Chris Chen: More Notes From The Museum of Tolerance

I want to thank my co-organizers, Stephanie and Cynthia, for helping to make this event happen.


“For there are crucial modes of social life,” George Lichtman writes, “in which the antagonism between what is actually required and what must be believed is so massive that only unconscious denial will make the process bearable.” Although the description is embedded within a long discursus on the phrase “ensemble of social relations,” it could easily describe my experience of lapsing back into a more readily available critical idiom of attacking the conceptual frame or form of the conference as a whole and of repudiating the politics of difference in particular. Such gestures are in no way equivalent to opening a space for what might not ordinarily appear in such a public setting. What was needed was perhaps a cloud chamber. Or some other measure, beyond the demand for theoretical reflexivity required to sustain epic critical polemics, to track the intensity of our collective engagement—which might include exasperation at the ritual fetish of “The Distinction,” a sussurating and indistinct field of signs, and a sarcophagus or chrysalis for the schizophrenic body.

Then perhaps it was a hopeful sign that the wish for “more actual aggression” to materialize, a wish that as organizers I think we both desired and dreaded, went unmet—or deflected into questioning absent rather than present authorities. Of course this would be only one particular form of, highly visible, contestation. Other forms might include withholding participation or consent in order to consolidate a total critique of the group, as parochial, hermetic, antiquated.

It’s terribly narcissistic, isn’t it, this special group convening a forum in which to interpret itself and its feelings? Either antagonism, and its cognates, or the enforcement of intimacy. Either the fact of unspoken criteria for authoritative judgments, the unspoken role of institutional affiliation and its imagined rewards, or the persistence of the politico-aesthetic problem of representation in theory. And yet—

And yet the continuing division of cultural and organizational labor. A crucial question that was raised by Erika Staiti's archiving of recent online discusssions, around gendered or racial participation, underscores the severe limitations of framing participation as merely a problem of “structure,” of the unequal distribution of cultural capital, or as John Guillory has argued, "exclusion...from access to the means of cultural production." For as the perennial reasoning goes, exclusion from such means can breed only envy, didacticism, guilt, Das Man, that most inclusive of all educational institutions, the "school of resentment." So it was a relief to hear Lisa Robertson point out how “identity” remains present discursively even or especially in the absence of a more recognizable system of marks. Which I took to mean, in an age of conservative backlash, it’s helpful to observe what gets bracketed as “content,” and when. Either Walcott or Naipaul. “I am a man”—inductively.

There may be no such thing as “aggression” without its specific socially constituted object, target, or aim. And no basic grammar of group formation. And yet I want to register how difficult or threatening it seems for a group premised on resistance to dominant modes of representation, to suggest that any tool used externally, let us say “aggression” here, will also be used internally in order to discipline a group’s own members. An attack on “linking,” as W.R. Bion asserts, is also an attack on the possibility of collective thinking. To question how this tool operates across fairly rigid social boundaries may indicate its strengths, but also many of its fundamental weaknesses.

No comments: