Who’s Really Laughing? The Political Economy of the Joke, Halberstam’s Disavowal of Ethics and the Closure of Leftist Politics

Introduction: Poststructuralist Ethics and Revolutionary Politics

Ethics can be defined as a mode of being-with and relating-to the Other, however she appears to us, and indeed the entire paradigm of existing-with one another. A disavowal of ethics, even when done in the name of political or revolutionary exigencies, can be devastating to our political insights, our revolutionary practices, and our imaginative horizons as to what future forms of political and social organization we might build. This mode of being-with Others defined by poststructuralist, existentialist, and Continental paradigms of thought, as well as by the foremost proponents of queer theory, black lesbian and third world feminisms, and Marxist/socialist theories of collectivity, emphasizes the position of incompleteness of individual subjects over and against the modernist and classical notion of the self-sufficient moral subject. The Other is the person who figures as a disruption or disintegration of my claims to self-sovereignty; in the terms of Jewish existentialist thinker Emmanuel Levinas, the Face of the Other is an absolute demand upon my ethical person, the ultimate call towards existential responsibility. French-Algerian poststructuralist thinker Jacques Derrida hashes out the political consequences of this “autoimmunity” of the subject for any formulation of democracy: the very notion of democracy carries with it the premise that anyone may lay claim to democratic space in order to challenge the boundaries of our politics, even to the foundation of democratic principles themselves (Derrida, 2005). This political orientation results in a disruption of the ‘ipseity’ (self-ness) of political subjects figured as democratic (keeping in mind that, of course, there has never been a ‘true’ democracy or democratic subject. Returning to ethics, the ethical orientation towards the other is itself an anticipation of a polity that would be worthy of the name ‘democracy’). This echoes Judith Butler’s claims in her brilliant 1993 essay “Critically Queer,” in which queer figures as “a site of collective contestation, the point of departure for a set of historical reflections and futural imaginings” that is fundamentally characterized by “democratizing contestations” which “redraw the contours of the movement in ways that can never be fully anticipated” (Butler, GLQ, 1993).

It is within this paradigm of ethics and collective politics that I want to situate a discussion of Jack Halberstam’s recent and controversial article, “You Are Triggering Me! The Neo-Liberal Rhetoric of Harm, Danger and Trauma“. Halberstam offers a sweeping critique of the tendency in “young”, “liberal” spaces to include trigger warnings in academia, poetry readings, or group discussions in order to warn participants about what kind of content may be encountered therein. Halberstam’s thesis is that such a practice subjectivizes participants as hyper-vulnerable neoliberal subjects who live in a postpolitical (i.e. post-radical) world in which individual trauma becomes sanctified by depoliticizing norms of group accountability. Such a practice, for Halberstam, is inherently censoring of the kinds of language and rhetoric we can use to engage with and critique the current political and economic landscape, which demands a far more irreverent attitude towards taboos such as slurs, sexual deviance, and dirty humor. Particularly controversial in Halberstam’s piece is his defense of the use of the t-slur as a politically incorrect subversive practice. In what follows, I hope to summarize the discourse around trigger warnings and the Halberstam controversy, provide a theoretical analysis of the power of jokes–>so crucial to Halberstam’s style<–and discuss more concretely the consequences of a politics which refuses to “make room” for collective ethical practices such as those of trigger warnings. In the end, I aim to show that Halberstam’s argument figures as a certain “closing” of the political circle against those who would lay claim to democratizing contestations of that space, and thus is ironically an example of assimilation of the self-same subject to neoliberal norms of identity (in this case, those who are “hip” enough to commit violence against transgender women).

Halberstam’s Critique of the Neoliberal Rhetoric of Harm and Trauma

Since the publication of “You Are Triggering Me!’, there has been a veritable avalanche of responses, both on theoretical and political blogs as well as within internet activist spaces. Across facebook, twitter, and tumblr, those who are plugged-in to the online discourse of social activism felt the reverberations of this controversy very accutely. With a few weeks of distance between then and now, perhaps it is a good time to revisit Halberstam’s thesis and reflect on the conversations that have taken place so far.

Halberstam formulates the practice of trigger warnings as such:

In a post-affirmative action society, where even recent histories of political violence like slavery and lynching are cast as a distant and irrelevant past, all claims to hardship have been cast as equal; and some students, accustomed to trotting out stories of painful events in their childhoods (dead pets/parrots, a bad injury in sports) in college applications and other such venues, have come to think of themselves as communities of naked, shivering, quaking little selves – too vulnerable to take a joke, too damaged to make one. In queer communities, some people are now committed to an “It Gets Better” version of consciousness-raising within which suicidal, depressed and bullied young gays and lesbians struggle like emperor penguins in a blighted arctic landscape to make it through the winter of childhood. With the help of friendly adults, therapy, queer youth groups and national campaigns, these same youth internalize narratives of damage that they themselves may or may not have actually experienced. Queer youth groups in particular install a narrative of trauma and encourage LGBT youth to see themselves as “endangered” and “precarious” whether or not they actually feel that way, whether or not coming out as LGB or T actually resulted in abuse! And then, once they “age out” of their youth groups, those same LGBT youth become hypersensitive to all signs and evidence of the abuse about which they have learned.

The result of such a narrative of vulnerability and inherent trauma is what I would call an “identitarian reduction” of queer identities to oppressed and traumatized status. I actually find this part of Halberstam’s argument very compelling. I have put forward thorough critiques of the politics of Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” Campaign and what I have termed the kind of “toxic soteriology” (or politics of salvation) that it inspires in my own academic work (not public as of yet). Further, I have argued for a reconceptualization of the term “dysphoria” in trans political discourse, liberating it from a neoliberal medical discourse of individual psychological trauma and placing it firmly within the realm of transgender political insight into the violence of coercive gender regimes. To do otherwise risks allowing neoliberal narratives to define our own understanding of trauma and our precautions against harm. As Halberstam observes,

as LGBT communities make “safety” into a top priority (and that during an era of militaristic investment in security regimes) and ground their quest for safety in competitive narratives about trauma, the fight against aggressive new forms of exploitation, global capitalism and corrupt political systems falls by the way side.

I can agree that there is a very concrete discursive paradigm in which LGBT politics especially falls into this neoliberal trap; indeed, gay male assimilationist (‘homonormative’) politics have done this for decades. I have also argued against other forms of queer/LGBT political paradigms which fall into this trap, including the politics of erasure/visibility/representation politics (which, besides being a naive political discourse and an irresolute analysis of the function of power, falls into liberal ideals of media normalization of queer identity). I have also consistently, and more relevantly, criticized what I have termed “Brave New World Sexual Liberalism,” or the idea that late capitalist patriarchal access to bodies should be transported to the realm of cultural, social, or political norms. I mention this latter notion because of my fear that Halberstam’s politics arguing for the transgressive potential of taboos, whether they be sexual, linguistic, or otherwise, ignores the way that oppressive power functions through scandal, deviance, and marginalized activities. We can understand the marginal and extreme activities of the periphery to be expressions and even culmination of the more “respectable” norms that exist at the center. Thus, we can understand the violence in hardcore pornography to be reflective of the violence inherent to patriarchal sexuality; or we can understand the predominance of male mass-shootings to be reflective of the reality of toxic masculinity more generally–>even if “not all men” behave this way, we can identify an analytical continuity between such extreme behavior and more banal forms of patriarchal expression. So I would like to argue, against Halberstam, that deviance and shock-value is not inherently radical, a point I would like to return to in my discussion of the use of the t-slur.

To return to the critique of neoliberalism, however, I want to agree with Halberstam that a certain “identitarian reductionism” is at work in certain LGBT/queer discursive context in which queer identities are reduced to their oppression, ignoring all of the positive, beautiful, and exciting reasons we have for identifying with queer identities. If there is anything that my political writing has continually emphasized, it is that queer identification is a practice of love and of the imagination for new possibilities for our world. I would not abide any narrative that failed to emphasize the positive and empowering elements in queer identification.

However, despite Halberstam’s argument against what I have called identitarian reductionism, he nonetheless is guilty of what I would call “theoretical reductionism”. In particular, there is a thesis in Halberstam’s critique that “trigger warning culture does not agree with my theoretical framework for understanding trauma, therefore it is inadmissable” (to paraphrase quite a bit). To use Halberstam’s own words:

As reductive as such responses to aesthetic and academic material have become, so have definitions of trauma been over-simplified within these contexts. There are complex discourses on trauma readily available as a consequence of decades of work on memory, political violence and abuse. This work has offered us multiple theories of the ways in which a charged memory of pain, abuse, torture or imprisonment can be reignited by situations or associations that cause long buried memories to flood back into the body with unpredictable results. But all of this work, by Shoshana Felman Macarena Gomez-Barris, Saidiya Hartman, Cathy Caruth, Ann Cvetkovich, Marianne Hirsch and others, has been pushed aside in the recent wave of the politics of the aggrieved.

Halberstam’s criticism of “younger” generations of queers for failing to read and conform to the theoretical paradigms of an older generation of queer theory and activism ignores the realities of institutional barriers, gatekeeping, generational amnesia, and issues of access that prevent many queers from reading, understanding, or agreeing with much of this literature; it also makes Halberstam come across as an old curmudgeon. The fact that trigger warnings put forward an alternate paradigm of conceptualizing collective trauma, and the fact that Halberstam finds this intolerable, is reflective of the theoretical closure of Halberstam’s argument around instituted norms and his exiling of a democratic contestation of those accepted theories. As I hope to argue, this theoretical closure is reflective of the ethical closure of Halberstam’s left politics and his disavowal of the ethical responsibility towards the ‘Other’. Before making this argument, I would like to briefly discuss the rest of the discourse on Halberstam’s piece.

Critiques of Halberstam; Alternate Discussions of the Practice of Trigger Warnings

As much as others as well as myself might agree with Halberstam’s caution against neoliberal narrative of trauma, many of us simply do not agree with his situation of the trigger warning discussion in this context. Much of his argument is historically strange…why the conflation between LGBT ‘safe-space’ norms (primarily seen on college campuses and in the workplace) and the trigger warning phenomenon? I could not find any concrete history of the use of trigger warnings, but it has always been my understanding that their use was a grassroots practice started in feminist spaces, that made their way into online activist communities such as tumblr, and that since have become common currency for younger queers (such as myself). There are serious questions to be raised about the kind of “normativization” of this practice which began as an ethical and contextually specific grassroots practice. That much is certain. What is less certain is how students demanding more agency in the parameters of their education, individuals articulating boundaries, or a collective negotiation of and consent to the flow of discourse, could ever be a bad thing. Dozens of conversations have opened up in the wake of Halberstam’s article, many of them arguing that we need to move the conversation away from “censorship” (which, as Halberstam ironically fails to note, falls in line with liberal paradigms), and more towards collective negotiation and conversations about group politics (namely, everything I have been describing as “ethics”).

 

Part of this shifting conversation is reflected in a three part conversation held between CAConrad, Jos A. Charles, and Andrea Lawlor, Sarah Schulman, Aishah Shahida Simmons, and Anna Joy Springer. This conversation (parts one, two, and three) broadens the discussion of trigger warnings to the context of the creative writing classroom, to a discussion of generational difference, and to the subject of disability and accommodation. There is much in these discussions I find both agreeable and disagreeable. However, I want to highlight one part of the conversation, which I find to be the proper context in which to carry out a critique of the use of trigger warnings:

Notably, womyn-born-womyn only spaces (ie spaces that exclude trans women and trans femme folks) mobilize ‘trigger’ language in fucked up ways. The classic argument is ‘well a trans woman is surely going to whip out her penis and surely a rape victim is going to be there and surely she’s going to be triggered’. That certain women’s genitalia are narrated as triggering to the exclusion of other’s is a product of trans misogyny. That certain aspects of a body, here a penis, and not others (white women aren’t excluded from these womyn-born-womyn only spaces despite their whiteness being potentially ‘triggering’ for women of color at such events), is telling.

Likewise multiple times I’ve called someone out for having transphobic or sexist shit in an article or poem and their response was ‘but I have a trigger warning’ as if the act alone was grounds to put the author beyond responsibility.

Another moment in the conversation discusses an event in which a group of white, middle-class individuals utilized trigger warning rhetoric to marginalize a black trans woman survivor:

Lisa was being Lisa at the microphone. She’s incredibly smart and witty, but she uses terms like [t-slur], and other non-PC terms. A few of the young people in the audience started to correct Lisa, demanding she not use certain words. Lisa considered them hecklers, and she handles hecklers with tremendous grace and speed, shooting them down by making fun of them. Lisa wasn’t saying ANYTHING she didn’t normally say at the drag shows at the bar, but asking her to MC in this mostly white, mostly non-working class environment made what was COOL in the bar suddenly seem inappropriate. It was a disaster. The kids started to leave in groups, angered by Lisa’s refusal to take their vocabulary lessons to heart.

Clearly there are problems here with correcting the language of a marginalized individual in narrativizing her own story. Let me be clear: there is no praxis essentialism that we may lay claim to to exculpate ourselves from oppressive norms. Any practice will be radical or normative depending on the context, who is using, for what reasons, and to what effects. Trigger warnings are no exception to this. As an example of an alternate to the paradigm which discusses the “pros” and “cons” inherent to trigger warnings (as I have just noted, there is no such thing; trigger warnings are nothing more than a particular political practice. There is nothing outside the “doing” of political practices, and thus no essentially subversive or normative element to trigger warnings), Andrea Smith puts forward a call to rethink the conversation of trigger warnings in terms of collective healing. This is the kind or re-inserting the ethical moment in the politics of resistance that I want to center in my contestation of Halberstam’s leftist politics.

In the meantime, critiques of Halberstam have multiplied. Katherine Cross has argued extensively against Halberstam’s critique, arguing, among other things, that the “postmodern” theoretical paradigm has a “deep cynicism” at its heart that “led directly to call-out culture, the consumption of individual trauma, and the more specious elements of Halberstam’s reasoning” (I don’t agree with this interpretation in the slightest, but Cross’ critique is worth reading). Over at Trans/plant/portation, it was argued that Halberstam’s call for a less vulnerable, more jovial discourse actually mimics the demands of discourses of power:

You know who talks about women who need to “loosen up?” Sexist men, that’s who. “Loosen up,” the very phrase has been used since at least the last mid-century to dismiss women’s needs and boundaries. It doesn’t shock me in the slightest that Halberstam uses it here because he’s making the very same move. Your right to a perfume-free environment is bunk. Your claim that you are hurt is bogus. Loosen up and you’ll see that things won’t bother you as much. This is as clearly an anti-intellectual engagement around women’s boundaries as one can make.

This all raises the question: what is the function of jokes and humor in systems of power?

Joking Aside: What is the Political and Ethical Function of Joke Work?

A joke is thus a double-dealing rascal who serves two masters at once. Everything in jokes that is aimed at gaining pleasure is calculated with an eye to the third person, as though there were internal and unsurmountable obstacles to it in the first person. And this gives us a full impression of how indispensable the third person is for the completion of the joking process. (Freud, Sigmund, Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, London: Hogarth Press, 1960, p. 155)

Halberstam’s call for a joking affect has already been used against him in his criticism. Cross (above) utilizes the very same Monty Python skits and films to make a mockery of Halberstam’s argument. Perhaps even better, a twitter account operating under then handle Jock Halberstam has begun to make tweets parodying Halberstam’s theorization of masculinity and pop culture, putting forward such gems as: “while u were crying about triggers i bought a new pink polo and revolutionized masculinity”  and “jock’s a real feminist, so trust me: ur emotions are dumb and boring and i do not want to talk about them. let’s talk about cars instead“.

In the past, I have made humor central as a practice to subvert dominant narratives. In my past work on articulating a Jewish critique of political Zionism, I argued that self-critical humor can be a tool to open up the closed circle around Jewish subjectivity which excludes the Palestinian subject, undoing and loosening the narrative of hyper-vulnerability of Jewish subjectivity and making laughable the notion that the seriousness of past trauma can be used to justify current injustices. To do this, I lay claim to the work of Sigmund Freud and Homi Bhabha on joke-work and the self-critical community. In Bhabha’s foreword to Modernity, Culture, and ‘The Jew’, he cites Freud’s analysis of jokes, stating: “the joke circulates around a doubly articulated subject: the negatively marked subject, singled out, at first, as a figure of fun or abuse, is turned through the joke-act an an inclusive, yet agonistic, form of self-critical identification for which the community takes responsibility” (1998, xvii). The key to this ethos of self-criticism is the possibility it creates for a form of address, in the form of its “relentless drive towards the ‘third person’, who is neither the joker nor the person who is the object of the joke, but an ‘outside person’ whose reaction makes evident the pleasure or success of the joke…” (xx). In this mode of joking, it is the making of one’s own subject position into the “second position” (the object) of the joke that opens up a third space for a new perspective to be articulated in the form of the joke’s recepient–> the person who is able to evaluate the merit of the joke. One such example of this with regard to Jewish narrativization of the Shoah (the Jewish experience of the Holocaust) can be seen in the music video for Say Anything’s Alive With the Glory of Love. The song, a kind of pop-punk Holocaust love song, narrates two lovers’ romance in the midst of the Shoah, which is subversive of Jewish narratives of pure victimhood much in the way discussed above, highlighting the beautiful, even positive possibilities for alternative narration and alternative voices. Putting forward such blasphemous lyrics as “This war was worth this,” and “Our Treblinka is alive with the glory of love,” the song refuses to be complicit in the narrativization of the Shoah and Jewish victimhood that has been used to legitimate the subordination and ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people in contemporary political Zionism. Further, the entire music video takes place in what appears to be a Jewish day camp, transposing the deeply serious subject matter into a humorous and incongruent parody. Another example of a work which uses humor to reclaim the narrative of the Shoah from those of pure victimhood is the amazing 1997 film Life is Beautiful. Through tears and laughter, Roberto Benigni takes us on a journey through the streets of Italy to the Nazi deathcamps, showing unflinching honesty towards the brutality of Nazism while maintaining a good faith retrieval of the stories of triumph, laughter, beauty, love, and survival that always existed in the history of the Shoah, but which we have been unable to witness due to the closure of the narrative space around Jewish victimhood.

It is clear how this kind of self-critical humor opens up a space, insofar as it shakes up the sedimented discourse of mainstream Jewish politics, allowing, potentially, a Palestinian voice or voices to emerge in the cracks or interstices: if we are not the sole arbiters of victimhood, if we can joke about our own status as victims of trauma, then who else might lay claim to the space of victimhood, and what kind of responsibility might we have towards them?

Who is the ‘Third Person’ In Halberstam’s Rationalization of Jokes About Transgender Women?

In Halberstam’s argument, we see a very different deployment of humor. I am going to get right to the point here: Halberstam’s rationalization of the use of the t-slur as a form of humor is not a form of self-critical identification. It is not humor that has the intention of allow transgender women to occupy the ‘third space’ of the joke, to lay claim to democratic contestations of his politics. The entire economy of Halberstam’s argument revolves around a refusal in-advance of such a contestation, a closure of the theoretical and political space of acceptable perspectives (academic, white, transmasculine) against those that are deemed unacceptable (those of trans women of color who have for decades now raised their voices about the use of the t-slur in conjunction with murderous brutality against their persons and communities). By legitimating the use of the t-slur, Halberstam in effect makes transgender women (especially of color) the ‘second person,’ the object of his discourse and economy of humor. Who, then, is the third person, the arbiter of the joke, the ‘other’ who enters the opened up space and determines the success or failure, who takes pleasure and enjoyment in the ridicule? It should be obvious that it is the mainstream cissexist establishment that is able to lay claim to this space, and not transgender women. For all of Halberstam’s arguments against respectability and assimilationist politics, he has forgotten the central and obvious fact that there is nothing more respectable in this world than hating and abusing trans women. Thus, the use of “politically incorrect” rhetoric can ironically have the political effect of furthering the venues and pathways for normative oppression. Halberstam’s whole argument around the t-slur has the central failure of opening up a space for transmisogyny to enter into (and to travel more freely within) queer spaces.

On the Political Consequences of a Leftist Disavowal of Ethics

When political radicals, especially of the white-academic type, refuse to hold to the tradition of ethics I highlighted at the beginning of this essay, the consequences are politically devastating. We have seen it before, when revolutionary politics refuses to “make space” for an “other” to lay claim to their political space, to enact democratizing contestations of the boundaries and course of the politics, that politics ultimately ends up being naive, shortsighted, and a failure in key regards (even if it has crucial successes in others). The white liberal feminist disavowal of women of color and indigenous feminisms, the Black Power disavowal of the perspective of black women, the radical feminist dismissal of transgender politics, the gay male liberal agenda, the Marxist dismissal of feminists and queer theory…the list goes on. And more often than not, it’s trans/queer women of color who are placed beyond the closure of our political horizons. I do not want to undervalue the successes of these movements; however, we need to begin to acknowledge the disavowal of the ethical moment in much of the political left, however you draw the contours of that discourse. The hackneyed feminist trope that the “personal is political” needs reworking: from now on, we ought to say that the ethical is political, insofar as ethics determines our orientation towards our own political horizons. Are we to close off our imaginative horizons, refusing the introduction of new perspectives to challenge and add depth to our own, or are we to proceed from a place of radical openness towards the possibility of alliance, coalition, and the strength of difference in the tradition of third world and women of color feminism, workers alliances, and revolutionary anarchism and Marxism?

Open Horizons: Towards a Rethinking of Revolutionary Coalitions and Collective Trauma

I have argued continually for a form of transgender coalition building that rallies around this ethical notion of radical opennes, incompleteness, and the ruptured space and anticipation of future contestations. I have centered a linguistic practice of gapping the vowel in the word trans, rendering the process of incompleteness of signification in the word “tr-ns” against the “knowingness” of such liberal linguistic practices as the “trans*” convention. This “knowingness” is the central danger of a “closed” horizon of politics–> a politics that knows precisely who we’re talking about and who we’re fighting for.

The whole discussion of trigger warnings has focused too strongly on those subjects requesting trigger warnings: who they are, what they’re like, what their political stance, identities, and histories of trauma are. Rather than reproduce this discourse of “knowingness” about who is laying claim to our space and contesting the boundaries of our discourse, we should instead be asking ourselves, who are we to deny this contestation of our space? Who are we to say, no, this ‘Other’ perspective which disrupts the course of my “free speech” is an unwelcome derailment of my own political goals? Who are we to decide which political goals are worthy of pursuit? Why are we insistent and invested on laying out the boundaries of our space, rather than allowing those who enter the space to contest those boundaries and redraw the contours of our political imagination? We need to radically rethink how we handle this kind of contestation, allowing the ‘Other’ to figure as a new articulation within our own subjectivity, to allow alterity and subjectivity to be articulated together. We need to stop pretending that we know, in advance, what these contestations look like, who is making them, and why. We need to stop writing off those who challenge us as “hyper-vulnerable, postpolitical subjects” and allow them to speak for themselves. Only then can we begin to forge a new kind of collective that begins as a movement, a redrawing, a dismembering and reconstruction towards a democratic and radical coalition to-come. Clearly, we have a long way to go for such a possibility to enter into our horizon of intelligibility.


 

References

Cheyette, Bryan and Laura Marcus (ed.). Modernity, Culture, and ‘The Jew’. Stanford University Press, 1998.

Butler, Judith. “Critically Queer. GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies. November 1993 1 (1). 17-32. 

Derrida, Jacques. Rogues: Two Essays on Reason. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 2005.

Freud, Sigmund. Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious. London: Hogarth Press, 1960 (Volume Eight of The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Trans. James Strachey, collab. Anna Freud, ass. Alix Strachey, and Alan Tyson).

 

 

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