Change the Outside instead of being Fixed on Your Insides

A Facebook exchange about criticism and enjoyment sparks a larger point about critiquing systems in which you are enmeshed. [As I edit this, it will drift further and further from the original exchange, until with a pop, it gives birth to an essay.]

WH: You could say this of so much criticism, formal and informal, newspaper reviewers, academics, and fan sophisticates: “Such discussions … easily degenerate into a bland knowingness. One limits oneself, in other words, to the dubious pleasure of outsmarting one’s own enjoyment.” –Ellis Hanson, “Queer Gothic.” in Spooner, Catherine, and Emma McEvoy. The Routledge Companion to Gothic. London: Routledge, 2009.

JS: Just curious if I understood this correctly. In general, it’s saying that the analysis and review ends up causing the loss of enjoyment of the original subject? Is this due to a problematic nature inherent in the subject, or is it merely the act of analyzing and reviewing itself, detract from the enjoyment? This seems like a super fascinating theory, just wondering if I understood it properly. The wording is kinda… academic.

WH: I think it’s that the imperative to appear “knowing” overrides enjoyment, or that you believe acknowledging your enjoyment compromises your objectivity. Traditionally, critique rested on the notion of being “disinterested,” while pleasure and the desire for pleasure are, by definition, interested. Fan culture & criticism, on the other hand, often acknowledge these pleasures without needing to cut them with irony. You don’t have to pretend you are somehow outside of what you are analyzing. (You can be upfront that it affects your affects, so to speak.) The fancypants name for that idea–critiquing something you, yourself are “inside” of–is “immanent critique.” 

Brain Massumi writes of how immanent critique acknowledges that thinking is embodied, not cut off from aesthetic experiences and the effects of pleasure, displeasure, and so forth that art (or any other experience) has on us: “Resistance is immanent critique: a ‘critique’ that is one with its enaction. It occurs at the level on which bodies think more actively and feel more thinkingly, towards acting differently together.” (106) This is also central to Massumi’s account of politics: “There is no alternative to immanent critique. Capitalism is now effectively global. There is no outside of the capitalist process. There is no position from which to critique it from outside.”(110) [Brian Massumi, Politics of Affect. Polity: 2015.]

One of the (many) reasons this stance appeals to me is that I often feel people spend more effort trying to establish that they are pure–somehow free from compromising power structures, utterly uncontaminated by incorrect attitudes–than acting to change things. As if personal purity was a prelude to acting. But such complete purity is impossible: we are always in relation to the compromising power structures, always affected by cultural forces we can’t entirely extricate from our attitudes. So they get stuck in an endless pursuit of purity rather than showing up to change things. Instead of productive coalitions, you get a purity pageant.

In other words, change the outside instead of being fixed on your insides. That’s it in a nutshell. Because we are always “imbricated,” or folded into, larger social and political structures, we can never be completely free from (okay, let’s call it evil) unless those structures cease to be evil. So our job isn’t to save ourselves, but to challenge those structures. This position would run directly opposite of the way many people imagine that social change happens: that first you change yourself, and then you persuade others, and then the problem will go away. I think that model is based on an older, “soteriological” Protestant tradition that focuses on individual salvation prior to engaging with society. We could call this stance “find your own salvation first.” In this viewpoint, you can’t save society until you, yourself, are saved. Then you can convert others and eventually, the community will experience a moral regeneration. (In New Age environs, we could substitute “enlightenment” for salvation.)

That’s well and good for people’s religious traditions. But it makes for lousy politics. In the United States, I believe that even resolutely secular folks are still reading from this playbook. Maybe the terms have changed, but the moves are the same: 1. Establish your personal purity. 2. Convert, cajole, or confront others into changing. First purity, then politics. 

For a better, less self-thwarting, approach, I’ve been really impressed with this book.…/books/against-purity

JS: Notes people’s worries about being accused of hypocrisy. 

WH:  Sure. I agree about people fearing the accusation of hypocrisy. My strategy has been to be upfront about the ways I’m within what I’m criticizing. So I often will say things like “as a white man, here’s how this gives me an advantage whether I like it or not. Here’s how I’m trying to change that. This is why I’m motivated to do so. My motives aren’t identical to a person of color’s desires to change this. But our goals overlap. That gives us something to work with.” For me, that’s what coalition politics is all about: diverse motives but overlapping goals.

For me, it also means being willing to take the back seat. To be quiet and listen when someone has more at stake, more to lose, in a struggle than I do. So if it’s a “Take Back the Night March,” my part might be to just show up. To add my body to the statement, add my voice to chants I never start. I may be there because I care about women in my life and have seen how violence and a pervasive threat of sexual assault impacts them (as well as being clear on how these issues impact me.) But the women at the march have more to lose if the night isn’t safe for them, and I need to be clear about that as well.


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