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Reitman vs. Ronell: Rethinking the Role of Gender and Patriarchy in Sexual Harassment Cases

7 Sep

By Nefertiti Takla

[NOTE: DEAR READERS – BULLYBLOGGERS HAS HOSTED A LONG SERIES OF ARTICLES ON “BAD SEX.” TITLE 9, AND SEXUAL HARASSMENT. WE DO SO NOT TO PARTICIPATE IN THE CURRENT POLARIZING STRUCTURE OF DEFENSE VS. CONDEMNATION BUT IN ORDER TO BROADEN THE CONVERSATION ABOUT #METOO, TITLE IX VIOLATIONS, THE EXPLOITATION OF GRADUATE STUDENT LABOR, THE SHIFTING CONDITIONS OF LABOR IN THE UNIVERSITY, PUBLIC INTELLECTUAL DISCOURSE, TENURE/TRACK STATUS AND ELITE PROFESSORIATES. 

WE REMIND READERS AND FOLLOWERS OF THIS BLOG THAT THE “BULLY” IN OUR NAME CAME FROM THE LATE José Muñoz’s BELOVED DOG, LADY BULLY. WE DO NOT CONDONE BULLYING, OR MOBBING. 

WE WELCOME YOU TO THE SITE AND ASK YOU TO READ THE ESSAYS HERE AS REPRESENTATIVE OF THE AUTHOR’S OPINIONS AND NOT NECESSARILY REPRESENTATIVE OF EVERYONE INVOLVED.] 

THE ESSAY PUBLISHED BELOW BY NEFERTITI TAKLA ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON HER OWN BLOG “FEMINIST INTERVENTIONS.” WE REPRINT IT WITH A FEW CHANGES WITH HER PERMISSION. 

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The recent Title IX lawsuit filed by Nimrod Reitman has brought to light existing debates in the feminist movement. In a patriarchal society, is sexual harassment simply an abuse of power that can be perpetrated equally by men and women, or is it a product of institutionalized sexism and violence against women? Should gender be ignored in cases where a woman is accused of sexual harassment by a man, or is gender always a signifier of power? (By woman and man, I am referring to the legal recognition conferred to either sex within a binary gender system in relation to the context of the law. I am not referring to social, cultural, and biological categories that are always shifting in extra-legal contexts.)

Historically, sexual harassment has been theorized as a form of patriarchal violence that is directed at women collectively because of their gender. As Abigail Saguy explains in her book, What is Sexual Harassment? From Capitol Hill to the Sorbonne, Title IX and Title VII were laws created to fight gender discrimination, not sexual harassment. In the 1970s, feminists fought to have sexual harassment legally recognized as a form of gender discrimination due to its role in reinforcing institutionalized sexism. Gender has therefore long been central to our understanding of sexual harassment as a social and structural problem that reproduces the collective disempowerment of a particular group in society. Reitman’s lawsuit and those who support it represent a new movement to redefine sexual harassment as a gender-blind abuse of power, which effectively dissociates the problem from the framework of institutionalized sexism and patriarchal violence against women.

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As someone who filed a Title IX lawsuit against my university in graduate school, I believe that every student – both male and female – has the right to an education free from unwanted sexual and romantic advances. However, as a feminist who believes that the academy is still a patriarchal structure that reproduces male superiority, I believe that Title IX should remain a law that protects women and non-conforming genders from sexual harassment and institutionalized sexism. What Reitman experienced should be theorized as abuse that stems from labor exploitation in the academy, not the structural sexism and sexual violence that stems from patriarchy. Reitman’s attempt to seek justice through a law that was created to fight sexism on campus has negative legal implications for the feminist movement because its success would mean that men can also be victims of gender discrimination perpetrated by women. It would also mean that gender is no longer relevant to our understanding of sexual harassment. Therefore, regardless of his intentions, his lawsuit paves the way for Title IX to be used by the backlash against the feminist movement.

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On one level, I feel a connection to what Reitman has experienced. As graduate students, we felt exploited and abused by our advisors, and we felt betrayed by our institutions and their failure to protect us from this abuse. Our advisors represented the power of the academy and its ability to exclude us and destroy our livelihood at a whim. The pressure to comply with an advisor’s wishes or else drop out are rising in a neoliberal academy that intentionally creates more cheap labor than it can employ. Graduate students’ anxiety about labor precarity leaves them increasingly desperate and vulnerable to their advisors’ demands. Most graduate students are doing whatever they can to remain in their advisor’s good graces, hoping that after they graduate, their professors will fight to keep them in the system. The threat of adjunctification has made the relationship between advisors and advisees increasingly coercive and exploitative, making consensual sex or romance nearly impossible.

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On some level, abuse has always been an integral part of the patronage system in the academy. Graduate students have long endured abuse and stayed quiet about it in order to secure a position after they graduate. In a patriarchal academy, male graduate students are not only less likely to be subjected to abuse, but can afford a higher tolerance for it because they know that in the end, when they have a position, they will assume a dominant role in the structure. But the longstanding patronage system of the academy is incompatible with its current neoliberal restructuring and its transformation of graduate students into a pool of disposable wage laborers. One could argue that neoliberalism is destroying academia’s feudal structure, giving way to a class system in which professors at top universities are seen as the elite of the academy (with their critique of the moralizing middle class and its “sexual paranoia”), professors at teaching institutions as the middle class (with their critique of the debauchery and corruption of the elite), and graduate students and adjuncts as the working class (with their growing resentment at their inability to make a living). The fact that graduate students are now willing to break their silence about the longstanding abuses of the patronage system suggests that this system can no longer sustain itself. What Ronell appeared to have promised Reitman was a patronage relationship that is becoming increasingly impossible in a neoliberal academy.

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The ultimate solution to this problem is not to identify and uproot “predators” who are exploiting core features of the system, but to restructure the system in a way that gives graduate students the power to say no to their advisors’ demands without fearing the loss of their livelihood. The system enables abuse, and we cannot create a fictional divide between abusers and non-abusers. Demanding that everyone self-police through sexual assault training – or police each other through mandatory reporting – does nothing to address the structural causes of the problem. What we need to do is to fundamentally change the system to halt the trend towards adjunctification and ensure graduate students funding and employment both during and after their studies.

Although Reitman experienced an abuse of power, his experiences do not represent the structural sexism that the feminist movement has long been fighting. When I filed a Title IX lawsuit against my university in June 2015, my goal was to contribute to both the graduate student struggle against labor exploitation as well as the struggle of women against sexism in the academy. My decision to file the lawsuit came at the end of a fruitless, two-year battle to hold my former advisor accountable for sexual harassment. His sexual harassment was not a one-time offense but rather part of a longstanding pattern of sexism directed at female students and professors in general. When I first started working with him as a graduate student, he told me that he believed women only came to graduate school to marry their professors. He would comment on the looks of every single female professor we ever read in his class. Other witnesses noted that he would talk about buying underwear for his girlfriend in TA meetings. His sexual harassment of me and of other female students and professors cannot be divorced from his sexism. He believed he was entitled to our bodies, and no matter how often we said no, he continued to make sexual advances. His behavior was therefore central to the reproduction of structural sexism in the academy.

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The way in which my university handled my case normalized this male professor’s violation of female bodies. In response to the Title IX report that I filed with my university in June 2013, my former advisor received a “slap on the wrist” that resulted in no harm to his career. During its nine-month investigation, the university found that two other women in my department had also been harassed by this professor, yet their reports made no difference to the case. Instead of issuing a finding of sexual harassment, the university settled with the professor, allowing him to keep the case confidential and avoid any official mark on his record. This normalization of my former advisor’s behavior was a manifestation of structural violence against women. By protecting his career and reputation, my university left me and other women vulnerable to further harassment and retaliation.

431957_1This protection of men over women is one of the hallmarks of patriarchy. NYU did not attempt to protect Avital Ronell in the way that UCLA attempted to protect Gabriel Piterberg. Ronell was not given the opportunity to negotiate a secret settlement with NYU to protect her career and reputation. She did not take a leave of absence or resign as other male professors like Colin McGinn and Peter Ludlow did when they were accused of sexual harassment. She was immediately stripped of resources and status, and the media has been merciless in ways that we did not see in the Piterberg or Ludlow cases. Patriarchal structures shield men from the law while making sure that it comes crashing down on women. Patriarchy insists that the law must be gender blind, when in reality it is not.

The ultimate irony of this case is that the law that came crashing down on Ronell is a law that was designed to protect women from gender discrimination. Yet gender discrimination is central to the adjudication of legal cases regardless of whether the woman is a victim or a perpetrator. While NYU saw Ronell’s behavior as sufficiently abnormal to warrant discussions of her termination after the first offense, UCLA reached yet another settlement with Piterberg five years after I came forward, in response to another student’s Title IX report. Although this final settlement terminated his employment with the university, it is unclear how much money he received in exchange. The difference between these cases makes it clear that patriarchal structures normalize violations of women’s bodies until we speak out in collective anger. It takes a multitude of women to get some semblance of justice, while all it takes is an individual man. In a patriarchal society, the law cannot be gender blind. Insisting that it be so will only reinforce patriarchy.

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Lonely Planet

5 Sep

José Quiroga

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    1. From the onset, lawyers for the plaintiff argued that “Ronell created a false romantic relationship between herself and Reitman and by threat of, among other things, not allowing him to advance his Ph.D., asserted complete domination and control over his life.” The link between this “false romantic relationship” and the domination she exerted over this student is not entirely clear. But the same point is made in the “factual evidence” section of the lawsuit, where once again the “fictitious romantic relationship” is linked to “complete domination and control” over Reitman’s life. For any student of literature, the main problem with this argument is how conservative its notion of authorship is. For the “romantic relationship” just happens to unfold over emails both parties wrote separately, and then exchanged. One could imagine that in a different court of law—say, copyright law—the plaintiff would have argued for his rights as co-author. In such a case, Reitman’s lawyers would have insisted that he deserved a share of the profits of Future Miniseries X given the considerable efforts taken, on his own account, in order to keep up the narrative momentum. At this point, twenty or thirty years ago, any graduate student would have quoted Stanley Fish: “Disagreements are not settled by the facts, but are the means by which the facts are settled.”  One text understood as authored by one person is used as evidence of control and domination in a sexual harrassment case. The same text (sic), understood as a collaboration, has multiple authors that deserve to be credited in copyright law.
    2. I don’t recall a teaching assistant ever telling me that sometimes “analysis is simply denial with more words,” nor do I recall an administrator cutting graduate lines in the Humanities arguing that interpretation was unnecessary since “the text just means what it says it means.” This is because most graduate students and some administrators understand that most of the times, the text never means what it says it means. The text in the Ronell / Reitman exchange could very well stand for the absence of any romantic relationship other than the one that takes place on the page. One does not need a PhD in Literature to know this, just as one does not need to be a lawyer to understand that when the lawsuit states that there was “groping, roughing, and kissing on a regular basis” or that “Ronell would touch, grab, fondle and kiss Reitman” it doesn’t mean that at each and every instance all of these acts took place. Not every author is a lawyer, but some lawyers are authors—and some can even recall the occasional undergraduate course on D.H. Lawrence. To put it simply: this is a case about the possibility that writing alone can create facts. Thus it is, ultimately, a case about literatureDH-Lawrence.jpg
    3. In the slow-moving August news cycle, the case caught on. Or, as rendered in the ominous lead sentence of Andrea Long Chu’s essay for the Chronicle of Higher Education, “[t]he humanities are ablaze.” Chu is referring here to what Jacques Derrida would have called the “dissemination” of the case. But as Derrida himself would have warned us—and Borges before him—dissemination tends to multiply errors of fact. This point is evident in the very first paragraph where Chu states that Judith Butler, Lisa Duggan and Jack Halberstam have defended Avital in writing. That no such thing ever happened as Chu has recounted it should be clear by the time you read this text online. And it baffles the mind to believe there is really a lot of abuse in expecting teaching assistants to read the work of their supervisor. Would you go to an interview at the NYT op-ed section without at least familiarizing yourself with the work of Maureen Dowd? Would you be an intern at The Nation never having read Katha Pollit? There are photocopier assistants at The Washington Post who know about Bernstein and Woodward although they were born decades after these two penned All the Presidents Men. And Chu’s complaints about life under Ronell pale in comparison to the treatment suffered by a young intern (Anne Hathaway) under the despotic rule of a famous fashion magazine editor (Meryl Streep) in The Devil Wears Prada.rs_500x206-160624105104-500-devil-wears-prada-thats-all-062416-1485457517
    4. In this sorry proxy for the death of academia we are all living, where the stakes are so low and so inconsequential, I find myself doing a lot of extra (uncredited, unpaid) labor: from reading stacks of tenure and promotion files for institutions around the country and abroad, to serving as external referee for academic journals, and making sure that—over and beyond their work in my classes–graduate students have peace of mind and time to do the work they want to do. Yes, graduate students teach courses, which means they are workers within the university. And yes, they are also students and they are mentored by faculty. For years I find myself directing four and five dissertations, writing untold number of rec letters, correcting innumerable dossiers, reading more than my share of tenure files, and recommending others for grants when I myself should be applying for them. That this is all entirely my fault it goes without saying. “I should be meaner,” I say to myself, “I should protect the little time I have. I should not cover for those who think that advising a grad student simply means reading a completed, camera- ready chapter that someone else has edited.”
    5. I suppose like many of my colleagues I am an obsessive advisor. I will push and push students, but I know that at some point I have to let them go. So even if I think the dissertation should have four chapters and not three, I understand the pressures of the job market, the very real anxieties of student loans, and the fact that when a good job shows up at the MLA and you have a good chance at it, we all have to make our way back to the reality principle pronto. Graduate school is a challenge on many levels in the new, corporatized university–with its mid-level administrative bloat and reduced faculty lines– and I don’t blame those students who think that I can give or withhold job offers. But I’m revealing no secret by stating that this is part of grad student myth-making. The reality is much more complex, which is something I imagine Reitman heard at some point because it’s something I tell all graduate students, again and again. Most often than not, at the other end of the interview process there is a department with ten or fifteen independent minds that need to achieve a consensus. And surely, the more of an “academic superstar” you are, the more there’s people out there who resent you for a lot of things that are really beyond your control. It’s not always in your best interest to have a superstar as mentor—everybody knows that, including “academic superstars.” Hence the tact shown by Avital Ronnell meeting with Andrea Long Chu in order to make sure that “you and I are OK.” But why does Chu then turn around at a moment of public humiliation for Ronell, and cast this as a cheap Game of Thrones-like scene? It befuddles the mind of anyone who ever suffered viewing the depiction of law school in The Paper Chase.the-paper-chase
    6. Like the majority of my peers, Ive been rejected from many jobs, accepted a couple,and I myself have rejected one or two–not without regrets. I’ve had better luck than many, and have done worse than others. The times in which I’ve been forced to choose between my ambition and my principles, my ambition has taken a hit. But then again, my principles have also taken a hit every once in a while. And yes, there have been periods when I’ve spent my life in purgatorio. That’s academia these days. All of us who have worked on gender and sexuality, or on “deconstruction” or even on telenovelas and popular culture, have had to navigate through a lot of difficulties and misunderstandings in our careers. But it hasn’t all been despair, and for that we have to thank students, both graduate and undergraduate. When nothing else makes sense, I go into a classroom where I have the rare privilege of sharing some time and space with twenty, or thirty different, diverse minds. Let me give just one example among many: when the “romantic fiction” that Ronell and Reitman created via email first came to light, I remembered the joy I felt when I suggested to a brilliant graduate student the work of a man, now deceased, who was the most important Cuban writer still alive then. For many years, as an older man, the poet worked as a bagboy in a Miami Publix supermarket, and then retired and lived in a modest Miami house with his wife and their middle-aged daughter. My student and the poet hit it off, and he proposed that they write a joint epistolary “novel” based on what he called the japanese principle of the “zuihitsu” in which, according to rules which he himself had set, he would start off writing something, and then the student would continue writing whatever she wanted, and vice versa. Now that the poet is fully recognized as one of the Great Poets in an island of superb writers, this work has assumed its place as one of the last books he wrote in his life. The young woman who at that point was my student took a risk and worked on this on her spare time, while teaching her regular graduate student courseload. I can’t promise all my students that this will happen to them. But sometimes good things happen if you are receptive to the possibility of being surprised by people—and that includes French intellectuals, German philosophers, and bag boys at Publix. Here is a link to the final entry of that blog a deux Margarita Pintado wrote with Lorenzo Garcia Vega: images-2.jpeg
    7. I wish I could produce an equally beautiful ending for the Reitman / Ronell saga. I’ll let the lawyers do that, since they always end up having the final word. And in the aftermath of the messy election of 2016, we seem to have abdicated everything to them. But let me just say one thing: given the chance at writing such a perfect volume as The Telephone Book, I’d give a couple of fingers of my right hand. Go and live in that book for a while if you can. Immerse yourself in that mess, take a chill pill as you plunge in the midst of its typography wildness, in the lunacy of its ideas that are also evidence of the highest philosophical rigor, brilliantly turned upside down. And thank the higher powers that you never wrote such a book just as you were coming out of grad school. Because yes, you’ve put your brilliance out for display, but we know how stupid that is, how naïve. For the challenging work of a sharp, young woman, thirty years later turns into fodder for twitterati attacks by one segment of what is thankfully a much broader feminism. Then again brilliance, like social media, was never meant to be aligned with justice. But that’s what we old farts are supposed to be doing, no? Reminding you about history, or juggling your memory. Some fuddy-duddy thing like that. While we solemnly open our dog-eared copy of a translated Borges and have you stare for the next hour at the following phrase from his story “Tlön Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”: “At first it was believed that Tlön was a mere chaos, an irresponsible license of the imagination, now it is known that it is a cosmos and that the intimate laws which govern it have been formulated. . . “

September 1, 2018

The DeVos University Online Sexual Harassment Training Course

16 Aug

by Jack Halberstam

Dear Faculty:

Welcome to the DeVos University where our motto is: Reddere Ludere or Pay to Play.

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As part of your orientation to your shiny and new look university, we offer you our standard Online Sexual Harassment Training Course at the end of which you can choose between different malpractice insurance packages – we can help you to decide which one is right for you depending upon your status (social identity factors), your profile (visibility in the profession), your friendship networks and your usefulness to the university.

 

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The university in the past was an antiquated place where people sat around reading and thinking and exchanging ideas. It was a boring and dull place in which, to misquote W.H. Auden on poetry, nothing happened. But today, we offer you a new educational environment in which different opportunities exist for maximizing your potential and the potential of those you coach in a crowded marketplace of purchasable intellectual material.

Online Blended Learning CoverIn order to begin advertising your thoughts you need to develop online curricula (that can be sold), textbooks (that can also be sold) and a series of lectures which your university will buy back from you for the price of what we used to call your “salary.” Now, your salary will be docked according to how much you owe the university for the use of your own lectures, for malpractice suit coverage, for any counseling you need as you navigate this difficult process and for bi-monthly sexual harassment training sessions. Please do not be alarmed if the deductions for these services, along with standard deductions for health care, taxes and retirement, actually come to more than your salary. You believe in education after all so now is your chance to prove it by paying to elevate the minds of the youth in your care.

We will help you to develop your intellectual persona over time as a brand and then show you how to maximize that brand and you might even, eventually, make some money back on it!

But, before we get into how you can actually make money in addition to teaching, prepping, publishing and administering programs (and we do suggest looking into opportunities for second jobs at local coffee houses and grocery stores), we need to make sure you are protected from nasty grievances that may arise as you counsel our student clients and guide them to higher learning. And, of course, protecting you means protecting the university so this is extremely important. Please spend at least 12 hours on the online training course, this is not simply a matter of learning the material, which can be done rather quickly, it is required for the insurance coverage that we may offer you at the end of the course.

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By way of an introduction to your sexual harassment training kit, please click the cute emoji marked NOT WAVING, DROWNING  download1.jpg  to continue. You will then enter the sexual harassment training portal and we will lead you through some real-world scenarios in which you are forced to make some hard decisions and pay more money to the university.

But first please answer the first question in order to establish your “status”:

Are you:

A) A straight white man – if yes, please bypass the first section. In fact, you will find that you can bypass many of the sections.

B) A queer person – if yes, consider purchasing our full coverage and making monthly contributions to a “potential law suit” defense fund.

C) A Woman – please sign a university indemnification form. This form confirms that even if you need to press charges against a colleague or university employee or student for harassing you, and indeed, 90% of all cases are women harassed by men, you guarantee that you will never sue the university.

D) A person of color – our insurance plans do not offer coverage for all law suits you may run into, consider extra coverage and a monthly contribution fund.

E) A queer person of color – you are on your own.

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Section One

Read through these scenarios and answer the questions that follow:
1. A woman has reported to HR that you insisted upon engaging with her sexually in exchange for good grades in your class. According to her grievance, you insisted that she wanted sex with you and you disregarded her obvious discomfort. You later failed her in the class. Please answer according to your “status.”

A. White guy – do you marry her? Denounce her as delusional to all who will listen? Feel confident that it will all blow over? Explain that this is just run of the mill heterosexual sex and you “get that a lot” – what’s the big deal?

B. Queer person – do you point out that you are queer and not sexually interested in her? Counter sue alleging that she came on to you?

C. White woman – skip this section, we all know women don’t have “sex” with other women.

D. Person of color – hire a lawyer and prepare to go to jail

E. Queer person of color – your life is over.

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2. A group of women specifically bring a charge against a white man who has engaged in multiple accounts of sexual abuse, sexual assault, and slander. The women all have remarkably similar stories. Law suits are in the offing. Should the university:

A. Talk to the man in question and tell him to marry as many of the aggrieved students as possible?

B. Investigate further because the fact that the women all have similar stories sounds suspicious?

C. Call upon the man’s friends on campus to support him and hold him up as a genius who has just been misunderstood?

D. Ask his wife, and his ex-wife, and his first wife to come in and testify on his behalf?

E. Get him an opportunity to write an op. ed. explaining what happened?

F. Offer him a very nice retirement package with full benefits, a house in the Bahamas and free access to study abroad students?

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3. One man brings a charge against a feminist professor known internationally for her path-breaking work. The man claims he has been forced by the professor to hang out with her, sit by her in her home, read to her and talk to her. The complaints pre-date their student/teacher relationship and go back to when he was a young man who bumped into her in a European capital. The charge is backed up by some flirtatious emails and has a he said/she said feel to it.

Should the university:

A. Fire her

B. Hire a publicist to broadcast the case internationally to show that feminists fuck up too and even more than anyone else does but that the university is willing to go to any lengths to protect its student/clients from feminists?

C. Tell her to marry the victim

D. Put her on leave without pay indefinitely

E. Lock her up in her university owned apartment and force her to hand out all of her intellectual property to the university while continuing to admit students to work with her and using her reputation as a lure for the program with which she is affiliated.

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4. A queer person of color has been accused of engaging inappropriately with another queer person of his own age and status off campus. This person does not work with the alleged victim, does not supervise the alleged victim and has no further contact with them.

Should the university:

A. Fire them both?

B. Get rid of queer studies and Ethnic Studies and Black studies and feminist studies?

C. Hire some graduate students to post repeatedly about this case on social media to make something out of what could potentially have been nothing?

D. Deny them both tenure?

E. Set them up with a white guy mentor who can explain how this all works?

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5. A man of color has been accused of sexually harassing a white student by being in the same room as her and looking at her in an “odd way.” The two never met out of the classroom but the student says she feels “unsafe.” You are the chairperson to whom the student reports this feeling. Do you:

A. Call the police.

B. Call the army?

C. Investigate to find out how and when and why a Black man was hired on your campus?

D. Contact the NYT?

E. Take out more insurance?

Section 3: Now that you have completed your training it is time to purchase your insurance. If you are a white guy – don’t worry, you are covered by our “male majority non-liability clause agreement.” If you are anyone else, the cost of coverage, if and only if you qualify for it, will be a third of your current salary but we offer you the chance to teach for the coverage by adding 2 extra classes per year to your work load. You will also be asked to pick up extra mentoring.

Finally, what is the take away here? Yes, pay to play! No bad universities, only bad faculty! One million years of patriarchal rule can’t be wrong!

That’s all folks!

“The Asian was told to leave. He was given an explanation. Nevertheless, he persisted. So he had to be carried out on a stretcher.”

16 Apr

On Compliance, Complicity, and Beating Up Asian America.

By Eng-Beng Lim

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For Asian Americans and other professional elites of color who think their class privilege or “whiteness” protects them from the racialized brunt of U.S.-America’s corporate-nationalist wrath, the bloody “re-accommodation” of 69-year-old Vietnamese American doctor, David Dao, on an allegedly overbooked United Airlines (UA) flight might be their “get woke” moment. Just to be clear, it involves police and neoliberal capitalist terror, corporate bullying, and Asian shaming. Dr Dao sustained “a broken nose, a concussion, two knocked out teeth and sinus problems that may require reconstructive surgery.” All for refusing to vacate his seat to accommodate UA’s administrative inefficiency.

But “getting woke” may depend on your level of subscription in the club of denial and complicity. Those with premier benefits might find it hard to relinquish their bad love. For denial has its own rewards, and complicity its wanton rationalization and even perfume.

Membership, afterall, has its privileges. What exactly is the cost of your membership’s privileges? Who is paying the price for your preferred status and clubby jaunt?

“Re-accommodation” is a term used by UA CEO, Oscar Munoz to characterize the forced extraction of seated passengers “randomly” selected by the computer to make space for four crew members. They had to catch a connecting flight that would otherwise be understaffed, delayed or canceled. The flight in question was not overbooked or oversold, as airlines officials originally claimed. That few if anyone is picking on this lie only shows our level of compliance with the fungible language of bureaucratic corporate procedure. We are so inured to gaslighting and alternative truth that a white lie is a just white lie (switch the color and you are most definitely a liar). Let’s give companies and the men who run them the benefit of doubt, and beat the crap out of consumers who do not comply.

Dr Dao was illegally ejected from the plane in violation of 14 CFR 250.2a. that prohibits giving preference to airlines employees over paying customers, especially if they have already been seated. Part of the dispute will hang on whether the employees who are considered “must-ride passengers” can unseat paying customers on a full flight. But it does not get to the spectacular violence against the doctor, and the seemingly inexplicable assault on the American consumer and Asian America. To sort out this mess, let’s start with a quick recap of the world we live in, and an earnest question:

Could it be that the corporatization of the Senate and the vindictiveness of male-centered egos exemplified by conservative and rightwing ideologues like Mitch McConnell, Donald Trump, Steve Bannon and their cabal of mediocre apparatchiks, naysayers, white supremacists, 1 percenters and security thugs now go hand in hand with the thuggery of state-sanctioned oligopolies like UA that operate as their armed, air travel functionary disguised as service?

A nation’s divisions, arrogance and toxicity do not just spring out of nowhere. Their escalation has been facilitated by ultraconservative white supremacist rancor and gaslighting running the spectrum of racism/xenophobia, anti-gay/misogyny, anti-refugee/Islamaphobia. It’s almost mechanical at this point. But that we should entertain the idea that gaslighters are outraged that their crimes are “leaked” to the press rather than being outraged at their crimes is a real kicker. It is a rich ethical perversion that gives perversion a bad name. The vacuous shorthand, “a nation divided,” only compresses the deniability of those who start wars and fires by demagoguery or political poison. Enter the Bully-in-Chief with explicit instructions for his devotees and initiads, which include white nationalist groups:

“Knock the crap out of him, would you? Seriously.”

“I’d like to punch them in the face, I tell you, would you?”

“I love the old days. Do you know what they used to do to guys like that in a place like this? They’d be carried out on a stretcher, folks.”

More than just Trump’s expressive nastiness at his rallies, these opportunistic incitements to violence have a long history in U.S-American nationalist bravura, machismo, belligerence, imperialism and gun culture. But as corporate performatives, it is virtually unheard of unless we examine the violent deeds of corporations as the very enactment of these words.

Yes, those are exactly the words that UA is saying to Dr. Dao who is carried out on a stretcher, and by extension to Asian/America. You know, the time when Asian exceptionalism means you can be legally discriminated against because the law does not apply to you – the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Japanese incarceration camp, just to name two – or, clobbered to death with impunity (Vincent Chin RIP).

Regarding Trump’s incitement to violence, multiple lawsuits filed against him state how “black residents were brutally attacked by a white mob,” including a plaintiff who was “kicked, choked, shoved, punched, scratched and referred to as nearly every racial slur known.” Though the racial violence is specific and contextual, the abuse is also generalizable of Trump’s treatment of African Americans, especially powerful black women like Susan Rice, Maxine Waters and April Ryan. The intersection of race, violence and corporations that has fueled Trump’s business empire and the rise of his despicable Presidential persona is also at the heart of UA’s treatment of Dr Dao.

To put it plainly, it’s about corporations punching people in their faces, sometimes without them knowing because it’s in the gut so to speak, and sometimes in the flesh, knocking them out senseless. The continuing fetishization of choice in this regard is laughable to say the least. Trump’s response to the incident is for airlines to increase the compensation for bumping passengers off the aircraft as if that would create more access and equality for air travel. And lo and behold, United has quickly announced an upper ceiling of 10k for those bumped out of their seats in the future. That is the solution? Some people are excited about how this is an enticing option to game the system. Who do you think will benefit from? The Dr Daos of the world or those “in the club”?

Let’s put it this way, you may think you are choosing or benefiting freely as a consumer but you have no say about the options from which you choose, and how you are treated in practice. When the options are lousy, they are lousier for those at the bottom whether it is U.S. air travel, healthcare or the school system. They are about creating insufferable conditions for the majority so that the super-privileged who can afford Platinum-level service can take up ever more space and resources just because they can. Because corporate entities love revenues more than anything else. Does this sound like a bloviating cheeto-maniac sucking up all the oxygen in the room, and making everyone parse his gibberish just because he can? That’s the kind of treatment we’re being trained to accept from POTUS Inc. which hails from the neoliberal business world where such disciplinary technique, from Walmart to Wall Street, is justified in the name of financializing everything. Cheap prices and ruthless profits rule the day.

Dr Gao’s plea, “I want to go home, I want to go home” resonates in this echo chamber of hell like a desperate, lonely cry in the woods. Like a bad Hollywood movie where a hero played by Harrison Ford/Liam Neeson/Tom Cruise enters an altered realm of reality where he is met by violence and punishment disguised as law enforcement, Dr. Dao found himself stranded in the limbo of the oversold flight. But while the white Alpha male Hollywood hero is always right and always vindicated, Dr. Dao was knocked unconscious for his efforts on behalf of righteousness and dragged unceremoniously from his seat.

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He was told to leave “politely” but he refused as a consumer who paid for his seat. He was given an explanation about how “we [United] have a number of customers on board that aircraft, and they want to get to their destination on time and safely, and we want to work to get them there.” No explanation was given as to why he was not one of the customers that UA wants to get to “their destination on time and safely.”

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Nevertheless, the Asian doctor persisted in defiance of his extraordinary exclusion from the airline’s articulated customer base. So the airlines summoned the full force of airport security, including the Chicago Department of Aviation and Chicago Police Department whose officer promptly smashed his face, rendered him senseless, and eventually carried him out on a stretcher with blood oozing out of his mouth. All the doctor could say in the end was, “Just kill me now.”

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Now imagine Senator Elizabeth Warren being carried out on a stretcher for refusing to abide by Mitch McConnell’s controversial rebuke to silence her during the nomination debate about Jeff Session as U.S Attorney General. Or, for that matter, citizen Warren being dragged out like a rag doll through the aisle, her hair disheveled, and her glasses askew on her face as she is rendered incoherent. All because she refused to shut up or give up her seat. Not so long ago, “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted”?

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For those who missed this political theater, Warren had sought to read Coretta Scott King’s 1986 letter regarding Sessions’s discrimination against black voters. The meme that went viral encapsulated the public’s response to the blatant sexism of the Senate that voted 49-43 along party lines to shut her up. Degrees of indignity aside, the different scales of violence tell a story of how gender and race are inflected by notions of privilege and proprietary that shape our political and social sympathies. It would be unacceptable for Senator or even Citizen Warren to be taken out the way the body of the limp and anonymous Asian doctor was treated. In fact, the discomfort of witnessing the Asian American doctor’s infantilization and breakdown struck such a raw nerve that reports have eschewed the racial spectacle unfolding before our eyes. He was some Asian man, maybe a doctor, no one was sure, and many commentators cast doubt about him being a doctor at all based, presumably on the way he looks.

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In a sign of the times, a doctor standing his ground on a humanitarian appeal (he had patients to meet the next day) was of no consequence to UA in Trump’s nation where self-serving corporate prerogatives come first. There is a lot more to be said about the terrible entanglements of corporate personhood, profit, policing, and biopolitical regulation. Suffice to say, Dr. Dao’s treatment is not exceptional in the context of ubiquitous bullying and killing across the country. They are only intensifying under the toxic charge of Trump’s administration. It is no coincidence that the vast majority of those being bullied or killed are folks with names like Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin, Danny Chen, Antonio Zambrano-Montes, Isabella Cornell and David Dao.

We might return to take a closer look at the scene where Dr Dao is carried out on a stretcher with blood oozing out of his mouth, and notice this time a different set of actors laughing in the fuzzy background: Team Agent Orange oligarchs, politicos and airlines executives feasting on their bloodied meat. We might add Dr Dao to the names of those who are targeted for harassment and even gunned down because they refuse (or are perceived to be refusing) to comply with bogus rules, corporate prerogatives, heteronormative policing, and white nationalism. The violence produced at the systemic level between colluding regimes and corporations are enduring and far-reaching.

To what extent is complicity – “the state of being an accomplice; partnership or involvement in wrongdoing” – and especially the complicity of cluelessness, detachment or apathy an alibi of colluding forces? Now more than ever, raising questions about complicity’s new faces is also a crucial inquiry about our moral and ethical coordinates as an American, witness, neighbor, ally and friend not only in the U.S. but around the world.

The satirical jokesters at Saturday Night Live suggest that in Trump Nation, complicity is a political pathology for sale in a seductive package. Their metaphor is a bottle of perfume. In an episode that indicts Ivanka Trump for her foxy agendas, Scarlett Johansson’s hyperbolic portrayal of Ivanka vamping it up for a line of perfume makes clear the businesswoman’s product placement comes before the public office she holds (to everyone’s incredulity). One can only wish the public’s wishful projection for Ivanka to be the progressive women’s voice ought to have ended in a recent television interview where she declared, “I don’t know what it means to be complicit.”

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Complicity’s feminine two-face (Johansson is herself accused of being complicit in Israeli settler colonialism for defending Sodastream’s factory as legitimate in the illegal settlement on the West Bank) blurs the good and the bad with no commentary on women’s participation in compulsory whiteness, colonial violence and clueless privilege. What looks good and desirable, like Ivanka or the perfume, might help to obfuscate what is making the lives of the disenfranchised even more miserable.

It is nonetheless a club that draws many members, including bourgeois apologists of color, other white liberal allies, and the pinkwashing homo-matrimonial types who want to smell nice. Everyone in this club is trained to love an arsenal of amnesia-inducing denials and blindspots: “I cannot see what you see,” “It doesn’t rise up to that,” “I need more information,” “They did nothing wrong,” “He was belligerent,” “He’s an illegal,” “Who cares?”

To be complicit is to approve the collusion of corrupt power, money, and imperial projects. It is to give your tacit approval of using violence, harassment and assault on people to protect corporate mandates and personhoods, the belligerent police-military state, and colonial whiteness at all cost. The stakes are higher as bombs matching the egos of a bumbling and bloviating team in the White House are being detonated in Syria and Afghanistan to legitimize their violent and morally bankrupt worldview. To speak out as many did on the plane where Dr Dao was assaulted is to reject the normalization of complicity as our moral code.

As we bear witness to the return of an angry U.S. police-military state and the increasingly swampy topography of corporate malfeasance and assault, how many of us will turn a blind eye or do nothing at all?. How many of us will be caught in the victim-blaming, smear campaign against the next “Dr Dao,” or be bought off by the new 10k reward for bumping off passengers?

Do people care? Over 240,000 comments and 550 million views are recorded a day after Dr Dao’s assault on China’s Weibo (the equivalent of Twitter), not counting the millions of views on related YouTube videos. United Airlines’s share price has dropped, and calls to boycott the airline are stronger than ever. So, yes, people do care and they make a difference.

The centrality of the question of complicity tells us we are desperately, urgently needing a salvageable moral and ethical position to live and to flourish in Trump’s America. This is an America where witnessing violence against a neighbor seems to have become a sport, where apathy and cluelessness are quickly becoming the new alibis of complicity. It gives new meaning to sitting tight with privilege in the face of trouble, and sometimes a face says it all:

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Screenshot of a widely circulated video of an unidentified man sitting calmly as Dr. Dao screamed in the background.

Straight Eye For the Queer Theorist – A Review of “Queer Theory Without Antinormativity” by Jack Halberstam

12 Sep

Straw-man-argumentStuart Chase’s 1956 Guide to Straight Thinking is sometimes credited with the first use of the term “straw man.” He used the term to describe the rhetorical practice of basing a strong argument on the misrepresentation of another position. The straw man/person represents a figure without depth or dynamism that is easily knocked down. And so if one represents feminism in terms of a unified group of man-hating, chainsaw wielding, separatist lesbians, rather than as a wide array of positions held by many different groups with or without chainsaws, then it is relatively easy to persuade a neutral audience that feminism is dangerous. Straw men, or in this case straw womyn, stand in for the complexity of a flesh and blood opponent. The term draws upon the image of the scarecrow on the one hand and on fairground games on the other – the term “Aunt Sally,” for example, is often used as a synonym for Straw Man and comes from the fairground game where a target (often an “ugly” woman or racialized in someway) is set up for others to knock down.

A recent issue of the journal differences engages in the production of straw people and does an Aunt Sally on queer theory. The issue, differences Volume 26 #1 (May 2015), edited by Robyn Wiegman and Elizabeth Wilson, and titled, “Queer Theory Without Antinormativity” asks the question: “What might queer theory do if its allegiance to antinormativity was rendered less secure?” The answer goes something like this: if its allegiance to antinormativity were rendered less secure, queer theory would be…more complicated, more dynamic, and, broader because other important and pressing concerns that have been obscured by this singular focus would come to the fore. What are those concerns? What does this new, shiny, more complicated (queer) theory look like? We never find out. More interested in critique than in outlining new methodologies, archives or theories, this volume is content to say, repeatedly, that oppositionality is not all its cracked up to be; that the humanities orientation of queer theory has concealed the fact that the social sciences are important too; and that queerness as a category has an increasingly elusive relationship to activism, political change and social transformation. None of this is controversial, and it could even be the basis of some interesting new directions in the study of sexuality and gender. But this issue does not lead us there.

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What is queer theory without antinormativity, we may ask with the editors of this special issue? Without a critique of normativity, queer theory may well look a lot like straight thinking. And, without these clear alternatives, that is what this volume threatens to become.

Inexplicably sharon wasn't interested in a second date.

Inexplicably sharon wasn’t interested in a second date.

It draws sexy energy from a title that proposes a new kind of queer theory namely, a queer theory without antinormativity but, like a date with a lover who promised hot sex but falls asleep by 9pm, or like an iphone update that claimed it would transform your gadget but actually just ate up all the battery, the issue titillates only by virtue of nestling up to titillation, it thrills only by offering to declaw what is thrilling, it excites by promising to name the fugitive source of an entire genre’s critical excitement. But when push comes to shove, and there is a lot of shoving in this issue despite its seemingly civil tone, queer theory without antinormativity might just be…well, theory, theory about theory.

What’s the basic argument? Queer theory has been characterized by an antinormative stance that has gone unquestioned (until now) and that is the basis for the claims that queer theory lays to a radical political project. This commitment to antinormativity, Wiegman and Wilson say, characterizes the work of all kinds of queer theorists who might otherwise disagree. The problem with antinormativity, as far as Wiegman and Wilson are concerned, is that it derives from a fundamental michel_foucault_by_ivankorsario-d5qvsbtmisreading of Foucault’s theory or norms; it makes certain positions seem inevitable – a critique of disciplinarity for example; and, antinormativity’s uncontested rightness eliminates the possibility of taking up any other relations to norms or normativity. Furthermore, antinormativity, they propose, has become “canonical” in the field and therefore has acquired, ironically, the status of a norm, proving once and for all that norms are unavoidable and cannot be opposed.

Let’s take the first point in Wiegman and Wilson’s critique – the idea that antinormativity emerges from a misreading of the norm in Foucault. They write: “Even as it allies itself with Foucault, queer theory has maintained an attachment to the politics of oppositionality (against, against, against) that form the infrastructure of the repressive hypothesis” (12). By contrast, Wiegman and Wilson propose to offer a different methodology for reading the norm and they will do so through a return to the idea of the norm as it is found in Foucault “in order to revivify what is galvanizing (indeed what is queer) about its operations” (12). This is an odd claim at best – first, is it even possible to “revivify” what is not dead but is in fact “galvanizing”? Just asking. But, second, I cannot find this mythic other methodology anywhere in their text. Their anti antinormative methodology seems to amount to the claim that we are all subject to norms. Norms, they remind us, neither restrict nor ostracize, they are neither “controlling” nor are they “tyrannical,” and we are all equally subject to their powers (“we question the political common sense that claims that norms ostracize, or that some of us are more intimate with their operations than others…”). This claim is then followed by a series of quotes from Berlant, Edelman, myself, Sedgwick all clustered under the leaky umbrella of “queer theoretical ambitions” and organized by the common belief that norms are bad.

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Few of the theorists mentioned in this essay, if any, have advanced the theory that norms single out certain people or that they target only certain bodies and then tyrannically restrict their capabilities or legitimacy. Instead, the rather impressive group of theorists gathered under this capacious and yet nonsensical heading of antinormative queer theory (Berlant, Butler, Duggan, Edelman, Eng, Ferguson, Halberstam, Halperin, McRuer, Muñoz, Puar, Reddy, Sedgwick, Warner) have all published extremely complex accounts of the relations between nationalism and norms, sexuality and terror, identity and repetition, race and disidentification, sexuality and death, pessimism and optimism, negativity and utopia, recognition and failure. No single theory of norms unites these works either through their embrace of the antinormative or through their understanding of the political. They have no single object, they do not share a goal, they follow multiple methodologies and none of these theorists unambiguously embraces a singular, critical stance from which it unfairly draws energy and through which it proposes to change the world. The antinormative position is, I will say it again, a straw queer, an Aunt Sally, a rag and bone target for any straight thinkers who want to score points in an academic marketplace of diminishing returns.

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Like the bad critical theory essay in which everyone is wrong because the author is right, or in which the author notices something that everyone else in the history of critical thinking has ignored, or in which an intrepid and insightful author uncovers a fallacy upon which an entire area of study has depended, this journal issue requires big targets, thinkers united in their false assumptions who can finally be revealed for what they are – naïve, blind, simple folk who see tyranny where there is only discourse, who confirm the status quo through opposition, and who create a new canon while claiming to bring the house down.

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What, I ask you, do Wiegman and Wilson want? They tell us they want to “channel the energies of queer inquiry otherwise.” Ok – point us in the direction of “otherwise.” And I really mean that  – I want to understand the project here, but it feels elusive. They tell us they will promote scholarship that moves “athwart” rather than “against” (although they are clearly against antinormative queer theory, not athwart it…what is athwart, critically speaking?). And they offer to “rethink the meaning of norms, normalization, and the normal” while imagining “other ways to approach the politics of queer criticism altogether.” Let me translate dear reader: we critics, who read athwart not against, who offer critique without solutions, who know something is wrong but cannot offer to replace it, will keep thinking about this in the hopes of generating something that is not more of the same.

Ok, that sounds harsh so let me break it down:

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1. Most of the theorists assembled under the heading of the anti-normative produce the very 51TjyujvLxLscholarship that Wiegman and Wilson call for – namely a critique of simple notions of the political as oppositional . Consider Lauren Berlant’s idea of a relation of “cruel optimism” that “exists when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing.” Or think of Lee Edelman’s reminder that the impulse to call for a politics around the figure of the child ensures the reproduction of the status quo. Or look again at Rod Ferguson’s Aberrations in Black and his analysis of the way that canonical sociology requires the Black body as a foil for the production of the truth of statistical norms.

2. If you don’t want to commit to some kind of critique of norms you may be doomed to “straight

Normal and Strange directions. Opposite traffic sign.

Normal and Strange directions. Opposite traffic sign.

thinking.” Straight thinking is characterized by a matrix of rhetorical operations that support the common sense of the moment, commit to foreclosing on critiques of the status quo and reinvest in the ordinary, the good and the true. Such rhetorical operations have propped up the very distinctions between straight and gay/lesbian/trans or between abled and disabled or between whiteness and of color that have allowed for legal, social and political benefits to accrue to one group at the expense of the other. Abandon antinormativity and you slip quickly into acquiescence.

3. Antinormative thinking, as represented in this issue, simply means scholarship with an urgent, complex, politically explicit agenda. It is the opposite of the seemingly objective “deviance studies” scholarship that Heather Love writes about in this issue but it is in line with some of the writings by Evelyn Hooker, Mary Macintosh and others that she claims queer studies has rejected. Like other essays in the issue, Love’s piece works around a false claim and a false dichotomy. She claims from the start that there are “ongoing conflicts between humanists and social scientists” within the field of queer studies and that these conflicts turn on “the question of whether the empirical study of sexuality should be understood as social recognition or as epistemological violence” (77). Such conflicts were very common in the 1990’s but disciplinary skirmishes have long since diminished under the pressure of new insights about the arbitrary nature of disciplinary boundaries (Latour). Critiques of the social sciences from within queer studies by Rod Ferguson and others are not disciplinary quarrels so much as they are historically situated accounts of how non-heteronormativity gets located firmly at the heart of U.S. racial formations and links the “multiplication of racialized discourses of sexuality and gender” to the “multiplication of labor under capital” (12). By separating an account of sexual deviance from its imbrication in the production of knowledge on racial deviance in her essay, Love straightens the lines between sexuality and race in a way that literally undoes the work of queer of color critique. What Ferguson had intricately described as meshed, Love unties and analyzes separately.

And later in Love’s essay, she takes aim at the romanticism of The Undercommons to reveal how attached humanities scholars can be to their own subversive potential. What Moten and Harney describe as the role of the “subversive academic” in The Undercommons, Love rejects as a kind of unconscious political violence: “if we are in, we are also of” she writes. Championing the “queer ordinary” and describing the queer academic as a “professional knowledge worker,” Love settles into and accepts her role as observer of ordinary life. Her stakes are clear: the antinormative queer scholar or the fugitive scholar of the undercommons are just engaged in a “romantic disavowal of our position as scholars.” With no account of the activist worlds that informed early queer studies research, no recognition of the disciplinary violence that goes into establishing a definitive split between the “truth seeking” missions of the social sciences and the “civilizing” goal of the humanities in the first place, with no references to the difference that race makes to either professional knowledge production or the definition of deviance, this is an essay that refuses to grapple with its own site of enunciation – for whom is the ordinary smooth and even? For whom is it absolutely unattainable? For whom is it unacceptable?

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And so it goes, the straw person argument allows for the wholesale ransacking of several decades of exceptional work from a range of positions and disciplinary locations, emerging from different activist histories and focused upon various political and even utopian horizons. This issue claims to re-evaluate but it comes to eradicate; it claims to survey a field but it creates a position to lambast; it claims to speak for the ordinary but it colludes with the status quo. So, to clarify the argument here: if you still believe in the socially engaged academic and if, like them, your work continues to circle back to performativity, cruel optimism, intersectionality, queer of color critique, queer negativity, critiques of homonormativity, disciplinary critique and the undercommons, this mini-movement is not for you. And for those of you who are still wondering what the answer is to the question posed by this volume of differences in the first place, namely “what is queer studies without antinormativity,” I think I have an answer for you – it is disciplinary, neoliberal, no stakes, straight thinking. You’re welcome!

“Self-Portrait 2015” Roderick A. Ferguson University of Illinois, Chicago May 8, 2015

12 May

PiperCubIt’s a strange thing to find yourself as a character in the book you just wrote, especially when the book is neither fiction nor autobiography. Those of you who have read The Reorder of Things will recall that I began with a collage by Adrian Piper called “Self-Portrait 2000.” The collage in part “depicts” Piper as a downed airplane. But it also contains a sharp letter to Wellesley’s then president for allegedly violating the terms of Piper’s hire. And the collage is further intensified by presenting a poem to God that rails at God for producing a botched-up version of humanity. In The Reorder of Things, I use the collage as a way to open the book’s interrogation of how state and capital have followed the academy’s example in relation to the management of diversity. Like the academy, the state and the financial institutions it refuses to regulate, abandon the visions of equitable distribution and social justice fostered by the student movements of the 1960’s—especially in terms of their promotion of interdisciplinary scholarship and faculty and student diversity. Instead, all three institutions have actively worked to sabotage projects of intellectual and demographic redistribution while all the while promoting a love for diversity.

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Enter the “Chancellor’s Cluster Initiative to Increase Diversity and the Interdisciplinary Culture at UIC.” As the name suggests, the initiative was intended to be a way to transform the University of Illinois at Chicago by hiring twenty-five junior and senior faculty who would be distributed among five research clusters—the Racialized Body, Middle East and Muslim Societies, Social Justice and Human Rights, Diaspora Studies, and Global Urban Immigration. While the official name of the cluster initiative implies that it was a mandate from on high, the categories that came to define the clusters were designed by the faculty and were the result of two competitive proposal phases that involved the entire campus, not just the faculty in Liberal Arts and Sciences. The faculty who wrote the proposals talked of meeting in coffee shops and in department conference rooms to hammer out what would be a truly historic dream if realized.

It would have been the first time in the history of the American academy that an institution—public or private—would reinvent itself based on interdisciplinary categories, categories produced in fields such as ethnic, cultural, gender, postcolonial, disability, and queer studies. It would have also been an epic achievement for a university with a working-class student body. This vision of what could have been, and indeed, what should have been, attracted those of us recently recruited from other institutions to the exciting but now short-lived UIC experiment.

 

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The university insists that it is only “delaying” rather than canceling the clusters. This distinction is telling as it exemplifies a university administration attempting to establish itself as the rational arbiter and enforcer of hires around diversity while it strips those hires of any real substance. Our collective letter to Chancellor Michael Amiridis provides necessary context:

In addition to stopping the current searches, the Interim Provost and Dean explained that the entire cluster program was being delayed, and that before it could restart, the substance of the positions required recalibration that would supersede both the agreed to conditions of the cluster proposals (all applications were signed by Executive Officers and Deans) and the extensive internal peer review process that selected these clusters over others. Such an abrupt cancelation of four high-profile searches (not delay as recent communications have indicated), and a drastic change to the peer review process, fundamentally endangers this major diversity initiative at our public urban university and threatens to tarnish our national reputation and ability to recruit in the future.

It is important to note, as the above paragraph attests, that the prior agreement authorizing the clusters has been voided. The new conditions call for a reappraisal by the Deans of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. As the letter states, “Over the course of the first three years, the PIs made requests for meetings with Dean Tantillo to discuss search processes; we never received a positive response and instead were re-directed to meet with Associate Deans who were not authorized to make decisions on the hiring process.” In other words, after the searches were authorized, we are now told that the searches can only be re-authorized by the very administrative players that abandoned them in the first place.

If not “cancellation,” perhaps we should call it an “indefinite or permanent delay?” That would, of course, allow us to continue with the fiction that UIC’S diversity initiative has not been cancelled, and its commitment to diversity will march on, one day reactivated by people who never meant it to survive in the first place. As one of the persons hired to realize this initiative, there’s no way for the administration’s actions not to be dismaying, but as a theorist, I can’t help but be intrigued—even by the maneuvers that have undermined what my colleagues and I have tried to accomplish. This part might be a lesson to us all.

The discourse that has caught my eye is the university’s use of “student demand.” In addition to the looming shadow of anticipated budget cuts, the dean at the April 16th meeting said that the clusters had to be delayed because of a lack of “student demand” for those areas articulated by the clusters—intersectional feminism, social justice, Middle-East and Muslim, political economy and globalization, and urban diaspora, in particular. This is an especially astonishing claim on a campus with a growing Latino, Asian, Asian American, Arab, Arab-American, Middle-Eastern and Muslim student body. What is even more interesting is that many of the students from these groups have for years demanded areas of study like the ones that have been cancelled. If these students’ demands are not the ones that the university acknowledges, who and what are the interests behind the administration’s deployment of “student demand?”

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Think back to the moment of the sixties and seventies student movements and how large the word “demand” loomed in radical manifestos, manifestos that called for widespread social change. In 1968, the Third World Liberation Front of San Francisco State issued their “TWLF SF State College Demands,” listing the establishment of a “School for Ethnic Studies” as their number one demand. In 1969 the Lumumba-Zapata student movement at the University of California at San Diego, upon hearing of the institution’s plans to build a new—“Third”—college responded by writing, “We demand a Third College be devoted to relevant education for minority youth and to the study of the contemporary social problems of all people.” In that same year, African American and Puerto Rican students at City College in New York would issue their “Five Demands” intended to change the university’s institutional and intellectual structure to speak to the histories and realities of students at that institution. The sixties and seventies saw the emergence of the category “demand” as the keyword of student militancy directed at university administrations, directed at them so that knowledge might be reorganized rather than diminished.

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As they vie for control of that category, university administrations attempt to absorb and neutralize the possibility of radical change on college campuses; those administrations are increasingly doing so by laying claim to the idea of “student demands.” Instead of using the discourse of “student demand” to promote the progressive reorganization of knowledge for the good of faculty and student development, the administration uses the category to arrogate power unto itself. In this way, the figure of the student becomes the ethical motivation and justification for expulsion rather than redistribution, determining what forms of knowledge and critique can be expelled from intellectual space and livelihood. Steven Salaita’s firing is a case in point. In her justification for terminating him, the Urbana-Champaign Chancellor Phyllis Wise implicitly invoked “student demand” as the rationale for that decision, stating “We have a particular duty to our students to ensure that they live in a community of scholarship that challenges their assumptions about the world but that also respects their rights as individuals.” As an institutional discourse, student demand, thus, provides a handy justification for a diverse array of administrative expulsions, ones that could conceivably involve courses, people, hiring initiatives, and so on.

With the rise of the administrative control of student demand, the student is turned into an absolutely serviceable abstraction, the evidence of which can be seen in the simple fact that the administrators who deploy the figure of the student are actually not the ones—for the most part—who teach them, listen to them, or learn from them. In the end though, a move like the one that we just saw at UIC is not only an attack on diversity and interdisciplinarity; it is also an assault on academic freedom. The classical definition of academic freedom means that the faculty controls the curriculum and therefore presides over the hiring of those persons who will execute it. As the new enforcer of student demand, the administration can then say it is best positioned to manage the curriculum and hiring. The result of this is the overturning of academic freedom. If neoliberalism, as Lisa Duggan has argued, is the upward redistribution of resources—in this instance toward the administration, the administrative seizure of student demand is neoliberalism par excellence.

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It has only recently occurred to me that anti-intellectualism might be something more than “anti-intellectual,” more than the description that so many of us use when we find ourselves in the throes of institutional distress, more than a grievance or an annoyance. I have only now begun to think about how anti-intellectualism might seriously be the “mature” and defensive expression of academic institutions, an expression that retaliates against past and present campus uprisings and a formation worthy of serious theorization. Consider all the meetings with and speeches by administrators in which intellection is turned into the clumsiness of prima donnas, and bureaucratic thinking is taken to be the privileged capacity of reasoned individuals to properly run the university, individuals whose intelligence is measured by how much can they dilate over the bottom line, people who—by some bureaucratic clairvoyance—can determine which undergraduate fields will yield jobs, profits, and a future, a clairvoyance that allows them to judge which forms of knowledge are worthy of life or death.

In the hands of the administration, “student demand” becomes the reason to discourage speculative thought, producing a situation in which the most extreme forms of anti-intellectualism are found among an institution’s elites. As an institutional discourse, anti-intellectualism is necessary to make the administration the center of university authority, allowing it to impose administrative control over all intellectual activity, activities that should be the province of students and teachers. In the days of the sixties and seventies, the student—no longer content to be defined by external forces but self-marked by gender, sexual, ethnic and racial particularities—was the catalyst for the multiplication of forms of knowledge within the academy. In our moment and through a backlash against the prior one, the figure of the student—cynically—becomes the administration’s alibi for the degeneration of knowledge. I began this piece with Adrian Piper’s “Self-Portrait 2000.” I’ll end with two other “portraits” that bear upon this discussion. Ai Weiwei’s “A Study in Perspective” is a series of photographs in which the artist gives the middle finger to structures of power in Paris, Berlin, Washington, D.C., Beijing, and Hong Kong. The series is designed to critique governments’ dismissal of everyday people’s freedoms. Commenting on it, Ai said, “I think there is a responsibility for any artist to protect freedom of expression.”

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On April 29th UIC students mounted a demonstration in support of the Chancellor’s Cluster Initiative and demanded that the cancelled searches be fully reinstated. A group of protesters who were inspired by Ai’s “A Study of Perspective” staged their own version of the series. In the photo from the UIC demonstration, we see three fingers shot upwards at University Hall, the building that houses the UIC administration. Similar to Ai’s critique of governmental abuses, the UIC photo contests the administration’s disregard of faculty members and students’ freedoms to set their own agendas for intellectual expression, particularly around curricular development, interdisciplinary hiring, and diversity. Moreover, we might read the three fingers as a sign that challenging structures of power is a collective rather than individual endeavor, one that demands that we counter the necessarily anti-intellectual nature of neoliberal practices by returning to the boldness of intellection. Indeed, the UIC photograph suggests that a finger, rather than being an apolitical symbol of vulgarity, might—to quote Audre Lorde—be “loaded with information and energy.”

Demand

Should The Vajayjay Speak?

16 Apr

Back in January of this year, 2015, a curious story began to circulate in online education journals like Inside Higher Ed: “A student group at Mount Holyoke College has decided to cancel its annual performance of The Vagina Monologues, saying the play excludes the experiences of transgender women who don’t have a vagina.” Now, I am no big fan of Vagina Monologues, or any kind of speaking genitalia for that matter (I am flashing on a show I saw on HBO a few years ago on “The Puppetry of the Penis”…don’t ask…don’t tell…). But, despite my aversion to genital soliloquies, and my general disinterest from the get go in The Vagina Monologues, I still do not understand the premise for the cancelation.

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If the students had decided that the play was too focused on universalizing US experiences of womanhood, or that it participated in an imperialist feminist paradigm that cast North American feminist body politics as representative of all versions of body politics, I might have thought ok, shrugged and moved on. But canceling it because it does not include the experiences of trans women or women who lack vaginas just did not add up. The play is not saying that women without vaginas or that women with surgically constructed vaginas are not women after all, it is just saying…well, what is it saying? Love your vagina? Love whatever you have that is not a penis? Love your penis that can now be reterrritorialized as your vagina? Talk to your vagina? Listen to your vajayjay…not sure but it is NOT saying, transwomen are not women.

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Like the debates around the inclusion of trans-women in historically women’s colleges, this all feels like a storm in a teacup. It is clear that we are living at a time when gender norms have so definitively shifted beyond stable concepts of man and woman, that there should be no need for anguished and urgent debates about the admission of transgender women to women’s colleges or about the extension of monologues about female genitalia to trans women with or without surgically constructed vaginas (talkative or not). Trans women will be admitted to spaces formerly reserved for women born women precisely because the activism that would enable us to see an expanded and expanding category of “woman” has already taken place. The current activism on college campuses now calling for for the expansion of the category of “woman” to trans women, in fact, is belated and after the fact. Activism is not simply calling for something. Activism is about creating a context within which the thing that you are calling for comes to make sense – this process, in relation to trans womanhood, began back in the early 1990’s with the rise of poststructuralist feminism and queer theory and it comes to bear now on the discussions about gender protocols.

It is of course true that the time for The Vagina Monologues is surely come and gone – and I am not so sure that it was ever here in the first place — but certainly a few generations of enthusiastic college students did perform the play with pride and gusto and who are we to sneer at that. So why not quietly move on from the performance of talking vaginas to other theatrical projects more suited to this historical moment? Can the very vocal and publicized decision to cancel The Vagina Monologues be understood as part of what has been identified as a new censorious mood on college campuses in general? What fuels this new sensitivity on the part of students to all kinds of “problematic” material and is it part of a new millennial moralism?

In recent weeks, articles by Laura Kipnis in The Chronicle of Higher Education and Judith Shulevitz in The New York Times have generated outrage (and protests in Kipnis’s case) because these authors dared to suggest that we seem to be in the grips of a moral panic on college campuses. While Kipnis took aim at administratively authored “sexual paranoia” at her university, Northwestern, which had taken the form of a ban on consensual relations between professors and students, Shulevitz accused students of “hiding from scary ideas” by deploying the defense of calling for “safe space.” Both Kipnis and Shulevitz articulated what is, I believe, a fairly widely shared belief, that in Kipnis’s words “students’ sense of vulnerability is skyrocketing.” We don’t have to agree with everything Kipnis or Shulevitz has to say in order to feel that something has certainly changed in the way that campus politics are transacted.

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And, there are probably many factors that contribute to this “skyrocketing” sense of vulnerability for college students – students have been produced within the neoliberal university as consumers, dependents, debtors, children and pre-professionals. They have been cheated, patronized, exploited and abused. They exit the university with massive amounts of debt, a sense of futility and a need to make money and they want someone to blame. It is always easier to blame the messenger rather than going after the system that produces debt and despair in equal measure. But it is surely a mistake for students to be “calling out” (the new term for demanding accountability) their Gender Studies professors for showing them disturbing material on sexual assault; or calling out their Ethnic Studies professors for showing images of racial violence; or calling out their political theory professors for arguing that power is productive and ubiquitous not local and possessed. Local calls for this or that form of speech to end does not really help anything. Rather than demanding simply that category X be admitted to this or that, we need wide-ranging structural analyses of the production of violence of exclusion and inclusion within neoliberal forms of governance.

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To wind down my rant, let’s turn to an example of what NOT to do as a feminist: In a great episode of Portlandia, Candace (Fred Armisen) and Tony (Carrie Brownstein), the fictional proprietors of the women’s bookstore, Women and Women First, go to a Portland Trailblazers basketball game. They watch the game and are amazed at how much they enjoy it: “these people are really good at what they do!” But then, in a time out, when the Blazer’s cheerleaders come on to dance for the crowd, Toni and Candace become outraged by the exploitation to which they have become witnesses. Candace wonders why the cheerleaders are wearing so little clothing, and they both end up calling for the “liberation” of the “private dancers.” “Let them speak!” yells Candace, “say something! Tell us your stories!” The two feminist pioneers demand a meeting with the dancers in order to “help” them and they ask the dancers to “drop their poms poms.” Providing them with a “safe space,” they call on them to “read and resist” rather than dance and be oppressed and they create a new performance piece for them that involves telling the audience who they are and crawling out from under the oppressive regime of the NBA – all accompanied by a primal scream performed by Toni. The episode is hilarious as a good-natured satire of a feminism that has misguidedly become a crusade to protect and rescue.

Portlandia, Season 4, Feminist Bookstore Dance

Activism, Portlandia reminds us, is not the transaction of change through the blotting out of ‘problematic’ speech  on behalf of new disciplinary norms of conduct. Inclusion can be as corrosive a technique of rule as exclusion and speech as much as silence can be a vector for oppression. In an era when universities are saddling their students with debt, transforming their teaching staff from permanent to adjunct labor, paying their administrators corporate salaries and buying up all the real estate in their neighborhoods for luxury housing, calls for inclusion have to be accompanied by broader critiques of the transformation of the university. In a speech at Berkeley last year titled: “Free Speech Is Not For Feeling Safe,” Wendy Brown reminded us that:” today, the gears of the machine don’t clang and grind out there: they are are soft, quiet, and deep inside us.”  Trans women should certainly be admitted to women’s colleges, and vaginas probably do need to stop monologuing but inclusive policies, safe space, correct speech and sexual paranoia will not change the middle-class demographics of the university and will not stop the university from its rapid evolution into a factory for the production of the next generation of bankers. What we need are new and inventive modes of protest not more safe space.

When Civility Is Brown

13 Feb

By Sandy Soto

In his sharp Bully Bloggers post on “Civility Disobedience” last fall, Tavia Nyong’o  pointed out that (in)civility is too often taken up by we who might be most suspicious of that tool: “Why are we, who are cast outside the circle of privileges that accrue to the civilized, still drawn to and invested in the lure of civility? Is it precisely because we sense that it is a tape against which we are measured and forever falling short?” Yes, I think so.

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I’ve been thinking about Tavia’s questions a lot in the context of brownness—both brownness in relation to Chicanada and brownness in the more capacious, but more specific, way that José Esteban Muñoz had been thinkin’ it, feelin’ it, diggin’ it.

Chicanada is a term I’ve always thought of as lovingly and proudly naming brown resistance in all its complicated and competing forms—from the vato loco cry ¡Pachuco Yo! (raul salínas), to the dyke’s tattooed ofrenda (Ester Hernández), to the in-your-face literature written by The Girls Our Mothers Warned Us About.

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raul salínas, University of Wisconsin, late 1970s

La Ofrenda II (1990) Ester Hérnandez

La Ofrenda II (1990) Ester Hernández

Berkeley: Third Woman Press, 1991

Berkeley: Third Woman Press, 1991

The great thing about Chican@ is that the moment you claim it for yourself, you necessarily give yourself some breathing room against bourgeois norms–including civility. We leave accommodation to the Hispanics. At least that’s what I’ve always thought. But then, NACCS.

  • Around the time that we were becoming glued to the Steven Salaita case in outrage that the UIUC administration had fired him just weeks before he was to start his job because, in the words of the Board of Trustees, “we must constantly reinforce our expectation of a university community that values civility as much as scholarship.” (HT Lisa Duggan for noting in her 2014 ASA presidential address that, “I have yet to hear an administrator denounce the incivility of university donors or those who defend their interests.”)…
  • Around the time that in Ferguson, Missouri a white cop murdered 18-year old Michael Brown, unarmed but Black…
  • Around the time that the media and pundits were accusing broken-hearted protestors in Ferguson of being uncivil animals and around the time that militarized forces were sent in to restore order…

Around that time—actually, not around, but on the heels of Salaita and Ferguson–the National Association of Chicana & Chicano [not Hispanic, right?] Studies (NACCS) announced their theme for the 2015 conference in San Francisco.

Exploring Civility within the Chicana & Chicano Studies Discipline

Huh? Does that mean that civility is something that exists in Chican@ studies and that we are being invited to write some papers that explore its existence? Or, did NACCS mean to work “Discipline” as a double-entendre, which, in relation to Civility, was meant to critically invoke disciplining, because Salaita, because Ferguson, because HB 2281 (which shut down Ethnic Studies in TUSD classrooms based on a right-wing campaign run on the argument that those classrooms were teaching students to be uncivil), because imperialism, because colonialism, because genocide, because the cult of true womanhood….? Why else would they have risked reducing Chican@ Studies to one, singular Discipline in their theme when we all know that Chican@ Studies is a heterogeneous, interdisciplinary site of contestation that at its best resists groupthink and disciplining in relation to academic codification and/or injunctions toward civility?

But, no. The three paragraph description of the theme and the list of possible topics in the CFP, made it clear that NACCS–at least in this moment under this particular leadership–had adopted the rhetoric of civility and was using it in the most prescriptive ways to shape the 2015 gathering.

Original NACCS Call for Papers

Original NACCS Call for Papers

Since its formation in the early 1970s, NACCS has provided a much-needed infrastructure for the Chican@ Studies annual gathering of academics, students, artists and activists—most of them Chican@. NACCS bills itself as an organization that “rejects mainstream research, which promotes an integrationist perspective that emphasizes consensus, assimilation, and legitimization of societal institutions,” and that “promotes research that directly confronts structures of inequality based on class, race, and gender privileges in U.S. society.” And for the most part, it has resisted professionalization. It’s one of the few conferences I know of, for example, that welcomes—and has a dedication to accepting—submissions from undergraduate students. (I can’t imagine not having had access to NACCS myself as a young MEChista. Those annual experiences helped me believe that I could make a place for myself in academia.)

As you can imagine, then, the moment the call for papers and conference theme were announced, Chican@s took to social media and hallway conversation to express shock that NACCS was calling for civility, and at this particular moment, no less. Some people—mainly NACCS insiders—did come to the defense of the chair-elect (who thought up the theme) by explaining that she had actually chosen civility as her conference theme before the Salaita incident and before Ferguson (as if those uses of civility are anything new), or by reminding us that the theme doesn’t much matter anyway, because submissions don’t need to stick to it (as if a conference theme and CFP aren’t reflections of the spirit and values of the organization). It kills me that I’ve decided not to include here a gorgeous screenshot of one Chicano professor’s particularly noteworthy postings on facebook in defense of the theme. But let me tell you, people, it was a beautiful combination of fuckity fuckity fuck you (but more masculine than the ity I just typed, sabes?) hurled at those of us who were critical of the theme, and an in-your-face machista invitation to go toe-to-toe, esé. Hell, any day give me those speech acts instead of the politely soft responses we  received from the NACCS leadership:

  1. “The NACCS Board appreciates the comments expressed on the 2015 theme. At this time the description has been removed and the Board will be discussing these concerns.” (09/04/14)
  2. “The Board thanks the membership for the feedback of the recent CFP. After deliberation and feedback from Board Members, a CFP revision will be released on September 12, 2015. The Board feels that the idea of ‘civility’ is important to engage in its different forms, in its various meanings, and in its numerous consequences. We look forward to the continued discussion of these ideas in our forthcoming conference.” (09/07/14)
  3. And, finally, the new and improved theme, dressed up with some Español, cool slash marks, and struggle (09/12/14):

Chicana/o In/Civilities: Contestación y Lucha:
Cornerstones of Chicana & Chicano Studies

revised cfp

Revised CFP

No thank you, NACCS.

The revised CFP claims that “Communications and dialogue with the NACCS membership” took place after the original CFP was released. No they didn’t–unless there were conversations (other than the fuckity fuck one) that I wasn’t privy to. I only saw those of us who were critical of the theme expressing our thoughts. It wasn’t a reciprocal conversation. But what’s most upsetting to me about the revised CFP is not that, it’s this: “‘Civility’ is a complex yet essential concept for social interaction and communication. Change agents such as Emma Tenayuca, Ernesto Galarza, Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, Corky Gonzalez, Gloria Anzaldúa, and many current leaders of different social movements have struggled to strategically find the balance between ‘civility [sic] and ‘incivility’ in order to achieve cultural, political, and economic transformation at both the individual and social level.” How have we arrived here—a juncture in which our brown revolutionaries are dubbed (through the corporate-derived speech of capitalism) “change agents”? How have we come to the place where a political construct like “civility” (that has a history) is completely naturalized by NACCS leaders as though it always already existed in some pure natural form, if only we could work our way back to that sweetness against all of the misuse and corruption over time?

Katherine McKittrick, author of Demonic Grounds, on Trigger Warnings

17 Dec

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Katherine McKittrick is Professor of Gender Studies at Queen’s University in Kingston ON. McKittrick is the author of Demonic Grounds: Black Women and the Cartographies of Struggle (Univ. of Minnesota Press, 2006) and the co-editor with 

the late Clyde Woods of Black Geographies and the Politics of Place (South End Press, 2007). McKittrick is also the editor of a forthcoming anthology titled Sylvia Wynter: On Being Human as Praxis (Duke UP, 2014). In addition, she is completing a monograph titled Dear Science And/Rejoicing the Black Creative Sciences which is on the promise of science in Black poetry, music and visual art.

 

In an interview with Peter James Hudson titled “Canada and the Question of Black Geographies,” McKittrick comments on the privilege of presuming or even demanding that the classroom be a safe space. We asked McKittrick if we could post this section of the interview on Bullybloggers as part of our ongoing series on the politics of Trigger Warnings.

The full interview appears in The CLR James Journal Volume 20, Number 1, Fall 2014.clrjournal

TOWARDS THE END OF THE INTERVIEW, HUDSON ASKS:

PJH: On twitter, you (depressingly, brilliantly) wrote, “I’ve never glimpsed safe teaching (and learning) space. It is a white fantasy that harms.” I’m wonder­ing if you could expand on that as it pertains to the Black student in Canada? How does such a vexed space inform your own pedagogical practice?

KM: Yes. I wonder a lot about why the classroom should be safe. It isn’t safe. I am not sure what safe learning looks like because the kinds of questions that need to be (and are) asked, across a range of disciplines and interdisci­plines, necessarily attend to violence and sadness and the struggle for life. How could teaching narratives of sadness ever, under any circumstances, be safe!? And doubled onto this: which black or other marginalized fac­ulty is safe in the academy, ever? Who are these safe people? Where are they? But there is also, on top of this all, an underlying discourse, one that emerges out of feminism and other “identity” discourses, that assumes that the classroom should be safe. This kind of “safe space” thinking sometimes includes statements on course outlines about respect for diversity and how the class (faculty? students?) will not tolerate inappropriate behavior: rac­ism, homophobia, sexism, ableism. This kind of hate-prevention is a fantasy to me. It is a fantasy that replicates, rather than undoes, systems of injus­tice because it assumes, first, that teaching about anti-colonialism or sexism or homophobia can be safe (which is an injustice to those who have lived and live injustice!), second, that learning about anti-colonialism or sexism or homophobia is safe, easy, comfortable, and, third, that silencing and/or removing ‘bad’ and ‘intolerant’ students dismantles systems of injustice. Privileged students leave these safe spaces with transparently knowable op­pressed identities safely tucked in their back pockets and a lesson on how to be aggressively and benevolently silent. The only people harmed in this pro­cess are students of colour, faculty of colour, and those who are the victims of potential yet unspoken intolerance. I call this a white fantasy because, at least for me, only someone with racial privilege would assume that the classroom could be a site of safety! This kind of privileged person sees the classroom as, a priori, safe, and a space that is tainted by dangerous subject matters (race) and unruly (intolerant) students. But the classroom is, as I see it, a colonial site that was, and always has been, engendered by and through violent img_art_15112_6902exclusion! Remember Jamaica Kincaid’s Lucy?! How wretched are those daffodils!?! I am not suggesting that the classroom be a location that welcomes violence and hatefulness and racism; I am suggesting that learning and teaching and classrooms are, already, sites of pain. We cannot protect or save ourselves or our students by demanding silence or shaming ignorance or ‘warning’ the class that difficult knowledge is around the corner (as with “trigger” moments—the moment when the course director or teaching as­sistant says: “look out, I need to acknowledge a trigger moment that will make you uncomfortable: we are going to talk about whiteness!”) All of this, too, also recalls the long history of silencing—subalterns not speaking and all of that. Why is silencing, now, something that protects or enables safety? Who does silence protect and who does silence make safe and who does silence erase? Who has the privilege to demand tolerance?

In my teaching, although this is a day-to-day skirmish for me because the site where we begin to teach is already white supremacist, I try very hard to create class­room conversations that work out how knowledge is linked to an ongoing struggle to end violence and that, while racist or homophobic practices are certainly not encouraged or welcome, when they do emerge (because they always do!) we need to situate these practices within the wider context of colonialism and anti-blackness. This is a pedagogy wherein the brutalities of racial violence are not descriptively rehearsed, but always already demand practical activities of resistance, encounter, and anti-colonial thinking.

You Are Triggering me! The Neo-Liberal Rhetoric of Harm, Danger and Trauma

5 Jul

by Jack Halberstam

I was watching Monty Python’s The Life of Brian from 1979 recently, a hilarious rewriting of the life and death of Christ, and I realized how outrageous most of the jokes from the film would seem today. In fact, the film, with its religious satire and scenes of Christ and the thieves singing on the cross, would never make it into cinemas now. The Life of Brian was certainly received as controversial in its own day but when censors tried to repress the film in several different countries, The Monty Python crew used their florid sense of humor to their advantage. So, when the film was banned in a few places, they gave it a tagline of: “So funny it was banned in Norway!”

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Humor, in fact, in general, depends upon the unexpected (“No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!”); repetition to the point of hilarity “you can have eggs, bacon and spam; spam, eggs, spam and sausage; or spam, spam, spam and spam!”); silliness, non-sequitors, caricature and an anarchic blend of the serious and the satirical. And, humor is something that feminists in particular, but radical politics in general, are accused of lacking. Recent controversies within queer communities around language, slang, satirical or ironic representation and perceptions of harm or offensive have created much controversy with very little humor recently, leading to demands for bans, censorship and name changes.

feminist_humor_fbDebates among people who share utopian goals, in fact, are nothing new. I remember coming out in the 1970s and 1980s into a world of cultural feminism and lesbian separatism. Hardly an event would go by back then without someone feeling violated, hurt, traumatized by someone’s poorly phrased question, another person’s bad word choice or even just the hint of perfume in the room. People with various kinds of fatigue, easily activated allergies, poorly managed trauma were constantly holding up proceedings to shout in loud voices about how bad they felt because someone had said, smoked, or sprayed something near them that had fouled up their breathing room. Others made adjustments, curbed their use of deodorant, tried to avoid patriarchal language, thought before they spoke, held each other, cried, moped, and ultimately disintegrated into a messy, unappealing morass of weepy, hypo-allergic, psychosomatic, anti-sex, anti-fun, anti-porn, pro-drama, pro-processing post-political subjects.

Political times change and as the 1980s gave way to the 1990s, as weepy white lady feminism gave way to reveal a multi-racial, poststructuralist, intersectional feminism of much longer provenance, people began to laugh, loosened up, people got over themselves and began to talk and recognize that the enemy was not among us but embedded within new, rapacious economic systems. Needless to say, for women of color feminisms, the stakes have always been higher and identity politics always have played out differently. But, in the 1990s, books on neoliberalism, postmodernism, gender performativity and racial capital turned the focus away from the wounded self and we found our enemies and, as we spoke out and observed that neoliberal forms of capitalism were covering over economic exploitation with language of freedom and liberation, it seemed as if we had given up wounded selves for new formulations of multitudes, collectivities, collaborations, and projects less centered upon individuals and their woes. Of course, I am flattening out all kinds of historical and cultural variations within multiple histories of feminism, queerness and social movements. But I am willing to do so in order to make a point here about the re-emergence of a rhetoric of harm and trauma that casts all social difference in terms of hurt feelings and that divides up politically allied subjects into hierarchies of woundedness.

 

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At this point, we should recall the “four Yorkshire men” skit from Monty Python where the four old friends reminisce about their deprived childhoods – one says “we used to live in a tiny old tumbledown house…” the next counters with “house!? You were lucky to live in a house. We used to live in a room…” And the third jumps in with: “room? You were lucky to have a room, we used to have to live in a corridor.” The fourth now completes the cycle: “A corridor! We dreamed of living in a corridor!” These hardship competitions, but without the humor, are set pieces among the triggered generation and indeed, I rarely go to a conference, festival or gathering anymore without a protest erupting about a mode of representation that triggered someone somewhere. And as people “call each other out” to a chorus of finger snapping, we seem to be rapidly losing all sense of perspective and instead of building alliances, we are dismantling hard fought for coalitions.

Starsearch

 

Much of the recent discourse of offense and harm has focused on language, slang and naming. For example, controversies erupted in the last few months over the name of a longstanding nightclub in San Francisco: “Trannyshack,” and arguments ensued about whether the word “tranny” should ever be used. These debates led some people to distraction, and legendary queer performer, Justin Vivian Bond, posted an open letter on her Facebook page telling readers and fans in no uncertain terms that she is “angered by this trifling bullshit.” Bond reminded readers that many people are “delighted to be trannies” and not delighted to be shamed into silence by the “word police.” Bond and others have also referred to the queer custom of re-appropriating terms of abuse and turning them into affectionate terms of endearment. When we obliterate terms like “tranny” in the quest for respectability and assimilation, we actually feed back into the very ideologies that produce the homo and trans phobia in the first place! In The Life of Brian, Brian finally refuses to participate in the anti-Semitism that causes his mother to call him a “roman.” In a brave “coming out” speech, he says: “I’m not a roman mum, I’m a kike, a yid, a heebie, a hook-nose, I’m kosher mum, I’m a Red Sea pedestrian, and proud of it!

And now for something completely different…The controversy about the term “tranny” is not a singular occurrence; such tussles have become a rather predictable and regular part of all kinds of conferences and meetings. Indeed, it is becoming difficult to speak, to perform, to offer up work nowadays without someone, somewhere claiming to feel hurt, or re-traumatized by a cultural event, a painting, a play, a speech, a casual use of slang, a characterization, a caricature and so on whether or not the “damaging” speech/characterization occurs within a complex aesthetic work. At one conference, a play that foregrounded the mutilation of the female body in the 17th century was cast as trans-phobic and became the occasion for multiple public meetings to discuss the damage it wreaked upon trans people present at the performance. Another piece at this performance conference that featured a “fortune teller” character was accused of orientalist stereotyping. At another event I attended that focused on queer masculinities, the organizers were accused of marginalizing queer femininities. And a class I was teaching recently featured a young person who reported feeling worried about potentially “triggering” a transgender student by using incorrect pronouns in relation to a third student who did not seem bothered by it! Another student told me recently that she had been “triggered” in a class on colonialism by the showing of The Battle of Algiers. In many of these cases offended groups demand apologies, and promises are made that future enactments of this or that theater piece will cut out the offensive parts; or, as in the case of “Trannyshack,” the name of the club was changed.

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As reductive as such responses to aesthetic and academic material have become, so have definitions of trauma been over-simplified within these contexts. There are complex discourses on trauma readily available as a consequence of decades of work on memory, political violence and abuse. This work has offered us multiple theories of the ways in which a charged memory of pain, abuse, torture or imprisonment can be reignited by situations or associations that cause long buried memories to flood back into the body with unpredictable results. But all of this work, by Shoshana Felman Macarena Gomez-Barris, Saidiya Hartman, Cathy Caruth, Ann Cvetkovich, Marianne Hirsch and others, has been pushed aside in the recent wave of the politics of the aggrieved.

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Claims about being triggered work off literalist notions of emotional pain and cast traumatic events as barely buried hurt that can easily resurface in relation to any kind of representation or association that resembles or even merely represents the theme of the original painful experience. And so, while in the past, we turned to Freud’s mystic writing pad to think of memory as a palimpsest, burying material under layers of inscription, now we see a memory as a live wire sitting in the psyche waiting for a spark. Where once we saw traumatic recall as a set of enigmatic symptoms moving through the body, now people reduce the resurfacing of a painful memory to the catch all term of “trigger,” imagining that emotional pain is somehow similar to a pulled muscle –as something that hurts whenever it is deployed, and as an injury that requires protection.

k5715Fifteen to twenty years ago, books like Wendy Brown’s States of Injury (1995) and Anna Cheng’s The Melancholy of Race: Psychoanalysis, Assimilation and Hidden Grief (2001) asked readers to think about how grievances become grief, how politics comes to demand injury and how a neoliberal rhetoric of individual pain obscures the violent sources of social inequity. But, newer generations of queers seem only to have heard part of this story and instead of recognizing that neoliberalism precisely goes to work by psychologizing political difference, individualizing structural exclusions and mystifying political change, some recent activists seem to have equated social activism with descriptive statements about individual harm and psychic pain. Let me be clear – saying that you feel harmed by another queer person’s use of a reclaimed word like tranny and organizing against the use of that word is NOT social activism. It is censorship.

In a post-affirmative action society, where even recent histories of political violence like slavery and lynching are cast as a distant and irrelevant past, all claims to hardship have been cast as equal; and some students, accustomed to trotting out stories of painful events in their childhoods (dead pets/parrots, a bad injury in sports) in college applications and other such venues, have come to think of themselves as communities of naked, shivering, quaking little selves – too vulnerable to take a joke, too damaged to make one. In queer communities, some people are now committed to an “It Gets Better” version of consciousness-raising within which suicidal, depressed and bullied young gays and lesbians struggle like emperor penguins in a blighted arctic landscape to make it through the winter of childhood. With the help of friendly adults, therapy, queer youth groups and national campaigns, these same youth internalize narratives of damage that they themselves may or may not have actually experienced. Queer youth groups in particular install a narrative of trauma and encourage LGBT youth to see themselves as “endangered” and “precarious” whether or not they actually feel that way, whether or not coming out as LGB or T actually resulted in abuse! And then, once they “age out” of their youth groups, those same LGBT youth become hypersensitive to all signs and evidence of the abuse about which they have learned.

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What does it mean when younger people who are benefitting from several generations now of queer social activism by people in their 40s and 50s (who in their childhoods had no recourse to anti-bullying campaigns or social services or multiple representations of other queer people building lives) feel abused, traumatized, abandoned, misrecognized, beaten, bashed and damaged? These younger folks, with their gay-straight alliances, their supportive parents and their new right to marry regularly issue calls for “safe space.” However, as Christina978-0-8223-5470-3_pr
Hanhardt’s Lambda Literary award winning book, Safe Space: Neighborhood History and the Politics of Violence, shows, the safe space agenda has worked in tandem with urban initiatives to increase the policing of poor neighborhoods and the gentrification of others. Safe Space: Gay Neighborhood History and the Politics of Violence traces the development of LGBT politics in the US from 1965-2005 and explains how LGBT activism was transformed from a multi-racial coalitional grassroots movement with strong ties to anti-poverty groups and anti-racism organizations to a mainstream, anti-violence movement with aspirations for state recognition.

And, as LGBT communities make “safety” into a top priority (and that during an era of militaristic investment in security regimes) and ground their quest for safety in competitive narratives about trauma, the fight against aggressive new forms of exploitation, global capitalism and corrupt political systems falls by the way side.

Is this the way the world ends? When groups that share common cause, utopian dreams and a joined mission find fault with each other instead of tearing down the banks and the bankers, the politicians and the parliaments, the university presidents and the CEOs? Instead of realizing, as Moten and Hearny put it in The Undercommons, that “we owe each other everything,” we enact punishments on one another and stalk away from projects that should unite us, and huddle in small groups feeling erotically bonded through our self-righteousness.

I want to call for a time of accountability and specificity: not all LGBT youth are suicidal, not all LGBT people are subject to violence and bullying, and indeed class and race remain much more vital factors in accounting for vulnerability to violence, police brutality, social baiting and reduced access to education and career opportunities. Let’s call an end to the finger snapping moralism, let’s question contemporary desires for immediately consumable messages of progress, development and access; let’s all take a hard long look at the privileges that often prop up public performances of grief and outrage; let’s acknowledge that being queer no longer automatically means being brutalized and let’s argue for much more situated claims to marginalization, trauma and violence. Let’s not fiddle while Rome (or Paris) burns, trigger while the water rises, weep while trash piles up; let’s recognize these internal wars for the distraction they have become. Once upon a time, the appellation “queer” named an opposition to identity politics, a commitment to coalition, a vision of alternative worlds. Now it has become a weak umbrella term for a confederation of identitarian concerns. It is time to move on, to confuse the enemy, to become illegible, invisible, anonymous (see Preciado’s Bully Bloggers post on anonymity in relation to the Zapatistas). In the words of José Muñoz, “we have never been queer.” In the words of a great knight from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, “we are now no longer the Knights who say Ni, we are now the Knights who say “Ekki-ekki-ekki-ekki-PTANG. Zoom-Boing, z’nourrwringmm.”

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