Guest article by Professor Michael Thomas.
In my previous article for this blog, I argue that one response to our ongoing crises is to push back by slowing down and slowing down interrupting the ongoing process for the increasing intensity of work, widening inequality, and the gutting of our institutions through capitalist managerial strategies. The demand to slow down is ideal. To fulfill it requires us to recognize that the inability to slow down is generated by the fact that people are materially unable to do so. If we don’t go to work, we don’t get paid. If we don’t get paid, we don’t eat. If we don’t eat. We die.
As I think through this problem, I’m continuing a line of questioning that begins in the second half of my intro to Philosophy course this past spring semester. Our final assignment reflected how we could use what we learned through these conversations to guide our actions going forward. In this article, I would like to share a revised version of my own reflections as I continue to work towards slowing down.
The class this semester has been difficult. I believe the conversations were good, the narrative began to come together, and I was more on top of the reading and lectures than I had been in the past. My struggle was that the idea of what the class is supposed to do, and what my work is supposed to do, was stuck.
A lot hinges on the Afro-pessimist understanding of the libidinal investment in anti-blackness and the ontological positioning of Black people as non-humans. This analysis seems to describe accurately describes the patterns of denial, disavowal, and bad faith we see on issues of race. Think about how many of our discussions end in, “we should listen to black people more,” when black people talked and proposed substantive solutions. If the idea is that people should be listening more, the important part of the conversation is what we heard from those folks and how we feel we should act on it. Instead, we leave with platitudes about what to do in the future. My pessimism from conversations like these forces me to start from the premise that I will be misunderstood and try again to get the message across in the face of that misunderstanding. I’m stuck thinking about how things are articulated and the details rather than advancing the discussion myself in this position. [We can also think about the continued capitalist and political investment in #blacklivesmatter and dead black people being mobilized for-profit and elect Democrats responsible for the investment in policing that contributes to the problem, i.e., elite capture.] The challenge for me this semester was to move on to thinking about what it means to develop ways of guiding discussions that translate to a politics that is aware of these traps. This challenge came to a head in my previous “two” project posts.
As I mentioned then, I was stuck. A part of this was the stress of everything that’s going on. Another was a sense of genuine disbelief and helplessness. I watched the people in power step over the cracks of what’s happening without any genuine change. [At moments, I was honestly surprised at my surprise] Things got better when I decided that I had to accept that I was overwhelmed and be the person who adjusted. I wanted everyone else to stop so that I would feel safe stopping, but that was impossible. To continue to blame everyone else was bad faith. Thus, I took responsibility for my situation and stopped.
As soon as I did, my mentality and habits shifted. I began slowing myself down and working on things that I know improve my focus, like yoga and guitar. I began taking breaks from the news to listen to music, which allowed me to stimulate my mind by active listening rather than thinking. When I began to work, I reminded myself that I felt behind because I was tired and stressed, but was on task for many of my projects and just need to do a few things at a time. Things began to get done, and I became capable of thinking more clearly and handling the situation.
We currently call practices like these “self-care.” We should be specific about what that means. In the black feminist tradition, the term indicates ways of caring for the self to compensate for forms of neglect and violence experienced inside oppressive structures. Oppression weighs on the body and mind. It reduces our capacities and creative energy. This added pressure compounds the problems that already make human life difficult in general.
This practice of self-care is my first new commitment, which requires me to care for others. This means staying in contact with people to maintain social bonds, especially folks like me that tend to disappear due to anxiety and depression. It means caring for my wife, who is also struggling, and trying as I can to check on my students and colleagues to provide support and material resources where needed. Finally, it means working with local organizations to relieve the burden that many volunteers and workers are facing since help isn’t coming from outside.
[I should also acknowledge that my ability to engage in these practices is furnished by my class position. I have a job that allows me to work from home and structure my own day. Those of us who are positioned here should be using this time to ease the burden, fight for, and support those who are forced to risk their lives.]
My second commitment is to continue to study. Study is not going to class. Classes are organized around assessments of skills and knowledge which you practice now to use later. Study is ongoing critical thought informed by discussion and reading that helps us form perspectives on how to respond to what’s happening around us. To do this, I’ve been sharing readings with you and my friends, talking through the readings and other issues with them, and learning how to think together. These interactions form a counterbalance to competitive, achievement-oriented relationships. They’re synthetic, and I find help me get to know people together and are critical for developing new ideas.
Finally, I’ve recommitted myself continued research in materialist radical politics. The study and discussion I mention above model the kind of connections we find in Baldwin’s writing and the Black Feminist roundtable discussion show how others approach issues and develop tandem solutions. These discussions can’t work without proper political education. I believe they also require a wider understanding of political organizations and movements to move from our own circles to join our efforts with others. This is the talent that will take me the longest because I stepped out of service organizations for a few years when research took priority. To work on that, I’m building it into my professional goals. I will focus more on bringing my research into service and community partnerships.
As a final note, all these aims are tied together under the umbrella of solidarity. Much of the pressure and isolation we feel emerges from the fact that we exist inside of institutions that individualize us through isolation. I hope that the current situation demonstrates that interconnection and shared fate are not simply corporate buzzwords. Pandemic, Racism, and environmental destructions are global problems that require unified action. The challenge for those of us who have become isolated is to pull back in solidarity outside of and, in many cases, in opposition to the institutions that support us through alienated social bonds.
This article was written by Professor Michael Thomas. Michael is a Humboldt Foundation Research Fellow at JFK Institute for North American Studies, at Freie Universität Berlin and Associate Professor of Philosophy at Susquehanna University. You can follow him on LinkedIn. You can also check out his website and other writings as well.