Archive for April, 2016

When I was a pre-teen, I was growing up in an 1980s German city, in a neighborhood where many families lived who were – back then – called ‘Gastarbeiter’ (guest-workers) – a label indicating a collective denial, which was politically transformed only after a Left wing government took over in 1998, that Germany was (and still) is a country that both saw as well as required for demographic and economic reasons immigration. At that tender age, I still had a hard time grasping the reasons for the ‘ethnic’ tensions at my school, where the Turkish kids would cluster in the schoolyard, and conflicts were fueled by ethnic categories and stereotypes distilled into us German by our fathers (more than our mothers). Our own personal and family histories need to be questioned, especially when we work as scholars.  I will never forget the day that I was made to sit next to a young Turkish boy in my class whose grades were quite bad, and it was deemed that he would be helped by sharing a classroom desk with me. Most of the Turkish kids were in their own, the ‘Turkish’ class, but this boy’s father insisted that he attended a ‘regular’ class to learn better German – even if they didn’t speak any German at home and he didn’t have any German friends, which was making it hard for him to practice conversing in German. We quickly became friends, as we realized that we could help each other out – in the way 8-year-olds figure out things: I would help him with learning, and he would help me with copying things from the blackboard, which – now that I was seated in the back row with him – could no longer see as well, strictly denying that I needed glasses (which I got a few months later, anyway). My Turkish friend, after a few weeks, confided in me that whenever he brought home an F, his father would ’take off his belt, and severely beat’ him. While he swore me to silence, horrified as I was by his story, I didn’t keep that promise. I informed my parents and attempted to talk to the teacher, but nobody seemed interested or knew how to do anything about it. Ever since then, when I encounter people who seem to prefer to be oblivious to someone actually suffering or – as my later self expanded into questions of the political imagination – are unable or unwilling to acknowledge the wider political implications of something they’re saying or doing, especially when they prefer a form of politics and politicking over the actual political, that’s when I apply some more aggressive forms of sarcasm to hold the mirror to people, especially when these are people who have received (or are active part of) higher academic education.
I found myself very recently at a conference with a lot of graduate student speakers and was rather surprised when a graduate student made a silly joke about whether stealing the artsy conference poster would get her send to  a labor-camp, this was in no way offensive by itself so I merely remarked in also somewhat non-serious way (I’ll come back to that) that since I was being German, the joke had a certain flavor when addressed to me – in the same sense that I remark that references to leading the way or leadership have funny ring to German minds. The graduate student, stopped, and then said, while laughing, that she ‘oh, was referring to that US-American student who just got sentenced to 10 years of labor camp in North Korea for stealing a poster’. I wasn’t sure how to take that as a joke, really, because it involved presently living, identifiable persons, and one individual in particular, currently actually suffering in North Korea.
I was curious, given that in some of the PhD-student presentations I had seen while at the conference, also seemed oblivious to some of the more actual political consequences of their research, to crucial ethical concerns, and to aspects of (in)justice that often remained silenced (including such instances in the keynote speaker’s talk).
While I certainly do not go the level of Zizekian tastelessness in jokes, given that I was born in Germany, I have a very unique opportunity of creating provocations, by emphasizing a certain indifference to the aspect of appearing apologetic as many Germans feel compelled to appear in public when abroad. But there is method to my madness – and I will admit, there is method even to Slavoj Zizek’s madness: Zizek’s point, that once people stop making stupid jokes about each others culture/ethnicity/religion that’s when it gets really dangerous, is not far off the mark; he’s onto something. But not liking Zizek’s tasteless jokes too much, I prefer to usually make one or two harmless comments, that refer more to how Germans should not be ruled by guilt and that a healthy way to overcome it is with some mildly obnoxious humor. When there are other Germans present at a conference, they tend to blush at these, US- Americans and British people usually become curious and refer to stories of other Germans they met, who wanted to make sure to demonstrate that they felt guilty and were apologetic for the German misdeeds during 1933 and 1945 – as if, by the way, the invention of modern biological racism by Kant, Blumenbach, and other Germanic scholars, as well as numerous other horrible chapters in German (and European) history didn’t matter. I use my mildly provocative maneuver to open a space in the discourse for a partially political point: My problem with the guilt-apologetic mentality is that it is mainly focused on oneself. Demonstrating that one is apologetic includes an expectation of forgiveness of a sort. ‘Apology’ and its relation to ‘apologetic’ are etymologically interesting, because of the relation to Greek apologētikos and apologeisthei their meaning derives, as far as I understand, from the idea of ‘speaking in one’s own defense’; the German word for apology, Entschuldigung, if taken apart means literally ‘taking off one’s guilt or debt’. When cartoonist Walter Moers published a sarcastic cartoon titled ‘Adolf’ in the 1990s, a story about Hitler emerging after 50 years of living in underground – drawn in the style of Moers famously politically incorrect provocation of Das Kleine Arschloch  (The Little Asshole) cartoons -, he faced a lot of moral backlash. But his response was put on a poster: ‘Is one allowed to laugh at the Nazis? No, one must!”
Sarcasm and satire, even if not understood as such by everyone, I came to learn early on, are far more effective than being apologetic in achieving the important political meaning behind these discourses: Namely that we do remember the suffering that happened, and that our culture/society/nation/community/… was responsible for and how  and the people who suffered, and that we make sure this kind of suffering does not and cannot happen again. In the German case, the holocaust and World War II stand out as events, but others, such  as the Massacre Germans caused to the Herero people and other colonial crimes should not be forgotten nor taken lightly. And with Germany as an economic power from the Global North, we cannot claim that we have done overly well as a nation in preventing suffering of the kind we have been responsible for directly in the past. US American history, too, is riddled with ‘problematic episodes’ to give this a, let’s say euphemistic description, and the discussion of what ‘atonement’ could mean and what forms it should take has not really been led in the US. If Randolph Hohle is right, then ‘American neoliberalism’ was born out of racism in the 1960s and 1970s, when a white business elite decided that all things white were about property and privacy, and that the welfare state and everything public was to be considered in relation to black people. This would mean, following Hohle’s analysis, that calls for austerity and tax cuts are a code for racist politics. Neoliberalism in the US American style (and here, I would correct Hohle, because we all have become so accustomed to saying [in a very colonial way] American when we should say US-American – it was noticeable that in every presentation I heard during the conference and in conversations after, people when talking and on many slides referred exclusively to ‘America’  and not ’the US’) is the oppositional force resisting that US American society and politics fully acknowledge and remember the suffering of African slaves, of Black and of Brown people, as well as of Asian Americans, and also prevents people from actively, politically working on the prevention of catastrophes on a collective, national level – individual activists and groups aside. I make this point about remembrance and prevention often, and I tend to find it maddening, when I encounter educated people who seem to prefer and convey a ’dignified ignorance’ towards political issues they are implicitly raising. That’s when I venture into provocations. It is, however, particularly frustrating, when people choose to ignore the importance of remembering the intertwined issues of past suffering and prevention of current and future suffering, especially when they chose the tactic of not engaging these issues by focusing on the initial provocation and its ‘perceived incorrectness’ instead. To begin with, we would not be in a position to have a serious discussion about the problem of collective attitude towards political events of suffering, if the provocation hadn’t served as the entry point – I have tried making my arguments in various ways over the years, and found that the route via provocation is the one that at least makes people attention. But the tactic of focusing on the provocation by interlocutors is an interesting one, because it’s a sign of a state of complacency that they want to remain in – a bit of a social pathology, if you like. In addition, their focus on the provocation itself exposes other pathological aspects, akin to the Lacanian account (often retold by Zizek) that a persons jealousy of suspecting that their lover is cheating on them is pathological, regardless if the lover is cheat in or not; i.e. fixation on the provocation instead of the argument deriving from it says more about the provoked than about the provocateur. It’s for that reason that I take more risks in pushing provocation even further. (My curiosity is perhaps my, cat-killing, pathology, as is my drive to make people think even if I run the danger of making a few ‘enemies’ along the way). Sarcasm is both a sharp knife and a blunt instrument, and it is interesting to observe when and how people refuse to engage it. As a few graduate students from said conference fell into this trap, I learned a lot about them.  As I said, I was initially engaging into this venture because I noticed in their discourse but also in their demeanor a certain ignorance to underlying political consequences as well as to actual cases of suffering and injustice, and also an interesting obliviousness to  physical surroundings. In short, we do have to face the question, at which point is a graduate student ‘trending’ towards assuming epistemic entitlement. In the preceding conference, I felt that colonial issues were, with few exceptions aka exceptional speakers, largely sidelined.  I was baffled by one person in a conversation describing  Jews in general and US-American Jews in particular as ‘colonized and Globally Southern’ – Jewish people have suffered throughout history, and  no one could dispute that Jews in the US, too, have suffered from discrimination and forms of oppression and violence, but in political terms the story is certainly more complicated than using the lens of colonialism – it may be a disrespectful to people who suffer(ed) colinialism, and not for nothing can we use the term ‘Judeo-Christian’ when referring to the Western, colonial episteme.  It’s also fascinating to take into consideration some of the white male citations during the talks and not wonder: In a few discussions during the conference, Garfinkel, Goffman, and breaching experiments came up – and, of course, we all conduct a lot of ad hoc breaching experiments at social gatherings – so it was interesting, I decided, to see what would happen if I asked one of the graduate students – the person who had a fondness for labor-camp jokes – the question ‘What if I was just conducting a breaching experiment?’ The response was enlightening, because the graduate student failed to address that I deliberately asked a hypothetical question. I was presented with a counter question instead, which was asked seriously and not in jest: ‘What? You did not have an informed consent procedure for that?’ It makes one wonder, how a persons who just spent their day invoking Garfinkel & Co. can ask this question since that would beat the purpose of the experiment. This was my actual yet hypothetically phrased response: ‘If it were one, then wouldn’t that beat the purpose?’ – a question that was the response to a questions receives as response another question…. Interestingly, the graduate student went off to discuss – in earshot – with some of her fellow graduate students the impropriety of my ‘breaching experiment’, which never was one to begin with, since I clearly wasn’t conducting any kind of study [I will however add, that if there ever was any population with whom we could potentially still consider conducting breaching experiments in an ethically at least marginally justifiable way it would be social science graduate students and faculty, precisely because they must understand the stakes of research – again, this is merely hypothetical, but the inherent attitude of a certain harshness of either sarcasm or breaching experiments should never be deployed with, for example, undergraduate students]. If this has resulted in anything, then in this being more like a piece in investigative journalism about the mentalities and sensitivities of primarily White graduate students in some of the ‘upper class’ universities in the US. While there may be understandable reasons why someone who identifies as Jewish or is close to the Jewish community would be more affected by any sarcasm built on ridiculing German apologetics culture, and sarcasm is always a hard bread to stomach,  I stay away from  references to actual atrocities or individual-related acts of violence, because these come to close to Zizekian tastelesness, which is inherently too antagonistic. Context matters in these cases, which makes it an interesting under what circumstances and for what reason this kind of sarcasm seems to affect someone personally.  Provocations, undertaken seriously, have the task of enabling the creation of discursive spaces for discussing political matters – I am very post-foundational here in my thinking. But when even this backfires, a risk we must take, i.e. when instead of creating an agonistic space together, only antagonism ensues, I wonder about my interlocutors: There is, if one recalls, a famous scene in Star Wars: The Empire strikes back, where Luke Skywalker is told to go to place where the Dark Side of the Force resides, as he is packing heat, he ask his master what he all find there, to which Yoda responds, ‘only what you take with you’. Of course, the whole thing goes pear-shaped. And that’s my question: What ‘heat’ were are people packing, who react intensely negatively to sarcasm? I assume that it is a form of ‘entitlement’. I mean this in a particular way in terms of social epistemology, but it relates to how I understand White Collar academia. Namely, my question is about warrant. Tyler Burge (and others)  made the argument, roughly, that if a person has a belief that is warranted can either come as ‘being/feeling entitled to that belief’ or ‘being able to justify or having justifications for that belief’. Along those lines, I teach my students that whenever they say or write ‘My opinion is….’ (German students, for example, are very fond of saying  and writing this  way about their opinion: Meiner Meinung nach…. or Meine Meinung ist…) they need to say or write two or three sentences giving reasons to justify that opinion. On my end, in situations such as encountered at conferences, I follow up on sarcastic, cynical, or satirical statements about ‘German guilt’  with justifying the reasoning behind the provocation: Explaining that it’s not guilt and Entschuldigung that matters but taking (political) responsibility. This responsibility is, to a large degree, of an epistemic kind. And this is precisely what is missing in our political culture or should we rather say culture of politics?
By stating one’s opinion, without even caring to be able to justify it, and by not caring about how another persons statements and beliefs could be justified, but only caring about them appearing ‘antagonistic’ to one’s own, one operates based on entitlement. It is saddening, even frightening, when specifically graduate students seem ‘not to care’, and it makes provocations more and more important. In taking on provocations, we take risks, obviously, and we run dangers (they may never serve as ‘excuses’ [another possible translation for Entschuldigung]  for random acts of symbolic/verbal violence). We expose both the vulnerabilities of ourselves, of those we provoke, and at times of those who are subjected to but subject of or in the provocation. But this is an exceptionally interesting point: Vulnerabilities. In the Western university, which is inherently structured as a White, male (and Judeo-Christian) institution, ‘vulnerability’ is given no place in the academic mentality – I will be publishing more on this issue in the future, actually. But if we want to conduct scholarship that makes a difference in people’s lives, we have to accept and deal with vulnerabilities. Vulnerabilities are what matters. But we have largely excluded them from academic discourse – to be correctly understood: I am not speaking here about the issues of ‘trigger warnings’ and ‘safe spaces’ and so on. – We have archives of resistance but we have no archives of vulnerabilities. This, namely dealing with and allowing for vulnerabilities, is something graduate students need to grasp. Scholarship that is meaningful is vulnerable scholarship. That less and less students do, is problematic and it makes provocations more and more necessary but also more and more risky – in part, because the climate that has made students turn to ignore vulnerability is a climate wherein politics is conducted in antagonistic, intentionally hurtful and violent forms – it often calls itself provocation or hyperbole, but the difference is, here, too, one of entitlement versus justification. Therein lie some dialectics, if you like, or, if you prefer, some double-binds. These are hard to escape, as Gregory Bateson and Norbert Elias have shown, but try and break them we must. Herein, I keep heeding lessons from feminist science studies and feminist ethics about epistemic responsibility: If we do not act epistemically responsible and that involves, sometimes, provocation to draw out justifications and justifying process that were hidden or ignored, epistemic injustice will increase and epistemic agency of vulnerable agents be reduced. Acting epistemically responsibly is, however, not always pretty or friendly. Provocation and sarcasm, while brutal in a way, draw out vulnerabilities.
For the better part of my life, I began to follow a learning curve of how to live along lines of Dao and Zen, specifically teachings that deploy humor, sarcasm, and a certain harshness in learning and teaching. The more epistemic responsibility a person should carry, the harsher my response if I observe that the person does not take that responsibility seriously. That means, sometimes, that the provocateur needs to appear as the kind of person that others shouldn’t want to become but are on the verge to. Because being responsible means to uncover vulnerabilities, and we can only do that if we also allow for them and allow for our own to be exposed. This is what political being means, to quote, further, Lewis Gordon: ‘To be political is to emerge, to appear, to exist.’

I never learned what became of the Turkish boy, I shared a desk with so many years ago. I switched schools when I was 11. What I know, for sure, though, is that he was vulnerable, but for my teachers he did not exist as a political subject. So, don’t(!) forgive the sarcastic man for sometimes having to annoy people a lot, think about your political existence instead.

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