Finding a Way Out of the Polder

“It was after the end of
the world… To lie on
our backs looking
into the dark was all
there was worth
doing”

—       Nathaniel Mackey, “Eye on the Scarecrow” from Splay Anthem.

These past few months I have been busy doing everything except blogging. One could say I have been purposefully shying away from it, in the main, because I felt—and still feel—like writing fuck everything ad infinitum. An urge that I have, somehow, managed to curb when writing for ‘official’ publications and panels. My engagement with the intellectual work of theorists grouped under the label ‘Afro-Pessimism’ made me realize that the only possible response is fuck everything, starting with the nation-state. The nation-state is so deeply fucked that we might not be able to rehabilitate it, at all. If recuperation (making things better) is our political goal, then we might be setting ourselves up for an impossible task.

Over the past months, I’ve been told, several times, in purportedly leftist spaces, that my work is “too radical,” or even more bewildering: “too political.” What does it mean to be too political? What constitutes the ‘too’? The ‘too’, which is almost accusatory, is as curious as it is significant, and says much about what is considered ‘constructive politics’, and what is not. The diagnosis ‘too political’ implies that a certain kind of politics, or criticality, is expected—perhaps, even desired—however, I am overdoing it by desiring, in the words of Aimé Césaire, “The only thing in the world worth beginning // The End of the World, of course.” My demand is, by its very nature, in a relation of excess vis-à-vis the political, and, therefore, unreasonable both in terms of meaningfulness and practicality. To fundamentally question the legitimacy of established ways is seen as not only an assault on ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’, but also a subversive act against the nation itself.

The word ‘too’ made me think of the border work the prefix over performs in the Dutch word for nuisance ‘overlast’—a compound word made up of the words over, and last. ‘Last’ translates as burden, load, trouble, harassment, and the prefixal use of ‘over’, whose meaning corresponds roughly with its English equivalent, gestures toward the sense of over the limit, excess, too much, beyond an agreed or desirable limit. There is an agreed or expected burden—a necessary evil—that has to be endured, and the prefix over suggests that the intensity of the burden has exceeded the expected or agreed norm that has to be reasonably tolerated. ‘Overlast’ is used particularly in terms of environmental factors that affect the quality of the living environment. The ‘over’ in ‘overlast’ demarcates the borders of what is considered an acceptable environmental burden for a society, and makes certain assumptions about what the necessary conditions are to make “living together in an environment, a place and a society with people you often do not know and you do not necessarily feel connected with” as smooth as possible.

In a letter to the House of Representatives concerning citizenship in education, Sander Dekker, Undersecretary for the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science, appeals to certain “core values” for living together with others,

“It is about our shared values, so that we do not end up fighting each other on the basis of values, but rather strengthen the basis of shared values. Citizenship entails, thus, knowledge of our political institutions, the rules of engagement, and the corresponding behaviour. In a society with a lot of diversity and dynamism, a solid understanding of these rules is crucial.”

Dekker stresses the importance of acknowledging dynamism and pluriformity within society; ‘we’ might want different things, however, ‘we’ all should want them within a circumscribed context whose legitimacy goes uncontested. Dekker’s vision of citizenship education is premised on a commitment to and “the internalization of the basic values ​​and achievements of Dutch democracy.” Good citizenship, according to Dekker, is predicated on a positive affective and intellectual investment in Dutch democracy as social and political practice. To embody such an idea of citizenship requires an almost religious belief that democracy, “which promises equality and universal protection for ‘all’,” will make good on its promises, and a sentimental trust in its potential.

The reality of racism, however, serves as a reminder that democracy per se offers little in the way of equality of opportunity for all. If ‘equality of opportunity for all’ is to be truly realized, then Dutch democracy has to be put under pressure to expose the tension between its promise of equality for all and its colonial and anti-Black formation. Within Dutch democracy, however, anti-Blackness is understood as an anomaly—a practice of blatantly racist individuals—within an otherwise equitable and just society, rather than an integral aspect of the democratic process itself.

A hope that democracy will make good on its promises in the long term becomes the alchemy by which both Black and non-Black folk transmute racial terror into something that prepares the stage for the possibility of atonement, and betterment of ‘the nation as a whole’. An intimate investment in (the potential of) ‘democracy’ in the face of structural racism allows “the emergence of two conflicting sets of values: a commitment to democratic principles such as justice and equality on one hand, which conflict but coexist, with the solidification of racialized beliefs and practices on the other.” Here, anti-racist policies serve not only as signs of a commitment to the democratic principle of equality—measures that make democracy ‘better, more equal’—but also as a promise of ‘justice’ itself. Racist ‘incidents’ are marked as momentary lapses, and become opportunities to ‘do better’ without having to make any structural changes.

Dekker asserts that “[m]ore knowledge of our fundamental rights and awareness of their own position in society can contribute to understanding and tolerance between groups in society.” Dekker doesn’t tell us who these groups are, nor does he comment on how power might produce racialized groups that are “differentially positioned within hierarchical power arrangements.” Within Dekker’s understanding of society, relations of power are absent, which leaves racialized groups depoliticized—as though “race no longer has any significant impact on people’s life chances” in a Dutch society: as a result, all groups are rendered equivalent in status, and every group is allegedly subjected to similar treatment. The fundamental rights these groups share, regardless whether these rights offer full and effective protection, should ultimately be, according to Dekker, more important than what divides them on the basis of ‘group membership’; ‘we’ might all be ‘different’, but ‘we all’ enjoy the same fundamental rights. Difference becomes simply a matter of difference in desires, or opinions. As such, tensions that arise within society should be met with understanding and ‘verdraagzaamheid’, the willingness to endure a certain amount of discomfort. This practice of tolerance, as a ‘tension-relief’ mechanism, “is always about managing some object of aversion.” [emphasis in original] Dekker’s idea of what constitutes a democratic society is a discourse in defence of the dominant culture, whose norms and values are positioned as universal and neutral.

Herbert Marcuse notes in his essay Repressive Tolerance that in “the open marketplace of ideas and goods,” in which all opinions and arguments are equally valid, views that endorse, and aim to improve, in broad terms, upon the established order are perceived as reasonable, and are, therefore, almost necessarily considered well thought out, and more credible. On the other hand, views that argue against liberal democracy, or the nation-state, are inevitably seen as impractical, confounding options “rather than plausible viewpoints around which a new worldview can be constructed.” The very fact that radical perspectives are seen as impractical alternatives only serves to strengthen the implicit legitimacy of democracy. Within the ‘polder model’ of politics, which is a primary Dutch strategy for ensuring a stable democratic process, democratic legitimacy stems from “dialogue, compromise and consensus seeking strategies with the purpose of pacifying past and current conflict of interests and to ensure the wilful participation of all parties.” The process of dialogue and consensus (through “endless rounds of meetings”), which is characteristic of the ‘polder model’, regulates the range of critiques.

It’s worth noting that the metaphor for Dutch political consensus, ‘polder’, comes to us from water and land management. Polders are areas of land reclaimed by draining excess water, and they require, by their very nature, collaboration and coordination. Polders have given rise to a purportedly unique, but also fragile, “rational [and moral] landscape” that needs continuous monitoring in order to maintain its delicate integrity. The polder metaphor tells us a lot about how political consensus, the bedrock of Dutch democracy, is, or should be, built and maintained.

What is at risk of being placed outside the bounds of practical politics are demands and desires that thwart consensus. Specifically, what is bracketed out as too particular is “an experience typical of blacks in white supremacist societies.” Black people are advised, in the interest of consensus, to channel their anger into more acceptable and constructive avenues. To continue to stress the specificity of Black positionality is to block consensus. Thus, in order to appear ‘reasonable’, Black folk have to respect the racialized views and ‘opinions’ of White people, transcend Blackness, embrace the fiction that essentially we all inhabit the same zero point, and ‘work together’ on programmes that are universally applicable. Consensus and reasonableness are, in effect, formalized structures that do not allow specificity. Anti-Blackness structures the terms of engagement, and is the unspoken requirement in the production of consensus, and the functioning of civil society itself. The polder constitutes a space in which Blacks and Whites can reach ‘the middle ground’, which is perceived as the ideal basis from which to build, only when “blackness is evacuated of radical politics.” Blackness can be incorporated only when stripped of its radical potential. It is this economy of constraint, which sets the limit point beyond which the critic, if she wants to be considered ‘reasonable’, cannot go.

The process of ‘reasonable dialogue’ persuades people into thinking that we live in a truly open society in which ‘everyone has a say’—in which critiques of society and social structures are allowed to be expressed. However, in an anti-Black society, debate cannot be ‘public’, nor can dialogue be ‘democratic’. The rules of engagement “that apply to white bodies, by virtue of a bad faith, […] change when applied to black bodies in an antiblack world.” In other words, what appears perfectly reasonable when done or said by White bodies is read or heard as irrational, or even hostile, when done or said by Black bodies. In Institutioneel Racisme en Epidemie van Dwangopnames in Psychiatrie en Gevangenissen: Zorgelijke Signalen op Studiedag ‘Psychiatrie, Recht en Cultuur’, Prof. Dr. Frank Kortmann is quoted as saying,

“Within the judiciary and mental health care system, there is an unconscious double standard: when exhibiting the same behaviour Allochtonen are more often labelled ‘criminal’ whereas Autochtonen are more often labelled ‘sick’. When displaying identical symptoms, Allochtonen are more often branded as ‘dangerous’ than Autochtonen.” [emphases in original]

Whiteness poses serious epistemic challenges to ‘hearing Allochtoon voice’ or ‘interpreting Allochtoon behaviour’. The fact that Black people are heard as ‘difficult’, ‘unreasonable’, ‘ungrateful’, ‘sour’, or ‘bitter’ when we talk about the ongoing violence of anti-Black racism tells us a lot. Such descriptors indicate the ‘outside’ of a practice of public reason. The “fact of blackness” disqualifies Blacks before we even say a word. In the racial logic of the Netherlands, to speak of reasonableness is already to disqualify Blackness, which is, by definition, ‘unreasonable’, and ‘dangerous’. Appeals to reasonableness, which are appeals to turn back to the middle ground, are often attempts to close off critical analysis.

For Black people, engaging in ‘reasonable’ dialogue, as a means to foster collaborative and inclusive practices, involves precarious emotional labour. This emotional labour often takes the form of managing anger, addressing racism in a ‘non-threatening’ way, promoting a feeling of ‘togetherness’ or ‘gezelligheid’, protecting White feelings. Reasonable dialogue, within the confines of the polder, functions as an activity where Black people are “invited to become human on terms that require anti-black sentiment.” Black people are expected to embody an ‘appropriate’ emotional state when talking about racial violence; we are expected to address racism with a “humorous flair”—or in a way that deemphasizes racial injury. In short, we have to tend to “white expectations for racial comfort.” Criticisms directed at Black folk suggest that we fail more often than we succeed; White people regularly accuse us of being humourless and bitter. Sue Campbell tells us that bitterness is seen as evidence of “blocking the goodwill” that would otherwise be extended to us had we not been bitter. Bitter people are seen as “further disadvantaging the group to which they belong.” Anyone who fails to use the right tone risks being considered an imposition on the hearer’s time and feeling.

It is no wonder that my project is often placed beyond what is ‘balanced’ or ‘workable’. The implication being that my call has wandered into the realm of impractical, if not irrational, demands. In other words, my project cannot cross the threshold and pass into acceptability and ‘reasonableness’. Demands are reasonable only when they are locatable within the field of nationhood and consistent with the demands of liberal democratic ideals; their primary aim should be to make things better. Similarly, criticism is considered reasonable only in so far as it leaves unquestioned the assumption that democracy and the nation-state are the best insurance for freedom and justice. How can any ‘rational’ person question the best system of governmentor ask for the end of the world? But what else can I ask for when the world itself is anti-Black, when the tools we use to write ourselves into the political, ‘rational’ landscape are “caught in a political metaphysics that depends on black-death”? I have no answers as to how to inaugurate Fanon’s vision of a new humanity, but I know the answers do not lie in a devotion to democracy, which, as Jodi Dean writes, “absorbs and incorporates hope so as to lodge politics in a field of already given possibilities.” I only know, in the words of Rinaldo Walcott, that “[w]e must fail the modernist project at every chance.”

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8 thoughts on “Finding a Way Out of the Polder

  1. would appreciate. thinking hard about what failing the project if modernity might mean beyond the nation state. failing justice? failing rights? failing gender? failing freedom? because all these are pillars of democracy as we know it. i don’t mean that as a coquettish question where the answer is already known as no. how to fail them without giving up ground black life might need? or is that already a white question? how to think outside a frame of reconciliatory-ness, as in, if one does “corrections” in a, b, or c, things will be better? to even ask that question is like bumping into a wall. how to live in the prescripted realm of: if you say you are not pondering details, you want to see the structural violence, you are a) violent yourself, and b) as a white person, “you can’t be serious’. “democracy” , then, the very system that allows me as a white person the space to think such thoughts and questions, and be ridiculous, but not a “danger”. so i can do it without becoming a target. the luxury of being “hysterical” but white? another question i imagine: how to live against a specific violence directed against black blackness? are there “invitational spaces” for blackness on probation, as it were, that you can doubly fail and then be punished for inhabiting blackness? the need, as a white person, to learn to make way for black willfulness, in sara ahmed’s term. finding a position other than benevolence.

    1. adding to my former comment. failing modernity, so urgent. but how does one, do i fail modernity, if and when the very fibre of my white existence is constituted as it, and as modernity’s relentless momentum of violent futurity as progress, especially as a white woman, who stands for that progress, that freedom, today. how, in other words, do i fail myself? what i see is that i am dramatically failing the historical moment, in that i do not see a how of intervention beyond an agony of watching. how do i step, at least, from watching to witnessing? to sitting with (christina sharpe) as a practice? for the time being, i have none of my previously useful ( to me) righteousness left. i guess, that is the lesson to learn.

  2. From Seduction and the Ruses of Power
    Author(s): Saidiya Hartman
    Reviewed work(s):
    Source: Callaloo, Vol. 19, No. 2, Emerging Women Writers: A Special Issue (Spring, 1996), pp.
    537-560
    Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press
    Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3299219 .
    Accessed: 14/11/2011 17:31

    “In the arena of affect, the body was no less vulnerable to the demands and the
    excesses of power. For the bestowal which granted the slave a circumscribed and
    fragmented identity as person in turn shrouded the violence of such a beneficent and
    humane gesture. Bluntly stated, the violence of subjection concealed and extended
    itself through the outstretched hand of legislated concern. For the slave was consid-
    ered subject only in so far as he or she was criminal(ized), wounded body or mortified
    flesh. This construction of the subject seems rather at odds with a proclaimed concern
    for the “total person.” However, it does not mean that the efforts to regulate the
    abuses of slavery were any less “genuine,” but that in the very efforts to protect the
    enslaved from the ravages of the institution, a mutilation of another order was set in
    motion. Protection was an exemplary dissimulation, for it savagely truncated the
    dimensions of existence, inasmuch as the effort to safeguard slave life recognized the
    slave as subject only as she violated the law, or was violated (wounded flesh or pained
    body). Thus rendered, person signified little more than a pained body or a body in
    need of punishment.”
    This is from 1996. Go figure.

  3. Great to see you back in the fray here. Fuck the nation state, indeed. It is presented as fundamentally unfuckable in Western culture, and I think for the majority of white people, it is preferable to have it that way: unfuckwithable. In practice, it simply concentrates so much advantage and comfort for white people, who would part with that willingly? But you know all this and said it better already.

    Another thing: imagination and enculturation plays a huge role here, I think. To be able to work towards any kind of (radical) alternative means that you have to be able to *imagine* such alternatives in the first place. Here we’re in a quicksand where utopian, dystopian, speculative fiction is presented as just that: fiction, but in the sense that fiction is not (or could not even be) real, rather than something the depicts situations that are *potentially* real. Also, these scenarios are often expressed with (what is classed as) genre fiction, further marginalising them from any ‘serious’ discourse about politics. In other words, not something that people feel they have to engage with. Only the ‘normal’ is left worthy of consideration.

    Anyway, a long-winded way of saying I’m glad to read something by you again.

  4. Good to see you back. And with so much power! I am grateful that you got throe just to come with another completely overwhelming piece.
    I am most grateful for you to share your thoughts.
    May peace be upon you.

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