A Taste for the Political
Here I explore as both an ethical and an aesthetic question what it means to assert that some pursuits can or should be “outside” of politics.1 The social differences that continually appear as divisive, be they express political divisions (Republican or Democrat) as well as more nebulous social differences (such as queer and straight or black and white) are constituted, at least in part, through the ways that emotional attachments to some ideas, symbols, and language pull social subjects toward some people through the process of driving them away from others. Self-understanding is revealed as bound up in these numerous small, everyday acts of metaphorically or literally moving near or away from others. If social identity is part of how we come to have self-understanding, then the building blocks of that self-understanding house complex emotional attachments that can mask or hide parts of the self; this lack of understanding is a barrier to practical ethics and political solidarity. My analysis here focuses on US American privileged subjectivity, as I begin to explore the work that might make it possible for white subjects to craft a sensibility that does not need to retreat from politics as an assertion of comfort. Arguably this requires the active confrontation of the parts of oneself that are alienating, strange, unwelcome, and unwanted.
Lauren Berlant wrote in the preface to Cruel Optimism that the activity of affect “saturates the corporeal, intimate, and political performances of adjustment that make a shared atmosphere something palpable and, in its patterning, releases to view a poetics, a theory-in-practice of how a world works” (Berlant 2011, 16). Following this idea, here I identify cultural moments that expose the patterning of a sharable atmosphere that would constitute whiteness as the work of worlds that are not tainted by politics. The levels of displacement necessary in such a hypocritical rejection of politics strike me as a political issue; it is from this concern that I begin an analysis of identity, taste, and the norms of political discourse.
To illustrate what I mean, consider the emotional response of many white fans who condemned Beyoncé’s performance at the 2016 Super Bowl halftime show, or who question whether NFL players such as Colin Kaepernick should be able to take a knee during the playing of the US national anthem. In each of these moments, criticism seems to suggest that some things are just “not done” in sports. In considering what it is about recreation that can get people so seriously riled up, I suggest that perhaps some social subjects manipulate privilege to present their pastimes as previously innocent of politics and hence capable of being tainted and polluted. However, the vehemence expressed in these protestations seems to betray how deeply political “good clean fun” might have always been—especially when it is usually people of color who are being attacked for “bringing politics in.
This makes me wonder what is at stake in an orientation toward pleasure that asserts that it has to be pursued absent or outside of politics. This orientation is enacted when a social media post is prefaced by the disclaimer “This is not a political post but…” This seemed to be a frequently used caveat on social media after the 2016 US election, usually introducing a clearly political post. In this context “politics” is something that other people enact, while I (the poster) simply assert that the specific conditions that affect my family, children, pets, neighborhood, or job are of national if not global significance and should be considered when policy, norms, and law are decided. This pattern holds whether politics is understood broadly, as the analysis and enactment of social-political power, or narrowly, as participation in campaigns and elections.
To explore this orientation further, I read an aesthetic object from social media in order to connect a depoliticized or apolitical sensibility to the construction of white worlds. I do this to understand the ways that taste can work as an alibi for political retreat. Taste has been understood in the history of philosophy as both the passive faculty of finding something pleasing (for which there is no accounting) and also the cultivated capacity for judging something to be beautiful (accessible only through a “proper” education). I provisionally suggest that the layering of these two meanings can help to explain the emotional adjustments that connect people to the caveat “This is not a political post but….” which I reference above. I propose there is an aesthetic sensibility shared by many white people that constructs politics as distasteful in order to prevent discomfort. By sensibility, I mean a capacity for feeling, an orientation toward aesthetic experience that maps the contours of the ways people tend to respond positively, negatively, and ambivalently to cultural moments and experiences.2 Confronting political uneasiness courts an engagement with uncomfortable parts of the self, an acceptance that as a white person there may be some aspect to myself that I do not recognize and I may not like. In order to disrupt the ways discomfort is managed and manipulated from a place of privilege, I explore how lives of privilege are built and maintained through choices and gestures and connections that would cocoon some of us in a “comforting” whiteness.
To do this, I turn now to a meme (Women Working 2017). I ask you to concede, at least for the sake of argument, that there is something in this meme that allows for critique of an aesthetic sensibility that matters. The meme consists of an image with a caption. In the foreground there is a young white woman with perfectly unwrinkled skin and natural looking makeup. She wears an icy blue turtleneck sweater that is pulled down half-way over her hands. Her left arm is pulled up so it cradles her face; her right arm is pulled in so it cradles her left arm, and she looks off into the distance. The background is out of focus but you can just make out that it is a nature scape, wild enough to feature plants but tame enough to have a path. The image is designed in a light blue color scheme, a muted robin’s egg blue with just a hint of green. I believe it is meant to be soothing. The text reads: “The older I get, the more I realize I don’t want to be around drama, conflict or stress. I want a cozy home, good food, and to be surrounded by happy people. Type yes if you agree.”
I intend the work of analyzing this meme to articulate the raced elements of the sensibility that could produce a taste for this—this object and this life—as a taste against politics. The whiteness of this object is apparent but complex. It is evocative of a kind of “normalcy” that calls to mind Martin Luther King Junior’s condemnation of “white moderates” in the “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Having identified the white moderate as more dangerous to black civil rights than outright racists, King remarks that the white moderate “prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice” (King 1963). On King’s analysis, aligning peace with the absence of tension is an act of privilege that enables retreat from either a political or moral obligation to work immediately for a just society.
The meme evokes just such a negative peace; it begins with what the woman does not want. It also seeks a retreat into what María Lugones names in Pilgrimages/Peregrinajes the infantilization of judgment, which “is a form of ethnocentric racism precisely because it is a self-indulgent denial of one’s understanding of one’s culture and its expressing racism” (Lugones 2003, 49). Lugones argues that a white/Angla woman’s ability to unlearn a socially sanctioned habit of retreating from the realities of racism must be intentionally crafted in order to “become and think as a self-conscious critical practitioner of her culture and a self-conscious and critical member of the racial state” (Lugones 2003, 43). An active and dynamic understanding of the cultural and political power dynamics that constitute one’s racial privilege is thus essential. Yet, here the desire for comfort affirms whiteness which, as Sara Ahmed argues in “A Phenomenology of Whiteness,” would ideally be experienced as a seamless integration between one’s own body and the social world. Ahmed explains that whiteness, therefore, “…may function as a form of public comfort by allowing bodies to extend into spaces that have already taken their shape. Those spaces are lived as comfortable as they allow bodies to fit in; the surfaces of social space are already impressed upon the shape of such bodies” (Ahmed 2007, 158). The sensibility invoked in the meme represents an aspiration for something precisely not exceptional or excessive, something quite “normal” and comfortable. But the rejection of the politics associated with this sensibility (a politics which would no doubt involve some stress at least and probably also drama and conflict) is a rejection of the political constitution of the everyday. In other words, the claiming of non-political space is an act of power that is possible because of political choices that go unnamed as such.
In arguing that there is a politics of the everyday, I want to invoke “politics” in at least two ways. First, to indicate the results of choices that enact the distribution of social resources; second, to indicate the emotional force of coming to feel and believe and act in ways that impact the broader community and produce a feeling of normality. Each of these meanings helps to unpack the whiteness I am trying to understand: in the first sense, I see a strong connection between the general aspirations expressed in the meme and the specific fears and desires and hopes that helped push the construction of the suburbs as white spaces. I want to index here the historical impact of racial migration in cities across the US that enacted a segregationist isolation by way of racist housing and loan policies that still affect day to day material life chances. To see this desire to sink into the suburbs as an everyday politics, I draw on an interview with Kwame Holmes, who argues that after WWII, parents moved to the suburbs in part to “secure their own children’s innocence within racially homogeneous schools” (WNYC, 2016). Holmes speculates that such a desire for innocence might be figured now through the genre of “great again” discourses,
So there’s a way in which you can engage in racist activity to protect your kids and then you have a kind of double-whammy where protecting kids means not communicating to them the actual reason for their lifestyle and the way things look [emphasis mine] so they can grow up innocent of that as well and potentially right now I think that when people say our kids won’t have what we had maybe what they’re also lamenting is that their kids cannot be innocent of racial injustice any longer and so part of this frustration that could be animating the Trump supporter is that there is no way for the suburb to do the work it used to do to contain childhood innocence, because the media and the globalization of information has made that impossible. (WNYC, 2016)
On this analysis, the aspiration toward a “cozy home, good food, and to be surrounded by happy people” as articulated in the meme may be a code for racial innocence. Desiring innocence is much more than simply a desire for safety: it is a desire for solace, for affirmation. The privilege of comfort at least requires and more likely is purchased through a retreat from not only the anxiety, discomfort, and suffering of others, but from the real privilege that locates the white subject in a racial state. White spaces have been socially-politically formed through white supremacist politics. Over generations, segregationist politics sediment as a white suburban sensibility. This creates a context facilitating the development of tastes for (or against) certain objects, pastimes, and persons. These tastes are thus political.
In Ordinary Affects, Kathleen Stewart writes, “Politics starts in the animated inhabitation of things, not way downstream in the various dreamboats and horror shows that get moving. The first step in thinking about the force of things is the open question of what counts as an event, a movement, an impact, a reason to react” (Stewart 2007, 15–16). I have been trying to read the meme’s provocation, “type yes,” as such a reaction, as a start of politics, a moment of animated inhabitation. The retreat into taste that I address is another way that white subjectivity protects itself from confronting its own strangeness. But the world is fraying through the friction of racial history pushing on the notion of a neutral white subject. My suspicion is that the enactment of an aesthetic sensibility allows one to experience in the first person a desire for ideals: preferences for certain styles, experiences, or places in a way that is clearly raced (and classed and gendered, although I have not sufficiently theorized those dimensions here). There might be an aesthetic sensibility to neighborhoods or fandoms; these aesthetics can be engendered and produced through the particularity of taste for some kinds of people, and food, and music, and friends. This might gather together people and hold white subjects in taste-worlds that severely limit the power of the imagination such that, to paraphrase Charles Mills, white subjects remain “unable to understand the world” we ourselves have made (Mills 1999, 18). But culture impacts what is politically possible: how and what we like directs how we spend our time, where we put our money, what people (specifically) and what kinds of people (more generally) fill our imaginaries. I suggest that careful analysis of a taste against politics can help reveal the quotidian, aesthetic investments that gather and hold white spaces. This may enable new patterns for interacting with uncomfortable parts of the self so that privileged citizens can come to recognize how it is possible to confront racial privilege and work in solidarity with communities of color. Such work may be served by understanding how daily tastes can be sutured to a politics of the everyday in a way that reveals the agency of a sophisticated practitioner of culture.
1 I presented a version of this paper at the 2017 philoSOPHIA conference and wish to acknowledge and thank the organizers of that conference as well as the audience at that talk and my co-panelist, Erin Tarver, for the discussion.
2 I developed this reading of sensibility through an engagement with Rosalind Gill’s (2007) analysis of postfeminism as a sensibility.
Ahmed, Sara. 2007. “A Phenomenology of Whiteness.” Feminist Theory 8 (2): 149–168.
Berlant, Lauren. 2011. Cruel Optimism. Durham NC: Duke University Press.
Gill, Rosalind. 2007. “Postfeminist Media Culture: Elements of a Sensibility.” European Journal of Cultural Studies 10 (2): 147–66.
King, Martin Luther. 1963. “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Accessed February 28, 2018. https://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html.
Lugones, María. 2003. Pilgrimages/Peregrinajes: Theorizing Coalition Against Multiple Oppressions. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
Mills, Charles W. 1997. The Racial Contract. Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press.
Stewart, Kathleen. 2007. Ordinary Affects. Durham NC: Duke University Press.
WNYC. 2016. “Who Owns the Deed to the American Dream?” The United States of Anxiety, podcast audio, 29 September 2016, https://www.wnycstudios.org/story/united-states-of-anxiety-podcast-episode-2/.
Women Working. 2017. “The Older I Get.” Facebook, January 29, 2017. https://www.facebook.com/womenworking/photos/a.435543549522.203972.77018529522/10155324326764523/?type=3&theater.