“The strangeness that seems to reside somewhere between the body and its objects is also what brings these objects to life and makes them dance” (Ahmed QP 162; emphasis mine).
I’m working on a chapter for a collection on critical whiteness studies. I’m in the process of thinking through my argument, so I’m using the blog as an attempt to work through my ideas, and, ideally, get some constructive criticism. SO, consider this stuff as very much in progress. In the chapter, I use No Wave music as a way to think about the politics and aesthetics of white disorientation. I’ll post on the music later. For now, I want to focus on the philosophical background, particularly this concept of “disorientation.” What do I mean by “white disorientation”? Well, first I need to explain what I mean by “orientation.”
Orientation as theory of socio-political inequality
Sara Ahmed talks about power, hegemony, and privilege as “orientations”—they direct our bodies to work in certain ways and not others, they direct and arrange the world in ways that facilitate certain kinds of interactions, and discourage others, etc. “‘Orientations’ depend on taking points of view as given” (14); they “shape not only how we inhabit space, but how we apprehend this world of shared inhabitance, as well as ‘who’ or ‘what’ we direct our energy and attention toward” (3). Orientations are the background conditions that give form to our perceptions: they’re the “lenses” that allow some things to come into focus (at the expense of others), or the program behind the interface, making some things easy to do and others nearly impossible. In each cultural or subcultural context, there are systems of practices, conventions, and habits that allow us (especially our bodies) to “fee[l] at home” and “fin[d] our way” (9). For example, classical music concerts and pop music concerts feature different orientations among musicians and audiences: the former is much more formal, the latter more casual, but both are highly ritualized. These orientations help audiences know how to “find their way” through the event, and how to “feel at home” and enjoy the performance: they include rituals governing, for example, knowing when to clap at a classical music performance (not between the movements, only when the conductor’s hands go down), knowing it is generally OK to talk, even yell, at a pop show, knowing that there will be one or two encores after the “official” end of the performance (the show’s not over till the house lights go up), knowing where in the venue it’s OK to dance, and the accepted types of dancing (moshing, slamdancing, crowd surfing, light twirling, breakdancing, etc.).---these are all “orientations” that help us navigate a concert. We are oriented when we know who we are and what we can and/or ought to do; or rather, we are orientated when we take for granted who we are and what we can/or ought to do. So, when you don’t have to think about riding a bike, but just hop on and pedal, or when you don’t have to think about comporting yourself in a gender-appropriate way, that’s being orientated.
Ahmed argues that whiteness is a form of orientation: it’s one of the “programs” through which we “interface” with the world and with others. “The world of whiteness,” she argues, is “the familiar world...a world we know implicitly” (111). Because “colonialism makes the world ‘white’” (111), this “we” includes more than just white/Western subjects—everyone has to be familiar with whiteness, because it orientates global flows of money, resources, labor, etc. Whiteness is ubiquitous. So, in the context of global white supremacy, whiteness is not what is distributed unequally; rather, whiteness is what does the distributing of privilege, money, resources, etc. Or better: whiteness is the gauge used to do the distributing. As Ahmed explains, “whiteness becomes a social and bodily orientation given that some bodies will be more at home in a world that is orientated around whiteness” (138). If whiteness orients the world, those with white bodies—actual white people—will have an easier time navigating this world that people with insufficiently white bodies. (Think of Peggy McIntosh’s famous formulation of white privilege as an “invisible knapsack” of resources that provide for white people’s ability to seamlessly “be at home” in the world.) The world also shapes our bodies, positively reinforcing bodily comportments, behaviors, and aesthetics that follow the “program” of whiteness. “If the world is made white,” Ahmed argues, “then the body at home is one that can inhabit whiteness” (111).
But what about bodies that don’t “inhabit whiteness”? First, their awkwardness, troublesomeness, and “unruliness” indicate the underlying ubiquity of whiteness. The awkwardness of non-white bodies “reconfirms the whiteness of the space” (135-6). So, when non-whites feel like their very existence is a “problem” (as Du Bois famously put it), these feelings of dis-orientation are further evidence that the world is oriented by white supremacy. Ahmed argues that “the body gets directed in some ways more than others” (15); bodies that can’t or don’t follow whiteness’s directions lead to feelings of disorientation and disruption, both for non-white subjects, and the people around them, white and non-white.[i] So, it’s not that orientation is unevenly distributed; rather, “disorientation is unevenly distributed: some bodies more than others have their involvement in the world calls into crisis” (159; emphasis mine). White supremacy means that disorientation disproportionately affects non-whites—they don’t get the “invisible knapsack” with the map, compass, etc. It’s harder for non-whites to navigate about the white-oriented world; they feel “awkward” and like their very existence is “a problem.”
A Politics of Disorientation
If white hegemony is a type of orientation, then disorientation would be the corresponding anti-racist strategy. Ahmed considers the “politics of disorientation,” especially anti-racist, queer disorientation, at length. “If orientation is about making the strange familiar” (11), then disorientation is the practice of “mak[ing] that familiar strange, or even to allow that which has been overlooked to dance with renewed life. Such deviations involve acts of following, but use the same ‘points’ for different effects” (177). For example, the African-American practice of “signifying,” or the drag practice of camp performance are both ways of taking something familiar—common words, stereotypical femininity—and making it work differently. “Bad” and “ill” are turned into terms of praise and approbation, or a drag queen’s failure at “natural” femininity is read as a successful aesthetic style and political critique. So, disorientation can be a means of identifying and critiquing hegemonic orientations.
I want to think about white disorientation. As Ahmed herself notes, the disorientation can be the source of feelings and actions that are politically critical or politically reactionary.[ii] So, for example, working class whites are feeling increasingly disoriented by structural changes in the economy, by the increased prominence of Spanish-language media, etc., and this disorientation leads to retrenchment (e.g., in the TEA party), not critique. I want to examine white disorientation that at least nominally intends itself as critical, progressive, and anti-racist (so, the effect, and even the implicit intent, might be reactionary, but the stated, conscious intent is anti-racist). I want to consider white disorientation as a response to the tension between (a) the explicit awareness of the world’s white orientation, and (b) the desire for “a world that is not orientated around whiteness” (Ahmed 156). Ahmed frequently emphasizes that orientations are implict, pre-reflective, and habitual. So, with respect to point (a), if whiteness is so compelling because it is implicit (or, to use Richard Dyer’s term, “invisible”) to whites, then explicit awareneness of it ought to be, at some level, disorienting.[iii] Second, with respect to (b), I am not arguing that whiteness has ceased to be hegemonic. There are certain “worlds” where whiteness is not the primary orientation device (e.g., Indian classical music, some African-American music subcultures, like quiet storm), but these worlds exist in a universe governed by the gravitational pull of whiteness. So, the result is that even predominantly African-American musical genres can still be partially or even primarily orientated by whiteness. For example, mainstream R&B, hip hop, and rock are historically marketed primarily to white consumers. That said, popular music is one domain where whiteness’s ubiquity is at least somewhat qualified. Popular music is perhaps the closest thing most whites will ever encounter to a world not oriented by whiteness. So, motivated by their desire to experience a world that is not oriented primarily by whiteness, whites look to popular music, especially genres coded as non-white such as R&B, hip-hop, and world music. Sometimes this regard for pop music is motivated by orientialism, the desire to experience (or, as bell hooks would say, “eat”) the other; sometimes it is motivated by the desire for the limitation and amelioration of white hegemony; and sometimes, it is a paradoxical mix of both orientialism and anti-racism. I want to examine what happens when explicitly and self-avowedly anti-racist whites realize that things they previously thought were not oriented by whiteness are in fact saturated with it. What happens when a self-declared progressive white person realizes, “Oh shit! This thing I really appreciate and value, this thing that is an important part of my life, is really racist”? I use the idea of disorientation to examine some musicians’ responses to their awareness that their taste in music—what they liked, what they found pleasurable—relied upon both (a) racist stereotypes about African-Americans, and (b) the co-optation of African-Americans by whites, for their financial and aesthetic gain. Or, more simply, I’m interested in how the concept of disorientation helps us think through these musicians’ problematiziation of their whiteness. Whiteness implicitly organized their aesthetic experience of music; but what happens when whiteness ceases to be implicit, but is explicitly reflected upon as a problem? Disorientation is one way whites experience and express the rejection of whiteness-as-orientation.
But I think it’s also important to note that critical, anti-racist white disorientation is qualitatively, phenomenologically, and politically distinct from the disorientation non-whites experience vis-à-vis white supremacy. According to Ahmed, “racism ‘stops’ black bodies” (111); blacks’ attempts at orientation are either denied (via outright prohibition) or rebuffed (via a ‘roadblock’). So here disorientation takes the form of blocked orientation. This blocking is the effect of a very specific cause: blacks are never granted subject status—they are never treated as autonomous moral/political agents, i.e., as full persons, citizens, etc. “Reduced as they are to things among things,” the white-oriented world situates blacks only as objects, never as subjects. Or, blacks can participate in white-oriented worlds, but only as objects. As both Du Bois’s and Fanon’s discussions of multiple consciousness reveal, “racism ensures that the black gaze returns to the black body, which is not a loving return but rather follows the line of the hostile white gaze” (111). So, when blacks take their own bodies as the objects of critical self-reflection, their self-regard is mediated by normatively white ideals of subjectivity, gender, beauty, humanity, citizenship, etc. They see themselves through the eyes of another, in third person (as a “he” or “she,” not an “I” or “me”).
When anti-racist whites subject themselves to critical self-reflection, they may be disgusted or ashamed at their implicit and explicit racism, but this gaze is not necessarily hostile, as in the case with non-whites. This gaze does not require whites to sustain a performative contradiction, i.e., to adopt a form of subjectivity that necessarily denies their status as a (potential) subject. Whites may be taking their own bodies as the object of their critical reflection, but they are not reducing themselves to things. White supremacy shapes the world in a way that allows whites to be both subjects and objects: even when they objectify themselves, they are never just objects. If there’s any hostility in this critical self-reflection, it comes from anger and disappointment in one’s self: it is an emotional and affective relation of the individual to hirself; it is not, as in the case of anti-black racism, a structural hostility resulting from systematic oppression. Moreover, critical self-reflection is different that social and political change. Whites can problematize their own personal attributes and beliefs while simultaneously participating in white-oriented institutions, social structures, etc. So, whites can feel bad (guilt, shame, etc.) without thereby “diminish[ing] their capacities for action” (111). In fact, as I have argued extensively in my writing on hipness, whites often use dis-identification with whiteness as a source of aesthetic and social capital. Or, in Ahmed’s terms “disorientation” can sometimes function as “a way of experiencing the pleasure of deviation” (177). In order for deviation to be experienced as pleasurable, even in part, requires a certain level of privilege—the deviation isn’t making your life unlivable, isn’t putting your very health and survival in question.
Individual whites’ subjective experience of racial disorientation can often be compatible, if not actively complicit, with the general orientation of the world around whiteness. But can it ever be a cause or a symptom of the general dis-orientation of the world, the undoing of white-orientation? In order to do so, it has to go beyond individual affective and emotional experience, and attack the structures that organize and orient collective phenomena. Can white disorientation ever be the symptom of a progressive desire for a “world not oriented around whiteness”? How would that work? What would it look, feel, or sound like?
More thoughts on these questions in subsequent posts. The next post in this series will be a comparison between two takes on white awkwardness and racialized disorientation. I’ll contrast Devo’s “New Wave” attempt to critique—via hyperbole—white people’s perceived awkwardness, with some “No Wave” musicians attempts to exacerbate white awkwardness as an attempt to critique white hegemony.
[i] “An effect of being ‘out of place’ is also to create disorientation in others” (Ahmed 160).
[ii] “It is not that disorientaiton is always radical. Bodies that experience disorientation can be defensive, as they reach out for support or as they search for a place to reground and reorientate their relation to the world. So, too, the forms of politics that proceed from disorientation can be conservative, depending on the ‘aims’ of their gestures, depending on how they seek to (re)ground themselves. And, for sure, bodies that experience being out of place might need to be orientated, to find a place where they feel comfortable and safe in the world” (Ahmed 158).
[iii] “Whiteness gets reproduced through acts of alignment, which are forgotten when we receive its line” (Ahmed 121).