By Jack Halberstam
At the end of the film Looking for Langston (1989), Isaac Julien’s beautiful meditation on the life and desires of Langston Hughes, a mixed group of black and white gay men are dancing in a warehouse. As the music speeds up and the dancing becomes wild, scenes of a white male mob gathering outside cut in and out of the speakeasy scene. Julien’s montage sequence brings inside and outside closer and closer together, and creates a fearful anticipation of a violent confrontation. The spectator fears for the gay men who have gathered together at a memorial to dance in the face of death and to love in the midst of crisis. But at the climax of this montage, the police and the white thugs enter a space that is empty and they encounter only the traces of the dancers. The dancers, who have engaged rituals of joyful mourning that exceed conventional religious practices, have now left the space for an elsewhere that we do not see and on behalf of a practice of evacuation that eludes theory. They are elsewhere and will remain elsewhere. The dancers, as one poet has it, “are all gone under the hill.”
The practitioners of queer and black leisure, who leave by the back door to avoid confrontation, refuse the oppositions of right and wrong, black and white, the law and outlaws, straight and gay in favor of the destitution of the space of encounter. Julien’s dancers, an undercommons of sorts, have not simply disappeared. As the police look around for the “deviants” they came to discipline, they see only smoke and mirrors, but the dancers live on in place that we cannot yet see, a place and time situated as Jose Munoz put it, in a “forward-dawning futurity,” a time to come when the utopian dreams of queerness will no longer be necessary.
I start here because we have too often in the university, and sometimes within this seminar, begun with a theoretical frame and imagined that it could hold or frame, inspire or incite a certain kind of practice or energy. We have then moved on to express all that is wrong with the frame as theorized – populism is always already fascist and it is just another form of identity politics too; “destitution” is naïve and so on. We have tended to accept universalizing theory by the likes of Zizek and reject specific theoretical frameworks such as those offered by The Invisible Committee (I generalize). We then descend into political disappointment, a disappointment pre-ordained from the beginning and effective in maintaining a sense that there is nothing to be done, and in the process, we cement the opposition between theory and practice and make it seem as if this bounded zone were real, as if people were just waiting to hear from on high about the proper interpretation of Marx’s “Theses on Feuerbach,” as if the correct definition of the general strike would resolve the question of how to change things.
To be clear, getting it right is not a prelude to change; the general strike is ongoing and everywhere, it is spontaneous (contra Luxemburg) and lasting in its form and impact. Furthermore, critique is not the road to enlightenment; enlightenment is not the goal; and the undercommons is not a route to a new politics but the end of politics as such.
Denizens of the undercommons do not recognize the distinction between theory and practice that, as Bernard Harcourt points out in his introduction to this seminar series, preoccupies our most canonical political thinkers such as Marx, Lenin, Foucault and Arendt. But they also do not set themselves up in a simple opposition to the canon or to the university itself. As Moten and Harney point out: “this act of being against always already excludes the unrecognized modes of politics, the beyond of politics already in motion, the discredited criminal para-organization, what Robin Kelley might refer to as the infrapolitical field (and its music).” Praxis is not within the university but nor is it against the university. It is “the beyond of politics,” the more than political.
I want to proceed by way of five arguments joined to examples (that are not examples but the theoretical ground itself) on behalf of the undercommons, waywardness, destitution, somatic communism and wildness, not to mention what Rosalind Morris called, a few weeks ago: “the communism of the not-man.”
1. Living at The End of the World
Saidiya Hartman’s new book, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, addresses the question of the relationship between theory and praxis for a very different set of revolutionary subjects than those imagined by Marx and Engels. The wayward is lived by the black girls who, at the beginning of the twentieth century made their way from the South to big Northern cities like Philadelphia and New York. Using the archives of black life in spectacularly innovative ways, Hartman curates the words, arrest files, notes and dreams of some of these girls to create a chorus from the undercommons.
Imagining a manifesto for living under the conditions of white supremacy that such girls embodied, Hartman writes of Esther Brown:
“Had anyone found the rough notes for reconstruction jotted in the marginalia of her grocery list or correlated the numbers circled most often in her dog-eared dream book with routes of escape not to be found in McNally’s atlas or seen the love letters written to her girlfriend about how they would live at the end of the world, the master philosophers and cardholding radicals, in all likelihood, would have said that her analysis was insufficient, dismissed her for her failing to understand those key passages in the Grundrisse about the ex-slave’s refusal to work and emphasized the limits of black feminist politics…only a misreading of the key texts of anarchism could ever imagine a place for wayward colored girls.” (Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments 230-31).
The undercommons, and particularly the black wayward girls who make up its central constituency, are committed to mis/readings, refusals, dreaming, fugitivity, insurrection.
The black girls, whom Hartman follows through archives designed to bury them, poured their political refusals of white supremacy, of emancipation without freedom and of domestic servitude into their wayward lives and “wrote” their political tracts in song, dance and gesture. Praxis for these women was not a performance waiting for a script, it inhered to their movements around the city, it inspired the intimacies they forged with each other and it spoke through their loud and raucous rebellions against the institutions intent upon caging them.
Bernard Harcourt hints at a gendered division between theory and practice that necessitates a queer response: “Somehow, praxis invariably took a second seat to theory.” He writes, and then: “Practice,” “practical knowledge,” “practical activities” became the handmaid of theoretical knowledge—whether in philosophy, physics, law, engineering, or government. To the point where, today, in our domain, we laud critical theory, but cannot even identify properly critical praxis.
But if praxis is women’s work, or domestic work, then we should not be surprised to find that black women, who left slavery only to enter into domestic servitude, offer a broad archive of practices of refusal, a chorus of rebellion as Hartman shows, a deep-seated suspicion of work, uplift and reform, a preference for assembly, pleasure and idleness, an affinity to the streets over the home. The girls Hartman tracks learn about freedom from each other and join in a rebellion that expresses itself as the “erotic life of the ungovernable.”
2. More than Politics
In The Undercommons, Harney and Moten write:
“We’re already here, moving. We’ve been around. We’re more than politics, more than settled, more than democratic. We surround democracy’s false image in order to unsettle it. Every time it tries to enclose us in a decision, we’re undecided. Every time it tries to represent our will, we’re unwilling.”
We are more than politics, we are undecided, we are unwilling. What does a praxis look like when it emerges from those who refuse the choices as offered? What does it mean to decide not to decide? What would it look like to counteract the notion of will or agency with the withdrawal of participation altogether – can there be a collectivity of the unwilling?
In 1992 and 1996, Joan Jett Blakk, a queer, black drag queen living in the Bay Area, ran for President. In 1992, she ran under the slogan of “lick Bush in ’92.” Engaging in a broad, in her terms, “camp-pain,” she cast Clinton and Bush as two sides of the same coin and offered a true alternative. Blakk slipped into the DNC in boy drag and then changed in the bathroom into her drag queen mode and announced her candidacy on the national stage as a way of refusing its legitimacy. As the campaign dragged on to its inevitable and pre-ordained conclusion, Blakk decided: “I’m just going to declare myself president because I’m tired of waiting.” In 1996, Blakk ran again, this time as representative of the Blakk Pantsuit Party and chose a militant dyke as her running mate. They promised to rename the White House as the Lavender House and to fire the whole government. In 1996, Blakk claimed to have won in the Iowa primary. She encouraged voters to vote for her by not voting; she garnered over 440,000 non-votes in the Iowa primary using this tactic and declared victory.
This caper by a talented, imaginative, impatient (“I’m tired of waiting”) and fed-up drag queen, demonstrates the practice of the more (or less) than politics. Recognizing that, as Moten and Harney put it, politics surrounds us and holds us in arrangements that are guaranteed to maintain the status quo, sustain white supremacy and extend economic inequality, Blakk went around the surround, she slipped into the political theatre of the DNC and she demonstrated that despite the flags and hats and the sheer pageantry of American democracy, in the end, you cannot out-queen a queen. And what’s more, the queen knows what the king only dimly recognizes, and that is that praxis lives within the multitude of the non-voters and that while sovereignty may reside with the king, and while the king may be protected, the get shit done piece in life as in chess is the queen. D’Angelo Barksdale from The Wire explains:
“Now, the king, he move one space any direction he damn choose, ’cause he’s the king. Like this, this, this, a’ight? But he ain’t got no hustle. But the rest of these motherfuckers on the team, they got his back. And they run so deep, he really ain’t gotta do shit.
This the queen. She smart, she fast. She move any way she want, as far as she want. And she is the go-get-shit-done piece.”
Praxis requires that we all be queens or “go-get-shit-done pieces.”
In a primary text about exploitation, insurgent revolutionaries, praxis and violence, an underground group plans an uprising that will result in the end of the system that keeps them in physical and emotional bondage. The goal here is to destitute the institution that requires their labor. But alas, as the plot unfolds, the revolutionaries are seduced back into the fold of their domestication and promised love and care in return for constant labor. That the text is an animated film for children, The Secret Life of Pets, and that the revolutionary subject is an angry abandoned rabbit called Snowball, should not distract us from the urgent message of the film – namely, that in order for transformation to truly take hold, the cycle of destitution must be complete.
In other words, in order to avoid a cycle in which the revolutionary insurgents succeed in removing the old tyrants only to become a new version of them, or worse, only to come crawling back once the terror subsides, The Invisible Committee argue for destitution. Building upon their earlier work, The Coming Insurrection, in which they propose that “institutions are obstacles to organizing ourselves,” in their most recent manifesto, Now, they propose to destitute the judicial system (“we can learn to settle our own disputes”); medicine (“we know what is good for us and what makes us sick”); the government (“to destitute the government is to make ourselves ungovernable.” (Now, p. 81). And finally, they seek to destitute the university and its “academic zombies” on behalf of “places of research, of education and thought, that are more vibrant and more demanding than it is.”
Moten and Harney offer some similar thoughts on the university in the manifesto that came out ahead of the collection of essays on The Undercommons. In “The University and The Undercommons,” Moten and Harney argue that “the only possible relation to the university today is a criminal one” and they urge us to steal from the university and relocate in fugitive spaces of black study. For Moten and Harney, as for The Invisible Committee, the goal is not to oppose and thereby affirm institutions but to withdraw and in doing so, to destitute them.
In a blog post following the Praxis seminar on Now by The Invisible Committee, a text, by the way, that this seminar group dismissed as naïve and presentist, Nikita Shepherd offered a capsule history of ungovernability that tied the concept to “disobedient children and enslaved Black men and women.” Shepherd then traced the term through colonialism and decolonial struggles and on into the present in the context of anarchist groups, punk, anti-apartheid struggles and we could extend Shepherd’s list to include the goal of “becoming ungovernable” that animated the struggles of indigenous groups in their attempts to hold onto their land in Ecuador in the 1990’s. Shepherd, having offered a capsule global history of the term then returned to the concept of destitution:
“Only in this broader context can we make sense of the turn towards becoming ungovernable as a proposal for radical praxis, and its specific articulation by the Invisible Committee in Now. Against the backdrop of a generalized hatred of police (and by extension, intrusive control and authority) and the total delegitimization of conventional electoral and partisan political solutions, today’s revolts are not manifesting via the familiar channels and discourses of politics, even the “radical” politics of activist groups or identity-based constituencies. This shift in logic underlies the framework of destituent power, in which conventional notions of the defeat of one force by another (even if warfare is asymmetrical) or the dialectical synthesis of clashing opposites no longer obtain. Instead, the Invisible Committee proposes, an institution can be destituted by a gesture that “neutralizes it, empties it of its substance, then steps to the side and watches it expire.”
Today’s revolts, Shepherd offers, represent a “shift in logic.” It is no longer enough to oppose, to defeat, to critique or to replace, destitution proposes that while the academics and scholars are attentive to the status quo and carefully replacing the bricks of the broken structure, the action is somewhere else entirely. Like the evacuated space with which I began in Looking for Langston, like the anarchist forms of protest in Black Lives Matter, destitution insists, as Shepherd reminds us that: “The teenage rebels, black bloc anarchists, and Invisible Committee polemicists appear to have their finger more squarely on the pulse of contemporary rebellion than the academics and theorists.”
4. Strategy of Wildness
All eras are marked by crisis, it is not that this era is different, but crises shift and change with the times and the challenge for the artist and the intellectual is to identify our crisis, our insurrection, but also our pleasure, our strategy of joy. Building on Argentianian queer artist and activist, Roberto Jacoby’s “strategy of joy,” a method for making art in the middle of a dictatorship, I offer a strategy of wildness to counteract the madness of life under our present dictatorship of the callous and unimaginative. While Roberto Jacoby refused to use the claim of health and purity to counteract charges of disease and contamination during the AIDS crisis, and he did so by creating t-shirts proclaiming “I Have AIDS,” so, we must refuse the immiseration that has been forced upon us and instead take up antic and rabid forms of pleasure, sexual or otherwise. While Jacoby offered “technologies of friendship” to push back on the disruption of social ties under tyranny, we find friendship coopted by facebook and turned into a vector for capitalization, advertising and networking. As friendship fails, we seek other modes of social life – random physical contact, anonymous conversations in public, wordless ballets of association carried out in gyms, on subways, on campuses and in the streets. While strategies of joy have tended to combine masculinist notions of the erotic with gay male notions of cruising, pleasure and pederasty, strategies of wildness think through other non-male born bodies to find modes of association that are not limited to a conventional understanding of queerness limited to male jouissance, tethered to excess and visual spectacle, committed to beauty and aesthetic elevation. Strategies of wildness combine the ugly, the dildonic contrasexual, they ride ecstatic waves of female friendship, trans* manhood and find the answers and the questions too in punk encounters between girls, in the unmaking of the world and in the dismantling of the ideological scaffolding of what Audre Lorde famously called, “the master’s house.”
Under the heading of strategies of wildness, please find Paul Preciado’s “somatic communism,” a structure that links variously raced and gendered bodies to the earth and beyond to something he calls the planetary. But more than that, a somatic communism refuses to organize the pleasures and intimacies, joys and sexualities of bodies according to the biopolitical order laid out to center the white male heterosexual body. Instead, Preciado calls for us to recognize a countersexual order of things within which all sexuality is prosthetic. Not a Marcusian sense of unfettered pleasure, Preciado’s countersexual depends instead upon our willingness “to open a revolutionary terrain for the invention of new organs and desires, for which no pleasure has yet been defined; new subjectivities that cannot be represented by the means of identity politics.” Stalling the possibility that all queer oriented politics can be classified as “identitarian,” Preciado makes clear that we are exiting the identity politics of a masculinist, heteronormative order and that in the countersexual future “the goal is total DIY-ization of every individual’s organs and subjectivities. Neither revolution nor production can be planned, but mutation, as an open project, remains uncharted.”
5. The End of the Explicative Order
Rancière, in The Ignorant Schoolmaster, in a move that rhymes with The Invisible Committee’s exhortation to “find each other” and echoes through the undercommons’ abolitionist hailing of a “new society,” calls for an end to the explicative order. Praxis requires us to move on from critique and asks for something more than explanation or the search for weaknesses in any given text. Praxis is literally the antithesis of what Rancière calls “the explicative order,” within which the many are defined as “incapable” in order for the teacher to occupy the space of knowing. Rancière writes: “It is the explicator who needs the incapable and not the other way around; it is he who constitutes the incapable as such” (The Ignorant Schoolmaster, p. 6).
In search of intellectual emancipation then, and on behalf of the undercommons and the destitution we come to deliver, I want to end not with explanation, exegesis or theorization, instead I offer lines from a poem that demonstrates the great unraveling that begins in the very middle of the great tradition.
Do not let me hear
Of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly,
Their fear of fear and frenzy, their fear of possession,
Of belonging to another, or to others, or to God.
The only wisdom we can hope to acquire
Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.
The houses are all gone under the sea.
The dancers are all gone under the hill.
These lines from T.S. Eliot’s “East Coker” return us to the empty room in Looking for Langston (“the dancers are all gone under the hill”), the emptied spaces of crumbling institutions and the destitution to come of environmental disaster (“the houses are all gone under the sea”). In this resonant verse, Eliot indicates that even he, the epitome of tradition, canonical thought, autonomous aesthetics, intellectual elitism, church, state and monarchy, knew that the old men have had their day, and the undercommons have announced their arrival with “the open song of the ones supposed to be silent.”