Contort Yourself: A follow-up to Shannon Sullivan’s SPEP paper on experiencing white identity as a “joyful passion”

SPEP (Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy) was last weekend, and Shannon Sullivan gave a paper on Nietzsche, Spinoza, and white identity. The paper was bold and provocative (and evidence why people need tenure), and the discussion was heated and productive…so, you know, everything a great conference paper should be. (I guess I should also admit that Shannon was my Intro to Philosophy teacher back when she was at Miami.) Leigh Jonhson’s comments posed some very important and insightful questions to and reworkings of Shannon’s initial remarks. That said, I’ve been thinking more about this paper—which I will summarize more thoroughly below—and I think there’s an important way that musicians help us identify and think through one specific problem with Shannon’s paper…which happened to be one of the main problems that the comments and questions, both from Leigh and from the audience, addressed. I’m interested in this problem for several reasons: as a reader of Nietzsche, as someone interested in race and race theory, and, most importantly, in someone who wants to argue for the philosophical value of popular music. Below, I’ll show how James Chance’s iconic No Wave piece “Contort Yourself” addresses precisely the philosophical problem raised in/by the discussion of Shannon’s paper.

SO, Shannon reads Spinoza and Nietzsche, and locates within them a notion of what she calls “joyful passions.” I’m gonna stick to Nietzsche here, because I’ve published on him, and I’ve barely read any Spinoza. Based on the quotes in Shannon’s paper, she seemed to be reading mainly Nietzsche’s Gay Science and Genealogy of Morals….which makes sense, given the focus on “joyful passions.” Briefly (and I hope this summary does justice to Shannon’s paper; if not, please let me know and I’ll happily amend it), Shannon argues that anti-racist whites tend to hold feelings of shame and guilt as the most appropriate affective responses to white privilege and racism. These “negative” passions are much like the “bad conscience,” ressentiment, or “reactive” attitude Nietzsche critiques in both these texts. This makes sense: “good white liberals” want to respond “morally” to racism. The problem, from a Nietzschean perspective, is that European morality can only provide solutions that de-value lived experience, embodiment, health, human flourishing, and, importantly, femininity and “Southern” values (for more on that last point, may I suggest Chapter 5 of my recent book?). That is to say, shame and guilt are, to use Deleuze’s term, “reactive” responses to white racism/privilege: they are melancholic responses that refuse to let go of or “get over”—or, as Nietzsche would say, “digest”—the fact of one’s implication in racist and normatively white institutions. Now, Nietzsche fully admits that “reactive” attitudes have had their place, and are not entirely harmful; they brought us modern science and philosophy, after all. Problems happen when reactive attitudes are the only positions and perspectives one adopts. According to Nietzsche, active, affirmative attitudes are preferable to reactive, negative ones. One should have a “joyful wisdom” (froeliche Wissenschaft, or Gay Science). To be “joyful” means to affirm (or, in modern parlance, “own”) even the most painful, regretful, shameful moments of one’s life. Nietzsche’s notion of the eternal return is key here. Nietzsche proposes it as a sort of maxim for the practice of “joyful” wisdom: act in a way that if you had to re-live each moment of your life over and over to infinity, would always choose/affirm your experiences (rather than regret them, disavow them, feel shame or guilt for them, etc.). For Nietzsche, it’s not that we have to like or feel pleasure in the experiences we affirm; it is entirely possible to affirm a negative or ambivalent experience (e.g., one might think: “Dating that one person in college might not have been the best idea, but I learned and grew from it, so, in the end, it’s for the best. I’m not ashamed of it, it’s part of me, and shaped me into the person I am today. If I had the choice, I would do it again.”). According to Nietzsche, to be “joyful” is to affirm the eternal return, to own up to (which is the first step in taking responsibility for) one’s past, present, and future. Importantly, this Nietzschean “joy” is not pride. I’m not particularly proud of owning all those New Kids on the Block posters back in the 1990s, but, you know, it was something that located me in a specific cultural moment and made me, me. The important thing for Nietzsche is that we affirm even those things that we’re otherwise sort of ambivalent about, like my NKOTB fandom, my relationship history, or, to be a bit more serious, my implication in systems of normative whiteness, masculinity, heteronormativity, and able-bodied-ness. As many have noted, shame and guilt are blocking emotions: they more often encourage helplessness and resignation than inspire action. Affirming my implication in these systems of privilege is a necessary step in moving beyond feeling bad about it to taking responsibility for it. Shame implies one should have known better, but didn’t. Guilt implies one is always-already faulty no matter what one does. Affirmation—or, to use Shannon’s word, “joy”—implies that I own my experiences, and can and ought to take some responsibility for them (this is more or less the first step in every 12-step program).

I think many of the problems addressed in the comments could be resolved by the more nuanced reading of “joy” that I’ve just offered above. I agree with the commenters that we don’t really what white people feeling joy qua happiness or pride in their white identity. I also agree with Shannon that white guilt and shame are also undesirable. However, if we reconceive of “joy” not as the opposite of sadness but as a synonym for affirming the eternal return, a more desirable, intermediate position emerges.

Shannon’s paper tended to frame “joy” and “shame/guilt” as the only two types of passions possible, and most of the comments continued in this vein. One was either happy or sad. This is a false dichotomy. There are intermediate passions between joy and shame/guilt. Here, I want to think about awkwardness. To be awkward is to be somewhat disoriented, to lack a degree of fluency, control, and command. If whiteness is an orienting and centering discourse that makes white bodies and white subjectivities feel fluent, competent, and coherent in white-dominant contexts (Leigh suggested something along these lines in her comments), then awkwardness is one consequence of the de-centering of whiteness. Anti-racist whites should be invested in the de-centering of whiteness (i.e., working against the normative force of whiteness). In so doing, these anti-racist whites will be making a world in which they will feel increasingly awkward. If hegemonic whiteness as such orients white identity (it also orients non-white identities too, but, as Fanon clearly shows, it orients them as always-already awkward, not, as in the case of whites, as fluent and competent), then whites will feel dis-oriented in contexts where whiteness is less than hegemonic. The Nietzschean point here is that whites should affirm this awkwardness as such: “Yes, I feel incompetent and clumsy, but I chose this situation, and value it as evidence of whiteness’s decreasingly hegemonic status.” “Good liberal whites” and white supremacists would not affirm such awkwardness; rather, they would likely feel shame and indignance, respectively. I want to argue that the attitude that is both the most saliently anti-racist and solidly Nietzschean is affirmation of awkwardness; this attitude is an intermediary between both “sad” and “joyful” passions as presented in Shannon’s paper and taken up in the discussion of it.

It is precisely this affirmation of awkwardness that we see in No Wave. No Wave was a post-punk noise genre that emerged in New York’s “Downtown” art scene in the late 1970s/early 1980s. No Wave follows from Gang of Four’s, the Au Pairs, and A Certain Ratio’s punk funk, and is characterized by songs that are herky-jerky, jagged, sloppy, and, well, awkward. It’s dance music that is a sonic script for white people’s stereotypical awkwardness on the dance floor. No Wave artists often spoke directly to/about issues of race, and, notably, to their own whiteness. After the breakup of the Contortions, James Chance led a band called “James White and the Blacks” (the name of course being both a send-up of James Brown and the JBs, and a commentary on the racial politics of American popular music). With this band, Chance wrote a song called “Almost Black pt. 1,” whose lyrics sarcastically comment on the tendency for white male rock stars to appropriate stereotypical black masculinity (see my article in Contemporary Aesthetics for more on this track and its racial politics). So, it’s fair to say that Chance was acutely aware of and interested in examining whiteness and white identity.

Chance’s No Wave aesthetic affirms awkwardness. Given my argument in the preceding paragraph, we can say that he’s affirming the awkwardness of a de-centered whiteness. Chance knows he’s white; his whiteness is not invisible to him. The very act of naming whiteness as such can de-center it. Insofar as whiteness’s hegemonic (and thus centering and orienting) force is grounded in its invisibility, mere awareness of one’s whiteness can have dis-orienting affects. We hear this disorientation in Chance’s appropriation of African-American musical styles such as jazz, disco, and rock. He stumbles, mumbles, and squeaks all through his cover of Michael Jackson’s Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough. Unlike most white musicians, who seamlessly appropriate black music and take pleasure in this racist/colonial project, Chance crafts tracks that prevent us from taking a direct, immediate pleasure in them, and in their appropriations of blackness. Chance’s tracks are, well, awkward. And he affirms this awkwardness. He does this most obviously in 1979’s “Contort Yourself”:

The lyrics make it clear that Chance is affirming the awkwardness that is specifically the consequence of de-centering hegemonic norms. Contortion is the effect of un-learning received wisdom, or, as chance puts it, to contort oneself is to “Try being stupid/instead of smart/Once you take out the garbage that’s in your brain.” It is clear that contortion is awkward, i.e., an intermediary between positive and negative affect: “It’s better than pleasure/it hurts more than pain.” Most importantly, this awkwardness is performatively re-affirmed at least five times in the break, where Chance sings: “Contort Yourself One Time!/Contort Yourself Two Times!/Contort Yourself Three Times!/Contort Yourself Four Times!/Contort Yourself Five Times!/AAAAAAAAAAAA.” This repeated command to “contort yourself” can be read as a Nietzschean affirmation: Chance would contort himself over and over again.

So, “Contort Yourself” presents us with a clear thesis on how anti-racist white people should affectively “feel” about their whiteness. To disavow one’s white privilege in a white supremacist state is to, well, contort oneself. White people committed to the de-centering of whiteness will constantly contort themselves while taking out all the hegemonic garbage that’s in our brains. And we should do it over and over and over again. We should affirm our awkwardness.

I will say, though, that I take no small pleasure in pointing out how a 30-year old pop song helps us think through some pressing philosophical problems better than, well, philosophy “proper” does. Real, rigorous philosophy happens in pop music; we philosophers just have to unlearn all our discipline’s prejudices about “real philosophy” and “try being stupid instead of smart.” Then maybe we can learn something.