Author's Roundtable with Michael Javen Fortner: Response by Margareth Etienne

Thursday, December 10, 2015

posted under by Ted
Comments on Black Silent Majority: Rockefeller Drug Laws and the Politics of Punishment by Michael Javen Fortner
Written by Margareth Etienne
Professor of Law and Nancy Snowden Research Scholar

Dr. Fortner’s book, Black Silent Majority, has ignited critical conversations in the academy and in public discourse.  The conversations aptly range from the politics of respectability within the black community (and who polices it) to the very notion of privilege and representative democracy within the black community (and who speaks for whom) — see the book's reviews from The New York Times and The Chronicle of Higher Education for example. What interests me most as a Criminal Law scholar, and the subject to which I will limit my brief comments, is the reason the (mostly) privileged group of black New Yorkers (preachers, politicians, middle and working class folk, the so-called “talented tenth,” and others) — the “silent majority” — became harbingers to the institution of draconian drug sentences.

To understand the ramifications of his argument, we must remember the cultural vibrancy of New York between 1920 and 1950. This was a period in which Harlem became a mecca of artistic, cultural and intellectual engagement.  This was the time of Langston Hughes, Duke Ellington, Zora Neale Hurston, and Josephine Baker.  This renaissance was seeded by the great migration — the movement of more than 6 million people to the North from the South in Harlem. Harlem, in this time, was as close to a capital of Black America as there could be.  Let’s pause for a thought experiment:  if this Harlem was on the brink of destruction, what measures should be taken to save its cultural, political, and intellectual fruits?

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WTF: Worldings, Tensions, Futures - Wrecking The Format of Affect Theory (Part 1 of 2) - Commentary by Wendy J. Truran

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

posted under by Ted

From October 14-17, 2015, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, over 380 academics across diverse disciplinary boundaries came together to consider the aesthetic, social, ethical, and political potential of affect theory. Organised by Greg Seigworth and Melissa Gregg, co-editors of the touchstone text Affect Theory Reader, this unique conference hosted by Millersville University aimed to cultivate affective community, artistic interaction, and scholarly stimulation. At once intense and intimate, the conference offered seven plenary talks with eighteen of the leading theorists in affect theory, and over 250 academic papers. Intellectual inquiry that draws on affect theory has addressed a wide range of social, political, and aesthetic problems from a variety of standpoints. Affect theory continues to morph and shift: the intellectual and conceptual possibilities this emerging field of study are still unfolding. The inaugural conference of Affect Theory gathered together leading and newly emerging thinkers in the field in order to take stock of what has gone before and imagine what might come.

Inspired by Laurent Berlant and Kathleen Stewart’s alternative ethnography, The Hundreds, where the form of writing uses details and feelings to create “a scene;” the following summary of each plenary aims to evoke the spirit of the moment. To see the actual order of events and the many other panels you can download the schedule. All quotes are taken from notes made at the time of the presentations and should be attributed to the speaker unless otherwise stated. Recordings of the plenaries will be made available by December 2015 on the conference website.

Scene 1: Lauren Berlant and Kathleen Stewart, The Hundreds
Afternoon: packed auditorium, a buzz of excitement as two giants in affect theory sit: Lauren Berlant and Kathleen Stewart. Their presentations capture the spirit of the conference by ‘wrecking the format’ of plenary speeches. The two women calmly trade statements back and forth that don’t answer one another--it’s not exactly a conversation but it is communication, an exchange of experiences which coalesce into a patchwork of vignettes of life. The Hundreds are “episodic swatches” that are affective and alive, that require aesthetic attention and a sense of play, that carry revelation and critique. Themes emerge across The Hundreds, but as it is “form on the move” in order to counteract “the heavy words of cultural politics,” they are weaving “story problems” because “toying with things is critical to the game of social poesis.” There is no argument laid out for you here, but rather lyrical pyrotechnics that leave smoke trails of ideas, tropes, and concerns to haunt you. Some of the smoke trails that linger include: life is hard and tender and beautiful, neoliberalism kills, friendship can be political and productive, and problems of racial and sexual violence are intimate and ubiquitous. Berlant tells a story of city life – a dog takes a dump on the sidewalk, its owner gathers it up and responsibly disposes of it, funneling this waste into compost so that “even a shit has got to enter the work force.” This talk was a masterclass in carefully crafted writing; showing that criticism and theory can be beautiful and also attempt to represent life affectively. In fact, this is a necessary and political act. More information about this creative ethnographic work can be found in this interview with Kathleen Stewart in Cultural Anthropology. You can read more of this work on Berlant’s website.

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WTF: Worldings, Tensions, Futures - Wrecking The Format of Affect Theory (Part 2 of 2) - Commentary by Wendy J. Truran

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

posted under by Ted
For scenes from the first seven plenary speakers (Laurent Berlant, Kathleen Stewart, Tavia Nyong’o, Shaka McGlotten, Zizi Papacharissi, Lisa Blackman and Heather Love) click here.

From October 14-17, 2015 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, over 380 academics across diverse disciplinary boundaries came together to consider the aesthetic, social, ethical, and political potential of affect theory. Organised by Greg Seigworth and Melissa Gregg, the co-editors of the touchstone text Affect Theory Reader, this unique conference aimed to cultivate affective community, artistic interaction,  and scholarly stimulation. The conference offered seven plenary talks by eighteen of the leading theorists in affect theory, plus over 250 academic papers. All quotes are taken from notes made at the time of the presentations and should be attributed to the speaker unless otherwise stated.

Scene 4: Jasbir Puar, Patricia Clough, and Ben Anderson – Posthuman and Antihumanity
Anderson, Clough, Puar

The “datafication of the 21st century” makes us porous and multiple, and therefore what, asks Patricia Clough, has become of the human subject and psychoanalysis? Datafication leads to “a displacement of consciousness as a hub of experiencing meaning,” reconfiguring sensory fields to create a “society of microsensibilities.” Clough claims that since our modern psyche comes into being in a nonhuman environment, it creates a “thingself,” meaning that we must consider a “nonhuman unconscious of dissociated selves.” Indeed, Clough claims, the sociopolitical trauma of this time creates a new type of wound which requires us to rethink the death drive in the light of this quintessential 21st century relational form. For Clough this is no longer the human or the conscious self, but rather relations of media – the “it:it” relationship.

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Distinguished Faculty Lecture Series: Eleonora Stoppino, "Necessary Beasts: Making Humans in the Middle Ages" Response by Ryan Stock

Monday, November 16, 2015

posted under by Roman Friedman

[On November 2, the Unit for Criticism & Interpretive Theory hosted the first installment in its 2015-2016 Distinguished Faculty Lecture Series, "Necessary Beasts: Making Humans in the Middle Ages." The speaker was Eleonora Stopiino, Associate Professor of Italian and Medieval Studies. Opening remarks were given by Martin Camargo (Associate Dean for Humanities and Interdisciplinary Programs), with an introduction by Charles D. Wright (English/Medieval Studies), and a response by Craig Williams (Classics). Below are reflections on this event from graduate student Ryan Stock.]

Necessary Beasts: Making Humans in the Middle Ages
Written by Ryan Stock (Geography and Geographic Information Sciences)

Throughout her lecture, “Necessary Beasts: Making Humans in the Middle Ages,” Professor of Medieval Studies and Italian, Eleonora Stoppino, enjoined us to critically engage the human-animal dichotomy by considering the following questions: 1) How did people think about animals in the Middle Ages? 2) What is “necessary” about the animals represented in medieval texts? Her use of the term “necessary” was inspired by Jorge Luis Borges, who famously declared that dragons are necessary monsters, much like the unknowable universe, because they play on the human imagination. Stoppino asserted that our shared humanity has emerged in the process of differentiating ourselves from the animal kingdom. For Stoppino, the Middle Ages are particularly useful to understanding the historical process of the making of humans because the Cartesian dualism between human and animal took form during that time. Citing representations of the Black Plague as an exemplary case study for understanding the production of the human-animal distinction during the Middle Ages, Stoppino focused her discussion on the ideas of contagion and contamination in Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron and a few other medieval texts. She argued that contagion is such a crucial phenomenon because it catalyzes efforts to imagine our “humanness” as we confront birth and death. Thus, medieval texts such as the Decameron, that are emblematic of the era, provide a window through which we can witness how we finally “became human.”

Published soon after the Black Death epidemic of 1348, Boccaccio’s Decameron is a rich source for its protoscientific understanding of anthropozootic contagion. Boccaccio’s text provides valuable historical information about responses to the plague including prophylactic measures used by the authorities to combat the disease. But the text also diverges in crucial ways from other contemporary accounts of the disease, most notably in omitting references to mirabilia and in its observations about methods of transmission of the disease. Whereas his contemporaries drew on theories of miasma and putrefaction in explaining the causes of the plague, Boccaccio’s account anticipates lines of inquiry developed in the work of Girolamo Fracastoro, one of the early and little-known proponents of germ theory, whose groundbreaking De contagione et contagiosis morbis appeared nearly two centuries later. In the Decameron, Boccaccio correctly infers that transmission was related to touch. He depicts pigs playing in the clothing of infected humans that then became infected with the plague. Even though germ theory was not widely accepted, Boccaccio seems to understand that tiny invisible particles carried the plague from the clothing to the pigs. Stoppino argued that Boccaccio’s novel representation of contagion illuminates one of the key moments in the demarcation of the boundary between the human and the nonhuman.

Stoppino explained that animality occupies center-stage in the Decameron and is associated with contagion in its physical and moral aspects. In various tales animals serve as the agents of contamination. Even in the parable of two young lovers, Pasquino and Simona, who die suddenly and mysteriously after they rub sage leaves on their teeth, what appears to be a tale of poison is revealed at the end to be a story of contagion. When the authorities order the sage bush to be burned, they discover hidden beneath it a toad, the unseen animal vector of contamination. The Decameron also brings out the role reversals produced by the plague as people become like beasts, while animals assume human-like attributes. Boccaccio describes in detail the de-humanizing effects of the plague on the population. At the same time, he shows how animals assume human-like aspects in response to the devastation of the plague. Finally, Stoppino discussed how for Boccaccio, contagion was also a moral phenomenon, citing the literal and figurative uses of the animal bite to depict how physical and moral contagion is spread. Bringing together all these examples, Stoppino proposed that the “animal risk” in the Decameron was the loss of the distinction between the human and the nonhuman.

Beyond the written word, Stoppino referenced other art works that provide great insight into human/non-human animal relationships in the Middle Ages. Palermo, Sicily, boasts the magnificent “Trionfo della Morte” (Triumph of Death) mural that artfully depicts human mortality. Beside the skeletons that bring death in a scorched earth landscape, there are numerous animals represented in this painting as purveyors of death. The two species that Stoppino highlighted were the toad and the horse.

Stoppino then expanded her discussion of human-animal relations beyond medieval artists. According to her, there are “two souls” within the field of Animal Studies: the hermeneutical path and the activist path. Despite leading us down the former, it seemed as if Stoppino was tempting us to wander away down the latter, enjoining us to analyze the power and politics behind the discourses of human/non-human disease transmission. This seems even more relevant in the wake of global epidemics today (i.e. swine flu, avian flu, Ebola). Boccaccio’s ideas link up in important ways to the work of contemporary theorists. In The Animal That Therefore I Am, Derrida refutes the Cartesian dichotomy between human and animal. Similarly, Donna Haraway celebrates the “messmates” of bacteria that cohabit within our bodies in When Species Meet.  Giorgio Agamben takes up this issue in The Open: Man and Animal and calls on us to establish a non-hierarchical ontology of biopolitics. Animal Studies is indebted to these modern thinkers, though it would be remiss to neglect the conceptualization of human-nonhuman relations in the work of Boccaccio.

Professor Craig Williams (Classics) offered the response to Stoppino’s lecture. Reflecting upon Iroquois and Hopi texts, Craig Williams encouraged us to bridge the Cartesian human-animal divide. He called on the audience to consider how these texts focus on our inter-relatedness and welcome a dialectic between the human and the nonhuman. The fascinating subject matter elicited a flurry of questions, such as, “To what degree is contagion a helpful metaphor for other types of transmissions such as literary transmissions of moralistic fables with animals that have spread across cultures?”  Another audience member asked, “What about other fantastic or imagined creatures, i.e. the dragon?” These questions came from a range of disciplinary perspectives reflecting the importance of the issues raised by the lecture.
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Author's Roundtable with Michael Javen Fortner: Response by Ronald W. Bailey

Thursday, November 5, 2015

posted under by Ted
[On October 19, the Unit for Criticism & Interpretive Theory hosted an Author's Roundtable with Michael Javen Fortner (CUNY); Ronald Bailey (African American Studies) and Margareth Etienne (College of Law) responded. Below is Professor Ronald W. Bailey's response given during the Roundtable.]

Black Silent Majority and U.S. Politics
Written by Ronald W. Bailey (Head, Department of African American Studies)

I want to join others in welcoming Professor Fortner to the University of Illinois.  And I want to thank Susan Koshy and the Unit for Criticism for their timeliness in organizing this panel discussion of Professor Fortner’s book, Black Silent Majority: The Rockefeller Drug Laws and the Politics of Punishment (Harvard UP, 2014). Coming in the middle of all of the issues facing U.S. society, and coming in the middle of an intensifying discussion of politics and policies as part of the run-up to the 2016 Presidential Elections, and in the middle of an escalating global crisis, this roundtable was a good call.  I had read a review of Professor Fortner's book a few days before the invitation to join the panel came and I used the invitation to make sure I would get the book and consider it more fully.

I also want to thank Professor Fortner for his work on producing an important book, and a provocative read! There are some ways in which it is deliberately provocative, probably reflecting his own choices and the choices of editors (as in the title). I came of age during some of that period, old enough to remember some key historical events. I  remember the 1954 Supreme Court Brown desegregation decision, if not the decision itself, the fact that it pushed White school boards to build new segregated schools in a hope to stem the tide of desegregation. I started the first grade in what was called an "Equalization" school (a reference to the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson doctrine of "separate but equal"), where, as in many of Georgia’s schools, the separation of races continued until 1970.

Professor Fortner has done us a service in pointing to important primary sources, some of which will be new to most people, and some of which have not been recently studied by others.  These sources create a more accessible and detailed record of the social conditions between the 1950s and 1970s, and show how the dialogue about these conditions especially within sectors of the black community shaped the development of public policies to address the drug crisis in urban communities.

This is not the place for a full book review so let me briefly comment on a few select points within the prescribed time constraints. If you have not read the book, here is the chapter outline and its six main chapters:

Introduction: "The Reign of Criminal Terror Must Be Stopped Now"
1. Rights and Wreckage in Postwar Harlem
2. Black Junkies, White Do-Gooders, and the Metcalf-Volker Act of 1962
3. Reverend Dempsey's Crusade and the Rise of Involuntary Commitment in 1966
4. Crime, Class, and Conflict in the Ghetto
5. King Heroin and the Development of the Drug Laws in 1973
6. Race, Place, and the Tumultuous 1960s and 1970s
Conclusion: "Liberal Sentiments to Conservative Acts"

Fortner's intent in the book is to draw attention to the role of what he calls “black agency” in the development of historical and contemporary public policy regarding crime and punishment, especially as it disproportionately impacted the Black community. As he states in his more recent piece in The New York Times, "The Real Roots of '70s Drug Laws" (9/28/2015):
Today's disastrously punitive criminal justice system is actually rooted in the postwar social and economic demise of urban black communities. It is, in part, the unintended consequence of African-Americans' own hard-fought battle against the crime and violence inside their own communities. To ignore that history is to disregard the agency of black people and minimize their grievances, and to risk making the same mistake again.
This has been the main bone of contention regarding Fortner’s analysis: to what extent does it reflect a “blame the victim” assignment of responsibility, while minimizing and letting broader social and political dynamics off the hook.  Let me address this question by making several points.

Income Inequality in Black and White
While there is considerable attention to class differences in Black Silent Majority, I don't see enough discussion of income inequality within the Black community.  This might help explain why we see a divergence of public opinion regarding crime: people with more money, including Black people, might be able to escape the ravages of crime and its impact, and thus may feel differently about crime based on their social class interests, and not be as vocal about crime as others.  The median income of Black households did not change much between 2011 (when it was 61% of what White households earned) and 1970 (when it was 60.9% of what White households earned).  But during this period there was significant change within the Black community that cannot be captured by statistics on median income.  As one analyst seeking to explain the clear mobility of one segment of the Black community during this time explained:
The answer to this question is largely that the distribution of income among Black households is very unequal, even more unequal than the distribution of income among White households. So many of the prominent Black people who appear to be doing so well are indeed doing well. At the other end are the Black households that are doing worse. Between 1970 and 2011, the upper 5% of Black households saw their average (mean) incomes rise from about $114,000 to about $215,000 (measured in 2011 dollars), while the incomes of Black households in the bottom 20% saw their average income fall from $6,465 to $6,379.
He continues: “Among White households, the pattern of change was similar but not quite so extreme. The average income of the top 5% of White households rose by 83% in this period, as compared to the 88% increase for the top Black households--though that elite White group was still taking in 50% per household more than their Black counterparts. The bottom 20% of White households saw a 13% increase per household in their inflation-adjusted incomes between 1970 and 2011.”

I want to emphasize this because of the formulation in Chapter 1, which points to the dramatic progress that Black people made in the decades of the 1950s and 1960:  “African Americans in NYC between 1950 and 1960 had not only won important civil rights; they had also begun to enjoy economic freedom" (p. 41).  Fortner lists the numbers on which this “freedom” is based: an increase in the number of accountants (220%), engineers (134%), teachers (125%), and doctors (56%).  On this basis he suggests that "civil rights and economic opportunity erected a ‘consumers republic’"—“an economy, culture, and politics built round the promises of mass consumption” in the ghetto (p. 43).

My main point here is that this is not the whole picture.  Income differences among sectors of the population are a manifestation of class conflict, but it is not the most decisive conflict that shapes the society. I say this because if this is not understood, we don’t end up with a view of Nelson Rockefeller and the Rockefeller drug laws that will allow intelligent action in the coming decades.

How Do We Understand Class?
Related to the above, and more important, is a broader discussion of how we understand “class.”  There are generally two approaches to class that are important to this discussion, especially since Professor Fortner is concerned about what he titles in Chapter 4, "Crime, Class, and Conflict in the Ghetto."  One approach to class is that it is determined by stratification-- either economic stratification (e.g., educational achievement, income) or social stratification (based on occupational status or other factors, including skin color within Black communities in an earlier period of U.S. history).  The second approach would be associated with Marxist political economy, based not on how much money you make but on whether or not your wealth—not just your wages—derives from your ownership of the means of producing wealth in the economy—factories, banks, etc.  This view would posit what classical political economists (e.g., Adam Smith, Karl Marx) labeled a "Labor Theory of Value" which focused on the labor of working people as the source of surplus over and beyond wages, and constitute funds that are distributed as profits, interest, rent, etc.

How do we understand Nelson Rockefeller, a man whose public policy interests figure so prominently in Black Silent Majority?  My introduction to Governor Nelson Rockefeller is perhaps different from that of many others.  As a kid growing up in rural Southeastern Georgia in the 1950s, I was a big fan of a Sunday news show, which I think was “Meet the Press,” and is now known as the longest-running television show in history.  It was brought to you by Exxon, though it might have been called Standard Oil in those days.  Its commercial stated: “If a map of the world was based on where the oil supply is located, it would look like this.”  In the image, the Middle East would get real large and the rest of the world would shrink.  “But if a map of the world was based on where the oil was used, it would look like this.”  In the image, the U.S and Western Europe would get real large and the rest of the world would shrink. “Exxon’s job is to get the oil from there to here!”  This was perhaps my first lesson in geo-politics and my first introduction to what I would later learn was called colonialism and imperialism.

It was later on that I learned that the Standard Oil/Exxon empire was owned by the Rockefeller family and made up one of the largest personal fortunes in the world.  And it was even later that I learned that Nelson Rockefeller was one of the guardians of Rockefeller political and economic interests and played a special role in state and national politics.  He was the 49th  Governor  of  New York (1959-1973); sought the  Republican  nomination for  President  in 1960, 1964, and  1968; and served as the 41st Vice President of the United  States  (1974-1977)  under  President  Gerald   Ford.  He chose not to run with Ford in 1976, in part because his views were rejected by the mass base of the party.  Rockefeller was described as "liberal, progressive, or moderate."  My point here is that Nelson Rockefeller was desperately interested in developing policies that would address the deepening economic, political, and social crisis that the U.S. was facing both here and abroad.  This is the context of his role in the development of policies regarding mass incarceration, on the one hand, and his attempt to find an approach that would address what many saw as the root cause of this crisis in broader social dynamics that included the need for rehabilitation of offenders.

I would summarize Fortner's discussion as seeking to understand the relationship between class position and economic conditions, ideological dynamics, and policy choices.

Fortner appears to conclude that it is the ideological dynamics that are central, and not the economic conditions of these communities, nor their struggle to shape and control public policies which are generally dominated by elites. And this control is not just what is battled out in state legislatures or at the local level.  It is also a function of who controls what makes it onto the agenda for public discussion and consideration.  And who has access to the funding which can be used to entice, if not bribe public officials, and even the general public to support one policy or another.  Any lingering doubt about how money can influence, indeed corrupt, the public policy process and politics should have been answered with the impact of the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United.  The concentration of wealth is increasing, and the impact of wealth in the public arena is escalating.

I think this approach to understanding the development of public policy has to be extended to how we understand and deploy history in our analyses.  Do our paradigms cover all of the key periods in our history, especially the periods of the slave(ry) trade, the rural period, and the urban period?  I worry about the approach in Fortner’s book because there has never been a period in which “Black agency” has not contested the powers that dominate the society.  There has never been a period where the public policy outcome did not respond in some way to this contestation—to oppose it, to support it, or even to co-opt it.  And despite this contestation or challenge, there are many examples where the final shape of the policy outcomes did not serve the best interest of the Black community.  Governor Rockefeller’s prison reforms are a good example.  We have not yet developed a theory of how to successfully combat co-optation and achieve the desired results which are the goals of Black agency.  I will leave it for others to complete the many examples from history.  My main point is not that Black agency has been lacking; it is more the fact that scholars and other analysts don’t study it closely enough and make it central in our efforts to convey the full picture.

Implications for Scholarship and Activism
In closing, let me suggest several points for further consideration in light of Professor Fortner's book:
  1. First, we need to pay careful attention to sharpening our understanding of the nature of capitalism and its impact on Black communities.  This is an interesting period when there is open discussion about whether capitalism can survive, with evidence from the Pew polls and other opinion surveys showing support for socialism, and a “democratic socialist” mounting a credible campaign for the U.S. presidency.  The mass media should not be the sole or the main source we use to develop our understanding of these issues, especially when history says we can expect the kind of red-baiting and accusations of un-American, foreign communism to escalate and shape the public discussion.  Especially important is Black intellectual history: what did scholars such as Ralph Bunche and others say about these concerns? It is essential that we revisit the long discussion in the Black community regarding “reform and revolution,” what I think Malcolm X was getting at when he titled one of his most important speeches as the choice between “the ballot and the bullet.”  What kinds of reforms are needed to address a whole range of issues, including crime, social decay, and economic underdevelopment? We need to be clearer on what it means when Bernie Sanders and others say that "people want a revolution!" What does this mean? How will it be brought about? How does it differ from what earlier movements and individuals attempted over the decades, including during the 1930s and the 1960s?
  2. How do we understand the “Linked Fate Lens" analysis which is central in Michael C. Dawson's Behind the Mule: Race and Class in African American Politics?  I  am concerned about the view in Black Silent Majority that people repudiated this approach, both then and now.  I  grew up in a family and in a supportive Black community in which people firmly believed, as many did in other communities, that Black people had a common destiny that required collective unity: let us all march and march on for each other until victory is won!  Politically, my generation tried to adhere to the "Unity without Uniformity" concept of Black community. We need to understand what this means in 2015 and beyond, and how it must be transformed to rally people to some degree of united action on a list of concerns that we can agree upon.  As I have tried to point out, it is the deepening of social class divisions within the Black community that has done as much to hamper this possibility as much as anything else.
Regardless of what our ideological preferences are, it is important to encourage deeper study of these issues and I applaud Professor Fortner for provoking more discussions of these questions.  What do we need to study?  What do we think we know?  What do we feel ought to be done? One of the criticisms of the conservatives on the “right” is that the “left” is so ideologically narrow that it does not want our students to understand and think critically about everything! And to some extent and for some that may be true.  But it is perhaps no more true for the left than for conservatives.

To have an accredited interdisciplinary curriculum, NCBS required three areas of scholarship as essential: (a) historical studies, (b) cultural studies and (c) social and behavioral studies. We have fared well with the first, reasonably well with the second, but today many Black Studies programs need to revisit the amount of attention we pay to the third: social and behavioral studies (including public policy). (See; Introduction to African American Studies at applies this framework).

The term "silent majority" has a particular and important history in political discussions over the last several decades.  Generally it referred to the large majority of citizens in the 1960s who were not a part of the very vocal protests over both domestic and international policies.  I wonder if the problem is with the “Black silent majority” as a group, or with the failure of generations of historians and social scientists over the past fifty years to be more attuned to the sentiments of the masses of Black people, which is a concern at the heart of Black Silent Majority. Recording this sentiment in great detail is a key contribution of the book.  It remains to be seen what we make of Professor Fortner’s argument, and how we deepen and probe its content and meaning, and what lessons we come away with, all especially important in this era of mass movement around Black Lives Matter/All Lives Matter.
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Author's Roundtable with Michael Javen Fortner; Response by Estibalitz Ezkerra Vegas

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

posted under by Ted
[On October 19, the Unit for Criticism & Interpretive Theory hosted an Author's Roundtable with Michael Javen Fortner (CUNY); Ronald Bailey (African American Studies) and Margareth Etienne (College of Law) responded. Below are reflections on the event from graduate student Estibalitz Ezkerra Vegas.]

Giving Voice to the Silent Majority and Its Limits
Written by Estibalitz Ezkerra Vegas (Comparative & World Literature)

Michael Javen Fortner’s Black Silent Majority: The Rockefeller Drug Laws and the Politics of Punishment (Harvard UP, 2015) analyzes the involvement of Harlem’s black working- and middle-class community in shaping Governor Nelson Rockefeller’s drug laws in the 1970s. Despite the book’s title, the majority of black men and women were not silent at that time, though their testimony hasn’t been taken into account up to this point. Fortner’s provocative argument has generated vigorous debate  some of  it critical and “unfounded,” according to the author. He began his presentation at the Author’s Roundtable, organized by the Unit for Criticism, by explaining the context from which the book emerged in order to clarify some  aspects of the argument.

Fortner explained that there is a personal dimension to the book, as one of his brothers was stabbed to death when he was young and another brother is in prison. He and his family are victims of crime and of the criminal justice system. The second aspect that pushed him to write about the context from which the Rockefeller Drug Laws emerged was the contrast between the memories of his parents’ more positive image of the former governor and the governor's current reputation as the infamous founder of mass incarceration. At home Rockefeller was usually referred to as a noble man, and Fortner was curious about where this sentiment came from. He was also prompted to write the book because of the uncritical reactions of some of his friends during the confrontations between the Black Lives Matter protesters and the police after various episodes of police brutality. To Fortner’s surprise, one of them posted on social media in response to recent events in Chicago that “it’s time to bring in the National Guard.” The recourse to aggressive policing to resolve a crisis, particularly from individuals who espouse radical critiques of police brutality, struck him as contradictory and telling. He also felt compelled to write because of the partial picture of the history of the drug laws provided by widely publicized publications such as The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2010) by Michelle Alexander. Alexander does not take into account the voices and stories of those who have mobilized against crime in the black community. For that same reason, whereas he agrees with Alexander that the system of mass incarceration has created and perpetuated an incarcerated class, he finds the book’s functionalist theory of the durability of white supremacy faulty.

Thus, Black Silent Majority looks at 1948-1973 New York in an attempt to elucidate what the Black population thought about crime and violence, why and how they mobilized against it. At that time there was a robust anti-crime movement, predominantly middle-class, that mobilized on behalf of punitive policies: life without parole, the death penalty, and more police presence in the streets. While they acknowledged structural causes for crime, they saw the need for greater security and order to deal with the havoc drugs had wreaked on their neighborhoods.

Fortner was careful to note that these anti-crime movements need to be understood vis-à-vis the conjuncture of the political situation: how the suffering of black people in Harlem was used and exploited for political purposes by the Governor’s campaign, and the relation between the responses of working- and middle-class blacks and the development of institutions at this particular time.

Ron Bailey (African American Studies) and Margareth Etienne (College of Law), the two respondents in the Author’s Roundtable the Unit for Criticism hosted on October 19, concurred that Fortner’s Black Silent Majority is a “provocative” book that has ignited conversations inside and outside the academy. Bailey praised the “archaeological work” behind the making of Black Silent Majority which points to the shortcomings of African American Studies scholarship these days. Bailey argued that recently the field has tended to offer students mostly humanities-oriented approaches to the African American experience, whereas sociological approaches that made Kenneth B. Clark’s Dark Ghetto: Dilemmas of Social Power (1989) such an important contribution to the field have been largely set aside. However, he argued that Fortner’s book has limits regarding how African American communities at that time (between the 1950s and the 1970s) are represented. 

According to Bailey, the book doesn’t put enough emphasis on income inequality inside these communities, something he considered key in shaping their interests. By the same token it would be a mistake to think that Rockefeller’s ego influenced his political maneuvers and policy-making. Rather, both should be understood from a Marxist perspective: Rockefeller was a member of the capitalist elite, those who own the means of production, and he acted accordingly. “It is not a mystery,” Bailey continued, “that the African American middle class wanted to get rid of crime. How we interpret this attitude in the midst of policy making and the impact of capitalism is what matters.”

Etienne, on the other hand, focused on the debate on sentencing and the reality of the constrained choices facing the black community in Harlem. She said that we need to understand Harlem at that time, how from being a Mecca for the African American diaspora, “the closest we can get to the capital of Black America,” it turned into an unsafe area from the 1950s to the 1970s, plagued by drugs, crime, and poverty. The African American community was afraid of losing what they had and their desperation was political and personal, with each factor influencing the other. The choice they made in supporting punitive laws grew out of that desperation and should be understood in the context of their limited and constrained choices. Etienne explained that we tend to think about criminal justice and its outcomes as a choice between rehabilitation and punishment. However, this dichotomy of choice is not necessarily applicable to the situation the black community found itself in at that time. Unlike alcoholism or other social ills, drugs were a new threat: “the impact of dope, heroin, cocaine, was not a problem they had encountered and dealt with before.” The spread of drugs coincided with an era of prison reform in the country that promoted rehabilitation, “but by the 1970s the notion of rehabilitation as a choice evaporated as a political and also a social matter.” Thus, according to Etienne, the choices for the Black “silent majority” were already “cut short.”

In response to his respondents’ comments, Fortner said that his book traces how Rockefeller’s policies changed over time based on his shifting political interests, and how crime created a context that he exploited for political purposes. The goal of the book is to showcase voices that we haven’t encountered yet when analyzing the factors that contributed to the creation of the current prison system. “It is a book on black agency,” he emphasized. Yet, as Etienne pointed out, that’s a tricky business. On the one hand, claiming that the “Black silent majority” was not silent but spoke loud at that time suggests that African Americans had a means to contribute to and participate in policy making; yet it is clear that didn’t happen. On the other hand, to argue that they just happened to be there and that the dominant political forces co-opted their voices is to deny their agency. Thus, according to Etienne, it all ties back to whether or not African American experiences are representative of and represented in legal discourse. 

Bailey shared his concerns about whether the book offers a fair portrayal of the “thickness of the moment,” with so many movements and protests happening in other parts of the country that did not necessarily echo the sentiments of the community represented in Black Silent Majority. James Kilgore added that many things were going on in those days, and that too much emphasis on one group could offer a distorted picture of the struggles back then. A member of the audience pointed out the risks of misappropriating and misinterpreting the thickness of the affect evinced by the people represented in Fortner’s book, who were enduring very difficult circumstances. Emotionally charged statements such as “Kill the Pushers,” a response attributed to the mother of a teenager who died of a drug overdose, need to be read carefully as evidence. Bailey added that what people thought they were doing is also crucial in understanding the situation and its outcomes.

Towards the end of the evening Kilgore asked Fortner what lessons are to be learned for Black Lives Matter. Fortner responded that traditional black middle class leadership should not be trusted as they have their own economic interests that do not necessarily converge with anti-racism. He encouraged the movement to constitute a new leadership and to seek alliances with white liberals and other groups who share the same concerns. Bailey added that it shouldn’t be an “either / or” proposition. He mentioned a banner with the slogan “Blue Lives Matter” that he encountered during a visit to Georgia, and pointed out how misleading it is to think the choice is between black people’s or police officers’ lives. He advocated for reaching out to the “good people,” including cops, who are aware of the problems effecting the country in general and the African American population in particular.

I share some of the concerns both respondents and some of the members of the audience mentioned throughout the evening with regards to Fortner’s book. However, although the problems of the prison system in the US were acknowledged and its sources were more or less established, I felt that the structures that make larger and smaller scale, intra- and trans-national punitive and violent mechanisms possible were left unquestioned. Maximum security prisons, the militarization of the police, the high esteem many people have for the army, the policing and surveillance of citizens by state agencies but also by citizens themselves, are all a reflection of a country obsessed with security. A security, we are told, whose sole guarantor is the state, and the police the body to protect and enforce it, even against the very citizens the state is supposed to protect in the first place. (I find quite amusing the liberal dream that the police can be rehabilitated, but I’m aware of its roots and routes.) Let us be clear—violence is constitutive to the state, and the state keeps its business running through the “legal” use of violence in its varied manifestations. Thus, it is not enough to raise our concerns against the implications of this or that law. We need to understand the histories of violence in this country, and their afterlives in all their current ramifications and implications. My students at Danville Correctional Center, where I teach as part of the Education Justice Project, are pretty much aware of it. 
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Distinguished Faculty Lecture Series: Jodi Byrd, "The Beast of America: Sovereignty and the Anarchy of Objects" Response by Kevin Hamilton

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

posted under by John Moore
[On April 22, the Unit for Criticism & Interpretive Theory hosted the latest installment in its 2014-2015 Distinguished Faculty Lecture Series, "The Beast of America: Sovereignty and the Anarchy of Objects." The speaker was Jodi Byrd, Associate Professor of English, American Indian Studies, and Gender & Women's Studies. Below Professor Kevin Hamilton's (New Media) response to the lecture.]

Playing the "State of Injury"
Written by Kevin Hamilton (New Media)

I am thankful for many things about Jodi’s paper, and this opportunity to discuss it, but I want to focus on just two in my comments here. One is somewhat disciplinary, the other more institutional. Both concern the rather urgent question of how to play in a way that casts light on the conditions that make play possible.

Bioshock Infinite's Columbia

On the disciplinary front, I see in Jodi’s paper a welcome intervention into technology and software studies, a field that at times seems overly-focused on the task of uncovering and translating obscure or opaque technological processes. Through taking on both the examination of a particular sociotechnical object – that of the game Bioshock Infinite – and a critique of a popular critical frame for examination of such objects – that of Object Oriented Ontology – Jodi has made here a crucial contribution to a growing and vibrant field. I will return to this in a few moments.
But first I want to express some thanks for how this paper and its presentation here addresses an institutional question – namely, the question of what we are to do when critique, a primary tool for most of us as scholars, teachers and persons, not only meets with lack of response, but is characterized as injury.
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