This Is A Cold War, Society Must Be Defended: Janelle Monae as Reader of Foucault

Yesterday, I was prepping both a talk on Janelle Monae, and a class on Foucault’s Society Must Be Defended, when I realized that Monae’s “Cold War” single is more or less a condensed, poetic version of Foucaut’s concept of politics as (race) “war.”

Briefly, Foucault’s concept of “war” is situated in a critique of (neo)liberalism. Liberalism asserts that it is the best of all possible political worlds: so long as liberal democracy continues to function properly, everyone will be free and equal. Foucault, on the other hand, argues that liberalism’s Panglossian view of the status quo (that we are all free and equal, that this is indeed the best of all possible political worlds) covers over and normalizes a set of structural inequalities. These structural inequalities—the privileging of whiteness, masculinity, heterosexuality, etc.—are not unfortunate misapplications of liberalism, but constitutive of it. Thus, in liberalism, “the role of political power is perpetually to use a sort of silent war to reinscribe that relationship of force, and to reinscribe it in institutions, economic inequalities, language, and even the bodies of individuals…politics, in other words, sanctions and reproduces the disequilibrium of forces manifested in war” (Foucault SMBD, 16; emphasis mine). This “silent war” maintains “disequilibriums” by normalizing state violence. That is to say, it seems perfectly legal and just to disproportionately incarcerate black men, or to criminalize, incarcerate, and deport undocumented immigrants, or to refuse reproductive, sexual, and bodily autonomy to women, or to subject transpeople to increased personal and sexualized violence by creating medical, state, and prison systems unable to accommodate their gender. Those are just some examples. The point is that warlike violence doesn’t seem warlike, at least to privileged groups. To these privileged groups, it doesn’t at all seem like we’re at war. It’s like, you know, the Cold War. Thus, Foucault argues, “peace itself is a coded war” (SMBD, 51). In Society Must Be Defended, racism—especially the biopolitical racism of the industrial/postindustrial neoliberal state—is Foucault’s privileged example of this “cold war.” For example, it is OK to execute innocent black inmates, or Iraqi civilians, or whomever else is the target of state violence, because they are perceived to be a threat to “American life”—not so much the “American” way of life, but the biological existence of the US population.

This thesis, that racism in the post-Civil Rights era is primarily “coded,” is the main theme in the lyrical content of Janel Monae’s recent single “Cold War.” The verses speak of hegemony and normativity: “When you step outside/you spend life fighting for your sanity.” Monae’s perceived insanity comes from the fact that “I was made to believe there’s something wrong with me,” or, in the words of W. E. B. Du Bois, that she’s “a problem.” In a regime of hegemonic white patriarchy, Monae, a black woman, is abnormal; as such, she’s a target for state violence. Moreover, she experiences cognitive dissonance when trying to square her targeting with liberalism’s claim that we’re all equal. The only way she can make sense of this cognitive dissonance is to place herself in the midst of a Cold War—a war in everything but name.

Here’s the track: