I usually recognize your text messages by sight—brimming, blue-bubbling paragraphs, abloom with punctuation, signifying the advent of your questful, considered discourse. So your message the other evening took me by surprise, intoning fatigue with its brevity, its disconcerted rubato: This letter, you wrote. Now, this letter.
Qualities of address taking shape in phrases, utterances, measurements of breath: it's things of this sort, and not manifestos, declarations, or memoranda of understanding, which finally sort us into collectives.
An open letter: now more than ever, is there any other kind?
It is a moment of trial, the letter tells us at the very top. Presuming that this much, at least, we all might agree.
The list of signatories, the immediate antecedent of the implicit first-person plural, seems designed to confound any expectation of unified ideological position or normative persuasion. It's become urgent, however, to question the all of such declensions, to note precisely who claims voice on whose behalf. What brings together these figures from "left" and "right"? What kind of body do they compose, and invite us to join in silent assent? No forensic expertise is needed, no special attunement required, to discover the nature of the correspondents' constitutional attachments, for they have furnished it in the very same opening sentence announcing the test we face. It is our cultural institutions, we're told, that are facing a moment of trial.
With pandemic deaths numbering more than half a million souls; with black and brown bodies destroyed and humiliated in the name of public safety; with the richest possible panoply of minds and hopes barred from the fullness of aspiration; with a global predatory class refusing to look beyond the half-life of a hedge fund to consider the toxic burden against which the very earth cries out; with hunger, surveillance, immiseration, marginalization, expropriation, extinction, and corruption frustrating hope on all sides; the "moment of trial" our correspondents choose to decry is the one faced by “our cultural institutions.”
Their appeal to "free exchange of ideas" murmurs in anodyne language, striving not to excite or offend. An appeal to reason, it must be reasonable. This idiom of presumptive reasonableness seems torn from a lost epoch now; it sounds no more relevant to our moment than the mumbled prayers of the haruspex.
We want to conjure the public sphere as a Euclidean volume, free of imperfection. In what desert of the real, however, does the vaunted "free exchange of ideas and information" flourish? Is it not everywhere shaped, clotted, structured, constrained? And don't those constraints irrupt, not as accidents or errata, but in fact as the vital elements constituting the institutional nature of free speech itself?
Beyond the circle of "free exchange of ideas," this kula ring of intellectual and ideological gifts, there lies a barren landscape, whose inhabitants have no voice but perhaps for the data they yield: their likes, their purchases, the wandering MAC addresses of their devices. Or their antibody counts, their calories, their innumerable failures to thrive. They do not properly form into persons, do not take possession of voice—much less hold columns, podcasts, TED talks, or named chairs. But this catalogue of the organs of free exchange is by no means complete; it merely signals a genealogy that reaches back to the coffeehouses and lecture halls, the surveyed roads and cobbled quaysides, of an early-modern world in which coffee was picked by enslaved hands and cobbles set upon stolen land. Well, the coffee is still ill-got; the sand beneath the cobblestones remains unceded. The triangle trade never ended, but grew polyhedral, its vertices numberless. To trade on this ground, whether in commodities or concepts, is indivisible from privilege.
We had learned to see intolerance, bigotry, racism as obstructions to liberalism, impediments to its final flourishing. Belatedly, we're beginning to confront what subjugated and expropriated peoples have long known: that liberalism's relation to domination, exclusion, and (say it) white supremacy is not one of antithesis, but synecdoche, part for whole.
Now, I realize that "part for whole" might be perilously close to "baby for bathwater." It's a legitimate philosophical & historical question to ponder: what is the tie between the liberal values that give rise to the free speech we prize, and the white supremacy of colonial and early-modern forms of cultural politics? This nexus is a vital problem for black Atlantic and anticolonial writers of the mid twentieth century, from Frantz Fanon and Aimé Césaire to Sylvia Wynter. Richly, forcibly, with great ambition, they variously confront the paradox we mostly elide: that to admit the goods of liberal values—to accept them naively or facilely as the ground on which the excluded might find their voice—is to ignore the ways in which theories of the human that ground them were also formulations of white supremacy.
Beyond abstract formulations of the liberalism and "the rights of man," there is a more intimate, immediate, interpersonal perspective to take. It begins with acknowledgment, first, that the logics of the liberal are not immutable theorems, but sliding scales. What counts as illiberal changes. It was perfectly permissible a generation ago to voice antisemitic and racist views that are now beyond the pale. The liberal remains a realm for certain kinds of bodies, too, equipped and configured in ways deemed normal (the outlines of which seem invisible, but sear those bodies at their edges).
Today, and not soon enough, we see gender norms moving into this zone of impermissibility, acknowledging that these, too, frustrate the hopes and imperil the lives of many. And so we come to pronoun trouble, where uttering new configurations of case and number can feel uncomfortable, clumsy, ambiguous, even wrong. The opportunity, for mouths and voices new to pronoun trouble, is to use such fleeting discomfort to reflect on the trauma and exclusion of the marginalized antecedents. To acknowledge how different the risks, how broad the amplitude of exclusion, which extends far beyond the visible realm of disagreement and cancelation to erasure, negation, obliteration.
It's precisely here—recognizing the peril of speech, so closely tied to the power in words that we prize—that I think we might sense the possibility of a new set of relations, rooted in a shared appreciation of precarity and vulnerability.
Writing just now, I feel the flutter of a sigh, a flicker of tightening in the chest; there is a spot above my left clavicle, in particular, which prickles with heat when I fret. The racing affect of hesitance to offend; the tremor of uncertainty, of doubting my own claim to authority, to attention, to voice.
My impulse, reading the open letter, was to doubt myself, to distrust my own vitals. I feel myself riddled with wrong thinking, wrong intent, riven with discourse imperfectly informed. But this is the very thing: words spring from bodies, and lodge in bodies. There is no neutral space, no x-y-z of the public square; there is no veil of ignorance from behind which we can ponder discourse as some vague aesthetic. Words shape the bodies they affect—they become those bodies, and the horizons toward which they move or recoil.
So words are a form of touch, an aspect of what Stefano Harney and Fred Moten call hapticality—"the touch of the undercommons":
(W)hen Black Shadow sings “are you feelin’ the feelin?’’ … (h)e is asking about a way of feeling through others, a feel for feeling others feeling you. This is modernity’s insurgent feel, its inherited caress, its skin talk, tongue touch, breath speech, hand laugh. This is the feel that no individual can stand, and no state abide.
For Harney and Moten, this touch starts in the hold of the slaver's ship, among bodies forced together, shipped. Before the peculiar power and generational burden of this intimacy, I stand in abashed witness; I seek, I fail, to muster my adequacy. And then I recall Judith Butler's observation that it is our shared, species-wide condition to begin and end powerless, in intimacy, "given over to others." Whether caressed or coerced, we begin and end in the hands of others. I sense that a liberalism that does not acknowledge and incorporate our thrown-togetherness can never disentangle itself from the appropriations and alienations of the marketplace.
How do we name the bond between bodies and discourse? How do we renew our conceptions of speech, of liberty, to incorporate our ineluctable interdependencies, which are nowhere in balance? I am going to leave these questions open now, in the expectation of dialogue. I look forward to your texts on these matters. I look forward to your texts on the matter, brimming—finally—with hope.