We need an alternative order of symbols

One of my favorite intellectual exercises is drawing suspicion to popular things. Along with this is a radically iconoclastic attitude that remains agitated with the uncritical philistinism saturating much of popular culture, along with its adherents.

The residual Marxist in me always reverts back to Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx’s German Ideology, where they assert that ‘the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas.’ My deployed hermeneutic of Engels and Marx here draws a nexus between popular things and those who wield the mantles of power. My discussion particularly concerns itself with what I am referring to as symbolic power — the prerogative to determine what are normative and desirable symbols.

My observation of Black life has long brought me to the conclusion that so many of us are eager to uncritically absorb the produces of various cultural means of production, along with their symbolic orders, even though many of those alienate us in so many ways.

When I consider the psychic entrenchment of such an uncritical attitude, I realize just how destructive the enterprise of antiblackness has been. Art critic Athi Joja rightly repudiates what’s referred to as “critical distance”, a philosophically defective view that holds that art, in its various permutations, can be be somehow absolved form the jurisdiction of criticism. At a deeper scale of things, I also suggest that we suffer from what Afropessimist Frank B Wilderson III refers to as “objective vertigo” — which is a form disorientation. According to Wilderson, this mode of disorientation is more than just an event that interrupts Black life but constitutes its entire ontological frame. A corollary of this is that vertigo presents a wobbly and hazy view of reality. From the vantage point of a subject under vertigo, I argue that it is then easy to opt into even the most violent regime of symbols. For the Lacanian purists reading this, my reference to symbolic order shares no affiliation with his triad, I merely use this phrase to capture what popular culture circulates as desirable and normative.

Let me address what I have dubbed under the moniker ‘gucci consciousness’, as a generic quantifier for many fancy brands which have captured the Black gaze. Weather it is music video culture or Instagram, there has been a drive to use these as proxies and identifiers for success or ‘soft life’; hence the fascination with bags, shoes and other product offerings. These are also used as social selection mechanisms and heuristics that allow people to peek into who they want to associate with. It is also interesting to note that under this social paradigm, notions such as value and valence seem to be purely relational. Often, these brands are not intrinsically attractive but rather attractive given the brand equity the possess due to social conditioning. While the cultural protocols of gucci consciousness sees so many buy into the hegemony of its cultural symbolic order, we still need to maintain a critical stance towards them. For French philosopher Louise Althusser, we are in a sense symbolically interpellated as we deem ourselves subjects “hailed” under some form of ideology.

The typical response to any detractor of ‘gucci consciousness’ and its popular props of apparel along with their inextricable symbolic representations, is often ad hominem in format. That is, critique of this form and frame usually denigrates one’s argument based on one’s class position, that is “you reject these brands likely because you don’t afford them.” There are plenty reasons why this response is problematic and dare I say, a la Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek words, it is “class propaganda by the enemy”, one meant to deflect from polemic by economizing an intellectual debate. It is also a patronizing point to make because it assumes that the counterfactual (that is a subject position that affords these brands) also lacks the intellectual rigor to assume some critical appraisal of what can be considered problematic cultural symbols.

Anticolonial psychiatrist Frantz Fanon’s discursive intervention is that of inextricably tying race and class. So, to invert Fanon’s proposition a bit, I claim that cultural items with symbolic value are not just proxies for class positionality but also tied to racial matters as well. We do not participate in the symbolic as merely a constituent of a particular class, but we also tether into it as a racially overdetermined cohort — one who has a direct history of being victims of racism but also a persisting lived experience of it. This in many ways suggests that our criticality towards racism, should ipso facto, be retained even at any symbolic domain of participation. Usually there is a naïve fracturing of the two. Reactionaries want to have a fundamental gripe with Blacks being gunned down, yet they are not shocked at the structural and symbolic makeup of the society in which the kinds of social lynching’s transpire in the first place. Frankly speaking, this relays analytic limitations in their thinking.

It is also interesting to note how symbol neutrality is impossible. Statues, for example, do not suddenly lose their meaning whenever legislations such as apartheid or Jim Crowe are rescinded. Therefore, in South Afrika, Rhodes Must Fall was launched at University of Cape Town and gained traction as it sought to eviscerate the visages of anti-Black symbols. The towering specter of Rhodes was a cognitive cue evoking a perilous history for Blacks. The prompt to annihilate the racist face of Rhodes was such a move towards an alternative symbolic order. Same goes for nomenclature as well, it has investments in the symbolic. German philosopher Ernst Cassire considers names to impose ‘limitations and with those limitations falsifications.’

The American-Jamaican sociologist Orlando Patterson, in his framing of social death, not only speaks about natal alienation of the slave but also evokes what he calls “general dishonor”. I argue that many of these multinational clothing conglomerates often contribute towards anti-Black dishonor as well and they must never go unchecked.

When one considers the acts of Black humiliation in the instances of blackface as a starting point, it is axiomatic that many of these fetishized clothing brands are known to have racist propensities. I think the broader argument for us must be that we cannot talk Black lives matter, yet not take issue with the likes of anti-Black and antiworker brands. The problem in South Africa, Africa and the Diaspora is that we often lack robust political consciousness. From this also stems a deficit in an acute awareness of self-contradiction. Even in instances where we know, we suffer from what Jean Paul Sartre calls bad faith, a rescindment of noetic lucidity and a jettison of what we know, even about the racist pretentions of many institutions.

The libidinal economy, the economy of desire, is still eagerly built on feasting on Black flesh. Historically, we know this to be true, chattel slavery demonstrated this and Blacks are still liable to a basic grammar of suffering — that of accumulation and fungibility.

Finally, while we cannot prescribe what people should or should not wear, I am merely pointing out the symbolic ladeness of some of the brands we cherish.

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