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Elizabeth A. Povinelli: "What Do White People Want?: Interest, Desire, and Affect in Late Liberalism"


This piece was originally presented by the author at State of Emergency: Politics, Aesthetics, Trumpism, a public forum that took place at New York University on December 10, 2016.

Text by Elizabeth A. Povinelli

Although I was asked to speak on the topic of affect, my remarks might be better framed with the question, “What do white people want?” Many people have already remarked on the percentage of white men who voted for Trump. But we must also acknowledge the number of suburban and rural women who didn’t care about pussies or cocks—who didn’t care about the harassment of Trump or of the exiled Roger Ailes. And we know that some nonwhite Americans also voted for Trump, no matter the blunt racist discourse of the president-elect and those around him. But the reason for asking these questions is not to cite the theoretical misogyny of Freudian psychoanalysis but to open a conversation about the current formations of race and gender in the vicinity of global late-liberal interest, desire, and affect.

The relationship between interest and desire was the question that riveted left political theory in the wake of the emergence of Thatcherism and Reaganism in the 1980s. In the context of the US the question was simply put—why did the white working class vote against its own interest? Scholars sought to understand how Reagan’s assault on African American communities (“welfare queen”) and on unions via the spectacle of air traffic controllers was crucial to his capture of the white middle and working class vote and a culmination of a longstanding “southern strategy” (Roediger); and how the supposed end of the nation-state was merely a strategy for the advancement of capital rather than a break in history (Harvey). Although articulating a very different social history, we thought we saw a similar dynamic in Thatcher’s ability to turn the white working class against itself in the infamous miner’s strike, and whites against black Britain (Gilroy). It was in this context that Gayatri Spivak famously penned “Can the Subaltern Speak?” in which she differentiated between interest and desire—capital as the international division of labor and desire as identification and subjectification. This prehistory of interest and desire is, I think, important to remember if we are to understand Trump not through the framework of American exceptionalism, but rather, as with Reagan and Thatcher, within a topological transformation of liberalism itself. If we are to understand Trump, perhaps the first thing we need to do is pull our American heads out of the exceptionalist ass of America. Just as biopolitics did not begin in Europe—and not the biopolitics of The Birth of Biopolitics, but the biopolitical of the last chapters of Society Must be Defended—but rather in the vicious excesses of the African colonies (Mbembe), so Trump’s prefiguration is not merely the Italian despots of Mussolini and Berlusconi but the Bataillean corporeal spectacle of the African postcolonial leader.

Instead of all is the same, all is different, Trump’s election provides us an opportunity to return to these questions as a means of changing our understanding not merely of the current topology of interest and the question of desire, but also the problem of affect in relation to both. What is interest now? What is the relation between desire and interest and desire and language, not merely in the context of the impossibility of identity at their intersection but in the context of what we are told is a new post-truth era in which William Burroughs’s man who taught his asshole to talk has taken office? How might separating the problem of affect from the problem of desire help us make our way through this fecal moment?

Firstly, what is the topography of interest and desire today? How do we know that the so-called deplorables voted against their interests if we don’t know what the structure of interest is? Perhaps the deplorables voted in their interest from one frame of reference, but in organizing their desire from within another unleashed a torrent of hate such that the entire separation undergoes a conflagration. In other words, what topology of late liberalism organized the rage and revolt of the deplorables? And how does it relate to the imaginary topologies in which we have been sunk? These remarks are merely remarks, so let me telegraph the point perhaps all too quickly. Since the 1980s, the imaginary of the “-scapes” (Appadurai) and of globalization have displaced the imaginary of nations and their states. Indeed, the 1990s witnessed endless announcements about the end of the local and the nation-state and the twilight of the Westphalian model. The global, glocal, translocal, and transglocal were just some of the terms and neologisms created to capture the aftereffects of transnational neoliberal capital (Harvey). Sometimes a scalar model is used to represent this new formation of interest (Drawing 1); sometimes a model of circulation is used (Drawing 2).

Drawing 1

Drawing 2

And yet, the arrival of Trump, the Brexit vote, the surge of the right throughout Europe and its embrace of Putinism, and other disturbances within the classic axis of liberalism demand, I believe, a slightly different topological model, one that better reflects the deplorables’ analysis of late liberalism (Drawing 3). Here we see two forms of relationality that are neither exactly different nor exactly the same as the two previous. The nation-state remains as a place for and the source of an extraction of capital for those for whom the nation-state is an irrelevant or counterform of identity. Their mode of sociality and accumulation operates via the movement through but without the same identificatory or economic constraints of the nation-state as those outside the circuits. Indeed, perhaps the best way of conceiving these circuits of identity, accumulation, and circulation—circuits that are simultaneously dependent on and independent of the nation-state—are tubular, or better, pneumonic. They are forms of suction in which extraction and flight are part of the same process. It is exactly this structure that many Trump and Brexit voters point to when justifying their vote. They present a choice to the urban, the liberal, the post-national population, and usually the financially elite circulating within these pneumatic tubes—if you are a part of the nation-state on which a part of the condition of your life depends, then you must abide by the same conditions of those of us outside. The vote might be seen as in effect an attempt to seal these tubes. And in this sense the analytics behind the vote are not wrong.

Drawing 3

Of course the dynamics of desire, organized according to special regional histories and discourses, hardly align with this analytics of interest. The white populism of US nationalism makes “the wages of whiteness” a crucial element of the imaginary of pneumatic capitalism (DuBois; Roediger; Kazin). It is not a distortion so much as a desire to maintain a dominant relationship between economic benefit and race. Thus the pneumatics of late liberalism meets the ghetto of American race history—as white populism attempts to seal its privilege against two forms of expansion, the expansion of black revolt as witnessed in the Black Lives Matter movement and the expansion of a diverse postnationalist national citizenry at the upper and lower end of the financial spectrum (low-wage-labor immigration and high-wage multiurbanism).

So why do we need “affect” when the concepts of interest and desire still appear to do a working man’s job of analyzing the conditions of the present? Of course the usefulness of the concept depends on what we mean to indicate in its usage. Here I use affect to indicate not desire as it has been captured by the discourses of language and subjectivity but in the Spinozean sense (or the sense Deleuze gave to Spinoza), namely, a mode of thought that doesn’t present anything. A will/volition/force that is not for something and that does not represent something else, but a pure revolt. This is not Freudian repression. Not lack. It is the pure simultaneity of yes/no. And here we can no longer ask, “What do white people want?” and believe that there will be an answer that corresponds to interest or desire. Instead, Trump and Brexit voters vote yes in order to vote no. They vote yes in order to vote against the expansion of a form of existence whose viability depends on continually vacuuming ever more finite sources from the nation-state while claiming—or living as if—they had no interest in it. The global expansion of explosive affect is intensified by the simultaneous expansion of the individual via social media and the tight restriction of the same individual in terms of her imaginary socioeconomic future.

And here we reach a set of uncomfortable conclusions. This yes in order to differ makes analytic sense as it is fueled by and fuels a torrent of racism, misogyny, and anti(the right kind of)immigrant and alt-right phobias of all sorts. It also helps us understand why the deplorables are not simply white, not simply white men, but a variety of social identities and relations, though not nearly as large a voting class as the first. And finally, it helps understand why this is not a US event, but rather part of a global roiling. There is nothing exceptional about Trump.

Top image: Trump supporters celebrate his election victory. Via NPR.

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