A Response to a Response

Jared Loggins begins his response to my essay in First Thingsabout critical theorist and black studies professor Fred Moten—with an argument for indirect writing drawn from the Caribbean social theorist Edouard Glissant. “The issue at the heart of…Glissant’s Poetics of Relation,” Loggins writes,

has to do with how we relate to, read, and interpret others without reducing everyone and everything to a singular category or standard of experience. What Glissant had in mind was the colonial predicament in which black people had been rendered unintelligible, abnormal, barbaric, and therefore ripe for the forms of education, discipline, and control Westerners believed the situation called for…. What Glissant was suggesting is that it is not necessary to understand everything about the person or persons with whom we are in community. Through the practice of translation, we can come to a reasonably shared sense about what is to be done. We may not agree entirely and some of our experiences and claims may not translate over. But this is the point. We can indeed work out our shared goals while preserving our right to opacity as human beings.

It is precisely this possibility of opacity, Loggins argues, that I attempt to deny Moten in my critique of his deliberately obscure (I charge) prose. I “require transparency” of Moten, and therefore deny him his humanity.

This is one of the many failures I’ve made in comprehending and giving voice to Moten’s project—failures which include (according to Loggins) a suggestion of Moten’s racial inferiority to his co-author, an ignorance of Moten’s “material analysis” in favor of an “abstract theoretical” read of his work, and of denying critiques and contributions of black studies while eliding “the colonial origins and ongoing racial inequalities of classics as a field of study and ‘Great Books’ programs.”

I will not give the suggestion of my supposed racism the dignity of a response: it is a ridiculous, groundless, bad faith accusation, albeit one that I anticipated from Moten’s defenders as one anticipates thunder after lightning. It is the obvious accusation one has to make in such a situation, the big red emergency button always within reach—I can’t even blame him for making it. But I will do my best to respond to the others.

First, on opacity. I am not encountering Moten as a man; I encounter him as a writer, a thinker, a rather public (and richly rewarded) producer of books and ideas. And the kind of opacity Loggins asserts the right to—and which I, too, regard as essential for meaningful human coexistence—needs no defense. It is implicit in the very nature of human communication: every married person knows that no matter how hard one might try, it is impossible for me to become wholly transparent to anyone else. The process of communication itself is a fun house in which thoughts and feelings are distorted by the warped mirrors of speech and gesture. “Not only is the human heart,” Arendt writes in On Revolution, “a place of darkness which, with certainty, no human eye can penetrate; the qualities of the heart need darkness and protection against the light of the public to grow and to remain what they are meant to be, innermost motives which are not for public display.” But Moten’s innermost motives were never up for question; rather, my focus was entirely upon his stature and his work. “To riff on Glissant,” Loggins writes, “I think a more appropriate standard of evaluating the radical intellectual’s political commitments is to look not just at how they say things but also at what they do.” This was, of course, the focus of my essay, and the substance of my criticism.

Implicit, however, in Loggins’ invocation of Glissant is the relation of colonizer to colonized: I, the colonizing power, am imposing a demand for transparency upon Moten, the colonial subject. Obviously I reject this assessment, and point instead to a few sociological facts (a “material analysis,” if you will): that Moten is a product of the most elite reaches of American higher education, a resounding success by any metric of assessment, the recipient of countless honors and awards. Mine is the first piece of negative criticism of him to appear anywhere, and is outnumbered by countless glowing profiles and sympathetic interviews. Call it superfluous, wrongheaded, or just plain stupid—but an expression of colonial force against the subaltern my essay most manifestly is not.

(Notice here that all of Loggins’ quotations of Moten come from The Undercommons, a work I praise for its readability. Any elaboration of his project beyond this book is done without reference to his own words: rather, the defenses of illegibility and opacity happen in rather clear prose, even while criticizing my insistence upon clarity. A curious phenomenon!)

Criticizing opacity is not elitist by nature, because opacity is not simply a “weapon of the weak”: it has often been used by elites (self-styled or otherwise) to protect themselves from the rabble. Arthur Meltzer, in his book Philosophy Between the Lines, identifies four species of esoteric writing employed throughout the entire history of written philosophy, from the Greeks through the Medieval scholastics (including the earlier Islamic inheritors of Aristotle) up to the twentieth century:

  1. defensive esotericism (to protect the philosopher from the rage of the multitude, especially in religious matters)
  2. protective esotericism (to shield ordinary people from radical ideas that challenge the ingrained prejudices of traditional political societies)
  3. pedagogic esotericism (to provide a proper method for educating future philosophers)
  4. political esotericism (an Enlightenment invention, to gradually make the populace more rational, albeit with some temporary accommodation to defensive esotericism)

Philosophers of the Ancient and Medieval world had no interest in “enlightening the masses,” and understood the activity of philosophy to be fundamentally and eternally at odds with the political life they nonetheless depended upon for the ability to pursue philosophy. Esotericism was a wall that kept the domain of the few separate from that of the many, thus retaining the dignity and integrity of philosophy while protecting the wider political community from its dangers. The moderns, on the other hand, believed philosophy to be a means of improving the estate of mankind, and subordinated the activity of the few to the benefit of the many. The earlier forms of philosophic esotericism thus atrophied, leaving only one with any legitimacy: that which stimulated the rational capacities of the hoi polloi, nudging their natures ever closer toward reason.

As might be obvious, the Ancient and Medieval approaches to esotericism were fundamentally aristocratic. Only those gifted few, who possessed not only the requisite intelligence but also the leisure time necessary for the kind of careful reading needed to detect esoteric clues, were capable of true understanding. They shored up a community of the wise few, who spoke freely among each other away from the prying eyes of the many: all others were condemned to the outer darkness of customary belief and conventional opinion. The philosophers cultivated, that is to say, opacity.

The world is full of vernacular language-domains that are difficult, if not impossible, for the uninitiated to penetrate. This is the nature of human community-formation: every inside entails the exclusion of the outside, every “us” implies a “them.” It is perfectly sensible that a community that feels its boundaries to be under attack would defend them, shore them up against the threat—and in many cases, would be completely justified in doing so. But the justifiability depends upon the nature of the community. A government, colonial power, or other elite caste employing brutal force to impose legibility upon its subjects—as Glissant explains, and a dynamic that anthropologist James C. Scott has likewise devoted his career to exploring—should disgust us; but groups of subjects and citizens demanding transparency of their government, colonial power, or elite caste—demanding legibility and transparency, in other words, and the destabilization of their rarified vernacular language-domain—should not.

Academics, of course, do not always wield political power. But one’s position in the academy does grant power to shape the intellectual life of the university, and often of the country at large. In the academy, prestige enjoys a reciprocal relationship with attention, engagement, and assignment; it is, in other words, a kind of celebrity, albeit one within the bounded, selectively permeable domain of the academy. And it is justified, however tired a gesture, to criticize Ivory Tower illegibility, and suggest that perhaps there is a better way of doing things—especially when such illegibility is explained as part of a plan to make a better world (rather than, say, just the kind of thing philosophers do to keep themselves from being persecuted, in utter indifference to the living conditions of the many).

Part of what initially drew me to Moten concerned certain similarities in our respective biographies. Like Moten, I was a smart and sensitive kid in a working-class home; like Moten, I went off to college (though Marshall University instead of Harvard) after high school and dropped out after my first, largely unattended year. (He went finished his degree and continued to Berkeley; I became an anarchist crustpunk hopping freight trains between summit protests, a dweller of the vernacular intellectual world of American radical counterculturalism.) Like Moten, the taste of the neoliberal university I eventually got left me, simultaneously, ever hungrier for understanding and revolted by the material reality of academic existence under neoliberalism’s aegis: permanent precarity and indebtedness, “publish or perish,” the demands for productivity and professionalization, the totalizing anxiety of competition, etc.

Sometime in the early 2000s, while squatting an abandoned house in San Francisco, I briefly formed a reading group at an anarchist bookstore on Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, alongside a factory worker and high school teacher. I joined a few of Aragorn!’s legendary discussion groups at Berkeley’s Long Haul, mostly of strange zines he discovered and translated during his travels around Europe. I fell in love with avant-garde literature (Balestrini, Bolaño) while living on a farm in southern Kentucky, and (Kertész, Perec) while working in a breakfast restaurant in Lexington; with Adorno and Benjamin became my friends while I worked at a bar in Lousiville. Perhaps the single most influential book in my life is a book called Nihilist Communism, written by two former UK postal workers and passed (much like The Undercommons) between friends in America, which disabused me of a whole host of assumptions central to the psychology of leftism, most notably of the question of agency, and reminded me that politics must be in the service of, say, birdwatching. Long before I reentered and was eventually reshaped (into a person who writes, mostly) by the university, I had been a fringe learner of fringe texts in fringe spaces (the most irritating occasional visitors of which, without fail, were graduate students with heads full of theory). These things matter to me more than any university classroom ever will.

Which is to say that my essay did in fact propose a “material” course of action to counter the wretchedness of the neoliberal order and the rapacious, degrading neoliberal university, one just as oriented toward the realization of a “different world” as the black studies that Moten and Loggins craft from their respective campuses. Allow me to repeat myself:

We can escape the shallowness of modern life into the narrowness of ethnic groupings or the ranks of a mythical revolutionary subject; or we can turn away from all this faction and folly and strive for the freedom and togetherness in the light of the True, the Beautiful, and the Good. We can build thieves’ dens that feed upon and wage war against the university; or we can build communities that prize learning and edification for their own sake. And we can speak of the need to “refuse an exclusive and exclusionary ontic capacity or to move outside the systemic oscillation between the refusal and the imposition of such capacity”—or, perhaps, we can discover the freedom found in speaking simply, the generosity of an earnest question, and the joy of fellowship with no scorn or condescension.

This is not, as Loggins suggests, a “retreat into the psychic life of the mind.” This is a concrete praxis of living well with others, sans bullshit, without pretensions to utopian schemes for the radical transformation of a society—a society that has time and time again proven stubbornly resistant to such schemes. It is strategy within the limits of agency. Friendship is real; fellowship is real; every conversation is an opportunity for collaboration, for a genuine act of thinking-together that can occasion a radically new thing in the world, something nobody could have predicted. To deny this is to deny the spontaneity and capacity for action that is the very essence of human existence. In the presence of a true friend, with whom one (per Aristotle) “has eaten salt together,” one of the rare generous minds (per Kojève, to Strauss) from whom one can actually learn something—who gives a shit about the neoliberal university?

So it is obvious—to me, at least—that none of the desirable things need exist there. The university is not a prison; you are not obligated to “struggle against it”; it can quite easily be escaped, and less easily—but still successfully—ignored. It is not the only place from which intellectual work could possibly be done. (What greater insult to all of those who read and think and conspire with no connection to it at all?) People gather and think together in churches, libraries, living rooms, break rooms at their job. Walk into a coffee shop (or, as Chris Arnade has detailed, a McDonald’s) in nearly any mid-sized city in America and you’ll likely bump into a group of people earnestly and thoughtfully studying the Bible. As I noted in my essay (and which Loggins interprets as some kind of dogwhistle), the democratic West—that is, the actual regime and culture we inhabit; the worldly theater in which our lives play out; and the tradition of which every American, like it or not, is an inheritor—has a long history of vernacular intellectualism being done by all manner of people at the edges, one that—despite the triumph of entertainment, that great soporific of the mind—has never stopped.

Which is, ultimately, my point. The Undercommons, as conceived by Moten and Harney, has no room for those who have never stepped foot on a college campus. It is predicated upon acceptance: it takes for granted the byzantine apparatus of standardized testing, entrance essay composition, and application submission, rituals utterly foreign to the world I came from and which most people I’ve ever known simply don’t want to mess with. And it is, despite its own self-conception, aristocratic. The type of opacity Moten and his fellows deploys constitutes a group not of beleaguered racialized subjects striving for a better life free from oppression (that hated “floating signifier” again!), but of professional artists and academics building out their own vernacular intellectual world of the art gallery, faculty office, and lecture hall.

I am not against this in principle. Many of the writers most important to me believed to be participating in something like this—but despite their efforts, their work fell into the hands of fringe readers and thinkers who found in their researches serious attempts to think through those fundamental questions and problems that bear upon all human beings regardless of time or place, questions whose urgency is often most poignantly felt by those sitting at the bottom of the world’s hierarchies. Questions like: What is a human being? How should one live? What is the proper relationship between self, community, and world? What is justice? What is God? The posing of such questions in frank, direct terms is an invitation to anyone who wishes to think through such matters to do so. It is a way of inviting into the ranks of the few—those who wish to pursue philosophia, a life devoted to the love and pursuit of wisdom—any from the many who are interested in, and capable of, reasoning together.

Updating one’s underdog consciousness in light of unexpected success is difficult, and I know the challenge well: going from frustrated, underemployed PhD reject to somewhat-widely-published essayist and future philosophy graduate student over the span of two years has left me with serious existential whiplash. I have a good friend who regularly chides me that the chip I continue to bear on my shoulder is increasingly unnecessary and counterproductive: with success comes responsibility, and the need to accept criticism as a sign of being taken seriously—that is, of success. (She advised me against writing any more about this; I am stupidly ignoring her wise counsel.) It is hard to know how use such responsibility prudently, and how best to speak honestly and truthfully about oneself and the world. But one who has achieved such a level of success—even that as meager as my own—should nonetheless, I believe, be oriented by such a sense of responsibility. And dissembling about, or deliberately mystifying, one’s success and level of influence is a kind of intellectual sin.[1]

Liberté, egalité, and fraternité are no longer especially sexy or compelling ideas for Americans (however urgent others elsewhere continue to find them), and thus my original essay perhaps failed on the level of persuasion. Fellowship has no revolutionary subject; one cannot easily convene an academic conference at Columbia University on what it’s like to talk to a friend. The True, the Beautiful, and the Good have long been less seductive than salaciousness and militancy. It is always an absurdity to make public arguments for, in Ivan Illich’s words, “a place where fools can gather.” But I’m glad to be absurd.

Loggins concludes by suggesting that my objection to pseudo-radical academic jargon is a kind of bourgeois hatred of messiness, that my appeal for clarity from star intellectuals is a kind of disgust reaction to the “noisy chorus of the undercommons.” I hope, at this point, that such an accusation appears laughable. I am, however, indifferent to “abolition”: the universities, increasingly eager to liquidate their philosophy, literature, and humanities departments, are doing a good enough job at this without my help. So climb down into the noisy chorus of our undercommons—among the mothers preparing dinner to audiobooks of Victorian literature; truckers whose cabs are filled with the sound of literary classics and history podcasts; bike couriers with GEDs and shelves full of Kierkegaard; autistic computer programmers with a passion for Vitruvius; soldiers reading Hegel in communes full of exiles; Dominican immigrants in New York discovering Plato in a pile of trash—and ask them the purpose of their studies, and one suspects they’ll reply in unison: “wisdom.”

Peter Handke:

The house of strength is in the other’s face. Here and now is the festival of gratitude. So let it not be said of you that you failed to take advantage of peace: let your labor work wonders—pass it on. But only those who love pass it on: love just one—that suffices for all. In loving you, I awake to myself. Even when most can’t be uplifted, be upliftable. Avert your eyes from the bestial two-legged creatures. Be real. Follow the caravan music. Walk until the vanishing lines emerge from the confused tangle, so slowly that the world becomes yours anew, so slowly that it becomes clear how it doesn’t belong to you. Yes, always keep your distance from power that parades itself as power. Don’t complain that you’re alone—be even more alone. Pass along the rustling. Describe the horizon, lest the beautiful dissolve into nothing again. Describe life-images to one another. What was good deserves to exist. Take your time—and be creative: transform your inexplicable sighs into mighty songs. Our art must aim to cry out to the heavens! Let no one talk you out of beauty—the beauty we humans create is what shakes us to the core.

[1] An excerpt from an interview I had to cut from the First Things piece:

Observer: Power is obviously an enormously loaded concept. What’s it like to receive an award like the MacArthur grant and ostensibly accrue more social and literal capital?

Moten: I’ll answer in kind of roundabout way, because there was this other thing, I think it’s ArtReview or Art-something, and they have a “Power 100” or a “Hot 100.” But they don’t really talk to you about it; they just put you in it. You have no choice. And what I found is that I have no idea what that actually means. I don’t know what it means to have power, or whatever the kind of power it is that I supposedly have in the art world seems very different than the kind of power that an artist would have or that, you know, a big curator would have or gallery owner or somebody like that. So, it’s not that I’m saying I don’t have it; I just don’t know how, what it is and how it works, you know?

I hope that if I were ever given nearly a million dollars and admitted into the ranks of MacArthur “geniuses,” I’d have a much better answer to this question than “Well, I don’t know.”

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