Scored by Hentyle Yapp
From my vantage point as a teacher, I find that liberalism dominates and limits how we discuss art, the political, and the social. For example, many rely on humanizing and recognizing dehumanized populations; increasing the representation of those who have historically not been part of institutions; romanticizing the subject’s resistance for working against power; and finding an outside from our moment, our conditions. None of these approaches is wrong per se. However, these frameworks primarily reaffirm liberal goals like increasing representation without substantive institutional changes. I hope that we can supplement the above moves with structural change.
In other words, what other vocabulary, discourse, and frames might be available for discussing the world?
I won’t go into how these calls for recognition, humanization, and representation are tied to a liberal genealogy, but for those interested, here are a few texts (and certainly, there are many more):
- Cedric J. Robinson, The Terms of Order: Political Science and the Myth of Leadership (University of North Carolina Press, 2016)
- Kandice Chuh, The Difference Aesthetics Makes: On the Humanities ‘After Man’ (Duke University Press, 2019)
- Audra Simpson, Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life Across the Borders of Settler States (Duke University Press, 2014).
- Sylvia Wynter, Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation—An Argument, CR: The New Centennial Review 3(3), Fall 2003.
- María Josefina Saldaña-Portillo, The Revolutionary Imagination in the Americans and the Age of Development (Duke University Press, 2003)
- Denise Ferreira da Silva, Toward a Global Idea of Race (University of Minnesota Press, 2007)
- Denise Ferreira da Silva, Toward a Black Feminist Poethics, The Black Scholar 44 (2) (2014)
- Robin D.G. Kelley, Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination (Beacon Press, 2003)
- Miranda Joseph, Against the Romance of Community (University of Minnesota Press, 2002)
- Petrus Liu, Queer Marxism in Two Chinas (Duke University Press, 2015)
- Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study (Minor Compositions, 2013).
One key area where we might place pressure to reveal the difference between liberal and illiberal approaches is the idea of subjects, their agency and representation. Under the logic of liberalism, the subject becomes the possibility for resistance and change. Liberalism’s ideal subjects are those who come to represent themselves–those subjects who show their human worth to be recognized by others and especially by institutions that have historically excluded them. These forms of recognition often arise through legible means and narratives that fetishize the display of victimization. In other words, institutions tend to ask that minoritarian others legibly display their historical victimhood in order to be worthy of recognition and investment. And even when these historic others produce in illegible ways, liberalism always has a way of entrapping them into legible, proper narratives.
These subjects then come to be participants in and further an economic system that is based off of the historical racism, misogyny, ableism, colonialisms, and environmental extraction that ravaged those bodies and lands that are now being recognized by institutions. In other words, institutions continue to operate as is and are rarely restructured, even though a few more minoritarian bodies come to enter their halls of recognition and knowledge.
But what might an illiberal idea of the subject be? Perhaps there is no subject? Perhaps we need to let go of the exceptionality of the self/subject? Perhaps this is not about you or me? Comrades, racialized hordes and masses, dehumanized populations, the populations and lands extracted and not archived or remembered… These might be where we begin to produce a genealogy for an idea of the in/dividual that can fuel how we talk about the world.
Rather than becoming legible as proper liberal subjects worthy of recognition and participation, how might we embody an ethics of the illiberal that is not fully invested in reproducing the very institutions and logics that allow liberal capitalism to thrive?
There are varied approaches to this answer from anarchistic practices to redistributive approaches, ideas very worthy of debate. I lean towards a practice of restructuration that seizes our means of existence and current institutions to further illiberal, Marxist projects (as informed by racial capitalism, just to be clear). The exact means by which to reimagine the world is certainly up for the debate. Regardless of where you fall on this question, most of these approaches are about the broad work of changing institutional structures. I find it critical to explore what this means and how to do this. I’m committed to such approaches because I care less about my own exceptionality and recognition and more about the end of the world as we know it, or what Denise Ferreira da Silva astutely calls, the enactment of a Black Feminist Poethics.
As a starting point, here are some brief suggestions:
Before relying on calls to humanize, represent, and recognize or before turning to discuss the value of art by romanticizing individual subjects or producing somewhere “outside” from the here and now, take a pause and hesitate.
(a) Are we primarily furthering the interests of the institutions we are working under by increasing representation without calls to change how these institutions are functioning and operating?
(b) Remember this isn’t about you or about showing the worth of you or other individuals. Instead, remember this is about shifting how things currently operate.
- And as we shift how things work, we can do so in the direction of redistribution, remediation, and reparations, toward other visions so it’s about all of us, the environment, and for those beyond us…
(a) Can you privilege the interests of those you are working for over the interests of the institution?
(b) What changes and shifts can we demand of the institution to amend its structure and protocols in ways that expand how we exist, relate, work, and consume? Can these institutional shifts instead be geared towards the interests of historically-disenfranchised communities?
i. How are institutions funded and by whom?
ii. What is the environmental impact of funders and supporters?
iii. What land is the institution occupying? Are there plans to renegotiate and redress this history beyond land acknowledgements?
iv. How have institutions historically funded projects and artists? Who is presumed to be able to accept these funding structures? Who cannot?
v. What communities have historically accessed the institution? What can the institution do to restructure, not only at the levels of programming, but also within the board and leadership, to further access?
vi. Can we let go of merit?
- There’s no right or perfect single answer. This requires that we all struggle to imagine otherwise and to steer structures with and through a non-liberal ethical orientation.
(a) So hold onto the utopic, impossible, and illogical. These only seem impractical and nonsensical now because of the liberal order of things. But remember, they won’t always remain illiberal as we collectively conspire beyond ourselves toward a different sense of the world.
Hentyle Yapp is an Assistant Professor at New York University in the Department of Art and Public Policy and affiliated faculty with the Departments of Performance Studies and Comparative Literature, Center for Disability Studies, and Asian/Pacific/American Institute. He is the author of Minor China: Method, Materialisms, and the Aesthetic (Duke University Press). He is also co-editor of Saturation: Race, Art, and the Circulation of Value (with C. Riley Snorton, MIT Press), which is on race and the art world. His essays have appeared in American Quarterly, GLQ, Verge, Women and Performance, and Journal of Visual Culture. He received his B.A. from Brown University in French Literature; J.D. from UCLA Law, specializing in Critical Race Theory and Public Interest Law; and Ph.D. from UC Berkeley in Performance Studies with a designated emphasis in Women, Gender, and Sexuality. Yapp is also a former professional dancer for companies in Taipei and NYC.