Anatomy of an Anti-Disciplinary Riot
By Jack Halberstam
1. Des(s)ert Of The Heart
This past weekend in Riverside California, with little edible food close at hand and desert winds blowing in from the East, some 1500 people gathered to scavenge for food, look for shade and discuss new intellectual and political formations loosely associated with a “Critical Ethnic Studies.” While the grumbling began before the conference about whether there was such a thing as an “uncritical” Ethnic Studies and whether this was perhaps just an oedipal uprising of the new against the old, the conference itself showcased a wide variety of work from scholars young and less young and certainly offered up multiple models of new disciplinary forms and new paths to follow without discarding all that had come before. Some people also found food at notable local haunts with wistful names like The Salted Pig, Phood on Main and Subway Sandwiches.
2. High Heels, Long Drop
The grumbling after the conference, the post mortem of an anti-disciplinary riot if you will and even if you won’t, seems mainly to have focused upon the endurance aspect of the meeting – the dawn til dusk scheduling, the 2 hour long plenaries, the uncomfortable seating, and the conference fashion trend of very high heels, worn by women type people as well as men type people this not being a queer conference after all – but also, predictably, about the star power of the plenary sessions and the divisions between academics from prestigious institutions and those from community colleges, the ethnic diversity of the speakers and the aforementioned shoe choices.
3. Can The Sub-Lectern Speak?
The plenary sessions consisted of 5 or 6 speakers, all of whom were asked to speak for 15-19 minutes each, and, on every plenary, after the last speaker finished, whether with a whimper or a bang, the event was over. In other words, there was no Q and A, no discussion and no opportunity for people who had been sitting and listening for over 2 hours to speak back to the panel. With audiences of 800 plus people, perhaps Q and A was inevitably a doomed enterprise to begin with – would the questioners just be drawn from that odd genre of people who use the Q&A mike as a place to give their own mini lectures? Would the size of the audience intimidate the more interesting respondents? Would Q&A quickly degenerate into a cataloguing of what was missing from the plenary panel? Would anyone get a word in edgeways once the question had been posed and the panelists all rushed to answer it? We will never know the answers to these questions, or others like them such as how does Ken Wissoker seem to manage to tweet your talk even before your give it?
Conference attendees Melissa White and Dan Irving, who traveled from Ottawa to be at the conference, had strong feelings about the plenary events: “the forming of an alternative “we” within the Academic Industrial Complex,” they write, “was compromised significantly by the way that the plenaries were organized” with no opportunity for the give and take of exchange through Q&A sessions. They continue: “This complicity with the good old fashioned neoliberal notions of professional expertise and entrepreneurial “risk”-taking—or alternatively, perhaps, Revolutionary Vanguardism Part Two (everyone knows the sequel is never that good)—was in stark contradiction the spirit of social justice, radical democracy and queer disruptions of business as usual that we thought this conference was supposed to facilitate.” Others, however, felt differently and thought that the plenaries were a real draw and that everyone, for once, seemed prepared and took the event very seriously.
4. Provocations, Manifestos, Questions
Despite all the complaints about the “star system” that circulated before and after the conference, undoubtedly many people showed up for it precisely because it was jam-packed with people doing notable work, on and off the plenary panels. Some of the speakers on the plenary panels used their time to issue provocations and to try to shake us out of the complacency that universities, conferences and academia in general produces in abundance. For my own contribution to this “major” conference, I offered up a short manifesto drawn from the insights and writings of others and amplifying the calls I found there for socially relevant, intellectually electrifying and disciplinarily defiant work. My manifesto ran through The Coming Insurrection, “The University and the Undercommons” (Moten and Harney), Ranciere, Da Silva, Lindon Barrett and The Fantastic Mr. Fox in that order and concluded by seeking insurrectionist possibilities in the whimsy of stop-motion cinema and its foregounding of the wild, the unthinkable and the fantastic. Given that I had to give my talk moments after the audience gave a collective groan at the announcement by Jodi Kim (in crazy heels) that Angela Davis was sick and could not make it, the manifesto went over ok. My talk was followed by brilliance from Denise Da Silva herself (author of the immensely influential Toward A Global Idea of Race), more provocation from Sarita See on the corporate university and a warning about environmental degradation, misuse of the land and issues around sovereignty from Dakota scholar and Indigenous studies professor Waziyatawin.
Several plenary speakers tried to speak to the insurrections in the Middle East and both Lisa Hajar and Nadine Naber used powerful and controversial images to call our attention to the impact of US backed wars in the Middle East, and to the violence in Gaza, Egypt and Lebanon. Hajar focused on torture in her plenary and Naber tried to bring some formulations from contemporary queer theory to bear upon activism by queer Arab groups. There was much discussion after each presentation about whether it was ethical to leave up disturbing images of violated bodies as backdrop to a lecture.
Some of the plenaries were very coherent – the queer plenary for example, and the plenary on Settler Colonialism and White Supremacy – and others were more disjointed. The queer plenary was a kind of love fest at the start, with each speaker on the panel (Ferguson, Gopinath, Camacho, Naber, Munoz, Cohen) receiving a fabulous introduction by Jayna Brown followed noisy and boisterous applause. The event at that point felt more like an episode of American Idol than anything and the speakers did not disappoint, each one singing their favorite song while looking poised and fabulous.
It was Jose Esteban Munoz, however, bullyblogger and bull dogowner extraordinaire, who had to ask the question that was on the tip of everyone’s tongue but that remained unspoken until now, half way through this marathon conference: as he rounded the corner from a brilliant critique of the much-cited argument byWendy Brown from States of Injury about wounded attachment (resentment, ressentiment and wounded attachments had also received a blistering critique from Glen Coulthard earlier in the day), Munoz began a gentle appraisal of the rise and fall of performance artist Nao Bustamente in her recent participation on Bravo TV’s “Work of Art” reality show. He paused for a moment and then dropped the bomb: “What do you wear to “The Future of Genocide”? The conference attendees held their collective breath and then moved from nervous laughter to applause. Tweeters grabbed the question, held on for dear life and then gave a range of answers to this sartorial conundrum, many focused upon Jody Kim and Jayna Brown and their shoes.
Other highlights from the plenaries included: Andrea Smith’s blistering indictment of the attempt to eliminate Ethnic Studies in Arizona – Smith reminded us that Ethnic Studies is what we are and what we do and cannot be “eliminated” by any legislation; Lisa Lowe’s elegant formulations of new genealogies for a Critical Ethnic Studies (Benjamin, Fanon, Sylvia Wynter); Dean Spade’s insightful remarks on transgender issues, neo-liberalism and white supremacy; Laura Pulido’s brave exposure of USC’s attempt to dismantle American Studies and Ethnicity and, last but not least, Dylan Rodriguez’s moving round-up of the event on the last day, the last plenary – his impassioned plea to look beyond the rhetoric of inclusion and agreement, his evocation of intellectual ancestry and his call for dissensus and collectivity through difference.
And the brilliance, needless to say, was not at all exhausted by the plenary presentations: notable panels included a discussion of Critical Ethnic Studies in relation to activism in Detroit with Shana Redmond, Sarah Haley and Stephanie Greenlea; lots of panels on the Occupation of Palestine; workshops on Prison Abolition; LGBT Politics and Deterritorialization; a powerful discussion of “Racial Neoliberalism, Necropolitics and the Question of Violence” featuring Grace Hong, Chandan Reddy and Jodi Melamed; an intriguing panel on “Mobility, Settlement, Belonging and Coloniality” featuring a powerful presentation by Katherine McKittrick on racial geographies and a controversial paper by Nandita Sharma that raised the question of whether the rubric of “settler colonialism” flattens out distinctions between different kinds of migrants and whether indigeneity might sometimes be a site for the production of racial antagonism.
On Saturday, there was an exciting panel on “Culture, “Racisms and War” featuring Paul Amar (who has blogged around the world about the Egyptian revolutions) on Brazil, Macarena Gomez-Barris on the Mapuché struggles in Chile and Jayna Brown on violence and Black diasporic creative resilience. Environmentalism, youth, the academic industrial complex and the histories of radical movements rounded out the packed agenda.
5. The Afterparty
So, you kinda get a sense here of how big this conference was, how wide its range and how ambitious its scope. What you cannot know is how hard everyone worked to make it happen, how stressed the plenary speakers were given the stakes of the event, how uncomfortable it was to sit for so long in a gym and how much energy the conference generated even as it left people tired and hungry by its end. As the conference attendees drift back to life as usual in places far from this hub of suburban mini-malls, the question of “what now” still hangs in the air – what forms of intellectual mayhem can stall the corporate university’s emphasis on profit? What can renegade knowledge forms tell us about prisons, settler colonialism, white supremacy? Are these the most useful categories with which to confront the challenges of our historical moment? What are the relations now between knowledge and power? And, of course, the still unanswered question, from now on to be known as the “Munoz Paradox,” “What does one wear to the future of genocide?” (Tweet this kwissoker!)