- In DialogueResponse to Review
This is the first in an occasional series of reviews and author responses. Please see Jared Sexton, "For a Neo-Marxism without Guarantees: A Critique of Critical Criticism," Discourse 38.3 (2016): 445–55.
Among the browser windows open underneath the e-mail where James Leo Cahill offered me this generous platform to record a response to Jared Sexton's review of my book were two items that modulated my reaction. The first contained a news report about Heath Mello, a pro-choice candidate for mayor of Omaha, Nebraska. Mello's prospects in the deeply conservative region had risen on a tide of post-2016 fervor but were taking on water in the election's closing days due to erroneous reporting that in 2009 he had cosponsored a bill requiring abortion patients to look at their fetal ultrasounds. In truth, the legislation only required that patients be informed that the images were available. Still, national women's groups balked. Unsettled by the controversy, Mello's bid failed. In an adjacent tab I had clicked on an interview with Asad Haider, Pakistani American cofounder of the Marxist Viewpoint Magazine. His opposition to identity politics had elicited vocifer-ous criticism. Amid the incoming fire were befuddling accusations from some quarters that he is white. [End Page 263]
Toggling through these pages, I was struck by how the confl icts intersected. Under normal circumstances I might have countered with an itemized riposte to the review, but the necessity of that now felt far less pressing. I am hence letting the book speak for itself. To abstain, however, is not to vacuously agree to disagree, because something is terribly wrong in these dangerous times, which a truce does nothing to solve. Plainly, I failed to persuade Sexton, and some of his critiques actually hardened my own convictions. Nevertheless, even if our minds remain unchanged, we must absolutely rethink what we do in the aftermath.
In some measure, I wrote The Subject of Film and Race to provoke a dialogue and had similar designs in mind with the chapter about Edward Said's Orientalism that Discourse published in 2012. Those debates, I submitted, were restaging parallel disputes over long-standing rifts between humanism and poststructuralism and between class and identity politics. The book has incited a response that now makes even clearer that these conflicts, considered alongside recent events, remain not merely unresolved but also thoroughly relevant. The last eighteen months have only raised the stakes by revealing the limits of political movements organized around identity. And yet, after November 2016 the Left appears intent on avoiding substantive self-examination. It turned straightaway to writers such as Thomas Frank and J. D. Vance for help in deciphering the "white working class," thus retaining if not accepting a discursive framework based on racial divisions. Vance's Hill-billy Elegy has been a best seller for well over a year.1 It is of course important to better grasp what is happening in places such as rural Appalachia and the industrial Midwest, but the process currently under way reinscribes racial particularism and sheds the aspiration to form a universal working class capable of finding and articulating common cause in a critique of capitalism. My book may not have adopted that position as stridently on every page, but readers could infer it.
On that score, we can all be more careful and open, as I would be if I were to write the manuscript now. Proponents of class-based critique, Marxist humanists, Bernie Bros, and all the rest should consider what Haider proffers to Seattle Weekly about how we conduct the work of politics:
Now in an organizing meeting, any discussion that takes place between a white person and a person of color will be tense and guarded, because at any time the white person may be accused of white privilege, and thus denounced for bringing irreconcilable political interests into the group. That is a very different kind of politics, and not one that tends to result in [End Page 264] open strategic discussions, building trust between activists, or effectively broadening towards a mass movement. But socialists have to understand...