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4.24.2014 Literature, Epistemic Democracy, and the Punky Piketty | Chris Taylor

It’s been depressing to me that people are reading [Thomas] Piketty’s book as if they’re learning something substantive about the world through economics when, as I understand it, Piketty’s work makes legible the primitive accumulation of economic knowledge, the enclosure of a proper sphere of economic knowledge that cut into spaces of the commonly known. Indeed, the last book on economic history to inspire an analogous, but lower-key, kind of pop frenzy—Graeber’s Debt—worked precisely to re-embed economic thinking in the space of the social, to common economic thinking by turning to the genre of the anecdote, the ethnography. Alas, it was written off by a certain socialist publication—“We need more grand histories, but 5,000 years of anecdotes is no substitute for real political economy,” as the banner runs—which, alongside many left-lite publications, is going (to go) gaga for Tommy P. But to posit the non-substitutability of genres of the ordinary for those of the expert is to inscribe managerialism as a guiding principle of our radicalism. It’s also to subordinate one’s epistemic autonomy to experts, thereby foregoing the radical work of developing ways of knowing in common. The enthusiasm over Piketty, in other words, is premised on a refusal of epistemic autonomy, of the work of epistemic communization. Let me be clear: I simply cannot imagine that the US left has learned anything useful or meaningful from Piketty’s book, so I can only understand the book’s enthused reception in those quarters as a ritualization of epistemic lack. Let’s call it the socialist’s Daddy-Mommy-Me: the economist, his data, and the good little boy just so pleased that ma and pa have validated his sense of the real.
Let’s hold on to the punky Piketty, then, the one in the midst of an oedipal revolt against the discipline. The one who insists that “the distribution of wealth is too important an issue to be left to economists, sociologists, historians, and philosophers,” who insists that “[d]emocracy will never be supplanted by a republic of experts.” The literary appears in Capital in the Twenty-First Century as one enactment of this epistemic democracy—a lost democracy, to be sure, one that was never really democratic anyhow, but one that persists as a sign of alternative epistemological ecologies. To read with the punky Piketty—and against the feted prof who insists several times that “[i]nequality is not necessarily bad in itself”—is to continue the work of democratizing economic knowledge. To see in a novel, in an ethnographic anecdote, or in the performative scene of submission conjured on payday the knowledges we need to know. And what we know, in the form of knowledge generated in these encounters, is that economics is ultimately defective for democracy: to democratize economic knowledge is to destroy it.


the sweetest way to welcome spring and earth day might be this dharma talk. “the noises within just disappear and there is an emptiness, the emptiness of sound – very powerful, very elegant. and she can answer to mother earth, ‘mother i am here. i am free. and you can count on me.’” in almost every one of his talks he says something like “life is a wonder” followed by a list of things like rivers, hills, the blue sky, and sometimes kiwis as examples of miracles. the way he pronounces it, “wundah,” is so simple and sweet it hurts. 


Why do I keep forgetting that “the other” is a colonial aesthetic object?

Must get over concerns for structural injustice so that I can witness the complexities of white male subjectivity under neo-colonial empire.

The pain of others is unfathomable & related to your privilege = crush it down into small consumable aesthetic objects so that u can move on

Am astounded when US poets believe that language is abstract, metaphysical and not material, historical, imperial.

Also reading women of color feminism & postcolonial theory will kill u. Literally destroy your subject position. An imperial canon is safer.

–– Can the Neo-Colonialist Writers Shut Up? Thank you in Advance, by Eunsong Kim | Quaint Magazine



spot the error / studio - march

(via sunyuh)


jack spicer


tumblr, i think we should talk.

as many witnessed over the past few days, a series of exchanges were made regarding the living labor event, with chilling aftereffects all around. i remarked to at least one person that the knowledge, histories, and details subtending the interactions witnessed here both precede and exceed me, and for this and other reasons, i won’t be specific because i don’t think it’s necessary. the conflict is complex. what does matter, though, is that important and hurtful things happened arm in arm and were then disappeared, leaving a residue of disappointment at what became illuminated as a highly pretense-ridden and muzzled space. i certainly feel disheartened, perhaps most of all because there wasn’t enough conversation taking place –– more invective. if “the truth is in your response to the event,” as badiou says, what about the responses to the conference events, and what about the responses to the conflict as it played out here? which is another way of saying, what about what might have been true? what kinds of investments in power were operating? if what happened goes unacknowledged, if no one speaks about it, it seems that we’ve not only done harm to a hope of being lightly held here and to potentially existing investments in affinity, but also lost an important opportunity. 

one of the most memorable conversations i’ve ever had about tumblr concerned the fact that there is always more than the post, always more than what you see. that part of being here sometimes involves giving people the benefit of the doubt because projections are entirely too easy to make, gaps are too easily filled with your worst fears, and people’s words are often calculated as if the pieces presented therein comprised a mathematical whole. many of the people i follow know that tumblr’s social justice-inflected networks can have policing qualities, or operational modes of constant critique that would seize every moment of construction. 

i’ve been thinking a lot about the popularization of fred moten and what one person wrote about as “the trading on his ideas.” one reason i feel a responsibility to engage this is because i posted about his presentation, and also because i took a photo of him for w&p –– which may or may not be what the original poster was referring to. the author may have just been referring to an accumulation of feelings, an amorphous sense that FM was being cheapened, commodified, or fetishized in a variety of different contexts. 

his talk was arresting. before he even began speaking, every centimeter of space in the room was filled with anxious listeners. people piled on top of each other on the floor, right up against his table, and the rest were directed to an overflow room down the hall equipped for livestreaming. he sat at the front, contrasted by the lygia clark sculpture projected onto the wall behind him, without posturing, without haste, and with his usual charming humility. this is the moment i photographed, inevitably incommensurate with the experience. i can see what a stark contrast this 2D image has with moten’s content and his own uncapturability. this is what i meant when i said once that aesthetics and ethics are in many ways opposed.

he talked about “the aesthetics of the curmudgeon” and how “the collective sound always complains. to complain is to sing together with that communist sound.” also about the way “sentimentalism is too easily dismissed.”

black optimism – the position FM has come to be known for – is often accused of being too easily consumable by white culture. by focusing on the performative aspects of “the lived experience of the black,” or “the capaciousness of tight spaces,” or “the fugitive law of movement that makes black social life ungovernable,” FM’s work is about prefiguring a rich world of possibility that focuses on social life and not social death. the latter has been commonly understood as the main object of jared sexton’s analysis. also known as afropessimism, this perspective is founded upon the fact of an antiblack world and the social death of slavery: “a political ontology dividing the Slave from the world of the Human in a constitutive way.” sexton ultimately argues that black optimism and afropessimism are not in opposition, but the main difference is that moten seems to want to avoid miring in facts that can have debilitating effects, and he instead wants to bask in the sensory experiences of music, art, and potential –– to dream. 

his popularity could easily be dismissed as an instance of dominant culture disavowing the “fact of blackness” and thus annihilating difference. this is of course the critique of the “post-racial society.” but as i told a friend today, i think there’s a crucial temporal difference between the two lines of thought, and i also think that what moten performs is what fanon called “the simple attempt to touch the other, to feel the other.” can we flatten his popularity by explaining it away as fetishization? can what FM does, the effect he has, be dismissed as some unthreatening position seamlessly integrated by whiteness? i think moten poses a challenge, and i think there is a way in which critical studies is constantly putting a wedge in that moment of contact, ensuring that one does not touch the other. 

aside from moten and the difficulty of creating, the other thing i wanted to touch on is the phenomenon of forgetting. privilege operates through aversion, through refusing to acknowledge that something exists, and that something is often suffering. during my first month in graduate school, in a conversation about how gross human beings can become in the ironic fields that are the area studies, i told a friend that the difference-maker is whether one forgets what it feels like to suffer. foucault called this being seduced by power. 


i think tressie is right: you are changed, but this does not entail active memory or fidelity. you might have cellular memory for what precarity or worthlessness feels like, and you might neurotically flail in order to fend it off at the slightest whiff. you might have known it but committed to “ethics” under the auspice of self-protection, and constructed a politics that is really about concern for yourself. or you might have never known that kind of terror. but i think being a good person requires what simon critchley calls an ideal; the demand, he says, “is what you have faith in ––that’s the sustaining belief or pledge. It’s like the sort of exorbitant demand Christ made in his Sermon on the Mount: to turn the other cheek, to love your enemies. We become ethical selves by attempting to live in accordance with an asymmetrical and unfulfillable ideal, the demand to be Christ-like while knowing that we are all too human…truth as ‘troth’ –– faith as something that structures my life, be it politically or artistically, or how you choose to deal with people.” 

it is easy to forget. professionalization begs it. academic conferences are famous for attendees’ perennial discovery that there is no there there, the promise of intellectual connection often holographic. the institutional environment and the infatuation with power that defines it often preclude intimacy. for it to be otherwise, a space for the possibility of togetherness must be held open. can intimacy be the demand? or perhaps a commitment to attend to suffering? i think it depends on the players. 


More and more, I’m sure that I have to refuse intellectual “community” whose joy is in some way predicated on enjoyment of what is, at best, obliviousness to these harms, or worse, actual celebration of the specialness of all-white clubs. It is total bullshit to enjoy being in a social or creative community that is segregated the way poetry is segregated.

I’m saying that in that room, that night, I hit something like a wall or bottom or saw something that I never want to see again, which might have been my own complicity or token-ness or it might just be that I was tired and pregnant and, really, too old to be in an overcrowded white room in Williamsburg full of white people ten years younger than me, and I wanted to go home.

–– Flibbertigibbet in a White Room / Competencies — Simone White


In other words, it’s hard to go from being a striker to an adjunct; it’s hard to feel like overattachment is your fate (or that the White Family is) and to come up with a way to articulate a resistance to this structure of affective relations when your relation to the institution seems to affirm that fate. But what the continuity that is described by some strikers, some friends, suggests is finally quite helpful for thinking about the very real reasons that are there for not wanting to count oneself as part of the “fortunate.” For the Tenure-Track Professor and the White Family (and with the understanding that these are not social categories but upheld and often invisible ideals), there is no longer a reason to feel ambivalent about love, or perhaps better, there’s always another reason to feel ambivalent about love, but perhaps there’s no longer a reason to feel ambivalent about one’s love objects. In addition to the fact that this is “too bad,” the loss of such ambivalence, of a relation to a loved object that does not involve the capacity of holding one’s destructiveness, is a profound but perhaps less apparent price to be paid for professionalism.



i’m being loose with “we” and “them” and i feel like it’s important to be loose, so that them can become we and we can become them

— fred moten at the living labor keynote, “collective head”

living labor 


fred moten performing the collective head, in more ways than one.



since i’ve been here the subject of friendship has arisen in at least three different conversations: tonight, someone in nyu’s dental school told me he knows no one in nyc except the other people in his night classes, and he moved here in september. two others confessed, “i don’t really have any close friends.” there are so many frenetic bodies, all moving at such a fast pace; how and why would you choose just one? only to be haunted by the fact that you could be doing something or somebody else. very zizek in the grocery store. too many ketchups. walking down the street is kinda like a mashup between blair witch’s jagged camera and the aftermath of a natural disaster. a sweet cashier gave me free coffee and cookies on broadway today; i told him i hope you make them go bankrupt and that it somehow liberates you from a job. tremblebot, brian, and i talked about how racism in the north is in so many ways compounded and unaddressed due to nyc’s reputation for diversity. a panelist said that “yeah, the girls in the bling ring and spring breakers fetishize commodities but the commodities really just serve as props”— when, though, have commodities not been props for transference of value onto the body. academic q&a sessions are the worst and mostly a waste of everyone’s time. fred moten is tomorrow; i hope he calls someone a motherfucker.


the girls panel at living labor, the q&a convo about whether wasting time/leisure/crime (as represented on tumblr, in the bling ring, and spring breakers) constitutes an emerging form of resistance, or perhaps a cul-de-sac in feminism that resists making value judgments about life in contemporary capitalism

living labor 


internet we bouta get real intimate today
are you new yorkers ready to get weird?


I move my body meat smell next to yours,
Your spice of Zanzibar. Mine rains, yours pours—
Sex tropics as a way to not be dead.
I don’t know who we are except in bed.

From “Arabia”
(Frederic Seidel)  (via bravenewwhatever)