In a December 11, 2018 op-ed piece in the New York Times, Frank Bruni wrote about Trump as “the most powerful reject in the world.” As the author of The Reject, in which I sought to theorize the eponymous figure through readings of key texts in modern French thought, I was obviously intrigued. Bruni’s precise observations of Trump as being “unwanted” or being shunned, almost all round politically, and of him having a “talent for repulsion,” attacking, offending, and exiling people, do indeed characterize him as a “reject.” Following Bruni’s observations, and according to the rhetoric of my book, I would say that Trump assumes both the passive aspect of the “reject,” that is, the aspect by which he or she is targeted to be marginalized, abandoned, or banished, and the “reject” in its active aspect, by which he or she first exercises a force of rejection on others such that they subsequently regard him or her as a “reject.”
Obviously sympathetic to the figure of the “reject,” I would, however, be extremely hesitant, almost resistant even, to consider Trump as one such figure; I would even reject him, if you will, as a possible candidate for such a figure. This is because, for me, there is also a third aspect to the “reject,” a reflexive aspect, where he or she turns the force of rejection around on him- or herself. As I have explained in my book, this is not a self-destructive or self-annihilating gesture; it is even a regenerative one, by which the “reject” refuses to hypostasize him- or herself on a singular thought or disposition, allowing him- or herself to think new thoughts constantly. But there is a more critical stake to this reflexive aspect, and it is an ethical one: in rejecting him- or herself, the “reject” leaves a space for others, allowing others to speak, deferring to the perspectives of others. The “reject” here is conscious of both his or her passive and active aspects, and seeks to play down the latter. The reflexive aspect, then, is also a form of humility for the “reject.” I certainly do not see this reflexive aspect, this humility, in Trump. And I seriously doubt that Trump even sees or considers himself a “reject” in any sense. So, I would not consider him a true – in the sense of bearing all the passive, active, and reflexive aspects – “reject”; neither would I want him to come to stand for such a figure, which would mean the forgetting of real “rejects,” “rejects” such as ourselves and others who are not “powerful” at all, who possess no power, and/or who have no desire whatsoever for power.
Having said that – and Trump is not an exception here, being a “reject” is something we seldom acknowledge, or else something we are quick to relegate to oblivion. Yet, is not being a “reject” what each and every one of us would have experienced at some point of our individual lives? Some of us have experienced being rejected from certain social circles, rejected in love, or having had our college, graduate school, postdoc, then job applications rejected, and so on. Often, we do not want to be reminded of these previous selves of ours, which we now find no longer acceptable or avowable, and that is why we might be quick to forget our “reject” selves. (It has to be acknowledged, though, that such forgetting sometimes is for good measure, especially when it pertains to the trauma of remembering how one had been unfairly, if not cruelly, treated; forgetting, then, might be a way to move on, to leave the traumatic past aside, instead of being held captive by a debilitating memory.) However, when we try to evacuate the “reject” within us, we also sometimes forget how we, in our turn, have likewise disdained certain overtures of friendship, resisted certain amorous advances, considered a job applicant not to be a “good fit” to the organization. Worse, we might even be quick to label others “rejects” in negative terms, rendering them the passive “rejects” and banish from our circles, from all considerations. In general, we have been suspicious of embracing the “reject.”
Things have been gradually changing, though. Without yet explicitly articulating the term “reject,” we are beginning to rethink “rejects” in ways by which we no longer shun them, discriminate against them, or even persecute them. In the Humanities, we have been highlighting the significance of nonhuman animals and disabled beings in transforming the ways we view and interact with the world, while previously they were considered unworthy of critical discussion. So, today, we have established fields such as Critical Animal Studies and Critical Disability Studies. We have seen similar affirmations in popular culture too, beginning with Glee or Big Bang Theory or New Girl some years before, all of which are sympathetic to “rejects.” And in the domain of politics, especially in activist movements, did we also not, in the Occupy movements of 2011, declare ourselves “rejects” when we claimed to be the 99%, that is, those rejected of the riches enjoyed by the 1% because of unequal wealth distribution and irresponsible banking practices? Did we not do so too in the Black Lives Matter movements, protesting against police brutality targeting unarmed Black Americans? Are we not doing it again in the Yellow Vests movements in France recently?
The above examples from popular culture and political movements suggest that something positive can arise from “rejects.” “Rejects,” in the face of denigration by others, can still see to something positive or hopeful: they can, in drawing attention to their existential conditions that are no doubt shared by many others elsewhere, help initiate changes in the world, such as those that lead toward the critique, if not the end, of inequality. Changing the world may be too ambitious a goal for the “reject,” though. Besides, “rejects” typically do not consciously give themselves such goals: a grand ambition is almost never on their horizon. Yet, the “reject” can make small but significant steps in improving human-to-human relations. That can take place if we begin thinking, or else recalling, ourselves as “rejects,” and not continue labeling others “rejects.”
What does it mean, then, to think oneself a “reject”? Emily Winter, in another piece that appeared not long after Bruni’s in the New York Times, “My Year of 101 Rejections,” does have her own take on it. In my view, I would just reiterate that thinking oneself a “reject” is to constantly remind oneself that there is always the possibility that one’s ideas, actions, and perspectives are not accepted by, or acceptable to, others. That gesture itself makes us attuned to others around us, as opposed to insisting on every thought to be focused only on oneself, or to making everything to be about oneself. With that, we also begin to stay our hand in pushing our thoughts through; we refrain from forcing our way through with our actions. We begin to defer to others; we begin to respect others and their views. We also begin to recover or (re)cultivate a sense of humility – something that the philosophers Costica Bradatan and Eugene Thacker are advocating today in view of its being much lost along the way of human “progress.”
Perhaps it is an autobiographical part of myself in linking the “reject” to humility. After all, Asians, especially Singaporeans such as myself, have been known to defer to others. (I have to say, though, that this is regrettably a rare occurrence today, as the greater tendency lately is to assert oneself in an overly confident manner, which oftentimes veers toward projecting a sense of entitlement.) But I have also seen the trait of deference in non-Asians too. While living in Princeton in 2013-14, I stayed in the vicinity of Quarry Street, where a sizable number of the Hispanic population live. I saw them walking on Quarry Street on a daily basis, either going to, or coming back from, work. Most of them hold jobs as cleaners, cooks, or janitors in the Princeton area. You wouldn’t see them enjoying the luxury of relaxing at the park in Palmer Square, or having lunch or playing with their kids there (not even on the weekends), as the wealthy white folks do. You wouldn’t see them dining at the swanky restaurants that line Witherspoon and Nassau Streets either, but see them working as busboys or cooks, of and with whom, you, as diners, are seemingly meant not to see much or interact.
But back to Quarry Street: a recurring scene that always disturbed me was seeing the Hispanic residents there stepping off the sidewalk, almost always like a reflex, to make way for the bigger, taller, white men (many of whom, I was quite sure, didn’t even live there). What was disturbing was seeing how the latter almost never uttered a word of gratitude, nor offered a smile in acknowledgment of the Hispanics’ gestures. Instead, their dispositions were often one of an air of cold arrogance, of an elevated sense of superiority or entitlement, as if only they had the right to be on the sidewalk, as if others, that is, the Hispanic folks, did not exist; and even if they did, they should make way.
There might have been a history that has made the Hispanic population on Quarry Street behave that way, and I admit to an ignorance of that history. But history aside, and I would say that thinking oneself a “reject” does not need to be conditioned by a history of being a “reject,” I don’t see why the rest of us cannot return the gesture and make way for these Hispanic folks. On my part, I did, and what always unfolded was a smile on both sides, or else a word of sincere gratitude from either side. In my experience, all these really gave walking on Quarry Street a very friendly and hospitable atmosphere. Perhaps it was a case of a meeting of “rejects” (I do indeed consider myself a “reject” on many counts, but that is another story), but, again, I don’t see why this cannot come to pass even with those who have no histories of being a “reject.”
Might the world be a better one, one that is more accepting of others, and more hospitable to them, should we be humble and begin to say: we are all rejects. With that collective murmur (us “rejects” would have been conditioned not to proclaim loudly, to shout, not even to chant), perhaps “the most powerful reject” might even finally begin to see himself as a “reject,” finally acknowledge the “bitterest taste […] of rejection,” and maybe stop violently rejecting others, the migrant caravan included.