainly, can be said of most video games: the circulating concepts are individualistic and implicitly property-based. What’s more, the majority of major-title popular video games even seem to reproduce property-based systems, Capitalist economies, and socioeconomic stratification. [editorial note: slideshow included screencaps of market/shop menus from major, Triple A video games].

Role Playing Games and Action/Adventure games, in particular, appear to reproduce Capitalist economic structures. Oftentimes making personal accumulation a focal point (it unlocks trophies or achievements, and some major titles like Uncharted and Assassin’s Creed Black Flag are explicitly centered on narratives of accumulation, etc). The RPG’s I had grown up playing were founded on ‘grinding’ for monetary gain, to get access to and purchase better equipment [editorial note: slideshow contained images from Final Fantasy and Dragon Warrior]. As the genre evolved and expanded, the internet spawning MMORPG’s, people were put in direct competition for resources: rare,legendary, epic loot, etc. (And the real economies surrounding virtual objects – both sanctioned and unsanctioned – seems relevant here, so gold farming and in-app purchases, would be serviceable examples of those, respectively.)

In fact, if we consider how Capitalism has been characterized as changing since mid-century, (I am thinking of Harvey’s The Condition of Postmodernity, but also post-Marxist thinkers like Paolo Virno, Maurizio Lazzarato, and others who have recently repurposed earlier Marxist and Socialist Feminist analyses of gendered labor), Capital has come to be seen as prioritizing flexibility, contingency, precarity, and proliferating affective/immaterial/virtual labor, what used to be called “women’s labor” or “feminine labor.” It seems that changes in the content and industry of video games have actually begun to shape our play in the image of labor that Capital wants to extract from us – we are becoming flexible, competitive gamers.

The booming of the cellular games industry, the innovation and expansion of cross-platform play, and the creation of temporary in-game events tied to external timelines – such as the special events in Destiny, or the ebb and flow of darkness in the Dark Souls games – encourage us to game flexibly and frequently.

In this way, the real economy surrounding video games (the many ways we can buy content – in store, at home, on our cell phones), and the economies imagined in video games function together to capitalize on the labor of our virtual bodies, recontextualizing the older critique that the body is an accumulation strategy.[3],[4]

 

  1. Digital Biopolitics and Pixellated Imperialisms

As depressing as the preceding analysis has been, the truth is that I’ve omitted an important aspect of the economic structures I’ve outlined: the violent annihilation of the monstrous, the threatening, and the different for direct profit. In the majority of action, adventure, and role playing games wealth is not simply accumulated at the expense of other players, but it is accumulated through the destruction of alterity and the disturbing expansion of a consolidated power (and a corresponding social norm). Whether you are embroiled in an imperial war [World of Warcraft], fighting off the (racialized and often… racist) zombie hordes [Resident Evil], or making a quick buck as a mercenary in the galactic frontier [Borderlands]: your wealth and power are directly predicated on a violence toward bodies marked as different, your wealth is accumulated through a literal violence, and dispossession is often two-fold: you dispossess other players of experience, goods, wealth, power; and you dispossess your opponents (whether pvp or pve) of the same things through a more direct violence. In this way, the majority of virtual socioeconomic structures are predicated on a sort of necro-capitalist accumulation. At the same time, this structure encourages gamers to respond to alterity with political violence, enacting a totalizing violence and constantly redefining norms and normality in ways that typically favor white, heteronormative, masculine cultures. And instead of continuing to speak about generalities here, I want to (very, very, very quickly) turn to Resident Evil 4 for some specific examples.

 

  1. Accumulation by Destruction: Resident Evil 4 and the Totalitarianism of Generalization

So, I’m going to talk about Resident Evil 4, and for the sake of time management I am just going to assume most of you are at least passingly familiar with, so forgive me for not offering a better summary: but the game came out in 2005 to much fanfare, though it eschewed the survival horror format of its predecessors for a more action oriented approach. Basically, a former police officer and one of the heroes of RE2, Leon Kennedy, is sent to rescue the President’s daughter from a nefarious, bioterrorist cult that has captured her and is holding her in rural Spanish village. The plot thickens from there, but I’m going to move fast here because I’ve already been talking for too long.

Resident Evil 4 was the first game of the franchise to introduce a cash system to purchase weapon upgrades in the main narrative (and this slide is just a shot of the upgrade interface). Money could be found in objects, but was most easily obtained by killing zombies (and other mutated monsters). And the currency seems anachronistic/citational, it appears to be in Pesetas in the narrative frame of the game, but in-game the drops appear as tiny boxes of gold doubloons, a sort of weirdly out-of-joint imperial citation.  Zombies in RE4 were also different, the player learns that these individuals infected with “las plagas” – they are more directly aligned with the narrative of bioinsecurity and its relation to global health and governance. At the same time, this portrayal of the infected/zombie invokes a pre-Romero version of the zombie that more closely cites the figure’s historical imbrication in Empire, colonialism, and slavery – and this is emphasized by the weapons wielded by the infected throughout the game: farm tools, which most likely unintentionally, seem to be citing plantation slavery. More radically mutated and monstrous enemies invoke a radical molecular alterity reminiscent of John Carpenter’s The Thing (and its source text, the 1938 John W. Campbell Jr. short story, Who Goes There), especially evident in the tentacle-sprouting dog-monsters. At the same time, as infected humanoids are portrayed as increasingly monstrous in the game, they are also decreasingly clothed (implying both their dehumanization and their incivility, and still, in some measure, invoking a narrative that collapses racialization, dehumanization, and pathologization).

In this way, the seemingly white, European bodies of RE4 are not overtly racial ones – unlike the zombies of the fifth game so scandalously were. However, the infected figures in RE4 are racialized. At the same time, they are so “othered” and dehumanized, that the protagonists – and presumably the player – feel little or no guilt in their destruction. In this way, Resident Evil 4 offers a startling example for my analysis: the game encourages white, heteronormative, masculine sovereign exceptionalism, wielding not just the power over life, but power over the right to death, and accumulating through a hugely problematic neoimperialist, colorblind violence.

Unsettlingly, in the Resident Evil franchise, the BSAA or Bioterrorism Security Assessment Alliance, a fictional militarized branch of the UN, continuously attempts to secure and maintain the health of at-risk populations; however, in reality its members always seem to end up extracting value from othered bodies. I do think there is some redemptive value in the narrative critique of the global health industry and global health resource management and governance implicit in these games – they do seem to (unconsciously or not) critique the neoimperialist exploitation of global souths, albeit through a problematic, often pleasurable, reenactment of neoimperial violence. Yet, this critique occurs through such counterintuitive and troubling representation, that any praise of it must be tempered.

This final section of the paper has eschewed some of the concepts I wanted to trace throughout (such as the idea of competition) but I think the extension of this analysis into something like the World of Warcraft or other MMOs such as Destiny (which in some sense I should have read instead, given its overdetermined deployment of alien monstrosity encroaching on the earth in a literal battle between light (humans) and dark (largely humanoid, othered aliens).

By way of conclusion, let me say that despite the bleak picture I’ve outlined here, there do seem to be two major, potentially positive takeaways: firstly, from an analytical perspective, the presence of problematic neoliberal and imperial inequities and prejudices in video games can help us to better identify their presence in the real world AND to serve as a teaching tool to demonstrate these issues to students; and secondly, because video games are a source of and a location for community formation and socialization, they also have the potential to form radical communities geared toward creating better worlds and more just economies. Thank you.

Notes:

[1] Harvey, David. “The ‘New’ Imperialism: Accumulation by Dispossession.” The Socialist Register Vol. 40, 2004. 63-87.

[2] Harvey, David. “The Right to the City: From Capital Surplus to Accumulation by Dispossession.” Accumulation by Dispossession: Transformative Cities in the New Global Order. Ed. Swapna Banerjee-Guha. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 2010. p 17.

[3] Harvey, David and Donna Haraway. “Nature, Politics, and Possibilities: a Debate and Discussion with David Harvey and Donna Haraway.” From the Association of American Geographers, Chicago, March 17, forEnvironment and Planning D: Society and Space 13/5. 1995, pp. 507-27.

[4] Harvey, David. “The body as an accumulation strategy.” Environment and Planning D; Society and Space 1998, volume 16, pages 401-421.

(Brief) Reflections on the American Studies Association (ASA) Annual Meeting

Hello again,

With ASA in the rearview mirror and the holiday season on the horizon, I thought I would take a moment to post some (brief) relfections on the conference, and make my paper temporarily available (that’s a separate post).

Thoughts:

I was originally unsure about the choice to go to ASA — as the annual meeting of the Modernist Studies Association (MSA) met the same week on the other side of the country; however, ASA exceeded my expectations and made me feel lucky to be on a panel there.

Although I saw a number of excellent panels, the highlight for me was actually on the morning of Sunday — one of the ‘worst’ time slots for a major conference, as people tend to leave early or take the last day off. I made a tough choice between interesting panels at 10AM on Sunday Nov. 9, and I ultimately missed out on “The Origins of Biopolitics in the Americas” in order to attend “Sex Panics, Dangerous Pairings, and Moral Rhetorics of Pleasure and Pain,” which turned out to be a panoply of impressive papers. Somewhere between a roundtable and a traditional panel, this session featuring talks by Jonathan Metzl, Roger Lancaster, Sarah Banet-Weiser, Dorothy Roberts, and Priscilla Wald, followed by some stellar Q&A/Discussion. It really brought together a number of questions around power, sex, gender, race, genetics, and modern science as an institution. To see such great scholars come together and not just speak to each other thematically, but to engage and build upon one anothers’ ideas and critiques was, in itself, a learning experience about what a panel could be.

That’s not to knock the other panels I attended, which were impresive in their own right! I managed to make it to at least a couple panels each day, and I won’t detail them here for the sake of time, but I did learn about: Haiti; surveillance; minority politics in American culture; and matter, metaphor, and death.

I also learned a lot about politics and ethics in game studies from my co-panelists (shout out to Amanda Phillips, Bonnie Ruberg, Jordan Youngblood) and our chair, the ever-impressive Lisa Nakamura. This was my second foray of sorts into game studies (I addressed the Resident Evil franchise in a publication). I originally thought of the paper as a one-off, but it ended up complementing my previous publications really neatly, and I’m pondering a paper dealing with the Resident Evil universe in more detail.

Ultimately, ASA was a really invigorating academic experience, one I hope to repeat; although, in the future I hope I don’t have to choose between MSA and ASA again, they’re both too good!

So, many thanks to my co-panelists, our chair, and to the presenters I had the pleasure and privilege to see in action. Hope to see you again nex tyear.

ASA 2014: I’m Here!

Just a quick note to say I’m in LA at ASA 2014!

I’ll be giving a paper tomorrow (I’ve pasted the panel abstract below — the program doesn’t link very well).

Comment on this or tweet at me (@SGPokornowski) if you want to meet up or have a panel I should see!

Digital Deaths and Disenfranchisements: Reading Pleasure, Pain, and Politics in Video Games

Fri, November 7, 2:00 to 3:45pm, Westin Bonaventure, Level 3, Santa Monica D (L3)

Session Submission Type: Paper Session: Traditional Format

Abstract

Video games, as the top grossing entertainment industry in the US, are enormously influential on popular culture and politics, and as such are increasingly important in the academic scene. Although media effects research finds no conclusive correlation between violence in video games and violence in the real world, one cannot separate categories such as gender, race, and class from the digital bodies on which and through which this violence is enacted. Moreover, it is difficult to account for the rippling cultural effects such representations have on society. Indeed, the vindication of gamers on the basis of this empirical data belies the problems evident in the community with discursive violence against those who fall outside of the so-called target demographic of the white, straight male.
This panel seeks to understand the seedy underbelly of digital entertainment and its relation to social justice by submitting it to the lenses of feminist, queer, critical race, and biopolitical critique. By turning video game studies toward the strengths of these academic disciplines, we hope to unpack how digital texts, simultaneously narrative and technological systems, reinforce hegemonic systems of power while simultaneously offering means of resistance in the form of critical readings and denial of the continuous neoliberal pressure to succeed.

Bonnie Ruberg will set the theoretical tone of the panel in “It Feels Good to Lose: Playing Video Games Masochistically,” which builds on the work of queer theorist J.Jack Halberstam and game studies scholar Jesper Juul to theorize failure in games as a pleasurable masochistic endeavor that is fundamental to what makes them fun, contrary to the prevailing perception of games as what Ruberg calls “sadism simulators.” Amanda Phillips’ paper, “Techropolitics: Tropes of Death and Dying in Video Games” will continue this theme by examining how the procedural systems of video games, in true necropolitical fashion, dictate who can die in games and in what fashion – and makes the whole production fun. Jordan Youngblood’s “‘Scattered Amongst the Possibility Space’: Bioshock Infinite and the Privileged Player of Pain” examines of the incongruous violence in the otherwise politically nuanced world of the popular recent release Bioshock: Infinite to reveal the gendered and racial logics that reserve the privilege of enjoying pain in the game for a select few. Finally, Steven Pokornowski will conclude the paper portion of the panel with “(Un)Healthy Competition: Video Games and the Mediation of Neoliberal Structures of Feeling,” bringing together the experience of pleasure and pain in gaming with an examination of how these products train gamers in the affective registers of neoliberalism and accumulation of capital.

Lisa Nakamura, whose work on race, gender, and harassment in video games and contemporary technoculture has been foundational to the field, will close the panel by providing commentary on these papers and leading discussion.

SLSA 2014: Roundtable on Quarantine and Flow

Just a quick note: come see me and some great colleagues at the SLSA Roundtable titled “Quarantine and Flow” at Session 8D in room San Antonio A from 9:00 -10:30AM on Saturday October 11.

We’ll be discussing the (im)possibility of quarantine in the global neoliberal contemporary, talking about contamination, contagion, pollution, and much more.

My paper, “Nation, Race, and Quarantine,” will address the history of biopolitics and the racialization, nationalization, and securitization of disease. I’ll be talking a bit about Ebola in popular media.

For more on my paper or abstracts on my wonderful co-panelists, please see: http://litsciarts.org/slsa14/dbprogram.php

Hope to see you there!

Update: First Case of Ebola Reported in Senegal

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/08/29/senegal-ebola_n_5735882.html

Just a quick update: the worst ourbreak of Ebola in history continues to spread, as Senegal reports a confirmed case.

This situation is worth monitoring because, despite the pleas of the afflicted countries and of the World Health Organization, not nearly enough has been done to stem the outbreak or help these countries recover.

At the same time, this event drives home just how slippery contagious diseases can be, and just how impossible quarantine appears in the contemporary moment. Granted, some would argue that the spread is the result of insufficient resources, infrastructure, and cultural distrust of the medical professionals (all reasonable claims), yet, at the same time, the problem is larger than that.

 

CFP: Plant Horror

I’m just taking a moment to pass on a CFP sent to me by the ever-awesome Dawn Keetley. If you’re interested in horror, critical plant studies, or rethinking the way we conceive of life/subjectivity/cognizance, then this might be for you.

Personally, I’m hoping for a good article on The Thing from Another World. 

CFP below.



PLANT HORROR / THE MONSTROUS VEGETAL

The recent critical “nonhuman” turn asks, as Elizabeth Grosz has eloquently put it, about all those “animal, plant, and material forces that surround and overtake the human.” Of all those “forces,” it is perhaps the plant that has been most neglected, although that neglect is being redressed in such recent publications as Matthew Hall’s Plants as Persons: A Philosophical Botany (2011), Michael Marder’s Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life (2013), and Randy Laist’s Plants and Literature: Essays in Critical Plant Studies (2013). Theorists are recognizing the inherent importance of grappling with the ontological strangeness of plants, which inhabit what Michael Marder calls the “zone of absolute obscurity.” Vegetal life also, however, plays a vital role in the project of re-thinking the past, present, and future of the human—human subjectivity and human survival.

Perhaps because of their irreducible difference from us, their intractable unfamiliarity, plants have often entered popular narratives as terrifying and terrorizing forces. They seem monstrous in their implacability and impersonality, their rooted unfreedom, their unintentionality, and their prolific and non-teleological “wild” growth.  They also, as Marder has pointed out, take aim at our metaphysics, deconstructing structuring binaries such as body-soul, self-other, depth-surface, life-death, and the one and the many.

With the goal of exploring how and why plants have figured as terrifying in so many of our cultural narratives, we invite proposals for the first collection of essays on “plant horror”—that is, on how plants and all forms of vegetal life have figured as the monstrous in literature, film, television, and other media (video games, comics).

Three broad questions will guide the collection:

–What are the properties of plants that make them “monstrous”? How and why have they been represented as threatening both human populations and the boundaries of the “human”?

–How has the plant been conceived in relation to the human?  Is vegetal life utterly “other”? Or does vegetal life become monstrous because we have disavowed its connection to us? Are there other ways (than irreducible difference) to think about the plant in relation to the human? Are the “monstrous” ways of plants able to be re-thought as possible futures for the human?

–How has “plant horror” served to critique human environmental abuses? What “real life” horror stories are there surrounding such recent human endeavors as the patenting of plants and genetically modified crops?

We are interested in essays that address what might be called the “canon” of plant horror: John Wyndham’s groundbreaking The Day of the Triffids (1951), as well as its numerous film and TV incarnations, The Thing from Another World (1951), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), The Little Shop of Horrors (1960), Attack of the Killer Tomatoes (1978), Swamp Thing (1982), “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill,” in Creepshow (1982), The Ruins (2008), and The Happening (2008). Almost all of these texts have appeared in more than one medium and have generated sometimes multiple re-makes, suggesting that they exert a persistent fascination. Essays that help expand this “canon” are also very welcome.

We are also eager, though, to receive abstracts that address how vegetal life features in unexpected ways and on the margins of narratives not explicitly about the depredations of plants—e.g., Doctor Who: The Seeds of Doom (1976), Batman and Robin (1997), Minority Report (2002), Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002), and AMC’s The Walking Dead (2010-present). We also welcome essays that discuss how plants feature in narratives from outside the US and UK.

The editors of the collection are Dawn Keetley and Rita Kurtz. Dawn Keetley teaches in the English Department at Lehigh University and has recently published on horror TV and film in Gothic Studies and Americana, as well as editing “We’re All Infected”: Essays on AMC’s The Walking Dead and The Fate of the Human (McFarland, 2014). Rita Kurtz . . . .

Please send abstracts of between 500 – 1,000 words to Dawn Keetley (dek7@lehigh.edu) and Rita Kurtz (rjk8@lehigh.edu ) by January 2, 2015. Questions before the deadline are welcome.

We have several publishers in mind for this collection and will be sending inquiries shortly, getting ready to send off a complete proposal soon after the January 2 deadline. We anticipate that full essays will need to be completed by the summer of 2015.

CFP categories

Film and television

Ecocriticism and environmental studies

American

Cultural studies and historicist approaches

Popular culture

Interdisciplinary

Twentieth century and beyond

Science and culture

On Violence, Brutality, Security, and Race: A Message from Privilege to Privilege

Here is a post I wrote about Ferguson last week. It’s just going live today because I wanted to reflect on it a bit more. I’m trying to avoid sounding preachy and to avoid appropriating the events in Ferguson. So let me preface this post by saying that I recognize my privilege (as a white man in front of a computer on the other side of the country). Also worth mentioning here, I make connections between Ferguson and other geopolitical events, but I don’t mean to diminish the incidents in Ferguson in and of themselves — they are spectacular and horrifying, and worth concentrating on in and of their own right. In the aftermath of the police shooting of Kajieme Powell in St. Louis, I thought I start speaking/writing, even if I still have reflecting to do. ——- I want to write a little bit about police brutality in the U.S., a topic that is at the forefront of many people’s thoughts today, given the events unfolding in Ferguson, Missouri. If I were a better writer of fiction, I would tell this allegorically in a story titled, “A Place Called Misery,” playing on the pronunciation of the state name and the painful state of affairs in Ferguson. Except, I’m a lackluster author of fiction at best — in fairness, my blogging is not top-notch, this I recognize. What I can write is reasoned, considered, considerate prose. So, I’ll try my hand at that, and borrow from a much better weaver of tales. Near the end of the 1980 J.M. Coetzee novel, Waiting for the Barbarians, the main character and narrator, who began the novel as a fat and happy imperial bureaucrat, has been imprisoned and tortured for hindering a secret security bureau investigation (more or less), and come to realize his own complicity in the violent sins of the Empire. With his new knowledge, he confronts the now-thwarted leader of the bureau, and chief torturer with an ethical message, stating:

‘The crime that is latent in us we must inflict on ourselves,’ I say. I nod and nod, driving the message home. ‘Not on others,’ I say.

This line, which has always held resonance for me, seems even more powerful and true in light of the violent police beatings this summer (Eric Garner’s death even being ruled a homicide). It appears to be a lesson that the agencies tasked with policing and securing us need to learn, that their training and their occupation put them in a unique position — they are forced to live, breathe, and work closer to violence than most of the rest of us, but to believe they are untouched by the violence around them would be dangerous. And to think that violence should be wielded on others, because they perceive it as wielded at them, is unfair and unethical, simply reproducing the structures that promote that violence. I thought about this as I watched the news this morning, and I reflected on its relation to Gaza, and to the U.S.’s complicity in financing, supplying, and shielding Israel in that context, and I realized that to focus on the police agencies is only to treat the symptom, these events are a reflection of bigger problems and harbingers of bigger changes. (And that said WOW we must treat this symptom with grassroots organizing until legislation and oversight better protect citizens, especially citizens of color.) These are represntative of a huge divide in privilege along visibly racial, and less visibly racialized, lines, and the defensive reaction to secure privilege against perceived threats. And since, as I am learning, privilege speaks to privilege, I thought I would say something. Forgive my indirectness, I find writing about this difficult, as a person who experiences a plethora of privileges, (white, male, heteronormative, able-bodied, educated, and a sincere etcetera), I often feel, despite the urging of supportive friends and colleagues, that my speaking (or writing) up is doubly read and doubly disavowed. It is part insecurity and part truth that makes me see a divide, along many fractured lines of privilege. To those who share my privilege without recognizing it (or without wanting to relinquish it), I appear the pariah, even at times the “race-traitor”: a sorry and mangled product of “white guilt” in a postracial world, giving in to demands for “political correctness” and being foolishly caught up in “someone else’s” cause. To those who are truly suffering and oppressed, I fear as though I appear another sanctimonious, privileged fool, trying to assuage my own guilt without reliquishing my privilege. And at heart, certainly, they are both partially right, I always hope that I can make a difference or change a mind, but I am seldom willing to put myself at risk. I’m working on that. The death of Michael Brown (like the death of Trayvon Martin, and like countless others before them, though it is worth our effort to try to count and recite their names), speaks to the structures of power which function to marginalize along racial and racialized lines. These and similar incidences of violence are the exceptions that often go unnoticed or unremarked, which maintain the norm. Technology (smartphones, social media) and activism have made some of these previously occluded events more visible to us — and indeed, isn’t the Rodney King beating their analog predecessor? But technology is a tool that can be wielded in many ways, it provides us with an opening: old structures and definitions are destabilized, restructuring, we must seize the moment and help to shape the world in a positive way, rather than sit idly as the inequities of the past reproduce themselves ad nauseum, with greater efficiency and reach provided by these same new technologies. I don’t read facebook much these days, I get too angry seeing all the unmeasured, unthinking rants, many of which come from positions of privilege and prejudice (and no, I am not referring solely to racial ones, though they are prevalent). I’ve posted numerous comments and status updates recently about the need to think about our position, privilege, and relation to others before speaking/writing/acting. I think knee-jerk ideological reactions are perhaps the most common and most dangerous in politically heated environs. This is sad, this is damaging, this can easily be solved with a culture of accountability and relationality, which, I admit, is much easier to preach than practice, much easier to outline than teach. In my sparingly allotted time on facebook today, though, I saw something that — as usual — stuck with me, it “stuck in my craw,” as a professor I had in college liked to put it. Someone whom I was close to in the past, but have very different political views from today, was sarcastically bemoaning the political unrest in Ferguson. It struck me that this individual, and many others in my facebook feed, had no idea what it felt like to be persecuted, to be harried, to have loved ones, friends, and acquaintances that have been harrassed, arrested, beaten, killed, while their persecutors go unpunished, or suffer only symbolic punishment. (Indeed, my own experience of all this is limited to a series of events in my youth in Chicago that emphasize both, the petty cruelty and harrassment of some police officers — like those playing odd games with scared teenagers much like the parodic reprsentations of police in Super Troopers — and the generosity and care of other officers of the law, as well as the privilege I at times experienced. But this isn’t a blog post about my life, this is much, much bigger than me. This is about being blind to privilege, being blind to the perpetuation of the structures of oppression and our own complicity in them.) Another line from Waiting for the Barbarians could be instructive for all those that feel their comfort threatened, that think people are overreacting to police brutality, that shrug off the extremely uneven rate of arrests, stops, searches, and beatings along lines of race (and class, which is still highly racialized), of those that think what is happening in Gaza, in Ukraine, in Syria is a distant and unrelated political event. In Coetezee’s novel, the narrator eventually recognizes is own complicity in the violence and torture perpetuated by “Empire,” seeing his role in maintaining the structures of power as a fat, happy bureaucrat, as complementary to those of the head of the State police, Colonel Joll, the man who beat, and tortured, and killed:

I was the lie that Empire tells itself when times are easy, he the truth that Empire tells when harsh winds blow. Two sides of imperial rule, no more, no less.

As long as we continue to turn a blind eye to the suffering, pain, and oppression of our fellow Earthbound beings, we are living the lie that maintains the structures of oppression. The world and the U.S. are only postracial in the sense that race alone is not the dividing function, now class, nationality, occupation (or lack thereof), ability, and many other facets of appearance and manner are racialized — they become heuristics, mental shortcuts to preconceived notions or conclusions based on experience and socialization. The only problem is that these mental shortcuts, snap-judgements that help us to think quickly, categorize people, and decide how to approach them, are also the definition of prejudice, and our socialization reflects our position of privlege (or lack thereof), so that implicitly, these categorizations favor the status quo. Édouard Glissant advocates for a “Poetics of Relation,” and Rosi Braidotti calls for a radical nomadizing of the subject, a “becoming imperceptible;” at heart their ideas speak to one another, and tell us that we need to begin to understand ourselves not as discrete individuals, but as embedded bodies in a web of global relationality. To those unfamiliar with critical theory or philosophy, this might sound a bit hooey, but the more I see contemporary geopolitical and environmental events unfold, the truer it rings to me: we must understand our relations to one another and to other peoples, nations, and to the planet itself, or we condemn ourselves (and all others) to suffer a privative, foreshortened existence. We need to recognize our privilege, understand where it comes from, on whose backs it was produced, and do our part not to reproduce the inequity and violence that have likely put us in a position above other people. I hope that this message reaches those people who need it most, and think they need it least. I’d like to close by saying that I acknowledge my position of privilege allowed me to write this — and I mean that in a number of senses — and I have much, much more work to do in understanding and acknowledging my own relationality and privilege. What I am saying is that this is no holier-than-though sermon, it’s a measured and meditative call to action. I am certainly guilty of prejudices, I certainly take my privilege for granted, but I’m working on it. Please, work with me.

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