The Whats, Whys, Wherefores, and WTFs of "Wokeness"
Or this is your brain on the intellectual version of crystal meth
Although use of the term “woke” has been gaining momentum over the past five years, it is only recently that there is earnest, and broad-ranging, controversy over what the word actually signifies.
How you spin the term depends on your political predilections. Although the expression has its inception in the Civil Rights movement going all the way back to the 1930s (i.e., “best stay woke” about the threat of racial persecution), it took on new meaning and revived currency with the rise of Black Lives Matter in the previous decade. To be “woke” meant for a black person to watch out for police harassment and brutality.
Almost overnight the phrase became, as Vox writer Aja Romano explains, “a shorthand for political progressiveness by the left, and as a denigration of leftist culture by the right.” But this politically promiscuous misprision of African American slang was first engineered by the left in an effort to conflate popular demands for racial justice with other social issues such as the #MeToo movement and gender-related bones of contention.
In a stinging critique of this trend toward appropriation of black causes by white progressives, Boston culture critic Alex Beam acidly observed that “the real purpose of woke is to divide the world into hyper-socially aware, self-appointed gatekeepers of language and behavior, and the rest of humanity”. It was at that point conservatives began to use the term in the routine polemical manner that has become commonplace today.
It has become a badge of honor even more recently among to progressives to deflect the brickbats hurled against them by conservatives by denying their own deep complicity in the cultural appropriation of the term. Their standard line of attack is that “woke” simply means what black people initially intended it to mean, and how could anyone be against the quest for racial justice?
Aside from its blatant hypocrisy, which certain political progressives have perfected as an art form, the real question is the degree to which democracy in the more profound sense of the term is threatened by the control of language. Beam makes the point that the constant effort on the part of the credentialed cognoscenti to decree what is acceptable speech and what is not, as in the recently ridiculed Elimination of Harmful Language Initiative, is actually a ploy to reinforce class differences with those who are supposedly “hyper-socially aware” having a kind of sacral authority over the unenlightened masses.
But such excessive “awareness” may be the problem in itself, and offers a major hint of what is insidious about our current preoccupation with “wokeness”. It is a no-brainer that African Americans, given their history, should be keenly alert to racist distortions of the justice system as well as persistent and subtle forms of discrimination and mistreatment. That, of course, is what the sophisticated and highly nuanced academic literature on “critical race theory” was intended to bring to our attention before it became a shibboleth on both sides of the political divide.
But “awareness” can be pathological as well. One can be conscious and awake (i.e., “woke” in the everyday meaning of the expression). But one can also be high on amphetamines to stay awake to the extent that one suffers also from feelings of grandiosity, anxiety, paranoia, or depression that sometimes borders on psychosis.
I would argue that “wokeness” fits best the latter rubric. As a trope it is profoundly analogous to the overstimulated brain on cocaine or crystal meth. Minor slights, predictable human failings, or natural inequalities can come to be perceived as monumental instances of injustice. Enduring social problems are reinterpreted as intractable, as “structural”, as baked into the system without any chance of redemption.
The Austrian philosopher Robert Pfaller in his book Adult Language: On Its Disappearance from Politics and Culture attributes the spread of “wokeness” among global elites to a means of domination that can only be achieved when the prevailing form of economic production is words and signs. The fantastic paper wealth generated over the last two decades by social media companies whose “product” happens to be nothing more than the construction of a digital hippodrome in which every surly private affect can be verbalized and exalted to the level of public performance is a key indicator of this trend.
According to Pfaller, wokeness is an insidious type of “cultural appropriation” of the revolutionary hopes of the marginalized and the destitute on the part of our present day cognitive elites, who substitute “language change” for real social and economic change. These elites are purveyors of the view “that words themselves somehow might suffice for deeds and that through altered speech a residual alteration of behavior will come about”.
Pfaller notes that it is university culture that is now the manufacturing site for the mass production of the symbolic tokens that make up the currency of the neoliberal world system, an argument quite similar to the one I myself have made .
Such a system is preserved by making ever more importunate claims on our attention in much the same way that the advertising industry discovered during the early 20th century that the secret to sustaining industrial output in a macroeconomic context was to make people long for things they had not previously cared or dreamed about, or to drive them to obsession with concerns that did not previously matter very much.
The vintage ad below for Listerine from 1924 is an example. Bad breath was a foible about which any member of polite society had always been quietly vigilant. But from the end of World War I to the height of the Cold War Madison Avenue propelled the unprecedented growth of an industry in breath sweeteners from gargles to mints to toothpaste, all of which were designed to exacerbate and play upon the fears of American consumers that they might destroy a relationship or fail to advance in a career because of the apocalyptic scourge of halitosis.
It would not be too extreme to deduce that the tactic is similar to that of the present day corporate outrage industry – so-called “woke capitalism” – that has made millions in making ordinary people feel uncomfortable about their everyday lives and attitudes.
Phenomena such as racism, sexism, or homophobia are very real and do in fact, as serious and “critical” academic inquiries into the subject matter remind us, subtly worm their stealth ways into the physiognomy of social relations. Yet when every little discrepancy or discomfiting inflection of moral judgment is automatically labelled “racist” or “sexist” or “homophobic” such reckless abuse of language manages to trivialize the issue at hand and inhibit real action that might ameliorate the situation.
Pfaller terms this tendency the “the postmodern politics of minute differences”, whereby tiny but contested semantic spaces, as opposed to the very real and highly intricate social problems they indicate, now become a hellscape blasted out by rhetorical trench warfare with devastating emotional consequences for the average onlooker.
“Wokeness”, therefore, according to Pfaller (who does not actually employ the English locution “woke”) is the substitution of self-indulgent psychodrama for political action, the confusion of one’s overwrought personal sensitivities with the more difficult and demanding task of striving to make a visible difference in the world.
Pfaller’s take is quite similar to the one advanced by the Berlin-based American philosopher Susan Neiman in her new book Left is Not Woke. Wokeness has hijacked the radical democratic agenda of promoting “social” as well as economic rights, she argues, by replacing effective policy with operatic gestures. “Even without raw exploitation of what began as progressive goals,” she writes, “woke has become a politics of symbols instead of social change”.
Furthermore, woke “begins with concern for marginalized persons, and ends by reducing each to the prism of her marginalization.” As a result, the notion of “social justice” itself functions as a kind of weasel word. She writes:
Woke emphasizes the ways in which particular groups have been denied justice, and seeks to rectify and repair the damage. In the focus on inequalities of power, the concept of justice is often left by the wayside.
Wokeness is what the French social theorist Pierre Bourdieu dubs a “performative narcissism” that hides its shallowness and political inconsequence behind a posture of moral authoritarianism. Its most glaring shortcoming, according to Neiman, is that it sacrifices the universalistic mandate, which throughout history has been intimately bound up with the clamor for justice, for a “tribalism”, or identitarianism, where “people, of whatever kind, see the fundamental human difference as that between our kind and everyone else.”
To be “woke” in our current social syntax, therefore, is to engage in a kind of witless parody of the word’s original intent. Neiman harps on the theme by pointing out what were once “progressive” talking points have been co-opted at a global level by authoritarian regimes.
Wokeness is the very absence of any refined social or political awareness. Real politics seeks to cross identitarian boundary lines and forge alliances in the service of ever more expansive human projects.
“Our challenge,” writes Andrew Doyle in his critique of wokeness, “lies in restoring the need for nuance”. Nuance these days appears to be an increasingly scarce commodity.
But it has always been the artisanal craft of higher education, which desperate needs to commit itself anew to restoring.