Marina Vishmidt is a London-based writer occupied mainly with questions around art, labour and value. She is the author of Speculation as a Mode of Production (Brill, early 2016) and A for Autonomy (with Kerstin Stakemeier) (Textem, 2015). She also writes often with Anthony Iles and with Melanie Gilligan. She works with artists and contributes to journals such as Mute, Afterall, Texte zur Kunst, and the South Atlantic Quarterly, as well as co-/edited collections and catalogues, most recently Anguish Language (Archive Books, forthcoming). She is part of the Theory faculty at the Dutch Art Institute, a visiting lecturer at Middlesex University and the University of Brighton, and has taught at the University of the Arts in Berlin, Central Saint Martins, and Goldsmiths.

Okay. So, I’ve just prepared a few remarks around the project, and then I’m gonna sort of perform an exercise. I ask you to bear with me, through both.

Thank you so much for inviting me to be part of this discussion, Ellen and Karisa, and I’m looking forward to discussing with the others on the panel. And it seems that we all are in dialogue with each other. So, for today, one of the core things I’d like us to focus on in particular is the penultimate question from the introductory statement to the Policy People project, the question that goes, ‘How do we build solidarity in issues that are differentially felt? What is the role of feelings in securing domination?’

Because it seems to me that feeling, or, as it is more commonly theoretically categorized nowadays, ‘affect’ — although there are important differences between them, depending on the epistemic, scientific or theoretical position — is at the center of how we consider policy as an instrument of governance and how it mobilizes and invests the ‘cruel optimism’ (to quote a much-cited theorist of affect) of trying to live under conditions of opacity, oppression and exploitation, a condition which is ‘differential,’ as the question has it, insofar as it spans the material and structural positions which have access to subjectivity, and thus to complicity, and those which have to mime the corporate citizenship, which is the badge of membership in civil society, from a position of total disposability where subjectivity is crushed by poverty and repression but by no means as extinguished as some critical theorists need it to be - what is also often called especially nowadays ‘social death.’ And I think something like an awareness of this – as a premise for any activity, however remedial and/or contingently revolutionary, pervades all the texts that have been collected in the Policy People reader.

Elsewhere, I’ve thought of — I’ve been approaching this question of policy in terms of the biopolitics of reproduction, or what I have just started calling ‘reproductive realism,’ wherein social reproduction feminism, as a praxis and analysis that started out, or intends to locate the invisible, unmeasured, abject and feminized in the circuits of value production and circulation with the aim of political subjectivation, or in slightly different terms, elaborating a logic of gender as the production of socially necessary non-value in capital’s terms which are forcibly also our terms, when social reproduction feminism or its kinds of perceived political legacy gets turned around into the basis for affirming a complicity without borders executed in the sort of bad faith of universal objectification and vulnerability. ‘Life’ here gets reified and moralized so that antagonism is included via its exclusion from the very beginning, and thus critique can only be gestural, accumulative, and ultimately, only be policy, to use the greatest short-hand. And thus, it exacerbates vulnerability by discounting solidarity, or placing ‘life’ over the conditions of life. This is reproductive realism.

However, today I would like to make a performative intervention in the discourse of social death and anti-blackness which has been so relevant recently in displacing the politics of recognition and governance by inclusion or by inscription, in contesting the parameters and desiring structures of radical politics. Basically, I’d like to use the pretext of this feminist event to see whether this discourse’s rigorous calibration of value and valuelessness can be adjusted or extended to consider the structural and affective experience of gender, that is to experimentally test out what the gender politics of ‘black pessimism’ might be, as part of another and related inquiry, that is, Frank Wilderson’s argument that the black slave is the only possible revolutionary subject because it is the only structural position whose exclusion is fundamental to the existence of modern capitalist Western civilization as a world of anti-blackness, and there is a position whose emancipation can only be achieved through a destruction of white supremacy and the world it has built, which is the world we all live in, a world of which capitalism constitutes a subset. Probably one of the more troubling implications of this position, which is polemical and thus generative far beyond its barriers or blind spots, not least in its grasp of the negative dialectics of strategy, is that it argues against the possibility of solidarity in this struggle among groups which are seen as organizing for recognition, or aiming at recognition, and thus a share of power, a chance to become State, and not for its annihilation. These groups include all colonized peoples who are not black and have not been enslaved, white women, workers and immigrants – insofar as they do not exist in the physical, ontological state of exposure to the lethal effects of anti-blackness and thus are subject to the illusion that the world can be improved without first being destroyed.

In essence, the quest for sovereignty (or a struggle that is predicated on sovereignty or a desire to achieve restitution for dispossession) and the horizon of destruction are seen as, are proposed to be, incompatible. At least, strategically incompatible. I really want us to think as hard as we can about this anti-solidarity position and what it can mean, what it shows us, or what we might want to do with it. It might also throw some light on why it’s relatively rare that the lives of women or trans people get explicitly discussed, by people of color activists or by white revolutionaries, in the public debates and uprisings that happened and are happening around the incidents of police murder that triggered the Black Lives Matter movement. [note: this is now changing in the activist discourse]

I will start with some quotes, from the interview Policy People conducted with Gillian Harkin and Erica Meiners on prison abolition, the contradictions of reform, and how the project of prison abolition can be a queer one against a background of what they call ‘white ladies bountiful,’ the institutional dedication to the confined affordable to those who wield the freedom afforded by class and race privilege. That’s the white ladies bountiful. How the carceral institution can be both supported and dismantled by the activism of those working inside it – or can it? - that is, practically speaking, while running educational programs inside the prison-industrial-educational complex – a project which could be relevant to discuss also in terms of Stefano Harney and Fred Moten’s concepts of ‘being in the hold’ and ‘study.’ There are a few phrases that caught my attention in the interview, specifically in the context of the exercise that I am about to perform in front of you.

So, one quote is, “We can and do get cleared, navigate the prison and submit — all women must wear ‘real’ bras.”

The other quote is, “Otherwise given the current hierarchies of institutionalized value we will be steered consistently toward models of production without reproduction, dialectics without desire, anti-racism without feminism, feminism without history, etc.”

In the spirit of something else Gillian notes, about how pedagogy can create something other than naming (we might also want to call the institutionalized performance of this naming ‘critique’), I’m gonna read a part of a 2003 essay by Frank Wilderson, called The Prison Slave as Hegemony’s (Silent) Scandal, which has already been referred to. What I’m going to do is to attempt to substitute every occurrence of reference to blackness with references to gender, and see what happens. This is not intended to demonstrate anything but to initiate a process of questioning, precisely on the question of solidarity, or, to use another set of terms, whether those submitted to the logic of gender and the logic of racialization do actually share more than this text wants to consider in terms of radical negation, or, having something at stake in the destruction rather than the improvement of the world.

So, I begin — I begin the test. The Prison Slave as Hegemony’s (Silent) Scandal, prefaced by a quote from Eugene Genovese, from 1993. So, unfortunately, this would probably be better if everybody had the text in front of them; as it is, it might just sound bizarre, but that’s part of the exercise. “The [female] experience in this country has been a phenomenon without analog,” Eugene Genovese.

“There is something organic to [women’s] positionality that makes it essential to the destruction of civil society. There is nothing willful or speculative in this statement, for one could just as well state the claim the other way around: There is something organic to civil society that makes it essential to the destruction of the [female] body. [Femininity] is a positionality of “absolute dereliction” (Fanon), abandonment, in the face of civil society, and therefore cannot establish itself, or be established, through hegemonic interventions. [Femininity] cannot become one of civil society’s many junior partners: [women] citizenship, or [female] civic obligation, are oxymorons.”

So, I realize now that I’m reading it, it starts to sound a bit like the SCUM manifesto, of all things.

“In light of this, coalitions and social movements, even radical social movements, like the Prison Abolition Movement, bound up in the solicitation of hegemony, so as to fortify and extend the interlocutory life of civil society, ultimately accommodate only the satiable demands and finite antagonisms of civil society’s junior partners (i.e., immigrants, white women, and the working class), but foreclose upon the insatiable demands and endless antagonisms of the prison slave and the prison-slave-in-waiting. In short, whereas such coalitions and social movements cannot be called the outright handmaidens of [patriarchy], their rhetorical structures and political desires are underwritten by a supplemental anti- [anti-femaleness]. [Anti-genderness].”

Voice from audience Misogyny.

Well, no, no; but that would be — anti-blackness is different from racism. So it has to be anti — anti-something.

“Any serious musing on the question of antagonistic identity formation — a formation, the mass mobilization of which can precipitate a crisis in the institutions and assumptive logic that undergird the United States of America — must come to grips with the contradictions between the political demands of radical social movements, such as the large prison abolition movement, which seeks to abolish the prison-industrial complex, and the ideological structure that underwrites its political desire. I contend that the positionality of [women] subjectivity is at the heart of those contradictions, and that this unspoken desire is bound up with the political limitations of several naturalized and uncritically accepted categories that have their genesis mainly in the words of Antonio Gramsci, namely, work or labor, the wage, exploitation, hegemony, and civil society. I wish to theorize the symptoms or rage and resignation I hear in the words of George Jackson, when he boils reform down to a single word, “fascism,” or in Assat’s brief declaration, “I hated it,” as well as in the Manichean delirium of Fanon, Martinot, and Sexton. Today, the failure of radical social movements to embrace symptoms of all three gestures is tantamount to the reproduction of an anti-[women] politics, that nonetheless represents itself as being in the service of the emancipation of the [female] prison slave.”

And finally:

“Whereas the positionality of the worker (whether a factory worker demanding a monetary wage, an immigrant, or a [white] woman demanding a social wage) gestures toward the reconfiguration of civil society, the positionality of the [female] subject (whether a prison-slave or a prison-slave-in-waiting) gestures toward the disconfiguration of civil society. From the coherence of civil society, the [female] subject beckons with the incoherence of civil war, a war that reclaims” — it seems — it seems wrong to say “femininity”. Uh…”[femininity], as a — not as a — or, [femaleness], not as a positive value, but as a politically enabling site, to quote Fanon, of “absolute dereliction.” It is a “scandal” that rends civil society asunder. Civil war, then, becomes the unthought, but never forgotten, understudy of hegemony. It is a black [women] specter waiting in the wings, an endless antagonism that cannot be satisfied (via reform or reparation), but must nonetheless be pursued to the death.”

Transcribed from March 2015 presentation