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Interviews – Grace Hong

The Cultural Studies Program’s colloquium series features talks by distinguished scholars from across the disciplines. Graduate student Tauheeda Yasin interviewed Grace Hong, Associate Professor of Gender Studies and Asian American Studies at University of California Los Angeles.


Thank you and welcome to George Mason. We look forward to your talk on your forthcoming book, Death Beyond Disavowal: The Impossible Politics of Difference. Could you talk a little bit about your choice of authors and texts used for the book?

GH: My theoretical framework for the book is a set of texts and theoretical materials that we can loosely call — Women of Color Feminism or that has been called Women of Color Feminism – that emerged as an explicitly articulated category in the late 70s into the 80s to the present. Obviously, this isn’t to say that feminist thoughts and ideas weren’t being articulated by racialized and colonialized women prior to the 70s and 80s, but in the 70s and 80s, a particular set of discourses emerged that tried to theorize the category: Women of Color or Third World Women – so, in the book, I look at and I use as my theoretical framework or my theorists, folks like Audre Lorde, Cherrie Moraga, Barbara Christian, folks like that.

The reason I turned to them is because they emerged in the wake of the social movement, movements for the black freedom, movements for liberation all over the world, desegregation movements, which cannot be subsumed under the rubric of civil rights – desegregation and black freedom movements had a much more expansive vision than the term civil rights articulates. So, in the wake of those movements, and the brutal kind of state crackdown on those movements – on the one hand in the U.S., things like the COINTELPRO and then the CIA versions of those all over the world – so there’s this brutal crackdown on these movements and at the same time a neoliberal ideology that adapts and incorporates some of the ideas and often some of the people of these movements without the kind of structural distributive mechanisms.

So, in that context, this specifically articulated Women of Color Feminism emerges to point that out, to say, “Yes, there is this really brutal crackdown, but on the other hand, a part of what’s going on is this incorporative mode.” As Cathy Cohen points out, a kind of black middle class, post-Civil Rights emerges specifically in positions about managing poor black and brown folks.

You mean specifically the rise of the black social worker and others in those professions?

GH: Yes, social workers, prison guards, parole officers, folks in the clergy had a longer tradition – that’s sort of a part of it – government employees, the folks who work in social security, HUD, that administer AFDC, folks like that. You could also even say, ethnic studies professors — that is a part of the sort of institutional management of revolution. With all of these things, it’s not like people can’t do good work in these contexts, like I would like to believe, but we still have to understand structurally how this happened.

On one level, the work they were doing was incredibly important, but on another level it was sort of mediating – I guess it’s important for both reasons because it’s a way of sort of mediating state violence. So on the one hand, it is a way to protect people from state violence but on the other hand it was also a way to contain people within the rubric of state violence

Could you talk about the genesis of how the book came about?

GH: In about 2002/2003, there just was a lot of, and this is such an odd thing to say, but there was just a lot of death. The U.S. was already in Afghanistan, the war in Iraq started, the brutal shock and awe tactics of U.S. militarism — where it was going in and admittedly and not even pretending otherwise – demonstrating this overwhelming show of violence and force.

At the time, I was teaching at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and my colleague, Nelly McKay, died of cancer. She was this incredibly famous, imminent, incredibly important African-American lit scholar. And she was just one of a string of black feminists who died of cancer and other diseases, so prior to being at Wisconsin, I was at Princeton for a few years, and Claudia Tate, my colleague at Princeton died of brain cancer. Before that, I went to grad school at U.C. San Diego, and Shirley Ann Williams, who is this really incredibly important author and performer creative writing professor died of cancer and those are just the ones at schools I happened to be in – there’s just this huge litany of black feminist scholars in particular, but lots of other women of color, feminists of color, who had died prematurely.

So, I had just such a feeling of feeling overwhelmed and despairing, and I thought, we need to figure out about this so that it doesn’t just turn into a kind of self-defeating sadness and mourning, so I wrote an article exploring [some of these issues].

How does this book relate to your earlier work?

I don’t know if this is the case for everyone else, but this book is kind of me trying to fix all of the things I didn’t do well enough in the first one. So whenever people come up to me and they say, “You know, I read your book…” My response is always, “Oh my god, this next one is so much better.”

Well, you get continuously better, right?

GH: That’s a good way of putting it – as opposed to, oh man! Your past work — what were they thinking? So, my first project was about – it was my attempt to situate Women of Color Feminism as an epistemological critique of racial capital, which is sort of what I think I’m doing in this book as well. That’s my thing!

But, in my first book, I was thinking through the emergence of the propertied subject.

So the ways in which, in U.S. national culture, there is this default subject that is a possessive individual that is articulated through a narrative of self-making and self-possession, and that’s predicated over and against enslaved people, racialized migrants, folks like that – looking at that subject of property and the ways in which it erases the history of the property-less.

I look at American literature as this signal set of texts that narrate this propertied subject and then I look at texts by women of color as having to narrate subjects maybe differently because of these histories of dispossession. And thinking about how that becomes a kind of global phenomenon when we think of the U.S., not just as nation, but always as empire. So, that’s basically it, the structure of the book. I look at the propertied subject in relation to differential histories of dispossession or different racialized groups and I look at the constitution of that subject as a subject of empire and how that imperialist history resonates in the neocolonial movement. That’s the first book. For this book, I wanted to have a more explicitly theorized understanding of the incorporative or assimilative tendencies of neoliberalism and the violences that that produces, so that was something that I started to think about in the first book, but I didn’t quite feel like I had elaborated it very well. So, that’s this book.

In the middle, Robert Ferguson and I coedited this anthology that is about queer and feminist understandings of comparative racialization. Because one of the things that I think with Women of Color Feminism in the late 70s to the present have continuously sort of fought about is what makes out a particular formation – is that it was really concerned with theorizing coalition and solidarity, but not in a kind of homogenizing, third worldist kind of way – so in other words, there is a particular strain of third worldist thought, and this isn’t the only strain of thought, but it tends to be a very dominant one that looks at African-American, Asian-American, or African, Asian, Latino, Native, Middle Eastern, or what have you, these different forms of racialized histories, and sort of sweepingly say – “We’re all of color.” Or “We’re all whatever – and what women of color feminists have pointed out is that when you organize around a banner of commonality, or similarity, what that does is that it actually makes the categories of power – that category of similarity.

So, in other words, even within racial groups, so if you’re organizing Asian Americans, just to take one very specific example, Asian Americans as this homogenous group that’s all supposed to have the same interests, those interests are going to be masculinist and, you know what I mean?

If you sort of organize presuming a homogeneity of interests, the interests that are going to become prioritized are the ones that are going to be the most legible and that already have the most power, and we see this in the mainstream LGBT movement or what have you. So, Women of Color Feminism was all about saying, “No, we do need forms of coalition and solidarity, but it they have to be based on difference as opposed to based on trying to ignore or eradicate all these differences between these groups – because those differences are the things that matter, and differences are not in this happy muti-culty sort of definition of difference – it’s like the difference between you and me might be that a cop shoots me and a cop doesn’t shoot you.

Instead of pretending that difference doesn’t exist, which is really impossible for one set of people, let’s base our coalition on the fact that those differences exist and try to identify why those differences exist and try to eradicate those kinds of violences and try to imagine that things that affect me could be just as much as a priority for you and vice versa.

A part of it is the politics of. People call it identity politics, but it’s actually politics of — when you read what Women of Color Feminists were saying – it’s actually a politics of dis-identification; sort of to say, what if we based our politics not on preserving ourselves, but on recognizing in trying to preserve ourselves, [this] always involves us in a kind of economy that renders other people precarious, while understanding that there are moments where you do have to save yourself – not forgetting the question of at whose cost or at what cost.

If you read Audre Lorde’s work that is exactly what she is saying.

You’ve been reading and researching a lot on Women of Color Feminism – so how would you characterize the field at this current moment and where do you see the future of the field heading?

What I actually see and have tracked is that there is just this huge and consistent level of activity amongst Women of Color Feminists and Black Feminists – not just Women of Color Feminists and Black Feminists – there have been really amazing Native Feminists, Latina Feminists, and from the 70s to the present, continuously. But often, you don’t recognize them.

There’s this very common narrative, this nostalgia narrative, where it’s said, “back in the day, in the 60s, we were so radical and then the COINTELPRO and the prison-industrial complex just decimated black and brown communities; we just have a bunch of apathetic millennials” – there’s this total narrative of nostalgia.

But, that is actually completely ignoring decades of incredible organizing work. We can trace it back for centuries. But, since the social movements of the 60s, there have been all sorts of things about reproductive justice, anti-sterilization abuse, and organizing that is going on in the present — welfare rights organizing. People like Johnny Tillman, and the whole welfare rights organizing, all sorts of amazing queer organizations from all these different contexts. So things like the Audre Lorde project in New York, and even before that, all this organizing that has been happening continuously.

Even if you look at the forms of organizing that are not articulated as women of color projects. It was black women who were the founders of critical resistance, which is now the largest and most important prison abolition movement. It was black women who started “Black Lives Matter”. There are all sorts of folks doing really amazing work on Native and indigenous feminisms. Native women are at the forefront of all of these environmental organizing efforts like the Keystone Pipeline. These women who are organizing around this are these incredible organizers.

I see all of these efforts as a part of this really continuous knowledge, and a lot of younger women explicitly reference whether as just inspiration or just women who mentored them or women who built things – so, [the idea is that] it’s not just me; I would never be able to do this without “so and so”.

Even if they’re these people you’ve never even heard of – because they’re not going to be the charismatic leader — they’re going to be like the Septima Clark and not the Martin Luther King.

I am just in awe of the kind of mobilization and organizing of young women of color and men of color and queer folks and folks who don’t identify with gender, all sorts of folks – after Mike Brown’s murder, there has been a continuous grassroots-based movement in Ferguson that represents one of the longest, working-class action in the history of the U.S. probably – and it’s young folks who are doing it. Those Ferguson folks are so awesome – take no prisoners, no compromise. It’s not like they’re doing it so differently. It’s not like just one charismatic figure has emerged. It’s this community-based organization, operating under the most violent terrorized conditions. Working under those conditions of such extreme vulnerability night after night.

What do you plan to work on next, and what are three recent scholarly texts that you would recommend?

GH: I’ve got this very nebulous next project that I’ve started working on in little pieces that is trying to track transnational anti-colonial antecedents and genealogies for U.S.-based Women of Color Feminism.

For example, at some point in this quarter, probably March, I am going to go out to Atlanta to Spelman College archives – they have Audre Lorde’s papers to see. Audre Lorde is thought of, and increasingly less so because of more and more scholarship about her, as someone who sort of engaged with [and] critiqued, white mainstream feminism, which of course she did, but she actually she had this very, very anti-colonial transnational vision that is especially evident explicitly when the U.S. invaded Grenada, which is where her family is from, so I want to go out and look at her papers to see what her politics where around those things.

A part of it is also about the fact that there are certain immigrant and refugee populations in the U.S. Asian and Latina, and actually more recent, African refugee or immigrant populations whose forms of organizing cannot be tracked back to U.S.–based black power movements or desegregations movements, but could perhaps be tracked-back to other sorts of movements that were happening globally – anti-colonial movements, labor movements, peasant movements – so it’s a very vague [at this point], who knows what the process will look at the end.

I’ve also been working on California-specific things like in collaboration with other scholars in the UC system and stuff like that those are the kinds of things I’m starting.

And three books — Audra Simpson, Mohawk Interruptus. It is so smart – it’s a beautiful ethical ethnography of a Mohawk tribe. What she calls the politics of refusal. I’ve really been loving reading that.

This is a bit of a plug, but there are a couple of books coming out in the book series I edit with Rob Ferguson from Minnesota. One that is coming out is Craig Willse’s book, which is just brilliant, amazing, and wonderful. Another is this book on farmworker futurism by Curtis Morris, who is a scholar at UC San Diego and recent President of the American Studies Association. [It is an] amazing book about the San Joaquin Valley in California.

He looks at the ways in which agribusiness projects this vision of the future that is about eliminating the worker and a kind of mechanized food utopia. But, Curtis’ book also explores this incredible archive of video and art by Chicano artists and filmmakers, also the UFW and the UFW’s use of video archives and a part of their unionizing effort to articulate their own vision of the future – which he calls farmworker futurisms. It’s sort of about speculative fiction and farm work. It’s so interesting and brilliant. They’re just really good books.

Interviews – Ella Shohat

Interviewed by Basak Durgun

What does it mean to bring Cultural Studies and Middle East Studies together? How do you see the relationship between Cultural Studies and Middle East Studies as fields that motivate critical scholarship flourish?

When Cultural studies emerged as an academic field at the University of Birmingham it crucially modified classical Marxism and its base/superstructure axiom. However, over the past three decades, Cultural studies has also been critically engaged by diverse scholars on the left, especially in the emerging fields of critical race studies, gender/sexuality studies, postcolonial studies, and transnational studies. Such scholarly work has assumed the path and the insights provided by this interdisciplinary intellectual work, and absorbed its confluence of diverse disciplines, but at the same time it has also transcended and transformed cultural studies itself. Today, we can speak of the transdisciplinary space of Cultural studies, which is producing exciting works characterized by multi-axis analysis and intersectional perspectives. The impact of the critical methods of Cultural Studies is now clearly visible in a wide array of scholarly work within the humanities and the social sciences. At the same time, the metanarrative for cultural studies as having one genealogy in Birmingham could be transnationalized itself. Robert Stam and I , in this sense, have argued for de-Eurocentrizing a Cultural studies that tends to be focused only on the Anglophone world. We also suggested that outside of the English-Speaking zone many authors and texts could be seen as practicing “cultural studies” avant la lettre in terms of their method and radical thrust.[1]

Whereas Cultural Studies, like the post-Civil Rights formations of Ethnic studies and Women’s studies, emerged and took form “from below,” the various Area studies, as we know, were institutionally formed as a top-down endeavor during the Cold War era. However, Dependency Theory, World-Systems Theory, and Third World Studies, produced cracks in this cold war institution and its neocolonial ideology. Anti- colonialism became a kind of lingua franca in progressive circles. And this noticeable critical corpus was soon joined and engaged by the interventions of poststructuralism and postmodernism. And a critical Cultural Studies has now become a presence in some forms of Area Studies, especially in Latin American studies, Africana studies, and today, quite vitally, in American Studies. It has also impacted the various “nation/language studies,” e.g. “French Studies,” “German Studies,” etc. The traditionally separated disciplinary practices of (some) Area Studies are now transformed universes, not only politically but also methodologically. Scholars of diverse disciplinary backgrounds have challenged the hegemonic academic quarantining of the disciplines. They have generated dynamic intellectual transdisciplinarity work that can fuse for example textual analysis with discursive deconstruction, along with materialist engagement, bringing on board within a multi-perspectival approach, the insights for example of literature, history, ethnography, geography, and cinema/media studies.

Within Middle Eastern Studies, especially since the 1970s, Marxist analysis has provided the critical edge, and challenged the recruitment of scholarship in the service of imperial policies.

But traditional Marxists have tended to treat the post-Marxist field of Cultural Studies with suspicion largely because the category “culture” is seen as the fuzzy realm of “superstructure.” Yet, the critical study of culture, as we know, is embedded in, and not outside the materialist- political process. Cultural Studies offers a critique of “culturalism” (with emphasis on the “ism”) as an essentialist projection of geographies and histories. Instead, it is invested in cultural politics conceived from within an intellectual paradigm where culture and politics are mutually constituted, in and through each other. In contrast to the changing landscape of other Area studies, the position of Cultural Studies in Middle Eastern Studies has remained rather ambivalent. It has tended to be misunderstood and resisted by a variety of ideological forces and disciplinary guardians. “Cultural anthropology” for example has often tended to be, at best, skeptical toward this new interdisciplinary approach to the study of “culture,” which did not adhere to the familiar scientific methods of field-study research and quantifiable empirical data gathering. Even when the subject at hand may overlap with Cultural Studies, the anthropologist, or the historian, who study “culture” usually deploy different research skills and analytical methods. Middle Eastern Studies has been under the disciplinary regime of segregated disciplines, neatly defined as literature, history, anthropology, political science, etc. Therefore, given the long institutional history of the organization of the disciplines, Cultural Studies has had to fight for its legitimacy within Middle Eastern Studies. The decades old question, “Who’s afraid of Cultural studies?” I believe, is still relevant today to Middle Eastern Studies. Scholars across the political spectrum have in fact shared an investment in the prestigious elite-lineage and the “cultural capital” of the disciplines. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that in the U.S., Cultural studies programs have flourished largely in institutions that allowed interdisciplinary experimentation, and “from below” interrogation.

If we take the still ambivalent reception of Edward Said’s Orientalism as evidence, we may learn something about the state of Cultural studies, and its concomitant related field of postcolonial studies within Middle Eastern Studies—a subject I addressed at the plenary session for the book’s 30th anniversary at the Middle East Studies Association.[2] It is not too difficult to understand the attack on the book from the Orientalist quarters of Bernard Lewis, and the ardent believers in the “clash-of-civilizations” thesis. Said’s book– along with the work of his precursors, most notably Anouar Abdel-Malek, A.L. Tibawi, and Maxime Rodinson– is recognized as having generated a kind of an epistemological crisis. However, within Middle Eastern studies there has been lower-grade resistance to Orientalism, simmering even within anti-Orientalist circles. Many may applaud Said’s critique of Orientalism but they also may not feel attuned with Said’s method of reading. The endorsement of Said’s Orientalism within anti- Orientalist Middle Eastern studies has tended to reflect a shared ideological critique, but usually not a methodological one. Middle East scholars who share Said’s anti-Orientalist political position have considered the book problematic, expressing dismay from an “academic” standpoint. These sympathetic critics of Orientalism, usually from the disciplines of history, anthropology, or political science, are ill at ease with the “coverage” of divergent geographies and histories as well as with the engagement of various texts, genres, and institutions.

However, I would argue that it is the Cultural studies method of Orientalism that has led some of our colleagues to shake their heads with disbelief at Said’s text. Although the book invokes many historical issues, it is not a work of “History” per se; rather, it performs an analysis of historically-shaped discourses about how regions and communities are narrated, arranged, and sequenced through an (often) unacknowledged and assumed set of doxa and axiom. Said’s method, as a Cultural Studies text par excellence, entails both the constitution and the reading of a discursive corpus—in this case Orientalism. Cultural Studies has assumed the various structuralist and poststructuralist “turns;” the linguistic turn (Saussure), the discursive turn (Bakhtin and Foucault), and the cultural turn (Jameson). Within Middle Eastern Studies, the critique of Said as a deficient political scientist or historian, or anthropologist, however valid from specific disciplinary perspectives, at the same time sidesteps the book’s main concern with the problem of representation, in terms of rhetoric, figures of speech, narrative structure, and discursive formation. Surely, it is legitimate to point out that Orientalist discourse is not as homogenous as Said suggests, and that it manifests historical and national specificities. At the same time, the construction and the critical dissection of a discourse has been productive, precisely because the analysis discerns, beyond the “trees” of the differences from text to text, the “forest” of the discourse, exposing recurrent leitmotifs manifest across styles, genres, and historical contexts. It is not a matter of choosing “discourse” over “history” – obviously discourse itself is historical and history is discursive; rather, it is a case of highlighting a multi- perspectival approach to the analysis of knowledge production. Whatever the pitfalls of poststructuralist protocols of reading (and critics are certainly right to point them out), such readings can illuminate dimensions that other grids might miss.

Within Middle Eastern Studies the interrelated fields of investigation of cultural studies, postcolonial studies, and transnational studies, have often been seen through the prism of a rather gendered tropology of “soft” and “hard” knowledges. The heated debates over Said’s Orientalism have focused on “hard” knowledge, i.e. ideology and politics. It is as if the study of the politics of culture is viewed as marginal to the “real” debate over Orientalism, i.e. the ideological – political debate. But Said’s critique bears precisely on the inextricable nexus between the supposedly “hard” institutional power and the supposedly “soft” power of culture. Said’s political critique cannot be detached from his cultural critique. Indeed, the assumption that politics and culture are thoroughly imbricated forms the cornerstone of that post-Marxist field of Cultural studies as a field that deploys Gramsci to reconfigure the base/superstructure relation, within an intellectual paradigm where culture and politics are mutually constituted, in and through each other. The interdisciplinary space of cultural politics offers opportunities for an expanded notion of the very geography of “the Middle East” to view it transnationally. Increasingly, a vibrant and growing field of scholarship has taken on board such questions as the new technologies that instantaneously link the globe and the back-and-forth movements across borders of commodities and communities. Such work addresses neo-Orientalism not only in relation to the Middle East per se but also in and around it; for example through work on the transnational reception of Middle Eastern literature, cinema, music and visual arts, and its impact on the “self-Orientalizing” of Middle Eastern cultural production; on the politics of translation of novels and memoirs within gendered Orientalist paradigms; on globalized digital technologies as actively mediating and shaping of identities beyond national boundaries. Taken as an ensemble, such work analyzes cultural formations and practices as at once national and transnational, local and global.

For those of us engaged in the ongoing project of deconstructing the essentialist paradigms undergirding knowledge production about the Middle East (and for that matter about any other geography) the critical dissection of Orientalism is far from over. In fact, Middle Eastern Studies departments and the Middle East Studies Association have themselves been subjected to the panoptical gaze. Scholars critical of Orientalist rhetoric and policy have been watched on their campuses. In this tale, Said’s corrupting influence marks the beginning of a downward spiral for the field of Middle Eastern studies. The critics of Orientalism are subjected to reductivist caricatures, widespread in the public sphere. And especially since 9/11 an old/new Orientalist moment, this time largely channeled via Islamophobia, has forcefully targeted academic freedom of the so-called “tenured radicals.” The recent case of the firing of Steven Salaita from his tenured position suggests that even tenure for those critical voices of “imperial reason” hardly offers a safe haven. One key issue for cultural studies has indeed been the examination of academic institutions, and the ways in which this arena is managed and regulated. For example, to generate knowledge that looks into the analogies and links between the ways diverse indigenous peoples are treated, represented, and studied, transgresses a taboo. What cultural studies, and the concomitant fields of postcolonial, transnational, indigenous, and diasporic studies has made possible– is to illuminate the linked analogies that tends to be obscured by traditional academic formations. Bringing Cultural studies methods to bear on Middle East studies therefore remains a crucial task because it demands a historicized study of the politics of culture; it requires that we disentangle the binarist notion of “here” and “there” in an effort to transcend a ghettoized mapping of the diverse regions of the world by highlighting what could be called “inter-Area studies” perspectives.

If we may be looking for reasons for optimism, then, I would say it is to be found in this vital growing trend of producing of transdisciplinary work that lies in the interstices between the various Area studies. The study of cross-border movements through “inter-Area studies” approaches de-territorializes regions as stable objects of study, and offers new angles on the ongoing critique of the essentialist fixity of East-versus-West and North-versus-South in work that audaciously continues to challenge the so-called “passé” critique of Orientalism. The nexus of “culture” and “politics” remains foundational for what can be called “Middle Eastern Cultural Studies.” The intersectionality of regions and cartographies of knowledge allow us to redraw dynamic maps of scholarly terrain, stretching and broadening the field. It allows us to forge reciprocally haunting connections between divergent yet historically linked zones, in order to demonstrate the potentialities of cross-border mutual illuminations. The nexus of “culture” and “politics” is foundational for discussing the Middle East, and for that matter all regions. The decolonization of knowledge begins by deconstructing Eurocentric epistemologies as well as by interrogating nationalist and essentialist analytical frameworks; ideas must be situated within multiple points of entry and departures. Such a transnational, relational, and diasporic reading forges reciprocally haunting connections between divergent yet historically linked colonized zones, in order to demonstrate the potentialities of cross-border mutual illuminations. Ultimately, it is not a question of migratory demographics, of merely following a population from its originary base into new geographical zones. Instead, it is a question of taking seriously what could be called the “diasporic turn,” of thinking all regions, including the Middle East/North Africa itself, in a profoundly diasporic manner, where each geography constitutes not a point of origin or final destination, but rather one terminal in a transnational network.

In your talk, “The Question of Judeo-Arabic(s): Itineraries of Belonging”, you suggested to transnationalize the discussion of narratives of belonging. The case you are working with and your position is a strong challenge to the mythology of nationalism as an emancipatory strategy. Building on this critique, how can we think about anti-colonial struggle today trans-nationally?

My work on “the question of Judeo-Arabic” attempts to continue my reflections on “the question of the Arab-Jew,” but this time explored through the lens of dialect/language. Against the conceptual binarism that mandates that “Jew” and “Arab” be antonyms, I argue that the linguistic/cultural question of “Judeo-Arabic” is inseparable from the ethnic/religious concept of the “Arab-Jew.” I inquire into the genealogy of the term “Judeo-Arabic language,” and its current wide circulation and axiomatic ontology. Considering the elastic designations used by Jewish speaking-subjects to refer to their various speech/dialects, I ask whether we should regard the notion of “Judeo-Arabic language” as “natural” and normative or as reflective of conceptual paradigms developed under the twin influence of post-Haskala (or Enlightenment) Judaic studies and Jewish nationalism. While recognizing some of the specificities of the Arabic(s) written and spoken by Jews, I want to interrogate the view of “Judeo-Arabic” as always-already belonging to the (relatively recent) category of “Jewish languages.” The idea of a “Judeo-Arabic language” is ultimately premised on its severance from its contextual “linguistic family”– Arabic. What is posited as the uniqueness associated with “Jewish languages” could be better reformulated as a broad range of overlapping specificities to be examined within a cross-border and relational perspective, through the accommodating prism of differentiated commonalities. Highlighting the continuity between Judeo-Arabics (with emphasis on the plural) and their ambient regional Arabics, I suggest that “Judeo-Arabic,” like the Arabic of which it forms a part, is polyphonic and hetreoglossic; it is host to multiple accents and regional dialects.

Highlighting multiple relationalities between Judeo-Arabic and a number of related languages and similar Arabic dialects (and not solely linked to other Jewish languages), I deploy the notions of “Jewish languages” and “Judeo-Arabic” as concepts under erasure, using the terms while simultaneously deconstructing them. I raise the question about the etymology of the notion “Judeo-Arabic language” itself, and position the textual dislocation of Arab-Jewish documents — specifically the 19th Century scattering of the Egyptian Geniza from Cairo to Cambridge and other academic and cultural institutions — as anticipating the physical/demographic dispersal of Arab-Jews themselves in the wake of the partition of Palestine, the establishment of Israel, and the Arab/Israeli conflict. I then detail the way in which, with the Enlightenment, the Haskala, and later with Zionism, the Orientalist schema began to be projected exclusively toward “the other” Semitic figure — “the Arab” — with the Arab-Jew coming to occupy an ambivalent position. Judeo-Arabic was categorized as a language separate from Arabic, a “Jewish Diaspora language” to be “disappeared” given the Zionist resurrection of the Jewish national language– (Europeanized) Hebrew. As a result it have been relegated to the position of a lost object to be recuperated by academic study. Against this history, I examine communication across dialects and with multiplicities within languages. Instead of an Arabic / Hebrew polarity, I try to mine the residues of Arabic(s) in Hebrew literature and simultaneously stresses the imaginary aspect of “Judeo-Arabic(s)” as both rejected and desired in the wake of its dislocation from the Arabic- speaking world. In contrast to the nationalist premise that informs the notion of “Jewish Languages,” I try to transnationalize and relationalize the discussion, illuminating the ways in which the notion of “Judeo-Arabic” has been conceptualized as “distinct” from Arabic while also being linked to a historically recently invented category of “Jewish languages.”

I pointed out that on its long list of languages Fulbright categorizes “Arabic” and “Judeo-Arabic” as separate languages. Apart from the variety of Arabic dialects spoken by Jews, Fulbright does not offer a similar separate linguistic status to many various Arabic dialects. In this sense the Zionist metanarrative of separating Jewish expression in Arabic from the wider Arabic culture has “travelled” to the U.S. But by critiquing the Zionist metanarrative my point is not to produce Arabic ethno-nationalist essentialism. As a situated utterance, the notion of “Judeo-Arabic” must be used conjuncturally, as always-already in flux and under erasure, to be simultaneously deployed and deconstructed. Despite a history of rupture and discontinuity, Judeo-Arabic (or more precisely “the Arabic(s) deployed by Jews”), remains intimately linked, even across the Israeli/Arab divide, to a living and variegated assemblage of variations on an Arabic theme. I therefore cast doubt about the premises of the “endangered language” discourse, which refuses to make links across national borders. In fact, I ask: could it be that the recovery project reproduces the very same conceptual binarism that produced the disappearance of “the language” in the first place? Pointing to living similar Arabic vernaculars across the borders suggests that even “disappearance” is a product of Hebrew nationalist fear of Arabic. The “Judeo” in “Judeo- Arabic” tends to enact a kind of severance from the realm of Arabic. The examples of Arabic dialects spoken by Jews in Israel, the U.K., etc, indicate that Arabics have been “infiltrating” modern Hebrew along a broad cultural-discursive-mediatic spectrum that includes literary texts, popular songs, films, and everyday speech; which is why I tried to highlight the persistence of Arabic-Hebrew syncretism. I traced the presence of Arabic(s), for example, within Hebrew literature. In other words, despite a history of traumatic discontinuity and rupture, Judeo- Arabic(s) continue to live on in literary writing, music, performance, and within multiple virtual sites. I stressed the phantasmatic dimension of “Judeo-Arabic” as a linguistic entity simultaneously rejected (due to its Arabic affiliation, a language that belongs to the presumed arch-enemy) but also desired (especially by those who crossed the border and forced to abandon it). Thus despite dislocation from Arabic-speaking cultural geographies in the wake of colonial and national practices, belonging must be understood transnationally. The case of “Judeo- Arabic” suggests that the persistence of essentialist and reductivist ethnonationalism has affected every realm, including scholarly definitions and academic projects. And my purpose was to destabilize the fixed categories, to highlight cultural syncretism, to diasporize the notion of “national culture,” and altogether to transnationalizing the discussion.

Nationalism in the service of colonialism could be defined as regressive, and at the same time could be seen as progressive when used in the fight against oppression, especially given the lack of power symmetry between the nationalism of colonial powers and the nationalism of anti- colonial movements. But to critique colonialism and imperialism can avoid the pitfalls of essentialist ethno-nationalism even when— understandably — used as weapons of the weak. It is one thing to critique colonialism; it is another to (re)produce homogenous nationalism, which often has ended up excluding, oppressing, and displacing communities within post-independence nation-state. Already with the fall of the Ottoman Empire redefinitions of identities and massive dislocations began to take place. After World War Two, with decolonization and partitions, the process has only intensified, and life shifted for many communities, with population transfers that resulted in numerous transmutations of identity. Some have been for decades shorn of citizenship (such as ’48 Palestinians in refugee camps, displaced over and over); while others (like the Arab Jews) partake of a citizenship that does not necessarily correspond to the complexity of their cultural identity. But apart from the realpolitik of forming nationalist movements and nation-states, the question of the very idea of nationalism and nation-states has been deeply interrogated– rightfully so—by diverse scholars, examining the invention of traditions, imagined communities etc. To think transnationally is to go against the grain of nationalism as a “natural” phenomenon, and to historicize the emergence of this formation. But it is also a mode of producing analytical grids that transcend nationalist and nation-state conceptual frameworks. The transnational prism can account for the connectivities between diverse cultural geographies, and inform the ongoing critique of today’s neo-imperialism. It would probably be safe to say that all nations are, on one level, transnations, existing in a translational relationality of uneven interlocution. Instead of discussing belonging, culture, and intellectual works in terms of clear nation-state boundaries, we can highlight the transnational interconnectedness of ideas. Even the ideas of nationalist thinkers proliferated in borrowings, indigenizations, and adaptations. Paradoxically the “us-and-them” discourse betrays the co-implication of histories and geographies, and blur the lines between “inside” and “outside.” Nationalist ideas were not produced in a national vaccum; and they can be defined as “transnational” avant la letre. In Race in Translation, Robert Stam and I argue that the movement of ideas is multidirectional, with diverse points of entry and exit. Nationalist ideas too, formed part of a multi-directional flow connected to cross-border circuitries. The anti-colonial and postcolonial critique is also a site of a plurilogue across multiple locations. The diverse critical race/coloniality projects have drawn on a range of discourses not reducible to a national origin, especially given the post-colonial dislocations of many of the intellectuals themselves. Ideas are in transit; they are reaccentuated as they circulate through various zones in a back-and-forth that transcends an idiom of origin/copy, native/foreign, and export/import, within narratives that foreground the in-between of languages and discourses.

To critique today’s forms of neo-imperialism within a transnational approach we have first to go beyond the notions of “us and them” and “over there”/ ”back here.” The “us and them” is supposed to mean that all Americans and Middle Easterners, for example, are of one mold and of one mind. But in fact all nation-states are multiple, of many minds; each cultural geography is a conflictual field of debates and questions and power struggles. Despite the current Islamophobia, the “us/them” dichotomy does not apply in relation to Arabs and Muslims, the ultimate “other” of our times. “They” (Middle Easterners) not only live among “us,” “they” also often share (whether living in the Middle East or in the U.S>) the same human values and aspirations. The construction of the Arab/Muslim Middle East as fundamentally alien is largely a product of neo- Orientalist books by Bernard Lewis, Samuel Huntington, Thomas Friedman, Francis Fukayama, Richard Perle and David Frum, all of whom claim, or imply, that the Islamic World, which they project as homogenous, is inherently incapable of adjusting to globalized, democratic “modernity.” But in fact “we are them” and “they are us.” First, Islamic fundamentalism, like Christian fundamentalism and Jewish (especially nationalist) fundamentalism, could be seen as a product of Modernity, even while invoking millennial past. Second, some of “us” are indeed Muslims and/or Arabs, just as some of “them” (i.e. Arabs) are Christians and Jews. In the end, there is no “them,” only “them-ization;” no exotics, only exoticization; no “others,” only otherization.

Just as neo-imperialism operates globally, its critique has to be formulated transnationally. The border between “us” and “them” is often blurred and constantly shifting, more a mirage than a wall. At the time of the Spanish Inquisition, it was the Christians against the Jews and Muslims, united culturally and in their common victimization, but today, the Christian right pits the Christian and Jews (at least up to a point) against the Muslims. Even the quintessential present- day “them,” the Islamic Jihadists, were not always a “them” for the U.S. In the 1980s the Jihadists were highly respectable, openly running CIA-supported recruiting centers in Brooklyn and training in US camps. Sylvester Stallone offered a pop-culture version of pro-mujahideen discourse in his film Rambo III, where the Vietnam Vet lonely-cowboy vigilante fights with Afghan Muslims against the Communists. Although in the aftermath of 9/11 George W. Bush claimed that the jihadists “hate our freedom,” Ronald Reagan, two decades earlier, called the Jihadists “freedom fighters” combating “the Evil Empire.” In 1985, on the White House Lawn, Reagan introduced the mujahideen as “the moral equivalent of the Founding Fathers.” Thus “us” and “them” have an uncanny way of changing places, since who could be more “us” than the Founding Fathers? Are “they” not the very quintessence of “us-ness?”

In Flagging Patriotism, Robert Stam and I argued that the fictive idealized “we” of the imagined togetherness of a nation is almost always forged with and against other nations.[3] At its best, this process of comparative self-definition produces individuation and national maturity. At its worst, it denies all sense of commonality and shared humanity to become a ritual process of projectively scapegoating, whereby animosity toward “others” provides, or appears to provide, a unifying “glue” for a fractured society. Yet in another sense nations always define themselves as qualitatively different from and in partial opposition to other nations. For example, the U.S. and France have historically defined themselves “against” their neighbors and victims and enemies. Official France has historically defined itself against the Muslim world (Charles Martel and the Crusades), against Great Britain, Germany, and even at times the United States, at the time of the Iraq War. Official United States has defined itself with and against Native Americans internally and externally against Great Britain (the Revolutionary War), Spain (the Spanish-American War), Germany and Japan (the World Wars), the Soviet Union (the Cold War), and now the Islamic world (the War on Terror). National mythologies provide warm and fuzzy fables of unity to “cover over” what are actually extremely conflictual histories. The educational systems of most states propogate these myths for the benefit of schoolchildren. Montesquieu mocked this kind of provincial arrogance in his famous satirical question — “How can one possibly be Persian?” – which implied an amazement that any other society might ever choose not to do things exactly as we do them, or to not think exactly as we think.

One of the key issues for intellectuals engaged in the politics of culture is to highlight the ways in which such dichotomies are misleading. Nationalism also creates fictions of virtue, but in fact it is safe to say that all modern nation states have been born in violence. Their very foundations involve suppression and mandatory forgetting. In the case of the Zionist masternarrative and Arab-Jews, I addressed it as “taboo memories,” and highlighted the counterpoint of “diasporic voices,” calling for “diasporic reading.”[4] The prism of the transnational helps us expose neo- imperial fictional inventions, which often undermine the complexity of cultural geographies and the relationship between them. Anti-colonial critique must not be built on purist narratives of belonging; which is why I believe transnational and translational cross-border perspectives are vital. The critique of neo-imperialism has to expose pernicious forms of nationalist exceptionalism, and also not succumb to “causey” essentialist ethno-nationalist explanations. Nation-states are complex, conflictual, and multiple. In Flagging Patriotism we argued that alongside the internal scapegoating (gender / sexuality, class, race, etc.) within nations, the external form of scapegoating has to do with foreign policy and military budgets. After victory over real enemies (the Axis Powers) in World War II, what Eisenhower called the “military- industrial complex” in the United States became more and more powerful, and more and more in need of enemies as a justification for the enormous expenditures of the military budget. For almost half a century, the Cold War served this purpose; huge expenditures were necessary because of the Soviet threat. With the demise of the Cold War, and the military/political establishment’s reluctance to pay the American people the much-promised “peace dividend,” the search was on for new enemies, for “new axes of evil” which might justify expenditures exceeding those of any other nation, indeed beyond any other combination of nations. Bin Laden, and now the variety of Islamicist ideologies, stepped into this vacuum, and provided a perfect rationale for endless war and endless expense, all part of the “military Keynesianism” of the “corporate warriors” and the ruling oligarchy. Scapegoating, the demonization of enemies, and the inflation of threats by now form an integral part of the process of political manipulation, a constellation of strategies which serve to justify the draining away of resources into the bottomless pit of military-corporate desire especially when the government gets taken over by a group of neo-cons calling for preventive wars against a long list of “rogue states.”

The same people who hyped the Soviet threat during the 1980s, even at very moment that the Soviet Empire was about to implode, and who were hyping the danger of “rogue states” on the eve of the War on Iraq, have been hyping the dangers of terrorism, even as their policy of “the War in Iraq” – at least in some ways– generated the terrorism. The catastrophe has caused ongoing Iraqi suffering with colossal dislocations of all communities, with people who have been massively raped, wounded, mutilated, and killed. Iraqis of diverse backgrounds are faced now with daily battles for survival in the face of economic chaos, political corruption, and sectarian violence; they face illnesses due to devastated infrastructure (health, education, electricity, sewage, etc.) and environmental disaster that has resulted in polluted water, land, and air— all with little end in sight. Sinan Antoon’s novel The Corpse Washer offers a powerfully moving requiem for post-2003 Iraq.[5] The protagonist of traditional Shi’ite family of corpse washers, who wanted to become a sculptor joins Baghdad’s Academy of Fine Arts during the Saddam Hussein era, but violence in the wake of 2003 invasion that unleashes sectarian violence, forces him back to washing and shrouding corpses. Through the protagonist’s point of view, the reader is shuttled back-and-forth between the nightmarish dreams and the nightmarish reality that leaves the reader in a no-exit situation, just like the corpse washer protagonist; and just like the ultimate protagonist– the devastated Iraq. As in Antoon’s earlier novel I’jam, the reader has sometimes to determine the status of an interior monologue– is it inside the protagonist’s mind or outside?[6] And ultimately it matters little since it all flows into one stream of a hellish existence. But even in death there is no solace or peace. As one of the character in The Corpse Washer says: “If we the living are worthless then what are the dead worth?” Hell is on earth, as the Existentialists used to remind us, but here ironically it is located in the very mythical Mesopotamian site of paradise. The ritual of preparing the corpse — or the mutilated body parts– for the next world is gradually emptied of its Shi’a specificity, becoming a metaphor for the country’s burial as a whole. Mosques, museums, libraries, monuments, statues, books join the civilizational rubble. And yet even in this macabre space, daily acts of kindness and generosity across the sectarian divide makes life possible for the many who have experienced one traumatic loss after another with no end in sight. Humorous exchanges also underline human complexity, and take us away from news sensationalism– of “suicide bomber” or “siyara mufakhakha.” I found utterly beautiful the novel’s delicate portrayal of the alphabet of love, care, and respect in the face of unspeakable acts. The protagonist may speak of a drained heart but the novel’s heart palpitates with empathy. And this solidarity is precisely the vehicle through which the novel offers transcendence of Iraq’s “us and them” sectarianism, and by implication any scapegoating on a global scale.

Internal and external forms of scapegoating are intimately woven together. In the U.S. what Dubois called the “color line” runs through both forms. Both the internal scapegoat and the external enemy are as likely as not to be black or brown or of “Middle Eastern appearance.” The shrinking of civil liberties in the post 9/11 period was first tried out on Americans with Muslim names or of Muslim religion. And since the end of the cold war, the face of the external enemy as well is likely to be brown or yellow, not only because of the bad colonial habit of racialization, but also because “brown” countries – Grenada, Iraq, Afghanistan – are weak, “attackable” “doable” countries, just as on a domestic level, blacks and browns, as we know from watching any “Cops” show, are abusable, while corrupt executives are not. The massive world-wide protests against the Iraq War, including within the United States, the immense success of the “Social Forums” held in Porto Alegre and Mumbai, along with many satellite Forums elsewhere, including in the U.S., point to the fact that millions believe that an alternative to unilateral militarism is possible; that globalization from below is necessary. In a performative act ISIS stood on the border of Iraq and Syria, and symbolically erased the lines drawn by the Sykes–Picot agreement. We must challenge the ideology and violent methods used by modern fundamentalists. And at the same time, continue to question the legitimacy of the colonial drawing lines in the sand. As students of cultural politics our role it to persist providing multi- axis analysis and multi-perspectival understanding of history, which would help think through the interwoven and intersected factors, and also through “the dissonant polyphonies” in political solidarity when contradictions and fissures are inevitable.[7]


[1] Ella Shohat / Robert Stam, “De-Eurocentrizing Cultural Studies: Some Proposals” in Internationalizing Cultural Studies: An Anthology, Ackbar Abbas and John Nguyet Erni, eds., Blackwell Publishing, 2005, pp. 481-98; And also Race in Translation: Culture Wars around the Postcolonial Atlantic , New York University Press, 2012, pp. 1-363.
[2] See Ella Shohat, “On the Margins of Middle Eastern Studies: Situating Said’s Orientalism,” Special Section: On Orientalism at Thirty, in Review of Middle Eastern Studies (published plenary session lecture, MESA 2008), 43:1 (Summer 2009) pp. 18-24. See also Evelyn Alsultany / Ella Shohat eds. Between the Middle East and the Americas: The Cultural Politics of Diaspora, The University of Michigan Press, 2013, pp. 1-348.
[3] Robert Stam / Ella Shohat Flagging Patriotism: Crises of Narcissism and Anti-Americanism, Routledge, 2007, pp. 1-378.
[4] See both Ella Shohat’s Israeli Cinema: East/West and the Politics of Representation (first published in 1989, pp.1-248), New Edition with a new extensive Postscript Chapter (pp. 249- 319), London, I.B. Tauris, 2010, pp. 1-377; and Taboo Memories, Diasporic Voices, Duke University Press, 2006, pp. 1-406.
[5] Sinan Antoon The Corpse Washer, Yale University Press, 2013.
[6] Sinan Antoon, I’jam: An Iraqi Rhapsody, City Lights Books, 2007.
[7] On the negotiation of contradictions within solidarity spaces, and on the notion of “dissonant polyphonies,” see Ella Shohat, “Introduction” to her edited volume Talking Visions: Multicultural Feminism in a Transnational Age, the New Museum, MIT Press in collaboration with the New Museum, 1998, pp 1-575.


Interviews: Caetlin Benson-Allott


In Killer Tapes and Shattered Screens you offer close readings of films within the horror genre to confront paranoia wrought by the new technology of the video tape. You argue that films within this particular genre make visible “motion pictures’ relationship to distribution and exhibition.” Can you further explain why you chose to focus on horror?

In terms of why of I chose horror, there is the highfalutin’ reason and there is the real reason, but they are closely related. The real reason is that I chose horror is that horror is the genre that I know best. I spent my childhood watching horror movies rented from the video store. Why as a small child did I get into horror at my local video store? Because horror more than almost any other genre, exploded in the 1980s from the direct-to-video market. So, the reason I was watching so much horror as a video kid in the ‘80s is because that’s what my video store had. Granted, they also had Kurosawa, and eventually I started watching Kurosawa. But, horror was a personal archive, and when I started delving into how the money from video revenue changed film production in the 1980s, I realized that what seemed like an idiosyncratic choice was in fact entirely overdetermined by the funding structures of film-making in the 1980s.

 Yes. In the book you clearly point to the fact that low-budget horror films generated in the 1980s were intentionally geared towards the VHS platform, which is a completely different market from the cinema.

Right, so it’s a completely different kind of viewer, a different apparatus, a different architectural space, different lighting conditions. The argument of the book is that we see filmmakers working through the question of how the viewer’s temporal control [due to the VHS platform] affects the way that narratives will arranged, or depth of field will be arranged, or what-have-you.

At times in Killer Tapes and Shattered Screens the text is anthropomorphized in that it can speak. How does the text speak its meaning, and through what mediations is that meaning produced?

For me, the text speaks because the film or movie is the product of collective effort on the part of a few dozen to a few hundred people, and so, except where there is historical evidence to do so, it doesn’t make sense to me to talk about the filmmaker or filmmakers. I don’t go in for auteurist criticism unless there’s a prevailing historical reason why we should. And yet, I think that films do convey messages – they teach us about the world that we live in. So, who would we say is talking then? If we can’t say it’s a filmmaker, and unless we have access to historical information, we can’t say who on lighting design, or which of the camera people made a specific decision, then I see the film as the collective voice of this not undifferentiated, but anonymous collective behind the work and all of the social forces that are conditioning its production.

In Killer Tapes and Shattered Screens you delineate a shift from cinematic spectatorship to post-cinematic spectatorship and explicate the VHS platform as having a direct effect on a spectator’s subjectivity. Are we now in the age of post-post-cinematic spectatorship, or digitized spectatorship, given the myriad of media platforms that have emerged?

I would say that we’re still in an era of post-cinematic spectatorship, and the reason that I say that is because, as was the case with VHS and DVD, the cinema still holds this cultural capital, this symbolic place in the distribution chain. As long as cinema continues to be a screen through which we understand movie consumption then I would call this a post-cinematic era. Because of the advertising revenue and promotional tie-ins that come with a cinematic premiere, I don’t see this post-cinematic era ending anytime soon. If I had to be a prognosticator, I would say that within the next five years, the studios will figure out how to embrace second-screen spectatorship, how to incorporate your cell phone into cinematic viewing, and we will see a boost in cinematic spectatorship again.

How do you think identifications with mechanisms of power have changed as a result of new digitized platforms?

What’s really interesting to me right now is the prevalence of Video On Demand, which various cable distributors and media conglomerates have been trying to push for over a decade, maybe more like fifteen years at this point. And now it is becoming the norm of televisual spectatorship, whether it’s DVR–create your own On Demand–or actual On Demand. And yet what does On Demand really mean? In some ways it’s like ordering at a restaurant where you can never order off-menu.

It’s a prix-fixe menu.

It’s a prix-fixe menu, yes. Demand – and this is what I get into in the conclusion of Killer Tapes and Shattered Screens is a control over temporality, but it’s not power. I’ll say more about that in the talk this afternoon.

Yes, in the last chapter of Killer Tapes and Shattered Screens you really specify that it is simply this idea of power that the VHS platform allows for, because the spectator is circumscribed within a menu of play, fast-forward, pause; it’s only temporal power that the spectator has. On Demand is the same in that it is such a limited scope of power; I can press play, but I have to choose from a predetermined list of options.

Yes, and the list is shorter than it’s ever been before. It’s shorter than the limited number of video tape options or DVD options than you had in a Blockbuster, which is a shorter list than you had in the independent video stores that preceded Blockbuster. So, it’s control over a certain arena, and that arena is always diminishing as our temporal “powers” seem to be increasing.

Somehow it doesn’t feel that way though; it feels like we have more choices, like we in fact do have increasing power, which is something I might argue is another illusion successfully conjured by the industry.

Yes. Unless you want something that hasn’t been advertised to you. When you go in and you look, you see a plethora. Whenever I turn on Netflix, even though we always complain about the limited options there, the interface is very well set-up to show you a cornucopia of entertainment options. If you’re interested in Czechoslovakian film though, you’re out of luck. If you want to watch Bergman’s oeuvre, you’re out of luck. I was just talking with some of my undergraduates who were complaining that I make them watch so many things, and they don’t have time,  claiming they can watch them after they graduate. And I said, no, you can’t! You’re going to have to buy them after you graduate. There are no more lending libraries where you have access to everything. Where are you going to go to get access to the entire set of Kurosawa other than a Barnes and Noble or an Amazon? You’re going to have to buy it, whereas I used to be able to rent it for a dollar a day at Lincoln Video. And that’s scary, right? That’s the limitation of choice.

In Killer Tapes and Shattered Screens you point to the anxiety of the MPAA in regards to VHS tapes and piracy, and offer a close reading of The Ring that explicates the threat and subsequent paranoia that this new technology presents for production companies. In an age where illicit downloading and free access is normative on the internet, do you see similar texts being produced now that convey new anxieties about the current, accessible forms of audiovisual technology?

I think that we were seeing that with the faux-footage horror movies, which have tapered off. Whenever you get a cycle of films produced cheaply and rapidly on the same subject over a period of roughly five to ten years, you get a bell curve, but I think we’re at the bottom of the bell curve vis-a-vis faux footage horror. But, when we saw a lot of reporting in the industry and the popular press about The Pirate Bay and public anxiety on behalf of the studios, that is when we also saw a lot of faux-footage horror movies. So that was the connection I wanted to make about piracy for the 2000s.

What I think is interesting about piracy now is the way that some studios, like Warner Bros. (who is really kind of leading the pack on this), have embraced piracy as a research tool. If you want to find out what people actually want to see, look at what they’re downloading. Warner Bros. has said that they’re still tracking piracy, but no longer prosecuting. So now, I think you might be able to say that many of the movies that we’re going to see coming out of the big corporate studios are shaped by piracy. When piracy becomes market research, and market research is the dominant logic of conglomerate filmmaking, then piracy becomes the predominant logic of conglomerate filmmaking.

I think it explains a lot about the superhero cycle, which is just refusing to die. There are a lot of other forces there. Most of them to do with conglomerate logic and synergy, but these movies do incredibly well on the pirate market; they’re very popular on torrent boards. I see that as a confirming logic for the perpetuation of this cycle. Ours is a very conservative film industry; they’re not breaking new ground and spending $150 million dollars to ask “will you like this? Do you want to try something new?” That’s not how they work.

Right, and the extraordinary cost of those films obviously dictates that they know that it will make a profit, and they continue to do it.

Yes, and that’s another reason why I was more interested in horror movies, because the budget on these films is minuscule by comparison. So distributors and studios are much more willing to take a risk and do something that is a response to a prevailing cultural anxiety or political issue because they’re doing it for $30 million instead of $200 million.

In “How the Remote Control Rewired the Home,” and presumably in Remote Control, you discuss the remote control as a technological advancement that altered the nature of spectatorship. Why the remote control?

At the end of Killer Tapes and Shattered Screens I use this incredible quote I found from Robert Stam, “His or Her Majesty the Spectator” with as scepter the remote control. I was just incredibly struck by that image. I was finishing up Killer Tapes and Shattered Screens and challenging myself to go beyond filmic or movie representations of video culture or video technology, and actually grab the thing itself.

I thought of Stam’s quote, and I thought about how, when I started my first paper on The Ring in my second year of graduate school, how annoyed I was that there were no books in television studies that were histories of television console design. There has been some good work on it, of course, but I wanted a design history of the television set, and such a thing did not exist. You could get a little bit from Lynn Spigel and you could get a little bit from Anna McCarthy, but I ended up focusing on the remote control instead of doing a bigger book, a bigger history of television design, because of that Stam quote.

I started to think that, as interesting as the television console is, since the mid-1980s the remote control has been our dominant tactile and psychic connection to the television. I decided that, if the period of analysis that I’m branding myself with is the 1980s on, then rather than consoles I should be focusing on remotes. I did a fast search to see well, when was the first remote control? It was 1929, for a radio receiver. That was it, I was hooked. Because, I asked, why would you need a remote control for a radio receiver? And why had I never heard that remote controls started in the 1920s? This was the aha moment; I thought this was a weird problem, and I wanted to figure it out. I wanted to know why no one has written about remote control history, and how it would change our understanding of spectatorship and the televisual viewer if we read that subject position through the history of a single object.

In “How the Remote Control Rewired the Home” you point out that the universal remote control never became popular because most people feel that assigning so much power to one device is risky. Why is the remote control distinct from, for example, a smartphone in this sense in terms of creating an anxiety around a singularly powerful technological object?

With the remote control, I’m tracing it back to the anxiety about controlling radio when it first came into the home in 1929. Radio becomes the first broadcast medium to penetrate the private sphere. It’s not the first mass medium, and it’s not the first entertainment medium, but you bring a phonograph into your house, you bring a newspaper into your house. These [radio’s] voices are just there; even when you turn off the radio, they’re around. There was a lot of cultural nervousness, and some really great fiction, some horror stories, around this anxiety about the information in the air at the turn of the century.

So, I think the remote control becomes part of a dialectic between the medium and the listener where the remote control allows the listener to believe that they are in control of the voices entering their house. Yet, at the same time, its physical presence in the house reminds the listener that the medium is taking control of the house, which makes the listener want more control. The more control they have, the more aware they are of how the media is controlling them, and they want more control, and the media controls them, etcetera. I think the universal remote is the apotheosis of this trend. It seems like the scepter of total control, but once it has total control – not you, but it – then you’re forced to realize that it’s now the hub of the system, not you.

Whenever we lose the remote, we’re helpless. We have this existential encounter with the void, with our own powerlessness. Because we’re not the center of the media universe in our own house, that universal remote is. If you don’t program it, however, the system remains dispersed. If there are five different remotes, there are five lifelines to defend us against that powerlessness.

In “Going Ga Ga for Glitch” the glitch is characterized as a pause that produces desire, which derives from a theory of fantasy from LaPlanche and Potalis. What do we make of binge-watching when it comes to the perceived control that the subject has in relationship to desire?

That’s an interesting way to think about it, in terms of binge-watching and LaPlanche and Pontalis’s theory of fantasy. So, according to LaPlanche and Pontalis then, commercial interruption would have been constitutive of desire because we want the show to come back. On the other hand, when you think about the ecstatic way people have been talking about Gilmore Girls now that it’s on Netflix, and two years ago no one cared about Gilmore Girls – it was a great memory, but no one was dying to re-watch it…. well, the fact of its plenty, now, is also constitutive of desire.

I think we’d have to revisit LaPlanche and Pontalis and ask ok, if what a fantasy wants is to never end, and if the fantasy of binge-watching is that it never has to end, then what can they tell us about the new architecture of the entertainment industry that we’re seeing here? The other thing I would want to wonder about is if what desire wants is its prolongation, then one would think that an infinitely serializable narrative – like The Simpsons, or Seinfeld – that such a sitcom form would be better for binge-watching than extremely well-arced narratives like Breaking Bad. Breaking Bad has a terminus in a way that The Simpsons does not – it could go on forever. The rhetoric of binge-watching is most commonly attached to narratively complex television shows, and that’s not something that I have a very firm handle on yet, although it’s something I’m interested in. I was just at the FLOWTV conference at UT Austin where someone claimed that we only binge-watch quality television, meaning narratively complex prime-time soaps. I was thinking, well, sorry, I binge-watched Keeping Up with the Kardashians! I watched all of that in like a month, I got all caught up!

I think we need to do a gendered analysis, too, of the kind of fantasy structures that we’re rhetorically developing, right? As in, this is for men, and it’s something that men do around masculinist television drama. Or, binging as a feminine behavior, or what has been denigrated as a feminine behavior, and how that pairs with television’s denigration as a feminine genre, and these programs that we still can’t admit we binge. Some binging is socially acceptable, and some binging is not. It’s acceptable to binge-drink, which is marked as a masculine behavior, but binge-eating, we can’t do that, because that’s marked as feminine.

In both Killer Tapes and Shattered Screens and “How the Remote Control Rewired the Home” you make clear your personal positioning in relationship to the discourse at hand. How and why did you make the choice to explicitly reference your position?

A friend of mine, Amelie Hastie, writes a column for Film Quarterly called “The Vulnerable Spectator” where she’s trying to consider how we, when we go to the movies, make ourselves emotionally vulnerable to a filmmaker, to a narrative, to a movie. So maybe we can call my approach “The Vulnerable Critic”? It’s incredibly nerve-wracking publishing this stuff, and I’m still terrified to read the comments on The Atlantic page! But, giving those personal anecdotes puts the vulnerability on the table.

I don’t think we can be naive enough anymore to think that a critic making their identity position clear can be an entirely transparent move, or that it will change the totalizing political structure that is built into a certain piece of criticism. But, I feel a strong urge to include a personal angle so that the critical act remains a relation between you and me. Even if we hadn’t met, the sense that there once was a woman who got this weird idea about zombies in her cheap apartment in Ithaca, New York – I want the reader to see that there is a humanity there, and that these ideas are coming from that humanity. And I want them to see mine the way I hope to see theirs.

When you are speaking in Killer Tapes and Shattered Screens about subjectivity and how the technological platform effects that subjectivity, do you consider yourself that subject?

Yes. I mean, I have to, right? It’s coming out of my personal experience viewing these movies. But, I think that the subject is a position that’s created by the film that we occupy or don’t. I’ve definitely gotten feedback from people saying “well, you can claim that the spectator feels this or that, but I hated that movie.” And I say, that’s totally true, I am with you, and the reaction you’re descibing is what reception theory covers, and audience studies covers. But, the film still constructs a position, there is still the subject of spectatorship, and that’s what I’m interested in.

Personally, I tend to occupy that subject position until something jars me out of it. That is what I wanted my work to in a way answer to the trend towards reception theory and audience studies over the last twenty years. Because, I am with Stuart Hall, we do all negotiate our relationships to these visual objects, but in order for us to negotiate with them, they have to be making a position, and that’s what I feel film studies had stopped talking about. Film studies certainly had not talked about how video created a position differently from film. When the movies started anticipating the video mode of exhibition, the position they were creating changed, so what we are going to negotiate with changed. I decided that this is the part of the puzzle that I am going to focus on, and hopefully there will be other people that will do that empirical kind of research.

And hence the technique of close-reading, right?

Yes. As an undergraduate I was just incredibly affected by Carol Clover’s Men, Women, and Chainsaws, especially by the movies that she describes in that book that I hadn’t seen. I think it was incredibly generative for me to see how close reading of one text could change the way you see another text. So, that has always been my methodology. I can thank Carol for that.

Would the close-reading of one film lead you to another one when you approached Killer Tapes and Shattered Screens? Or did you have a set of films you wanted to examine?

The book started in my second year of graduate school with a term paper on The Ring. And then there was a horrifying moment at the end of my qualifying exams when the committee asked what my dissertation would be on. I said, I don’t know! Video spectatorship? And they said, good, that was a good paper, you can do that.

 So you were gently pushed?

I was gently nudged, yes. And then I started outlining chapters based on movies where I saw a video spectator explicitly being constructed or addressed. It was actually only at my dissertation defense that my committee pointed out that these are all horror movies, except for one chapter on Y tu mamá también which is now an article that is on Jump CutY tu mamá también was censored on DVD – the menage-a-trois was removed from some editions – and I argue that in those editions, the entire political argument about NAFTA within that film falls apart.

 So, there was this one chapter on a Mexican queer melodrama, and the rest of the dissertation was on horror. The committee said that for a book, I should have a bit more cohesion and acknowledge the fact that I saw this happening in horror. And they instructed me to push myself on why horror? Why horror? And that’s how it came to be.

Being in the place that I am in my own scholarship, it is rewarding to hear about how projects get delineated and come to be.

It was a very gentle nudge from the committee. I hadn’t published The Ring chapter as an article yet, but people sat up a little bit more when I talked about it as opposed to other papers I was writing. When I said I was writing about The Ring and the killer video cassette people would ask “the killer what now?” When people are actually interested in your research, then you know you’re onto something. And then again, when I told people I was writing a history of remote control devices they said “yeah … remote control devices are everywhere!”

So responses can be generative of what direction to go in?

Yes. Especially in Cultural Studies, right? Ask yourself “have I found a thread that is actually going to unravel or reveal something about the landscape underneath?” I think looking at people’s reactions to your ideas as you are developing them is a great way to figure out whether you’ve got a hold of the right thread.

It looks like we’re out of time, but thank you so much!

Thank you!

Interviews: Jaafar Aksikas


The Cultural Studies program’s colloquium series features talks by distinguished scholars from across the disciplines. Graduate student M. Liz Andrews interviewed Jaafar Aksikas, professor of Cultural Studies at Columbia College Chicago.

Thank you and welcome back to Mason. We’re honored to have you here both as an alumus of the Cultural Studies program and as the president of the Cultural Studies Association. We look forward to hearing about your work and your thoughts. The name of your talk is: A New Project of Cultural Studies. For the readers of the blog and those who are not able to attend your talk today, could you talk about what is new at this moment? In particular, what shifts in the objects, methodology, and history of cultural studies characterize this moment? Why now? What is new?

This talk is an early, a very early, version of my presidential address at the 2015 Cultural Studies Association annual meeting, which will be held in Riverside, California next summer. I thought this was one of the most fitting contexts to present these early thoughts because the last time I was here, roughly nine years ago, I presented my dissertation and received some good ideas and feedback. Today, my talk is intended as a provocation; it is meant to get people to think about cultural studies less as an academic formation and more as an intellectual-political project. I am interested in hearing what people have to say about the project I propose.

There is this relatively less known talk by Raymond Williams that he gave at the Cultural Studies Association conference in Britain in the 80s, two years before his death. He makes an important distinction between a formation and project. Of course he also thought that “The relation between a project and a formation is always decisive,” as these are for him different ways of materializing a common disposition of collective efforts and direction. For him, cultural studies emerges in multiple formations, in some cases it’s more disciplinary, in others it’s more interdisciplinary; in some it’s more defined and in others less specific. But what’s always important, says Williams, is to ask what the relationship between the formation and the project is and what happens to the project.

Because cultural studies emerges in postwar Britain, a lot of people think that it emerges full-fledged with the three books that we are all familiar with: The Uses of Literacy by Richard Hoggart, and, The Making of the English Working Class by E.P. Thompson, and Raymond Williams’ Culture and Society. Williams was very critical of this textual and idealist history and was saying that cultural studies actually emerged much earlier. It emerges in that post-war moment where a lot of working class people were coming back from the war and demanding and struggling for the right to be educated. It emerges in that moment of the working class movements, particularly the early adult education movement. Williams, Thompson, and Hoggart were all adult educators, who were using things like newspapers, magazines, and pamphlets as their primary teaching texts, drawing on the actual life experience of their working class students. There were no set textbooks and no set curricula.

Williams was saying that cultural studies was not just an academic discipline. It was an intellectual project to democratize higher education. When Williams and Thompson and later Hall go to these powerful universities, namely Oxford and Cambridge, they all notice the same thing– a very limited and elitist understanding of culture; culture as ruling class culture. Williams saw culture as a whole way of life (and Thompson as a Marxist of course preferred to talk about culture as ‘a way of struggle’); it’s more than the storehouse of certain works and practices. It’s not just Shakespeare and the Mona Lisa and the Bible and so on. It’s also what people did in their communities. So it’s a political project in the sense that they were struggling to make the case for everyone around them at these institutions of higher education and culture that working class culture was worth studying. That’s one project of cultural studies, which is similar to the project I present today.

The other project of cultural studies, related to the earlier one, was defined by the struggle over meanings, ideas, ideologies, and curricula, over what gets included and gets excluded in the dominant understandings of culture. It is a political project to democratize and expand what we mean by culture itself.

So that’s what brings me to the present moment. One of the problems with the importation of cultural studies to the U.S. is that you lose the political context and the struggles associated with it. You lose the adult and working class education movements. You lose the New Left and the Labor Party and the labor movement. You lose many things and what remains is the theory and textual-critical interpretation of literary and popular cultural texts. A lot of people conflate cultural studies with post-modern theory and with academics trying to outsmart each other… a battle over who can speak Derridian or Foucauldian language better… what gets lost in the process is the political project and the political struggles.  I think that’s what Williams was reminding his audience of; and that’s what I want to bring back with my talk today, the need to re-politicize cultural studies. “Look it’s important to say what is specific about cultural studies as a field but it is more important not to forget that there is a political thing here, a political radical project.”

So you would urge people to think about a return to, or integration of, the political aspects of cultural studies.

Yes, to return to a commitment to radical politics and to the desire to want to be politically efficacious and relevant. The challenge of practicing cultural studies in the U.S. is that there are no significant radical social and political movements that you could attach cultural studies to. E. P. Thompson and Raymond Williams were actually members of major leftist political parties. Even the two key figures that British cultural studies drew on were no mere theorists or academics. Gramsci was a leader of the Italian communist party and Althusser was a member of the French communist party. We talk about hegemony, conjunctural analysis, interpolation, subjectivity and so on and so forth, but we forget that Gramsci and Althusser developed these because of and within their immediate links to political work and struggle. This is political work through and through and not some kind of detached intellectual work produced in the ivory tower university. Marx used to talk about the necessary detour though theory. Theory is not the end. The end is to understand concrete social formations and help transform them. You want to be able to understand a social formation, intervene in it, and change it. So, theory is only good as long as it allows you to do that. There’s a lot of fancy political and cultural theory that doesn’t live up to the test. For me, good cultural studies work is work that understands the necessity of theoretical abstraction but is also, if not more importantly, committed to the need to produce “useful knowledge” that people in the street, outside of the academy and universities can then take and do something with to radically transform their own material conditions.

Of course I say all this with a lot of caution, because the last thing I want to do here is to somehow romanticize early British cultural studies or talk about it as some lost golden moment in the past of the field. Early cultural studies had its problems too. For example, it had a problematic relationship with Marxism, including a less than healthy skepticism of the uses of Marxist and critical political economic approaches to culture. And this included not just what one might call reductive Marxism, but also the more robust, non-reductive models, where cultural phenomena and cultural formations were understood within the context of their social totality. In fact, there is a sense in which one can see early cultural studies as a substitute of a more developed Marxism. But I don’t have the time to elaborate on this point here.

Of course this skepticism becomes even worse and turns into outright dismissal in the late 1970s and early 1980s, especially with the importation of cultural studies into the American academy. I think that this outright dismissal of Marxist political economy, and of Marxism more generally, works against the political project that cultural studies wants to be; it has been very costly for the field. That is why for me any serious revision of cultural studies and any new project of cultural studies has to start with a real engagement with Marxism and Marxist political economy. It is ironic that this dismissal, which is often made in the name of a commitment to non-reductivism and complexity, is itself reductive!

For me, any meaningful version of cultural studies has to do a few interrelated things: one, take Marxism more seriously, two, develop robust structural-conjunctural analyses of neo-liberal capitalism, and three, connect with (and also connect) and also help build actually existing social and political movements and formations outside the academy. These three tasks become especially urgent at a historical conjuncture characterized by a deep economic crisis that has brought to the surface once more and more than ever before (at least in our lifetime) not only the contradictions of global capitalism and the ugly realities and consequences of material inequality in people’s lives, but also new discourses, forms, and possibilities of collective resistance and struggle in the political and cultural realms. The job of a cultural studies that matters is to understand, study, explain, and help change this state of affairs.

Thank you. That’s a refreshing way to think about it. Considering the ways institutionalization has sometimes contributed to gutting projects of their political potential, what is the role of the Cultural Studies Association, and academic associations like it, in shaping the project of cultural studies?

That’s a very good question and a multi-layered one too. First let me say something about institutionalization. It seems to me that cultural studies and its practitioners have yet to take their institutionalization seriously.   Look my claim is very simple: After all has been said and done, cultural studies is already institutionalized and is increasingly being institutionalized. And this is something we should take very seriously. Whether we like it or not, cultural studies has already been institutionalized. In the context of cultural studies, institutionalization has always been presented as a, to quote  a phrase from Hall, a “moment of extraordinarily profound danger” and has generally been viewed as threat to what is otherwise a dynamic and energetic field. Hall was specifically talking about the explosion of cultural studies in the American academy.

I beg to disagree. I believe that this insistence on institutionalization as necessarily dangerous is one-dimensional and has been very costly for the field and its practitioners. Cultural studies’ commitment to transformative and radical politics and to the need to produce­ ‘useful political knowledge­’ calls for a cultural studies that is simultaneously interdisciplinary and­ anti-disciplinary. But it also demands a cultural studies that is methodologically and theoretically robust,­ coherent,­ and consistent,­ while at the same time self-reflexive and attentive­ to what goes on in other­ allied disciplines and fields,­ inside the university,­ and in the larger social world outside. It is true that cultural studies still appears and functions as an interdisciplinary critical and intellectual disposition across the humanities,­ social sciences and the arts. But it is becoming increasingly more common to encounter it as a­ ‘disciplinary­’ institutional formation,­ either as a degree program of study­ (both at the graduate and undergraduate levels­),­ a department,­ a certificate,­ or minor.­  Cultural Studies now has its own research centers,­ professional­ associations,­ international conferences,­ journals,­ and publication series. So I think it’s high time cultural studies started the important task of identifying,­ tracking,­ mapping,­ registering,­ theorizing,­ and evaluating cultural studies as an institutional formation. I believe that this project promises to yield some significant benefits.

And the Cultural Studies Association should begin, and in fact, has already begun that kind of work. Which brings me to the role of the CSA. Ideally one would like to see the association serve as a surrogate radical political party in the absence of a significant one, especially in the American context. At another level, the CSA should be a strong advocate for cultural studies as a specific intellectual practice. We have already started to take the lead on matters of broad import to higher education at large, from the threat to academic freedom, to the practice of “ideological exclusion” that denies tenure and employment to deserving scholars and visas to certain equally deserving foreign scholars, from the increasing corporatization and bureaucratization of public and non-for-profit private colleges and universities, to the overzealous dependence on and exploitation of adjunct and other non-tenure-track faculty labor. Our recent public positions on the Steven Salaita case and on the barbarous bombing of Palestinian universities and colleges are cases in point.

The CSA can also play a central role in defending the place of the university, the value of higher education as a public good, and the principles of academic freedom. It is both vital and necessary that the CSA takes an active role in these ongoing collective struggles to help promote these projects and ideas; to resist the increasingly demeaning working conditions of colleagues in the profession; and to defend against the threat neoliberal capitalism increasingly presents (especially at times of crisis) to a whole range of institutions of higher learning, and especially those that refuse to define themselves by the logic of privatization, marketization, and deregulation.

It is actually with all these issues in mind that we have decided upon next year’s conference theme: Another University is Possible: Praxis, Activism, and the Promise of Critical Pedagogy. And we have lined some of the best scholars and practitioners in the field to lead that conversation.

You also asked about the role of other organizations. Let me just say at the outset that in general very few people see value in what we do at the CSA or at our allied scholarly organizations in the humanities and social sciences.  So there is a lot work to be done at this front too. Struggling during hard economic times, many of our students, both graduate and undergraduate, are understandably anxious to know whether or not a degree in cultural studies or closely allied fields will allow them to at least repay their often burdensome loans and secure living wages. In times like these we need to insist on the value of public sphere universities and colleges which, in the words of C. Wright Mills, “offer a [much needed] sense of critical agency and social imagination.”  We also need to insist not only that our world desperately needs people who can read closely, critically, contextually, and historically, but also that intellectual work matters and that progressive education cannot be reduced to mere “job training” and to the acquisition and mastery of a set of fixed skills and techniques.  One of the primary tasks facing us as educators, community activists and artists, and students should center on developing new academic and intellectual projects and practices that provide students, among other things, with the educational opportunities and experiences to learn about and engage in the experience of (shaping) radical democracy and critical citizenship.

Finally, could you speak about your research and how it relates to the larger project of cultural studies?

My scholarship contributes to cultural studies as well as to American studies, Middle Eastern Studies, post-colonial studies, and critical theory. Grounded in the Birmingham-inspired cultural studies training I received in the Ph.D. Cultural Studies Program here at Mason, my primary scholarly project is to produce useful knowledge about the relation between political economic processes, cultural forms, ideological phenomena, and social formations. This agenda is realized in all my work, with the notable exception of my first book, which I wrote well before I became interested in cultural studies.

My first book (titled The Sirah of Antar: An Islamic Interpretation of Arab and Islamic History) was a comparative literary study on the Arab folk epic of Antar, an actual historical figure and poet. Antar was a pre-Islamic poet and warrior, who lived in Arabia right before the emergence of Islam. The story goes that he was a poor slave, who gained his freedom by virtue of his great poetry and heroic exploits. His poetry and exploits kept getting dramatized and exaggerated with every oral retelling of them as these were not originally committed to paper. By the time they were written, centuries later, you had a humongous multi-volume folk epic. It consisted of oral narratives that people in the souqs [markets] were sharing with each other. You know, in the Middle East and North Africa, you don’t go to the market just to buy things, you go there to enjoy music, watch shows and sports, and listen to poems and stories; of course it’s all changing now, but the souq was also a place for entertainment and working class cultural production. That’s how you get something like The One Thousand and One Nights, another oral narrative that is much more known in the West (under the wrong title, The Arabian Nights). The epic of Antar was actually more popular than the The One Thousand and One Nights in the Middle East and North Africa. So I was interested in examining this popular folk epic as an oral literary historical narrative. I wanted to know how this oral text was constituted by and also—in turn—helped constitute the socio-political and religious context within which it emerged. I guess you could consider this my attempt to join the then lively debates in historiography and literary theory about the value of oral history and oral literature for the study of history. My main argument was that oral literature is not only a helpful adjunct to written history, but can also change the whole focus and purpose of history and open up new avenues for the cultural historian.

That was my first book. I didn’t even know cultural studies then. I did my Master’s degree in Comparative Cultural Studies in Morocco, and what passed there as cultural studies was basically a mixture of the Frankfurt school, post-colonial theory, and comparative literature. For me, Cultural Studies was Adorno and Horkheimer, Benjamin and Marcuse. And also Edward Said and Homi Bhabha. I learned about Hall in a class called “African Literature” which was basically an introduction to postcolonial African literature and postcolonial studies. I didn’t know anything about Raymond Williams, Richard Hoggart, or E.P. Thompson. I didn’t know Hall as a cultural studies scholar but instead mainly as a postcolonial theorist. This was my education in the North African context, which was largely modelled on the French colonial system of higher education. When I came here, I started being exposed to cultural studies and got really intrigued by the history and the political commitments of the field. There was a lot of catching up to do!

My second book is Arab Modernities. This was fundamentally a critique of some of the dominant political ideologies of modernity and globalization in the post-colonial Arab world. I focus on Morocco and the Moroccan context. I wanted to study and ‘name’ the ideologies of Arab nationalism, Arab liberalism, and contemporary Islamism and in the process delineate the social, cultural, economic, and political conditions under which they first emerged. My aim was to shed light on Arab-Islamic societies at present and to do that in a way that moved away from the reductive analyses that were circulating in the post-9/11 context I found myself in here in the US. I was trying to argue (against the conventional wisdom) that ideology critique and analysis is necessarily complex and that it requires that we relate ideologies (in this case Arab-Islamic ideologies) themselves to ongoing social struggles, as these are embedded in their political-cultural-economic contexts.

I’ll mention two more projects and then stop. Most recently, I have co-edited (with my current colleague Sean Andrews, who is also a graduate of the program here) a special issue for the international journal Cultural Studies. The issue is Cultural Studies of/and the Law. Here we introduce here the notions of the ‘juridical turn’ and the ‘legal dominant’ to highlight the substantial role the law plays in the production of our social and cultural worlds.

I am also and have been for a while working on textbook, which I am tentatively calling Practicing Cultural Studies. I am thinking of this as a necessary intervention in the emergent debates on the epistemology and methodology of research in cultural studies. In the last several years, I have taught several sections of the cultural studies Methods seminar and have become increasingly dissatisfied and even frustrated (and so are many of my students) with the existing textbooks on cultural studies methodologies. Unlike most of these texts, which tend to produce and reproduce a very broad and misleading understanding of cultural studies, I introduce cultural studies as a very specific field, all along the lines I mentioned above.

So as you can see, given my work’s dual emphasis on contemporary American cultural studies and Middle Eastern Studies, it links a number of areas vital to contemporary scholarship and intellectual practice and it is quite varied and if anything too varied (which of course has both its advantages and disadvantages). But what I think brings everything together is the thread of cultural studies methodology and epistemology that I have committed myself to.

Thank you so much for your time and thoughts.

Thank you.

CFP: Critiquing Culture 2014

Critiquing Culture

The Cultural Studies Graduate Conference at George Mason University


Featuring Cindi Katz as Distinguished Keynote Speaker

Dr. Cindi Katz is a Professor of Geography in Environmental Psychology and Women’s Studies at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Her work concerns the consequences of global economic restructuring for everyday life and the production and social reproduction of space, place and nature. She has published widely on these themes as well as on social theory and the politics of knowledge in edited collections and in journals such as Society and Space, Social Text, Signs, Feminist Studies, Social Justice, and Antipode.


The Cultural Studies Student Organizing Committee (SOC) at George Mason University invites paper proposals for our 8th annual Cultural Studies Graduate Student Conference. The conference will take place on Saturday, September 13, 2014 at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.

At George Mason University, we acknowledge the need to specify Cultural Studies as an academic field with definable features and particular modes of methodological inquiry. In our view, Cultural Studies examines cultural objects as products of the wider social, historical, economic and political conditions that structure their formation, and acknowledges the interrelationship between these factors. In particular, Cultural Studies focuses on power relations and inequalities, which shape the horizon of possibilities for any cultural object at hand, be it a political discourse, an economic model, or a mass cultural product. As a field, Cultural Studies has expanded both geographically and theoretically, building upon its origins in the Birmingham Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies through the inclusion of a range of critical approaches including Marxist political economy, poststructuralism, feminism, critical theory and post-colonial studies. While the objects of Cultural Studies vary widely, the field aims at political relevance and efficacy.

In an attempt to establish a vibrant community for scholars working in precisely this interdisciplinary vein, the Cultural Studies Student Organizing Committee at George Mason University invites graduate students to submit research papers for a conference specifically oriented toward the examination of cultural objects, whether through Marxist, structuralist/poststructuralist, feminist, or other critical lenses. We encourage the submission of papers related, but not limited, to the following broad themes:

  • Political Economy
  • Mass & Popular Culture
  • Gender & Sexuality
  • Race & Ethnicity
  • Representation & Aesthetics

This year we also strongly encourage paper submissions that address the intersections of activism, culture, space, and privatization.

Abstracts of no more than 300 words and a current CV should be sent to critiquing.culture [at] by 30 June 2014. Please include presentation title, presenter’s name, institutional affiliation, contact information, A/V requests, and any special needs required in the email. Abstracts should be sent as .doc or .rtf file attachments.

Interview: Roderick Ferguson


The Cultural Studies program’s colloquium series features talks by distinguished scholars from across the disciplines. Graduate student M. Liz Andrews spoke with Roderick Ferguson, professor of American Studies at the University of Minnesota.

To begin, let us acknowledge the passing of Professor Stuart Hall. Our own Dr. Paul Smith wrote an email to the Mason Cultural Studies community stating that Hall was “indisputably a colossus in our field–indeed, perhaps the only such figure.” On behalf of the emerging generation of scholars, and specifically those of us in the field of Cultural Studies, what lessons must we learn from Stuart Hall?

One of the essays that comes to mind is Stuart Hall’s Cultural Studies and its Theoretical Legacies. The argument there is that Cultural Studies is about the delineation of stakes. Whatever else it is, it is always trying to assess the historical moment and trying to look for the possibility of an intervention within that moment. Those are some of the things I take away from Stuart Hall’s work – that there is a sort of necessary politicization to the scholarship. It is about developing strategies and tactics to intervene in the given historical formation.

The other things that come to mind about Stuart Hall and his work have to do with his openness as a reader and a listener. If you read his work, if you have seen the film, John Akonfrah’s The Stuart Hall Project, you really get a sense of a scholar’s evolution. Hall said that with the encounter with feminism, we had to confront the fact that we were an all boy’s club. There had to be an openness to receiving feminist critiques. That is something I have always tried to mobilize within myself and produce within myself as a scholar: not to recoil from an epistemological challenge, but to figure out ways to embrace that challenge.

Another thing I learned from Stuart Hall — this wasn’t necessarily something that was in the essays — my first year of grad school, George Lipsitz invited Stuart Hall and Catherine Hall to UC San Diego. George was my advisor, so he invited me to dinner with them. I remember Stuart Hall saying this thing at dinner when someone asked him the question of cultural studies now: Is it what he wanted it to be? And he responded by saying that, of course with any intellectual formation, it goes in directions you never really intended and that his job was not necessarily to police, and take on a patriarchal position of laying down the law of what cultural studies is. That refusal of a kind of logocentrism, I have always tried to observe, and think about, and enact. Especially now that queer of color critique, a formation that I was a part of, has sort of taken off the ground and gone in many different directions.

I’d like to put you in conversation with our most recent colloquium speaker, Walter Benn Michaels. During his talk, Dr. Michaels argued that anti-racism and anti-discrimination are good for the functioning of capitalism. In many ways, this argument mirrors one that is central to your most recent book, The Reorder of Things: The University and Its Pedagogies of Minority Difference. Your book brings to light the ways that the 1960s and 70s protest movements in the U.S., namely the civil rights movement and women’s liberation movements, led to the selective integration of minorities, of difference, into the university and into the state. I would like to read you a portion of Professor Michaels’ interview for Edges and hear where you think there may be dissonance and resonance between your arguments.

“Part of the point of distinguishing class from race and gender is that class is a fundamentally unequal relation — it cannot be made equal in a capitalist society. Whereas race and gender are fundamentally equal relations and what a liberal society wants is for us to recognize the equality that in fact exists. Thus, nothing, in my view, is more confused than something like intersectionality, the idea that weaving all these things together will get you a more sophisticated account when in fact you get a more confused account — with the ideological effect of helping produce a society where people are extremely attached to a particular form of social justice (anti-discrimination) while being extremely disconnected from another model of social justice (anti-exploitation).”

Dr. Ferguson, your thoughts?

I, like a lot of people who claim the category intersectionality and have tried to resignify it, would not agree with an assessment that to care about race, to care about gender, to care about sexuality, is not to care about class inequality. So, off the bat, that is not a position that I can agree with. My own interest, which I take to be a kind of archaeological one in intersectional analysis, is precisely reading it for the ways in which it was always and already the critique of political economy.

If you think of something like Fran Beal’s 1970 article, interrogating the roles of black women called “Double Jeopardy“: there you have an intersectional analysis before the category existed that is every bit about capitalist political governments. If you think about Angela Davis’ work, “Reflections on the Black Woman’s Role in the Community of Slaves,” in many ways that is also a sort of labor analysis that tries to rethink the category of labor through the historical figure of the black slave; none other than the black slave woman. I think that the literature and also the history are pretty rich in terms of talking about experiments with intersectional analysis that were also ways of re-approaching the text of political economy and the text of Capital. For instance, you think about Gayatri Spivak’s work in this regard; you think about Jacqui Alexander’s work in this regard. All of those works are ways of re-theorizing capital, neocolonial capital, neoliberal capital, by thinking about the various modes of difference that go into their articulation.

So, it’s not an argument that resonates with me, the one that wants to see something ontological about class as a category by which we can observe inequality, whereas with these other categories, they’re about, not the observation of inequality, but the progressive development into liberal notions of equality. That actually flies in the face of a lot of work, not just in this century, but in the prior century, too.

Finally, I would like to reflect back to the 2008 Barack Obama Presidential campaign. I’m going to venture to say that this campaign season represented a moment in American history, as well as electoral politics, unlike one we had seen before. Technology, media, race, and art were all instrumental in building a broad coalition of support for the candidate. It was not a movement against the state, or for rights and resources outside of the state; it was something that almost felt like a movement but was very much within the parameters of the state. Given your interest in difference being integrated into the state, what do you think we can learn from that moment?

In fact, I wrote a piece called “An American Studies Meant for Interruption” that was a reflection on the then-president of the ASA Kevin Gaynes’ presidential address that was about the Barack Obama campaign and eventual win. This is maybe the part where Walter Benn Michaels and I are trying to observe, but with very different conclusions, a similar phenomenon, and that is the way that forms of minority difference that were previously subject to absolute exclusion become selectively integrated into state, into capital, into university.

The Obama campaign was, in many ways the culmination of that moment: a hegemonic affirmation of minority difference. I think what we have since learned, what everybody knows now, is that was a pretty selective incorporation of minority difference. I’ll never forget that moment at the first inaugural for him, Joseph Lowery quoted from Dolemite, and I thought, oh my god, this is a crazy, crazy moment. I was also in the moment of writing The Reorder of Things, I think I was even finishing it up, and I was seeing it here at the presidential level. Of course, what we’ve seen since then is actually what I was trying to argue. There is a selective incorporation of minority difference so you can have the White House being a kind of tributary to certain versions of black history and black culture. It involves leaving out other elements of that history, that culture, particularly the ones in which the mobilization of cultural forms, historical knowledge, are used for the cause of critique of state and capital.

Now with this spectacular win, and this new kind of White House, you can really see the ways in which minority difference is routed, pretty forcibly, as an endorsement of the state and also of capital, of the war machinery. It is the kind of difference that has to suppress those moments, powerful moments, in which, Martin Luther King was against the Vietnam War, for instance. I am thinking of moments in which radical thinkers and activists, such as the Black Panther Party, had stinging critiques of capital and U.S. state imperialism. We’re at a moment where we can actually see the manipulation at work.

I think what it means for me, and for those of us who are doing interdisciplinary work, that — and this is where I think I have a disagreement with Walter Benn Michael’s statement — to make that critique is not to surrender minority difference, or to abandon minority difference. It is to ask the question: how do we remobilize and redeploy minority difference? That, for me, is a very materialist exercise. You think about what Marx says about labor power. You think about what Althusser, in “Contradiction and Overdetermination,” says about what it means to mobilize a contradiction, to produce a rupture. You think about what Gramsci says about using culture to produce a new kind of formation.

In many ways, I think that’s the question we should be asking about minority difference, because it is a resource. It does no good to say minority difference is not a resource and all the things it represents are not resources, the only real resource is class as a category. It makes no sense to say that in a historical moment in which everyone knows, everyone agrees — liberals, conservatives, and radicals alike — that the nation is changing. People of color will be the majority very soon. It doesn’t make any sense, to me, to have a category, and to deploy a category, that can’t actually capture that emergence.

The Bad Teacher Fantasies of Corporate Education Reform

by J. Scott Killen, Ph.D Candidate in Cultural Studies at George Mason University


On January 27th, Vergara vs. California began hearing testimony in Los Angeles County Superior Court. The lawsuit against the state of California, the California Teachers Association (CTA), and the California Federation of Teachers (CFA) was filed on behalf of Beatriz and Elizabeth Vergara and 7 other student-plaintiffs who claim to have suffered through several bad teachers, thus violating their Constitutional right for equal protection—which includes an adequate, equal education.

The suit, initiated and orchestrated by the nonprofit organization Students Matter, seeks to deem three laws unconstitutional: the permanent employment statute (tenure), current dismissal statutes (the processes by which teachers are dismissed), and the layoff statute (which grants job seniority according to years of service). Such laws, the argument goes, allow ineffective teachers to continue teaching, especially in socioeconomically disadvantaged schools. Thus, we must remove these laws to fire bad teachers in poor schools, offering everyone equal educational opportunities.

Sounds reasonable, right?

Like so many neoliberal mythologies, the narrative surrounding this case is coherent, elegant—and patently false.

For private-sector workers unacquainted with the logic behind teacher tenure, this sophist narrative may seem perfectly sensible, even natural: Isn’t it necessary to remove bad workers? Isn’t that just the way the world works? As I will attempt to show, however, this most recent attack on teacher protections is anything but practical, efficient, or cost-effective (as the plaintiffs would have us believe): it is political and ideological. The real problem that requires address is not one of firing bad teachers, but of keeping good ones.

Money Matters 

Although draped in a thin veil of grassroots activism, this lawsuit is far from a plebian outcry. Despite being filed under the names of 9 real students, the impetus, the financing, and the planning behind this case can be traced back to Students Matter, an organization founded by the wealthy David Welch out of his own personal frustrations. As reported by David Callahan, Welch became interested in the fight over tenure through dealings with his children’s public school; he was displeased with how hard it is to dismiss supposed bad teachers. Prior to 2010, Welch had never made a campaign contribution to either major political party, nor did he have any major financial stake in for-profit education or the standardized testing industry.

Welch, with a PhD in electrical engineering, founded Students Matter in 2011 with the stated goal of “creating positive structural change in the California K-12 public education system.” Since then, he has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to various foundations associated with corporate education reform, like Michelle Rhee’s Students First Foundation. This seems to be paying off for his lawsuit as he has garnered support from both Students First and Parent Revolution, the group that concocted parent trigger laws. Other funding has come from groups known for attacking teacher unions, like the Los Angeles entrepreneur Eli Broad, and the powerful legal team for Welch’s case includes Theodore Olson, the former US solicitor general for George W. Bush. Ted Mitchell, recently appointed for the #2 position in the Department of Education by President Obama, is also a member of Students Matter and a supporter of the plaintiffs in the Vergara trial. Mitchell, like many of Welch’s new connections, has strong ties to the school privatization movement.

Despite his inactivity before 2010, it seems clear that Welch is now interwoven within a larger, synchronized corporate education reform movement that supports the proliferation of charter schools, the use of value-added models to evaluate teachers, high-stakes standardized testing, and the general diminution of teachers’ labor protections.

So the orchestration of this lawsuit did not come from a collaboration of concerned parents. It did not come from meticulous research in the fields of Education or Public Policy. Nor was it refined through the trials of rigorous debate in the public sphere. Rather, one solitary millionaire—without any notable expertise in education, public policy, or even the schools in his local community—was able to initiate the whole circus with the support of his new connections within the corporate education reform movement: a political movement whose members stands to gain hundreds of billions of dollars if their agenda is successful.

It is safe to assume that this lawsuit would never have been raised except for the pursuit of a small, but moneyed, group of individuals like Welch—highlighting once again the undue influence of money on our politics, its ability to exert power over public life.

Real-World Problems

With any sleight of hand, the trick is always to direct the attention of the audience, to have them look here rather than there. Likewise, the focus on a handful of bad teachers draws attention from many of the real problems facing public education today.

Consider the enormous gap in funding between rich and poor schools. According to a 2013 report by the Equity and Excellence Commission, the disparity between per-pupil spending in California is one of the highest in the country at roughly 3-to-1; The poorest districts spend roughly $6,000 per pupil, the richest $18,000. As reported by the National Education Association, California’s average per student spending is roughly $2,500 below the national average—much less than comparable states like New York and Massachusetts. Furthermore, the financial crisis led to massive personnel reduction in California, both staff and teachers.

Alternatively, one could consider the number of children living in poverty. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, the percentage of children living in impoverished families has increased by 6% from 2000 to 2011. The Southern Education Foundation estimates that 54% of all California students are living in low-income families, the highest percentage on the West coast.

One would think that making sure all of California’s schools are sufficiently funded and that children are adequately housed, fed, and have sufficient healthcare would be more important than eradicating teacher tenure or expediting the teacher dismissal process, but Welch and his associates would rather divert our attention. Thus, the emphasis on “bad teachers” draws us away from larger systemic problems running amok in our society: the ongoing disinvestment of the public sphere, the emergence and growth of various inequalities, and child poverty itself.

A Costly Quitting Spree

Within the more focused arena of education policy, the fantasy of the bad teacher both juxtaposes and effaces another real problem challenging our schools, not the problem of bad teachers staying, but of good teachers leaving: the crisis of teacher attrition.

According to a report by the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, one-third of new teachers leave the profession within 3 years, and 46% leave within 5 years. As of 2012, teacher job satisfaction reached a 25 year low. Although it is true that US high school teachers earn much less than the OECD average while also working longer hours, this does not seem to be the most prominent reason for leaving. In fact, job dissatisfaction is by far the most cited reason for quitting the profession. As stated by Cynthia Kopkowski of the National Education Association, teacher attrition is high due to an overemphasis on standardized testing, unsupportive staffs, poor pay, and lack of respect.

This loss of qualified and experienced teachers is exceedingly destructive on several fronts.

On a basic pedagogical level, this means that inexperienced educators are always replacing experienced teachers. Instructors who know their material and have refined their technique are choosing to leave—or being pushed out by the crescendo of demands and slanders placed on their heads. At-risk schools are hurt the most from this.

In addition to pedagogical concerns, teacher attrition is extremely expensive. According to the Alliance for Excellent Education, teacher turnover costs California over $450 million a year in recruitment, training, and processing. And this number doesn’t include retirees. With only 100 teacher dismissal hearings in California between 1996 and 2005, the cost of teacher turnover to the state is astoundingly higher than the current cost of dismissing teachers.

These figures suggest that one of the biggest dilemmas facing public education is the reduction of teacher attrition, not the removal of tenure and other labor protections. Yet, during an attrition crisis where we should be paying our teachers more, scolding them less, and finding new ways of supporting their work to keep them in the classroom, corporate education reformers would rather make it easier to fire instructors—to take away one of the only benefits that makes teaching an attractive profession.

Synecdoche of Destruction

In the current trial, the Vergara sisters have made some serious allegations concerning 3 of their past teachers. 15-year-old Beatriz Vergara, for example, claimed that her bad teachers couldn’t control their classes, simply didn’t care, or verbally abused their students. If these allegations are true, then certainly corrective actions should be taken. However, current California education codes already call for immediate suspension and dismissal for these violations. Why, then, attack tenure? And, more specifically, why attack labor protections belonging to all educators, both the “bad” and good?

The plaintiffs want everyone to think that tenure—and other labor rights—creates lethargic teachers who stop performing once vested. However, research shows that this is not true. As stated by Stanford’s Center for Research on Educational Outcomes, charter schools without teacher tenure have been found to perform no better (perhaps worse) than comparable public schools with teacher tenure. Furthermore, states without binding teacher contracts perform much worse on national assessments than states with the protection of a binding contract. Thus, not only is the alleged “bad behavior” paraded through the Vergara trial anecdotal, but the assertion that tenure leads to bad behavior is mendacious as well.

The sketchy fantasy of the bad teacher, then, acts as a synecdoche that stands in for all teachers, justifying the systematic destruction of labor protections that have spanned over 100 years. Like the fabricated “welfare queen” narrative of the 1980s, the “bad teacher” mythos is deployed to attack protections that are widely beneficial: a bludgeon used to beat public opinion into shape.

Empirically, however, the “bad teacher” is little more than an unsubstantiated spirit: a ghost deployed by privatizers to achieve a lucrative agenda. But as narrative, bad teacher fantasies also resonate with the beliefs, experiences, and frustrations of citizens—making such accounts all the more dangerous.

For advocates of the corporate education reform movement, this trial represents an important battle in the war on teacher unions. Teachers’ unions are among the few social blocs that can effectively oppose the corporate campaign for a profit-driven education system. Accordingly, any assault that drains valuable resources from these unions can be counted a victory: Better to attack tenure than risk a fight over new rights, improved benefits, or higher wages. “The best defense…” as the aphorism goes.

All told, the outcome of Vergara vs. California will have widespread implications that will deeply affect the arena of educational policy in our nation. However, it must also be said that this trial represents much more than a mundane policy debate. It speaks to labor and politics, profits and ideology, obfuscation and fantasy: Everything except education itself. Unless teachers, parents, and students form broad collations to actively shape schooling in their communities, the corporate education reform movement will continue to drive such conversations—all the way to the bank if we let them.

Interview: Walter Benn Michaels


The Cultural Studies program’s colloquium series features talks by distinguished scholars from across the disciplines. Graduate student Kyle Koeppe interviewed Walter Benn-Michaels, professor of American Literature at University of Illinois-Chicago.

In The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality, you argue that diversity perpetuates inequality and that you favor emphasizing class in order to further social change and so is there a way to understand how class intersects with these other forms of difference? Quick blurbs on the internet might warrant an understanding of your work as claiming there is an irreducible difference between the two.

That is totally what I am trying to argue, in particular against the emergence of supposedly more sophisticated forms of analysis over the last thirty years which have tried to make class relations look as if they were versions of race or gender relations. Here is a really easy way to put it: battles over gender, race, and sexuality are battles against discrimination. And of course, it’s absolutely true that discrimination is wrong and we should be against it. But class has nothing whatsoever to do with discrimination; it has to do with exploitation. And you could imagine a world with no discrimination at all in which exploitation was left untouched. You can actually see a little version of that in our own world.

When I first started writing the Diversity book, back in 2005 or 2006, there was only one state in the union that allowed same sex marriage; now, eight years later, there are seventeen states. It is not a complete victory for anti-discrimination, obviously (lots of states still to go) but it is serious progress in removing the discrimination against gay people getting married. And, again if we go back to 2006, that was the year in which the highest degree of economic inequality was ever recorded in the US  — until 2012 when it was higher. So you have a period in which, on the one hand, you have a series of battles against discrimination with great success while, on the other hand you don’t have anyone battling against exploitation at all and instead, you have exploitation getting worse and worse.

Part of the point of distinguishing class from race and gender is that class is a fundamentally unequal relation — it cannot be made equal in a capitalist society. Whereas race and gender are fundamentally equal relations and what a liberal society wants is for us to recognize the equality that in fact exists. Thus, nothing, in my view, is more confused than something like intersectionality, the idea that weaving all these things together will get you a more sophisticated account when in fact you get a more confused account — with the ideological effect of helping produce a society where people are extremely attached to a particular form of social justice (anti-discrimination) while being extremely disconnected from another model of social justice (anti-exploitation).

The work you are doing today is seeking to make a claim about the autonomy of art. Does this autonomy, at the core of something that might be called high art, still exist any longer in the face of mass commercialization and commodification?

I don’t really know anybody who argues that there no longer is high art; maybe they don’t think it is “higher” exactly, but there is a lot of art being produced and all you have to do is walk around a gallery in Chelsea or in Brooklyn or the Lower East Side and you’ll see a lot of people making what they consider high art. Whether it is good or bad is a different story. The reverse of that would that the art market is so expensive right now that high art, the art meant to be hung on peoples’ walls and that people pay a whole lot of money for, is doing better than it ever has.

The question of whether there should be such a thing as high art or in what sense it is “higher” is different. I think there was a moment  — and it was a while ago, maybe in the 1980s or ’90s — when it looked like there was a kind of cultural studies move, an effort to find a political value in popular art that would either rival or supersede high art. But it didn’t really work out. You have Madonna studies twenty years ago, you have whatever the equivalent is now, but what actually happens is that when academics write about whatever is popular at the moment, they usually end up looking a little foolish. After all, the people writing are in their forties, while the people are doing it are, like, nineteen. It’s not that different from when I was a kid and professors started wanting to write about Bob Dylan, which I always thought was stupid even then when I was totally into Bob Dylan.

I guess what I mean is that the hierarchy of arts hasn’t really been undone by an academic enthusiasm for pop culture.  But there’s a more significant issue in your question, one not so much connected with high art as such, but with the question of the autonomy of the work of art, because one thing that is true is that people, including people very much within the high art world, have been committed (it’s the essence of post-modernism) to the critique of autonomy, to the idea of open form and to the idea that the beholder’s relation to the work  — how you felt about it, how you responded to it — was a part of its meaning. And how I responded to it was also part of its meaning. Hence, insofar as we were different, our responses were different; the art would have different meanings for different audiences, and not only in individual terms, but perhaps more powerfully in race terms, gender terms, and a whole set of issues like that. But the whole idea of art’s autonomy is that it doesn’t do that. It draws a sort of frame around itself and seeks to be whatever it is and mean whatever it means independent of its audience. So I’ve been arguing in a series of essays, some of them will appear in my forthcoming book, The Beauty of A Social Problem, that the postmodern commitment to open form (to how the reader experiences the work) is a version of the anti-discrimination argument. What it is about is a world in which the most important thing is how we see others, how we respond to others, and how we feel about others. In other words, the work makes the reader’s affect crucial in the same way that the question of discrimination makes everyone’s affect crucial.

Class works entirely differently. You don’t belong to the working class because people treat you like you belong in the working class. The working class is not socially constructed; it’s economically constructed.   The relation between capital and labor is not a function of how people see each other. It’s not about the affective life of capital, but a structural difference that is built into capital itself. What I’m arguing in this book is that the autonomy of the work of art begins to become important again in the last ten years to a number of younger artists, born in 1974, ’76: older than you but younger than me, and especially in photography. What is important to them is precisely that they’re creating a work that is absolutely autonomous in its production from its consumption; it means what it means; it draws a boundary between itself and the world. What we get from this is not so much a class politics – these artists have a lot of different politics — but a class aesthetics. That is, they give us a vision of a world organized not in terms of how we see each or feel about each other but organized like the relation between labor and capital,

I think that as a historical development this is something new. Not that there haven’t been lots people committed to the autonomy of the work of art, but the autonomy of the work of art has meant different things at different times. In our period, it functions politically as the way to begin thinking about society structured not in the end by discrimination, prejudice, the various forms of normativity and the various critiques of normativity, but by class relations, i.e., ultimately by capitalism, rather than racism or sexism.

Do you see this class aesthetic as having a political potential?

Well, in one sense yes and in one sense no. Is it out there mobilizing people? No. If you want to get people to do things, you’re better off doing the kind of thing that hundreds of us at UIC have spent the last four or five years doing, which is organizing a union, fighting for a contract, and now if they keep on fucking with us, getting ready to strike. That is political activity. No work of art is going to get you there. None of the works of art that I described will do that. I do think that what the work of art does is begin to give you a way to think the social problem.

The title of my book, The Beauty of A Social Problem, is from Brecht and what Brecht was talking about was the performance of Mother Courage. What he famously says is, if the actress playing Mother Courage tries to establish sympathy with the audience, to get the audience’s sympathy, it’s catastrophic. The reason it’s catastrophic, he says, is that you lose the beauty of a social problem. The idea is that the beauty of art is lost in the response of the audience, and that losing that beauty is losing the politics as well.  What you want is art that, by not appealing to your sympathy, by asserting its independence, performs a kind of analytic role. In that way, the politics of the art is also the way in which the art is not political. It doesn’t imagine that the way it makes you feel is going to then produce a politics. What it imagines instead is that it is giving you a vision of the structural rather than the affective life of the world, and hence of things as they are. So, for example, I have a piece going up on about a brilliant artist named Owen Kydd. I gave it as a talk in Detroit, where a bunch of other people were also giving talks and showing what in Detroit is called “ruin porn.” What “ruin porn” is is these amazing photographs of rusted-out buildings.

Instances of the Rust Belt being rusted out in all its grandeur.

Yeah, and so the argument I was making was that the thing that I was showing — a video of a black plastic bag sort of stapled to a surface and then blown about, photographed as if with a still camera, but really a moving camera held still as the bag moved back and forth — the argument that I was making was that you understand more about Detroit today and the political economy that produced it from looking at at that black plastic bag and thinking about its relation to its making and its relation to its beholder then you’ll get from looking at all of the ruin porn in the world. The formal structure of capital begins to appear in a video like that, a formal structure that’s obscured by all of the various ways of making art which solicit the beholder’s sympathy or participation. They can’t actually grapple with the structure of our political economy because they can’t grapple with structure. Sorry, that part’s a little tautological but it’s the best I could do.

On Unions for College Athletes

by Jason Morris, Ph.D. candidate in Cultural Studies at George Mason University


Photo credit: Associated Press

Tuesday, January 28 members of the Northwestern University football team did something no other group of college athletes in the United States has ever done: They started a union. Or rather, they began the process. With support from the National College Players Association (NCPA) and the United Steelworkers Union, an overwhelming majority of the team members, led by quarterback, Kain Colter, filled out union cards and filed paperwork with the National Labor Relations Board. Their goal: To form a College Athletes Players Association that will advocate for changes to the way the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), the twenty ton behemoth that manages and regulates college sports, treats “student-athletes.” The announcement arrived on a day when the Super Bowl media hype machine was kicking into high gear and yet, it still managed to command the attention of much of the sports journalism world and even made an appearance on the Op/Ed page of the New York Times.

So, what’s the big deal? Why might Northwestern running back Stephen Buckley have responded to the announcement by tweeting “And then the grenade was thrown…”? (Metaphor? Yes. Hyperbole? Not so much.) Why might a blogger on “Chicago Now” have described the effort as a “Historic Move Towards Social Justice”? (Hyperbole? Perhaps. Just a bit.)

Before I offer my response to these questions I feel obligated to offer the following confessions of bias: (1) I am a huge college football fan. (2) I completed my undergraduate degree at Northwestern in the mid-1990s during a time when the football team’s current coach, Pat Fitzgerald, was a star linebacker. During his playing days at Northwestern Fitzgerald helped lead the football team out of a three decades long residency in the basement of the Big Ten conference to back-to-back conference titles and a trip to the Rose Bowl. (3) I grew up in a union household—the white-collar kind. My parents, now retired with benefits, have been members of the Texas State Employees Union for over twenty years. (I know what you’re thinking but yes, Virginia, they do have unions in Texas.)


Now that I’ve gotten the confessions out of the way, let’s walk through why the attempted unionization efforts of a college football team might get a few people’s attention.

First, in case you’ve been living under a rock, or perhaps ensconced in an academic tower into which no mention of college athletics can penetrate, the NCAA, and college football in particular, is big, big, business. The television contracts associated with the four-team College Football Playoff format set to begin in early 2015 are estimated to be worth $6 billion over 12 years. That breaks down to $500,000,000 per year for just three games—two semifinals and a final. This is to say nothing of the money associated with regional television contracts for regular season games, ticket sales and merchandising. According to data from the Department of Education the University of Alabama football team—one of the best in the country over the last decade—netted almost $45,000,000 in the year 2011-12. If you factor in all the revenue generated by men’s college basketball the numbers go way, way past staggering.

 Second, let’s take a look at that whole merchandising element. The NCAA is currently embroiled in a long running class action lawsuit surrounding the Association’s right to profit from the use of images of student-athletes in commercial ventures. A subplot of this battle surrounds the video game maker EA Sports’ use of player statistics (height, weight, build, home state, etc…) to design the avatars used in its wildly popular NCAA Football game franchise. Mr. Colter, an African-American with dark black hair, gained a bit of publicity in the summer of 2012 when he took issue with his own NCAA Football 2013 avatar: a white guy with red hair.


Third, when it’s not busy fending off merchandising lawsuits the NCAA is dealing with rising complaints about player safety. Concussions and spinal injuries in football have drawn the most attention: Mr. Colter sat out for most of the first two games last season with “concussion-related symptoms” stemming from a hit he took on the second play of the team’s opening game. Concerns about injuries, and the long term medical costs associated with treating them, have been rising across all collegiate sports regardless of gender or perceived level of physical harm.

Finally, as the costs of attending college have risen over the past decade, the NCAA has been pressured to make changes to the ways in which athletic scholarships are administered. In general, athletic scholarships such as those offered to college football players, cover the full cost of tuition, room and board. This isn’t a bad deal, particularly at an elite private school like Northwestern where the full-cost of attendance for the 2013-2014 school year is around $63,000. The difficulty emerges when “student-athletes”, particularly “student-athletes” from low and moderate income families, look for ways to pay the few thousand dollars worth of incidental expenses that aren’t covered by their scholarships.

Many students might pick up a summer job to cover these expenses but this option isn’t available to “student-athletes” under current NCAA regulations. In an effort to maintain the purity of amateur college sports current NCAA regulations prohibit “student-athletes” from engaging in any kind of paid employment. No summer jobs at Mom’s law firm. No newspaper delivery route. No babysitting. Unpaid internships? Fine. Selling your labor power for actual wages? Nope. This also means that players cannot benefit from the sale of team merchandise. In December of 2010, five members of the Ohio State University football team—another elite college football program—admitted to receiving discounted tattoos from a Columbus-area tattoo parlor and were sanctioned by the NCAA for selling team memorabilia and gear. The players, all from moderate-income families, each netted around $1,500 as part of these transactions. Much of that money went to pay incidental expenses and help support their families. A condition of these sanctions required that they return the money. The scandal eventually cost then football coach Jim Tressel his job.


January 28’s announcement followed a series of players rights-related skirmishes that cropped up during the 2013 college football season. First, during a slate of Saturday games in early September some members of the Northwestern, Georgia Tech and Georgia football teams wrote the letters “APU”—All Players United–on their wristbands and other parts of their uniforms. The APU movement, organized by the NCPA, is designed to raise awareness about player safety, particularly concussion related injuries. In October, players at Grambling State University, a historically black university in Louisiana, responded to the firing of the team’s head coach and the deplorable condition of the team’s practice and locker room facilities (a number of players on the team claim to have contracted staph infections due to lack of proper sanitation in the bathrooms and showers) by boycotting a series of practices as well as a game against conference rival Jackson State University. Finally, in early January, the NCPA arranged to have a plane fly a banner reading “All Players United for Concussion Reform. Wake up NCAA!” over the Rose Bowl for three hours prior to the kickoff of the BCS National Championship Game (the Super Bowl of college football).

The initial demands associated with Tuesday’s announcement center around long-term medical benefits for football players, expanded efforts to manage player safety and guaranteed scholarships that cover the full cost of college attendance and the full length of a player’s undergraduate studies. Contrary to much of the commentary that emerged after the initial announcement the players are not asking to be directly paid for their ‘labor’ on the football field.


Now that I’ve outlined why college football players might want to start a union let’s talk about why academics might want to pay attention to their efforts regardless of whether or not they are successful.

First, as a student of political economy, I find this whole topic intellectually fascinating. And I’m pretty sure that Marx and Engels would as well if they were still around. Although I bet Karl would be one of those nerdy anti-sports intellectuals who go around harrumphing about how football is the opiate of the masses. Either that or he’d be a full on drunken Bundesliga fanboy. We could, for example, start with this whole “student-athlete” versus “employee” debate. The players’ ability to form a union depends precisely on whether or not they can be considered employees. The NCAA coined the term ‘student-athlete’ back in the 1950s so that they could avoid having to pay workers compensation benefits to the wife of a player who died on the field during a game. (Check out Taylor Branch’s piece in The Atlantic for a full accounting of this legal slight of hand.)

Or what about the player’s demands? Is this a case of organizing for better wages, better working conditions or both?

Let’s also remember that the NCAA, along with all the universities and colleges that are members of the Association are not-for-profit entities. (The for-profit University of Phoenix has it’s name pasted all over a football stadium in Glendale, Arizona but it does not, at least not yet, field NCAA-sanctioned sports teams.) To what extent can the University of Alabama, a public institution of higher education, be considered a capitalist enterprise if it nets $45,000,000 a year on its investments in college football and plows those funds back into the operation and management of the school? Will ESPN and other media outlets be exploiting the surplus labor time of “student-athletes” next month when they televise games from the NCAA College Basketball tournament?

And what about gender? Many commentators have pointed out that women’s sports and the plight of female student-athletes has received nary a mention in much of the NCPA’s rhetoric. It’s also well known that men’s football and basketball tend to be the revenue generating sports that fund so called non-revenue generating sports such as track and field, tennis and women’s volleyball.

And what about questions of solidarity? Will the player’s union extend a hand of friendship to graduate teaching assistants? Adjunct faculty? Service workers in campus cafeterias? The underpaid garment workers in developing countries who produce the team’s Under Armour-branded uniforms? Should they even be expected to do so?

Exploring the discourse around this topic, offers the opportunity to examine everyday attitudes towards unionization, higher education and the businesses of sports. Over the past two weeks I’ve reviewed numerous online posts on the topic and followed the debate the players’ announcement generated on an email listserv dedicated to Northwestern athletics. Without a doubt the most common sentiment I’ve seen expressed is support of the players’ demands related to health care and athletic scholarships. At the same time there appears to be an overwhelming discomfort with the idea of unionization or having players share in the revenue their activities help generate. Put differently, if you want to advocate for improved working conditions and benefits, great—just don’t say you’re forming a union and most certainly do not ask to actually be paid a fair wage for the profits your labor produces.

Such a sentiment, it seems to me, speaks volumes about the kind of broader opposition to unionization that is regularly expressed across the country. One of the arguments frequently advanced for supporting the players’ health care demands involved likening them to coal miners. Playing college football and mining coal are both physically brutal and potentially dangerous activities, so of course we should provide basic safety protections to miners and players alike. This idea of physical danger also prompted some commentators to ask whether college golfers or swimmers should seek to unionize given the perception that these activities involved little to no physical danger. This perception of unions as something necessary only to protect worker health in dangerous industries, or player health in dangerous sports, might help partially explain recent attacks on retirement pensions for white collar public employees. Pensions and benefits for military veterans and retired first responders are often considered politically untouchable given the very real sacrifices these groups have made by exposing themselves to physical dangers as well as the emotional stresses associated with laboring in war zones, fighting fires and policing drug traffickers. If physical danger is the sole unit of measurement by which the benefits of unionization are measured and doled out in the public sphere then the efforts and sacrifices of those laboring in danger-free cubicles and climate controlled environments pale in comparison to having your Humvee blown up by an IED on some desolate backroad in Afghanistan. Such a calculus also makes it far easier to advocate for the rollback of employment guarantees such as tenure. Public school teachers in California and elsewhere are currently facing such threats.

It’s also important to understand the extent to which college football can be seen as a microcosm for understanding broader conflicts around class, ethnicity and regional identity. For example, Colter and his teammates were accused by some commentators of being a bunch of whining, privileged brats who were offered the opportunity to attend an elite university at little to no cost and then complained about how poorly they were treated. And yet, Colter’s own comments about the NLRB filing speak to a broader solidarity with “student-athletes” across the country: “The action we’re taking isn’t because of any mistreatment by Northwestern. We love Northwestern…. We’re interested in trying to help all players—at USC, Stanford, Oklahoma State, everywhere. It’s about protecting them and future generations to come.”

I would, however, argue that there is some truth to the suggestion that this effort could only have emerged from an elite, private university like Northwestern. The school is located in the northern suburbs of Chicago—a city with a long history of labor and union activism—and its students tend to command the social and cultural capital necessary to make such efforts successful. Such efforts would likely have met with deep resistance had they originated at a public university in the Deep South or the Sunbelt. ESPN columnist Ivan Maisel, a native of Alabama who attended Stanford University, addressed this conflict when he pointed out [U6] that even if the NLRB does rule in favor of the Northwestern players, the ruling will only apply to the 17 or so private schools who are members of the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision. Extending unionization to public schools in the FBS would involve state-by-state action. Maisel expressed his skepticism that such efforts would be well received in Tuscaloosa or Baton Rouge where the phrase “right to work” looms almost as large as the myth of the virtuous amateur college football player. This is not to say that students at Alabama or LSU would not be capable of such actions, but they would likely encounter far more difficulty than Colter and his teammates have experienced thus far.

Finally, it’s worth noting, per Joe Nocera’s recent column in the New York Times, that Colter drew some of the inspiration for his efforts from a class he took about the modern workplace in which he learned about “the steelworkers’ union and the professional sports unions.” We have become accustomed to understanding the university as a modern workplace that increasingly relies on various forms of labor: graduate teaching assistants, adjuncts with limited job security, swarms of low paid service workers—and debt, not only the student loan variety but also the kind required to the finance the massive building booms necessary to keep up with the facilities arms race that has swept college campuses over the last decade. To what extent must we now also consider the “student-athlete” a part of this complicated matrix?

Our Gaga, Our Selves: Review of Jack Halberstam’s Gaga Feminism

by Roger Lancaster, Director of the Cultural Studies Program

(Part 1 surveyed Lady Gaga’s career to date, especially in relation to the gay community. Part 2 reviews J. Jack Halberstam’s recent book.)

Part 2: Rise and Fall of the Haus of Gaga

HALBERSTAM-GagaFeminismNow it so happens in the course of popular culture studies that events sometimes outrun the capacity of scholars to describe and analyze them. Something like this must have befallen J. Jack Halberstam, whose recent paean to the performer is titled Gaga Feminism: Sex, Gender, and the End of Normal. (Halberstam published for many years under the name Judith but now goes by Jack.)

Scattered across the book are what appear to be late revisions to a text that was already substantially conceived before the release of “Born This Way,” as Halberstam struggles to keep his own line of arguments separate from the pop star’s garishly essentialist version of queer life in that single. “Contrary to Lady Gaga’s own manifesto, you will not be born a gaga feminist….”; “Forget about ‘Born This Way’ and focus on the rhythmic freefall accomplished by Lady Gaga….”

Unevenness aside, the resulting book is to be praised on many counts.

It aims to provide “a fun, user-friendly, and quasi-academic handbook for a new feminism.” Specifically, it tries to infuse radical queer gender politics (with its emphasis on identities in flux and flow) with the spirit of Occupy Wall Street (with its logic of the 99%).

In plotting this course, the author keeps class inequalities and systems of racial domination in plain view, and he attempts to integrate these hierarchies into his discussion of policies related to gender and sexuality (especially, for example, gay marriage).

There are some touching dialogues between the author and his two stepchildren, as the latter work out some of the varieties contemporary genders. “Of course … he is a girl,” says one of Halberstam: “a boygirl.” In piecing together such child-centric accounts, which figure substantially in the author’s own thinking, Halberstam steadfastly refuses the ubiquitous child sex panics of our time. This is laudable.

And then there’s sheer verve. Halberstam attempts to track “emerging formulations of gender politics” through the public figure of a pop icon; this makes for a high-stakes gambit.

What Halberstam calls “gaga” (rhymes with “dada,” stands for “going gaga”)

derives from Lady Gaga and has everything to do with Lady Gaga but is not limited to Lady Gaga. In other words, just as Andy Warhol was a channel for a set of new relations between culture, visibility, marketability, and queerness, so the genius of gaga allows Lady Gaga to become the vehicle for performing the very particular arrangement of bodies, genders, desires, communication, race, affect, and flow that we might now want to call gaga feminism. Gaga feminism, or the feminism (pheminism?) of the phony, the unreal, and the speculative, is simultaneously a monstrous outgrowth of the unstable concept of “woman” in feminist theory, a celebration of the joining of femininity to artifice, and a refusal of the mushy sentimentalism that has been siphoned into the category of womanhood. But this is not necessarily a brand-new feminism, and Lady Gaga herself is certainly not an architect of a new gender politics. Rather, there is some relation in her work between popular culture, feminine style, sound, and motion that hints at evolving forms of sex and gender at a moment when both are in crisis. Lady Gaga, as both a media product and a media manipulator, as a megabrand of sorts, becomes the switch point for both kinds of body futures—she represents both an erotics of the surface and an erotics of flaws and flows, and she is situated very self-consciously at the heart of new forms of consumer capitalism.

Such passages embrace a series of assertions, some plausible, some less so: Gaga is a channel; gender and sex are in crisis (yet again—or perhaps always and forever); phony effects herald a new world in the birthing….

If these assertions seem all-too-familiar, it is perhaps good to remember scholarly gushings around the figure of Madonna in the 1980s, which similarly papered over gaps between entertainment and politics, theory and performance, image and audience.

Of course, one is also reminded of Meaghan Morris’s cautionary piece, “Banality in Cultural Studies.”

To raise an obvious point (and perhaps to belabor it): Even without broaching a discussion of commodity fetishism or reviewing the history of the public sphere, Halberstam might have teed the discussion more substantially off difference between forms of communication deployed in celebrity PR or commercial culture and forms of communication used in social or political movements.


Certainly, there are overlaps between the two, not to say hybrid forms. The one kind of publicity is sometimes appropriated or captured by the other. Madison Avenue loves nothing more than the perpetual “revolution” of product renewal. Advertisers periodically market consumption as substitutes for social change: the countercultural “Pepsi Generation” became, in parts of Latin America, “the Pepsi Revolution.” Correlatively, political activists have always staged events with an eye toward how they would be covered in newspapers, on the evening news—or today, on the blogs or Facebook.

But blurring aside, the main goal of commercial culture is to get you to purchase a product, or at least to think well of it. In getting you to buy the product, it aims to convert the capitalists’ initial outlay of money into profits, hence more capital. That is all. Even commercial entertainment—whatever its secondary effects or audience-based reappropriations—is essentially about the marketing of digital downloads and tickets. (“Shock effects” are most helpful here, and that is a great deal of the Gaga story.) By contrast, the object of political culture is to convince you of an argument, to rally support or opposition in some tangible way (lobbying, voting, protesting, organizing)—and in so doing, ultimately to organize the distribution of rights, protections, powers, allegiances, and freedoms.

Not to put too fine a point on the matter: OWS, the so-called anti-globalization rallies from a few years ago, and nascent protest movements worldwide all represent attempts to reverse the neoliberal subsumption of politics to commerce.

Minding such a distinction, however tenuous, might have given Halberstam more critical leverage over his material, including celebrity hijinks and “queer notions of bodily riot and antinormative disruption.” Ignoring the question allows him to revel and enthuse rather than analyze.

Myriad such enthusiasms are vented over the course of the book:

The significance of SpongeBob SquarePants to contemporary gender norms, I believe, cannot be overstated; while earlier generations of boys and girls were raised on cartoon worlds populated by cats and mice, dogs and rabbits chasing each other across various domestic landscapes, this generation has come of age to an animated mythological universe populated by characters with eccentric and often simply weird relations to gender.

Perhaps there is something to this, but locating “weird relations to gender” in modern cartoons overlooks a lot of the history of mass entertainment. Even classic Warner Brothers cartoons from generations ago featured Bugs Bunny donning drag in order to seduce the feckless Elmer Fudd or some other adversary. Anyway, subversive gender messages and sexual decodings are nothing new; audiences have always colluded with image-producers to spy out secret or not-so-secret meanings. Queer film critic Parker Tyler was all over this by the 1970s.


Or, consider this:

Gaga feminism is a politics that brings together meditations on fame and visibility with a lashing critique of the fixity of roles for males and females. It is a scavenger feminism that borrows promiscuously, steals from everywhere, and inhabits the ground of stereotype and cliché all at the same time.

No doubt there is something to these assertions. Feminist and queer scholars were writing about postfordist flexibility and the waning of gender fifteen to twenty years ago—at a time when lines like “Everyone is gay” (Nirvana) and “Are you woman enough to be my man?” (Pearl Jam) were still fresh enough to produce genuine frisson. One of the more challenging proposals from LGBT studies of that period was essentially this: It turns out that sexual flexibility, gender flux, and instability might well “fit” with the cultural logic of neoliberalism. (See here Rosemary Hennessy’s book, Profit and Pleasure.)

By contrast, the overall effect of Halberstam’s book—especially in the context of his careful refusal to give any sketch of a political program—is a surprisingly complacent flattening-out of practices: Dressing-up, acting-out, and other forms of supposedly “creative anarchy” can be imagined to be “political,” without caveat or context, and without reference to their siting in circuits of production and consumption.

This is ultimately the repose of the image-consumer, not the stance of the cultural critic or social activist.

Might it be time to demand a tad more from cultural studies?

Halberstam purports to give an anarchist account of how “new modes of communication and new forms of social relation” might be working out, on the social ground. And here, he goes out of his way to pitch his case against the clown prince of philosophical Marxism, Slavoj Zizek, whose remarks at Occupy Wall Street he dislikes: “carnivals come cheap.”

Halberstam especially dislikes Zizek’s exhortation that the protesters actively work for social change when they return to “normal life.” Actively working for something seems to be contrary to the spirit of “going gaga.” By contrast, Halberstam champions carnival as a form of politics in situ, because carnival participants supposedly come to see “normal life as one of the fictions of colonial and neocolonial power.”


No doubt Zizek might better have said “everyday” rather than “normal” life, given how the word “normal” immediately sets teeth on edge. Still, it is difficult to take Halberstam’s line of counterargument seriously.

First, whatever else OWS was, it was not a carnival: a collective eruption of laughter. It was a solemn, serious, speechifying occasion. Those seemingly interminable debates among anarchists, Ron Paul supporters, and socialists were not meant to be parodical, satirical, or festive in any sense.

Second, even if we use the term as a very strained metaphor (which both Zizek and Halberstam do), “carnival” is not political protest or confrontation, at least not directly. Authorities tolerate its rituals of inversion and reversal precisely because these temporally delimited outbursts give symbolic vent to people’s aspirations for a different, better world: They pose no immediate threat to the hierarchies they invert. What they do instead is to provide for a space of subversive imaginings and collective memory. Therein lies carnival’s power. As Mikhail Bakhtin makes clear, these longings and memories might be sprung into history, realized as politics, under certain propitious circumstances.

Third and last, Halberstam repeatedly tilts against capitalism—and in sensible, clear-headed mode, he wants to build on already-existing alternatives to the status quo. “Hear, hear!” say I. But already-existing institutions that might plausibly stand between the increasingly dispossessed masses and unbridled markets—organized labor and political parties—are absent from his discussion. Indeed, his general line of patter suggests that such old-fashioned organizations have no place in the coming “gagapocalypse.” It goes unsaid exactly how “swap meets, co-ops, neighborly exchanges of goods” and so on might model other economic ways of being on a significant scale (pace arguments by J. K. Gibson-Graham).

In the resulting noise and posturing, capitalism itself—even in its most basic operations—goes undefined.

To his credit, Halberstam has a lot of very sensible things to say about gay marriage: A one-size institution won’t serve everyone’s needs. All number of signs—divorce rates, cohabitation practices, and non-coupled ways of making kinship—point to the inadequacy of marriage in the modern dispensation. And anyway, why should we be demanding inclusion in an exclusionary institution?

Still, one might have expected more empathy with, say, gay couples who wish to marry so that one partner might receive immigration status, or middle-aged lesbians who wed to ensure that the surviving member of the pair receives social security benefits.

On such points, the unevenness of Halberstam’s polemic wears thin: The fuzzy logic of OWS’s “the 99%” keeps giving way to potshots at a vaguely defined “middle class.” Too often, the interests of this so-called middle class—the bulk of which technically falls into the ranks of the more-or-less-stably-employed working class—are rhetorically folded into the plots and machinations of the very rich, or are subsumed into agendas of the now-fading neoconservatives. This strategy allows Halberstam to lodge the radical queer politics he advocates, with its principled aversion to marriage as an institution, among the poor and in communities of color.

Each of these moves is doubtful.

Worse, such moves detract from our side’s political failures. Radical queers (and I count myself in this camp) have been very good at critiquing marriage, but we have utterly failed to advance a winnable package of rights, protections, and benefits that might vie with marriage on a new institutional playing field. Nor have we been effective at rallying substantial numbers of people to work for political alternatives to marriage.

Now perhaps it demands too much of a “quasi-academic” book to ask for a coherent class analysis, a systemic view of capitalism, or even a plausible definition the author’s political orientation. This last point is especially vexing. For all the sound and fury of Halberstam’s “anarchist mistrust of structure,” his concern with corporate tax giveaways while the poor are underserved on such issues as health care actually suggests a fairly conventional variant of activist liberalism.

The net effect of Halberstam’s work is to bring queer polemic to the cusp of the present socio-economic crisis, then forestall the posing of crucial questions.

I conclude this review, then, with a smattering of open-ended questions:

rhps2Are we still to think—forty years into modern feminism and gay liberation, and thirty years into a parade of monstrous fabulosities that have issued prolifically from glitter and glam to Rocky Horror to Gaga—that sexual flux and depictions of it are intrinsically subversive?

And if “express yourself” (or some poststructuralist variant thereof) is to be the battle cry of radical queer politics, then do the powers that be really have anything to fear?

If, by contrast, our beef is that a moribund institution like marriage doesn’t provide benefits for everyone, or that GLBTI youth are underserved, and if what we want is a broader distribution of goods and services, not to say action on climate change, then is what’s called for today a radical queer movement as such—or is it a queer caucus in a revitalized socialist movement?

Lastly: If post-New Left criticism worked off an additive approach that effectively erased exploitation by folding class into a series of prejudices—racism, hetero-sexism, classism—then is it not time to begin to think about these terms in a different sort of way: synthetically, perhaps, and weighted, with class as the one form of hierarchy inextricably linked to capitalism?

(Part 3 will tack back to Lady Gaga and examine questions internal to gay communities, broadly understood.)