Jennifer Doyle: "Sex, Paranoia & the Workplace" - Response by Tim Dean

Monday, April 3, 2017

posted under by Ted Faust
[On March 30, the Unit for Criticism & Interpretive Theory hosted the lecture "Sex, Paranoia & the Workplace" The speaker was Jennifer Doyle, Professor of English at UC-Riverside. Below is a response to the lecture from Tim Dean, Professor of English.]

Response to Jennifer Doyle's "Sex, Paranoia & the Workplace"
by Tim Dean, Professor of English

Jennifer Doyle and I met for the very first time today; but I have admired her work for over a decade, and all the more so after reading her recent book, Campus Sex, Campus Security (published by Semiotext(e) in 2015).  One of the things I admire most is her capacity to keep the critical lens focused on sex, especially at a time when the field of Queer Studies has retreated from the difficulties of thinking sex in favor of other objects of study.  From her first book, titled Sex Objects: Art and the Dialectics of Desire (2006), Professor Doyle has focused on how libidinal energies and impasses shape the cultural and social fields.  This focus strikes me as deeply psychoanalytic, even when Doyle steers clear of particular psychoanalytic methods and vocabularies.  In my remarks today, I want to situate her reading of Freud’s “Case of Paranoia” in relation to her work as a whole, before opening the floor to discussion.  I would like to articulate a number of observations and questions, but I will try to be brief.

In both her reading of Freud’s case and her recent book, Doyle is interested in the desires, anxieties, and disavowals that structure the workplace—including our workplaces at public universities.  In her reading of Freud, she has an explanation for why the workplace has become intolerable for the woman in question.  And in her book Campus Sex, Campus Security, she has an explanation for why our working conditions at public universities have increasingly become intolerable.  But they are not the same explanation, even though both turn on “sex.”

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A State with No Budget (with apologies to America)

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

posted under by Roman Friedman
By James Treat, Associate Professor, Religion

On the first part of the journey
I was looking at all the life
There were plants and birds and rocks and things
There was sand and hills and rings
The first thing I met was a gov with a buzz
And the sky with no clouds
The heat was hot and the ground was dry
But the air was full of sound

I've been through the college in a state with no budget
It felt good to be out of the money
In the college you can remember your debt
'Cause there ain't no one for to give you no funds
La, la, . . .
La, la, . . .

After two years in the college sun
My face began to turn red
After three years in the college fun
I was looking at a river bed
And the story it told of a river that flowed
Made me sad to think it was dead

You see I've been through the college in a state with no budget
It felt good to be out of the money
In the college you can remember your debt
'Cause there ain't no one for to give you no funds
La, la, . . .
La, la, . . .

After nine terms I let the state run free
'Cause the college had turned to work
There were plants and birds and rocks and things
There was sand and hills and rings
The world is a college with its life underground
And a perfect disguise above
Under the cities lies a heart made of stone
But the leaders will give no love

U-C I've been through the college in a state with no budget
It felt good to be out of the money
In the college you can remember your debt
'Cause there ain't no one for to give you no funds
La, la, . . .
La, la, . . .
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Anita Say Chan: "Technological Futures & Networked Time at the Periphery" - Response by Gabe Malo & elizaBeth Simpson

Monday, March 27, 2017

posted under by Ted Faust
[On March 13, the Unit for Criticism & Interpretive Theory hosted the lecture "Technological Futures & Networked Time at the Periphery." The speaker was Anita Say Chan, Associate Professor of Media & Cinema Studies and the Institute of Communications Research at UIUC. Below is a response to the lecture from Gabe Malo & elizaBeth Simpson (Institute of Communications Research).]

"Seeing Spaces: Re-centering Peripheries"
Written by:
Gabe Malo (ICR): Lecture, Q&A, and Conclusion
elizaBeth Simpson (ICR): Introduction and Response

Introduction: 
Prof. Anita Say Chan was introduced by Prof. Cameron McCarthy, who praised her “consistently stellar and brilliant scholarship and intellectual forward motion.” McCarthy began his remarks by drawing a contrast between W.W. Rostow’s five-stage theory of modernization development, and Chan’s work which "contributes to subaltern efforts to rethink contemporary center-periphery relations in the digital age." In particular, he took up her book, Networking Peripheries: Technological Futures and the Myth of Digital Universalism in which she "explores cultural imaginaries of global digital connections expressed in Peru and the rising zones of subjugated and artisanal knowledges in transnational peripheries and in the rapidly transforming globalizing context of post-development states.” He placed Chan among feminist scholars such as Ien Ang, Saskia Sassen, and Doreen Massey, noting that Chan takes up James Carey’s call to assert the public significance of her work, and in so doing “to expand the field of reference in academic discourse.” 

Source: MIT Press
Anita Say Chan is Associate Professor in Media and Cinema Studies and the Institute of Communications Research. She is also Faculty Leader of the INTERSECT Learning to See Systems Research Group and Faculty Co-Leader of the Recovering Prairie Futures IPRH Research Cluster

Lecture: Technological Futures and Networked Time at the Periphery
The talk began with Prof. Chan considering the notion of the technological periphery not only in its stabilized dimensions but also in its temporal dimensions. She argued that the relation between the technological “center”—places like Silicon Valley—and the technological “periphery” is largely shaped by the relations of labor, tech, and power to particular real and imaginary temporalities. Her talk focused on Peru as a site for digital culture in order to critique the physical and temporal localities that place it on the technological periphery in Euro-centric paradigms. Such a conception, she stated, ignored the advancements and adaptations which have occurred on the technological periphery. 
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Nirvana Tanoukhi: "So, What's Wrong With 'The Relatable' As a Category of Judgment?" - Response by Helga Varden

Monday, March 6, 2017

posted under by Ted Faust
[On February 28, the Unit for Criticism & Interpretive Theory hosted the lecture "So, What's Wrong With 'The Relatable' As a Category of Judgment?". The speaker was Nirvana Tanoukhi, Assistant Professor of English at University of Wisconsin-Madison. Below is a response to the lecture from Helga Varden, Associate Professor of Philosophy at UIUC.]

Response to Nirvana Tanoukhi’s “So, What’s Wrong with the Relatable as a Category of Judgment?”
By Helga Varden, Philosophy
First of all, I would like to thank Professor Tanoukhi for having written and for letting me comment on such a terrific paper. I’ve so enjoyed and felt so stimulated by thinking about the themes and about the moves Tanoukhi makes in her paper. Before sharing some of the puzzles I still find myself thinking about—including, ultimately, what Tanoukhi’s answer is to the question of what is wrong with the relatable as a category of judgment—let me give a quick summary of what I take to be the main points.

The aim of the paper is to critique the concept of the relatable as it is being used both in relation to literary theory and education as well as how it was used in the 2016 presidential election in the US. To provide her critical analysis, she turns to Kant for help. She argues that in relation to both spheres (literature and politics), when people deem it important to be able to relate to (in the sense of identifying or empathizing with) the main characters, what is going on psychologically can be appreciated by understanding why Kant didn't write only the 1st and the 2nd Critiques. That is, in addition to the Critique of Pure Reason (critiquing the world as it is) and the Critique of Practical Reason (critiquing the world as it ought to be) – Kant also saw it necessary to write a 3rd Critique, a Critique of Judgment. Kant’s 3rd Critique, Tanoukhi argues, holds the clue to understanding what is going on in the category of the relatable because it provides a critique of aesthetic judgment, in particular judgments of beauty. Judgments of beauty, Tanoukhi continues, have four moments – as enabled by the four types of categories of the understanding, namely quantity, quality, relation, and modality – which in turn, Kant argues, captures the way in which we judge things as beautiful through the ideas he labels “subjective universality,” “disinterested interest,” “purposeless purposiveness,” and “sensus communis.”
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"What's at Stake? Intersectional Conversations in a Post-Truth Era" - Response by Eman Ghanayem

Thursday, March 2, 2017

posted under by Ted Faust
[On Monday February 20th, the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory hosted a system-wide University of Illinois faculty forum titled “What’s at Stake? Intersectional Conversations in a Post-Truth Era.” The event was co-sponsored by the departments of African American Studies, Asian American Studies, Latina/Latino Studies, and Political Science. The UI forum included Professors Jodi A. Byrd, Ben Miller, A. Naomi Paik, and Gilberto Rosas from UIUC; Nadine Naber and Amalia Pallares from UIC; and Hinda Seif from UIS. Below is a response to the forum from Eman Ghanayem, Dept. of English.]

"Truths — Known, Unknown, and Forgotten — in the US Past and Present"
Written by Eman Ghanayem (Dept. of English)

The event was a timely response to the recent political developments brought in by the Trump administration, particularly the executive orders related to immigration and border security that were accompanied by the proliferation of “alternative facts” and sensationalized fear. In their presentations, the panelists adopted intersectionality as a method of reading and responding to social exclusions, and as a tool for community organizing and academic sanctuary building. Professor Ben Miller (Political Science, UIUC) overviewed Kimberlé Crenshaw’s definition of intersectionality and intersectional feminism, and emphasized their value as tools for understanding society and changing it. While most conservatives lean towards the former role because of its sanitized, apolitical nature, the capacities of intersectionality as a tool for social reformation was evident in the panelists’ critiques and hopes for the future. Professors Gilberto Rosas (Anthropology and Latinx Studies, UIUC) and Amalia Pallares (Political Science and Latin American and Latino Studies, UIC) modeled the practices of intersectionality as they explored the responsibilities of academics, themselves and others, towards vulnerable communities. Professor Rosas highlighted that current immigration policies were an extension of the Obama administration practices that resulted in the deportation of nearly three million people. He explained how the Trump administration speaks truth post-truthfully to the legacy of deportation in US history. Professor Rosas reminded us that, in the current moment, the continuous televising of deportation and profiling cases promises a kind of transparency that can aid pro-immigrant activism. The resurgence of refusal within communities of immigrants of color is gradually and rightfully becoming the protest strategy that is bringing people together.

Professor Amalia Pallares also drew parallels between the Trump and Obama administrations. “Post-truth” as a descriptor of the Trump era echoes the ways “post-race” was used throughout Obama’s presidency. Pallares reminded us that “truth” is still here and has always been present, and that the recognition of certain truths can set the ground for resistance. Professor Pallares drew on her engagement in recent efforts to turn Oak Park, IL, into a sanctuary, immigrant-friendly place. One of the problems she and other activists have faced in the process is the reluctance of some staff members in the Oak Park municipal office to endorse an all-inclusive sanctuary ordinance that does not rest on exceptions of certain categories of undocumented immigrants from sanctuary. She described the difficulty of making a case for a sanctuary policy without exceptions, and explained how activists had dealt with this problem by reframing their demand as a call for sanctuary without loopholes. The rhetoric of loopholes suggested that those who sought exceptions were engaged in a dubious practice. This rhetoric of sanctuary without loopholes won over community members who were hesitant to embrace an inclusive sanctuary policy. She was hopeful as she articulated her conclusions about her experience, saying that she realized that “truth” in spaces of conflict can be harnessed by searching for and exposing loopholes in the system. More importantly, she sees great promise in the “creation of truth.” Truth is created when historical precedent is made through local efforts. Turning a place into a sanctuary, and having that backed by the community of that place, whether it be a town or a campus, can be a great goal to pursue and realize as she had worked with others to do in Oak Park. Like Professor Rosas, Professor Pallares ended with the questions: how can we protect our students and community members? And, how can we begin to enact our responsibility towards them as academics in a public university?

Jodi Byrd, Nadine Naber, Naomi Paik, and Hinda Seif


Following a similar thread of questioning, Professor Hinda Seif (Gender and Women Studies and Sociology/Anthropology, UIS) asked, what is the ability of Illinois educators at this time, and how can they offer truth to the government? Professor Seif referenced state cuts to public education as an issue that adds to the current climate of crisis and uncertainty. She highlighted the great diversity on UI campuses and how, as an educator, she always encourages her students to challenge unstable politics by drawing on personal narratives. These narratives can function as truthful accounts that undermine discriminatory state and federal policies and highlight the power of proper education and facts.

Professors A. Naomi Paik (Asian American Studies, UIUC) and Nadine Naber (Gender and Women’s Studies and Global Asian Studies, UIC) spoke of the recent spike in Islamophobia and its relationship to the Trump presidency and his executive orders. Professor Paik emphasized that Islamophobia and anti-immigration sentiments share the same root. She also reminded us that policing immigrants based on their backgrounds is not something new. Accordingly, the question to pose is not whether or not the Trump administration will deport or ban Muslims; rather, we should ask, what kind of social change and shift will this kind of rhetoric and strategy bring? And how can we track and resist these changes? Professor Paik proposed campus sanctuary movements as a necessary intervention. She specifically spoke of recent efforts by concerned UIUC faculty to have the administration announce its campus as a sanctuary for vulnerable, underprivileged, and undocumented students. She argued that the current unstable political climate creates a threat to their safety; therefore, we should proceed with the belief that we cannot count on any institution to save these students because — the truth is — these institutions have partaken in creating instability and conflict.

One of Professor Paik’s best commentaries was her critique of racial liberalism, sexism, and fascism as sharing the same foundation and as reproducing similar hierarchies of value and judgement. Her response to these structures is building horizontal relationships and intersectional practices that obliterate the role of the state as the purveyor of authority, security, and knowledge. She announced multiple efforts on the UIUC campus to help students, which include teach-ins on the sanctuary movement and know-your-rights resource and information databases. Her final advice was “staying woke” in the face of it all and practicing self-reflection and personal accountability always. Her concluding questions: How can we offer help to those who need it? Are we sacrificing anyone in the process? Are we producing new or old exclusions? And how can we take inspiration from the vulnerable few who fought before us and continue to fight beyond the register of visibility and public academic life?

A slide from Professor Naber's Presentation

Like Professor Paik, Professor Naber stressed the importance of seeing the truths about surveillance that have always existed. Her focus was the policing and censoring of Muslim students and community members in Chicago. She also emphasized how important it is that we engage with cases of deportation and surveillance that go beyond the seven countries listed on Trump’s immigration ban. According to her, they only need to be “Muslim” or “look Muslim” for them to be screened and questioned. Professor Naber referenced Lelah Khalili’s recent article on the “Muslim ban” and Maya Mikdashi’s scholarship on Islamophobia as important voices to engage with for a proper contextualization of anti-Muslim sentiments in the US.

Professor Naber explained how the confusion and chaos that accompanied the first couple of weeks of Trump’s presidency were a strategy meant to obstruct the possibility of resistance and its mobility. The confusion embedded in the executive orders is intentional, for how can we resist the law if the law is unclear? Professor Naber drew on multiple examples of policing Muslim students in the UIC campus and the horrifying reality of the kind of federal funding and interest that goes into watching and tracking these subjects and their respective communities. She spoke truth as she laid out these unknown or, at times, undermined realities, and reminded us all that there is more to learn about the deep roots of Islamophobia and the grim future it promises if unstopped.

Last but not least, Professor Jodi A Byrd (English and Gender and Women’s Studies, UIUC) reoriented the discussion around the focal point of indigeneity as the prior to US state violence, national borders, and political making. State-sanctioned exclusions and misappropriation of land grants and public resources emanate from an intertwined network of settler colonial past and present actions, a truth that unfortunately remain forgotten in the US collective consciousness. Professor Byrd referenced the indigenous resistance hashtag #NoBanOnStolenLand as embodying a historical fact that can help us see the “line of continuity from Jacksonian removals and FDR’s Executive Order” to Trump’s immigration and Muslim ban. Professor Byrd drew on recent threats to water protectors in North Dakota as exemplifying a modern-day Indian removal that cannot be seen in isolation and must be productively tied to deportation and evacuation policies for the whole truth of US politics and exclusions to surface. Only then can we have the full narrative, and only then can we create intersectional forms of resistance that can support all.

'No Bans on Stolen Land' (Medicine Wheel Version) - Source: justseeds.org

One of the many lessons I took from Professor Byrd’s presentation is the urgency of confronting colonial histories in public institutions. Before any securities can be ensured and successful curricula created, we have to remind ourselves that political presents are the products of the past. There are so many truths that go unnoticed and forgotten, and the only way to move forward is by seeking them and paying a long-overdue respect to their origins and protectors. At the end of the forum, I found myself assured by the knowledge these professors have generously shared. To account for one’s conscience, educational responsibility, and community, as professors, students, and academic professionals, and to understand the deep implications and stakes of intersectional lives, is now more pertinent than ever. Read more

Mishuana Goeman: "Electric Lights, Tourist Sights: Gendering Dispossession and Colonial Infrastructure at the Niagara Falls Border" - Response by Ethan Madarieta

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

posted under by Ted Faust
[On October 18, the Unit for Criticism & Interpretive Theory hosted the lecture "Electric Lights, Tourist Sights: Gendering Dispossession and Colonial Infrastructure at the Niagara Falls Border" as part of the Fall 2016 Modern Critical Theory Lecture Series. The speaker was Mishuana Goeman, Vice Chair and Associate Professor of Gender Studies at UCLA. Below is a response to the lecture from Ethan Madarieta, Comparative Literature.]

"Making Haunting Matter"
Written by Ethan Madarieta (Comparative Literature)

At the Niagara Falls border, the colonial infrastructure (the dam, tourist buildings, etc.) is a haunting, a reminder of the violent and gendered dispossession of Native lands and waters. Through colonial geography, environmental impact, and narrative, the settler-states (U.S. and Canada) continue to actively and passively dispossess and exploit Indigenous peoples, as manifest in both myth and matter. As the opening slide of “Before Dispossession, Or Surviving It” by Angie Morrill, Eve Tuck, and Super Haunts Qollective states: “The opposite, the endgame of opposing our dispossession is not possession—not haunting, though I’ll do it if I have to; it is mattering.”



When visiting Niagara Falls, the New York State Office of Parks and Recreation claims, “the only way to experience one of the world’s most amazing natural wonders right here in the U.S.A.” is on the Maid of the Mist boat tour (emphasis in original). This settler colonial myth of the Indian maid of the mist erases Native peoples, lands, and waters, while marketing tourism through a mock-Native story. There are many popular stories of Niagara’s “Maid of the Mist,” but one in particular, perhaps, dominates the settler colonial imaginary. This myth—a racist narrative of the settler-state—is that a male Elder yearly threw an anonymous, virgin Indian woman over Niagara Falls as a sacrifice to angry gods. This settler colonial narrative of the Native American woman in Niagara Falls speaks to the hetero-normative and patriarchal discourse of the “savage Indian,” and matches the polyvalent Niagara hydroelectric project physically, as symbolically manifest in the phallic Electric Building in Buffalo, NY.

 

This settler colonial discourse affectively maps (Jonathan Flatley) the nation-state and its technology with a gendered violence, and turns Native Americans into objects of an American imagination. In colonial nostalgia, the white colonizer must always remain essentially different, necessitating the pure fantasy of the savage other. Goeman draws our attention to how these narratives demonstrate a “masculinist rhetoric of capitalist endeavors” and turn Niagara Falls into “a sacrificing monument of death”—the death of a Seneca woman (Maid of the Mist). Such narratives de-property Indigenous relationships to the land and water by reconstituting them with the settler colonial myth of the savage other, and by commodifying and incorporating Indigenous bodies for the financing and reifying of the spatial power of the State.

An example of such an incorporation of Native bodies—peoples, waters, and lands—into the settler colonial logic of nationhood was the “accumulation of Indians and their labor into a tourist economy.” The regulation of, and eventual requirement of licensing for Indians selling arts such as the famed Tuscarora beadwork, was a way of regulating space through regulating sales. This, coupled with the exploitative economy of hucksters “performing Indian” in order to capitalize on the appeal of the “authentic” Indian in curiosity shops and hotels erased the unsettled historical context through which this economy emerged. This myth also extends into popular imagery where the whitening of the “Maid” over time serves as an allegory of the settler colonial whitening of Native lands and waters.

 

Mishuana Goeman, Tonawanda Band of Seneca, began her talk “Electric Lights, Tourist Sights: Gendering Dispossession and Colonial Infrastructure at the Niagara Falls Border,” by invoking the names of indigenous leaders from Central and North America engaged in struggles for water rights who have recently passed. She also drew our attention to current struggles over land use and water rights such as Native protests (e.g. Standing Rock Sioux) against the Dakota Access Pipeline. Goeman also thanked the peoples whose lands we, and the University, are on. This is a particularly salient invocation in a Federal Land-Grant University such as the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign which encourages cultures of racism through the “performing Indian” of the (ex) mascot Chief Illiniwek, and the Hollywood “Indian” music at half-time, which makes space for “performing Indian” through the singing and bodily gestures of the fans. This institution-sanctioned racism includes, but is certainly not limited to, the recent Illinois Athletics billboard campaign, which displays a racist pseudo-American Indian language. By evoking the presence of the Illinois and Miami people at the beginning of her lecture, Goeman reminds us of the colonized spaces we occupy in our daily lives. Goeman (re)maps settler colonial geographies through making matter this Native haunting (most Illinois and Miami were displaced to Oklahoma), by making these peoples present.


Continuously throughout her talk Goeman makes matter the haunting of the “Maid of the Mist” by evoking particular geographic and narrative spaces such as the Haudenosaunee Territory and the Long House story of Niagara Falls (told best, Goeman says, by Turtle Clan Faithkeeper Oren Lyons or OSWEGO professor Dr. Kevin White), thus rethinking and intervening in settler colonial power and disrupting the very idea of this haunting. Drawing on Avery Gordon’s “Some Thoughts on the Utopian,” Goeman thinks through haunting as “quintessentially an animated state in which a repressed or unresolved social violence is making itself known […]” (2004/2016). With this in mind Goeman asks: if this haunting ghost of the “Maid of the Mist” is a social figure, what social life is the death of this Indian woman making? Goeman suggests that the social life created through this death—a necropolitical project—is the consumption of hetero-patriarchal sociality, one that reinforces an epistemic violence that naturalizes male Native violence and sells Niagara Falls as a tourist destination and the “ultimate symbol of hetero-normative coupling.”


For such a social violence as that inflicted by the settler colonial powers of the U. S. and Canada, there can be no reconciliation, no possession for the dispossessed. The environmental, geographic, and molecular scars remain as a testament to the violent reality that the settler-state intends occupation to be a never-ending condition, which necessitates the kinds of refusals expounded by Audrey Simpson in Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life Across the Borders of Settler States, that is, the refusal to be incorporated into—to be ‘recognized’—by the U.S. The damming and diversion of the Niagara River was an environmental violence perpetrated at the same time as the U.S.-Canada treaty, which regulated the border (lands) and the distribution of hydroelectric power that has polluted and left colonial infrastructure still in place. Goeman says that this toxicity, too, has its own afterlife (haunting).

 
Rosy Simas “We Wait in Darkness”
Ending on a note of performative futurity in which the traumatic scars that have been carved on the DNA of generations of American Indians can be healed, Goeman gestures toward artist Rosy Simas’s performance and installation “We Wait in Darkness”. Goeman also brings to the present the continuing contestations by Native feminists of the flooding of Native lands through dam construction—capitalist endeavors which continue to displace Native peoples and affect their daily lives. Such demonstrations and practices draw connections between the violences perpetrated against women and the land, particularly the rivers, by settler-state powers that enforce the precarity of Native lands and peoples. The labor of making haunting matter, of bringing Native dispossession into the present, does not depict reality but brings into being—makes matter—Native voices, bodies, and places which destabilize and denaturalize settler colonial discourses. This labor presents the unsettled histories by which these discourses became real. It makes matter the Indian haunting in the American imaginary by disallowing the relegation of Native peoples and lands to the past, but evoking them as present.

In “We Wait in Darkness” Simas comments on the idea that historical trauma is written on the DNA and causes a molecular scarring passed on generationally. Simas writes, “If time travels in both directions, we can heal the scars on our grandparent’s DNA.” Perhaps this is done by making this haunting matter.

Works Cited:

Flatley, Jonathan. Affective Mapping: Melancholia and the Politics of Modernism. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2008.

Gordon, Avery F., and Leon Golub. Keeping Good Time: Reflections on Knowledge, Power and People. Boulder, CO: Routledge, 2004.

Rosy Simas. “We Wait in Darkness” http://vimio.com/113249630

Simpson, Audra. Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life Across the Borders of Settler States. Durham: Duke University Press Books, 2014.

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Paul C. Taylor: "What is Philosophical Race Theory?" - Response by Alex Jong-Seok Lee

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

posted under by Ted Faust
[On October 25, the Unit for Criticism & Interpretive Theory hosted the lecture "What is Philosophical Race Theory?" as part of the Fall 2016 Modern Critical Theory Lecture Series. The speaker was Paul C. Taylor, Associate Professor of Philosophy and African American Studies and Head of the Department of African American Studies at Penn State University. Below is a response to the lecture from Alex Jong-Seok Lee, Anthropology.]

“Racial Formation Theory Revised (with Semi-hostile Amendments)”
Written by Alex Jong-Seok Lee (Anthropology)

Towards the end of his lecture, Paul C. Taylor described his analytical approach as rooted in U.S. pragmatism, a philosophical tradition pioneered by John Dewey in the early 20th century. Broadly speaking, U.S. pragmatism challenges any sharp distinction between theory and practice, holding that truth and knowledge are obtained through a process of context-specific experimental inquiry rather than merely reflecting on the world through passive observations.

Taylor returned to this point after being asked by an audience member how he reconciled what he humorously dubbed the “weird sort of dance” between noting the “peculiarities” of people like Hegel and Kant (e.g., the latter’s legitimizing of racial differences he deemed natural) while also crediting the things that they “got right.” Uneasy with providing overly general answers to context-specific questions, Taylor instead advocated a case-by-case approach situated within the discrete aims and interests guiding a single inquiry. (Consequently, we can still appreciate W.E.B. Du Bois’ pioneering scholarship on race despite his traditional silence on gender and sexuality). Tacit in this example is an admonition to any scholars who are tempted to throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater when discussing theories deemed past their analytic sell-by date.

Taylor situated this appeal within the context of Omi and Winant’s pioneering hypothesis, racial formation theory (RFT). For him, RFT treated race as a processual affair while also presenting a middle ground between the view that race was both illusory and essential. This latter point emerged from the historical context of the late twentieth century from which RFT emerged. The familiar maxim, “race is neither real nor an illusion,” espoused by the likes of David R. Roediger, revealed RFT’s “groping for a metaphysical vocabulary.” The discipline of philosophy (albeit reconfigured), Taylor hoped, potentially could provide an alternative theoretical language on the matter.


Racial Formation in the United States (1992) by Michael Omi and
Howard Winant


A protégé of the pioneering philosopher of race, Lucius Outlaw, Jr., Taylor expressed delight at discovering as a graduate student Omi and Winant’s magnum opus, Racial Formation in the United States. This was a time when the 1990s Appiah debates and widespread commodification of African American culture put the question of race on continual trial. For Taylor, RFT was a social construction thesis that considered race “real” insofar as social realities grounded in social conventions were real. The theory’s true merit was its ability to make this argument in the context of a view that was painstakingly political. However, more recently, RFT has come under fire within scholarly works, such as Conceptual Aphasia in Black: Displacing Racial Formation and Racial Formation in the Twenty-First Century. Increasingly having to orient himself in relation to these commentaries, Taylor viewed his talk as a participatory process for rethinking RFT as less tethered to orthodox critical race theory (à la Derrick Bell) than widely allied with all scholarly fields aimed at understanding the meanings and mechanisms of race.

Do the Right Thing (1989) by Spike Lee. From indiewire.com


As Taylor noted, quoting from Barnor Hesse’s introduction to Conceptual Aphasia in Black (2016): “[RFT’s] exemplary social construction thesis has dominated the critique of race in the intellectual landscape of the U.S. academy since the late 1980s and made the critique of race thinkable only in a liberal multicultural idiom that presupposes a decisive liberal-democratic rupture with the racial ontology of the United States’ settler colonialism and its white supremacy nation-state” (ibid). Chief among Hesse’s disapproval of RFT was its supposed failure to foreground the centrality of violence to the constitution of race in the U.S. This, wrote Hesse, hindered our understanding of race as a deep, constitutive feature of Western modernity.

Conceptual Aphasia in Black: Displacing Racial Formation (2016) by
Khalil Saucier and Tryon P. Woods
Racial Formation in the Twenty-First Century (2012) by
Daniel Martinez HoSang, Oneka LaBennett, and Laura Pulido



Seeking further perspective, Taylor drew on an earlier critique of RFT, this time from Roderick A. Ferguson’s contribution in “Racial Formation in the Twenty-First Century (2012). Ferguson took greatest issue with the obstructing effect of historiographical assumptions behind RFT. Resting on a “declension hypothesis,” Ferguson wrote, Omi and Winant’s theory “tells a story of bold and transformative anti-racist movements during the 1950s and 1960s becoming fractured and destabilized in the face of an insurgent New right in the 1970s and 1980s” (2012:2). However, this periodization, Ferguson explained, “occludes anti-racist movements that were no less significant than the social formations around civil rights and national liberation… [movements that were] initiated by women of color and queers of color within the United States” (ibid).

Taylor later turned his attention to Nikhil Pal Singh’s work within Racial Formation in the Twenty-First Century. Like Ferguson’s critique, Singh complained that RFT focused too narrowly on a particular, historical and national context. RFT also undertheorized the concept of race, in part because of its narrow focus on this particular, historical and national context. Finally, in accordance with Hesse’s assessment, RFT prioritized a certain a kind of normative politics over deployments and resistances to sovereign violence. More specifically, Singh was referring to how these limitations have blinded RFT from “a racialized law-and-order project [that] was introduced during this period as the opening wedge in a broader reorientation of the very forms and dispositions of governance” (2012:280).

Taylor attended to these criticisms one by one. In terms of Hesse, RFT was viewed as an obstacle to thinking productively about race today. However, Taylor questioned the value of such an uncompromising view. Regarding Ferguson’s comments about RFT’s problematic periodization, Taylor reiterated the essential merits of Omi and Winant’s theory from a philosophical standpoint. It still offered a much-needed social constructivist answer to what for so long principally was thought of only as an abstract metaphysical question (i.e., the question of what constituted race). Taylor claimed that when engaging with historical theories philosophers generally were less sensitive to the kind of historical contextualization other disciplines might deem compulsory. Thus, being a philosopher allowed him certain license to interpret RFT in a looser fashion, namely the ability to effectively distinguish epistemic worries (concerns over RFT’s logic or grammar) from political ones over knowledge production. Lastly, Taylor suggested that Singh’s critiques might have had more to do with differing notions over what constituted the “political” than a fundamental flaw with Omi and Winant’s theory.

Ultimately, the recent attacks of RFT might have had less to do with the latter’s theoretical failings than with other factors occurring in contemporary academia. According to Taylor, criticisms of the theory could have been the effect of a certain neoliberal logic within higher education wherein RFT was deemed obsolete in an innovation economy. Another possibility was what Lewis Gordon called “disciplinary decadence” or how the popularity of certain academic disciplines permitted only their proponents to dominate professional spaces over less powerful ones (e.g., the “decline of Black Sociology”).

Taylor closed his talk by reiterating his training as a philosophical pragmatist. As such, he was less interested in the historical context of RFT’s development than in the theory’s analytic efficacy, especially as it related to social-justice aims. Consequently, the basic argumentative structure of RFT still worked in accommodating the anti-racist story that race scholars wanted to tell. Why not simply attach such criticisms (or “semi-hostile amendments,” Taylor joked) to a suitably revised account of RFT? For all scholars interested in how to think productively about the meanings and mechanisms of race in 2016 this is a question to consider. Read more

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