Escaping the Impasse: finding footing by forfeiting the foot? (Capture the Tag: Non-Normative and resistance).

In her blog post, Vanessa summarizes Halberstam’s vision of masochistic passivity, describing it as a form of refusal that resists the seemingly impossible situation of escaping colonial and gendered subjecthood. Halberstam’s description of the impossibility of escaping the “trap” of colonial subjecthood (you’re screwed if you do, you’re screwed if you don’t) seems to me to suggest something like Berlant’s “impasse”. In Jamaica Kincaid’s Autobiography of My Mother, Xuela, “escapes the hereditary inscription by not only severing the ties of mother and daughter—refusing both the relationship and the roles—she “refus[es] to be anything at all” (Halberstam 131). Vanessa also suggests that, the “refus[al] to identity as African American, or simply passing as a white women,” by Clara and Irene of Larsen’s Passing (a book I myself have not read), is a refusal to be that throws off the yoke of colonially assigned identity.

If we consider the not being, or failure to struggle of Xuela, Clara, and Irene as methods of resistance that have traction because they signify a willingness to turn away from the entire machine of patriarchy and colonialism, is this method of resistance available to the members of Berlant’s “Precariat” as well?

In her blog on the subject, Calextrose identifies in Time Out’s Jean-Michel a figure of a neoliberal subject who has managed to navigate the “impasse.”  She writes: “Jean-Michel’s method of optioning upward mobility is less than honorable but effective. As Berlant mentions, Time Out manages to show how ‘different kinds of people catch up to their new situation’ (192).” This suggests that Jean-Michel’s modest empire of imitation can be read as “footing” found in the depths of the impasse, a sign that he has caught up, has negotiated the abyss of neoliberal precarity. I am inclined to (perhaps this fits the theme) half-agree. I think there is a way of reading the counterfeiting business as the ultimate neoliberal adaptation. The counterfeit merchandise, unlike the “real deal,” is never fixed to the ebb and flow of brand popularity. Unlike the true Reebok, in the event of a devaluation of the brand, the counterfeit item can always morph into an imitation of the new “winners” of the fickle market share. All while avoiding any assumption of the precariousness of the legitimate market. In the era of the “recession grimace” the counterfeit commodity, by existing outside the system of brand signification, is by the very flexibility of its nature virtually recession-proof.

However, one of the primary arguments of Berlant’s essay was that the precariousness made ubiquitous by the neoliberal dismantling of both labor regulations and social welfare programs is not new, but rather is revealed to be the reality that has always existed beneath the fantasy of infinite growth and upward mobility. For the working class, the minority, the mentally ill, the near entirety of the global south, and the criminal, precariousness has always been evident. Furthermore, as Jean-Michel belongs to that last class, the threat of a sudden, rupturing loss of stability and income is just one police officer away. Perhaps the counterfeit item is the perfect product for the neoliberal age, but the neoliberal state knows this well, and in an effort to protect their interests has often made draconian legal consequences for those who would forge. In abstract—as a hydra-headed industry that corporations must simply accept as one of the costs of doing successful business—the forger may escape the threat of capricious market forces, but the actual person who forges always runs the risk that the legal forces shaped by market forces will sniff and snuff her out.

So, if a vision of impasse-navigation is not complete in Jean-Michel, can we find sketch a vision of successful impasse-navigation by asking what Vincent does wrong?

For Calexrose, Vincent’s return to the precarious dependency of the job-market is the ultimate signal that Vincent has failed to negotiate the impasse that is afforded him outside the realm of employment. In a certain way, her reading of this turns accepted notions of precariousness on their head. In the prior configuration employment is what shields the employee from the precariousness of joblessness. In Calexrose’s reading there is something about the dependence of employment that precludes the ability to “find footing” within the neoliberal void. If this is true, what is it about unemployment that allows the member of the precariat to access “the learning curve” of the impasse, or find new footing in a way that employment prevents (Berlant 202)? Is it a question of sovereignty? By depending on a job is one not free or unattached enough to find a new way of life? This would suggest that unlike the previous model (of employment as a shield against precariousness), in the neoliberal void employment both defers the impasse and makes it impossible to truly experience the loss of bearings. This deferral/inaccessibility would prevent the employee from truly learning to adjust to the void of the impasse. If this is correct, the impasse appears fundamentally more akin to a psychoanalytic problem of maturation, one in which the employee is unable to become wholly adult or achieve neoliberal sovereignty because of their unwillingness or inability to let go of the corporate apron strings. To find footing in the void, one would have to let go of the ladder.

While I do have the feeling that if precariousness is as wide-spread a phenomenon as Berlant argues that it is, the precariousness of employment comes to be functionally equivalent to unemployment because of the way the non-permanence of the position of either creates a similar orientation towards the future. The grimace seems, to me, as much a mask of tensing for tomorrow as it is a reaction to the events of today.

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Masochistic Passivity

Halberstam endorses what they call the radical form of masochistic passivity. To break down the term, masochistic or masochism, as Bersani puts it is “the counter narrative of sexuality that undergirds the propulsive, maturational, and linear story installed by psychoanalysis”(130-131) and passivity can be equated to accepting way things are without resistance.

The radical form of masochistic passivity “not only offers up a critique of the organizing logic of agency and subjectivity itself, but also opts out of certain systems built around a dialectic between colonizer and colonized”(131). Halberstam claims that radical masochistic passivity breaks itself away from the norm of the transfer of femininity from mother to daughter(131). By breaking itself away, masochistic passivity “seeks to destroy the mother-daughter bond altogether” (131), criticizing the role that passivity entrenches itself into femininity. Halberstam is examining the way masochistic passivity criticizes the role patriarchy puts on the feminine expression. Identity plays a big role in the way Halberstam endorses masochistic passivity. The reading as a whole covers the way identity is shaped, through the views of society. Masochistic passivity rejects the normative roles that patriarchal society places upon its members.

As the reading previously talks about the false sense of happiness, masochistic passivity can be found in the way that many of these feminist writers, especially Kincaid, refuse to write stories that follow the “happy” and the pursuit of happiness. Halberstam quotes Kincaid saying “Americans find difficulty very hard to take. They are inevitably looking for a happy ending”(132) echoing Barbara Ehrenreich’s quote from Bright-Sided. Ehrenreich questions the status quo saying “How can we be so surpassingly ‘positive’ in self-image and stereotype without being the world’s happiest and best-off people?”. Kincaid continues to say I am not interested in the pursuit of positivity. I am interested in pursuing the truth and the truth often seems to be not happiness but its opposite”(132) explaining her role in perpetuating this idea of masochistic passivity. Kincaid feels that her rejection of the notion that all stories, as perceived by Americans, need to seek out happiness enacts masochistic passivity, in way that Halberstam would classify as radical. Kincaid and Ehrenreich question whether putting on the facade of happiness allows us to actually ask critical questions of our society. Kincaid and Ehrenreich use masochistic passivity to ask those critical questions of their society.

While Halberstam focuses on masochistic passivity in terms of feminism, they also refer to masochistic passivity in terms of race. In Jamaica Kincaid’s novel, “the colonized subject refuses her role as colonized by refusing to be anything at all” (131) rejecting all normative roles that the colonizer usually takes. Kincaid, according to Halberstam, uses masochistic passivity to feed her whole story. The character Xuela rejects every form of her former self. She rejects her mother, her culture and her womanhood. Xuela is a woman who “cannot be anything but the antithesis of the self that is demanded by colonialism”(131). Not being as familiar with Kincaid’s novel Autobiography of My Mother, the existence of the masochistic passivity allows me to relate it to other texts that I have read. Nella Larsen’s Passing, strikes up images for myself of enacting masochistic passivity. Both the main characters, Clare and Irene, reject their African American roots, creating a new identity for themselves. Masochistic passivity is all about making the decision to refuse the factors of ones life that was forced upon them by society. By refusing to identity as African American, or simply passing as a white women, Clare and Irene are refusing to participate in the identities placed upon them by the colonizer society.

Masochistic passivity shows the way refusing to participate in the standards that patriarchy or the colonizer put upon different groups of people. Jamaica Kincaid uses her novel, Autobiography of My Mother to exemplify what exactly masochistic passivity does. The word passive invokes the idea of remaining silent while letting things happen, but masochistic passivity turns this idea on its head. Masochistic passivity takes the notion that being passive does not necessarily mean one has to loose all sense of resistance and ground. Masochistic passivity challenges the norms placed upon groups of people, such as the identity as being the ancestor of the colonized people, and allows those participating create their own storyline.