The Ideology of “Progress”

16 Apr

As part of my research for a new project on collaborations between poets and musicians, I have been taking saxophone lessons. In particular, I want to avoid making generalities about improvisation, so I’m learning how to develop an approach to jazz improvisation, which requires learning the basic idiom of modern (that is, post-bebop) saxophone. It’s humbling, but I am making progress.

Progress, to the degree that learning the bebop idiom means for now actively selecting against other approaches and idioms, is fundamentally conservative. I think in broader terms conservatism most profoundly names an unwillingness or inability to see one’s own present living conditions and the possible futures (including national and racial particularity) as accidental, contingent, or anything other than ideal. One progresses to the degree that one develops more of a particular worldview and actively selects against others. That selection can harden, and those other life worlds and desires can simply come to seem mistaken.

If this definition is correct–I’m confident of it in matters of cultural production, but haven’t thought it through very carefully in other domains–then one should not be so surprised when the “liberal” or “progressive” commenter says something obscene, which usually amounts to actively selecting against other people–women, non-whites, queer or disabled people most often–who do not neatly fit a narrative of national development.

The rhetoric of progress covers over the fundamentally conservative processes it names. I’m thinking of the concern James Baldwin rights about in The Fire Next Time that black people fear they are integrating into a burning house, or the concern Du Bois named before him:

He [the Negro American] simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spitupon by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face.

And because I have written about Parks’ Venus, I keep thinking about a moment of self-congratulation among the Chorus of the Court:

[I]t is very much to the credit of our great country

that even a female Hottentot can find a court to review her status.





Especially with regard to race, the rhetoric of race is at once an apology and a demand to forget, to give credit to “our great country” to which the racial other still has little legitimate claim at the level of its self-mythography. At the same time, “progress” is a low bar given that history. In Venus, the Venus (based on Saartjie Baartman) is no longer displayed as a non-human oddity when she faces the court for indecency, but she is not free. The play reminds us “The year was 1810, three years after the Bill for the Abolition of the Salve-Trade has been passed in Parliament. Among protests and denials, horror and fascination the show went on.” The show The Negro Resurrectionist mentions is the display of The Venus, but also chattel slavery.

“The show goes on” is probably a more accurate name for “progress,” though that’s not what people mean. Yes, this country no longer allows the sale of human beings as chattel.  It is no longer legal to rape an enslaved woman then sell your child. Black men and women are no longer lynched and burned alive for trivial offenses like making eye contact. Now, when a man is late coming home, one doesn’t assume he’s been lynched. Neighbors burn fewer crosses on black lawns. No more separate entrances or special sections on buses and trains where the blacks are allowed to sit.

I wanted to write that black families are safe from being split for profit, but the for-profit prison industry dampens my optimism. That black boy or girl is probably safe from lynching, but will he or she be suspended more often? Will the poorer performance resulting from such discontinuities in education lead “even” liberals and “progressives” to draw on bunk science linking race and intelligence? Will s/he be presumed criminal and murdered by a vigilante like Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Renisha McBride, and too many others to name? Will that black girl or boy appear to all as a child? Will their childhood be celebrated as other childhoods are in this country?

Given our history, we should not celebrate progress, or we should not only celebrate it. We must honor those who have pushed for the few grudging changes we’ve seen, but we must never forget that given where this country, and modernity itself began, it is hard to imagine it being worse. “Civilized” countries have used the others it created (in the process creating themselves as nations) as relatively cheap labor to drive down labor costs for others. The question is not just how far “we” have come, but who is implied and actively excluded from that we. What more still needs to be done.

For those who might point to the election of Barack Obama as an emblem that the preceding is insufficiently optimistic, his election is indeed significant, and we are right to note its significance, even as we must not be mistaken about what it signifies. Barack Obama is, by the standards of this country, supremely well-positioned to be successful. Excellent school pedigree, ambitious, handsome, Christian, married with two beautiful children. Like Johnson, and unlike Bush, he didn’t come from money, but worked and moved from one class position to another: he is the very paragon of U.S. self-perception. If he were not elected, that would mean that a majority of Americans let their color prejudices cloud their judgment. Obama is everything that a certain conservative nationalist view appreciates: his dress, his pedigree, his manner of speech, his ideology and his income all reveal a real embrace of the national myth, which he thus embodies. This is a “nation of immigrants” where “anyone” who “works hard and plays by the rules” can succeed, even to the point of being the President.

This is a notion of progress that, at its core, is fundamentally conservative: there’s a very narrow range of imaginative possibility and acceptable development. Thus, the controversy is always will he use drones against American citizens or will the illegal NSA dragnet affect American citizens—there is insufficient care for those others, required by modernity, for whom bombing or violation is an important step in their becoming more like Americans. Perhaps his actions would be more vigorously protested if he didn’t fit so perfectly a larger, more important narrative of progress. Certainly he would if, as many continue to fear, he decided to disarm whites, or deal with the ignorant protestors at Bundy Ranch as one might expect the government to (especially if they were black, or non-white). But though we call them “conservative” what is at stake in a sense is no less than control of the national narrative.

Learning about that story, I remarked on twitter that vigilantism is baked into the very soul of a country founded on the violent expropriation from those deemed non-human, meaning the Negro, invented as a category of constitutive exclusion from humanity, and the indigenous populations deemed not irrational, but not rational either. I would add that vigilantism also follows from the narratives by which these acts of originary violence continue to be justified. Vigilantism follows from the continued production of the non-human as the foil to national projects.

What remains is what I heard Gayatri Spivak call the non-coercive rearrangement of our desires to produce a will for justice that encompasses the world. More simply, let us recall the words Curtis Mayfield sang: “we can be freer still,” we can imagine a more capacious “we” located somewhere outside the conservative enclosure of our fetishes of progress.

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