Sometimes I get asked for a biography of myself.
“They” made my life possible
Sometime in 2019, I noticed that my former teacher, Lauren Berlant, had changed their pronoun to they. They’re gone now, and the work of mourning is ongoing. Yet it seems to me that the most optimistic thing we can do is to keep learning from their work, their thought.
This might be awkward, since our relations to our teachers are so often enigmatic and awkward. Yet they can also sometimes be transformative and life-sustaining. Once, in a rare autobiographical moment, Berlant evoked the power of teachers to hold us together when we’re not really OK:
As though they knew what it was like to be me in my family, my teachers, and the world of school and work they sustained, made my life possible. I do not know whether I expected it, or demanded it, or even whether they knew what they were doing, or whether I deserved it.
I do not know whether they knew what they were doing: we can all say this of our teachers, even if they made our lives possible. I’m not sure exactly what Berlant meant by adopting they, late in life. I do know, though, that Berlant’s life was organized by a long-term disidentification with gender and femininity. As a genderqueer person, I felt a sudden kinship with their pronoun choice, an impersonal joy in finding myself together in the same gesture as my teacher. This joy does not imply any deep mutual understanding or transcendence of the structural distance that always separated us. But it might make space for thought. And what I want to suggest here is that Berlant’s embrace of they was not merely a personal identification. Rather, it is a clue to their larger theory of subjectivity in general. It sheds light on their theoretical project and its grounding in life and history.
(Caveat lector: What follows is a bit long and somewhat theoretical.)
So I put 15 years into becoming “an anthropologist,” but now I’m unbecoming one.
I left anthropology for economic and family reasons, but that isn’t what I want to write about. I just want to write about no longer being what I was. What does that mean?
I don’t practice anthropology any more. I don’t teach it. I don’t write it. I don’t read it. I sold my anthropology books for a dime.
What does it mean to unbecome what you were?
Who is the subject of critical theory in 2020? And how does this subject grapple with the legacy of patriarchy, whiteness, and coloniality that have haunted critical theory since 1968 and earlier? Too much of a question for a blog post. But I would venture briefly that one way to rethink the legacy of critical theory is to see how others have already escaped it.
I want here to explore feminist theorist Sara Ahmed’s professional encounter with critical theory in Britain. I draw here on her published reflections on her education, set largely in the late 1980s and early 1990s. For Ahmed, theory’s reified masculinism was a point of departure in her process of coming to consciousness as a feminist. Ahmed, who resigned her professorial position at Goldsmiths to protest widespread sexual harassment, initially encountered “theory” as an undergraduate in the literature department at the University of Adelaide. When she moved to Cardiff University’s then-new Centre for Critical and Cultural Theory for her doctoral work, she learned a major lesson: that theory in the abstract was predominantly theory in the masculine.
What I glean from Ahmed’s writing is that her coming-to-consciousness-against-theory took place in four key moments.
A few years ago, I taught a college class about European peoples and cultures. Here are some reflections on Europe that I wrote at the end of that course.
If we boil things down, this course shows us an image of Europe that is fundamentally about conflict, crisis, nationalism, and the heavy weight of ugly histories. The Europe we’ve seen this semester is a Europe in crisis. Even at times in agony. It suffices to recall that Europe is a place where a Turkish family’s house can get burned down by neo-Nazis, as in Solingen, Germany in May 1993. It’s a place where refugees drown by the boatload offshore, or where refugee camps can catch on fire, as on the Greek island of Lesbos this September 19, sending more than 3,000 refugees fleeting. It’s a place where a French citizen can take a Kosher supermarket hostage on behalf of the Islamic State and then get killed by the riot police, as Amedy Coulibaly did almost two years ago, and then be construed by right-wing xenophobic politicians as hard evidence of an implacable clash of civilizations between “Islamic fundamentalism” and the (fantasized) West. It’s a place where pension payments to the elderly can get slashed to satisfy foreign lenders, and also a place where people can die while waiting months for socialized medicine to give them heart surgery. Austerity policies, like socialist ones, can kill. Europe is a place where whole worlds have been burned down and slaughtered only to be rebuilt and reborn, like my grandfather’s childhood apartment in Berlin, which, sometime after his family fled or died in fled Nazi Germany, was converted into a parking lot.
I read this yesterday at a really wonderful conference, Whose crisis, whose university?, which began with questions about the university and its relationship to carcerality, prison abolition, and abolitionist history in general. My little text is drawn partly from a longer paper I’ve written about sonic patriarchy in a French university department. The conference was also about criticizing the limits of the recently invented field of “Critical University Studies,” so I said a few words about that too.
My first thought about abolition is that it makes an immense difference just what we are trying to abolish. What, for instance, might it mean to “abolish left patriarchy” in academia? Etymologically, patriarchy is rule of the fathers, a regime of male power and patrilineal inheritance. One might thus see abolishing patriarchy as a destruction or cancellation of male power in general, or at least of propertarian gerontocracy and its self-assertions of grandiosity and naturalness.
Here’s a little excerpt from the preface of my book about French radical philosophy, where I try to open up some questions about gender and object-desire in “French Theory,” as we once knew it in America. It’s not the ethnographic part of my project; it’s not even really about France. But it tries to think a bit about U.S. college culture around the turn of the 2000s, when I was a student and when—at my institution—French Theory was still somewhat in vogue.
The kind of theory I was taught in college had a big aura. It was a chic kind of theory, a French kind of theory, one entwined with hipster and bohemian aesthetics, with “female effacement” (Johnson 2014:27), with things postmodern or poststructuralist, with American whiteness, and with a barely repressed spirit of commodification and elite competition. In the American university context, this theoretical competition was readily entangled with clumsy masculine ambition and ersatz intersubjectivity, as one can see from a late-1990s satirical song about dating at Swarthmore College.
I’ve been reading lately about the French Women’s Liberation Movement, which had its first public event in 1970, at the University of Paris 8, which would become my primary French fieldsite. In its early days, the university was called the Centre Universitaire Expérimental de Vincennes (Experimental University Center at Vincennes). It was located east of Paris amidst the woods of a major city park. It was notorious for overcrowding. It was notorious for far-left activist “frenzy,” which stemmed from the political movements of 1968.
I was not surprised to find out that in the 1970s, sexism and rape culture were major problems among the male-dominated French far left. They remain issues on French campuses today.
The book project that I’m working on, Disappointed Utopia: Radical Philosophy in Postcolonial France, is basically an ethnographic study of “French Theory.” The book’s preface tries to explain why, at this point in history, we would still be interested in an ethnography of that. And the answer, in short, is that the historical problems of “French Theory” are not so different from our own (in Anglophone anthropology, if that who “we” is here).
So here is a little excerpt from the preface that explores the relationship between French Theory and the recent controversy over the HAU journal in my field.
Last week I was really delighted to get to talk about a paper I wrote, “The Infinite Rounds of the Stubborn: Reparative futures at a French political protest.” It was at Oberlin College, where my friend Les Beldo is teaching a class on Culture and Activism.
Here’s how my paper summarized itself:
When social actors find themselves at an impasse, perceiving their futures as threatened, how can they respond? If their futures can get broken or interrupted, can they subsequently be reconnected or repaired? If yes, how? Here, I consider an ethnographic case of reconnected futurity drawn from French protest politics: the 2009–2010 Ronde Infinie des Obstinés, or “Infinite Rounds of the Stubborn.” Opposing Sarkozy-era neoliberal university reforms, the Ronde sought to instrumentalize its temporal and political impasse, shifting its relation to the future out from the register of subjectivity and into the register of ritual motion. By situating the Ronde within the fabric of Parisian political space, I show how it synthesized the politics of occupation with the politics of marching, hopelessness with stubborn endurance, the negation of state temporality with the prefiguration of an alternative future. I conclude by reflecting on the place of temporal repair in relation to recent forms of prefigurative radicalism.
Last year, I blogged about a 1970 critique of sexism at the University of Chicago. Just now, I opened up the anthology in question, Sisterhood is Powerful, and discovered another neat document: a feminist political manifesto issued on the occasion of protests against the firing of Marlene Dixon, a Marxist feminist professor.
I especially liked its capacious theory of women’s freedom.
The places where we live during fieldwork can be so strange. Even in the best of circumstances.
My first summer in France I had a sublet for eight weeks. It wasn’t a place that made a lasting impression on me, but I just came across a list of rules and guidelines that I sent to an American grad student who needed a place to stay for a week.
We’ve reached the end of our class on gender, so it seems like the right time to finally tell you what gender is all about: worldmaking.
What do I mean, worldmaking?
I just came home from visiting a literary theory and cultural studies graduate seminar at Carnegie Mellon University. I went to Pittsburgh — not so far from where I live in Cleveland — to talk about my book on French Theory, but I ended up talking about my life, my experience in the academy, and my “career.”*
Ethnographers are constantly writing what they call vignettes. What they mean by this word is short stories. The core claim of this post is that short stories are great, and we should keep writing them, but that we should stop trivializing them by using this problematic, denigrating term.
What is a vignette? Vigne is vine (in French) and vignette is thus “little vine,” which is certainly an evocative image. But what does a little vine do for ethnographers?
Following in the footsteps of #MeToo, I want to recount an incident that happened to me last decade. I haven’t seen a lot of male or nonbinary people writing about these sorts of workplace harassment stories. The overwhelmingly frequent scenario is men harassing women, of course, but it’s not the only one. Mine was a queerer case.
But everything here is sadly unremarkable, aside from the gender and sexuality parameters. Workplace hierarchies and precarious gigs are ripe for abuse. Harassment is largely about enjoying power and transgressing other people’s boundaries. It exploits ambiguity and hides in plain sight.
These usual truths are all I have. I still think they’re worth hearing.
It’s an older story now, and I left out the names and places.
It’s early morning in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. The cognitive capitalism capital of the American rustbelt, you could call it. Huge university buildings and museums. Vast zones of middle class dwelling and consumption. Working-class neighborhoods hidden away out of sight.
It’s been about twelve weeks since I left my faculty job in South Africa. I really liked teaching there, partly because the weight of the Apartheid past was still so very present in Stellenbosch that, in an unexpected way, it made it feel especially worthwhile to teach critical social science. But it was just too far from my partner and our kid, who had stayed here. Obviously, we had explored different options. Leaving Stellenbosch ended up being the right thing, and I’m not ambivalent about it, even though I miss the teaching.
I was just looking up how to spell the adjective “Comaroffian” when I came upon a paper by Charles Piot about the Comaroffs’ Of Revolution and Revelation. Skimming through it, I happened upon an amusing couple of paragraphs that set out to summarize different theories of “modernity.” In case anyone wants to see what that looks like, here they are:
A little before seven, some sort of teacherly anxiety wakes me up before the alarm. Dim light slips through the blinds. From the obstructed view onto a garden wall, a row of bushes, and a westerly sky, I can’t immediately tell whether last night’s rain will continue.
Being a bit anxious makes it easier to get up and get moving.
In the spirit of Shabana Mir’s blog, whose exceptional reflexivity about academic life I really admire, I thought I would write something about the intense anxieties that graduate school used to induce in me.
I had lots of different feelings in graduate school, and lots of them weren’t bad. But for me, some of the hardest things were those ritual moments where your very Being is supposed to be under examination. In concrete terms, that meant the big rites of passage: the qualifying exams, the dissertation proposal hearing, and finally the dissertation defense. It’s easier to think about them now that they’re a bit distant in time.
My disciplinary association (the AAA) is conducting a survey.
It doesn’t really matter to me what the survey is about. The survey has two fatal flaws:
- It uses clickbait marketing tactics to try to reach me.
- It purports to compensate me by offering me a chance to win a gift card.
I just came across a book I feel that I ought to have encountered sooner, Sisterhood is Powerful: An Anthology of Writings from the Women’s Liberation Movement, edited by Robin Morgan (1970). I haven’t had time to read it all the way through, but it has these astounding section titles like “The hand that cradles the rock,” and a few things I’ve seen before, notably Pat Mainardi’s marvelous “Politics of Housework,” a brutal and hilarious deconstruction of her husband’s sexist rationalizations for not doing housework.
Anyway, halfway through the volume, I find a compendium of sexist comments made to women graduate students at the University of Chicago. I thought it would be worth reproducing here, since I haven’t seen this text before and I think it’s good to have this sort of discourse out in circulation. While the general lines of this sort of sexist thought are pathetically familiar, the horror is always in the particulars.
Friday was the last day of my ethnography class, so I mainly wanted to tell some stories. Good ethnography isn’t much more than good storytelling, in the end.
Back in 2011 I went for a bike trip in southern Illinois and made it just across the river to Cape Girardeau, Missouri. I wrote about my trip at the time but I’m embarrassed to say that I mainly saw the place in terms of class — it was a largely run-down, working-class place — and, in racial terms, I only noticed that it was largely white.
As I write, night is falling slowly and heavily, like a train gaining momentum gracelessly. It’s easy to feel sleepy when I come home after the all-day heat, which still lingers in the house, but I eat dinner early and make myself go for a walk, the better to sit down afterwards to prep for class tomorrow morning.