The Culture of Theory: Conversations I

FEATURED IMAGE BY DAVID ALABO, GHANIAN-MOROCCAN DIGITAL ARTIST, @DAVIDALABO

The Culture of Theory:

Conversations I

The following conversation started in response to a series of tweets on the University, the nature of the Inside/Outside relation, and ongoing conversations about theoretical perplexities in Culture and Theory. The dialogue is between PhD Candidate, Kevork Murad and myself. To stage the conversation, I’ll share the text from the tweets I wrote which started it all:

The University is intellectually responsible for the stable reproduction of every apparatus of domination that exists today and tomorrow. The World is legitimated, reified, and perpetuated in and through the University. We are trainers of cops, prisons guards, and con(gress)myn. Part of the trouble in critiquing other institutions from within the University is that we can’t speak as if the University is a refuge or a place one can occupy while not being simultaneously a part of the operations of University’s occupation of lands, bodies, resources, and violence. We have to sit more uncomfortably with this paradox. Moten is wrong. This is not a refuge. This is a parasitical space as well whose existence in and of itself is based in an architecture of exclusion and the strategies and informatics of war. Moten is wrong. There is no way to be in but not of this place. Just as there is no way to be in but not of the police force, the military, congress, etc and it is only the Academic which grants itself a grace which it will not extend to any other occupation. We are here and we are not changing things from the inside. We are doing exactly what the University requires: adding theory to its museum of ideas which then become testaments to its unending legitimacy, which are then used as fodder to build the bombs and cops of the future. We are stuck in an almost inextractable mess.

KM:

There is a difference between being included in a concept and intentionally (or unintentionally) accepting that it includes us because the “us” is an abstract us. It is an “us” which refers to our structural position or our position in relation to structure. That is the issue with what you’re saying, for me, that you’re confusing the “we/us” in this moment with the structural “we.” So, in this moment, yes, we are both inside and outside, or maybe, we are fully inside in some cases, if that’s possible, but since the structural “we” is outside, this creates an ontological excess which draws “us” in this moment out toward an alignment with the structural or outside “us.” That excess, the irregularity between the structural “us” and the us in this moment / the impossibility of that alignment, is the place from which we feel uncomfortable with worldly/worlding concepts. It informs our compulsion toward unlearning / unworlding. It informs our affective orientation against. It is the very thing which produces our discomfort with the fact that in any given moment we are, as you’re saying, inside and outside the World (or any of the amalgamation of concepts within it). That’s why I was saying that what you’re saying right now exceeds the grammar of your point. This is why unworlding is a practice while the World exists, it can never be achieved because we are always in any given moment inside and outside but some of us are moving toward the outside and some of us are moving toward the inside. In other words, engulfment means we are always being pulled into the world. Some of us are welcoming that pulling because we belong in it. Some of us are oriented against that pulling because we are in excess to it. That doesn’t change the fact that we are being pulled and there are real effects to this pull (namely that we are always inside and outside). Inside is the effects of that pulling in any given moment. Outside is the way we don’t actually feel comfortable with those effects and pull back. One of the bottom traps is the universalizing of concepts themselves. This is why the conceptual economy is so important. So, in other words, the assumption that a concept is equivalent to the word attributed to that concept. For example, something you often point out is that some black theory, like Frank’s, insists that blackness is outside the concept of human, but if you ask most black people they will say they’re human. This is only really a contradiction if you reduce the concept human to the word human, or if you universalize that concept. In reality, many black people have a concept of human which is actually fundamentally different than the humanist concept of human, or Human. On the other hand, many black people have adopted the Human too. The unworlding process can be unlearning the Human toward another idea of human, toward a new language of abstraction. This is why, for me, Fanon’s / Said’s / Spillers’ concepts of human are really different than Sylvia Wynter’s. Hers is the only one of those that I really disagree with on principle because she universalizes the concept / reduces the concept to the word.

 

MT:

I disagree that what I’m saying exceeds the grammar of my point since the grammar of my point is attached to a grammar of White Being – English – which is the language of obliteration given to me by my murderer who defines the world such that the name I have “Black” is even theirs, “Gillespie” is even a name attached to a slave master. We are included into the concept of the University clearly. We are the embodiment of its concept of “Professor” or “Lecturer.” And these concepts are inherently wrapped up in an institution which does not produce its conceptual subject in excess of itself since the semantics of Professor is indistinguishable from the University such that one is not even a Professor unless one teaches in a University. When we are speaking about the University, we are not speaking about people being in excess to the University, we are speaking about people who’s entire livelihood is in debt to the University. I think if we want to talk about the University and the Museum, then we have to be honest about our relationship to it without acting like because we do “good” work we aren’t reifying an institution of death and it should not be mistaken that the University is anything but that: an institution of death. That is unless, we are willing to admit that there can be functionaries of a fundamentally death-bound enterprises that are engaging implosively from within (which we assume ourselves to be doing). Yet, if this is possible, we must be willing to extend this analytic beyond our own enterprise. Academics have a problem with self-reflection and self-critique. It’s why they’ve gone so long analyzing labor trends and critiquing the lack of class consciousness in “the people” while at the same time considering their own intellectual labor – “free time to think.” We have to be willing to admit that we are functionaries of a fundamentally death-bound enterprise that too makes us complicit in its functioning if we are going to move past fugitivity and notions of excess which make us feel valorized in the presence of an institution whose architecture is instituted through death and who provides the resource/fuel for the ongoing production of precise/accurate/data driven death-dealing. Which leads me to planning. Since a plan needs an honest analysis of the conditions one finds ONESELF in, such that one must be able to account for the performances one is taken up as well as the structure of enabling for that performance which is still very much the structure that one finds oneself against. “The value of performance resides in what it is capable of doing with or to the positions that are presumed to be performed. Hence, when faced with the imperative to change the world – defined here as the configuration of all positions – it seems central to focus on performance: since all positions are performed, the imperative to change these positions means finding ways to perform them subversively or otherwise; since positions entail their performance, performance appears as that which, when changed, could change these positions.”[1] I am fine with this possibility from within a positionality of death. But, if the performance can outdo or outweigh or hint-to an excess of the positionality then we have to be willing to say the same can be done for cops of differing sets of positionalities or be willing to explain how we are any different from the other cops in any way that doesn’t mean that we aren’t fundamentally doing the same things as cops (maintaining the symbolic and corporeal integrity of institutions of death and deathing-dealing). I, for one, am willing to believe – perhaps – that there may be room to theorize the blasphemous traitor cop or the US soldier that goes AWAL against the institution itself. But, the history of giving that breadth, space, possibility and theory is light and verges quickly on the lines drawn between cop sympathy and cop appreciation. But, as Wilderson says, we love cops a lot more than we think we do. Especially the ones that grade our papers.

 

MH:

Your argument is about academics and what academics are willing to admit and reconcile with. I have been trying to explain to you that my argument isn’t about that, at least because I already take that as a given and I actually don’t even see myself as an academic given that I don’t seek a career in the academy. I see myself as a person getting a PhD before I go do something else, anything, even teaching high school (which is my main career option right now lol). So whether or not I’m willing to reconcile with something as an academic doesn’t really apply to what I’m saying, nor does whether academics in general will because that’s not my concern. My concern is with structural positionality / inside and outside-ness / the concept of excess, for the sake of having a conversation with you. In other words, I don’t actually care if the academy exists or not as much as I care about you and thinking through the possibilities outside it together. That is the work of planning for me, which is why I keep insisting that what you’re saying is already a given for me. Now that I’ve drawn two circles with that being said I’m going to answer what you said point by point because I honestly think it falls into what I was saying before. It’s not that your grammar exceeds grammar. It’s that what you’re saying exceeds the grammar. English is the words you’re using, but my point is that the way you are oriented to those words, so that you would say English is “the language of obliteration”– that’s an indication of excess. Excess is not something you can find in language. It refers to your affective orientation to the things given to you, like language, which allows you to see them from a position of externality. It allows you to see them as not universal. You can only see them as not universal because they don’t include you conceptually. They put you outside so that you can see them from outside. In other words, it is only through a sort of excess that you can even really get that English is the language of obliteration. An example I think of is accents. Does your accent sound like an accent to you? Or, can you recognize someone that has your accent in another language? I’m guessing the answer would be no, because you live within the world of/by your accent even within English. But, your accent is immediately recognizable to other people because they exist outside the world of that accent. Now, we can take something like the world of an accent and then expand it out to the “World produced by the tools of reason.”[2] What allows you to know how the World sounds like, as if you’re recognizing someone else’s accent? You can only do this from a position external to it. That’s you in excess to the World. At least this is what I am learning from Kara Keeling[3]. Okay, so this applies to what you’re saying about English, or even the words which make up your name, because it is not in the words. It is in your orientation to those words, that you can say “Gillespie is given to me” is perhaps the best example of how blackness is in excess to the world, actually. Who else has a relationship to their own name that is external by the fact of their racial position? Now, let’s take this to the issue of inclusion in the University. This is what I meant about the “we” as structural position and “we” in our life circumstance. We are the embodiment of its concept of professor or lecturer yes, those are our jobs. But, we as our racial positions, we in abstraction (me and you), exceed those jobs. Just like you said in the office, no matter whether you’re a Professor or not the cop will still see you as black and at that moment if you remember Mars said that’s Kevork’s point though. So black as your structural position supersedes your job as a Professor or Lecturer. Now the university as a manifestation of/in the World, and specifically as the institution whose job it is to bring people into the World (to civilize them), will work to make you believe that you are included in it. But it will always retain a blackness which is not included in it. It will only include you to the extent that you can distance yourself from blackness. You know this hella well and that’s why you do so many things to try to fight against that. In other ways, though, you do sometimes feel like a part of this place as you’ve told me, and as we all do, and that seems like why you feel in these moments like you need to practice unworlding yourself from the university. And I’m sure in a month you’ll recognize other ways that your sense of belonging here has slipped in and you’ll try to address that. This is the always inside/outside that I hear you talking about. But that inside/outside pull is only possible because we are *structurally* outside of the university. The imperative is the constant practice of un/worlding specifically so that we can always keep engaging the World from a position outside of it (as much as possible, never fully realizable since as you are saying we are in the university in point of fact). The stakes of this are that the more inside we are will always be at the expense of our friends and family etc., who we necessarily have to distance ourselves from to be in. It’s with all this mind that we can see that the opposite is actually true of resistance – that resistance comes from a practice of un/worlding (aligning ourselves with that in us which is outside, moving away, whatever way we want to say it). By paying attention to this, we can begin to see the World for what it is and thus see what we need to do better, actually. For example, many Bernie liberals who see him as revolutionary cannot see outside of the state, so what they think is revolutionary is revolutionary within the concepts they have universalized. It is a practice of deuniversalizing all concepts, especially that of language (or words). That’s why that day with Jocelyn and you at my house I was insisting that we don’t need to change the World because that implies that we are fully within it and changing it is the only option. Instead, we need to pay attention to and nurture that part of us which is already outside of the World. In that space is an infinity of other Worlds. It is a space of freedom from the World and that is exactly why, as a carceral space, the World is trying to eliminate it by making us think that we are fully in the World. It is trying to eliminate the excess. The point of Da Silva for example is that it always needs that excess actually to recognize itself, so that task of elimination will always be a failure. We will always have that excess whether it’s structured in or not, and it’s just a matter of moving toward it as a practice in Being. excess is as simple as – what makes some of us feel the violence of the university while others find it to be a space of refuge? Well it presumes itself to be a space of refuge and does make itself a place of refuge for certain people – intellectual cops. So those of us who find it to be a space of refuge are inside the conceptual boundaries of the university. Those of us who feel its violence have something outside of it to be able to feel that. This is why, for me, Moten says that and why I was saying in Mar’s office that you are actually proving my point / Moten’s. He is saying what you’re saying, that we can’t deny that although the university is a settler factory, we can’t deny that we (brown and black people) also feel that it is a space of refuge. This is a fucking serious issue and one that we need to practice unlearning every moment while we are in it, because its job is to make us feel that way and to forget that it isn’t. That’s why, the way I read him, The Undercommons is a practice of fighting that feeling by building ourselves an alternative.[4] So, I circle back to my original statement I made to you, about why I am in this conversation with you. To me these conversations between you and I are The Undercommons. They provide us a space to revel and dance in our excess and to think against the university, which is something we can never do in the classroom.

 

MT:

“Oriented towards those words?” – What orients me towards these? And how is that orientation free of the ongoing reproductions of violence? “Affective orientation to the things given to you” – Makes it sound like one does not exist their affectivity in immanent relation to the structures of annihilation which produce them. Such that I am not saying things from an externality, but deeply within an internality that is resulting in psychic damage and traumatic impairment – daily, gratuitously, without end. “They put you outside so that you can see them from outside.” – No, they construct notions of outsiderness, relegate and restrict me to the outside while simultaneously producing violence to sustain the hyper-reality of an inside/outside distinction and the conceptual virtues and values that get structured from within that demarcation where an entire political spectrum of commonsense can be reflected through one’s “affective orientation” to being inside or outside a conceptual apparatus that is the structural imposition of a white hyper-reality materially mapped as real. “It’s only through excess that you can see that language is obliteration.” – No, because the “within” is not simply enclosure but also emergence. Meaning, one does not have to be in excess of the thing one was within in order to be able to operate differently within it. This is why I always talk about architecture. Because one does not happen to take up space within an architecture the same way as everyone else in order to still know oneself as within the architecture, and one does not destroy the architecture without destroying one’s claim to being a being of the architecture. “You can do this only from a position external to it.” – This is a statement that I take to be orthodoxy of “excess” scholars that I just believe is 100% false. You don’t need excess to think otherwise. It’s a dogma. The domination can be both total and still productive of resistance in thought, language and body. Otherwise, there will would be no reason to resist. We resist because we cannot breathe. We cannot breathe because of the architecture of domination which disables breath. To say that me saying, “Gillespie is given to me,” is a perfect way of saying I’m an excess to the World is to fundamentally misconstrue the nature upon which it was given to me such that one fundamentally misses the immanent violence embedded in its givenness. It is not external at all. It is the name I walk around with every single day. It’s the name I carry with me on documents and constitutions which are also internal impositions. That I’m Black always simply means that Blackness can be both a Professor and a Black which is not an excess of anything and is completely consistent with the operations of power down from the Black Cop to the Black President. “Excess is as simple as – what makes some of us feel the violence of the university while others find it to be a space of refuge?” – the fact that you think it’s as simple as “feeling the violence” while others “find refuge” is exactly why I feel we disagree. Just because we feel differently about the space we are in does not mean we are not in that space. In fact, it means that we are precisely in and of this space, with different affective relations to it, which … of course we do. There are slaves who love their Master. There are slaves who hate them. Both are still slaves. To me, these conversations are not the under commons, they are the nonrefundable debt that the University will never pay back to you nor I. These conversations are the exact kinds of conversations that extend the working day of thought – which is our job – into every granite of our existence such that the University extends its logic into every minutiae of our day. We are working right now Kevork. We are working, in the moment we decide to take what we are working out right now and write about it anywhere in the world, UCI will be there to say, “Hey, we enabled you remember? Your candidacy is ours. Your brilliance belongs to us. Your theoretical know-how starts here.” We must bring invention into existence. Invention is in-vention. Existence is here. We are building a rocketship to the Earth – which means to go nowhere, to stay with the trouble, to be in and of the trouble, to know we are slaves because to know we are slaves is to become clear about the need to be free of slavery, which is not to exceed a thing, but to bring a thing to something new within itself, to bring a thing to the recognition of an infinite fractality that exist in the immanent relation between things and their infinitely possible remaking and rewiring that starts in – not as subjective reworking, but as architectural transformation. To be determined to not be determined such that determination itself is undone.

[1] Daniel Colucciello Barber and I C I Berlin, “Nonrelation and Metarelation,” Serial Killing: A Philosophical Anthology, 2015, 2.

[2] Denise Ferreira Da Silva, Toward a Global Idea of Race, vol. 27 (U of Minnesota Press, 2007).

[3] Kara Keeling, The Witch’s Flight: The Cinematic, the Black Femme, and the Image of Common Sense (Duke University Press, 2007).

[4] Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, “The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study,” 2013.

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