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Miranda’s Daughters & Consumer Culture

The last time that I taught African American Women’s Rhetorics, I received a thank you letter from a black female student at the end of the term.  I am always deeply touched when I receive such letters, and always from students of color, who I don’t think always give themselves enough credit for the deep intellectual work they do themselves and want to, instead, credit the teacher.

This letter, though, was a bit intriguing.  In it, the young woman thanked me for getting her to love reading and writing again: the last time she was so engaged was when she was reading and then mimicking in her writing, the Twilight series.  Now, I consider myself someone well-versed in popular culture, or rather in the context of new capitalism today in its creation of what should be more aptly called: mass consumer culture.  Nonetheless, I just hadn’t paid any attention to this series at all.  I’m not sure what my fog was about since the reminders, ads, and paraphernalia are everywhere.  This past summer I decided that I needed to really hear what it was that my student was saying to me so I watched the entire series.  I am so thankful that I had my sister-friend and professor at Spelman, Michelle, one of the fiercest thinkers I know, who really helped me deal with how traumatized I (still) am by this series.  Imagine my surprise when I learned that this series was about…drumroll… vampires!  And white vampires, at that, in white cake make-up so that they can look even whiter within uber-wealthy elite circles, aesthetically enamored by white canons of art. Meanwhile, a community of Indigenous folk are animals/wolves living in poverty and out in the wild who cannot fully control their primal urges.  At the center of this foolishness is a young, sweet, innocent white virgin who everyone loves, adores, protects, and builds their life around to the point where she has no authority or personality (except for pained, cross-eyed, seemingly-constipation-induced, facial expressions… the acting is just horrible!)  I watched the series almost frozen… and deeply impacted by how much work still needs to be done when young black women are coerced into believing that any part of this story, a story that my student is/was literally reading and writing into her own life, will ever represent their own social circumstances or life opportunities as black women.  I have heard many activists argue that we need to stop criticizing young women for consuming popular culture like this because we have to meet these young women where they are.  I agree.  Of course, we need to meet them where they are (and where else would we meet them anyway: the moon?) but we need some analysis to comprehend these locations.

Of course, I go straight back to Wynter’s essay, “Beyond Miranda’s Meanings,” that I have already talked about here.  It seems that the mass consumer culture that is targeting youth has simply recreated Prospero, Caliban, and Miranda where the presence of black women is again in absence.  Wynter’s essay takes Shakespeare’s play, The Tempest, and shows how Miranda, the only woman in the New World/Island is a “mode of physiognomic being” that gets canonized as the only “rational object of desire” and, therefore, the “genitrix of a superior mode of human life.”  In sum, she argues that being a black feminist/womanist means contending with this mode in a way that must rewrite the entire episteme.  Black women’s absence is, thus, always “an ontological absence… central to the… secularizing behaviour-regulatory narrative schema… by which the peoples of Western Europe legitimized their global expansion as well as their expropriation/marginalization of all the other population-groups of the globe.”  I can’t think of a more relevant context for Wynter’s essay, despite post-modernist pundits that would suggest such categories are no longer entrenched (Have they not watched this movie?) than this movie/series my student is so compelled by.  It becomes even more horror-laden when you think that Twilight has its adult-counterpart in the mega-million-selling sensation, the Fifty Shades series, whose story almost mimics the plot of Twilight.  Obviously, it ain’t just kids who like Miranda’s saga and for whom mass consumer culture continually reproduces her, what Wynter more aptly calls a “regime of truth.”  This seems directly related to what Wynter called the “situational frame of reference of both Western-European and Euroamerican women writers,” a frame that she contends even critical theorists like Irigaray did not fully escape.

From the time I first read  “Beyond Miranda’s Meanings,” I have been drawn to Wynter’s notion of what it means to shift or mutate an age/epoch/episteme into another, a shift she doesn’t feel most bourgeois African American feminists actually achieve (often mimicking or refiguring “Miranda” and other forms of empire).  Her 2000 Interview with David Scott in Small Axe (Volume 8) also challenges how I think about popular culture/mass consumer culture.  In the interview, she argues that an economic/bio-economic conception of the human mandates that capitalism currently functions as the only mode of production for our everyday expressions (see page 160). Her argument convinces me that what we often do theoretically and academically in scholarship about mass consumer culture reifies these bio-economic conceptions.  There seems an undeniable willingness to engage scholarship itself as a commodity for writing/researching about grossly commodified, popular culture. I do follow popular culture and think it is critical to understand how oppression and domination look and get maintained.  However, Cedric Robinson‘s warning is one I can’t ever forget: black intellectual work always gets commodified, as easily and readily as the work of any rapper, singer, dancer, actor/actress.   Investigating popular culture in a way that shifts our current bio-economic overdetermination is a feat different from producing writing/research that will be widely consumable.  Maybe many of us have gotten to a place where we think the commodification and mass appeal of black intellectual thought are the same things as a deep, political and intellectual engagement with it.

As for my Twilight-loving student, I think/hope she will still hold on to what she walked  away with: a deep anger that Twilight was imposed on her will and imagination rather than the singular text of the semester that really rattled her and got her to love to read and write… Ida B. Wells’s The Red Record.  In other words, I hope she/we will move beyond Miranda’s meanings and I hope she/we can move closer towards that kind of epistemic shift that Wynter always describes.

World-Historical People

I attended a conference this summer and though many of the researchers and presenters left a lasting and positive impression, there was one graduate student who I still just can’t get out of my head.  I don’t know her name but I found her absolutely entertaining to observe, albeit somewhat horrifying.

I was standing outside of a room, waiting for that session to end, when I overheard this woman talking with other graduate students who she had obviously met at the conference.  She explained a very specific conference strategy: she attended the sessions of the most famous scholars, made sure to sit up in front, ask really smart questions publicly in the session, and then go talk to the individual presenters after the session.  This, according to her, was how you get the “famous people” to notice you, remember you, work with you, and help you forward your career.  I found this conversation absolutely fascinating so I did the inevitable: I watched her… because when someone doesn’t see you, you’d be surprised at just how much you can see of them.  She did not disappoint.  In every feature session, there she was: all up in the front, asking a question with little regard for whether or not it actually contributed something to the conversation, and then there she was on the que waiting to talk to folk afterwards.  I was wildly entertained, I will admit, but I am, at the same time, sympathetic to her cause.  She was only mirroring  the  kind of superficiality that academic culture sustains today, a culture that is telling a young black woman grabbing at a Ph.D. that groupie-stalking is what it takes for her to survive and thrive in the academy, not a serious engagement with ideas and thinking.  While this young woman’s practice might seem, well, a bit CRAZY, what was more astonishing was the actual response from the “famous people.”  They ate it up like famished souls where only this kind of attention could satiate their hunger.

These are the moments when I often think of Professor Wynter, when I am reminded that the work one does is the WORK one does: the way you live out your life is the way that you live out your words on the page too. They are not opposing forces.  What concerns me most about the young woman who I have described is that the reality she describes for being noticed was not a hallucination on her part.  It served her to good effect at the conference and it might also serve her to good effect in her larger career.

Meanwhile, every chance Wynter gets, she reminds her audiences to think past the epistemic boundaries of a given world/social order and reach out past it, as evidenced even in a letter she wrote to the Centre for Caribbean Thought.  Even in only a letter, she talks about what it means to be “world-historical people” who have no choice but confront “the imperative of the effecting of a profound mutation in what is now the globally hegemonic Western European, secular, and thereby naturalized understanding of being human.”  It becomes wildly absurd then to imagine trying to get the attention of famous people at an academic conference in the context of Wynter’s call that we begin to completely upturn the “naturalized, now biologized, globally homogenized, homo oeconomicus understanding of being human” so that we can finally displace its referential system with its “now internet-integrated planet of the middle class suburbia/exurbia/gentrified inner city ‘referent we, on the one hand, and on the other, that of the rapidly urbanizing ‘planet of slums.’ ”

It makes sense to me that Wynter does not call the “Crisis of the Negro Intellectual” in this historical moment ONLY the product of white liberalism and racism in the academy.  She loads that crisis with the processes and products of what black scholars themselves have created in the quest to replicate the very models which had ontologically, intellectually, and aesthetically excluded them in the first place, fully incorporating all of its cognitive closures and impediments to radical social change.  That’s more than a notion right there!  I also see Wynter’s points here in the very way that she enacts her scholarly identity.  I am often amazed at how connected I feel to other scholars who deeply engage her work, a connection I had never once even articulated to myself because it just seems so self-evident.  But even this aspect of her scholarly identity points to the alternate space in which she does intellectual work. I am often stunned by how graduate students, for instance, of a specific scholar will go above and beyond to “market” themselves as the heir of that advisor  (i.e., which can quickly become the “auction block” code for which plantation provided the best skills) and/or do their best to patrol who and how their advisor is referenced (making the example of the woman I describe all the more believable).  Scholarship in this mode becomes a kind of white property to be maintained and sustained by measuring its exchange value against other properties.   I no longer think it is a mere coincidence that the folk I know who engage Wynter do not unleash these kind of beasts/pseudo-intellectual pathologies.  In fact, it seems safe to say that Wynter herself would not allow it!

I certainly don’t mean to harshly castigate the young woman who I described at the beginning of this post.  Like I said, I am sympathetic and very concerned for her cause.  At this point in my life and career, I find myself most drawn and interested in those black thinkers and scholars who are really interested in liberation rather than bling, status, and attention.  I think this is why I have become so much more deeply grateful for the model that Sylvia Wynter offers, a model that has lately become a kind of life preserve in this sea I must swim in.

Human vs. Liberalism

I didn’t know that the little icon next to a web address is called a favicon until mid-August when I set up this website.  I have always noticed these symbols but never thought about how they got there. Needless to say, it took me more than just a few minutes to get the favicon (as pictured here at the left) onto this website.*  Using the Faviconer website was smooth sailing.  But then I had to figure out how to put my favicon.ico file in my theme folder using FTP clients.  I had to learn how to use filezilla before I could even get started.   The reality was that I had no idea what these nouns and phrases even referenced.  I would go to the wordpress help sites and then have to google each sentence to find out what they meant.  Nothing was intuitive.  All alone in my house, I kept working at adding a favicon until I got it, hoping to accumulate yet more proof for my more digitally resistant students that if I can do this, really anyone can.

This story might seem rather silly and irrelevant, but I present my pursuit of a favicon here as a lens into how I think about self-esteem and the refusal to give in.  What might seem even stranger here is that I connect these issues of self-esteem and perseverance to Sylvia Wynter’s work and the grounds on which she has always helped me to challenge the unhealthy, dominant logic of liberalism.

At moments like my favicon creation, I do not label or understand myself as unskilled, bad at something, deficient, or remedial.  I simply did not know how to add a favicon right then, nothing more or less, and I did not attach any meaning to that.  This seems like such a trivial and small thing, but really it isn’t.  I say this because, as a teacher, I can see when students begin to run a script in their heads that they are dumb or slow when they bump up against something unfamiliar or challenging.  What I suppose I got from Professor Wynter is that these moments require more than the usual protocols of self-esteem workshops, confidence boosts, and self-help guides.   You simply need to forego a system of thinking rooted in liberalism that makes you think your success or challenge is about YOU and just go on ’bout your business. No drama, no second-guessing, no frustration.

Lesson #3

When I talk about liberalism, I mean the classical ideas about the individual, equality, democracy, and meritocracy: the idea that if you work hard, the fruits of your labor will shine like a pot of gold; the idea that individuals are the key foundation of everything and so laws and institutions exist solely to cater to the desires and needs of single individuals.  Of course, the history of the collision of liberalism and Western empire is long and complex but a central axis is still: opportunities are everywhere and so it is the individual’s job to decide which opportunities to pursue and how and when.  This means there is never a focus on equality of outcomes, actual social histories of oppression, or perpetrators of inhumanity.  Why would there be?  It’s all about YOU and YOU alone.  This also means that if you are poor, then it is your own fault because you did not pursue the opportunities that everyone has; you are, in sum, cognitively/genetically deficient.  Whatever you don’t have or don’t do well, it is your own fault: you did something wrong, because, after all, life gave you nothing but positive chances to get whatever you wanted and needed.  With this kind of mindset and system of being, it becomes easy to see how someone sitting alone on a computer making mistakes with favicon uploading can simply think they are stupid.  It is what liberalism trains you to feel and think, regardless of whether this represents any reality.  This is the moment that I think many of my students often face: where they doubt themselves. Schooling is,of course, the prime example of where the virus of liberalism can be caught.  Liberalism provides that thought and feeling of inadequacy as central to what school actually achieves.

Lesson #4

Of course, students are not only up against liberalism today, but also neoliberalism.   I use neoliberalism to focus on the uber-glitz of free markets, choice, and efficiency.  So if you ARE good at getting that favicon up there, you are supposed to use that to make money and more money.  This is success and this is a new aim of schooling.   Institutions of higher education are expected to have and market themselves with the ability to turn YOU into a consumable product. I think Professor Wynter has most brilliantly called this the social creation of a species that has been determined solely as homo-economicus. 

At the end of the day, liberalism and neoliberalism are not inevitable ways of being that we must simply resign ourselves to.  They are simply one choice amongst many.  It seems to me, with my favicon generation as just one example, that you can go so much further without liberalism where there is no doubt that as a Human, in the way Professor Wynter means it, communal achievement is already there!


*My favicon is the adinkra symbol for ANANSE NTONTAN (“spider’s web”).  It is a symbol of wisdom, creativity, and the complexities of life and makes its nod to Ananse the spider, a well-known trickster character.