Concepts like “the male gaze” and “controlling images” are Gender Studies 101 material: they’re the basic terms in which many feminists understand the media’s oppression of white women (in the case of the male gaze) and black women (in the case of controlling images). The gaze and controlling images are how white supremacist patriarchy subject women to its control.
But I think contemporary social media and big-data political economies are using different devices to control women, especially black women. Social media and big data facilitate a specific form of sexist racism, one that controls women through racialized discourses of toxicity and unhealthy behavior patterns. Instead of turning women into objects and/or erasing their agency, social media and big data let non-white women do and say whatever they want, because their so-called “aggressive bullying” produces the damage against which white women demonstrate their resilience. A similar claim has been (in)famously leveled against “feminism,” especially “intersectional feminism”: it vampirically drains the lifeblood of the progressive, radical left.
What’s specific to the construction of WOC, particularly black women, as “toxic”? Or feminism itself (often represented by ‘intersectional’/WOC feminism) as ‘vampiric’? What about social media, and perhaps even to Twitter, makes the unruliness/threat posed by WOC to white women/white feminist culture industry function in a very particular way, i.e., as toxicity and vampirism? How is the construction of women on social media as toxic/vampiric related to economies of viral upworthiness?
Resilience: So, everything I’m going to say below presumes familiarity with my concept of resilience discourse. It’s one of the main themes in my forthcoming book, but for a tl;dr, check here and here. From the first link:
“Resilience” means recovery that is profitable for hegemonic institutions, like capitalism and white supremacy. Individuals and groups can recover, survive, cope, and flourish in ways that don’t (adequately) support hegemony–but those don’t count as “resilience.” Resilience is a specific form of subjectification that normalizes individuals and groups so that they efficiently perform the cultural, affective, and social labor required to maintain and reproduce a specific configuration of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. More simply, resilience is the practice that makes you a cog in the machine of social reproduction.
One economy–the literal, capitalist economy, and the more abstract economies of multi-racial white supremacist patriarchy, of aesthetics, of ethics, and so on–is premised on creative destruction (to use Harvey’s term). Developers redevelop areas that don’t maximally contribute to the interests of the capitalist elite, just as artists remix, in retromaniacal/xenomanical/just plain appropriative ways, the sounds of “other” times, places, people. As I’ve been writing about a lot, resilience discourse and therapeutic culture generally is also a form of creative destruction: what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger. The eternal return is the means of production.
The eternal return is also about affirming potentially toxic (think about Nietzsche’s own language, his metaphors of illness, swamps, indigestion, priestly poison, bad conscience, ressentiment, bad air) states and affects. Turn a “no” into a “yes.”
First I want to look at the way various groups of feminists are constructed as toxic or vampiric. There are two (in)famous essays that do this. First, Michelle Goldberg’s “Feminism’s Toxic Twitter Wars,” which describes the “dysfunctional, even unhealthy” culture of Twitter feminism as “toxic. Indeed, there’s a nascent genre of essays by people who feel emotionally savaged by their involvement in it—not because of sexist trolls, but because of the slashing righteousness of other feminists.” This toxicity drains the “revivifying” boost the internet gave to feminism. It does so by establishing a constant tenor of fear among digitally-engaged feminists. Goldberg highlights this fear throughout her article. However, this constant state of anxiety and readiness is, as I will argue, not a bug so much as a feature. It is the normal and desired state of affairs in resilience discourse.
Second, there is Mark Fisher’s equally infamous essay “Exiting the Vampire’s Castle,” here he accuses feminists of both (a) propagating ressentiment that amplifies “depression and exhaustion” and prevents people from properly, resiliently overcoming, which in turn (b) obscures class consciousness behind identity politics. In order to contest neoliberal capitalism, we have to, in Fisher’s view, organize “in an atmosphere of comradeship and solidarity,” one in which “people feel good about themselves.” That is, class consciousness requires us to overcome and bounce-back from identity-politics style “guilt and self-loathing” (e.g., like white guilt). In other words, Fisher’s arguing that “good” radicals will embody Nietzsche’s idea of the eternal return: we ought to positively re-value sources of pain, divisiveness, and guilt. We must, in other words, overcome. But is this class solidarity the effect or outcome of exiting the vampire’s castle (VC)? In other words, does Fisher’s argument naturalize the VC as the ground of class solidarity? Must there always be vampires for “us” to overcome, a castle full of “bad air” from which we demonstrably exit?
In both essays, feminists, especially feminists of color, are tasked with manufacturing the raw materials–negative affects like guilt or anxiety–on which “good” subjects labor, and, through that labor, generate human capital (e.g., radical cred, moral/political goodness, proper femininity, and so on). They bring us down so we can then perform our upworthiness for liking, favoriting, clicking, sharing audiences. Resilience is part of the means of production, and the “toxicity” of WOC feminists is the first step in this supply chain. Black women do the labor of generating the toxicity that then becomes the raw material upon which white women work; white women do the affective/emotional labor of overcoming, which then translates into tangible employment (writing gigs, etc.).
Suey Park’s essay in modelviewculture shows how this works. Goldberg’s essay is, as Park puts it, one of the most prominent symptoms of “an effort to gentrify digital spaces in the name of safety and dignified discourse is sweeping the Internet, hoping to cleanse “pollution” by erasing undesirable influence.” White feminists subject WOC feminists to something like a controlling image of toxicity and disease so that they, the white feminists, can be seen as uplifting the online community into something respectable and safe. However, what she calls “gentrification” I actually think is resilience. Resilience and gentrification are similar, but there are important differences. I’ll explain the difference between gentrification and resilience once I explain Park’s argument.
Building on Whitney’s work on MySpace and gentrification, Park argues that
Twitter is the new MySpace: a “dangerous” online “ghetto” that threatens white middle-class users. In other words, by not being a segregated space, Twitter is marked as an unsafe space for the white middle-class user who has to share a platform with people of color, especially when whiteness and privilege are made visible.
There are material differences between Twitter and Facebook. It is generally understood that the latter reproduces already existing networks of friendship and acquaintance, whereas the former is more open to interactions across conventional network-boundaries. The material constraints and affordances of traditional networks of friendship and acquaintance have been carefully adjusted to maintain the safety of white users and white supremacy. Viewed through the “gentrification” paradigm, the material constraints and affordances of Twitter have yet to be fully domesticated by and for white supremacy–Twitter is still a bit too “native” or “wild” and needs to be cleaned up.
However, if we view this through the lens of resilience discourse, the material constraints and affordances of Twitter seem to be specially designed to incite and amplify toxicity. Opening white women and children to ‘attack’ from non-white “bullies” actually works in the interest of white supremacist patriarchy. “Toxic” black women generate the damage that “good” white and “model minority” women then resiliently overcome. Patriarchy thus kills two birds with one stone: it uses otherwise privileged women as the tools by which it further oppresses the most precarious, multiply-marginalized women. From this perspective, Twitter is an engine for generating, channeling, and amplifying black femininity as the toxin for which “good” women (women that, as Goldberg describes, are “earnest and studiously politically correct”) are responsible for cleansing from society (cleaning up always is women’s work, right?). Analyzing Twitter toxicity as an instance of resilience discourse clarifies how “good” white femininity is designed to perform the work of anti-blackness. Anti-blackness has long been one of white femininity’s jobs; it just takes a new form in resilience discourse. Instead of securing and protecting us vulnerable white women from the evil black threat, MRWaSP leaves us vulnerable to so-called “threats” so that we can demonstrate our agency, our independence, our post-feminist subjectivity in bouncing back from and eliminating that threat.
I totally agree with Park’s read of Goldberg’s article; I just think “gentrification” isn’t quite the correct lens through which to view the problem of “toxic” feminists. The gentrification narrative implies eventual domestication and securitization: the point is to get rid of the toxic, decrepit, crumbling elements and make them ‘nice’ again. Resilience discourse normalizes toxicity and decay–even though individuals learn how to deal with them, they never go away. (In part because individual cures never solve systematic, institutional problems.) In fact, hegemony produces some women as toxic so that others can be resilient; it’s like the virgin/whore dichotomy rewritten for Lean-In digital feminism.
Park emphasizes this fact. The toxicity narrative treats WOC as themselves problems, not people with problems: they can cause toxicity, but they cannot experience it. Thus, “the invoking of ‘toxic’” obscures and naturalizes the precarity faced by WOC. Digital social media actively produces minority populations as unhealthy and pathological. For example, Flowingdata’s “Where People Run” maps visualize jogging routes recorded by fitness tracking apps. Here is my city, Charlotte NC:
I live between the two faint little scratches midway down the far right of the image (around 3:00 if this were a clock face). It looks like nobody walks, runs, or exercises in my neighborhood. And this is patently false, because I walk my dogs at least once a day, and see plenty of people out exercising too. Our activity is illegible as “healthy behavior” because it is illegible to big data and the institutionally-authoritative researchers (corporations, universities, governments) who use it. So, this whole swath of East Charlotte looks “unhealthy,” especially as compared to our wealthier, whiter neighbors across Independence Boulevard in South Charlotte. This map, the visualization of fitness tracking data, actively produces communities of color (my zip code is majority black and hispanic) as unhealthy, pathological, and, indeed, toxic.
So, part of the reason I think resilience is slightly different than gentrification is that gentrification is the revamping and eventual elimination of existing damage, whereas resilience involves the active production and maintenance of specific populations as damaged and damaging, or, as virally toxic.
From this perspective, Fisher’s essay ironically and unfortunately makes more of the “toxicity” that resilience discourse demands. Arguing that “the Vampires’ Castle is best understood as a bourgeois-liberal perversion and appropriation of the energy of these movements,” Fisher misidentifies the feminisms that have been co-opted by the neoliberal bourgeoisie: it’s not the vampires, but the Leaners-In, not those full of ressentiment, but those who are brilliantly and spectacularly overcoming. (And, importantly, its precisely Lean-In feminism that obfuscates class.) The eternal return is part of the means of capitalist production and MRWaSP reproduction, and Fisher’s essay has bought into it. Decrying “the VC’s work of constantly stoking up reactive outrage,” Fisher’s essay basically victim-blames “toxic” feminists for embodying cultural labor that’s foisted on them–sort of like how anti-black rape culture blames black women for embodying the controlling images the white male gaze foists on them.
Social media is, at least in part, an affective economy of upworthiness. Resilience generates both human capital and capital capital (often in the form of data that’s sold to third parties or targeted advertising). It distributes gendered, racialized labor in very specific ways: white women overcome the damage produced by women of color, thus cleansing teh interwebs and making it a sparkly, feel-good place for everyone else…just like moms always do. This also produces a hell of a lot of money and privilege for white women and MRWaSP capitalism in general.