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The Limits of Resistance

No single word has signaled a repulsion toward Donald Trump—and the impulse to respond to him—like “resistance.” The term emerged immediately after the election, as soon as November 11th  (The Advocate: “Count us as part of ‘the resistance’”), 10th (Charles Blow: “Count me among the resistance”), and 9th (Ben Jealous: “The resistance begins today”). One Facebook page, for a group called “Portland’s Resistance,” was launched on the 8th. This last one, presumably created to rechannel a late-night panic, captures something especially visceral. And indeed, it seems that no one ever announced that “resistance” would be the keyword of a new political mobilization. Hillary Clinton did not use the word in her concession speech. There was no massively viral John Oliver clip. Rather, the word seemed to lend itself so well to the coming crisis that, like certain scientific discoveries, it occurred to multiple people independently. Something in the water made its adoption logical.

On this blog last February, Julie Beth Napolin noted the already entrenched position of “resistance.” Within weeks of the Inauguration, there was little doubt about its purchase.

But why is this term appealing, as opposed to one of its many near-synonyms? Why not “the rebellion,” “the opposition,” or “the refusal”? I suspect that there is more latent in our collective rhetorical choice than we may at first recognize. What might we come to know about our disdain for Donald Trump, and our intuitive sense of how to react to his administration, by considering the word that so many—even on the otherwise fractured left—so quickly agreed upon? How might a critique of this word help us move strategically forward?

Politics and political movements invariably model themselves after iconic representations, drawing from both media and history. Ronald Reagan advertised many of his policies using metaphors from Star Wars, recent Indonesian anti-development movements have adopted the aesthetics of punk rock, Marcus Garvey cast himself as an African emperor, and a few years ago Thai dissidents borrowed the symbology of The Hunger Games. Such examples can be unpacked in revealing ways. For example, the Tea Party invoked the American Revolutionary War, not only for its aesthetics but for its restaging of an old conflict over sovereignty and federal incursion, which the Tea Party felt itself to be inheriting. The style and models of a movement often map onto its desires.

The anti-Trump resistance (let us call it, after convention, #theresistance) has chosen no historical or cinematic reference nearly so overt. However, the WWII-era French La Résistance comes to mind. That movement is resonant for reasons beyond its name. It was, first and of course, anti-fascist. But so too was it open to professionals; it was not the sort of mobilization that valorized the proletariat or the religiously pious. Everyday bourgeois people, whose lives lacked even the ostensible romance of poverty, could lead it. Moreover, La Résistance, like #theresistance, saw the government as structurally sound, and only temporarily occupied by the Nazis. Because it did not seek dramatic structural reforms, its methods became those of subterfuge and sabotage, not coups. #theresistance now similarly casts rogue bureaucrats and a stubborn judiciary as its saviors. #theresistance is not—and apparently could not be—#therevolution.

It is uncertain whether #theresistance is broadly aware of La Résistance, let alone modeled after it. Nevertheless, the word “resistance” has a long intellectual history that, I would suggest, has embedded certain meanings and methods in its usage. Resistance has, historically, been a poor way of thinking about structural political change. Anthropology was almost obsessed with the word in the latter half of the twentieth century. As K. Sivaramakrishnan has noted, resistance became a popular research topic at a moment in the 1960s when global capital was encroaching on remote communities in South America and Southeast Asia, producing inequity but failing to incite class revolt, as a Marxist reading of history might have predicted. Anthropologists sought to explain this failure without abandoning a more general Marxist interpretation of history. The result was a turn toward “resistance studies,” spearheaded by the ethnographically-derived theories of James Scott. In a series of influential books published in the 1970s and 1980s, Scott examined how peasants “resisted” capitalism not by taking up arms, but by dragging their feet. The “weapons of the weak” were small acts of non-compliance—an extra sick day here, a week of middling effort there. Through such a framework, anthropologists could continue to think about class relations in historical materialist terms. Resistance studies produced some powerful texts, and influenced subaltern studies, among other fields. However, it met its limit when it ceased to be able to conceive of a politics beyond the strictures of class. Resistance always took place on terms set by the hegemon, the master, or the boss. The resistor was always understood to be playing a game determined and even fixed by capitalism and its agents. In an orthodox Marxist view, how could it be otherwise?

In her 2014 monograph, Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life Across the Borders of Settler States, Audra Simpson offered something of a lifeline to resistance studies by proposing a turn toward refusal. For Simpson, refusal—like resistance—signals a refractory posture before a state or other dominant force. But unlike resistance, refusal means denying the most basic terms of engagement between the oppressor and the oppressed. It means insisting on a different game. In Simpson’s ethnographic example, Kahnawà:ke Indians refuse the sovereignty of both Canada and the United States, owing to these settler states’ ongoing failure to honor territorial treaties, some centuries-old, with Mohawk tribes. Thus Kahnawà:ke people may refuse to present U.S.-issued passports at international border crossings, insisting that these documents have no validity in the first place. This may cause great inconvenience, written off as the cost of fealty to a different sovereign truth. But so too does this kind of action offer fresh associative possibilities. Those who refuse point the way toward new modes of political organization, which others may then join. The gambit of refusal is that people might begin thinking about alternative ways of assembling politically, contra whatever system is currently blocking that alternative. Simpson offers refusal as an alternative to liberalism’s putative gift of recognition, which boxes indigenous people into the very trap that resistance studies eventually encountered—playing the game on terms decided by the powerful alone. Through acts of refusal, indigenous people (for instance) cease asking for settler states to grant them visibility at all.

Simpson has recently written about refusal in regard to our current political moment. What she calls “the ruse of consent” is “laid bare in these electoral moments in the U.S.A, when people are starting to point to where they think ‘the facts’ lie—where the origin stories are, and what the sturdiness of those stories is—all motivated by the specious grasp on both ethics and truth-telling by the current regime. These double moves are the conditions as well, for and of refusal.” In other words, the current administration’s remarkable disdain for the truth is merely a less artful retelling of some hallowed, even foundational lies—that Indigenous people consented to the seizure of their land, that African-Americans can become unmarked if they try, that women are fully entitled to their bodies, that economic opportunity is equally distributed, and many more. The decryption of these lies by Donald Trump may remind us of their contingency, and lay the groundwork to refuse them as a basis of our politics.

Colin Kaepernick’s routine refusal to stand for the national anthem before games during the 2016-17 NFL season exemplifies Simpsonian refusal. The anthem is a ritual that hails players and fans as consenting members of a political community. The duration of the song is a period when all disagreements must be laid aside. For the game, it is as much a ground as the turf. Moreover, players must publicly perform their consent, an action that implies something like “I agree to the terms of being American, which are basically honest and true.” Kaepernick’s refusal of this contractual clause, his performative striking it out with a marker, was met with enormous hostility, even by the fans of his own team in San Francisco. Critical responses ranged from grumbling about the quarterback’s ingratitude toward the soldiers who allegedly safeguard his freedom of speech to rants about him being a spoiled brat or even a traitor. Commentator Stephen A. Smith, incensed about Kaepernick’s decision not to vote in the 2016 election, called his actions “shameful” and declared that “everything he said meant absolutely nothing.” Kaepernick, of course, did not disrupt the game itself. The team’s management did not seek to prohibit his protest. To the extent that his refusal was an offense, it was against the lie that Kaepernick understood to be immanent to America as a consensual project. Both kneeling during the anthem and not voting dramatized this lack of consent.

Kaepernick’s refusal was an aural one; that is, he did not listen. Although recognition is almost always theorized in optic terms, non-listening is surely the most common way that people refuse consent in practice. A child’s focus drifts from his scolding parents, undermining not only their words but the basis of their authority; employees’ attention lags during meetings, perhaps displaced by thoughts of disdain for the boss; athletes drown out critical crowds with headphones. Even metaphorically, the ear is primary, as when we refuse the voice of our inner critics. Kaepernick’s refusal was not a refusal to see the other as equal to himself, but to acknowledge the values proscribed by the other as being a condition of possibility for everyday life. Others joined him in his routine protest, first in the NFL, and soon also in college and high school football, as well as other sports. His refusal was plainly associative, and productive of a new sociality. His public gambit spurred others to link themselves to Black Lives Matter and other movements.

In opposition to Donald Trump, the left has decided on resistance, not refusal. It has selected a word that implies a willingness to allow the powerful to set the terms of engagement and debate. We—that is to say, all of us seeking a political community that can oppose the xenophobia and nihilism of the moment—await the signal of tweets, and react, often in the form of an imitation that becomes an echo. Thus we consent. We have also selected a word, a rhetorical emblem, which implies that electoral politics are solvent. We acknowledge the terminal condition of a body politic in which tens of millions of Americans, mostly minorities, cannot vote, and in which untold millions more are discouraged, intimidated, or redistricted to deny their participation, but we nevertheless insist that that body must remain on life-support. Something in the water made “resistance” logical. But perhaps it was merely our reticence.

Academics must confront this problem lucidly, both within our institutions and as people tasked with thinking historically and structurally. How might the opposition to Trump proceed differently if it were grounded in refusal instead of resistance, if we made the difficult decision to not listen when we are hailed to perform our consent? There is no easy answer. Certain benefits and comforts would need to be left on the table, against the grain of the legal, affective, and economic logics of the system, particularly for those of us who, even after Trump’s election, remain relatively safe. Colin Kaepernick’s career may be over, as a consequence of the NFL league owners’ nearly unbroken white-maleness and absolutely unbroken plutocracy. But against racial hygiene and robber barons we cannot drag our feet and hope to win. Thinking with refusal may allow us to understand sacrifice as entailing not only the loss of material privilege, which the political system affords some in #theresistance, but the jettisoning of consent’s lies, and a turn toward a generative, alternative future.