Letter - Reflective Solidarity and Paradigms of Suffering

Kieran Aarons

Dear UTA,

The Editorial in Upping the Anti Issue 15 invokes Jodi Dean and Chandra Mohanty’s visions of solidarity as a process of linking distinct struggles, rather than rallying around common identities, as one way to avoid a feminism molded exclusively around experiences of White women, to the exclusion of colonized, Black, queer/trans, and non-Black women of colour. However, I question whether this “praxis-oriented” form of solidarity, which in the end understands solidarity rather classically as the achievement of a universality constructed by linking particular differences, does not inadvertently serve to once again obscure structurally distinct logics of material power and symbolic non-relationality. This vision does not seem to resolve the problem of how White experience crowds out different experiences, but rather only replaces a tacitly assumed existential commons with a voluntaristically affirmed one, thereby simply transposing the problem from one level to another.

Your editorial oriented its analysis largely around the intersection between White feminism and the paradigm of settler colonial racism confronted by Indigenous women. Its conclusions reflected the ambivalence that defines the social positionality of the colonized Indigenous North Americans as both the object of genocide while simultaneously and paradoxically remaining subjects capable of mobilizing claims of territorial belonging, cultural continuity, and political sovereignty. However, I think a more sustained consideration of the specificity of anti-Black racism (in contrast to that meted out against non-Black people of colour and immigrants) can draw this tension out more clearly.

Afropessimist thinkers, including Frank Wilderson, Saidiya Hartman, and Jared Sexton (among others), have recently called attention to the insufficiency of prevalent anti-capitalist frameworks of struggle in accounting for the phenomena of Black oppression. They argue that both the modality and very register of oppression experienced by the Black subject are qualitatively incommensurable with the classical Marxist problematic of exploitation and alienation. At a symbolic level, these theorists argue that Black folk are constitutively denied cultural and political membership within White civil society in such a way that no analogical bridge to White culture exists through which Blacks could conceivably wage a war of position or sue for the sort of junior partner status accorded to White women, non-Black people of colour, or immigrants. At a corporeal level, the social death of the Black body signifies a constitutive rather than contingent experience of ballistic material violence (i.e. it awaits no transgression), situating the Black body from the outset within relations of direct force that lack the logical coherence characterizing the exploitation of wage labourers by capital, for example. That anti-Blackness is qualitatively singular, defined by a gratuitous violence, fungibility, and social death or ontological incapacity, means that both the aims as well as the means of Black liberation most likely differ from those that predominantly frame anti-capitalist, feminist, and post-colonial struggles.

This leads me to ask several questions of your editorial. Given the critique of the limitation of a common identity as a baseline for feminism, does it make sense to then presume that so- called common interests exist that are amenable to a recognition between groups? Mohanty writes that, “Rather than assuming an enforced commonality of oppression, the practice of solidarity foregrounds communities of people who have chosen to work and fight together.”  The reflective approach seems to rely on a distinction between a diverse experience of oppression – what we might call a default commonality between objective or paradigmatic features of everyday life – versus a voluntary commonality linked to our will, one which appears to be based on a decision in which we consciously choose to link our struggles together. Yet, does not the capacity to affirmatively link our struggles together already presume the possibility of analogizing this prior experience of oppression? And then are we not stuck back in the original problem of assimilating experiences? Although your Editorial emphasizes that this strategic analogization or knotting is an analytic tool and therefore should not be understood as a category of identification, how can it avoid articulating supposedly common grievances within a grammar of suffering that applies to certain forms of oppression rather than others?

What if, given the structural forms of suffering they experience, certain groups do not experience a common horizon of possibility, and hence the inclusion of certain perspectives would actually threaten to disarticulate the potential frameworks of collaboration, especially collaboration among the “junior partners” of Whiteness? Should we assume that the identification of common problems is enough to override the fact that, at both a symbolic and a material level, the very existence of White settler civil society per se is a source of incapacitation for some? Perhaps this is why Wilderson cautions junior partner activists against presupposing the existence of what he calls an “existential commons” when they imagine that – if only everybody can agree on their enemies –everyone is on their side.

In solidarity,
Kieran Aarons
Berlin, Germany