Cancel culture, place of speech and critical theory

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By LEONARDO AVRITZER*

There is no privileged access to knowledge. This conception is not capable of producing critical social science.

The controversy that has been established in recent weeks in Brazil around a video starring Beyonce is a matter of concern for all those who value the construction of a critical social science. Before analyzing some positions in this debate, I would like to make a “disclaimer”: I haven't seen the Disney video and I don't intend to because I swore I would never do it again on my own when my oldest daughter stopped watching Disney videos at age five.

I would also like to mention that just recently someone told me who Beyonce was when she made a cameo in a mini-series that I like to watch. So, I have little to say about the video and maybe it's not even necessary to see it to participate in this discussion.

I will start by analyzing a journalistic article that came to me through one of the social networks in which I participate. It included a critique of historian, anthropologist and USP professor Lilia Schwarcz. The post made the following comment: “while all black people are moved, recognize and identify, the white ally says that Beyonce leaves something to be desired. Whiteness has become accustomed to having blackness as an object and continues to believe that it can tell us what to say about our narratives and trajectories.” The text above seems to me to synthesize everything that is wrong with regard to identities and the theory of knowledge.

It is worth dissecting two epistemological conceptions embedded in the speech above: the first is the issue of emotion, symbols and their relationship with knowledge. Evidently, people are moved by different symbolic elements of an experience that can be built collectively. A part of the citizens of the United Kingdom, for example, are moved by the weddings of members of the royal family and this helps to build the collective idea of ​​monarchy. I personally am not moved by monarchical events whether Eurocentric or non-Eurocentric. Also, I think these symbols help build a theory of inequality in politics. I didn't notice in Professor Lilia Schwarcz's text much more than the intention of establishing some critical analysis in relation to this issue.

I am also among those who, when I see royal order restored in Hamlet or other Shakespeare plays, do not finish reading thinking that perfect political order has been installed in the world because an heir has indeed been re-established in the line of succession. In fact, as many authors have already shown, the conception of tyranny that appears in the work of the English playwright involves an idea of ​​sharing power among the elite and not any principle of democratic order. Of course, this does not detract from the work's insurmountable merit, but makes it a candidate for critical analysis processes with instruments from the various social sciences. The Shakespearean theme is tyranny involving the usurpation of almost privately held power. These statements are relevant to only one issue, which is valid for Europe as well as for Africa: traditions are subject to critical reading. Evidently, it is not Disney's objective, as shown by some white and German philosophers and sociologists at the beginning of the XNUMXth century who coined the theme of the cultural industry. I have the impression that the concept of blackness cannot do without the idea of ​​a cultural industry to discuss the issues at hand.

But it was the second element involved in Maíra Azevedo's criticism that left me most concerned. That part where she claims that whiteness has become accustomed to having blackness as an object and continues to believe that she can tell us what to say about our narratives and trajectories. Of course, the discussion is a little more complicated than that. Certainly, the West has become accustomed to creating concepts and assigning ways of understanding the reality of Eastern or non-Western countries. It is also important to emphasize that the West did not just create discourses, but it associated practices of domination, among which it is worth pointing out colonialism and slavery with discursive structures.

Yet the fact that the West committed these crimes tells us nothing about how to understand the West or Africa and within what frameworks. No one has theorized this question better than the Palestinian intellectual Edward Said in his book orientalism (Company of Letters). There he asserted that the East was an invention of the West, an invention involving “romance, exotic beings, haunted memories and landscapes, and defining experiences”. Of course, rescuing what the East or Africa is, from a critical theory, implies elaborating a method on how to do it, and the method is not to separate whiteness from blackness. Especially when we're talking about cultural criticism.

I see two possible methods and I will compare them below. The first one is what we can call the place of speech that I saw exposed to profusion in this week's debates, derived from the book by Djamila Ribeiro called place of speech (General). For the author, the place of speech emphasizes the social place occupied by subjects in a matrix of domination and oppression, within power relations.

Quoting the author “these common experiences resulting from the social place they occupy prevent the black population from accessing certain spaces. This is where we understand that it is possible to speak about the place of speech from the feminist stand point: not being able to access certain spaces entails the non-existence of productions and epistemologies of these groups in these spaces; not being able to be fairly present in universities, the media, institutional policy, for example, makes it impossible for the voices of individuals in these groups to be catalogued, heard, even in relation to those who have more access to the internet. Speaking is not restricted to the act of uttering words, but to being able to exist. We think of a place of speech as refuting traditional historiography and the hierarchization of knowledge resulting from the social hierarchy.”

I would like to make two remarks about the approach: firstly, it is evident that there is excluded knowledge, that groups that were able to produce alternative knowledge often have this knowledge disqualified in large academic institutions. That is, what Ribeiro analyzes as “whoever has social privilege has epistemic privilege” actually occurs. The question, however, that does not seem to arise from this statement is: do individuals in these groups have a differentiated epistemic access that would allow them some access to a different type of knowledge? I don't think they do, and I think that's part of the debate this week.

Among many of the erroneous statements I read this week, one caught my attention in particular. I prefer to quote her rather than analyze her: “Lilia teaches a postgraduate course in “Brazilian studies” at USP, where she talks to other middle and upper class whites, like her, about our art, history and culture. Lilia has published many books, which deal with different periods and themes of our history, including the enslavement of our ancestors. Lilia, from the top of the academic tower and her titles, shows us in a bold way what we have always said: that Brazilian racism is structural and that it is in every aspect of our society.” (text published in the Red Portal).

Some comments are in order. Certainly USP is an elite university, but it also produces critical knowledge. It would be appropriate to analyze the content of what Professor Lilia Schwarcz teaches at the university before labeling her racist. However, the theory adopted by historian Tamara Naiz does not require content analysis, if USP is white, the professor is white and the students are white, then everyone is racist because the phenomenon is structural.

A question deserves to be asked here since Djamilla Ribeiro refers her theory to Michel Foucault and Judith Butler. I understand the Foucauldian method as non-structural and involving the analysis of a set of contradictory systems of meaning and assemblages of knowledge systems that interconnect art, language, works of history and political and institutional context. That is, we are talking about an infinitely more complex thought than this shallow translation of the place of speech.

The fundamental concept for Foucault is “contradictory”, that is, the role of the critical social scientist is to dismantle contradictory meanings, use history and sociology to demonstrate how these meanings allowed the construction of specific forms of domination. That is, there are no linguistic or institutional walls, as theorists of the place of speech assume, and there is no privileged access to these meanings.

Edward Said's work is good because he always understood himself as a critical and secular intellectual. As Joseph Massad wrote, Said saw criticism as constitutive of the life of the intellectual, who must “tell truth to power”. This is what made Said controversial, in the United States, in Europe, but also in the Arab world. He would say the same thing about the work of Michel Foucault. His work is good not because he had any privileged access to existing structures of domination, but because he deconstructed those structures of domination in the methodical historical work he was able to do at the National Library. That is, there is no privileged access to knowledge. This conception inspired by a completely outdated Marxist structuralism is not capable of producing critical social science.

The theory of the place of speech or the idea of ​​demarcation between whiteness and blackness as a method for the production of knowledge, seems to me a way of disqualifying any critical theory in favor of a monopolistic access to a structural epistemology. It doesn't seem very different from what every other claimant of epistemological or economic monopolies seeks to do. It is worth remembering that the good theorists of critical theory, structuralism and postcolonialism did not do this.

Foucault, Edward Said or Judith Butler belong to a tradition that articulates the different institutional, political and linguistic dimensions of domination in a multifaceted way. In doing so, they show that Disney, the monarchy and economic power are still worth criticizing wherever they may be. Evidently, art and culture can operate in different registers. But it seems hard to believe that artists who take pleasure in embracing a Rolls Royce are reversing Eurocentric power structures.

*Leonardo Avritzer is a professor of political science at UFMG. Author, among other books, of The Pendulum of Democracy (Still).

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