Monday, July 7, 2014

On the "neoliberal rhetoric of harm"

I was disappointed to read Jack Halberstam's recent essay on trigger warnings and the "neoliberal rhetoric of harm." I agree with Robin James's assessment— that there's a real problem that JH is putting her^ his finger on, namely the potential for the language of trigger warnings (or, as second-wave feminists would have seen it, the language of "offense," as opposed to "oppression") to psychologize and individualize harm and render it unavailable to structural analysis. Moreover, such psychologization risks flattening all harm into the subjective experience of harm, making it difficult to distinguish between more and less crucial targets of critique. So far so good, and not so different from what many feminists already believe.

Where it goes off the rails is the suggestion that people engaged in social justice work need to, so to speak, "man up":

In a post-affirmative action society, where even recent histories of political violence like slavery and lynching are cast as a distant and irrelevant past, all claims to hardship have been cast as equal; and some students, accustomed to trotting out stories of painful events in their childhoods (dead pets/parrots, a bad injury in sports) in college applications and other such venues, have come to think of themselves as communities of naked, shivering, quaking little selves – too vulnerable to take a joke, too damaged to make one.

In short, an ostensibly feminist blog post about how feminists are humorless and need to lighten up is a little hard to take. No, having a pet parrot join the choir invisible is not as bad as lynching, but is that really what people are saying when they say they are sad about their parrot? Can we not have compassion for small griefs?

I have two basic observations to make about this, one about feminist critiques of neoliberalism and one about generations.

1. Neoliberalism and feminism

As Keguro Macharia pointed out, Halberstam's polemic can easily be read as a call for resilience, the neoliberal virtue par excellence. Indeed, Halberstam literally "call[s] for accountability," that language of counting and accounting that, as John Pat Leary has so brilliantly explained, takes as its baseline the belief that everything that matters is accountable. Halberstam's polemic, with its belittlement of college students as "naked, shivering, quaking little selves," is plagued by a bigger problem: how to mount a feminist critique of neoliberalism when neoliberalism operates through hypertrophied forms of femininity?

As misguided as Tiqqun's Theory of the Young-Girl is, it is symptomatic of the gendered realization of neoliberalism: what Karen Gregory calls "hyperemployment," and what Robin James, following Michelle Murphy, calls the "financialized girl." Such critiques, as well as formulations like Jodi Dean's "communicative capitalism" and Corsani and Lazzarato's "feminization of labor," demonstrate that, often, neoliberal exploitation succeeds by ramping up and extending the ways that women have typically been exploited under earlier forms of capitalism: in care work, emotional labor, unpaid labor, collaborations ("teamwork"), etc. (I'm mentioning just a few sources, but there's an enormous literature on this.) Importantly, innovations that began as accommodations for working women—"flex time," telecommuting, teamwork— became normalized or hypertrophied (as e.g. freelancing) as ways of reducing overhead and making employees interchangeable (disposable), to the point that a paean to nonstop work like Lean In could be marketed as feminism.

The forms that Halberstam critiques—safe spaces and trigger warnings, specifically, but also psychologization and subjectivity—really are forms through which neoliberalism can operate; indeed, maybe they are primarily modes of individuating harm and defusing structural critique. But they are also deeply feminized, as Gayatri Spivak pointed out in a famous reading of Freud's line, "a child is being beaten," and have the double-edged power of interiorizing (rendering unavailable to structural critique) and acknowledging women's psychology as complex. When neoliberalism takes feminized forms, it is difficult to attack neoliberal forms (here, subjectivization, safe spaces) without being flatly sexist. And the form that Halberstam's critique takes seems to me to succumb to that difficulty.

2. Generational relationships to history

There's another strain to Halberstam's polemic that pits professors against students on generational terms. Here is one generation who fought hard for queer rights; who never had a Gay/Straight Alliance in high school or a way to grow up both queer and normal. Who made careers out of queer studies while they watched their administrations professionalize and their faculties casualize, who teach at universities that cost $44,000 a year to attend.

A representative of this generation calls another a bunch of babies. (So they are: their infantilization has been enforced by the privatization of public goods, by debt, and by the destruction of good jobs. Reaching puberty earlier and earlier, likely due to environmental factors, they achieve financial independence later and later, if ever. All their own fault, no doubt.)

Halberstam kind of makes a big deal of this generational gap, pointing to the "friendly adults" who erroneously install "narratives of damage that they [the youth] themselves may or may not have actually experienced." It's as if young people are stealing an earlier generation's trauma, claiming it as their own when really they have it so good. In this bizarrely counterfactual linear temporality, the past is not only past but also dead, and you do not have the right to be traumatized by historical memory, only by things that have literally happened to you—even if you are eighteen and it's all—all—news to you. We (the older generation) were there, and are over it, and so you (the younger generation) should root yourselves entirely in the ameliorated present* and get over it, because it is over.

The result is an odd polemic against coddled millenials and their too-sensitive feelings, as if it were somehow ridiculous to be young and too sensitive, or for that matter, old and too sensitive. This cross-generational call to "get over it" is an example of what Sara Ahmed has called "overing": "In assuming that we are over certain kinds of critique, they create the impression that we are over what is being critiqued." It's particularly perverse to demand that young people be "over it," when they have perhaps only just left their parents' homes, and have perhaps only recently come to any political consciousness at all. There's a very good reason college students aren't "over it"; they just got there. Have you met a college student? It's all, all new.

It is its own kind of shock to learn about how you have been historically, rather than personally, hated. It is not about "trauma" but about developing a political consciousness that is also historical, a fundamentally utopian impulse to exist in solidarity with the dead. There is, to be sure, a fine line between identifying with the past and appropriating it, but I think we can allow our students some leeway in figuring out where this line is, and not getting it right every time. Certainly grown-ups need the same leeway.

And finally, it is particularly odd to issue a generational call to turn to environmental concerns instead of LGBT activism:

What does it mean when younger people who are benefitting from several generations now of queer social activism by people in their 40s and 50s (who in their childhoods had no recourse to anti-bullying campaigns or social services or multiple representations of other queer people building lives) feel abused, traumatized, abandoned, misrecognized, beaten, bashed and damaged?


Let’s not fiddle while Rome (or Paris) burns, trigger while the water rises, weep while trash piles up; let’s recognize these internal wars for the distraction they have become.

In the words of a famous owl: O RLY?

"Don't worry about safe spaces because we 'friendly adults' already fixed that for you (whether you feel it or not); do worry about climate change because we really fucked that one up."

Well, yes we did, but maybe it's therefore our job to do the heavy lifting on that one.

I think reasonable people can disagree about trigger warning policies per se. But I don't know how any adult dares be intellectually ungenerous with the young, considering the world we've collectively brought them into. My students can take a joke, and make one. They're hilarious. And they also care about one another and try not to make those jokes at one another's expense. They're not "over" anything because they're just getting started. I'm glad they are.

^Although I was not aware of a preferred pronoun and had been given to understand that Jack Halberstam does not explicitly prefer pronouns of either gender (source), two commenters have suggested that masculine pronouns are preferred. Thanks to these commenters for the correction.

*I'm granting for the sake of argument that the oppression of queer (whether "really gay" or not) youth is really the non-problem that Halberstam claims it is, but in reality this claim seems to me to be premature.

Thanks to Robin James for a helpful discussion of this piece.

Your regularly scheduled Beyoncé posts will return soon.