Well, this is probably going to be the final post I write on the series that spontaneously arose regarding what I perceive to be the bourgeois appropriation of marginality. I wrote my initial thoughts here, and then posted some follow-up thoughts by Thom Stark, and would now like to make a few concluding comments.
In many ways, Thom’s response reminds me of Zizek’s remarks about America’s justification for invading Iraq. Zizek writes:
We all remember the old joke about the borrowed kettle which Freud quotes in order to render the strange logic of dreams, namely, the enumeration of mutually exclusive answers to a reproach (that I returned to a friend a broken kettle): (1) I never borrowed a kettle from you; (2) I returned it to you unbroken; (3) the kettle was already broken when I got it from you. For Freud, such an enumeration of inconsistent arguments of course confirms per negationem what it endeavors to deny – that I returned you a broken kettle.
I see Thom deploying equally mutually exclusive responses. Allow me to provide one obvious example. In a recent response to Doug Harink, he writes “we at RATM are not claiming to be marginalized” but then he also writes that:
many of us (though not all of us) aren’t as close to conservative Christian communities as we used to be, but again, we’re not whining about that. As the educated so-called “elite,” we recognize that we have privilege and power that others don’t. And that’s why we’re trying to exercise it by calling attention to the way that the power at the center (of various institutions and traditions) is often abused and/or misplaced.
Note how the word “elite” is placed in scare-quotes. Essentially, Thom wants to claim to be marginalized and not-marginalized as the same time depending on how each claim serves his interests. Thus, keeping Thom’s remark to Doug in mind, and remembering that Thom recently published a book that a good many Conservative Christians would describe at heretical, we are equipped to read the following:
While I obviously agree with Dan that socio-political marginalization is extremely important, I also think that other forms of marginalization deserve to be highlighted and deserve to be identified precisely as marginal. For instance, heretics are marginalized, and I want to call attention to the way that power from the theological center pushes them to the margins in various ways.
Rounding out our triumvirate, we have the following statement:
While some of us at RATM may be willing to call our own perspectives “marginal,” that does not imply we think we are marginalized people.
Therefore, we arrive at our threefold kettle analogy: (1) I didn’t borrow a kettle from you (we are not claiming to be marginalized); (2) I returned the kettle to you unbroken (we are marginalized in a significant way); and (3) the kettle was already broken when I got it from you (our views are marginal, even if we are not). Unfortunately, this form of mutually exclusive argumentation carries through on Thom’s other points. When he denies exhibiting a persecution-complex he asserts that I assume that he and others are “merely reacting to conservative Christianity” but then immediately follows that by asking, “Even if we were, so what?” In the end, I’ll side with Freud on this one. I think that Thom’s response “confirms per negationem what it endeavors to deny” and makes apparent both a persecution-complex and the bourgeois appropriation of which I spoke (the couple of hundred of readers who read the email exchange between Thom and I, before I removed it from my blog, should easily understand that point by now).
Be that as it may, the original intention of my post was not to provoke a discussion about how awesome (or not awesome) Thom and RATM are. I simply used that blog as a convenient example of the rhetorical power-play I was discussing. While Thom does not address a number of the significant points I raise about this issue in my original post (he appears to be more interested in defending himself from what he perceives to be a personal assault), his response further illustrates the rhetorical power-play I criticize in two important ways, and also pushes back on what may be the central issue in this discussion. I now want to turn to those things, before making one concluding remark.
Beginning with the ongoing power-play related, I want to highlight how Thom stresses that the word “margins is an appropriate term to describe the kinds of perspectives we want to explore and people we want to support, and it functions, due to its broad application in the English language, as a nice catch-all title”. With this in mind, he emphasizes that “”there really are bourgeois Christians who are marginalized in important ways.” Again, Thom is making two possibly exclusive arguments here. On the one hand, he is saying that it is okay for the bourgeois to employ the language of marginality because that fits the dictionary definition of the word, while on the other hand he wants to associate the language of marginality with a significant experience of suffering and trauma — hence, he refers to the “scars” of those Christians (this goes beyond the dictionary definition in some ways, but fits well with a discursive power-play). However, what really interests me is this appeal to a definition or to the notion that Thom et al. are simply being objectively descriptive, thereby avoiding the deployment of making any kind of power-play (this emphasis also came through quite strongly when I spoke with Thom on the phone).
In response, I want to remind us all of the ways in which definitions or objective descriptions are routinely employed as masks for the exercise of power. Such things are often examples of ideology operating at its finest. The argument that the use of a word is technically appropriate according to the rules of the English language in no way refutes the accusations that power is being wielded when that word is employed. Far from it, such efforts tend to be made to both hide and strengthen the power that is being exercised.
The second way in which Thom’s response illustrates my point is by the way in which he refers to those who experience serious degrees of social, political, and economic marginalization throughout his response. Thom wants to grant the point that their marginality is important, but he wants to grant that point so that we can not mention them in relation to what he is writing about! Essentially, he is saying, of course people like sex workers and missing women are important, now can we stop talking about them? This perfectly illustrates the concern I expressed in my original post: when the bourgeoisie appropriate the language of marginality, those whose very lives are in jeopardy end up being further marginalized and forgotten. Therefore, when Thom writes that some bourgeois Christians “deserve to be identified as marginalized, even while it’s (very obviously) understood that they’re not in the same plight as disappeared Salvadorian women” and then asks: “Do we really have to point that out?” The answer is, yes we do.
This, then, leads us into what I see as the crux of the matter. Specifically, we arrive at the question of how we approach the various expressions of “marginality” that we encounter in our society. Again, I quote from Thom:
I’m not interested in weighing the degrees of profundity of various forms of marginalization. Yes, some forms are banal, like being at the margins of the fast food industry. But a form of marginality doesn’t have to be the most morally profound form of marginality in order to command our attention, nor should it have to.
Here’s the thing: I am interested in trying to assess degrees of profundity of various forms of marginalization. Yes, this is a tricky area, a complex matter (that’s why I brought it up!), but it is one that I feel we are morally obligated to engage, unless we want to simply capitulate to the culture of victimization I described in my original post. Indeed, the refusal to assess “the degrees of profundity of the various forms of marginalization” is but another expression of the bourgeois appropriation of marginality, for it minimizes and ignores the significance of the death-dealing forms of marginalization that I have mentioned. This is the case because it refuses to determine what kinds of marginalization are banal, what kinds of marginalization are extremely significant, and what kinds of marginalization fall at different places between those points.
However, having said that, I think I agree with Thom’s point that “a form of marginality doesn’t have to be the most morally profound form of marginality in order to command our attention”. That is true to a certain extent, but we do need to be very aware of how much of our attention different forms of marginality command. Now, in certain Christian circles the discourse of being “at the margins” of Christian “orthodoxy” or “at the margins” of more Conservative expressions of Christianity plays such a prominent role that all other forms of marginality are ignored (or appear as flashy blips on the radar every now and again when somebody wants to establish “street-cred” and advance that person’s “radical” brand-status). There is so much talk of this, especially amongst “post-Evangelicals” (or others whom circumstance has driven into the circle of Evangelical influence) that I can’t help but wonder if any who wish to add to this conversation are simply contributing to a great wave that drowns out the voices of those who are marginalized unto death. Certainly, if one wishes to add to that discourse, one should be highly conscious of this possibility and, in my opinion, needs to openly confront it and address it.
However, even with this in mind, I do want to return to my assertion that in most (but not all) cases the death-dealing forms of marginalization experienced by those who are homeless or street-involved, enslaved or sexually exploited, murdered or disappeared, is actually more important than the forms of marginalization experienced by members of the middle-class. I understand that this might be a provocative statement but, if we are being honest, I fail to see how we can conclude otherwise. I choose to emphasize it because I feel that us bourgeois Christians spend so much time focusing upon our own petty problems (i.e. at the end of the day, they almost never kill us and we still live a pretty damn good life), when really we should be throwing ourselves into solidarity with those who are far more genuinely crucified today while also throwing ourselves against all the structural, corporate, social and legal powers of Death that are encoded in our societies. Therefore, until people actually start doing something, I will keep pressing this point (no matter how much they say, “I get it, can we move on?”).
Finally, here is my concluding comment (this thought was only half-formed in my mind until I received an email that nailed it). Within the academy, people are constantly striving to make their mark within their respective fields, and so they attempt to do something creative, to exhibit some originality, and so on. By doing so, academics are able to heighten their prestige, status, pay, and job security. Today, embracing or exploring some form of “marginality” appears to be a particularly convenient way of accomplishing this (a part of what one might call the broader bourgeois appropriation of texts arising from the marginalized). Thus, a good many academics like to speak about the margins, and claim to be in some sort of solidarity with those on the margins (or, perhaps they might claim to be an advocate or a voice or a saviour for those people), but the benefit of doing this is that one is moved even further away from the margins and ever more increasingly rooted in a central position of wealth and power. I consider this to be an insidious and destructive process. Therefore, I believe that any academic who wishes to speak to these things must attempt to move ever deeper into the lived experiences of poverty, shame, and weakness. To do otherwise is, in my mind, almost always a betrayal.