Right Scholarship

A blasting site for a new Catholic cultural criticism

Month: December, 2015

Millennial Mutineers?

Statue outside Union Station

Monument to Multiculturalism by Francesco Perilli in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Photo by Robert Taylor (not affiliated with Right Scholarship) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

2015 saw a flurry of anti-racist protests on American college campuses, from Mizzou to Princeton, led by students who might be described as Racial Justice Warriors (if we adopt current social media terminology and classify the RJW as a subtype of the ubiquitous SJW or “Social Justice Warrior”). I know very well that protests and PC outrageousness have been part of college life for many decades, but there are some new factors in the recent unrest that have led me to think it’s different this time. These factors are 1) the contrast between the ideological intensity of the new RJWs and their almost complete lack of coherent grievances, and 2) the varieties of popular reaction against the new RJWs on social media, which have emerged from a new generation of rightists who may be referred to collectively as the “Alternative Right” (to borrow a label they sometimes use as a blanket term, although I know such labels are subjects of controversy). I’d like to propose, in light of these two factors, that we are not living through a rerun of the same old debates regarding political correctness, but rather that we are witnessing a new blossoming in the West of what for a long time has been the true “love that dare not speak its name”: racial fellow-feeling. I suspect that this much-unloved form of love, submerged and denied for so long, has risen again to grip the hearts of the millennial left and right for the same underlying reason: millennials are beginning to doubt and fear the false god of global liberalism. Of the two millennial factions I am referring to, I think the members of the Alternative Right are more honest about their motivations, and I share some, but certainly not all, of their political convictions. The RJWs are plainly misguided, but we can always hope that one day they will transcend their current impasse.

Although I know I risk being labelled a “cuck” by some Twitter rightists, and though I know this would make any RJW groan, I must preface my remarks by stating that I am not racist, at least in the precise sense of the term (meaning someone who thinks race is a primary determining factor in human behaviour), or even an advocate of cultural chauvinism. I have genuine respect, although not fawning admiration, for people of all races and ethnicities and consider myself an unconventional multiculturalist. I do, however, think that race is a biological reality, and that the American, Canadian, and European varieties of multiculturalism, and their respective attitudes toward race, may contain within themselves the seeds of future race conflict. The melting pot and the cultural mosaic did not destroy racial fellow-feeling; they merely snipped its roots and naively expected that it would wither and die. It did not die, and was instead set free to mutate with abandon. It has popped up in some very unexpected places, and it could do some serious damage unless we make an effort to ‘put race in its place’ and keep it there.

The RJW protests have emerged in response to provocations that for many observers seem to have little trace of either racist intent or racist meaning. College campuses are some of the most “inclusive” spaces in North America, but the RJWs see them as havens of white supremacy. How can this be? The answer is that the secular university is a microcosm of global liberalism, and is thus unacceptable to the RJWs in its current form. Global liberalism, which neuters race, culture, and religion in order to foster co-operation and humanitarianism, is what most people think they want, but the heart rebels, and the RJWs feel this internal rebellion keenly. On some level, they recognize global liberalism as the destroyer of traditional virtues like courage and hope, of transforming experiences like suffering and despair, and of the bonds of blood that unite families, tribes, and races. There is no mystery, adventure, defeat, or triumph in global liberalism, and no genuine love. Liberalism recognizes difference, but only after difference has been relativized and deflated. Life under global liberalism is, in a word, boring, and where there is boredom there will soon be revolt. To escape from boredom, the RJWs project an image of white hegemony upon the campus; the more inclusive and diverse the campus is, the more attention they must draw to the supposedly systemic nature of white supremacy and the more obscure and detached from reality their complaints become.

Although I can’t prove it (for such things cannot be tested), I suspect, as I have already stated, that under the RJW anger lies a simple desire, unacceptable under global liberalism, for the expression of racial fellow-feeling, or the recognition and valuing of those who share an inborn “likeness” with oneself. What is a “safe space” for students of a particular race other than a form of self-segregation–a space in which one is safe to express racial fellow-feeling? There is nothing inherently wrong with racial fellow-feeling, as long as it does not rob the soul of charity toward the rest of humanity; liberalism, however, will not tolerate it, and the RJWs can only practice it by positing a systemic white supremacy of such pervasiveness that segregation and racial fellow-feeling can masquerade as a simple survival tactic.

Most RJWs, of course, would deny that they have any racial fellow-feeling, and would insist that what they share with other students of their race is the trauma of racial oppression and exclusion. They have taken to heart the words of their anthropology and sociology professors and believe that race does not exist, biologically speaking. They see race as a social construct, but not a construct that has no impact on the individual or community; it is rather a construct of such malevolence that its tendrils penetrate the very skin, organs, and minds of those in our society who are “racialized.” For a racialized person, to be confronted by signs that are in any way linked to racialization triggers a painful internal response. These signs remind the racialized person of the continuing existence of systemic white supremacy, which is the titanic “other” in the Manichean worldview of anti-racist thought and which overwhelms the racialized person with its ideological size and weight. The external, objective context in which such triggering signs appear is irrelevant, for the triggered pain and emotion is subjective and felt in a subjective context. At the same time, the pain caused by these triggers does not simply injure and weaken the victimized subject; it is a shaping pain, through which a racialized identity is imprinted or branded upon the subject. It defines, in ever-more specific and excruciating detail, a racialized person and a racialized community: an ideological prison that monitors and controls but through which an “identity politics” may nevertheless be practiced through acts of resistance and the creation of small spaces of safety and solidarity.

The problem is that when one’s very identity as a racialized person is conceived of as a construct imposed by white supremacy, the only way to express racial fellow-feeling, and to foster resistance and solidarity, is to appropriate this construct, embrace one’s racialized identity, and even engage in activities intended to provoke further racialization. The protesters seek the same sense of fellow feeling that binds, for example, soldiers of the same nation or religion, although in their case the binding agent is racialization. The idea of a “colourblind” society is anathema to them, for such a society, especially if it were universal in scope, would create a black hole into which racial identity would vanish forever. For the RJWs, protest is a means of self-definition rather than an honest call for change. It is the negative expression of a racial fellow-feeling that can’t be expressed positively because to do so would rob white supremacy of its supposed identity-inscribing power. When white supremacist society fails to signal its hate, or even worse, when it opens its arms to embrace the racialized, panic sets in. Something must be done to reignite conflict, and thus the RJWs look for any excuse to protest and sometimes go as far as to fake the signs of white supremacy. They are caught in a tragic situation, seeking racial persecution as a substitute for racial togetherness. Co-opting the construct provides a substitute for racial fellow-feeling, but at the same time it makes the real thing impossible to obtain. The university educator becomes both the liberator and the oppressor, which perhaps explains why racialized students sometimes turn against their supportive professors.

The mainstream conservative media (represented by such publications as the National Review) have certainly been harsh toward the RJWs, but they are careful to couch their critiques in the language of classical liberalism. The task of defending the white race, for better or for worse, has been taken up by an ever-growing number of traditionalist, ethnonationalist and neo-fascist communities on social media, many of which have only surfaced over the last five or six years: the aforementioned Alternative Right. Their members appear to be largely from the same millennial generation as the new RJWs (although there are certainly older members as well), and they almost all reject mainstream “Cuckservative” movements like neoconservatism. Many of these groups display an attitude toward race that they sometimes describe as “race realism,” based on the principles of “Human Biodiversity” (or HBD), and a smaller number embrace outright “ethnonationalism” and actively campaign against what they refer to as “white genocide.” Racial fellow-feeling is something they are entirely comfortable with, although I feel they often grant race an unjustifiably high status. In any case, they are the rightist street-fighters of the Twitter era, waging a rhetorical war against RJWs and SJWs wherever they may be found, and I suspect their ideas will have an influence on college campuses in years to come.

I bring up the Alternative Right because I wonder if they share some similarities with the RJWs, underneath all the many obvious differences. The similarities between these two groups go beyond the generational link, and extend to their common embrace of racial fellow-feeling (overt in the former group and covert in the latter) and their rejection of the global liberalism that most likely nurtured them in their youth. The millennial reactionaries, certainly, are not products of traditions of racism and bigotry, since most of them grew up during the great “end of history” that was the 1990s, and would have been, like everyone else, supersaturated with liberal dogma and postmodern fancies. They were raised as global citizens and were expected to, as adults, obediently carry the 21st-century version of “the White Man’s burden,” dispensing invitations, gifts and salutations to the non-white world with one hand while tossing branches on their own funeral pyre with the other (to borrow loosely a simile of Enoch Powell’s). Through the continuous ingestion of liberal media on television and the Internet, and through the education system, they would have developed an elaborate mechanism of self-censorship, present in both the individual and the culture, to ensure the absence of all racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia or intolerance of any kind. The millennials who now belong to the Alternative Right are those who felt some kind of pang of discomfort as they were being told of the countless evil deeds of the white man and the West. Their hearts rebelled, and they set out on the painful path away from liberal orthodoxy.

I worry, though, that the rediscovery of racial fellow-feeling among both the RJWs and the Alternative Right may one day ignite ugly conflict. I have no stomach for racial violence, especially since it serves no purpose in our time: like it or not, given the progress of globalization, we are all multiculturalists now. However, the reawakening of racial fellow-feeling, if it does not blow up in our faces, may bring some peace. Given the rapid disintegration of the moral authority the nation-state, we are finding new ways to relate with one another and form political bonds. A gentle, gradual revival of racial fellow-feeling may help to weaken global liberalism and establish a new global multiculturalism, where like may live with like without shame, and where people may take pride in their racial roots without imagining themselves a master race.

To put race in its place we must think hierarchically. Race is not everything, but it is certainly not nothing; nor is it merely a construct. What is required to subdue the twin heresies of racism and anti-racism is to establish a permanent place for race in the hierarchy of qualities that comprise the human person. In their own ways, both the RJWs and the Alternative Right are exploring this question, although the RJWs do not realize it and the Alternative Right are rapidly becoming obsessed with it. In any case, these millennial malcontents are stirring up trouble on the great ship of global liberalism, and it remains to be seen whether their efforts will provoke outright mutiny. Surely though, as they both recognize, some rocking of the boat is necessary.

Right Theory: Culture and sophistry, part 1

I would like to expand upon some the ideas in my last few posts, the “mystical” content of which I hope did not alienate anyone in my small group of readers.

In my “Mystical Bodies” series I provided an outline of a distinctly Catholic spiritual and moral understanding of electronic media, anchored in some ideas of Marshall McLuhan. I drew attention to two great corporate entities–one spiritual and the other pseudo-spiritual–that are globally intertwined in electronic media: the Mystical Body of Christ and the Mystical Body of anti-Christ. In my final post, I hinted at the possibility of what might be called a Catholic morality of representation by examining the distinction between those types of representation that Gilles Deleuze, following Plato, categorizes as “iconic copies” (although I prefer to use the term icon instead of iconic copy) and those he categorizes as “simulacra” (47-48). The icon, in which, semiotically speaking, the signifier bears an analogical resemblance to the signified, is the characteristic type of representation that flows through and links the members of the Mystical Body of Christ; the simulacrum, in which the signifier bears only an external resemblance to the signified, and only from a particular perspective, is the characteristic type of representation that flows through and links the members of the Mystical Body of anti-Christ.

I should clarify that although my focus so far has been on representation in electronic media, where visual signs often dominate, I do not mean to restrict the term icon to pictorial signs. Out of convenience and to avoid needless digressions, I am blending terminology from the semiotics of Charles Peirce and the semiology of Ferdinand de Saussure in ways that admittedly do not do justice to the complexity of their respective analytical frameworks. I’m sure that those well-versed in Peircean semiotics would quibble with my possibly overbroad definition of the icon, but I am not drawing on Peirce’s semiotics as a whole. Still, any non-pedantic corrections or criticisms are welcome.

As I have already stated, an icon in the broadest sense is any sign in which the signifier bears an analogical resemblance to the signified. If the resemblance between signifier and signified in what appears to be an icon is only apparent and proves to be weak or false upon closer investigation, then the sign is less of an icon and more of a simulacrum. If there is no analogical connection between signifier and signified, and the relationship is arbitrary and conventional, then the sign is a symbol. However, a concept signified through an arbitrary symbol may be interpreted as an icon if it bears an analogical resemblance to another signified.

The reader may notice that the way of thinking about semiotics outlined above, although it does not (I hope) deviate grossly from any of the core ideas of semiotics, shows something of an obsession with the icon, or with analogy as opposed to difference. Cultural Studies has always tended to focus on symbolic signs or symbolic aspects of signs as elements in differential sign-systems, while a Catholic approach to Cultural Studies, as I see it, would focus on iconic signs or iconic aspects of signs. The former approach, if taken to its extreme, offers a mystical semiotic vision of radical difference disintegrating into boundless, immanent plurality, while the latter approach offers a very different mystical vision: one of flourishing iconicity ascending the hierarchy of being to the transcendent Beatific Vision. Even so, one approach does not necessarily exclude the incorporation of the other, and they share some common elements.

In this series on Culture and Sophistry I will broaden my analysis beyond electronic media to culture in general. My specific argument is 1) that the basic tenets of Catholic moralities of cultural production, representation, and reception/perception can be drawn, in the spirit of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, from both Greek philosophy and a Christian conception of the world in which Christ is the “ultimate extension of man” or ultimate medium (McLuhan 262) and 2) that such moralities may function as the foundation of a Catholic model of cultural criticism and cultural praxis that is a viable alternative to the neo-Marxist and post-structuralist models that still dominate Cultural Studies.

I will begin where I left off in my last series, with the concept of the simulacrum–a concept that has been of great importance to post-structuralist cultural theory. Although post-structuralism has waned in influence since it reached its zenith around 20 years ago, and simulacral culture is not the hot topic it once was, many core post-structuralist assumptions remain part of academic discourse in Cultural Studies and the arts and social sciences in general. One of these assumptions, derived from the work of highly influential culture theorists like Gilles Deleuze and Jean Baudrillard, is that our postmodern culture is characterized by the prevalence or dominance of the simulacral. For the pessimistic Baudrillard, simulacral culture has become “hyperreal” in that representation now precedes and determines reality, creating a situation in which humanity is left rudderless in a sea of endless simulation. Deleuze embraces the ascendance of simulacral culture with a Nietzschean optimism, hoping that new structures might be formed in and through the resulting collapse of representation into raw power and difference. I agree that our culture is highly simulacral, but what culture theorists like Deleuze and Baudrillard, and those who follow them, never seem to consider is that the ascendence of the simulacral may not be a matter of historical necessity, that humans may be less susceptible to the lure of the simulacral than they imagine, and that perhaps Plato’s ideas regarding truth and representation are less naive and misdirected than they seem to think. Their philosophical orientation in this regard can be blamed in part on the academic cultures of Europe and North America, within which reconsiderations of classical and orthodox Christian thought in their original forms are typically seen as either naive or reactionary. Luckily, I am not hampered by such restraints. Though I do not pretend to have even a fraction of the philosophical acumen of the greats of French and German cultural theory, I believe much cultural theory is founded on error and I stubbornly cling to the idea that we can reclaim the real by engaging with culture from a Catholic perspective.

In my next post, I shall turn to the realm of classical thought, which has long played a role in the development of Catholic philosophy and theology, by drawing again from Plato’s Sophist with the hope that I can provide an interpretation of Plato’s distinction between icons and simulacra from a perspective opposed to that of Deleuze.

Works Cited:

Deleuze, Gilles. “Plato and the Simulacrum.” Trans. Rosalind Krauss. October 27 (Winter, 1983): 45-56.

McLuhan, Marshall. “Playboy Interview – A candid conversation with the high priest of popcult and metaphysician of media.” Rpt. From Playboy (March 1969). Essential McLuhan. Eds. Eric McLuhan and Frank Zingrone. Concord, Ontario: Anansi, 1995. 233-69.

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