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The Politics of Turning Away: or, Skills for Living in Ruins

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I pace, blood boiling, after reading my cousin’s Facebook post following the inauguration about how all these “riots” are the reason she voted for Trump in the first place.

An elderly man from a small Georgia town, who mostly posts Bible verses, “likes” a page of videos of Richard Spencer getting punched set to various pop songs and a long quotation from ex-Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver on police violence that I posted. I wonder what his town was like during the heat of civil rights, imagining crosses smoldering outside his window. Remembering his mother, I wonder what kinds of stories she told him.

I keep hearing we must resist Trump’s new normal and I am left confused. In these first weeks of his presidency, many of Trump’s actions are frightening. Walls, bans, deportations, pipelines. And yet, the underlying machinery is normal in the United States: White supremacy, settler colonialism, patriarchy, heterosexism, cissexism, ecological devastation, capitalism, nativism, Islamophobia, and odd alternations between anti-Semitism and proclamations that (Ashkenazi) Jews need protecting from dangerous, brown-skinned Muslims. Genocide is normal in the United States. Endless war, toxic environments, state surveillance, and countless other ways of outsourcing the bodies of poor people to build and protect wealth: All already normal. Many have been normal for hundreds of years; others surged into normalcy recently. It is only by re-normalizing these systems that we can claim to resist a new normal. This tactic will never be intersectional because it cannot attend to history in any serious way.

It will never protect our water.

In its place, I want to evoke a politics of living in apocalypse, of getting on in ruins. This is also a politics of abandonment, of turning away. To turn away is also to turn to something else, generating different ways of existing. A polluted lake turns away from certain kinds of possible life and towards others. We must be careful about who we turn towards, and we must watch for who turns to us and in what ways.

Power, Space, and Speech

But first, a story. I have heard people complain that violence is never tolerable, even violence against white supremacists. It is a familiar line to me, one I have heard since high school when I had my ass handed to me after punching a neo-Nazi at a metal show. I hadn’t realized there were three of them. “FUCKING NAZI!” I screamed at them. “Yes, we are, you fag,” one replied. He hailed Hitler, daring me. I spat in his eye and he punched me so hard my face went numb. I was lucky: people around intervened, pulling us apart. The next day, a classmate said it was a stupid thing to do. Dialogue is the only real solution. Conversation and conversion. If I were smarter, I would have said that dialogue with Nazis is the new final solution. More pragmatic, my friend confided: “We Jews have not survived all this time by looking for fights with those kinds of people.”

It happened again in my white, liberal college. A young leader on Stormfront, David Duke’s godson himself, went to my school. “We should punch him,” I joked. “That’s what the punks did in my neighborhood. It made things safe for me to grow up.” Wrong. It is important to tolerate other perspectives, I was told; punching people is bad. As these conversations became more intense, some of us demanded to know why we should tolerate white supremacists at the expense of more systematically vulnerable students. Our school was already an antagonistic place for the few students of color in attendance—even though most white students would never consider themselves racist. When students of color quietly sought to meet—I assume to talk about the everyday violence they faced and, in acknowledging each other’s realities, make the school slightly more livable—the rest of the student body found out. A tidal wave of white rage drowned out the possibility of discussing the wounds of racist violence openly, with only people who viscerally understood, where white people might not be welcome. The group constituted a deep, existential threat to an everyday, liberal white supremacist order that exists by virtue of being paradoxically central and unacknowledged.

That was all before a young white supremacist leader enrolled.

Years later, a news article reports that the fascist, won over by rational argumentation and the power of acceptance and friendship, has become a good liberal subject. This story arc, however, is too convenient. Where are the perspectives of students of color in the news coverage? Of queer students and others already marginalized by the everyday operations of domination? Instead of centering their voices, the narrative turns on a logic of “it ended up working out OK.” The ends justify the means: A student invites David Duke’s godson to a weekly Shabbat dinner. Most of the other Jewish students stop attending. We are supposed to ignore the terror of the unnamed Jewish students cast out from their own spiritual community because in the end, David Duke’s grandson befriends a Jew and becomes a liberal and the other students return to Shabbat dinners.

But what kind of story would it have made if things had happened differently, if no one ever came back because they were terrified? Should we ignore that possibility? Would other students have felt safer moving about campus? Am I really supposed to believe that it is acceptable to terrorize and marginalize of queer, Jewish, and of color students if in the end you can make a liberal out of a fascist? This is a story that turns toward and centers on whiteness. It turns away from making a world that is more livable for those who are most vulnerable.

At issue is not this particular ex-fascist but rather liberal modes of tolerance that make “safe spaces” for white supremacists—and in doing so actively make those spaces unsafe for those most marginalized. What makes the symbolic threat of a punch in the face “just as bad” as threats of white nationalism, white supremacy, and in Spencer’s case, genocide? Often this is framed as “freedom of speech.” But it is a shallow sort of freedom, one that ignores the workings of power. Complicated forces shape what can be said and by whom, and who will listen. Speech is not “just words” in a vacuum but actions with real-world consequences. Speaking makes space, uneven space that different people cannot inhabit equally. Every act of speaking silences other things that could have been said; it crafts spaces that necessarily exclude alternatives. Freedom is simply not relevant. To make space for white supremacists is necessarily to silence other voices, simply because the presence of white supremacists is terrorizing. This effectively reproduces white supremacy within liberal settings.

Abandonment

One of my friends says that, since the elections, he is more suspicious of everyone around him. Not that he was unsuspicious before: just more so now. When he walks down the street, who does he pass? What goes through their minds when they notice his brown skin, his Spanish surname, or an unconscious effeminate gesture? What rage and violent fantasies take shape in their minds? My friend lives in a regime of everyday trauma and terror—of knowing that the glares of white supremacist heteropatriarchy surround you but not knowing from whom they come. A total surveillance, a being watched without any one source to point to. All the while knowing that many of the people around you right now were able to put aside your life because they were more focused on “other issues,” because other lives mattered more. My friend is often told that we should try and understand Trump’s supporters. Perhaps there is a place for such understanding, but he says he just doesn’t have enough energy. He has his own wounds to attend to. It is deeply, existentially violent to call on him to do otherwise, to re-center once again on whiteness and white issues at the expense of caring for his own wounds.

Like the liberal students at my college, my conservative cousin—the one anxious about the “riots” following Trump’s inauguration—is not a self-declared fascist. Yet at the same time, my cousin found herself able to support a white supremacist, heteropatriarchal platform. Even if it was only because she was attracted to “other issues” in Trump’s platform, she has abandoned me.

She has abandoned me because she had abandoned my mixed-race nephews to the threat of police violence. (What is mixed race? The opposite of racially pure?) She has abandoned my queer sister. The queer family I was not born to but chose. She abandoned my partner, who, though underinsured, relies on the ACA in the case of emergency (and emergency has already happened once). She abandoned her aunts and cousins who suffer from disability and the unintended, further-disabling effects of their medications. She abandoned our relatives who have been raped, sexually assaulted, and molested—including myself. She abandoned my Muslim, Latino, and Native American friends. My cousin abandoned me to a toxified body from having to live in a Superfund site because I could afford it. Perhaps she abandoned herself.

If Trump can promise my cousin anything, it is only through these abandonments.

Leftist politics in the age of Trump cannot be defined by strategies requiring acknowledgement or turning towards the center. Calling Congress is not enough. We cannot sustain a politics that requires my cousin—let alone anyone in power—to acknowledge our existence in any complex or meaningful way. We cannot pin our own aspirations on those who will not apprehend our realities except on their terms, who will not grant our perspective alterity and autonomy from their own existence. Conversion is not our only tool. If we speak, it cannot be because we need them to hear us.

To be is to exist in the eyes of another: to give our breath to others and be given breath in return. To refuse to acknowledge another’s being as autonomous is a most brutal kind of violence. To be reflected in another’s eyes as only an extension of themselves is traumatic, is to be reduced to and enclosed by their terms and vision. It tries to assimilate you, demanding that you acknowledge it and give in to its encompassing vision, even as it denies you any autonomous basis of existence. This sets a foundation for greater violence: An institution cannot help but abandon those whose reality is unintelligible within its terms.

We, too, might abandon these people, these institutions of the state and capital, even as they abandon us. In turning away, we also walk new ways of existing into being. We leave ourselves open to being turned to, of encountering different kinds of sustenance and ways of loving. As Audre Lorde reminds us, in being moved to speak our truths, we find companionship and make life with each other. Such speech is not about convincing, converting, or even being acknowledged by “the other side.” It is a way of becoming vital, of waiting to find out who hears and turns to us; who holds our truths tight as lessons for their own existence and gives us life in return.

As bell hooks writes, margins are a place of radical openness: they situate a view of the whole and the possibility of worlds otherwise. It is time to forego placing our trust in the beneficence of wealthy leaders who, as Trump and others, promise change and redistribution while lining their own pockets. It is time to forego the brutal state calculus of who is worthy of care and who will be left to die, to stop expanding that calculus to encompass more people and turn instead to each other.

Life in Ruins

This is not to leave fascism, white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism, and ecological toxification to grow on their own while leftists live within cloistered enclosures. It is instead an effort to find modest but radical possibilities in how we live in ruins. I think that this will become an important skillset, but perhaps I watch too many apocalypse movies. We will become strange creatures, without stories of total salvation or total sin, without an absolute end point to reach. Without solutions and total fixes, we can only attend to each others’ wounds and be present with each others’ pain.

A path has been laid for such a turning away/turning to in mutual aid and the affiliation that grows from being present with our wounds. This path will not lead us forward, and that is OK. Forward is the dream of modern progress and linear time. It is a nightmare that monopolizes the present and the future for colonial institutions and populations, refusing to acknowledge colonized peoples as contemporary and coeval. The futures that these ideologies promise are glimmering auras lent to commodities: “Buy this, it is shiny and NEW! It’s TECHNOLOGY!” The other side of this spectacle of the future is suffering made invisible: the hands that assemble smartphones, the toxic substances that seep into bodies, the mounds of corpses that die securing land for oilfields to make someone else rich, the Indigenous cemeteries dug for fill to build train tracks and highways (literally powering the production of wealth with the bodies of ancestral Native Americans). The promise of forward is juxtaposed to spaces of ruin—an illusion, since ruins exist with us in the now. But forward also fades into untimeliness, the retro futures of the Jetsons or steampunk. Without a forward, we might find ways of making life within ruins.

Apocalypse, Junot Diaz reminds us, is both an end times and a revealing of hidden, underlying mechanisms that have led to that end. It is usually imagined as something yet to come: a wasteland denuded of life or crawling with radioactive mutants. Yet, as the philosopher Kyle Powys Whyte writes, American Indian peoples already live in their ancestors’ apocalyptic future. That is, apocalypse is felt unevenly and it is already happening—in fact, it has been happening for a long time.

Anthropologist Christopher Nelson writes about how Okinawan peoples get on in the apocalyptic present of a postwar world, within the wreckage of Japanese colonialism and US occupation. In storytelling and in dance, artists, construction workers, civil servants, and the like gather to attend to the past and care for the dead. An old woman laments that she is no longer able to tend to her husband’s bones—a practice considered unsanitary by the Japanese colonial government—and has been robbed of the means to make relationship with her dead beloved. Yet in attending to the dead and to memories of historical trauma, Okinawan people also circulate life, piecing a world back together. It is vitally important—for Okinawans and all of us—to learn how to make life with the dead and live in ruins.

I am optimistic, really. If humans truly do go extinct in the near future, at least it will be a future without white supremacy, imperialism, and capitalism—a future with radically different modes of existing. However, as an anthropologist, I am interested in the apocalyptic stories we tell ourselves—not because they are false but because they are true in such complex ways, because we have no choice but to live in and through our stories.

Writing of his childhood in the Midwest, sociologist Matt Wray describes a fundamentalist, apocalyptic Christianity that took hold in his community in the 1970s. What, he asks, made the 1970s feel especially apocalyptic? At the time, neoliberal policies were centralizing wealth at unprecedented levels—while simultaneously expanding impoverishment. In the face of local unemployment and rising poverty, people in Wray’s community saw Revelation. They found new ways of coming together in Church, finding direct and visceral connection to the Divine, collective joy and intimacy. Of course, Wray also found profound terror. But his community cobbled together a barter economy and other forms of aid in order to help each other get by. The apocalypse is always felt at many different levels—the personal, the local, the global—even as it leaves people like Wray (and like us) struggling to figure out how to get on in a future that was never supposed to exist.

Yes, ruination is painful. Socially, it is distributed unevenly. But states fall. There is no clearer lesson from archaeology. Falling is what they do. We have been promised that humans cannot live with each other and without states, that such a world would be filled with such brutality and violence that it would be hardly livable at all. This is a lie, or if you like, an alternative fact. States are restricted to a small few situations in an unspeakably long history, a few corners of a mote of dust in a sky lit by both unimaginable darkness and brilliance. To abandon the state—or alternatively, to turn to its apocalypse and find life in its ruined remains—is not a return to life “before” but rather to life against capitalism and the state, against the centralization of wealth, politics, and self-possessive ways of being. It is an ongoing struggle against the emergence and consolidation of hierarchy. And it is a giving way to life that can only be lived together, in turning towards each other—in visceral intimacy with toxins, plants, technological tools, radiation, animals, water, electromagnetic waves, microbes, fungi, land.

Turning to Worlds Otherwise

I was raised in the Jewish faith, although my mother was a neo-pagan who turned away from Southern Methodism. I hope my limited knowledge of Christian scripture might be forgiven. But I do know that in Jesus Christ Superstar, Jesus exercises radical force by refusing to acknowledge any significance whatsoever in Rome’s political might. Facing death, Jesus finds state power completely unintelligible, nonsensical. Even as Pontius Pilate warns him of execution, Jesus replies that whatever power Pilate thinks that he has—the power to distribute death—can only emanate from a larger, divine source. You have no real power, Jesus says, even if you kill me. Without acknowledgement, the state enters crisis: death is both its final solution and the limit of its reach. In turning from the state and towards death, different ways of existing became possible for Jesus and his followers. Two thousand years later, many of us continue to make life in the ruins and memories left by both Jesus and Rome, inhabiting the contradictions between the hubris of the state and the mercy of being in the eyes of God.

To find freedom, in the poignant words of the protagonist of Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, you must come to it with empty hands. We have nothing; we possess nothing (to possess something is to fundamentally mistake its nature as impermanent and always-becoming-something-else). You are only what you give, and you can only give yourself. We come to each other with empty hands, brought together in the acknowledgement of each other’s pain. Powerless to relieve it and refusing to ignore it, we can only be present with it. In that space of pain, we might find ways of getting on together, of forging intimacies in damaged worlds. We can get on by turning away and turning to each other, by abandoning failed institutions and building an otherwise in the ruins left to us.

Acknowledgements

 I am deeply influenced by my professor China Schertz’s thinking on abandonment and care, Anna Brickhouse’s on catastrophe and apocalypse, and Kath Weston and Jim Igoe’s on ruins. I also draw from lessons and philosophies learned from and with Muskogee hosts during my own fieldwork. This essay grew with the support of Irtefa Binte-Farid, who read a draft and encouraging me to move forward. The framework of turning to/turning away is borrowed from Elizabeth Povinelli’s book, Geontologies. Anna Tsing in The Mushroom at the End of the World, Kath Weston in Animate Planet, Donna Haraway in Staying with the Trouble, and Christopher Nelson in Dancing with the Dead each write eloquently about making life in ruins. Lisa Stevenson in Life Beside Itself and Ursula Le Guin in The Dispossessed write about being present with each others’ wounds as an open-ended, uncertain way of coming together without fixing others in advance.

Lee Bloch is a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology at the University of Virginia.

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