Excerpt: ‘The Language of Progress’, by Chad Parkhill


Season One of BROW TALKS, presented in conjunction with RMIT’s non/fictionLab, will conclude with Chad Parkhill’s lecture ‘The Language of Progress’, to be held next Wednesday April 26th at non/fictionLab’s Urban Writing House (RMIT City Campus Building 80.01.08), 6pm for 6.30pm. To whet your appetite for this event, here’s an excerpt from ‘The Language of Progress’. As with the other instalments of BROW TALKS, this lecture is free, free, free – all you have to do is RSVP to rsvp@theliftedbrow.com.

A long stretch of U.S. Route 285 runs north from the border between Texas and New Mexico. This is not a particularly scenic part of the world – it is mostly comprised of flat plains, and when my partner and I drove through it in winter, the grass was brown and frostbitten. Most of the industry that we could see was oil extraction – ‘nodding donkey’-style oil wells covered the land from horizon to horizon, broken occasionally by flare stacks shooting gouts of flame. The billboards that straddled Route 285 as it ran through this landscape told a story of human misery: one advised its readers to keep Naloxone, a drug used to counter the effects of opioids, on hand at home in case a friend or family member has an overdose; others advertised the services of personal injury lawyers for those who had been involved in accidents with the petrol tanker trucks that comprised much of Route 285’s traffic. Sections of the highway were dedicated in memoriam to people killed by drink driving accidents.

We were in the United States in December of 2016, during the interregnum between the November 9th election and President Donald Trump’s inauguration on January 20th of this year. At this stage, while Barack Obama was still, technically speaking, in office, so much of the talk we found ourselves engaged in with Americans was about Trump’s stunning victory. ‘Stunning’ in the literal sense – so many of the people we spoke to seemed still stunned by this implausible turn of events, over a month after it had occurred. There were no shortage of theories about what had caused the unthinkable to happen—the pernicious influence of Facebook-enabled ‘fake news’, Russian hackers and paid trolls, James Comey and Wikileaks, the undemocratic nature of the Electoral College—but precious little introspection about what had turned voters away from the nominally progressive Democrats and towards a race-baiting demagogue.

It might come as no surprise to discover that the counties that lie along this stretch of Route 285 swung hard towards Trump, even though Democrats eventually carried the state of New Mexico. This corner of America—like the coal-mining areas of Pennsylvania and Ohio which also went to Trump—relies on the extraction of fossil fuels for its dwindling economic livelihood. Its inhabitants are immiserated by booze and prescription opioids. Yet progressive politics has little time for such people. In a piece written before but widely shared after the 2016 election, Dr Stacey Patton declared that she has “no sympathy” for the “angry white men” who would go on to vote for Trump. Markos Moulitsas Zúniga, the progressive blogger better known as the ‘Kos’ behind Daily Kos, told his readership to “Be happy for coal miners losing their health insurance. They’re getting exactly what they voted for”. Australia’s own Clementine Ford perhaps put the prevailing left-liberal feeling most succinctly: “we’ve heard a lot about the rust belt and the poor white working class folk whose discontent with the system had been underestimated. You know what? F— those people.”

Saying “F— those people” may make us feel better. But it will not prevent a second Trump term, nor will it help us on the left counter the rise of reactionary political movements the world over.

Last year saw democracies around the world elect regressive and reactionary leaders (Donald Trump, Rodrigo Duterte, the return of Pauline Hanson) or enact reactionary political programs (Brexit). These events, and the possibility of similar events in the near future, have created a crisis for progressives. How can we build progressive alliances and solidarity across identity groups and between different worldviews? How has the neoliberal project impacted the language and concepts we use to articulate a progressive and just vision for the world?

This lecture will examine discourses of contemporary progressive politics to argue that the language we use to articulate these politics is inadequate to the task of combating global reactionary and regressive political movements. Drawing upon the analysis of performative speech acts and performativity developed by queer theorists such as Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Judith Butler, it argues for concrete changes in the ways progressives talk about, and therefore think about, their politics – away from a neoliberally-inflected politics of the oppressed self, towards a politics of contingent solidarity.

Chad Parkhill is a Melbourne-based cultural critic who writes about sex, booze, music, history, and books—but not necessarily in that order. His work has appeared in The Australian, The Guardian, Junkee, Kill Your Darlings, The Lifted Brow, Meanjin, Overland, and The Quietus.