UVA Music Colloquium Talk November 2014

This Friday November 21 at 3:30pm in Cabell Hall at the University of Virginia, I’ll be giving a talk in their music colloquium series. It’s an expanded (and to be honest much more clear) version of my AMS talk from a few weeks ago. Here is the full talk. I’ve posted the concluding section below, just to give you a taste for how awesome this talk will be.


New Materialism & the Politics of Exception


“Feminist” new materialism cannot be a feminist, anti-racist project in the West’s current socioeconomic context. Given the current configuration of MRWaSP capitalism, new materialist ontologies fall too easily, efficiently, and productively in synch with hegemonic institutions and systems of domination. Much like classical and/or Rawlsian liberalisms, new materialism works just fine in “in theory,” that is, in ideal circumstances, ones not already structured by centuries of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. However, in our manifestly non-ideal situation, if and when new materialism is theorized “ideally” in Mills’s sense of ideal-as-idealized model, then it will only reproduce and augment the material infrastructures of MRWaSP capitalism. And that’s the problem with Grosz and Bennett’s work: their theories are ideals-as-idealized-models–they consider how, when all else is equal, things ought to work. They do not consider how, when nothing is equal, things actually do work. Obscuring the effects of their application, these theories then reproduce the structures of domination they claim to remedy.

New materialism is particularly well-suited to (re)produce MRWaSP’s distinct logic of oppression, which I call the politics of exception. One of the main ways modernist white supremacist patriarchy upgrades itself to MRWaSP is by supplementing constitutive exclusion with a politics of exception. Constitutive exclusion coheres a body or group through the elimination of (abjection in the strict Kristevan sense if you wanna be technical)  whatever makes that body incoherent or inconsistent. It is a politics of purity: exclude whatever contaminates. For example, liberalism classically excludes women and minorities from the public/citizenship because including them would show that not all “men” are equal under the eyes of the law. In contrast, the politics of exception formally includes everyone–everyone has the technical/juridical right and/or opportunity to be a full participant–but material conditions ensure that some groups are consistently unable to meet the requirements for inclusion. For example, in North Carolina everyone over 18 can vote, and legally everyone over 18 has access to a state-issued picture ID, which state law requires every voter to show at the polling place…but due to material circumstances, not everyone actually has access to that ID, so technically not everyone has access to their ‘right’ to vote. Getting a state ID requires some mobility and flexibility: transportation to the DMV or other state office, time off work during business hours, some discretionary income, etc. Thus, those immobilized by material circumstances (by lack of adequate transportation, by strict work schedules, by tight budgets) cannot contribute to or have an effect on this particular intra-active assemblage. Because the things that would “vibrate” have been damped, they have, in effect, no voice. They are included within the social, political, and economic body as silent, inert, inanimate, and socially dead.

The politics of exception rejects purity in favor of constituting a healthy or maximally functional mix. As Lester Spence argues, the politics of exception break the mix down into three types of solute: (1) those who already exhibit the behaviors required for membership; (2) those who are included as in need of reform, or those who do not currently but can potentially exhibit the behaviors required for membership; and (3) those incapable of exhibiting the behaviors required for membership, those who are incapable of reform. Group 3 is the “exceptional” group. This group is seen as pathological–their pathology is why they fail to meet behavioral standards, and it is also why they must be subject to more strict and intense regulation–both “for their own good” and to protect their pathology from infecting and/or negatively impacting the broader population. Building on and synching up with historical relations of oppression (e.g., white supremacist anti-blackness), such regulation generally produces the very immobility it claims to quarantine. It’s visciously circular feedback loop.

Explicitly rejecting hierarchy in favor of a healthful, vibrant, responsive ecology, Bennett’s writing performs this shift from exclusion to exception. First, she repeatedly emphasizes the hybridity of matter: “Vital materiality better captures an ‘alien’ quality of our own flesh…My ‘own’ body is material, and yet this vital materiality is not fully or exclusively human. My flesh is populated and constituted by different swarms of foreigners” (112). But some swarms are more vital than others. “The irresistible wildness of a lively woodchuck” is invigorating, but “the repellent uncleanliness (in the sense of dirty, slimy, gooey) of its corpse” (46) dampens vibrations with its viscosity. Second, in her reading of Thoreau, she argues that we ought to privilege healthy mixes over pathological ones. He “strives to confederate with a set of bodies…that render his own body finer, leaner, and more discerning–better able to sense the force of things” (47). Thoreau chooses to associate himself only with the bodies that maximize his health. Vibes that can’t be modulated, compressed, filtered, or transposed into healthy forms must be avoided, must not be allowed to join in confederation with healthy ones. Sure, everything vibrates, but not every vibration or “chord” struck by an assemblage is healthy. We must actively and positively avoid bad vibes because they diminish the vibrancy of the assemblages that matter most. So, though “it is futile to seek a pure nature unpolluted by humanity, and it is foolish to define the self as something purely human” and preferable to “recas[t] the self in the light of its intrinsically polluted nature” (116), vital materialism’s “case for contamination” (to echo the title of Kwame Appiah’s New York Times piece on cosmopolitanism) is actually a case for a biopolitics of exception. Unhealthy pollutants must be filtered or phased out of the healthy, vital mix.

Immobilization and masking are two techniques to except unhealthy vibes from the mix. Just as an instrumentalist would dampen a handbell by resting it on their shoulder or a table, MRWaSP capitalist institutions have techniques for dampening the vibrancy of unhealthy populations. And so does Bennettian materialism. It modulates the performative contradiction that constitutes whiteness as a coherent incoherency, a “cognitive dysfunction that is socially functional” (Mills RC 18). Traditionally, whiteness uses a performative contradiction to maintain its purity: as I have argued in an earlier article, whiteness is something “in” a body but not “of” it (e.g., Descartes’ Cogito is housed in a body but of a different order of being than this body). This way, whiteness can take advantage of corporeality without being contaminated by its irrationality. This in-but-not-of paradox relies on a whole series of hierarchical binaries (e.g., body over mind, masculinity over femininity), the very hierarchical binaries vital materialism claims to flatten. As Bennett puts it, “humans are both ‘in’ and ‘of’ nature, both are and are not the out-side” (114; emphasis mine). Where the modernist nature/culture hierarchy requires a “but,” vital materialism’s flat ontology and politics of exception put an “and”: in-but-not-of (in but not of a body) becomes both in-and-of and not in-and-of. Flattening out these binaries doesn’t eliminate the paradox, but shift its mode–notice how the “not” shifts between formulations from something that mediates the (white) relationship to materiality to something that grounds it. The “not” is not exclusionary but included under the umbrella of whiteness. In this way, the paradox has been upgraded to work with/as a politics of exception. The nominal inclusion of the “not” is what makes it possible to render insufficiently flexible instances as ‘exception’ (i.e., instances that don’t sufficiently inhabit or slide between both A and not-A). Humans are both things and not-things; it’s not “us” who are in-but-not of, but thing-power: thing-power is “in” us but not “of” us as humans–that’s why we have to be receptive to it. Only sufficiently receptive humans, those attuned to frequencies in them but not ‘of’ them, only those who “cultivate a more careful attentiveness to the out-side” (17), only they can be “ethical” in the sense that vital materialism proposes. Those who are not sufficiently receptive, who are not mobile enough to be “in” and “of” nature, are excepted from the “we” who is attuned to things. What Bennett describes as vital materalism’s “performative contradiction” (120) is central to its functioning as a politics of exception.

Masking is another technique for striking unhealthy vibes out of the mix. In audio science, “masking” is what happens when one frequency is hidden in or under another one. It’s not simply that one sound is louder than another; though volume is an important variable, it is dependent on the relationship between the frequencies of the masking and masked sounds. (The greater the difference in frequency, the louder the masking sound must be.) When one sound is masked by another, that first sound is still happening, its frequency is still resonating and affecting your ear–you just can’t perceive its effects. In a new materialist framework, oppressive institutions mask the vibrancy of minority populations. It’s not that they’re prevented from acting, per se–they may be “immobile,” but they can still spin their wheels in a one-step-forward-two-steps-back dance. Everything, after all, is an actant. However, material-historical situations (in the strict Beauvoiran sense) are organized so that some actants make more of a difference than others.

According to Beauvoir, oppression is the systemic and institutionalized inability to make a difference. Oppressed people do stuff all the time, but the material-historical situation is such that these doings don’t have a legible impact on the world. She writes:

It is this interdependence which explains why oppression is possible and why it is hateful. As we have seen, my freedom, in order to fulfill itself, requires that it emerge into an open future: it is other men who open the future to me, it is they who, setting up the world of tomorrow, define my future; but if, instead of allowing me to participate in this constructive movement, they oblige me to consume my transcendence in vain…they are cutting me off from the future, they are changing me into a thing…Oppression divides the world into two clans: those who enlighten mankind by thrusting it ahead of itself and those who are condemned to mark time hopelessly in order to support the collectivity” (EA 82-3).

Oppression happens when the arrangement of “other men” is such that my action is “consumed in vain,” when the world is organized in ways that undercut the impact I can and do have on it and on others. For example, women have always practiced creative arts, but for most of history (and arguably even still today) creative genres that were predominantly by and/or for women–needlepoint, chick lit, etc.–have been seen as something other than “real” or “fine” art (see Parker & Pollock’s “Old Mistresses” for an early version of this argument). Women’s work doesn’t really “count” as such–the situation of patriarchy prohibits them from positive development, so to speak. Or, patriarchal concepts of art and genius, and normatively masculine art institutions masks women’s activity, preventing us from perceiving its impact and effects.

Immobilization and masking work both separately and in concert to produce specific populations as “exception.” Due to centuries of white supremacist capitalist cis/heteropatriarchy, the world is already organized to immobilize and mask blackness, femininity, trans/queerness, disability, etc. Ontologies like Grosz’s and Bennett’s that focus exclusively on vitality and vibrancy actively obscure immobilized, masked phenomena. They prevent us from perceiving, analyzing, and addressing the politics of exception. Just as new materialists use the concept of sound to mask sound waves and audio phenomena under a sexy metaphor, their ontological project masks both the processes and fact of feminization and other forms of MRWaSP minoritization. Bennett’s question “how would political responses to public problems change were we to take seriously the vitality of (nonhuman) bodies?” (Bennett vii) doesn’t revolutionize politics so much as naturalize MRWaSP’s immobilization and masking of already-oppressed populations. Their becoming-music avoids actual sounds, just as their becoming-woman avoids actual feminist intervention in patriarchy.