Sarah Schulman recently wrote a rather kind—perhaps over-kind—response to queer sensitivity discourse in our shared social networked lyfe. It is an obvious yet somehow long overdue assessment of over-stating harm under the title Conflict is not Abuse. She does respond to several urgent needs in American culture: reduction of police intervention, a greater responsibility to each other, a truer rendering of terms like abuse and also the insular-made-isolated by technologies that are supposedly making us more connected. That denaturing of interaction, loss of facial registration or tone, fails in connecting us to intention… our intention to be or feel together… if indeed that’s what we are still doing. I have my own reservations about Saint Schulman as she survives her own writing always so right… She’s a righter of history if you ask her. She argues that we owe one another an ordering of facts, a timeline of conflict before departing relationships.
The flaw of her project, I believe is that we are all coming to these urban post-educated (extreme education if you will which stems from extreme wealth and preserves it) assemblages wishing to feel together. This is a bold assumption. I believe all the A-List dramaturgy, pill popping, chronic travel disorder (as if compulsive traveling means you encounter anything but daily fresh clean sheets) between and within LINKEDIN evites are all smoke and mirrors of being—separate. You stay in the room long enough to leave an essence of having been present but not present enough to say something stupid, or simply reveal the comprehensive childproofed life you live calling home constantly for money. Fame—or the lesser strategy of possessing Followers—is a culture of being alone no? Who in the end wants to have credit attributed to another… or worse a series of fortunate events that made talent or praiseworthy being possible? Right? You didn’t learn the flute because you were so disciplined… first someone bought you the fucking flute and tolerated the noise you made with it. The drug/alcohol addictions of parents clouded in affluence instead of criminality… a dad who gambles with his bonus check rather than the rent money… These are things that irrevocably shape possibility and certainly denature the purity attributed to accomplishment.
BUT, in our queer times, contextualized continuously in real time by tenured minds Privilege is the vocabulary word designed to assess these measurements of being… and it has quickly eroded into a mere accusation. Above all let me admit that I benefit from and contribute to dialogues of privilege tallying, but let me for a moment try on this ill-fitting dress that says those of us talking privilege sit already at her table, stuffed full, too bloated to move. So increasingly the concept of privilege is a silencing mechanism, a delegitimizing mechanism at a table of lazy minds who fail to recognize that the term is actually a placeholder for those you do not encounter because of your very own trajectory immeasurable in circumstance versus the self who acted within, or rather inseparably via, that very same circumstance. Or is the intention simply learning the terminology so as to refuse change?
Before I go too far I would like to dilute the power of the term, by recognizing that smart people speak in fads… Problematic is a kinship term to the more articulate Privilege. My first encounter of organizing within queer strIcture… problematic the word was dropped at the end of every conversation like a power period. Problematic was so easy to say because it kept you from having to define the parameters of the problem, it’s ripple effect and your investment in its identification and consensus as problem. When we perpetually find problems external, we manage the space around ourselves as safe and the things we have become unquestionably ours. Safety is only a control. Sometimes the problematic is an understandable violence… someone might simply not know of contemporary discourses… and sometimes it is willfully violent registering itself otherwise via knowledge of the very terms designed to bring name to these events. Problematic was the magician’s cloak 10 years ago. What is our magician doing behind his cloak? Maneuvering a magic trick you stupid fuck. Problematic in my experience was never about problem-solving it was the way of being right about wrong, children of matriculation pointing at wrong together, no more or less.
Privilege is no doubt more articulate, but it has surely already lost grounding as useful in anything other than problematic power play. Because while the poetics of privilege stem from very real encounters within women of color feminism, these writings replay all too well now… 40 years later. Vocabulary, what we name things, what we allow ourselves to be called, who we allow to name us… if we have an say whatsoever in the project of being named… if that naming process is done to call us forth or simply label us aside… the wording evolves; however, in the course of just a few years unimaginative academics fail time and time again to keep their terms useful. Metaphor and almost libertarian culture of comparison cement space for power over these words. We will never feel together, they know this. Their eager invocation of vocabulary is merely to shut you up, replace you with nothing but space for their conveyor belt of self.
A moment of silence for those using words like these…
Does someone need to remind you that you didn’t buy your flute? Does someone really need to commend your choice to spend your parents’ money on traveling abroad, learning languages, and accruing academic degrees in feeling… expertise in hopeless nuance? Good for you these are indeed better purchases than inpatient yoga-orientated drug rehab. But even when rich kids go to drug rehab we are supposed to congratulate them. When they make a shit film with a bunch of money and unpaid interns… we are supposed to watch and go “Good Job. What are you working on now?” When confronted with these options of defining parameters of praise for individuals accustomed to unlimited affirmation, I prefer silence. Because I don’t have the words you need and I know you will always get your needs met regardless what you do with me… how your words work—even just between us—in your favor.
My grievance is the academic roots of feministing and queering programs. Many people grieve my academic drag… saying I merely reproduce the violence of speech acts claiming such specialization. So I am gonna step out… and unlike Schulman, I won’t describe personal experiences in unconvincing third person god’s eye narration… I will share outside abstraction an encounter with a friend who works in American academia… he somehow always has money to travel internationally… has lived on multiple continents… currently acquiring extended funding for his phd… and has casually been to Berlin a few times since I moved here. We are different people. This is fine because I prefer difference. When asked for my what have you been up to elevator speech during a gap of unemployment when I was actively not leaving the house so as to not spend any money not knowing when the next job might come along. I said I am writing a book. He rolled his eyes in my face! I do get that, when someone doesn’t like what I do. I try not to stake a claim of legitimacy over anything, because illegitimate is more my speed. Regardless, his instinctive response was a wave of truth I need not tread. When I found out that he wrote a book, I ordered it and read it regardless our theoretical differences, I felt I should.
He was squeezing me in before meeting that AA Bronson who currently he’s writing on… I told him I am quite weary of Bronson’s shaman shtick, that in our shared early Berlin years I’d seen him appropriate Eastern spiritual rituals verbatim as contemporary art… and that these performances or happenings were so un-spirited there was no other conclusion but for me to let the old man die. I didn’t say “Don’t write about AA Bronson” I said “Careful, he’s tricky these days” to which my more and more distant friend said, “Well I can’t even think about that.” In the midst of extending funding on his degree (therefore having time to engage with the difficult not just the heroic) he willfully turned a blind eye to his subject’s dangerous tendency to appropriate cultures for substantial monetary gain. Again, I allowed him the easy way… he can do whatever he wants but truly this is the only way history makes heroes: Willful omissions of thought. Suddenly a non-witness or at best an unaccredited mind, I tried to change the subject to critical evaluations of the university apparatus: Didier Eribon, Fred Moten, and Sarah Schulman… he conceded bits but somehow acquiesced with the hardly tortured lament: “But I have such a hunger for knowledge” he said. Yes, years of grad school, language learning and continent hopping he will still lean on blatant cliché. Hunger for knowledge reads to me a picky eater. Here is where I sort of depart as a lesser subject from him… when conflict isn’t a conflict so much as a non-knowing, or specifically in this case a refusal to know… a needing not to know. Nonflict. Do I really owe this bitch a timeline?
Those good at flipping professional, love to tell me I’m misreading virtually everything, this is the nature of professionalism as identity. There is no struggle in professionalism and yet a professional mind always conceives itself as having struggled, but never in the midst of potentially losing. The places that produce real queer, really read feminism… These are not cheap schools and their endowments could serve many, many more students, instead quality of education is made only by its scarcity. Somehow after achieving access to the best education money can buy, queer fashion victims and rich girls graduate still mad at patriarchy or a plague of -isms—these very systems which colluded in the making of daddy’s money which paid for the cultivation of their vocabulary… which is not however the equivalent of an ethical standing.
So they shuffle entitlement to rage around in some tarot deck of pained privilege… celebrating ignorance under the title of karma… reading futures all the while believing they’ve got the vocabulary to speak truth. The fraternity of the traumatized… that pain somehow produces purity… as if trauma belongs only to those who speak it well. Trauma in my experience rarely reflects intelligently. Somehow liberal art-ing becomes group therapy… therapy that produces competitively dynamic and powerful individuals… in stark contrast to the recovery available in lower classes, like Alcoholics Anonymous, where participants are made to believe themselves powerless to their addictions, perpetually addicted and irrevocably so. Rich kids get a different therapeutic vocabulary. They become actors in a world… shapers of justice… builders of a timeline in which we all get our due eventually… eventually in art-working they ditch the conventional CV and deny the education that made them so typical, so fit to belong within their successful peer group… a generation of thinkers fermented in the same rotten barrel of money… suddenly bored again so they create a mythology of avoiding self instead becoming animal, psychic or furniture… not sacrificing a single thing.
How does one pay reparations on such a degree? How do I insert a placeholder in a timeline with someone who knows better than I? Silence holds place Schulman. It is an event and a response. One can feel named by silence if they choose to gamble self with terms whose meaning cannot be argued… silence holds place for being named differently… outside your terms, outside the terms of us. One could write a whole book insisting that they have right to an arguable timeline of naming or they could listen for what silence says in a world of words that can only argue otherwise… around… and against that silence which recognizes you so well, names you so appropriately.