Saturday, January 25, 2014

what property matters in the promethean era of nano, genomic, macroquantum science and technology?

nonsite |  This line of argument has been most popularly condensed recently in Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, which analogizes contemporary mass incarceration to the segregationist regime. But even she, after much huffing and puffing and asserting the relation gesturally throughout the book, ultimately acknowledges that the analogy fails.37 And it would have to fail because the segregationist regime was the artifact of a particular historical and political moment in a particular social order. Moreover, the rhetorical force of the analogy with Jim Crow or slavery derives from the fact that those regimes are associated symbolically with strong negative sanctions in the general culture because they have been vanquished. In that sense all versions of the lament that “it’s as if nothing has changed” give themselves the lie. They are effective only to the extent that things have changed significantly.

The tendency to craft political critique by demanding that we fix our gaze in the rearview mirror appeals to an intellectual laziness. Marking superficial similarities with familiar images of oppression is less mentally taxing than attempting to parse the multifarious, often contradictory dynamics and relations that shape racial inequality in particular and politics in general in the current moment. Assertions that phenomena like the Jena, Louisiana, incident, the killings of James Craig Anderson and Trayvon Martin, and racial disparities in incarceration demonstrate persistence of old-school, white supremacist racism and charges that the sensibilities of Thomas Dixon and Margaret Mitchell continue to shape most Americans’ understandings of slavery do important, obfuscatory ideological work. They lay claim to a moral urgency that, as Mahmood Mamdani argues concerning the rhetorical use of charges of genocide, enables disparaging efforts either to differentiate discrete inequalities or  to generate historically specific causal accounts of them as irresponsible dodges that abet injustice by temporizing in its face.38 But more is at work here as well.

Insistence on the transhistorical primacy of racism as a source of inequality is a class politics. It’s the politics of a stratum of the professional-managerial class whose material location and interests, and thus whose ideological commitments, are bound up with parsing, interpreting and administering inequality defined in terms of disparities among ascriptively defined populations reified as groups or even cultures. In fact, much of the intellectual life of this stratum is devoted to “shoehorning into the rubric of racism all manner of inequalities that may appear statistically as racial disparities.”39 And that project shares capitalism’s ideological tendency to obscure race’s foundations, as well as the foundations of all such ascriptive hierarchies, in historically specific political economy. This felicitous convergence may help explain why proponents of “cultural politics” are so inclined to treat the products and production processes of the mass entertainment industry as a terrain for political struggle and debate. They don’t see the industry’s imperatives as fundamentally incompatible with the notions of a just society they seek to advance. In fact, they share its fetishization of heroes and penchant for inspirational stories of individual Overcoming. This sort of “politics of representation” is no more than an image-management discourse within neoliberalism. That strains of an ersatz left imagine it to be something more marks the extent of our defeat. And then, of course, there’s that Upton Sinclair point.