From Choice to Polarity: Politics of, and, and in Art

by China Miéville

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In a rough landscape in central Africa, men are at work. They carry fire, haul industrial parts, wheeze under protective masks. They’re sweating and exhausted. When at last evening comes, they clock off and shower for a long time under cobbled-together plumbing. Then they rummage in battered wardrobes, bring out extraordinary clothes, and transform.

Crocodile shoes; canary jackets; Savile Row shirts. Twirling canes, they set out through the dust to strike a pose. To perform. A strut-off in a late-night bar.

The subject of this film are sapeurs, The Society of Ambience-makers and Elegant People, men of Congo-Brazzaville committed to agency through couture, sartorial elegance, swagger, whatever the poverty and pollution and war detritus around them. Be inspired.

Only we’re shifting in our seats. Certainly, the unlikely runway show is a delight, but it provokes discomfort too. Recollections of another tradition.

In 2009, when Jay-Z played Glastonbury, there was a false rumour that he arrived, oligarch-style, in a gold helicopter. ’I know what you’re doing …’ he said of those who disseminated the story. ‘The intent was, “These foolish black guys who spend too much money on things and they think they’re all this and that.”’

It is a familiar cultural image, after all, the outlandish overblinged black person – particularly man – who doesn’t realise he is a joke, an undignified clown. The gilded pimp, the hustler. It is a racist trope of long standing. The preening slave.

A lifetime ago, musician Shepard Edmonds described a dance wherein ‘slaves both young and old would dress up in hand-me-down finery to do a high-kicking, prancing walk-around.’ This dance, the cakewalk, was originally mockery of the slave-owners, but they soon transformed it into an object of supremacist parody. A mainstay of minstrel shows, a mockery of the black performers in their best clothes, a masquerade deeming them absurd.

Now with these lingering shots of the sashaying Congolese sapeurs comes a question: are we watching a display of resilience and dignity? Or a modern cakewalk?

Throughout its long history, the debate on representation has often focused on partiality – one-sidedness, what’s left out. In 1892, Anna Julia Cooper complained in ‘The Negro as Presented in American Literature’, that ‘an authentic portrait, at once aesthetic and true to life, presenting the black man as a free American citizen, not the humble slave of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but the man, divinely struggling and aspiring yet tragically warped and distorted by the adverse winds of circumstance, has not yet been painted’. In 1926 the NAACP published ‘The Negro in Art: How Shall He Be Portrayed’, asking correspondents ‘[w]hat are Negroes to do when they are continually painted at their worst … ?’, and ‘[i]s not the continual portrayal of the sordid, foolish and criminal among Negroes convincing the world that this and this alone is really and essentially Negroid’?

The inheritance of the cultural forms around us is one of blackface grotesquerie. Of the dark hordes of films such as Zulu and Sunflower the picanniny centaur, whom Disney would love us to forget was originally in Fantasia. And of the antisemitic smears of Shylock and Fagin, of the shrewish and diminished women of a thousand stories, of predatory gay men swishing about corrupting the young, of decadent and/or fanatical muslims, inscrutable yellow peril. Our canon is, among other things, a slanderous freakshow. The growth in fury at the fact of which is excellent.

Thanks to queer and feminist and anti-racist movements, and in part, too, thanks to the social media by which discussions now viral, the culture industry, to its bewilderment, is repeatedly slammed for regurgitating the tropes of dominance. Whitewashing covers are shamed, stereotypes in movies subject to witty online excoriation. A new vocabulary of countertropes has risen up, to attack what is being and has always been done: the Bechdel test; the magical Negro; misgendering; fridging women; and so on.

One sign of how important these movements are is the pushback against them. It’s a peculiar symptom of our society that the narcissism in the neoliberalised psyche it generates is so overinvested in the culture it consumes, so quick to succumb Godwin’s Law. To flame-war, in response, say, to criticism of a video game. ‘Thanks’, screamed the rageful on Twitter, about a female-led Ghostbusters, ‘for ruining my childhood.’ A person of colour is cast as an imaginary movie superhero based on an imaginary comic-book superhero based on an imaginary God dreamed by a culture over a thousand years ago, and the forces of geek reaction let slip dogs of war. Fury, hate, libel, stalking, rape and death threats.

The cultural artefacts for which they mourn are predicated on spite. In a brilliant genealogy of the racist figure known as the Golliwog, writer Pam Noles has diagnosed this defensiveness: it is ‘a refined way of saying fuck you people, we care about our little nigger dolls more than we care about you’.

There are more sophisticated counterattacks, too. Particularly when reportage or art purports to be inspired by reality, one refrain is, ‘I’m not making universal claims: I’m telling the truth about a particular instance’. Who could be against the right to describe something accurately? No, we should not be afraid of the truth. But the truth about the truth is that there is no unmediated truth.

In her novel Mosquito, Gayl Jones probes at this slipperiness of ‘truth’ in art. ‘I ain’t know’, her protagonist says, ‘whether it were a true fiction, a fictional truth, or a plain lie’. Valorising culture’s specificity, she describes books ‘speaking the truth and more than the truth.’ From the truth of that the reverse can also be derived: texts can speak the truth and less than the truth, too.

The world surely contains some usurious Jews, gay paedophiles, muslim fanatics, sexually aggressive black men, hysterical women. But if you tell those ‘truths’ without the truth of others, who do not conform to such precise clichés, and without the truth that telling these certain individual truths as constitutive is a technique of oppression, then your ‘truth’ is in the service of a coercive lie. The comedian Wanda Sykes has joked that it is only since Obama that she’s able to buy watermelons: before a black president, the truth of her taste was too costly to indulge. Not because of anything intrinsic to the desire, but because of the gaze under which it fell. ‘Look at all these white people looking at me’, she says. ‘I ain’t buying a whole watermelon for your enjoyment.’

It’s due to art’s plain lies and lying truths that we need critique.

Of course one might consider political accusations levelled at some artwork carefully and undefensively, and still consider them misplaced. Reasonable – and unreasonable – people can disagree. But what if, on reflection, the criticism has teeth?

That question is particularly pointed for the creator of any such work. Who may do nothing. Or might add an introduction, drawing attention to newly-noticed limitations of their work. Or she might join the ranks of those who have changed their work in response to such concerns. If so, the grace with which she does so will not be irrelevant to the politics or the art.

In 2011 Christopher Priest revised his 1972 novel of mass migration, Fugue for a Darkening Island – a description of the East End of London, for example, goes from ‘a series of loosely connected ghettos, containing Jews, Negroes, Chinese, Greeks, Cypriots, Italians and English’, to ‘a series of loosely connected communities, a mix of almost every conceivable race and creed’. In his new introduction, Priest says that ‘as time went by sensibilities about the subject matter began to change’ and the story ‘gradually became misunderstood’. Once considered liberal, later reviews saw him as ‘an agitator, a fellow-traveller of the right wing’. ‘As my novel was politically neutral’, he explains, ‘I felt both critical opinions were off the mark, but I did not like being lined up with racists. … I decided I should have to look at the novel again one day’.

A strange explanation. To Priest, interpretations not his own are ‘misunderstandings’, as if he is final arbiter of his own work, as if his ‘intent’ provides its meaning. (The battle over the ‘intentional fallacy’ is one that was fought and won long ago, but one we are forced to re-enact in every single critical discussion of art.) And he believes, naively, that a British novel of the 1970s about catastrophe through mass immigration could possibly be ‘politically neutral’.

‘While I dislike political correctness,’ he continues, in the obligatory catechism, ‘I have removed anything that I think could lead to overt political interpretation, on either side.’ But if the criticisms were wrong, why change the book? He could have stuck to it, perhaps added a note on changing linguistic norms, and trusted readers. If, on the other hand, he feels awkward enough about any formulations to want to change them, surely he should own that. As, for example, did Roald Dahl: in 1973, he changed the workers in Wonka’s chocolate factory from African ‘pygmies’ to now-more-familiar odd, pale figures. ‘It didn’t occur to me that my depiction of the Oompa-Loompas was racist, but it did occur to the NAACP and others,’ he said. ‘After listening to the criticisms, I found myself sympathising with them, which is why I revised the book’.

Which is not to say that his revised book, or Priest’s, cannot still be subjected to critique. It is only to say that the openness of the artist, as well as the lover of their art, is not an irrelevance. In fact, contrary to the jeremiads that the bogeyman ‘political correctness’ is stunting culture, this kind of receptivity can enrich it.

In 1981, the South African novelist Lauretta Ngcobo published Cross of Gold. Some feminists criticised the novel for blindspots over gender, for the fact that its narrative was constructed on the early death of the female character Sindisiwe. Rather than provoking her to double down, this led Ngcobo to consider her own politics of representation. Out of which reflection she wrote her second novel, years later, with the pointed title And They Didn’t Die. This latter book revolved around women as subjects.

‘I had learned earlier that women didn’t count much,’ Ngcobo said. ‘They hadn’t got an independent life of their own. When Sindisiwe dies, only her sons can live and go into the cities.’ In her first book she had reflected a truth, of the battening effect of sexism, including on herself. But speaking only that truth, the narrative did not say enough, she decided, about another – that of women’s agency. So Ngcobo adjusted her work, and this time sent her female protagonist to the town.

Seventeen years after her third Earthsea books, Ursula Le Guin, considering feminist criticisms of the texts, committed an extraordinary revisiting. The fourth book, Tehanu, is canon, follows directly from its predecessors – but radically recasts the gender politics of the narrative and the world system Le Guin had previously invented. Thus we were granted one of the great political autocritiques in literature, a text that interrogates and subverts its own predecessors.

Our lives are much better for these books. Above all, political readings are vital as redress for those smeared by art, by culture. But they are also salutary for the sake of that culture itself.

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Still. For all its vital and liberatory impact, the uncovering of the text’s ambivalent political unconscious is hemmed in by limitations. One of which lies in the complex relationship of the text’s politics to its charge – what we might hesitatingly think of as its artistic power.

In 1975, Chinua Achebe’s ‘An Image of Africa’, changed Conrad’s Heart of Darkness forever. There can be no naive reading of the text since he searingly laid bare how it is structured by racism, the silencing of the natives, the refusal to grant them, in Achebe’s words, ‘human expression’, the projection of Africa as ‘a place of negations’. Achebe’s detractors repeatedly point out that Conrad is horrified at the racist brutality in the Congo, that he undercuts the boosterism of empire, that the white imperialists he depicts as stinking of corruption. Which is true, but weak tea: there is no shortage of anguished, lachrymose racism predicated on the weakness and degeneration of whiteness.

And the book has been defended on those familiar grounds of its ‘truth’. Cedric Watts, one of Achebe’s chief critics, insists for example that ‘Conrad is offering an entirely plausible rendering of the responses of a British traveller of c.1890 to the strange and bewildering experiences offered by the Congo. The passage is patently justified on realistic grounds’. This is predictable and quite point-missing: the depiction of an explorer’s reactions, ‘realistic’ as it may be, like the critique of imperial whiteness, remains predicated on the othering of the African. ‘To use me as a symbol may be bright or clever,’ Achebe said in 2003, in a discussion with Caryl Phillips, ‘but if it reduces my humanity by the smallest fraction I don’t like it’.

But this does not address the – uncomfortably atheoretical-sounding, but unavoidable – question of the book’s charge, its power, nor how to relate to it. It is over this that Phillips, a black writer who remains a passionate admirer of Heart of Darkness, puzzles. And it is telling how elusive he finds his own uncertainties.

Of Conrad’s racism, he asks himself, ‘how did I miss this?’ He asks if it isn’t ‘ridiculous to demand of Conrad that he imagine an African humanity … totally out of line with both the times in which he was living and the larger purpose of his novel’. Finally, ‘still finding it difficult to dismiss this man and his short novel’, he demands ‘[a]re we to throw all racists out of the canon’?

These, of course, are three distinct queries. Is the book racist? Is it understandable – not justifiable – if so? Does that racism preclude admiring it?

It is the remorseless and repeated collapse of such levels of query into each other that explains why so many who are eager to protect a beloved scob of art under political attack do so by defending its politics. This is (usually) a category error. Achebe himself did not answer Phillips’s third question in the positive: ‘I never said at any point that you should stop attaching artistic merit to Heart of Darkness; if you want to you can. There are all kinds of sophisticated readings … I’m demanding that my reading stand beside these other readings …’

How, then, are we to subject art to political critique and still ‘attach artistic merit’ to it?

There is the ‘despite’ defence, which operates by ceding the political point, but insisting on artistic power notwithstanding, nonetheless. To quote one radical magazine on Heart of Darkness and its lacunae, ‘this weakness should not detract from what is otherwise a powerfully imaginative critique of imperialism’. Doubtless there are texts in which the bric-a-brac of oppression is less fundamental, more epiphenomenal to the work’s libidinal charge, for which such a technique might be effective. But how much more complex if the aesthetic power inheres not despite but in part because of those political problems? What if vision and toxin are inextricable?

This is hardly uncommon. In Conrad, the bad-ecstatic glimpse of language collapsing, the curdling of the imperial subject, are constructed on the silencing of the African. In the great horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, to quote Michel Houellebecq, ‘[r]acial hatred provokes … the trancelike poetic state in which he outdoes himself by the mad rhythmic pulse of cursed sentences’: no poison, no poetry. The extraordinary novels of D. Keith Mano are inseparable from his unorthodox, conservative Christianity. This list, of course, could continue a long time.

Like Phillips, we do not want to deny ourselves such work. To do so would be prudish and disingenuous. But to deny the oppressive spite which powers it would be apology. We have to diagnose and criticise those drives that generate the very stuff that we also continue to recognise might awe and inspire us.

There are various techniques of such critical enthusiasm, and they are beyond us here. Each deserves its own investigation. For now it is enough to mention the suggestive squarings of political attack and artistic admiration, in both critical and artistic forms, in Trotsky’s writing on Céline, Kij Johnson’s and Victor LaValle’s riffs on Lovecraft, Paul Burston on William Friedkin, Fredric Jameson on Wyndham Lewis, Claire Jarvis on D.H. Lawrence, Rebecca Solnit on Kerouac, and countless more. There is absolutely nothing new about such negotiation, and it should be utterly redundant to point this out. But given the misrepresentation and moralism on this point, it never is.

Some work should not survive. Some will, and – its toxins analysed – deserves to. Critical theory is a not a problem: what can be is its deployment as border guard. The mission-creep of the political reading into a mandate for exile.

It is what Paul Ricoeur calls a ‘heuristic of suspicion’ thatgives our engaged, combative reading its power, a scepticism with which to probe beneath the surfaces of phenomena such as art. But there are ambiguous tendencies even in such emancipatory techniques.

In an inversion of the fury of those ragefully defending texts from critics, those critics can be invested less in rigour than in the attack itself, going from diagnosis to performative dismissal, policing transgressions with surplus enthusiasm. In the addictive affect-economy of social media, this can come to mean a bleak and border-guarding backslapping.

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick investigates such tendencies in her brilliant essay ‘Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading: Or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay Is about You’. She draws on psychoanalysis, particularly Melanie Klein, to designate the hyperacute heuristic of suspicion as ’paranoid reading’. It is description, not judgement, and she considers the technique indispensable. What provokes her caution is not that method itself – to which her own work is hardly a stranger – but that it has become a ‘mandatory injunction’, ‘entirely coextensive with critical theoretical inquiry’.

For Sedgwick, the paranoid approach is anticipatory – ‘The first imperative of paranoia is There must be no bad surprises’ – and can therefore come to presume what it finds. It is a ‘strong’, totalising affect theory, with a concomitant logic which ‘risks being strongly tautological’. And as a ‘solution’ to what it uncovers, it places faith in exposure in an unconvincing way – ‘What is the basis for assuming that it will surprise or disturb, never mind motivate, anyone to learn that a given social manifestation is artifical, self-contradictory, imitative, phatasmatic, or even violent?’

Crucially, for Sedgwick paranoid reading is a theory of ‘negative affects’, a paradigm driven by ‘anticipating negative affect can have … the effect of blocking the potentially operative goal of seeking positive affect’. A single-minded commitment to forestalling pain is, in its circular focus on pain, ‘self-reinforcing because self-defeating’.

Sedgwick does not imply that such reading is wrong, nor that it imagines the injuries it perceives. The theory does not create a cold world: it discerns the coldness of the world. But, absent other methods, she is concerned that paranoia’s tendencies can lead it only to project the bleak totality it must inhabit, that it expects and cannot not find.

To this diagnosis we can add that there will still be jouissance even in the ice, because there always is. A jouissance with little to fix on, perhaps, except the very negativity that is, for good reason, always-already found. In this dynamic we might find a source of the excess libidinal enthusiasm for the ‘gotcha’ of the guard. The paranoid position, which for Sedgwick is characterised by ‘terrible alertness’ and ‘understandably marked by hatred, envy, and anxiety’, necessary and illuminating as it is, can thus lead in its privileging or isolation to the worst of a ‘suspicion’ approach: call-out vendettas, in-group policing. The drive, jouissance and hashtags at the ready, to shame.

Such a drive undermines solidarity, and makes less likely the kind of political development which strengthens the critical movement and radical art discussed above. Ngcobo and Le Guin might have refined and problematised and made more powerful their work had they been subjected to gleeful twitterstorms; but mostly such punitive schwarmerei militates against the comradely exchange that gave us Tehanu and And They Did Not Die.

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As a supplement to paranoid reading, Sedgwick draws from Klein to propose a different kind of analysis.

‘The greatest interest of Klein’s concept [of ‘position’, rather than analytical ‘type’ or ’stage’] lies … in her seeing the paranoid position always in the oscillatory context of a very different possible one: the depressive position. … [This] is an anxiety-mitigating achievement that the infant or adult only sometimes, and often only briefly, succeeds in inhabiting’. From this position, Sedgwick suggests as methodology a drive to pleasure, including aesthetic; amelioration of the everyday; and openness to surprise, both good and bad. She calls this process ‘reparative reading’.

‘The desire of a reparative impulse … is additive and accretive. Its fear, a realistic one, is that the culture surrounding it is inadequate or inimical to its nurture; it wants to assemble and confer plenitude on an object that will then have resources to offer to an inchoate self’. This is perfectly compatible with the paranoid critique of un-nurturing culture. Where it differs – complements – is in what it wants to do with that culture’s objects:

[T]o use one’s own resources to assemble or “repair” the murderous part-objects into something like a whole – though … not necessarily like any preexisting whole. Once assembled to one’s own specifications, the more satisfying object is available both to be identified with and to offer one nourishment and comfort in turn.
Sedgwick closes with a beautiful aspiration, to ‘extract[…] sustenance from the objects of a culture – even of a culture whose avowed desire has often been not to sustain them’. The resonances with Ngcobo’s and Le Guin’s project is vivid, but such ‘reparativeness’ need not only be manifest in revisionist artistic production: it could also exist in radical against-the-grain and/or generous reading itself.

With a healthy radical culture, we are at the very least as likely to reconfigure and reparatively read all kinds of unlikely texts as we are to banish them. But we are not there yet. Reparative reading is a technique that must be generally applicable, but some cultural artefacts seems more ripe for reparative readings, and as lenses for such reading in general, than others – Sedgwick’s example is camp.

It is in part our hunger for, combined with a lack of confidence in, such reparative reading that lies behind the wave of demands for culture which seems to offer itself to reparation, that directly and overtly overturns historic smears.

One way to deploy our still-tentative reparative reading less on some part-object itself, than, pre-emptively, at the oppressive whole, is to seek such literalised symbols of redress. After decades of black clowns, villains and sidekicks, the demand for the black hero is salutary, as is that for queers other than the Gay Best Friend, for heroines other than damsels in distress, and so on.

These just demands for truths to undermine a social lie also bespeak our weakness. Uncertain in reparative reading, we hanker for texts which might make it easier for us to do. But recall W.E.B. Du Bois’s warning, almost a century ago.

We are so used to seeing the truth distorted to our despite, that whenever we are portrayed … as simple humans with human frailties, we rebel. We want everything said about us to tell of the best and hightest and noblest in us. … This is wrong and the end is harmful. … The black Shakespeare must portray his black Iago as well as his white Othello. … We shrink from this. … The results are not merely negative – they are positively bad.
Du Bois is ruminating about a robust culture to come. But when the truth is still ‘distorted to despite’, can one create that healthy culture by force of will? Prefigure it? Might it then be possible that some works featuring less-than-flattering depictions of the traditionally traduced aren’t bigoted, but radical-too-soon?

In fact, of course, the germ-seeds of more oppositional reparative readings are not uncommon. ‘They are cursing us and trying to bring down gay people, but we switch it around’, the DJ Biggy C told an interviewer in 2004, of homophobic ‘murder music’ such as Buju Banton’s ‘Boom Bye Bye’ and TOK’s ‘Chi Chi Man’. ‘They’re popular tunes with the black gay crowd. They’re good beats …’. ‘[H]earing a homophobic ragga track in a gay club strips it of its power and dramatically recontextualises it’, as the Guardian owlishly glossed his position.

But such cheerfully disrespectful enjoyment is predicated on the flat mirroring of the message of the most spiteful culture – bracing, certainly, if not always convincing, but on the whole no more sophisticated than the demand for overtly and often simplistically ‘redress-ual’ culture. Of which such ‘appropriative’ reading is a simple, ostentatious, try-hard flipping. A radical take on culture remains rearguard, particularly at a self-consciously theoretical level, so long as it seeks its reparative objects, iteratively or by that straightforward inversion, in the two sides of a Manichean representative coin.

Reparative reading will come of age when it is regularly deployed across as much of the range of complex and ‘withdrawn’ meaning-machines as is the paranoid. Which is understandably more developed: just because we are paranoid does not mean, etcetera, and it is no surprise that paranoid reading will tend to be stronger, and to excess, or that reparative reading will tend to be tentative and/or inchoate, under-theorised.

The least bad option is to conceive of the healthy, unapologetic, detoxified future as a tendency, a germ-seed within the much less prepossessing culture in which we now live. Of which all the categories involved are polyvalent, pulling in various directions, and readable and read in contradictory ways.

The BBC drama Happy Valley was criticised for horrific depictions of violence against women, a classic trope of sexist culture – and was defended as a new feminist classic, for not flinching in its depictions of violence against women. Will Young releases a video in which a naked young trans man is subjected bullying: for some activists, often deploying persuasive paranoid readings, it recycled oppressive tropes, and – key here – was disempowering because upsetting, disturbing. ‘Seeing trans people abused in music videos isn’t really support’, one critic wrote. For others it was ‘courageous’, trans activist Jack Monroe calling it ‘sadly an accurate portrayal of the day-to-day abuse suffered by trans men and women’, and as ‘the start of the conversation’. That startling genius of fashion Alexander McQueen, his models in shackles and constraints, made grotesques, has been attacked as misogynist, defended as a transgressive feminist, and posed as a question without answer. ‘Much of what he did … made you scratch your head and ask, “Is he for or against women?”’ said fashion writer Robin Givhan. ‘You weren’t quite sure if he was empowering them or if he was subjugating them.’ And it would be nice, would it not, to be quite sure?

Is it ‘progressive’ to depict grim truth, or characters unconstrained by it? In 2009, 70 per cent of US federal judges were white men, 15 percent white women, but Hollywood so often casts black actors as lawyers and judges that, one lawyer says, it ‘creates a more diverse image of the American judiciary than is reflected on the bench’. Is this laudable liberal aspiration, or self-congratulatory obfuscation of underrepresentation – part of the problem?

Some feminists want books depicting ‘strong women characters’; others insist that the very concept is sexist, not least because that strength so often pretends to an imaginary level playing field in a misogynist culture, a consolatory magical thinking. ‘The Strong Female Character has something to prove’, says writer Sophia McDougall. ‘She’s on the defensive before she even starts’.

At its very worst, in the desire for simple, often simplistic, redress, the cultural celebration of ‘strength’ can segue into a criticism of ‘weakness’, which can take the most terrible forms. Since at least the 1950s, there’s been a culture war, for instance, including within Jewry, between the stereotypes of the sissy nebbish and what Rich Cohen has called ‘tough jews’. The celebration of the latter has often enabled a strain of thought that unites antisemites with hard-right Likudniks, of contempt for the supposedly weak diaspora Yiddish culture. Which, according to what Gideon Levy has called the ‘“How did they go like sheep to slaughter?” school’, has been despised as complicit in its own holocaust.

Weakness and strength, badness and goodness, danger and purity. The loose woman, the whore, is still a powerful hate figure in a sadistic culture. The debate within feminism about whether and how deployment and depiction of female sexuality is sexist or radical continues. To pick a couple of real quotes from this unending stramash, is 50 Shades of Grey ‘hindering the progress … to feminism and the fight against crimes against women’ or is it about ‘embracing your right to sexual desire, something women have been denied for too long’? Mainstream culture traditionally celebrated the Madonna, the good girl, and decried the bad, the Whore. But admiration of the former projects onto her an asexuality that misogynist society, demanding the availability of all women, despises: the Madonna is frigid. Of course, the woman who’s sexually available is also despised, for that fact.

It is by this reversibility that such binaries works. The point of the familiar Madonna-Whore syndrome is that you can’t win by choosing one over the other. The deck is stacked, the dice loaded. It is the dyad, not one or other of its terms, that is the problem.

That old insight helps show the limitations of the hunt for ‘empowering’, ‘progressive’ depictions, as well as for oppressive stereotypes. Of seeking problem and solution in representation’s content, rather in the range of choices made available. In the agenda.

Where a traditionally dominant, vulgar strain of supremacism tends to validate one pole of such a dyad, there’s an obvious temptation to invert it, to seek reparative reading in the other. But that is to underestimate the nimbleness of the system, which can assimilate both terms with virtuoso ease.

After generations of dim-witted Amos’n’Andys, Steinbeck attempts redress, writing in Of Mice and Men the ‘terrible protective dignity of the American negro’ (on which dignity Wanda Sykes will later riff for laughs). But here’s the Madonna-Whore structure again, now the privileging of the dignified, with an implicit pathologisation of the undignified, the furious, the playful, the enraged. Fertile ground for the later denigration of the in-your-face, the angry black man, the militant, shouting and aggressive. Steinbeck’s Crooks has the right to his demeanour, but so does Nat Turner to his rage.

The same quality will be praised or denigrated in society’s gaze depending on exigency. In his 1839 account of the voyage of the Beagle, the young naturalist and abolitionist Charles Darwin made an acute observation. Repeating a story of runaway slaves, ‘the whole were seized with the exception of one old woman,’ he writes, ‘who, sooner than again be led into slavery, dashed herself to pieces from the summit of the mountain. In a Roman matron this would have been called the noble love of freedom: in a poor negress it is mere brutal obstinacy.’

The system is able to have it every which way, because ideas and symbols do not engender but are engendered by, and shore up, deeper oppressions. The anthropologist Leo Howe, when asking sectarian Protestants in Northern Ireland in the 80s about Catholics, was told that they were so lazy they didn’t want to work and would lounge about all day on welfare, and that they were so untrustworthy and greedy that they would regularly claim benefits while working a job. These incompatible accusations coexisted easily within single heads. That is how prejudices work. They are not intellectual errors but flexible ideologies.

The system gets us coming or going.

This does not mean that we cannot analyse the politics of a work, nor that anything goes in interpretation. There are more and less persuasive readings. And they shift with history, because what an artwork does is about the context of its reception as much as of its production. Which means they might be read bottom up – reparatively even, whether or not persuasively – in surprising ways.

The absurd science-fiction film Avatar was hated by the histrionic right because, said the National Review, it ‘ask[s] the audience to root for the defeat of American soldiers at the hands of an insurgency’. For this it was embraced by the liberal left as an important fable about ecology and genocide – George Monbiot even called it ‘profound’. To which responded radical critics like Annalee Newitz pointing out that as a blue-face mashup of Pocahontas and Dances With Wolves, full of mawkish noble-savage stereotypes of native Americans, the movie is predicated on exoneratory colonial guilt, sentimentalised self-exculpation for mass-murder.

And yet. The persuasiveness of that paranoid interpretation did not stop groups of Palestinian youth in February 2010 protesting the Apartheid wall in Bilin smeared in blue facepaint, dressed as Na’vi, the film’s aliens, to draw parallels between the dispossession of their land and that of the story’s heroes. Does this grassroots counter-interpretation mean the radical critique of Avatar is wrong? Certainly not. It means culture is contested. Because the system is total, too much for us to glimpse except out of the corner of our eye, but not seamless. Its carapace is cracked, its dynamics dominant but countervailed. There is purchase for dissent.

And it was a good gimmick, and it attracted attention. But those Palestinians remain disenfranchised, no matter how many viewers wept over the Na’vi. And whatever its admirers, Palestinian and other, made of it, Avatar remains imperial schmaltz.

Look to the cultural sphere as the battleground for politics – or for culture itself – and you are setting yourself up for disappointment.

To relate combatively to the system’s relentless agenda of binaries we did not choose, a small, limited, but valuable moment of resistance is available. It starts, counterintuitively, with semantics.

‘I am offered the Grand Inquisitor’s choice’, Ursula Le Guin has written of one particularly deep binary on offer in these scarist days. ‘Will you choose freedom without happiness, or happiness without freedom? The only answer one can make, I think, is: No.’

This or that? Formally, such an enquiry is a Choice Question. But with the blessed ambiguity of English, we can relate to it as a different kind, what’s called a Polar Question. Treat an either/or as a yes/no. Do you choose the Madonna or the Whore? No.

This standard gag for sitcoms is an indispensable contestation against an agenda at which we cannot win, the only dignified response to the choices offered. The technique needs a name: in reference to binary logic, one anonymous poster on a linguistics forum calls it ‘Boolean literalism’. That we will gratefully filch.

Consider the extraordinary toys made by thousands of children who have to live on garbage tips in the poor world. Their cars and planes made of wire and bottle tops are exhibited in galleries, shown in the American Museum of Natural History. A charity which describes its work with some such toymakers as ‘heart-warming and eye-opening’, clarifies the moral for us, that ‘[t]he Makuleke people [of South Africa] have something to share … a lesson that we can live – in fact, we can be satisfied and happy – with little’. The children have every right to play, to the toys they make, and to our admiration. But is it not in fact a monstrosity that they have little? That they must sift through the dumps of capitalism to put together their own playthings? That the artefacts of their oppression are celebrated in the salons of New York as something called ‘folk art’?

Is this creativity or degradation? Yes.

The system gets you coming or going, so neither come nor go. But though that will help, it will not solve the situation.

The history of the dandies, the Congolese sapeurs, is complex, interwoven with anticolonial struggle. Their tradition dates back to the 1920s and before, the repudiation of the supposed charity of white colonialist hand-me-downs; of L’Amicale, the anticolonial movement founded by the trade-unionist, radical and, reportedly, dandy, André Matsoua; of rebellion against the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, who demanded that men wear a costume of his design called the abacost, a diminutive of the french for ‘Down with the suit’, against which the suit could be rebellion. And so on. With that all in mind, does that alter the unease of our viewing? Now do we see creative rebellion or a cakewalk? Yes.

Because the power of such spite is not driven by the history or the intentions of the participants, who have every right to find empowerment in their beautiful things. We are considering instead their mediation through symbols, which aren’t neutral.

In addition to which, at the end of Sapeurs, there is a shot of a beer being lovingly poured. It is an advertisement for Guinness.

This is a whole other level at which the search for a ‘progressive’ content in culture can blind us. Underlying the suppleness of the system is the fact that not only does it fundamentally not matter to it which symbolic content you choose from an either-or on offer, nor even does it if you exercise that Boolean literalist rejection of the choice, except if and insofar as you undermine its power – which in capitalist culture means that you refuse its commodity-logic.

We beat the system that throws up the art, the culture, not if we hate it or resent it – only, ultimately, if we stop it making money.

None of which is to say that culture does not matter. Nor that one should try to opt out of it tout court – one cannot, and there is play to be had with it, in any case, because even commodified, it can have its pleasures, and its aesthetic content is contested. Nor does this total(ising) view mean that there is no point trying to construct political criticism: even if we cannot ‘liberate’ culture, there is failing and failing better, and we can make culture move.

What this does mean is having a realistic sense of the parameters of the battlefield. We do not surrender the cultural terrain, but we have to be unsentimental about its limitations.

The best way to fight for the culture we deserve is to fight the system that throws up the culture we are offered. To demand choices that matter necessitates the destruction of the system of choices we have. Not because we can never effect changes in culture: we can – but a change at that level alone will be a poisoned gift. ‘With the help of diversity consultants and a cautious manner,’ Gary Younge cautions, ‘the careful can carry on doing bad things so long as they don’t say the wrong thing’.

Tomorrow, we might get rid of Chief Wahoo, the vile ‘redskin’ mascot of the Cleveland Indians baseball team. And that banishing will be righteous. But the Native American activist Leonard Peltier will still be in jail, nearly forty years after a political show-trail. If the end of Wahoo reflected fundamental change in the system that put Peltier there, that would be one thing. But what if it were used to exonerate it? That would be worse than nothing.

Just how we oppose the system is a much bigger and more important debate, one beyond this essay. But a prequel to the creative destruction that would mean is repudiation.

The one does not automatically lead to the other. It is not sufficient. But it is necessary.

The Boolean literalism gives us two choices, and we start with the stronger, the negative. Change must begin with antinomianism. Madonna or Whore? No.

We do not and cannot know what we want or deserve until we change ourselves in the process of learning to want it. And it is from that primary negative that the positive, the truly, fundamentally reparative, might start to emerge.

Is it better to hope or to despair? Do you want to create better art, or do you want a better world in which to create? Are you an artist or an activist?

Yes.

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