Contortions & Disorientation–On not being comfortable
The philosophy blogosphere is currently debating the politics of tone and “civility.” Many, many, MANY philosophers can’t seem to understand why anyone should ever be made to feel uncomfortable in a conversation with someone else. Basically, the idea they’re resisting (or missing entirely) is that systems of privilege like patriarchy and white supremacy organize the world so that white/male/tenured people never ever have to feel discomfort, and that non-whites/women/contingent people get all that discomfort funneled to them. If hegemonic institutions are designed to support your comfort, then justice requires your discomfort. IF philosophy is ever going to be a space in which the concerns, voices, and experiences of non-whites, non-men, the non-tenured—i.e., what Kristie Dotson calls “diverse practitioners”—are not just included but centered, then senior white male (or, hey, me, a senior white female) philosophers are going to have to feel pretty uncomfortable and disoriented. And that’s OK. We need to learn to deal with that.
On that topic, I’ve written a chapter in George Yancy’s forthcoming book How Does It Feel to Be A White Problem? You can read it in full here. But, I’ve reproduced the last part of the paper here. This is where I move away from the comparison of Devo and James Chance (as offering 2 different kinds of white disorientation) to the philosophical discussion of white disorientation.
4. White Contortions and the Politics of Disorientation
a. Orientation as theory of socio-political inequality
Sara Ahmed treats power, hegemony, and privilege as “orientations.” Orientations are the background conditions that give form to our perceptions: they’re the “lenses” that allow some things to come into focus (at the expense of others), or the program behind the interface, making some things easy to do and others nearly impossible. In each cultural or subcultural context, there are systems of practices, conventions, and habits that allow us (especially our bodies) to “fee[l] at home” and “fin[d] our way.”[i]We are oriented when we can unreflectively navigate a situation. So, when you don’t have to think about riding a bike, but just hop on and pedal, or when you don’t have to think about comporting yourself in a gender-appropriate way, that’s being orientated.
Ahmed argues that whiteness is a form of orientation: it’s one of the programs through which we interface with the world and with others. “The world of whiteness,” she argues, is “the familiar world…a world we know implicitly.”[ii]Because “colonialism makes the world ‘white’”[iii], this “we” includes more than just white/Western subjects—everyone has to be familiar with whiteness. Whiteness directs global flows of resources, labor, etc. If whiteness orients the world, those with legibly white bodies and comportments will have an easier time navigating this world that people with insufficiently white bodies and comportments. White supremacy means that disorientation disproportionately affects non-whites—they don’t get the “invisible knapsack” with the map, compass, etc.[iv]In fact, when non-whites feel like their very existence is a “problem” (as Du Bois famously put it), these feelings of dis-orientation are further evidence that the world is oriented by white supremacy. In such a context, disorientation is an impediment for non-whites. As my discussion of Devo shows, in a generally white-oriented world, disorientation is not necessarily an impediment for whites—it can be an excuse to focus more resources and attention on white people. In the next section, I use Ahmed’s work on the politics of disorientation to clarify what is potentially critical and counter-hegemonic in the type of white racial disorientation I locate in Chance’s work.
b. A Politics of Disorientation
If white hegemony is a type of orientation, then how can disorientation be the corresponding anti-racist strategy for white people? The disorientation non-whites experience vis-à-vis white supremacy is qualitatively, phenomenologically, and politically distinct from critical anti-racist white disorientation. Non-whites are already dis- or mis-oriented by whiteness, and non-whites often hyberbolize their disorientation to build alternative communities and counternarratives within white supremacy (e.g., in Afrofuturism). According to Ahmed, white supremacy disorients blacks in two ways. First, it reduces them to objects. If “racism ‘stops’ black bodies,”[v]disorientation takes the form of blocked orientation. This blocking is the effect of a very specific cause: blacks are not granted full subject status as moral/political persons, citizens, etc. “Reduced as they are to things among things,”[vi]blacks can participate in white-oriented worlds, but only as objects. Second, white supremacy negatively mediates blacks’ process of critical self-reflection. As both Du Bois’s and Fanon’s discussions of multiple consciousness reveal, “racism ensures that the black gaze returns to the black body, which is not a loving return but rather follows the line of the hostile white gaze.”[vii]So, when blacks take their own bodies as the objects of critical self-reflection, their self-regard is mediated by normatively white ideals of subjectivity, gender, beauty, humanity, citizenship, etc. They see themselves through the eyes of another, in third person (as a “he” or “she,” not an “I” or “me”).
When anti-racist whites subject themselves to critical self-reflection, they may be disgusted or ashamed at their implicit and explicit racism, but this gaze is not necessarily hostile, as in the case with non-whites. This gaze does not require whites to adopt a form of subjectivity that necessarily denies their status as a (potential) subject. Whites may be taking their own bodies as the object of their critical reflection, but they are not necessarily reducing themselves to things, at least insofar as they are white.[viii]White supremacy shapes the world in a way that allows whites to be bothsubjects and objects: even when they objectify themselves, they are never just objects. If there’s any hostility in this critical self-reflection, it comes from anger and disappointment in one’s self: it is an emotional and affective relation of the individual to hirself; it is not, as in the case of anti-black racism, a structural hostility resulting from systematic oppression. Moreover, critical self-reflection is different than social and political change. Whites can problematize their own personal attributes and beliefs while simultaneously participating in white-oriented institutions, social structures, etc. So, whites can feel bad (guilt, shame, etc.) without thereby “diminish[ing] their capacities for action.”[ix] As I have argued extensively in my writing on hipness, whites often use dis-identification with whiteness as a source of aesthetic and social capital.[x]Further, Ahmed argues that the disorientation can be the source of feelings and actions that are politically critical or politically reactionary.[xi]So, for example, working class whites are feeling increasingly disoriented by structural changes in the economy, by the increased prominence of Spanish-language media, etc., and this disorientation leads to retrenchment (e.g., in the TEA party).
The white disorientation I’m interested in is a question of aesthetic, corporeal (dis)pleasure, the intersection among musical noise, epistemic noise, and bodily “noise.” White privilege, a white-oriented world, means that whites don’t have to live with much, if any, such noise. As Monique Roelofs has argued, one manifestation of privilege is the “racialized aesthetic nationalism that expects to be able to organize the environment in accordance with its own taste and preferences.”[xii]White privilege means white people get to live in worlds they like and which make sense to them—they get to lead noiseless lives. However, in worlds less centrally organized by whiteness, white people won’t necessarily feel as easily orientated; they’ll run up against more noise. So, if privilege includes aesthetic orientation, white aesthetic disorientation can be both (a) one avenue by which to make inroads in white privilege, and (b) evidence of whiteness’ diminished capacity to orient the/a world. With respect to (b), disorientation can follow from the critical awareness of one’s privileges as white. White hegemony hinges on the invisibility of whiteness and white self-deception: whites believe themselves and the world to be non-racist. Insofar as whites are encouraged to be ignorant of white hegemony, white disorientation can occur when anti-racist whites realize that things they previously thought were not oriented by whiteness are in fact saturated with it.
With respect to (a), disorienting, epistemically noisy music can be one way to acclimate whites to the disorientation they will experience in worlds less centrally orientated by white supremacy. Chance’s music forces whites to consider the conditions of our aesthetic preferences, and thus complicates the pleasure we take in music. It makes whites explicitly aware of the biases implicit in their musical tastes and affective, bodily responses to music. By “disturbing the very technologies through which we make sense”[xiii]of music, like love-and-theft style cultural appropriation, Chance “converts good feelings into bad.”[xiv]It’s important that a white man is behind this conversion from good to bad feelings, because, as Ahmed argues, “it is the agency of the white man that converts unhappy racism to multicultural happiness.”[xv] Or, it’s the agency of white audiences that converts cultural theft into supposed admiration, that mistakes abuse for love. Chance’s work prevents this conversion. And if this conversion is something whites are responsible for, whites will need to learn to stop doing it, to stop obscuring the harms of racism, if these harms are ever going to be lessened.
Individual whites’ subjective experience of racial disorientation can often be compatible, if not actively complicit, with the general orientation of the world around whiteness. In order for white aesthetic and corporeal disorientation to affect this world orientation, white disorientation has to go beyond individual affective and emotional experience, and attack the structures that organize and orient collective phenomena. Chance’s music, because it addresses the love-and-theft discourse in white pop music, does target its attack beyond individual experience; it aims at the underlying discourses of aesthetic pleasure.
There are better and worse ways for white people to problematize their bodies. Some ways, like the love-and-theft solution, or Devo’s approach, reaffirm white hegemony. Other ways, like the one I develop in my analysis of Chance and Ahmed, can erode it (though not necessarily so). While whites often use their awareness of their racism to prove their elite status among whites, Chance’s music provides us a resource for thinking about a critical, anti-racist white disorientation. His work can express what it might feel like to know that your whiteness is a problem for you because it is a problem for non-white people. It familiarizes us with the experiential, affective, and even emotional crises that are a necessary first step in addressing one’s complicity in (often implicitly) racist projects.
These awkward and disorienting musical techniques are, to me and to many other fans, the source of aesthetic pleasure in music; in dancing to this music, it can be a source of bodily pleasure, even specifically white bodily pleasure. But if, as whites groomed by a white supremacist culture, our aesthetic taste, our possibilities for pleasure in art, for pleasure in our dancing bodies, are grounded in racist norms and practices, do we white people (and I say “we” because I’m white) have to give up pleasure tout court? Or can we experience complicated and conflicted pleasures? We have models of complicated and conflicted pleasures from aesthetics—for example, Kant’s sublime is a pleasure in the overcoming of a threat.[xvi]In Kant, the pleasure derives not from the threatening object, but from our success in conquering it. So the pleasure itself isn’t complex and contradictory, even though the aesthetic experience as a whole is. Chance’s work can be a model of pleasure that doesn’t overcome threats to our satisfaction because it tolerates and even welcomes problematization. This pleasure is indirect several ways: not only is it combined with some degree of displeasure (in the form of disorientation, awkwardness, or discomfort), but, more importantly, (1) it is mediated by knowledge of one’s whiteness, and (2) the progressive versions are mediated by an awareness of one’s political complicity in racism and white privilege.
I personally find these styles of musical irregularity and distortion really pleasurable: I, a white girl from the Midwest, like this music. I find it pleasurable not only because I hear anti-racist and often feminist and queer politics in it, but primarily because I like the way it sounds. I like its awkwardness, its herky-jerky, jaggedy, irregular, contorted aesthetic. Maybe it reflects my own dis-orientation, the epistemic and affective noise I feel in my complex inhabitance of whiteness and contradictory relationship to white hegemony. If being white means participating in and benefiting from white privilege, then I am, in some ways, condemned to be and do things that disgust me. On the other, less flattering hand, I may appreciate, at some level, privileges that I intellectually know are immoral and unjust. But, it’s also possible that I aesthetically approve and identify with music that I find politically disgusting and whose politics I cannot identify with. Further, I may enjoy this music because I approve of and identify with its politics, even if these politics complicate and problematize my aesthetic tastes.
Whites need to learn that we can’t have it both ways. This aesthetic and corporeal disorientation may be one way to acclimate us to the kinds of disorientation from which privilege otherwise insulates us.