Why I Can’t Stand Junot Díaz

Note: This post is partially in response to a question posed to the author of our most recent post about why they discussed Junot Díaz.

I haven’t read any of Junot Díaz’s fiction. I plan to get there eventually, but when I critique Díaz, it’s for his politics.

Decolonial theory is associated with names like Walter D. Mignolo; if you want a solid critique from someone much more qualified than me of Mignolo specifically and his decolonial bugbears, then the first thirteen pages of this monograph do exactly that: http://materializmidialektik.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/Zizek_Politics.pdf

Díaz, though, is specifically more well-known for talking about “decolonial LOVE,” and that’s why I bother to mention him by name in my above-linked Valentine’s essay. First, let’s step through where Díaz and I are in full agreement on race and love:

1. Racism exists in a violently unbalanced asymmetry, which is why the SJ movement consistently refers to it as “white supremacy” (often citing bell hooks’ own revelation and stance on this change of phrasing). Whatever moments of POC violence exist, they are dwarfed by the centuries of white violence, white police, white lynchings, white anti-immigration acts; and even when POC violence is explicitly given as anti-white retribution, again, this is not only dwarfed by anti-POC violence, but is clearly and obviously symptomatic of a universe in which racism is posited by white bodies who claim for themselves the top tier of value, meaningfulness, and right-to-life. An oft-used analogy is the distinction between Israeli and Palestinian violence.

White supremacy is the thesis, and all other races are the antithesis it generates.

2. Díaz writes, “we are never going to get anywhere as long as our economies of attraction continue to resemble, more or less, the economy of attraction of white supremacy.” (http://colorlines.com/archives/2012/12/watch_junot_diaz_keynote_speech_from_facing_race_2012_video.html) This is where we break, because while I would say the exact same thing, Díaz and I mean violently irreconcilable things by it.

Díaz’s politics are what Nietzsche excoriated in his Genealogy of Morals as “priestly morality,” or “ressentiment;” mine are what Nietzsche called “transvaluation”—in Christian terms, metanoia (which word, ironically, Díaz himself uses in the Salon article linked below)—or what Hegel called sublation, Aufhebung.

Díaz’s only possible politic is to invert the terms (and this is what Mignolo does more explicitly): where we were Eurocentric, we now must IGNORE questions deemed “European,” since they “do not matter” for the subaltern of the third world (Gayatri Spivak, who coined the term subaltern, makes exactly this claim in one of her critiques of Jacques Derrida). Where we were once white supremacists, we must value and celebrate the history of the indigenous, the black African, the Maori (not that Diaz has the first clue about Pacific Islanders who would never identify with the U.S. centric “AAPI” grouping, which happens to be most of them)—well-known things like the slogan “black is beautiful” or poetry and novels written in various creoles or patois.

As Kalpana Seshadri-Crooks unforgivingly put it, “Race, if it is working at all, is about the sense of one’s exclusiveness, exceptionality and uniqueness. Put very simply, it is an identity that, if it is working at all, can only be about pride, being better, being the best.” Díaz and the rest of the decolonial critics’ politics is to do exactly that: engage in the liberal fantasy where we are ALL the best, we are EQUALLY unique and special and valuable, in some impossible future harmony of racial balance and equality.

(Note: Intra-POC violence—like black-on-Asian violence after Rodney King—fits this same pattern, as documented by Anne Anlin Cheng: black supremacy is a movement of ressentiment which, in the specific case of the King beating, turned into an assault on Korean locals in a display of race supremacy, attempting only to re-order the relative privileges of race.)

3. Aufhebung—sublation—transvaluation—metanoia—whatever you want to call it, has no time for that. Besides having to give up on the illusion of a future (we must live rightly NOW, damn the rotten corpses we’ll be and whatever future society rises), it *DESTROYS THE THESIS*. Sublation is not about a “synthesis” in which thesis or antithesis are reconciled in unious harmony; sublation eliminates the thesis and the antithesis along with it: to lose white supremacy is to lose all sense of a shared black identity, of being Asian-American, of indigenous history; all of these were retroactively posited by white supremacy to explain its own existence (“We came to the land of noble savages with human chattel and are now fighting against the unwanted racial others trying to share in our prosperity”—all ideological hallucinations with real, material consequences: the genocide of Natives, the enslavement of black Africans, the Chinese Exclusion Act and the present hysteria about Latin@, esp. Mexican, immigrants).

As Zizek puts it later in that same essay I linked you, when it comes to class oppression, “the goal of the revolutionary activity is [not that everyone becomes like workers but], on the contrary, to change the entire social situation so that workers themselves will no longer be ‘workers.’” Racially, this is what revolutionary achievement aims for as well: Not that we all become more white (the neoliberal goal) or that we all convert to the side of the oppressed (what the frequently-cited Paolo Freire openly advocates in his “Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” another favorite of the SJ clique), but that THE VERY DIFFERENCE IS DESTROYED. We are made free because these coordinates cease to control us—ANY of us.

“None of us are free until all of us are free,” as the now-unpopular slogan goes, since that involves grace for the devil, who must also be released from hell, even though he is the king of it. And we don’t want that. We want retribution.

3. And this, finally, is why the politicians of ressentiment cry “foul” and accuse the political radical of being a political conservative: they cannot tell the difference between the two positions, the neoliberal “post-racial” fantasy (which is a simple regression to the point where white supremacy is hidden and invisible again) and the actual elimination of white supremacy *and all it generates* as a result.

In the first case, as Díaz himself knows, white supremacy masquerades as non-existent, as the unmarked position, as common-sense knowledge, not some biased “ideology.” (http://www.salon.com/2012/07/02/the_search_for_decolonial_love/) Furthermore, we are all implicated in this; but for Díaz, that means betraying those we should be in solidarity with for some minuscule privileges, learning a little humility, whereas for me that means “we are all enabled to fight and destroy white supremacy, no exceptions.” (None of this imbecility about “well clearly revolution must come the working class women of color as they are best positioned to see white supremacy ‘as it really is’—the horseshit theory of false consciousness). The ressentiment politician has learned that white supremacy’s invisibility is a lie, but is convinced that the impossible is, well, impossible: not only is there no future in which a non-raced subject can exist, they sure as shit can’t exist NOW…

And that is where Díaz ultimately reveals himself to be on the side of ressentiment. While we both want to go full Bane in the Gotham Stock Exchange when it comes to “the economy of attraction of white supremacy”—catastrophically destroy it—Díaz wants the colonized to engage in some kind of “return” to a proud past, to achieve a love AGAINST the neocolonial subjectivity they’ve been raised into.

So it’s no surprise that many people like Díaz prefer to cite the passages of White Skin, Black Masks that Fanon immediately disavows at the end of that chapter (like the passages praising black beauty). As you’ll see Zizek himself cite Fanon, “I am a man, and what I have to recapture is the whole past of the world. I am not responsible solely for the slave revolt in Santo Domingo. Every time a man has contributed to the victory of the dignity of the spirit, every time a man has said no to an attempt to subjugate his fellows, I have felt solidarity with his act. In no way does my basic vocation have to be drawn from the past of peoples of color. In no way do I have to dedicate myself to reviving a black civilization unjustly ignored. I will not make myself the man of any past.” This runs loudly counter to the “historically-aware, systemic collective action” of most SJ thinkers—they reach for Gramsci and Spivak, I reach for Marx and Hegel—and the usual objection is that all of this is just an indiviudal fantasy (always the consequence of my or someone’s else’s “unchecked privilege”), insufficiently “structural” and unable to come to terms with “collective action.” What does Fanon’s privilege in being able to say this have to do with the 14 yeard old black boy on the Boston T who’s felt worthless his entire life, and then, as Cherrie Moraga knew, gets shot in the head by a cop (see the preface to “This Bridge Called My Back”)?

Such a response is also why I detest privilege: as bell hooks naively, even cluelessly, put it in her “post-modern blackness,” “it’s easy to give up identity, when you got one.” That is not a thing anyone who has ever tried to give up privilege can respond to except with abrasive, mocking laughter. hooks was specifically trying to defend identity politics as valuable; but what hooks cannot theorize is that privilege is not simply concrete, material goods like access to food, employment, housing, safety, etc.

Privilege is a bribe, and when you have privilege, you have been BOUGHT. To fight against it will go for you about as well as anyone who’s ever seen a cop movie knows—the corrupt system will either ignore you (because it can), discipline you (beat you, humiliate you, alienate you, rescind your privileges), or when you cease to be an acceptable level of threat, destroy you.

White racial identity is one such privilege.

To learn to desire outside the white economy is to no longer consider yourself worth saving, to be willing to die for the sake of love. And wasn’t it Christ, that “Man without Qualities,” the hole I was writing about, the one who Bonhoeffer who called “the man for others,” that said: “No greater love has anyone than this, but that they give their life for those they love?”

Díaz can’t seem to imagine me with friends of color, lovers of color, colleagues of color, enemies of color, indifferent strangers of color, and the need to relate to them. Fanon can—“I find myself in the world and I recognize that I have one right alone: That of demanding human behavior from the other”—but Díaz can’t. As Audrey Thompson put it in her popular but again, to my eyes, ultimately useless and misguided essay “Tiffany, friend of people of color,” they have no patience for the kind of love-object I was going on about in my Valentine’s essay: “This is a different question from whether a white person can be the friend of a person of color. Here, I am focusing specifically on the universal “friend,” as in “good guy” or ‘ally.’ Even intimate friendship, though, is not safe from racism. As Lerone Bennett, Jr., suggests, such a relationship may ‘transcend’ racism without destroying it.” That is an incredibly stupid statement—how can any relationship transcend racism without being a threat to it? and if it can, why the fuck are we calling that “transcendence”?—and repeats the standard SJ disavowal: you are an individualist, but I see things as they really are, on the level of systems and the universal; your pretty personal problem is never going to change anything.

Any Buddhist knows this is nonsense. To do some quick word-substitution on the one of Zen’s most famous sayings, on how mountains and rivers are perceived during the steps of enlightenment:

“First, I saw people as people. Then, I saw that people (including myself) were all raced. Then, when I had actually achieved enlightenment, I saw people as people.”

The third stage is that of the bodhisattva, the practitioner enabled to cut through delusions and assist others on their quest to their own (unique, singular) enlightenment. But for Díaz and his type, stage three is exactly the same as stage one; they cannot understand the difference between invisible white supremacy and the end of the white supremacy.

They are cynics, and as Lacan warned us about cynics, they’re all dupes. “I know how things really are; so I persist in my racial fantasies and fictions of solidarity…”

So. That’s why I can’t stand Díaz. He is irrelevant to me; his decolonial love has no way of redeeming the devil. As the Propagandhi song I linked to sings,

“i’ve been subject to the same de-structure of desire and i’ve felt the same effects; i’m a hetero-sexist tragedy[…] i had different desires prior to my role-remodelling. and at six years of age you don’t challenge their claims. you become the same. (or withdraw from the game and hang your head in shame)[…]sex has been distorted and vilified. i’m scared of my attraction to body types. if everything desired is objectified then eroticism needs to be redefined. and i refuse to be a ‘man’. dead men don’t rape. a gender war in your fucking face. a battle hymn to celebrate the fact that we don’t have to become or remain what we’ve come to hate.” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OXFkYyhoHiI)

That’s god-damn anti-patriarchal hymn, and has nothing to do with the ressentiment fantasies of the separatists who think only women can be feminists, the Good Social Justice Men who “know” that women need to lead the movement, the intersectional feminists who know we have to account for all identities…

Propagandhi takes responsible for the demonization (lit. “being made into a demon”) that was not his fault and the consequences he will get for throwing it down.

THAT’S “checking your privilege.” But it’s a conception I have never, not once, found articulated by any self-identified member of the “social justice” movement; and it sure as hell has nothing to do with Díaz and his ilk’s decolonial fantasies.

So I don’t bother with them so much. Down with decolonial love.

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2 thoughts on “Why I Can’t Stand Junot Díaz

  1. The comments on sublation here really remind me of a paper I wrote on the problem of ambiguity in Said’s ‘Orientalism’. Post-colonialists love to interpret him as being the type of advocate of the type of post-modern nativism discussed here (not that he ever did anything to really combat this). On the other hand, Said (especially in his discussions on the ‘clash of civilizations’ – great lecture here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aPS-pONiEG8) had very strong humanist tendencies and often explicitly advocated the sublation of the colonizer/colonized binary, rather than simply reproducing it in a kind of inverted form. But this aspect of his thought is usually just ignored.

  2. “Gayatri Spivak, who coined the term subaltern, makes exactly this claim in one of her critiques of Jacques Derrida”

    Could I get a citation for this? I’d like to look at it.

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