I am continuing to think about the disconnect between two of my own posts. Perhaps these posts together speak to the emotional rollercoaster that was this presidential election — even for someone who is only really invested at a cultural level.
The first post, on Frank Wilderson’s Afropessimism, describes the potentials to be found within dejection and a self-aware political nihilism. The second takes a moment to bask in the joy of Trump’s defeat regardless.
On Twitter, the tension between these two positions has been palpable. Protesters in Washington’s Black Lives Matter Plaza have already begun calling out those who have descended on their space of mourning, which they have occupied for sixty days, for one night of partying. “Where were you all”, they seem to say, “when we were here doing the hard work?”
I sense the same tension on my own timeline. There was a long comment left on yesterday’s post, claiming the democrats shouldn’t have won and all the reasons why… I think… It’s a ramble that I had a hard time making sense of, unfortunately.
I think the main issue here is that we are once again disarticulating the cultural response from the political reality. To speak of politics and joy seems uncontroversial, but the issue that lurks underneath here is that the left understands politics to be innately melancholic. Was the point missed yesterday when I wrote: “By all means retain your critical eye, but your hard nose helps no one, least of all the left”?
Left melancholia understands that politics is melancholy. If you’re not coming from a downtrodden place, it’s not politics proper. But the point to be made is that melancholy and joy are not polar opposites; they’re not conflicting modes of engagement. They are affects that are often entwined, and doing justice to both is always the best way forwards. Disavowing one in favour of the other does nothing. (And it is worth noting that that potential to undermine runs both ways.)
Consider that, whilst many of the critiques of the incumbent office are coming from black people, who see that nothing has changed and expect nothing to change, much of the joy seems to be coming from that same direction. Black culture has long been exemplary in this regard. Melancholy and joy exist side-by-side — uncomfortably, yes, but in a way that has often produced cultural and political change — and, if not change, at the very least a certain momentum, and a belief that cultural change can prefigure political change.
Some responses to this implicit suggestion on Twitter remained cynical. Steven Pinker doing a geriatric Charleston in celebration of Biden victory is a cringeworthy sight but why should that undermine a joyful response for anyone else?
It shouldn’t, but I understand the implicit suggestion: celebrations and positive affirmations can exemplify the dreamwork of capitalist realism in action. (This was something that came up in the reading group around Postcapitalist Desire run by Bristol Transformed.)
Top Cop Kamala Harris isn’t representative of any sort of progressive change. In fact, it’s why she did so poorly in her initial presidential run. Her law-and-order violence used against citizens in his district made her a non-starter for many, and yet now she’s being hailed as an identity politics slam-dunk — the first woman and the first woman of colour to hold the vice presidency.
How did we get from constantly ridiculing Harris as an inept politician and a useful idiot for the Democratic party’s reactionary tendencies to celebrating her most recent success? That’s not a rhetorical question but an important one. Pointing out that her presidential campaign was a mess demonstrates nothing more than you remember 2019. The questions are how has her reputation changed and why? In seeing how that public reception has turned on a dime, we can see the machinations of capitalist realism as they continue to operate.
To see the prize piled onto her a vice president-elect is to see the dreamwork of capitalist realism in action right before our eyes. It is to see the vulnerabilities and incompetencies of a Biden/Harris ticket wallpapered over in real time. Granted, there’s nothing to celebrate there.
And yet, whilst there is plenty to mourn regarding this election, there is still a lot to celebrate. I really liked Novara Media’s approach, for instance. Discussing the election to congress of Jamaal Bowman, Cori Bush and Marie Newman, Michael Walker captures the mood perfectly when he suggests:
Joe Biden has been elected president but, at 77, he’s not going to be the party’s future. At Novara, we’re hoping that role will fall to the progressive new generation in the democratic party and in congress. Figures like [Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez], Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaid… And when it comes to progressive congresspeople, there was some good new this Tuesday: at least three more progressive were elected. ‘The Squad’ is expanding.
We can celebrate the defeat of Trump and we can also celebrate the gains that a progressive left within the Democratic party has achieved. After all, AOC alone has done more to develop progressive conversations in the US than any leader of the Democratic party could have, and that was under Trump’s hair-trigger red fear. The squad might be able to achieve much more under Biden than Trump.
AOC’s statement, in particular, on the election and the future of the party are clear indicators that she isn’t going away, and suggests that a Democratic win might embolden her and the rest of the Squad further.
In that sense, celebrating a Democratic victory is not the same as celebrating a Biden victory. Nor is celebration in and of itself an act of escapism. Time and time again, I always come back to Terre Thaemlitz’ wise words about dance culture on Midtown 120 Blues — to quote off the top of my head: “House isn’t an escape from suffering, suffering is in here with us. Let’s keep sight of the things we’re trying to momentarily escape from.”
Having a party in Black Lives Matter Plaza needn’t be a process in forgetting the hard fight the BLM movement has fought. These spaces are multifunctional and the left should encourage a politics that can embody both, rather than immediately chastising those who are happy to no longer live under the fear that Trump’s presidency brought.
Because any leftist politics is impotent if it cannot reflect the human condition and appreciate the hope and the fear, the joy and the melancholy. It is possible — in fact I think it is beautiful — to dance and mourn simultaneously.