Higher Education

CESA 2011: Critical Ethnic Studies and the Future of Genocide: Settler Colonialism/Heteropatriarchy/White Supremacy: A Major Conference UC Riverside, March 10-12, 2011

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!)

13 replies on “CESA 2011: Critical Ethnic Studies and the Future of Genocide: Settler Colonialism/Heteropatriarchy/White Supremacy: A Major Conference UC Riverside, March 10-12, 2011”

adept review, but i have to say that i wonder about the opening referents to ‘scavenging for food’ and looking for shade, which seem to invoke, again, the divisions between nature and culture that this conference might have better disrupted generally. from my perspective–albeit from the ‘wilds of ottawa’, which isn’t actually at all ‘wild’ but is rather the capital region of a country that has, incidentally, just declared war on libya–well, i think that the plenary speakers, most of whom (almost all of whom) have tenure, were rather protected from a crowd that was ready to be galvanized rather than disparaged by admonishments about how silly it is to seek academic tenure in times like these, and/or how little their contributions could be valued given the careful staging of the “event.”

@mw: there will always be complainers – no event is perfect. rather than whine about it, get involved and help organize the next one! many of the tenured plenary speakers have been denied tenure at various institutions for taking the kinds of risks they asked the audience to take. let’s take whatever we can get from amazing gatherings like this one, and try to avoid the nitpicking. (if the nitpicking really seems necessary, then i hope to see someone with the initials “mw” on next year’s organizing committee – much more difficult to organize a conference than to passively/anonymously complain about it afterward!)


if there’s no possibility for q&a during the conference, how exactly would one talk back to its organizers other than to “complain about it afterward”?

and how, exactly, is complaining about something “passive”? sitting back and shutting up, as your no-less-anonymous (at least to those of us far outside academia enough to not recognize cryptic initials, no matter how ornamental a professorship they’re attached to) reply suggests, seems a damn sight more passive to me.

also: “there will always be complainers”, “whine about it”, “nitpicking”, etc. this is *rather* familiar rhetoric to anyone who’s ever confronted a liberal in a position of power who’s being called on the gap between their rhetoric of transparency and inclusion and their actual practice. and is exactly why most of us who’ve done that more than once don’t usually make the mistake of thinking it’s in any way useful to “participate” rather than critiquing.

or, more concisely put.

Sorry, but how is it possible that you completely forgot to mention Cathy Cohen’s magisterial talk, which not only posed a direct theoretical and political challenge to the entire queer plenary panel, but was also THE ONLY talk during the entire conference to receive a standing ovation from the audience??? There might not have been a Q&A period, but the audience did not wait to make itself heard after Cathy’s talk. If you weren’t there, you missed the best talk of the conference. And if you were, but chose not to mention it, then clearly your blog is reproducing some of the same silencing effects you are commenting on.

Let me make it clear that I was there for every single talk on every single plenary, from 9 am Thursday to 9pm Saturday – were you? I mentioned the bits of the conference that stood out to me, that is my right as the person writing the blog! That said, I did enjoy Cathy Cohen’s presentation but I do not agree that it posed “a direct theoretical and political challenge to the entire queer plenary panel” – nor was one necessary. I loved what Cathy had to say about the classifications of queer bodies that only work to claim this or that person as a “queer” victim of crime but that do nothing to address the structural inequities that single out all kinds of bodies as threats. I was less keen on the part about “accessible language” because I thought most people at that conference came with clear talks and wanted to be understood. I also appreciate a range of levels of accessibility rather than one standard. Finally, I think it is much harder to write accessibly than it is to call for people to write/speak in accessible ways. Cathy’s own talk was wonderfully complex and rich and I would not have wanted to lose a single bit of its density. As someone who tries really hard to speak in a range of registers, I appreciate it when others do too. I don’t appreciate it when someone simply calls for plain talk while themselves weaving very complicated narratives.

Thank you for your insightful post. As an undergraduate at UCI, I was shocked by the $150 registration fee ($50 for those under a certain income level I believe) and simply could not attend due to monetary issues. Although I understand the need for such a fee, I’m curious if the structure of the conference itself was critiqued or highlighted as being inaccessible, both financially and rhetorically.

@cameron the registration fee was $50 for early registration, and was raised to $100 after November 1, and spiked to $150 for last minute registration. in my experience, conference fees usually range from 50-80.

while i agree that $150 is an exorbitant amount, $50 is pretty reasonable, considering the amount of time and effort it takes to put on a conference of that size (from inception to completion, it took 2 years to organize). at one point, i think it was jodi kim who stated that none of the plenary speakers received an honorarium (compensation) for their talks. which is pretty dope, considering the line ups and how many of them there were.

so where does the money go? well, since i’ve never organize a conference i couldn’t tell you with one hundred percent certainty. but my hunch is:

-UCR’s fee for renting so much space and AV equipment over the course of 3 days
-the opening reception (catering)
-design and printing of programs, posters, and other printed materials
-not to mention all the labor needed to facilitate all of the above (the people who actually do the designs, the people who come help fix the AV equipment when us book worms can’t figure it out, the people who clean up the messes we make)

and depending on how the conference was structured, flights to bring speakers from out of town, etc

now, i’m not sure if the core organizers were compensated for their time or not. of course, it would be “noble” for them to have not been paid for this. but realistically, 2 years, hundreds of sleepless nights, time away from families, etc deserves a little compensation, don’t you think?

i say all this only because i have worked in a creative commercial capacity and i absolutely hate it when i have told people my fee and they say point blank: “that’s ridiculous! i wont pay that much!” at which point i simply tell them: “ok, have fun doing it yourself.”

like i said, i agree that $150 was super high. but $50 is fairly reasonable.

anyway. just my $0.02.

Prof. Halberstam,

I was hoping you could clarify the comments you made about tenure (briefly, that many who had it did not deserve it) during the “Professionalization and Praxis” plenary. They struck me as awfully disappointing at the time, though it’s quite possible I have misread your point.


I am not sure what would be “disappointing” about the comments. My point was simply that academia has a lot of benefits (flexible work schedules, protection of permanent employment and the privilege to read and write for a living) and that sometimes people abuse those benefits and use their protected status to police the work of others. Many tenured professors deny tenure to others who are much more talented than they are and become gate-keepers for the profession and the discipline. Basically, my point was and remains, that tenure is supposed to protect people to produce ideas that are not necessarily easy or already accepted and part of the status quo – to the extent that you are not taking risks with your work and your academic practices as a tenured professor…you do not need tenure. That is not the same as saying that people don’t deserve tenure or some people don’t deserve tenure. But it is a way of reminding us of the purpose of tenure. JH

so let me try to recreate it.

my comment on the comment on our comment on the conference was not, even in my reflexive opinion, “whiny” or “complaint” like. therefore, i don’t think its just a matter of “getting involved” (and, hello how presumptuous to assume that this is not the case? did you even ask about our various involvements or investments, or were you too busy praying at the mantle of your Favorite Theorist?) let’s not forget the forgetting of LABOUR that is necessary to INTERVENTION. rather than casting it off as whiney or complainy, recognize it as WORK. work that is, by the way, generally treated as JANITORIAL or CUSTODIAL (and so both left and right feel ok in disparaging it, ironically enough, right, given the racialized labour politics of marginal and expendable labour?) Meanwhile ripping off Lady Gaga or Fanon (instead of thinking about one’s own political position) becomes incredibly lucrative, with 1000+ people clapping along, not thinking about the terrible, and violent ironies, honoraria are collected in the name of star system representation and draw. TALK ABOUT REDISTRIBUTION.

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