on Aimee Bahng’s MIGRANT FUTURES
I’m working on the follow-up to The Sonic Episteme & Resilience & Melancholy; it’s a project about post-probabilist neoliberalisms/biopower. This is my takeaway from Bahng’s book with that project in view.
With its focus on neoliberal logics of speculation and minoritarian speculative practices that are more just alternatives to them, Aimee Bahng’s Migrant Futures is in the same galaxy as my project on what I’m calling post-probablist neoliberalisms (or post-probabilist biopower?). But we’re ultimately studying different things. Turning to queer of color speculative fiction to find anti-normative, achronological alternatives to neoliberal “normativity” (Bhang 160) and teleological temporalities, Bahng’s project centers “probabilistic logics” (Bhang 4) and normalizing biopower as the problematic status quo against which alternatives stand out as queer and migrant. As she puts it, “by ‘queering speculation’ I refer to a host of reconfigurations of our relationships to the ‘financialization of everyday life’ and the manifestation of a ‘risk society’–which is to say a normative investment in quantitative data to project futurity” (Bhang 5; emphasis added). In fact, the very non-normative temporalities Bahng identifies as queer and/or migrant are precisely what post-probabilist neoliberalisms and biopower co-opt to constitutie what Lisa Adkins calls a “non-chronological” approach to time. Practices like probabilist normalization and “compound interest” (Bahng 7) are necessarily chronological: the former makes future predictions based on past patterns, and the latter relies on the chronological passing of time to accumulate money. Bahng situates her analysis of queerness in this context: “As ‘denizens of times out of joint,’ queers unsettle the temporal ordering practices of ‘chrononormativity’” (19). However, as scholars such as Ladelle McWhorter have shown, such queer antinormativity is increasingly aligned with, not counter to, neoliberal methods, technologies, and aims…such as a non-chronological approach to time. Analyzing legitimation as a supplement to normalization, my project complements and extends Bahng’s by addressing the sexual, gender, and racial politics of post-probabilist forms of speculation.
Also, her analysis focuses almost predominantly on the content of “the stories of the future” and “how we narrate futurity” (Bahng 3), whereas I’m interested in poetics and formal structures (and that difference in interest is certainly shaped by her focus on literature and my focus on music). The one place where she has an extended analysis of poetics is in her discussion of the films Sleep Dealer and Children of Men. Here, she discusses the various ways the films’ cinematography plays with perspective, such as Sleep Dealer’s “mixing of perspectives” that “pla[y] with the dynamics of spectatorship” (Bahng 76) and Children of Men’s “forcing our attention on certain background scenes and emphasizing moments of interruption and disorientation in the hero’s journey” (82). These poetics de-naturalize the camera’s gaze and raise audiences’ awareness of both how shots are constructed and the values that guide and are reflected in the camera’s framing of a scene.
Focusing on the poetics of the camera’s gaze, Bahng’s analysis gestures toward a key component in liberalism’s “poetics”: as Laura Mulvey points out in her famous analysis of the poetics of narrative cinema, the cinematographic fourth wall is a functional analog for liberalism’s public/private split. According to Mulvey, “The mass of mainstream film, and the conventions within which it has consciously evolved, portray a hermetically sealed world that unwinds magically, indifferent to the presence of the audience…conditions of screening and narrative conventions give the spectator an illusion of looking in on a private world” (835-6). In other words, traditional narrative cinema encourages viewers to adopt the perspective of the camera by removing all indications of its presence and allowing the scene to appear unmediated, as though viewers were standing in the same room as the characters. As I argued in a blog post,
Mulvey argues that the pleasure we take in Hollywood cinema–the pleasure of losing
ourselves in the film, for example, or of experiencing the protagonist’s victories as our own–is possible because the camera’s gaze obscures the conditions of the film’s production (the fact that is a film), i.e., the fourth wall. This parallels the way liberalism’s proceduralism obscures the conditions of society’s production (histories of white supremacy, for example), and thus makes it possible for us to feel proud and happy to live in an equal, just society, blissfully ignorant of the way liberalism naturalizes white supremacist patriarchy.
Liberalism is premised upon formal equality, either before the law, as in classical liberalism, or, on the market, as in neoliberalism. The appearance of formal equality is tenable only because the public/private split shoves ongoing inequalities out of the frame. As Carole Pateman has argued, classical contract theorists relegated gender- and race-based differences to the private sphere in order to maintain the myth of civil equity and then further obscure the existence of that realm through a slippage between the domestic private and the realm of private business, such that in mainstream discourse the public/private split refers to the difference between the state and private business, not between civil society and the domestic sphere. As Melinda Cooper has shown, neoliberalism, in its imperative to privatize everything, explicitly links the domestic private to the corporate private as a “co-producer” of value on private markets, but misrepresents the domestic (which includes the labor and wealth traditionally shepherded by the patriarchal nuclear family) as the individual. So even though it brings the domestic private out from behind the curtain, neoliberalism nevertheless uses the private market to obscure a particular kind of reproductive labor: individuals’ ability to privatize and even resiliently overcome the costs of any risks. Risks which can’t be efficiently folded back into either domestic or corporate private markets thus become the burden of the state and subject to intense policing and criminalization.
Neoliberalism maintains the myth of market equity and deregulation by cleaving the market from the background conditions in which market-actors work; for example, the neoliberal focus on private individual performance obscures the background conditions (such as racial privilege, family wealth, etc.).
By having its characters watch and later become unwilling participants in a reality show called DRONES!, Sleep Dealer represents a multi-layered breaking of fourth walls while nevertheless maintaining its own. As the characters in Sleep Dealer shift from spectators of DRONES! to participants in it, they become aware of the constructedness and bias of the camera’s gaze: “at this point, it becomes clear that Rudy [the drone pilot] and the television audience cannot possibly see every angle of the action; theirs is not a perfect or all-seeing vision” (Bahng 76). Because the Sleep Dealer characters know that the reality show is misrepresenting their lives and lived experience, they become aware of the limitations of the reality show camera’s gaze, of what it cuts out of the frame in order to maintain the perception of ‘realness.’ What it cuts out is the systematic domination that makes possible its criminalizing gaze: the characters weren’t targeted for anything they did and were thus responsible for, but for who they were. Representing this break in DRONES!’s fourth wall, Sleep Dealer shows audiences that the line between good, privatizable risk and bad, non-privatizable risk is neither neutral, objective, nor a result of individual performance, but an expression of deep structural inequalities.
Bahng’s analysis of Children of Men highlights the role of what traditionally constitutes the domestic private–gendered, racialized reproductive labor–in neoliberalism’s conception of the private. Though this film’s cinematography often breaks narrative conventions by “forcing our attention on certain background scenes and emphasizing moments of interruption and disorientation in the hero’s journey” (82), it nevertheless continues to elide the gendered, racialized work of resilient overcoming. Even though the director “activat[es] the background” so that “the sociopolitical landscape becomes as much a character as the individualss” (93), the film nevertheless “surrogates” the actual work and responsibility for resilient overcoming its main conflict–global human infertility–to a black femme character, Kee, whose perspective is never represented in the cinematography. As Bahng argues, “the privileging of [the white male protagonist]’s perspective and the racialized reproductive imperative at work in this film go hand in hand” (99). By centering the perspective of the white male protagonist qua private individual while having a black woman character perform the actual work of resiliently overcoming humanity’s species-wide reproductive problem by carrying a pregnancy to term and delivering a baby without ever having her perspective represented, the film’s form performs the slippage between private individual and domestic private. “It is a surrogation of Theo’s futurity and its investments are in the children of Man, in Wynter’s sense of the word…[which] asks the black female body to perform the labor of producing the figure of hope for Theo’s continuing legacy” (98). Because the fetus/baby is given the name of the white male protagonist’s dead son, the name situates the child in a relationship of white patrilineal inheritance (thus voiding any possible tropes on old slave codes wherein slave status was inherited matrilineality). Thus, though the risks of this pregnancy are borne by a black woman who has to do the actual work of resilient reproduction, the film represents the rewards of those investments as the successful performance of a private (white, masculine) individual.
As this language of patrilineal legacy suggests, Bahng’s interpretation of this film is important not only because it highlights the neoliberal variation of the fourth wall that cuts feminized, racially non-white dimensions of the private sphere out of the frame in order to produce a picture of a free and equal market, but also because it connects this fourth-wall-y slippage to the discourses of legitimacy that post-probabilist biopower uses to separate out good risk from bad risk. Because slave-era practices such as partus sequitur ventrem established that the non-personhood ascribed to racial blackness was inherited matrilineally, the patrilineal naming of Kee’s child in Children of Men reorients her spectacularly resilient reproductivity, such that its risks appear to be the blossoming potential of white patrilineal private individuality rather than the ticking time-bomb of black matrilineal system non-self-ownership. In Bahng’s book, “Octomom” Nadia Suleman is the representative of this ticking time-bomb of risk. Noting how media narratives about Suleman’s IVF-assisted birth of octuplets shifted from positive to negative in tone, Bahng argues that “the quick turn from miraculous exception to distasteful excess not only signals the tenacious racialization of reproductive futurity but also throws into relief the different valences of public and private assistance” (88). In other words, once questions about Suleman’s racial identity and citizenship status entered the mix, her case was framed in terms of “late twentieth-century reproductive discourses of welfare, overpopulation, and immigration” (87). Doubts about Suleman’s racial whiteness led her resplendently resilient fertility to be interpreted as a bad risk, the kind whose costs couldn’t be privately borne by her or her family and which would thus burden the state. Racialized, gendered discourses of legitimacy determines whether the work of resilient reproductivity that neoliberalism depends upon but hides away behind concepts of private individuality count as good returns or toxic ones, profitable or cancerous growth. Naming Kee’s baby in a way that locates him in the family of a white man who isn’t a blood relative shifts the valence or orientation of her work, folding it back behind private individual responsibility where it can hide, the world’s debts to and dependency on her work obscured behind the credit private individuals take for their successful management of risk. Without that reorientation, society’s indebtedness to her can’t be so easily swept under the rug of private individual responsibility. So, in classic victim-blamey fashion, indebtedness to her gets recast (or reoriented) as her individual irresponsibility, her individual failure to successfully re-invest what has been invested in her…or, her refusal to domesticate her resilient reproductivity.
What Bahng calls “surrogation” is a form or type of domesticatable potential. By “domesticatable” I mean, more or less, legitimate risk that is perceived as fully privatized and privatizable, bound under something like couverature to the private individual (hence, “domesticated”). Resilient reproductivity is domesticated when it continues hegemonic lines of orientation or inheritance in Sara Ahmed’s sense of these terms–i.e., when it re-invests patriarchal racial capitalist relations. Resilient reproductivity is undomesticated when it strays from such orientations and pays forward other sorts of relations; this leaves hegemonic institutions feeling shortchanged, the debts they owe to these laborers misperceived as failed repayments to them. The advantage of calling surrogation “domestication” is that it more clearly situates this phenomenon in the liberal public/private analytic I discussed earlier. Just as in classical liberalism the domestic private was hidden behind the corporate private, in neoliberalism domesticable risk is hidden behind the private individual.
In Bahng’s reading of Children of Men, the cinematography’s gestures toward including the narrative’s background conditions and de-suturing the camera’s gaze from the protagonist is ultimately undercut by the film’s narrative content (i.e., the re-centering of the protagonist qua private individual by naming Kee’s child after Theo’s dead son). I am not sure there are formal and poetic techniques that inherently and in all cases perform a kind of un-domesticatedness or un-domesticatability. Rather, I think Bahgn’s read of the shifting representation of Suleman in the media is evidence that the degree of domesticatedness is determined by who is doing that performance in what kind of context. So the point isn’t to develop undomesticated forms or poetics (i.e., I’m not looking for an update to queer anti-normativity), but to develop aesthetic strategies that are oriented to reproduce different kinds of relations. Regardless how they are perceived from hegemonic perspectives, these relations need to orient both practitioners and the world they create through their practice away from private property, liberal autonomy, and that whole mess. How can artworks help us rehearse and practice the orientations we need to adopt to participate in those sorts of relations?