Interview with Marc James Léger, Author of Too Black to Fail: The Obama Portraits and the Politics of Post-Representation

1. What was the impetus for writing this book?

The initial impetus for writing about the Obama portraits was articles I was reading about them on the Hyperallergic website, which reports arts news in general but also has a strong identity politics orientation. This was in February 2018, which is not too long after Donald Trump was elected to office. I was stunned that in such a short while amnesia had set in about the trainwreck that was the Obama administrations. I had written a critique of Obama in 2012 and things only got worse in his second administration. But there was the same problem with political amnesia as there was with cultural amnesia, when considered from the perspective of art theory and contemporary art history. There is a regression in cultural discourse that is masked in part by the way that so much has moved online or is mediated by Internet-Outernet traffic. The only person I was aware of at that time who had a correct take on the Obama portraits is the New York-based critic Ben Davis. While doing my research, I found only one similar essay on the work of Kehinde Wiley that had a similarly correct analysis, by Chloe Wyman. Too many art critics are afraid to offer valuable intelligent criticism.

In ways that I explain in the book, neoliberal elites have learned to harness identity issues and the demographics game to make their reactionary politics seem more progressive. The same thing has happened in academia but the matter is complicated by the fact that much of the scholarly discussion falls within the ambit of postmodernism. The articles in Hyperallergic that I was reading were written from a postmodern perspective, you might think, but this is already so many decades after the initial “cultural politics of representation” line within Cultural Studies that it gave me a sort of intellectual whiplash. This happens all the time but not with presidential portraiture. Of course the editorial oversight on Hyperallergic is almost nonexistent, save for the obsession with diversity. It’s a business model and that’s why many of their articles are actually advertisements for university programmes and art events.

Based on this I thought I would write a conference paper that would be suited for a Universities Art Association of Canada conference panel. Just as an aside, I recently did a statistical assessment of 2022 UAAC conference papers and found that around 45 percent of the presentations at the moment are about race and related issues, like nationality, diasporic cultures, decoloniality and Indigenous issues. Gender, LGBTQ and other identity issues account for around 15 percent, body politics for around another 15 percent, community politics 8 percent, ecology 6 percent and class issue under 4 percent. Regarding the latter, I would say that none of these were from a Marxist perspective and some of it is conservative and liberal. That’s not different from where things were in the 1990s but since the 2008 crisis and Occupy Wall Street it’s harder for the postmodernists and neoliberals to ignore class issues altogether.

Before 2018 I was already dealing with the class and identity debate in relation to how the Trump presidency was being blamed on the working class. I had written a few critiques of “victim politics” that were based on the work of Slavoj Žižek and Alain Badiou, and relating this to my work on avant-garde cultural politics. I was also spurred at that moment by Mikkel Bolt Rasmussen’s book Trump’s Counter-Revolution, which I understood perfectly but didn’t agree with entirely. Mikkel and I share an interest in the radical critique of socially engaged art and other institutionalized art practices. And so a conference paper turned into an essay and then a book. I left out of the book an essay on three films that I will be publishing instead in my book that is tentatively titled Cinema So Woke, after the #OscarsSoWhite campaign. That essay compares the films Black PantherBlackKklansman and Sorry to Bother You. It develops many themes that illuminate the Obama portraits, like the politics of hip hop and afro-pessimism, but I had to hem things in a little to keep Too Black to Fail focused. The final version is already very long and it’s thanks to an independent publisher like Red Quill Books that I didn’t have to chop it in half, which is what another publisher had suggested.

Not to embarrass anyone but another publisher sat on Too Black to Fail for 14 months before sending me a backhanded dismissal of the project. About three months of this delay was due to COVID-19 lockdowns but most of it was skullduggery. You have to think too that this is around the time of the George Floyd protests and I criticize Black Lives Matter in the book. This is also, if I’m not mistaken, before Adolph Reed avoided being cancelled by some DSA groups for more or less the same reasons, though he has a legitimately public profile. My book was turned down by many left publishers and several university presses. I also had difficulty finding people to endorse the book. Someone I know was told to not endorse my book until he had tenure. How it is that other scholars knew that I had asked this person for an endorsement and the fact that those other scholars would bother to reach out to him to prevent something that should not be a career killer gives you an example of the reality of woke cancel culture that too many on the left, including one of my favourite musicians, Billy Bragg, think does not exist and is only a problem of the right. I describe some of related issues in my book Don’t Network. All this tells you something about how the micro and macro-politics of identity issues in the age of intersectionality, decoloniality, critical race theory, etc., have become splinter issues on the left and in progressive circles more generally. And the split works in favour of the political middle that has led to no progress to speak of on the most important life and death issues. In this context culture ceases to be a weapon used by the left and becomes a narcotic.

Sadly, there aren’t very many who want to tackle the full extent of this problem on the left, save for invective against Trump and the fascist right, which does very little to advance a broad-based left movement because it protects the extreme neoliberal centre. Doubling down on identity, as Reed puts it, will not help the people it’s presumed to help. Look at what that has done for abortion rights, for example, and the rest of the issues that were on the Bernie Sanders platforms. What the right understands better than the left is how identity conflicts divide the working class. I’m glad to think that there is a better appreciation of this on the left today than there was when I started writing the book. It’s a slow process and the conversation often restarts at zero. Because of that we need more well-conceived campaigns that can remake mass movements on the left, as opposed to ad hoc single-issue coalitions.

2. Why focus on the Obamas? Hasn’t the former president recently come out publicly about the limits of identity politics?

I’m not focused on the Obamas per se. For one thing, the book is focused on the Obama portraits. From there I address how culture plays a role in macro-politics and in electoral politics. I have very little to say about Michelle Obama, but I do have an entire chapter on the Obama administration. People like Paul Street have been saying the same kinds of things I write in that chapter, but what I bring to the discussion is the focus on class in relation to identity politics. A thinker like Žižek, who combines Marxist cultural theory with psychoanalysis and philosophy, and who has a deep understanding of how post-Fordist social relations and postmodern post-politics informs ideology does work that is closer to what I’m doing than, say, someone like Noam Chomsky who focuses almost exclusively on history and policy. I’m also writing something that is not in the post-Marxist jargon of discursive historicism, like the work of Asad Haider for example. Historical and dialectical materialism has been colonized to a certain extent by postmodernism and we should retake that ground.

In the conclusion to my book I mention the publicized discussions that Obama had with young people about the shallowness of woke culture, which is typical of Obama’s post-racial and post-representational politics. It’s like what Richard Wolff (or is it Chris Hedges?) says about capitalists: they have to include some truth in what they say so that they can pass through their conservative values. I wrote in this regard a critique of John McWhorter’s critique of “third wave anti-racism in his book Woke Racism, which does just that, and which was reprinted by friends of a comrade affiliated with the DSA ( But Obama did not only recently come out against identity politics. Obama’s post-race politics, which is nothing new, is successful because it addresses the universalism that allows him to take a selfie with Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. His capitalist politics, however, are ultra-conservative. This allows for two different but interrelated phenomena: black neoliberals like Ta-Nehisi Coates and Michael Eric Dyson can champion Obama as a continuation of the Civil Rights legacy, and ostensibly left advocates of racial justice like Briahna Joy Gray can think that Obama is a good role model for the black American underclass, all the while ignoring that Obama made these people more worse off than when he took office. People like Jesse Jackson wanted to believe that Obama represented change but that prospect ended the day after his election in 2008. People like Adolph Reed were right about Obama well before most people had heard of him. That should tell you something that postmodern identitarians never consider – namely, that it’s possible to be right or wrong about something.

3. As a Canadian writer, what is the global extent of the types of black politics you describe as they seem, at first, endemic to the United States?

That’s an interesting question for many reasons. The cliché in Canada is that when the American elephant sneezes the Canadian mouse catches a cold. There is also in media studies the cliché that “Americanization” defines what happens to a given country when it is taken over by the United States, with Canada as the choice example. I lived in Ottawa in the 1990s and saw how the cultural sections of Sparks Street, the Byward market, National Gallery and Museum of History were taken over by military signifiers, first with the NATO Peakemaking Monument, which is all over our currency, the new US (bunker) Embassy, the Diefenbunker and other bronze statuary that is a result of the Republican reaction to the effective anti-war power of Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial. The bloodthirsty capitalists have culture on their agenda and the way this works is by monetizing everything and relating that to the marketing of identity and national constituencies. Žižek once said that because the US is the world’s mafia enforcer of capitalism, every country on earth should be allowed to vote in US elections except Americans. This book was written in that spirit even if I actually look at things in the old-fashioned sense of international class solidarity.

Much of the identity politics you have in Canada, even among new social movement people, which is a global and not a national politics, is that the exceptionalism that defines American history, culture and politics extends to the identity politics that come out of the US. The US is very successful at exporting its culture and at the same time circumscribing foreign cultural and intellectual influence. Think for example of Thomas Frank who defines populism and homegrown and having nothing to do with Karl Marx. The problems of the US are not reasons for me to be proud to be Canadian or other kinds of gloating. The workers have no country. There is no reason in this regard to think that the problem of exceptionalism should be used to limit our analysis, especially since this is only one of many other problems. The focus should stay on the critique of capitalism. If class remains central to your analysis, but not exclusive, then you are ballpark playing for the winning team.

4. What is the single largest challenge to attain what you describe as universal emancipation?

I’ve edited a book called Identity Trumps Socialism: The Class and Identity Debate after Socialism. It has essays by most the people I consider to be the leading advocates of emancipatory universality. It’s due out next year with Routledge. It has essays by Alain Badiou, Slavoj Žižek, Jacques Rancière, Bruno Bosteels, Vivek Chibber, Barbara Foley, Nancy Fraser, Adolph Reed, Cedric Johnson, Walter Benn Michaels, David Harvey and Jodi Dean. Among the many challenges we face, the largest challenge to emancipatory universalism, as I see it, is the fragmentation of the left. People on he left care so much about changing society that we fight more amongst ourselves. Our greater interest in culture and theory makes us less active in the world than we should be, which is not an argument against theory and culture by any means. Problems around identity politics as the solution to the various forms of oppression cover over these problems and make them worse.

5. How do you understand the connection of the left to woke culture?

This is a bigger topic that I want to address here but that in a nutshell is the essence of Too Black to Fail, as well as my book Bernie Bros Gone Woke and Identity Trumps Socialism. One of the issues is the shift from micro-politics and civil rights discourse to postmodernism and the attack on universality and Enlightenment, which are today denounced as Eurocentric. Another issue that relates to discussions about the professional-managerial class is rise to hegemonic status of the petty-bourgeoisie habitus in the postwar period. This latter topic I first advanced around 2006 in an essay titled “Welcome to the Cultural Goodwill Revolution.” I was not surprised to later discover that what was for me only theoretical speculation was substantiated by sociological and statistical research. There are other versions of this, like Boltanski and Chiapello’s work on the new spirit of capitalism, or the David Brooks idea of bobos in paradise, and Angela Nagle upped the ante on this issue when she described how the souring of countercultural logics made it useful for the alt-right. I’m now working with the idea of “decadent Marxism,” which I use to understand the rise of the extreme right. If at the fin de siècle of 1900 people were turning away from bourgeois decadence towards socialism and later – mistakenly and catastrophically – fascism, people are now looking for an alternative to petty-bourgeois decadence. The problem is that they don’t know it because it’s a problem that they don’t perceive it. Another problem is that once you have explained this to people, they can react in a regressive way and turn that knowledge into a tool of extortion or stupidity rather than into something that can help devise social and collective strategies.

6. Conservative pundits have had a field day with “woke culture.” Are you concerned about the politics of a similar critique from the left?

No, I’m not. Notwithstanding the dialectic of Enlightenment and that sort of critical theory work, which I ascribe to as well, I believe in Enlightenment progress and universality. You can learn far more from Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud than you can from Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze, whatever their appeal. Jean Baudrillard was not half as interesting as his teacher, Henri Lefebvre. What concerns me, in old-fashioned communist language, is the fate of humanity and the building of a new society on an egalitarian foundation. The left cannot afford to make the fear of conservatives and the right into an alibi for backsliding on left politics, as was advocated a while ago by Jacobin editor Bashkar Sunkara in The Guardian. The struggle over the meaning of “wokeism,” or whatever you want to call it, is split between its postmodern and new social movement understanding, and its universalist understanding. Postmodernists like Robin D.G. Kelley want to think that universalists of the left and right are strange bedfellows. People who think this way make the mistake of conflating communism and fascism. That means that they are thinking like a liberal or a fascist, since a communist would never make that mistake. If you consider that postmodernism is beyond left and right macro-political distinctions then there also, you’re probably not a socialist or communist. The left does not have anything to gain from being concerned with what conservative pundits think about anything and I think in that regard that too much left media is caught up with their antics. It’s easy to see that conservatives thrive on adversity. That’s their game. The left thrives on solidarity in opposition to capitalism and that’s how you win. Having said that, the left must defend all of society from the conservative and fascist assault on civil rights and the gains of the past. We can criticize woke culture from the left without worrying that this contributes to the right.

I have written another book that was first conceived as an addendum to Identity Trumps Socialism. That book provides a class analysis and critique of the several contemporary strands of identity politics: identity politics per se, radical democracy, left populism, privilege theory, intersectionality, critical race theory and decoloniality. I then examine the critiques of identity politics across the political spectrum, including postmodern, so that this problem you pose can be better elucidated. It’s hard to take all of this in all at once but that’s what we’re expected to do when cancel culture and woke wars are thrust upon us. I recommend that we not be in too much of a hurry to tear down the statues of Marx and Engels, or even Washington and Lincoln, if we have nothing better to replace them with. A statue of Obama? I don’t think so.

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