(I’m writing this in the wake of and as a way of thinking through a Twitter spat between a well-known blogger/postdoc and a very well known anthropologist who practices anarchism.)
It begins with a question, one rarely asked and so rarely responded to. Neither articulated nor answered, the question persists as an inchoate feeling for and vague orientation toward another. If we were to give voice to this question, to make it explicit, we would thematize the mystery of this orientation, this feeling-for-another that puts us in hesitant proximity with one another. The question might be phrased as “Going my way?” What this question inaugurates through its inarticulation is the astonishingly robust and ridiculously fragile collectivity that we are, whoever we are. In not asking this question explicitly, we refuse to ask it once and once only, we refuse to thematize a foundational orientation that would determine, once and for all, who we are. We’re not a party, no arche or nomos secures to us our identity as ourselves, and in refusing to ground our collectivity through an inaugural determination of who we are and what we want, we commit ourselves to the tense and uncertain work of feeling toward and with one another. We are nothing but the uncertain feeling that we’re oriented toward one another in our orientations toward something else. That we’re inclined toward one another in the multiplicity of our inclinations.
I’ve been thinking a lot about inclination recently. My thinking got started, believe it or not, with Lorde—or, rather, with a critique of Lorde that was making its rounds on the internet. It was a critique of the function of racial signifiers in Lorde’s “Royals,” concluding with a claim about Lorde’s functionality for a white supremacist patriarchal world. I didn’t have any problem with the specifics of the reading; it’s correct, as far as it goes. But I had the nagging suspicion that the critique was true to the extent that it was false, that the adoption of a hermeneutic of suspicion vis-à-vis Lorde was somehow inadequate. This, because I felt like the Lorde of Pure Heroine is, in some way, inclining toward me, toward us—that the speaker of the album is, in some way, a comrade-in-formation. Really truly. There’s too much class hatred and refusal in the lyrics that I can’t not. Silly stupid utopian perhaps. Culture industry people are free to laugh at me. But at stake for me here is the need to rethink the modes by which we orient ourselves to our cultural objects—and, in turn, to one another. (Let me keep talking about Lorde, but with the understanding that inquiry into cultural relations here functions as a propaedeutic for a consideration of political relations.) My worry is that we’re increasingly conflating the necessity of critique with the production of allergies, that critique has given way to simple criticism, that our critical performances are ultimately functional for liberalism’s pulverization of the political. The point here isn’t that Lorde’s lyrics in “Royals,” say, aren’t fucked up; they are, and should be treated as such. But to what end? What’s at stake in this critique? It’s striking to me that, while honest-to-Jesus political white supremacist movements are treated with a smirk, Lorde provokes outrage. It’s easy to ignore white supremacist movements or mock them away for the simple reason that we can’t imagine a world in which we would enter a political relation with them—that is, a political relation constituted by amity. (I would argue that liberals can’t really imagine a political relation of enmity with white supremacists either, and thus the predominance of irony in liberal approaches to these formations.) Simply put, we don’t share a world with white supremacists. For me, Lorde poses a different political and interpretive challenge, insofar as I can imagine sharing a world with her. (CLR JAMES READING GROUP WITH LORDE!) This possibility of world-sharing and world-forming, of politics, requires the adoption of an interpretive-critical mode that can simultaneously keep in view what I take to be the sincerity of her refusal of the given and the violence of the idiom through which she codes this refusal. We need, I think, a critical practice primed by the feeling of co-inclination.
And not just so we can read Lorde differently. Our impulse to critique, and our conversion of critique into mere criticism, is fucking us up. Sometimes I feel like we’ve imported modes of cultural critique subtended by a hermeneutics of suspicion into our relations with one another with the effect that we listen to one another to hear why we shouldn’t listen to one another. When I was thinking about the response to Lorde, I had this dream that we could shift the imagined scenography of cultural critique—that we could treat her less as an analysand rehashing symptomatic dreams on a Freudo-Marxian couch and more as a well-meaning subject who has found her way into a meeting of a radical collective but whose lack of an adequate idiom led her to mobilize a messed up metaphorics. What do we do—ideally—in these situations? As I understand the discourse ethics of such collectivities, the aim isn’t to reveal the fucked-up-ness of the person as an end in itself or in order to boot the person out, but to engage a practice of critique and correction with the assumption that there’s a commitment to the maintenance and flourishing of the relationship. Good intentions for bad actions don’t excuse anything, but remaining mindful of the former allows for the composition of a scene in which the latter can be refused and then repaired. It’s only our willingness to foster such scenes that distinguishes friends from enemies: we repair the fucked-up-ness of our friends, whereas we resist it in our enemies.
The decision to repair instead of reject, to treat as flawed friend rather than infallibly flawed enemy, to (re)produce a fraying relation instead of developing an allergy, is ultimately organized by fictions of intention, sincerity, possibility, and so on. We feel that we’re inclined toward one another, that we’re going the same way, and this basic affect/orientation makes non-allergic critique both possible and necessary. We imagine we’re going the same way even if we sometimes decline from one another or swerve away into terrible things. We survive through these fictions. We live on them and through them for the simple reason that we are all too wounded by this world to not carry fucked-up-ness with us in ways we can’t even know without the rigorous, critical, sustaining, and enriching help of our revolutionary friends. If you read this blog, you’ve probably experienced the extraordinary act of love that is getting called out by a comrade. I can recall vividly each time I’ve been so called out, and I’m deeply grateful for all of them—even if thinking about what precipitated them makes me shudder in embarrassment. We don’t need to worry that this fiction makes us stupid, less-than-critical; there are obviously firm limits to the fiction of co-inclination. I read with Lorde, for instance, whereas I wouldn’t read with Miley Cyrus. In terms of real people doing real things, there probably wasn’t an Occupy encampment in the U.S. that didn’t have one figure (almost certainly a white guy) so resistant to others’ labor of critique and repair that the fiction of co-inclination dropped and this figure converted into an enemy. We need to trust our feelings, to prioritize in practice the weird orientations toward others that we can’t fully explain or thematize. It’s this feeling of co-inclination that prevents every critique from becoming a collective crisis, that allows critique to become a means of collectivity formation.
We, whoever we are, are constituted by felt fictions of co-inclination. Without these felt fictions, we are probably little more than the gaggle of isolated and auto-isolating idiots that Yankee Leninists take us to be when we say things like “Check your privilege” or “That’s fucked up.” Critique can only be the antonym of collective corrosion when we recall that we’re going to get in one another’s way as we go on our way, together, maybe. Indeed, critique is a mode of collective augmentation when its animated by a commitment, however vague, to maintaining the world that we co-produce, that we’re on the way toward. So, let’s rewrite the dictum of Kant, the one he put in the emperor’s mouth, the one that serves as a mantra for liberals and Leninists alike, the one that goes, “Argue as much as you like about whatever you like, but obey!” Let’s rewrite it as, “Argue as much as you like about whatever you like, but incline!” Critique and critique hard. But never suppress the felt possibility that we, whoever we are, are going one another’s way.