The Specters Of Dave Chappelle

The following contains many ideas first written about in Lupus Draganowl’s pamphlet ‘Against Identity Politics’ which I’ve liberally borrowed from to the extent that this could be considered far more of a detournement of an existing piece as it is an original work the aim being to use recent events as a useful jumping off point for a wider discussion on Stirnerite philosophy and it’s implication for a politics of liberation. Despite the fact that I’ve included many of the concepts which could be considered the core of the pamphlet, I would highly advise reading the original pamphlet however which goes into far more detail on the application of these ideas to various left-wing political movements.

Like many who have been disappointed by Chappelle’s recent output I greatly enjoyed many of his earlier comedy specials, his 2000 show Killin’ Them Softly was a searing, insightful commentary on race, drug policy and the abuse of police power, however in recent times Chappelle’s output seems to have latched onto a peculiar kind of resentment which, he says, is targeted at white people but in reality seems to fall mainly on LGBT people.

There have been multiple articles, comment, posts, columns and videos criticizing Chappelle, and I don’t wish to merely recite the same arguments what I am interested in however is what Chappelle’s approach says about identity politics in general. By this I am not referring to identity politics in it’s caricatured form regularly presented as a target of opprobrium by the right, nor am I referring simply to politics of emancipation practiced by minority groups. What I’m referring to is a particular kind of person, or persons who leverages the specter of a particular identity category to obtain power over others.

To be clear, this does not class anyone from a particular identity category as someone who is engaged in identity politics nor does it categorize anyone who is principally engaged in forms of radical theory focused on race or gender as an identity politician. Rather what I am principally interested is in the aesthetics and objectives of particular approach to these categories and possible alternatives.
Much of what follows has already been written about before, the 20th century anti-colonial theorist Franz Fanon wrote about the final objective post-colonial struggle as a struggle to overcome the binaries presented by colonization and tribalism in favour of a future that better represents “..the whole man, whom Europe has been incapable of bringing to triumphant birth.”. Similarly Gloria Anzaldúa the American theorist of Chicana history argued for a more molecular, universal identity stating “We are citizens of the universe, sharing an identity at a cosmic or subatomic level which is wider than any racial or social category”.

What is a Spectre?

What haunts the universe, and has its occult, “incomprehensible” being there, is precisely the mysterious spook that we call highest essence. And to get to the bottom of this spook, to comprehend it, to discover reality in it (to prove “the existence of God”) — this task men set to themselves for thousands of years; with the horrible impossibility, the endless Danaid-labor, of transforming the spook into a non-spook, the unreal into something real, the spirit into an entire and corporeal person — with this they tormented themselves to death. Behind the existing world they sought the “thing in itself,” the essence; behind the thing they sought the un-thing.

The 19th century post-Hegelian theorist Max Stirner defined a specter or in his work a spook as a transcendent, abstract category which nevertheless possesses and defines values and situated the problem of specters in that people appeared to value the specter and the things that benefitted specters as opposed to valuing the things they themselves desired.

In the Stirnerite framework all words categories and ideas can become specters if they are allowed to possess and dominate individuals, even those specters which refer to a particular property of an individual. If people are defined primarily as one thing, whether that be masculinity, femininity, whiteness, humanity, this according to Stirner is always alienating because the this category is always the essence and not the individual themselves. An individual, is, in this framework a processual human being an embodied subject always in the process of becoming.

From this perspective systems of oppression, whether they be racism, homophobia or patriarchy are the oppressive impositions of a specific specter. To be clear this does not render these systems any less real, but rather that these systems rely on treating a person not as a unique individual but rather as one of these these particular categories. Quite often they rely on treating people as an specific identity-category to the explicit exclusion of others, the end result being castigation or violence against the excluded identity-categories.

This is not the core of the issue however, the core of the issue is that these specters do not liberate individuals who belong to the category valued, because those who belong to such categories are only valued as an instance of that category and not individuals in their full incongruous self. Even falling into one of the categories whether that be whiteness, or masculinity will always leave aside one aspect of an individual not full encapsulated by these categories or rather prohibited by the specter.

Stirner’s concept of the unperson illustrates this even clearly, historically indigenous people often excluded from the category of human were regularly imprisoned or institutionalized due in part to another form of uniqueness being put ahead of what colonizers deemed as being human or possessing human value. The often hierarchal nature of these categories is regularly used to obscure the initial imposition of reifying an individual in the process of becoming to an abstract category.

White or male privilege then is  owned by the specter and not of the existential set. Against does not mean that these things do not exist, rather that their essence exists outside of the individual they are associated with and as a consequence can be subtracted if, an individuals behaviour is deemed not to conform to the overriding idea about a specific category. This can be further explicated by Agamben’s ideas of the sovereign, where a political ruler can decide which aspect of society can be  deemed to conform to the essence of the specter and as such be afforded representation as a ” person” defined by Agamben as (qualified life) and who sits outside of this category “the un-person” (bare life).

While Agamben drew plenty of criticism, some of it deservedly so for his heated polemics against the COVID-19 measures, the recent uptick in measures that target not COVID itself but the unvaccinated do show, to some extent, this divide between who or what is afforded the status of qualified life and who is excluded from this category.

The Closer is Haunted

Man, your head is haunted; you have wheels in your head! You imagine great things, and depict to yourself a whole world of gods that has an existence for you, a spirit-realm to which you suppose yourself to be called, an ideal that beckons to you. You have a fixed idea!

I suspect what I’m about to say next may already seem apparent to many. Chappelle’s most recent specials are full of specters and the one(s) which are becoming the most dominant are closely related to the LGBT community. He regularly criticizes the community for possessing white privilege which eludes the fact that not only are many members of the community from different ethnic backgrounds but those are often the people most at risk of violence or social discrimination.

It also sidesteps the fact that many of those have in fact suffered from exactly the kind of un-personning referred to earlier, whether it be refusal of their right to legal and social recognition, access to healthcare, habitation or employment or in some regions the right to exist at all. For Chappelle focusing on the specter of whiteness eludes the complexity of the lives of individual trans people not least those who are not white. Far from being a criticism of the nature of various social justice movements many of whom could rightly be said to unfairly prioritize people from a specific racial identity-categories instead he characterizes those social justice movements as themselves the products of whiteness.

Even the sadly deceased Daphne Dorman is at the end reduced to largely to a particular specter with Chappelle referring to her as a part of his community, the community of comedians. This is of course true in a sense, however she was also, a transgender woman and a parent the former of which, as has been pointed out many times would leave her more susceptible to many forms of legal and social discrimination which as pointed out by her friends, most likely had a bearing on the struggles she faced.
Again Chappelle side-steps this focusing mainly on Dorman’s defense of his comedy and the backlash which he claimed was, at least partly responsible, for her death.

Speculating on the reasons why someone has committed suicide has always seemed distasteful however given that those who were close to her offered different explanations, it seems that again telling her story in the manner that Chappelle did meant elevating aspects of her life above others and ignoring the various and interlocking elements which formed a crucial part of who she was as a person.

Against the Specter

Whilst I’ve illustrated the problem posed by specters with this single example the point I and other critics of Chappelle are making is broader, the nature of these often complex, often hidden forms of discrimination require a response that is nuanced and empathetic. Chappelle’s focus on whiteness reveals that simply trying to define one or more axis of oppression as the primary contradiction, has it’s limits as praxis for liberation.

His subsequence appearance at a school where in response to criticism of the attitude he expressed towards trans peoples he commented on the violence faced by black people, revealed the urgent requirement to reach across these categories, to discover in others and ourselves the power of a subject always in the process of becoming and of being if not in this moment but eventually undefinable, and irreducible and to make this the basis of the construction of a praxis for real freedom as stated by Labroniks Cuboniks in Xenofeminism “We need new affordances of perception and action unblinkered by naturalised identities.” and as stated by Draganowl we need a world without specters.


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