Big Man

1. On Genre Flailing

In a crisis we engage in genre flailing so that we don’t fall through the cracks of knowledge and noise into suicide or psychosis. In a crisis we improvise like crazy, where “like crazy” is a little too non-metaphorical. Plus, when crisis is ordinary, flailing—throwing language and gesture and policy and interpretations at a thing to make it stop—can be fabulously unimaginative, a litany of lists of things to do, to pay attention to, say, to stop saying, to discipline and sanction. Prefab frames are a lot of what there is to fling because as the powerful hunker down into phrases that become acts, so must the freshly vulnerable find some phrases too, anchoring and transformative. Every encounter since the election that begins with the thud of “who’s going to speak first” hiccups into the genre flail. Any writing toward the future, whether it’s shiny and hard, soft and mournful, or pastoral in the language of preach! is a genre flail. Protest is a genre flail; riot, sometimes.1 Accusations about complicity and virtue are a genre flail. We’re flailing when we move to help each other with touch, words, and plans, under the pressure to build on movement culture so that our gestures can extend beyond the beat of the moment, toward the activist time that makes time to craft our commitments to foraging a better good life from the freshly uneven ground we’re wobbling on.2

Flail isn’t fail, though. It’s just a big suck of our best creative energy toward holding off the pressure pushing at the survival wall. When we brainstorm and listen to each other in the solidarity-aspiring spaces of the present that many of us already wanted to disrupt we’re all leaning, flailing, even when we’re quiet, and even when we don’t think so; this is what it means to make elbow room amid crisis. It can be awkward; it can hurt and be hurtful. But the jab is the cost of contact when the primary impact of the world is a jostle, just as a cutting sting is the evidence of contact when the primary hit is from a weapon.

2. The Sovereign’s Commons

From the very first glimmer of Obama’s power, the white people who hate-feared his race, his style of composure, and his progressive coalition fiercely desired a sovereign’s sovereign. In the absence of one from whom they could borrow the feel of bigness and glory, the Tea Party and other nationalist white supremacist movements generated innumerable howling, tiny sovereigns. They took over their party and in this election have merged to produce a big one.

The Big Sovereign Electorate (BSE) makes a revolutionary use of the commons concept. Its commons is affective: its version of the commons preserves freedom as a feeling of unencumbrance; as a tool their commons sucks difference into the fantasy of an “America” that is also well-known to liberals as a utopia for unconstrained thinking, feeling, and speaking. Then it uses BSE “America” to break the spongy affective commons of liberal “America.” It repudiates the whiteness of the unmarked state of the “citizen without qualities” that liberal democratic ideology has held out as alibi and seduction to the populations excluded from but incited to desire “America.” It used to be possible to teach whiteness as “unmarked”—but if whiteness ever existed that way outside of the white mirror, it’s gone now. This rebooted electorate wants its whiteness enfleshed. Because it does not think of structural inequality as anti-American, it thinks homeopathically that breaking the liberal difference/tolerance machine will stanch loss, not engender in its name surprising devastations.

The right, in other words, knows something about orchestrating a commons. It knows that the best use of the commons concept is not the philosophical one to which progressives refer, in which a sensed universality holds open a space in which to forge a materiality. The right knows that the best use of the commons concept is to break our hold on the world, to make an opening that reveals how tightly we have been grasping at representations as evidence of the world’s solidity, and how once we give up those representations we can make better infrastructures for coordinating our proximities and reproducing life, by which I mean lives but also life, the rhythms of ongoingness for which we show up because we wake up. “Better” is the rub.

I have elsewhere made this argument about the best utility of the commons concept: as a tool for unlearning the world and realism.3 But in my rendering, the embrace of the processes commons-talk induces means losing one’s ground. To wield a commons-style general abstraction is a decision to self-threaten, not to effect a gesture of pastoral repair of the broken world, especially if you need repair to feel like repair, or solidarity to feel as likeness. It is like that moment in a game of pick-up sticks when the thrown sticks force us to see that the solid bundle we held in our hands is also and suddenly a vast difference among things that threaten each other’s stability, because of their leaning on and being in proximity to each other.

A genuine commons commitment involves a willingness to trash the fantasy that equality can be generated by redistributing money a little and having good manners. It involves embracing the discomfort of affective experience in a truly open social life that no one has ever experienced. It requires more adaptable infrastructures. Keep forcing the existing infrastructures to do what they don’t know how to do. Make new ways to be local together, where local doesn’t require a physical neighborhood. Only in unlearning our object world can we make better objects and worlds to attach to. “When they go low, we go high” is a mistake. I hate its hygienic politics. When they go low, we “feel out, go out, try out” is more like it.

3. Nostalgias

But then there is so much nostalgia, the desire for pride in one’s representations. C. Nadia Seremetakis has argued that there are two forms of nostalgia. There’s the small-town one that holds close and high a life that never existed, one that provides a screen memory to cover earlier predations of inequality and that promises an affective return, valorizing the desire for a feeling of refuge from what Paolo Virno terms the ordinary person’s present homelessness in the world.4 Seremetakis calls the calcified regressive mode American-style nostalgia. She then offers a second, Greek, kind of nostalgia or nostalghia, which she valorizes as fierce. It’s the nostalgia of a refusal to have a lifeworld destroyed by the incursions of global capital that seem to come from an elsewhere (in her case, the European Union). This second nostalgia might contribute to xenophobia but she means it to express resistance to the displacing effects of structural predation, not to the transformations that come from the lifeworlds shared with migrant populations.

Many Americans think they’re operating from the fierce nostalgia she describes, though, defending the world of the old flavors of life that used to ground the calm silences shared with neighbors. The line of difference here—between the nostalgia that kettles populations inside a figure of happy homogeneity versus the nostalgia that refuses state and capitalist strategies of displacement for purposes of serving a new phase of value hoarding—is shaky and porous. Trying to stabilize it is what shapes so many political antagonisms of the present.

4. Grotesque Realism

Although we can never determine whether intensely weaponized nostalgia is a fierce or regressive appetite, we can see the effects of its amplification in a new phase of grotesque politics. Historians of the grotesque argue that the comic grotesque expresses a moral tendency in the subject worthy of caricature, but that the grotesque is always haunted by a threat to leak into horror.5 Mikhail Bakhtin uses this spreading tendency to formulate grotesque realism as a political aesthetic that uses bodily excess to refuse the composure of power.6 The ungovernable body and its appetites call normative power’s reason out as a lie, as desire masked by an image of itself as owning greater symmetry and perfection. Achille Mbembe counters Bakhtin, arguing that obscene, grotesque vulgarity is not just a resource for counter-power, but also always part of the modern state rule of inequality, and indeed a resource for “the creativity of abuse.”7 His case study of Cameroon in the 1990s locates populism in the continuity of vulgar taste and foul bodies between the “people” and the leaders: but that’s not quite what’s happening in the US either. In Mbembe’s version of contemporary taste populism, the same objects are loved by the people and the state. But virtually no one purchased the Big Man’s stuff—his stakes, his clothes, his university, many of his investments: they went fallow, it was bad design, bad business. But if the white BSE is not sharing his taste, it is sharing his embrace of and intensity of appetite and his commitment to a shameless life.

I never thought we’d have a leader with a combover. I always thought people would sense that the combover subject was covered in shame and that his demand for our pity and tact on behalf of protecting his fantasy of self-completion would interfere with the idealizations through which democratic polities still invest leaders with a larger-than-life resonance.8 But as the current Big Sovereign intends to know nothing about governing, while bargaining and bullying from the throne of gut justice, his higher law is the lower law.9 He is unafraid of being a cartoon because cartoon characters never die, they keep going long after mere humans would be destroyed. Already an icon recognizable in silhouette, he and his larger-than-life appetite for outsized greatness can then revitalize an “America” that transcends the democracy of the ordinary that is marked by time and the attrition of life, intimacy, and labor. His energy literally gives life to the fantasy of an outsized life, so “tremendous” it can decree democracy at its scale, in its shadow. That’s key to authoritarian style. This is one thing it means to be living in an era of grotesque realism.

Big Man-style sovereign sovereignty so saturates how the historical present appears that it distracts from the vision of capital and the law that creates chaotic lives in an affective and objective scene of exploitation, competition, debt production, and state abandonment: the pressure of state appetite and will on ordinary appetites and will that wears a body out, even when it’s a body politic. The Big Man parades his alternative élan vital like a bad kids’ meal—entertaining, but with toys you choke on: the giant gets bigger while the plebian life fades into the shadow of his noise.10 “The Big Man arrives, disco dancers greet him; plainclothes cops greet him . . . The Big Man, he’s not listening.”11

But we must not mistake his orchestration of the Event for the Real, or for an adequate representation of politics, the life we make and share. The Federal State is just one of the things that makes life. The State-Nation hybrid is just one of the infrastructures of the political in the United States: it has a lot of power behind it, the power of message and the power of death, the valorization of supremacist hegemony and a variety of bullying strategies called “consent” for those who remain living. I’m not, believe me, minimizing that. But, as I learn from feminism and anarchism, the state is just a thing. Politics is the rescaling of what kind of thing it is.

So just as this is a moment to think about flail, this is a moment to think about scale. We must ask ourselves again, should we be fighting the BSE for a concept of the general public, or for infrastructures that hinge a diffuse mass society, translocal and self-interested while self-determining? Is that question a version of the structural antagonism between the federal and the state scales of organization and infrastructure in the United States? Is that question not an ontological one but a strategic one? Do we need to reanimate the notion of publics that scale up from the lifeworld without universalizing their concept? How does the populist energy of the BSE meet up with the intensified state-capitalist interests that will govern imperial policy, and how can organizing on the left counter that without mirroring and amplifying it?12

These questions point to why we need to cheerlead each other to continue to show up for a version of life that includes the political as a source of life: not because we have state power or are included in its imaginary but because the political lives in, acts in, shapes, resources, and hurts the spaces we live in. We decide the ongoing breath of the world too; we, too, reroute realism, resisting its disguise as the law and the rigid norm. We too decide the metrics of “doing justice,” or doing just good enough. We too see other worlds in gestures and episodes, and try to keep open the event of living at this time, as it stretches into the time of concerted struggle.

But the political valence of publicness is where power does its business, even its privatizing, world-atrophying business. It’s business unusual as we flail for an affirmative infrastructure that crosses the language of community into the worlding of publics—maybe not a general one in the shape of the nation, though. That question is how to cross the many with the concept of mass polity. That question will take shape in struggle, and not just against some other side defined by its racist, national-exceptionalist, economic-servitude fetishes.

tl;dr13
If only the election had been on 11/9 instead of 11/8 we’d have had a perfect symbolic reversal, a mirror of another nationally sanctified trauma complete with numerous obituaries saying “this person deserved to live because they lived.” The obituary as political funeral is one of trauma’s key short-form genres. But in the ordinary of amplified asymmetry there is no form to invert and shake out beautifully: we don’t get even that satisfaction.

Instead, we are all making statements to keep the event open. Many of them feel clotted, a groping for counter-power wedges in the angry dark. But even in failure we are the future of the event. Even as we struggle over what its genres will be the story’s form will have to pass through our struggles to create it. “Define loneliness? / Yes. / It’s what we can’t do for each other,” Rankine writes.14 We have no choice but to proceed together, unsatisfied and creative.


This and above image courtesy of David Leggett, who offered us these images as thoughts in the wake of the election.

  1. On the relation of protest to riot, and on the historical legacy of the need for a threat to disorganize the infrastructures of sociality beyond the respectable disciplines of refusal, see Joshua Clover, Riot. Strike. Riot: The New Era of Uprisings (London: Verso, 2016).
  2. On queer gesture as a trace of a hard-fought historical struggle and an opening towards an intimacy whose shape is yet to come, see Juana Maria Rodriguez, Sexual Futures, Queer Gestures, and Other Latina Longings (New York: NYU Press, 2014).
  3. Lauren Berlant, “The commons: Infrastructures for troubling times,” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 2016, 34 (3): 393–419.
  4. C. Nadia Seremetakis, “The Memory of the Senses, Part I: Marks of the Transitory,” in The Senses Still: Perception and Memory as Material Culture in Modernity (Boulder CO: Westview Press, 1994), 4-5; Paolo Virno, A Grammar of the Multitude: For Analysis of Contemporary Forms of Life, intro. by Sylvère Lotringer, trans. Isabella Bertoletti, James Cascaito, Andrea Casson (New York: Semiotext(e), 2004), 29-39.
  5. James Sherry, “Four Modes of Caricature: Reflections upon a Genre,” Bulletin of Research in the Humanities 87, No. 1 (1986—87), 29-62.
  6. Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World trans. Hélène Iswolsky (1965; Bloomington IN: Indiana UP, 1984), 25-30 and throughout.
  7. Achille Mbembe, “The Banality of Power and the Aesthetics of Vulgarity in the Postcolony,” Public Culture 4, 2 (1992): 6.
  8. See Lauren Berlant, “Humorlessness (Three Monologues and a Hairpiece), Critical Inquiry 43, 2 (2017): 1-36. Big Man has insisted that his hairdo is not a combover: http://www.enquirer.com/editions/2004/02/14/tem_people14trump.html.
  9. Many articles note that Big Man intends to govern from his gut: see for example, the discussion at Scott Horsley, “Trump Wins. Now What?” at http://www.npr.org/2016/11/09/500743310/trump-wins-now-what. It is worth noting that the concept of gut-based government has had an increasingly powerful shaping role in assessments of political charisma and authenticity on the political right at least since George W. Bush; also that the verb “gut” appears not only as the scene of inclination and decision, but in countless articles, “gut” is the verb that the newly installed alt-right regime wishes to do to state resources that serve the under-resourced and unentitled.
  10. Henri Bergson, Creative Evolution, trans. Arthur Mitchell (1911; New York: Dover, 1998).
  11. Joni Mitchell, “Edith and the Kingpin,” from The Hissing of Summer Lawns (Lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Joni Mitchell/Crazy Crow Music/Siquomb Music, 1975).
  12. On the topic of the need for national and international frames for near-future organizing, see Michael Hardt and Sandro Mezzadra, “The Power of the Movements Facing Trump,” Truth-out.org 26 November 2016, at http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/38506-the-power-of-the-movements-facing-trump.
  13. Because it is hard to read, to absorb, and to take things in while in crisis, the new short form genre of the tl;dr is placed here as a half-joke. The joke part is that reading is always partial and distorting, and that this thought-piece isn’t very long. The non-joke part is that the affective and political pressure of crisis disrupts both listening and reading: it forces skimming, flailing, jumping to conclusions, and trailing off into ellipsis, along with the collapse of the difference between obsession and distraction. Crisis forces a scanning.
  14. Claudia Rankine, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric (St. Paul MN: Greywolf, 2004), 62.

Lauren Berlant

Lauren Berlant is George M. Pullman Distinguished Service Professor of English at the University of Chicago. Her books include: Desire/Love (Punctum, 2012), Cruel Optimism (Duke UP, 2011), The Female Complaint (Duke UP, 2008), The Queen of America Goes to Washington City: Essays on Sex and Citizenship (Duke UP, 1997), Intimacy, ed. (2000), Compassion, ed. (Routledge, 2004), The Anatomy of National Fantasy: Hawthorne, Utopia, and Everyday Life (Chicago, 1991), and, with Lee Edelman, Sex, or the Unbearable (Duke UP, 2014). She blogs at Supervalent Thought.