A revolution without dancing is not a revolution worth having.
Farah Kali tells me this quote is misattributed to Emma Goldman. In fact, it’s just a one-liner paraphrase of an anecdote Goldman recounted in her 1931 autobiography, Living My Life. Regardless of its accuracy, the lesson is that sometimes these things get misreported or misrepresented. When they do, it’s incumbent upon those who actually do know what happened to correct the mistake, and for whoever reported or represented it inaccurately to clear things up accordingly. Until a clearer picture emerges, or more details come to light, however, these rumors will have a life of their own.
This is one of those rumors.
So the “word on the street” — id est, what’s going around currently — is that a member of the feminist journal collective LIES was expelled for “dancing provocatively” to a song by 2chainz. (Correction: Farah Kali has helpfully informed me that the song was by Rihanna, not 2Chainz). A dispatch released from their Tumblr hivemind reads as follows, with my emphases added:
The LIES collective has shifted and reassembled a lot since Vol. I of the journal came out. We are infinitely jazzed about this because the new members are galactic, amazing peeps. However, working on a collective project can be fraught and difficult as much as it is lovely. We feel it important to mention that some former members have been asked to leave the collective or left on their own, as a direct result of their white supremacist and transphobic assertions and behavior, and their refusal to take accountability for or acknowledge their actions. After being confronted about specific events as well as ongoing power dynamics, the subsequent lack of responsibility and accountability taken on their part was extremely hurtful and inexcusable. We can only characterize their behavior to be, at best, chronically unaware, and at worst, maliciously ignoring the consequences their actions and lived politics have on other people.
And, to anyone that attended our release event in Oakland — at the end there was a short dance organized by one of our now-ex-members. This dance made many people uncomfortable along lines of race and cis-identity, and there were a range of responses among the audience from anger and frustration to perturbed confusion. When challenged about this, the now-ex-member acted a fool and we asked her to leave. We felt it important to get it out there that we don’t support the dance, and to apologize.
In addition to putting out the journal, we think and talk a lot about the nature of collective political work, which is a difficult and beautiful beast. This collective process makes these betrayals all the more disappointing, and enraging. But nonetheless, we will continue to challenge ourselves to act on our politics, both within our collective project and in our everyday lives.
Yours in struggle,
Just a brief history: A Marxologist who also writes on gender and communization theory sketched out some of the backstory behind the LIES project to me at one point. Though she’d originally been a formative influence for the journal, the editors had since turned on her, both personally and theoretically, in a kind of primordial matricide. Œdipus Regina, etc. One Bordigist I know even characterized the grouplet as “Endnotes meets ‘stab your boyfriend for the struggle.'”
Slander? Or a fair assessment? You tell me.
I’ve not read LIES’ actual theoretical work from Vol. I, so I’ll have to withhold judgment on that score. But one word that immediately came to mind upon reading this was: twerking? Really, what kind of dance could it have been that carried such “white supremacist” and “transphobic” undertones? Was she goose-stepping and wearing a brown shirt with a swastika patch? Huh?
Moral outrage is unbecoming enough as it is for (ultra-)leftist politics, and the creepy paranoia about “cultural appropriation” can’t help but remind one of the uproar that surrounded Miley Cyrus’ dance at the VMAs this year. The inimitable Anna Khachiyan has already broken down the alleged “racial” and “gendered” dimensions of Mileygate on her Disorientalism blog, so I’ll defer to her “Theory of Twerk”:
It’s been nearly a week and people are still talking about Miley Cyrus. Her performance last Sunday at the 2013 VMAs raised as many questions as it did eyebrows: Are the VMAs racist? What does the proliferation of ratchetness say about our society? Is Miley the Marx of our generation? Wait, how old did you say 2Chainz was?! Keep in mind, this is an event where Grimes and Kathleen Hannah talk feminism during the pre-show while Miley fingerblasts herself with a foam hand later in the same timeslot. (Meanwhile, somewhere in Calabasas, Kris Jenner is kicking herself for not having thought of it first…) It’s also an event on MTV, which has won the award for most irrelevant network for like a decade straight. If you’re searching for meaning or substance from this donkey show, the joke’s on you. According to John McWhorter, the argument that Miley is “stealing” or “exploiting” something inalienably black for the sake of entertainment value is a misguided formulation based in the rhetoric of reflexive academic contrarianism. I call it an act of bad faith.
Surely, there’s an irony to be found in the son of Alan Thicke and the daughter of Billy Ray Cyrus, two idols of a bygone white-bread Americana, mastering blackness as the community is harvested into penal colonies, but it’s an irony that’s largely incidental. What we have today in America is a kind of omnivorous compression of cultures and sensibilities that exists mostly outside of race but entirely because of class. Harmony Korine cast “wholesome” Disney poptarts Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens opposite the brand ambassadors of double penetration because there’s a certain erotic revelry in the contrast of high and low or, rather, the dragging of the high down to the low. This isn’t cultural appropriation, it’s cultural homogenization; it’s not that white people are colonizing black culture, it’s that everyone is colonizing low culture. Hence the cultural obsession with twerking and pussy popping and being ratchet, which are things as class conscious as they are racially aware. On the heels of Mileygate, the term “twerking” has even been inducted into the Oxford Dictionary. Conversely, take the popularity of cheap beer, muscle shirts, cut-off denim and knuckle tattoos, all tokens of a landlocked redneck lifestyle that now belong to coastal hipsters. Or, the revival of words like “gnarly” and “rad” on one hand and “sick” and “dope” on the other. Or, white girls named Tanya or Crystal who call their kids Unique and Messiah. Brace yourself, people born before 1989, it’s only getting weirder.
If it’s proof you seek, look no further than your own backyard, where young and idealistic people just like you are eagerly putting in long hours to be compensated in merch and cheap flattery. But also: America’s treatment of baby boomers, the disabled, the “mentally ill,” not to mention, veterans, who are unleashed back into society without a social safety net to see them through the crisis of assimilation. The dubious virtue of capitalism is that it’s colorblind in the end. Sublimating class conflict as a race issue is the American Dream. After all, racial discrimination is an arbitrary and artificial form of superiority. But there’s nothing fake about the privilege of wealth. I’ll bet my Margiela paperweight that the behavior of rich black people more closely resembles that of rich white people than people in Camden or Newark. Just look at Will Smith. He’s a Scientologist for chrissakes.
The only way to offset this unflattering reality without actually having to overhaul the system is to partake in the illusion of equality. Of course, you can’t ask the underclass to rise to the level of the elite, but you can ask the minority to dumb itself down to the level of the masses. This is accomplished by flattening the cultural registers that once set people apart from each other, leaving behind a ceremonial diversity but abolishing any meaningful difference that isn’t monetary. Nowadays, equality and diversity mean the same thing: moral neutrality. When cultural production approaches a mean, everyone is equally worse off, but, hey, at least they’re equal.
In my previous post, I mentioned how Beyonce, Shakira, and Britney Spears all look like the same person: a working class Venus with a microwaveable complexion, mermaid hair, and petit-bourgeois aspirations. McWhorter, meanwhile, points to the casting of Brandy in a recent TV adaptation of Cinderella and the distinctively “negroid” quality of Spears’ choreography to describe to what Leon Wynter has called the “browning” of American culture. Notably, the trend goes both ways; white people “act black,” but black people also take on roles traditionally reserved for whites in the collective consciousness. This is the hard-won triumph of the civil rights movement, or as Quentin Crisp would have it, the indifferent triumph of the passage of time. But there’s a more sinister side to progress: this new moral neutrality has infiltrated all aspects of modern life and made an enemy of critique, so that unsubscribing from the narratives of forced multiculturalism and permissive pansexuality is automatically seen as a reactionary position. Thus, equality remains purely symbolic, continuing to operate on the surface level of images and their signifiers. The mechanics haven’t changed because, need I say, it’s in the interest of the ruling class that they don’t. On the bright side, everyone gets to keep their moral alibi. Enter the vanguard of poor taste.
Maybe I’m jumping to conclusions. But then again, those who’ve leapt to LIES’ defense regarding this statement have refused to clarify what exactly made this woman’s dancing so unpalatable to the feminist collective. Apparently she was shaking her ass in an unacceptable manner. Who knows? Without a description of what actually happened, it’s left to the imagination to fill in the blanks. Twerking is as good a guess as any.
Really though, notwithstanding the alleged reification of the biological category of sex — doubtless a product of automatic, cismatic, heteronormative ideology — does this expulsion on the grounds of dancing inappropriately signify anything other than a kind of weird, anti-dancing, Southern Baptist feminism?
Comrade Sophielle has thrown some helpful spitballs my way via Twitter, which I include here for the reader’s edification.
Continuing the string of anecdotes, from a source that will remain anonymous: My close friend was the dancer in question, and the “ousting” was pretty much a personal conflict and group distaste for performance/messiness masked as leftist one-up-woman-ship.
That circle of feminist writers and activists, which started as a reading group in the Bay Area a couple years ago, has since fallen apart, after a lot of public “callouts,” personal attacks, and individualization.
it’s interesting to see the effects anonymity can have on both publishing and circulating radical political voices, and the politics (or lack thereof) of accountability that goes along with that anonymity. Also very interesting to see how some “individuals” have capitalized off of the journal’s collective voice and power (through valorization by the academies through fellowships, tenure, etc.), while others want nothing to do with it and in effect have been silenced due to public shaming.
Moral of the story: we need to prioritize love and respect for each other above constant criticism and transgression!