Bringing Down the Master’s House Jack Halberstam on vertiginous capital and Kavanaugh

How do we bring down the master’s house? What tools are available to us that do not benefit the very system we are railing against? These were the central questions of  professor J. Jack Halberstam’s fourth and final keynote address of the Global Critical Pedagogies Conference, hosted by the Amsterdam Centre for Globalisation Studies (ACGS).1

The lecture, titled “Anarchitecture, Bewilderment and Critical Pedagogies”, covered a wide array of subjects, diverging in many—at times hard to follow—directions. Audre Lorde’s infamous quote: “For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” (1984), however, provided something tangible to hold on to during the one-hour event.  Halberstam invited the audience to focus on the second, lesser-considered part of this quote; to emphasise the challenges faced in dismantling the master’s house.

In this context, Halberstam made clear, the master’s house is our era of neoliberalism and white patriarchy, in which “every day a new travesty of justice, a new police-authored crime, a new violent executive order is issued on behalf of those who have everything against the many who are divided and conquered”. Thinking with Lorde’s quote, Halberstam posited  that often, in endeavoring to resist, we become deeply emerged in and attached to strategies that do not have the desired outcome. For him, this is because we use the tools of a system designed to benefit the people we are working against.

While Halberstam offered a list of possibilities — become illegible, become bewildering, tear it all down — they do not seem to give us much to work with.

Introduced here was the concept of vertiginous capital. While Halberstam did not define this concept, he did explain what it does: vertiginous capital makes things move so fast that we do not have time to properly identify the systems of oppression that  hold us and twist our strategies of resistance back upon us. One example of a vertiginous process he offered was gay marriage, which despite having become a global concern, he argues, has lead only to assimilation and “changed nothing in terms of class and the lives of queer people (of colour); ultimately leaving the same people out in the cold.”

The question then becomes: What other strategies do we have? While Halberstam offered a list of possibilities — become illegible, become bewildering, tear it all down — they do not seem to give us much to work with. After someone in the crowd pointed this out, he replied that for one, we have “a little thing called queer theory”. To illustrate how queer theory might function as an alternative strategy, while simultaneously providing an example of a way the master’s tools have failed to bring down the master’s house, Halberstam then introduced the Brett Kavanaugh case to the discussion.

Brett Kavanaugh is a prime example of someone who could not be stopped by the system, because the system works so well for him. After Kavanaugh was nominated by President Trump to become Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, professor Christine Blasey Ford testified in a hearing that he had sexually assaulted her in high school. She was then followed by two other women who also spoke about sexual misconduct on his part. Despite these painful efforts, the Judiciary Committee that questioned both Blasey Ford and Kavanaugh still voted to send the nomination to the floor and the Senate subsequently voted to confirm his nomination to the Supreme Court.

Following Halberstam’s argument, Blasey Ford’s resistance proved futile in trying to stop Kavanaugh from securing a position on the Supreme Court because it forms part of the master’s toolbox. The judiciary system can only ever work in favour of the master’s house, and its inhabitants — like Kavanaugh.

Halberstam argued that the the strategy of trying to take Kavanaugh down for what he did as a teenager is ultimately ineffective, because “what he did as a teenager is what they all did”. Inevitably, the next man lining up will have a similar history. While we seem to be under the impression that Kavanaugh’s is an extreme case, an instance of toxic masculinity, Halberstam suggested that we might use the tools of queer theory to understand that it is actually a form of ‘everyday’ normative masculinity embedded in heteronormativity. That, according to him, is what we should really be critiquing, but has never taken hold.

Although the lecture as a whole sometimes provided little room to get a firm grip on how the disparate strands tied together, this final example – and with it the final message – was not only clear, but also inspiring and disruptive in the best possible sense. It is time to find new weak spots and most of all different tools, to collectively unbuild the master’s house.

  1. Halberstam is a full professor in both the Department of English and Comparative Literature and the Institute for Research on Women, Gender and Sexuality at Columbia University in New York, NY. His books include Female Masculinity (Duke UP, 1998), The Queer Art of Failure (Duke UP, 2011), Gaga Feminism: Sex, Gender and The End of Normal (Beacon Press, 2012) and, most recently, Trans*: A Quick and Quirky Account of Gender Variance (University of California Press, 2018).