lecture, “Debt to Society: Accounting for Life under Capitalism,” Miranda Joseph disputed with the celebratory revival and appropriation of Bartleby; seeking a subject that was more “neither/nor” (neither capitalism nor revolution), a subject that is theorized following the terms of Lauren Berlant’s “cruel optimism,” Jospeh opposed Bartleby’s negative preference with Berlant’s idea of negative attachment. In Cruel Optimism, Berlant also references Bartleby:
Cruel optimism is in this sense a concept pointing toward a mode of lived immanence, one that grows from a perception about the reasons people are not Bartleby, do not prefer to interfere with varieties of immiseration, but choose to ride the wave of the system of attachment that they are used to, to syncopate with it, or to be held in a relation of reciprocity, reconciliation, or resignation that does not mean defeat by it. (28)
I also think there is much to be critical of in the elevation of Bartleby as a figure of political resistance, and yet I think that the figure of Bartleby raises more questions than it answers about political subjectivity. To begin with, then, the primary question raised by Bartleby is the question of what it means to prefer. The story of Bartleby never resolves the ambivalence about preference that some would read into it; rather, it sets in motion the problem of preference as a political gesture.
In my reading, this problem is also explored in Hannah Arendt’s theory of proairesis, which precedes or informs the distinction between the social and political. I’ve described all of this elsewhere, highlighting preference not as a form of activity, but as a problem for activity. Rather than seeing how Arendt problematically divides these “realms,” I was focusing on how preference not only exposes assumptions about ideas of (political, revolutionary) activity, but poses the question about how these models are formed in the first place. The question of preference does so because, as Arendt spells out, it is an issue of proairesis, literally of pro-airesis, of a choice before choice. It thus occurs at the intersection of one’s political activity and one’s social status, at the intersection of one’s capacity to produce one’s identity or attitude or to be produced (structurally, logically, institutionally) as an identity. Tracing out the consequences of some of Arendt’s observations, I have described how that faculty, that capacity, is worthy of being seen in its own right, not merely as an extension of the idea that in spectating or observing (or in judging) we are already taking action, as Jacques Ranciere formulates, for example, in The Emancipated Spectator.
An important part of this conceptualization resides in Arendt’s formulation of preference in “Reflections on Little Rock” as something has the capacity to intervene in the social realm. This is an understanding of preference as pre-political that I think is important to rethinking reified notions of political action that are understood as revolutionary. But an aspect that I did not initially explore is the fact that this presentation of preference in “Reflections on Little Rock” emerges in the context of the issue of school segregation and interracial marriage. And here, Arendt’s insistence on identifying school segregation/integration and miscegenation as things belonging to the social realm rather than the political is clearly in error.
In her book Hannah Arendt and the Negro Question (Indiana UP 2014), Kathryn T. Gines argues that Arendt’s distinction represents a severe limitation in Arendt’s thinking about the Negro question (which also rests on her understanding of anti-Black discrimination as a “Negro problem” rather than a “white problem”) and that this has consequences for her ideas about representative thinking and judgment. Gines argues that these shortcomings can be seen in light of her presentation of the Jewish question and the ways that this question is extended, although not explicitly connected to the Negro question.
Seen from this perspective, it’s hard to read Arendt’s essay, along with her other discussions of the problem of race in America, as something other than emissions of a form of white privilege that is little different from white racists of the time, as Gines points to. To consider the concept of preference from this perspective, however, allows for a consideration not so much of how racism emerges through preference, as Arendt is arguing it should (and should freely be allowed to), all the while, of course, not being able to see the contradictions and discriminations (those private, interested things) that she was applying to the political (the realm that she believes should be disinterested, a reading that Gines also thoroughly exposes the contradiction of in terms of her response to James Baldwin, refuting “love” as a political emotion (extension of this in recent debunkings of dwyl (do what you love)).
Rather, the conjunction of preference (via Arendt’s explicit and implicit formulations of preference as something that has the capacity to intervene in the realm of the necessary) and race allows us to turn the way that the “white problem” rewrites as “choice” things that are always mediated by necessity, always mediated not only by the economic necessity or social, but by the way that these political, institutional, and structural conditions get coded or written as bodily necessity. In describing this process, I am following Denise Ferreria da Silva’s formulation of the way that the racial already marks a place for the rewriting of the body via cultural difference. Although it’s difficult with Arendt, and one wants to be very clear about her problematic assumptions and ideas, I do think that she, like Bartleby, provides not so much a model in which these issues are resolved as the kind of nexus in which they can be perceived.
What becomes interesting about this to me is the way that “choice” remains very much at the center, conceptually and otherwise, of the problem, contemporarily phrased, of the “post-racial” or of “racism with race” and also in the critical elaborations of this paradigm. I’m thinking, as I loop back around to where I began, of the way that this emerged in Miranda Joseph’s lecture. Although gesturing to some of the ways that the financial crises of 2008 and 2009 disproportionately affected people of color and also gesturing critically to the discourse of fiscal “responsibility” that drives the terms of debt under capitalism, Joseph’s terms for understanding the problem of debt remain the problem of an “entrepreneurial” subject, a subject, who, as Arendt figures the black parent in “Reflections,” is “involved in an affair of social climbing” (194). Arendt’s whole point—that “free choice” be upheld—is discredited by the fact that segregation is not the same as forcing parents “to send their children to an integrated school against their will” (212). But her point remains important, abstractly, because it is this same version of “free choice” that remains powerfully imbedded in liberal desire.
Joseph highlighted this dynamic at the end of her talk when she identified the way that the desire for quality education and safety fuels middle-class decisions about home-ownership, namely by buying one’s distance from racialized poverty. What I thought was interesting about this conceptualization was that Joseph returned to Berlant’s problem of attachment as a way of talking about this very complex dynamic, in which the desires of white parents about the choice of associations can be seen not to produce race (as Joseph described) but to deploy produce a subject for whom raciality is something substantive, something essential.
My question, which has to do with how this complex dynamic could be understood, was recognized as a question about what constitutes this desire for distance from racialized poverty, and Joseph described (in terms that would also befit the parvenu) how African Americans that were showcased on Oprah’s “Debt Diet” were shown to also have the same desire, that is, the desire to distance themselves from their race, from racialized poverty. What is remarkable about this response is that the terms of “free choice” remain embedded even as the ideology of personal responsibility is brought into question. And it’s interesting that free choice emerges here, where race is identified by recourse to a projective structure (here, the Berlantian attachment to an object that inhibits one’s aims, that is produced as “other” and thus as “bad” or “cruel”) that seems capacious enough to include the “problem” of race as one of its possible “objects.” In this sense, Joseph’s slogan, to “seize the means of temporal production,” is even more explicit in its erasure of the inhering relationship between temporal production (the production of the entrepreneurial subject, for whom “choice” is a real possibility) and the production of others in space as racialized subjects.
picture: Francisca Sutil, Mute 14 (2009/10)