2020, The Flames, and Where we go Next: In Dialogue / with Sam Te Kani

The last few months have given credence to Lenin’s claim that “There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.” It’s been a wild (ongoing) ride, shattering whatever sense of normality late-stage capitalism allowed and sending many – myself included – into the dark space of unknowing that accompanies a breakdown in our collective sense-making. Central to this is the way in which coronavirus has revealed our interdependency, shattering capitalist myths of individualism and pushing us towards a more collaborative space, from the praxis of iwi checkpoints to the rise of mutual aid groups and the autonomous zone declared by activists on Seattle’s Capital Hill.

While research is often characterised as a solitary affair, dialogue offers one way out of this bind. Inspired by the kōrero of Te Kawehau Hoskins and Alison Jones, I reached out to Sam Te Kani, a friend, writer of personalised erotic flash fiction (hit him up), and author of one of Auckland’s sharpest critical blogs, Apocalypsistic.

Sam’s insta is a meme-production house (@samueltekani)

DK: To start I guess I’m interested in how all this madness/change has you feeling? Just what the fuck is 2020 all about?

STK: I’ve been quiet in the blog lately for how surreal everything feels right now, which outside a kind of existential terror at institutions and hegemons we’ve historically defined ourselves by dismantling, I’d assume is a common feeling. For me it’s like, all the rhetorics which my little urban bubble of semi-affluent creatives and all the utopian dreaming which constitutes a lot of the official registers between humanities and arts, are becoming real in ways that remind me of that thing Zizek says probably quoting some dead guy, ‘when a dream becomes reality, that’s called a nightmare’. So to the extent that the ball has started rolling on necessary change, then awesome, but as history shows the cost of transition is often bloody mortal costs which is why I’m tentative about talking ‘revolution’ because our approaches have been with an air of sacrifice; just who should we offer up to the pyre in aid of progressive change? Are there less sacrificial approaches to infra-structural overhaul? Are we even capable of gradually implementing change without instigating the conflagration, like the one happening in America right now?

Fuck idk. And I guess that sacrificial approach to change is something ingrained, mythologised in our Christian underpinnings, the notion of suffering and martyrdom as appropriate means towards salvation

I guess what I’m wondering about right now is the role of violence and if it’s possible to turn violent means of oppressions against oppressive systems, or if the language of violence is too systemic for it to ever be radically opposed to those systems. Like, is it just a gesture of perpetuation or can it actually be used to dig us out of strategic divisiveness which to me is the obvious agenda of identity.

DK: Yeah it’s pretty real. There’s definitely a sense that this is all out of any one person’s hands – which is (ironically) how things have always been. And there’s no doubt that Trump and co have been stoking the fire of division and sectional hatred for a while now. But what is harder is how to respond to that division… There’s been lots of people quoting MLK – ‘A riot is the language of the unheard’ – and I think that’s definitely true but the hard work seems to lie in moving from being heard to being in its alternative, world-creating sense which is what people like Killer Mike and Cornel West seem to be saying. None of which is to diminish the righteousness or anger behind the uprising, but just to ask some hard questions about what comes next and whether that can be empowering or whether this is just a blip in an ongoing and seemingly endless oppression.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the binary of oppressor-oppressed lately and the way that’s been playing out, especially in some of the pushback against the clicktivist responses and inevitable coopting that seems to come with protests like this… it all just seems so messy and conflicted, which is at least partially a product of how we get our news and commentary over social media, but do u think u could unpack what you mean when you say the obvious agenda of identity is “strategic divisiveness”? 

If you haven’t, Killer Mike’s attempt to live in the ‘black economy’ is a must watch.

STK: Yeah, I’m in the same boat of not being anti-protesting or anti-rioting, but I’m also aware of how deceptively performative these gestures actually are (or can be), how vulnerable to consumerist recruitment they often are, and this is not irrelevant to what I mean when I say identity is ‘strategically divisive’, that it is a fundamental tool of capitalism’s affective flows.

I mean, basically since ’68 [Mao’s cultural revolution] which I hate even mentioning because those associated thinkers [i.e., the Frankfurt School] have been fetishised to the point of parody, the ‘liberal’ stance has been quietly fostering a less radical and more marketable version of difference, cementing identity as the exclusive lens through which we can discuss or describe difference (which I would hold as something fundamental to human being itself, whatever that is). Though the purview of liberal rhetorics, the ways in which identities are economised even within liberal academic circles holds space for the consumer, which as the prime subject is assuredly not raced or queerly gendered, equating freedom and civic liberty with the consumer’s expanded choice-wheel of slightly more ‘ethnic’ fare. This notion of ‘freedom’ I’m even sceptical of because it’s dispersed across the globe with horrifying bias and deference and often actually means freedom to consume or participate in consumerist orgies, which we see being offended in the mostly white-male resistance to lockdown; not a fear of totalitarian statehood, but a bratty tantrum-throwing by white dudes who can’t conceive of being told what to do (in a society that has admittedly told them they can do whatever they want without interrogation), even if the state has their best interests in mind. Like, stemming the flow of a pandemic lol.

Anyway I mention 68 because those thinkers thinking they were opposed to corporate sprawls actually assimilated the notion of the capitalist individual and pitched it as liberation, from which point liberal stances shifted from being class/labour/union minded to striving towards alleged emancipation of specifically oppressed groups in society comprised of energetic individuals. In this way liberalism became ‘neo’ liberalism, not to say the 68 thinkers like Foucault etc didn’t offer anything worthwhile, only that with hindsight a sequence of folly is visible, which is always the advantage of the present over the past; clarity.

And that’s the danger of adhering to old forms of resistance, is that their radical potential might be merely performative because they’ve had their affect stripped and refurbished as commodities. Like protesting, like rioting. Which again is not to say that I’m anti-protesting; maybe the riots will reach such widespread feverish scales that those powers will be forced to their knees, which will only be useful if someone with leadership has a strong enough collective vision for what should be installed in the wake of a racist constitution. But then that’s a question not of forms but of intensities, and what kind of radical intensities can be roused even within a stale commodified form (which I obviously think is possible, otherwise I wouldn’t be so painfully obsessed with genre).

Michel Foucault | Footnotes to Plato | Michel Foucault: Power and ...
In the preface to Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia – described as “an Introduction to the Non-Fascist Life” – Foucault warns not just of historical fascism, “but also the fascism in us all, in our heads and in our everyday behaviour, the fascism that causes us to love power, to desire the very thing that dominates and exploits us.”

And as for strategic divisiveness, identity rhetorics are staked as a vehicle for describing difference and promoting integration/plurality when in reality they do two things; minimise difference into marketable or digestible forms (as discussed above), and intentionally cultivate micro-tribalisms to ensure the masses remain alienated from each other, and perhaps in the regimen of fixed identity, alienated from themselves. Obviously a population alienated from collectivity by their own hand is a dream come true for corrupt states, because those civilians who would otherwise be resisting the privatisation of their public goods are too busy debating fringe issues to notice they’re being looted.

Which has often been the case since 68.

DK: I keep going back to this thing that the Argentine scholar Walter Mignolio said: “Identity is not what you are. Identity is about being identified…” He said it in the context of power being about who gets to classify, ie that whoever controls knowledge controls being, at least in that sense of what we as its subjects feel is possible. Edward Said makes a similar point in Orientalism: part of the power of colonisation turns on who gets to shape the narrative, which is why postcolonial scholars really emphasised the creation of their own voice and agency, the subaltern speaking back and inverting the monologue that says ‘you, there, over there, are like this.’ 

But there’s a point where something has to come next, and I kind of feel like that’s where we are. It’s not like the unrest or the virus that escalated it are ‘the end’ in any final doomsday sense. But I also think that they’ve really brought to the fore some of the structural inequalities that have been ‘hidden’ from the [largely white] middle class by this wave of “consumerist orgies” you talk about, as if more doing/buying/experiencing might function to collectively distract themselves/myself from the slave labour and planet destroying realities woven through their/my value set and existence. There was something I read the other day – in Gustavo Esteva and Madhu Prakesh’s excellent Grassroots PostModernism – about consumption being fundamentally oriented towards death, to the notion of finishing or using things up: a destructive reality on a few levels.

That’s 3 tons of carbon, per person, per year. (Use in NZ is around 7.4 tons per person, an average that masks huge [wealth-linked] disparity..)

This is kind of the dead end that I feel identity politics leads to – not because its broad structural level critiques are wrong or anything, but because they don’t point to any steps forward in an interpersonal space, which is where we actually live. Instead, their lens remains outward focusing, all about how you – individual subject of capitalism – will be perceived in the moral accounting of our age. Which means that people remain at core narcissistic; and I think America is essentially the ur-form of this. I don’t mean NZ isn’t narcissistic; as settler states we both share certain histories and the rise of the States post WW2 has definitely left its imprint here but they’re classically more extreme and you see this in the levels of green-washing and clicktivism and constantly echoing ‘woke’ talk that never seems to actually collide with action, let alone building the bottom-up power and alternative structures necessary to subvert the state. Instead there’s just a fuckload of arguing and infighting – again, not unique and we got it here too – but it’s like, fuck, divide and rule is the oldest trick in the book. What is perhaps most ironic is that this infighting takes place in a space that seems to be uniquely privileged already. Like there are countless people out there just tryna get by and who genuinely need assistance in a material space and yet ‘protesting’ has all this cultural capital now but still nothing tangible gets done… 

I dunno, this probably sounds bitter in a way I don’t mean it to; it’s hard to find the right words for frustration. These shortcomings are woven through my own life, after all.  

Where’s your thinking on what comes next? What would u like to see people doing more of?

Racist statue go splasssh

STK: I’ve been having this conversation so often lately haha. MOVING BEYOND IDENTITY. And again, you make a really important point about not disregarding the lessons that identity politics has given us thus far, but it’s ultimately a cul de sac for its lack of provisionality, its assumption of absolutism about itself, as if to say ‘here is the truth’ and that’s that. The irony of this is obviously that semantics of identity which are so often deployed as a means towards reparative justice against oppressive systems, are using proto-fascist languages and manoeuvres themselves, which leaves the ideological stain of fascism intact. It’s just a holding of space for future forms of oppression which become hyper-fluid and invisibly nuanced in the informational flux that comprises our ‘inter-personal’ space, by which I of course mean the Internet. I know there’s an awful lot that’s been said about the internet already but I think how it registers in our experience of every day life, how we bodily assimilate the unprecedented co-presence of the rest of the world on a regular basis, is something which we’ve barely discussed; or if we have it’s been exclusively regarding the commercial mimesis of competitive lifestyles ie Instagram. 

Anyway, perhaps the avatar-archetype and it’s mainstreaming through gaming/social medias can be a model for pitching identity as a utility, as broaching a new way of thinking and feeling identity as a technology which purely exists to facilitate interpersonal space, and in this way alleviate some of the affectively suffocating psychic-proximity we often have, and are instructed to have, with our ‘avatars’. 

Does this make sense?

DK: I think so. One thing that’s struck me recently about identity is this way that it’s assumed to be both inherent to us and singular, that we have ‘one identity’ – again, Mignolio, one way of being “identified” – and so any attack on our ‘identity’ is an attack on us, on our core. And people don’t like that shit, so of course they get defensive. A classic example of this is what happens when certain people get told that they’re racist, right? ‘I’m not racist’ they say, conflating the use of racist language or complicity in upholding racist structures with some caricatured klan-member notion of what a racist is. As far as that person is concerned, they’re not in the kkk, they’ve never actively wanted to hurt minorities and don’t you know they have plenty of non-white friends. They confuse the behaviour with essence, get defensive and so refuse to listen. 

It’s kind of like this [western] myth we have of the mind being in control of our conduct in some knowable, singular sense, as if there really is a little person in your head that chooses and rationally decides how we act. I don’t think many people actually believe this, but that’s why it’s a myth, it’s an unquestioned assumption that structures our view of the world. Part of what I’ve liked so much about Timothy Morton’s Dark Ecology stuff is that it deliberately unwires this, revealing the uncanny ways ‘external’ factors influence whatever-the-entity-‘I’-am. All of which is a sort of roundabout way to get back to what I think you’re getting at with this idea of ‘identity as a technology’; it’s just one way in which we access the world. And knowing that it’s just one way, one lens – whatever – means that there can be other ways and therefore fluidity, multiplicity. Just as we aren’t singular beings, neither is anything singular. It all depends on how you access it, which – for me at least – brings it back to this idea of relationships and how we’re actually engaging and practising our politic…

So, with an eye to the ‘how’, do you think that this more fluid avatar approach to identity can be a useful tool for building networks of solidarity across our difference? 

STK: YES.

Funny you should mention Timothy Morton because I only recently finished Hyperobjects and fucking loved it. Like, the notion that our knowledges and languages are practically useless to gear us for survival within a paradigm which insists on absolute descriptors, because the conditions of our existence/survival span spatial and temporal scales which language is ill-equipped to totalise simply because those conditions are so massive that they have no totalisable parameter. Same going with identity, that we should hold space for evolution within our concepts, acknowledging the provisional nature of all language/culture, and in this way fluidly inhabit our rhetorics like a momentarily necessary theatre (or avatar) and not the final word on social/material/other(?) phenomena. Morton’s essentially trying to debunk the cultural hubris of western knowledge formation, approaching from ecological concerns which are perhaps only inadvertently decolonial, in terms of undermining western canon and it’s CLEAR failings. 

“let’s not have a one-size-fits-all politics… We need a multiplicity of different political systems. We need to think of them as toylike: playful and half-broken things that connect humans and nonhumans with one another. We can never get it perfect.” (Dark Ecology, p. 113)

We should also be wary of social media while at the same time attending to our feed lest we miss out on whiffs and traces making the rounds, because nothing is remainder in the globalised nervous system of our socials. Everything once in the pool is member to it like a colour, stripped from context and losing definition in the general goop. 

I’ve personally started listening in to a morning podcast with my partner which he’s into, and which I started only peripherally hearing over coffee but which I’m now relying on for ‘factual accounts’. Obviously the neutrality of journalism is an ongoing contention, but it beats acquiring political agency through IG by which you’ll only ever assimilate events through the hyper-lens of people’s personal accounts, which even in the midst of violent change remain portals of identitarian consumerist interface. IG and twitter are good for attuning to the dominant affects around a certain fact or event though, and I think we’re perhaps tolerating the affective slants of our socials as trivial without considering the lateral effects of those resonances, how aesthetics are foremost political vehicles masquerading as pop or entertainments; and perhaps by being so officially benign we’re more vulnerable to them. 

I’m always conscious (maybe naively) of the difference between my bodily presence and performance of self in the theatre of history and how these modes, theatre and gaming, have potential to ‘de-militarise’ the working-out of teleological meaning which identity has been passively tasked with. 

Yes history is important, yes identity often encloses hurts/wounds/crimes which it’s important we approach with reparative/transformative judiciary measures; but no, identity is not the only way we can describe difference, shouldn’t be the only means towards an integrative society which can operate plurally without recourse to systematic erasures of history’s more acute (unconscionable) angles. But until we find an alternative means towards democracy’s questionable dream-project of ‘universality’, I personally think we should create breathing space between ‘ourselves’ (the textures of our lived experiences, our bodies etc) and those identity scripts we’re handed on the basis of race, class, gender etc which are so heavily reliant on a neoliberal visual field; if only for the purpose of holding space until that alternative emerges. 

So until then, THEATRES AND GAMES BABY! Live in that uncertain inch between self as a known and self as a gaping-mystery-wound/void. Or don’t, like whatever. It’s just a personal pref.

DK: thanks Sam, that’s excellent. I wanna round out with a quote from Grassroots Postmodernism, because I think it accurately sums up the combination of unity and multiplicity we’ve been talking around.

Writing of the Indigenous struggle to resist modernity’s imposed ‘development’ in Mexico, Esteva and Prakesh explain that “Those who think locally do not twist the humble satisfaction of belonging to the cosmos into the arrogance of pretending to know what is good for everyone and to attempt to control the world… A unifying “No,” expressing a shared opposition [to the neoliberal project], is but the other side of a radical affirmation of the heterogeneous and differenti­ated beings and hopes of all the real men and women involved in resist­ing any global monoculture.” The pluriverse awaits

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