Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Economy Explained

I've been working slowly on a couple of posts. But it's Spring Break and I'm taking it easy (or I'm being lazy). With all that's in the news, enjoy this comic strip in the meantime.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

What's Your "Whiteness" Score?

OK. So as Ethnic Studies scholars we think a lot about 'whiteness' as a political practice and as a modality of power. And that's all well and fine, but there's a lighter side to all this too. How often do you observe someone's habits/lifestyle and go, "dude, that's super white!" Well, I do; often in fact I find myself surrounded by whiteness that is snicker-worthy. Actually, I tend to think of it more as middle-classness, but that's not particularly distinct from cultural whiteness anyway.

Anyway, so there's this book and website called Stuff White People Like that's apparently all the rage. It takes a look at the fun/funny/stereotypical side of whiteness. I was at a professor's place recently and we started talking about the book, and I decided I wanted to know what my whiteness score was. So I logged onto the website, and here's the stuff I thought was laughter-worthy. Make sure to read the descriptions; that's really what makes it all so funny.

Funny (In most cases you have to read the descriptions to get the humor)
2 Religions their parent's don't belong to
9 Making you feel bad about not going outside
16 Gifted Children
21 Writer's Workshop
62 Knowing What's Best for Poor People
69 Mos Def
71 Being the only white person around
72 Study Abroad
75 Threatening to Move to Canada
80 The Idea of Soccer
87 Outdoor Performance Clothes
100 Bumper Stickers
102 Children's Games as Adults
105 Unpaid Internships
115 Frisbee Sports
116 Black Music that Black People Don't Listen to Anymore
117 Political Prisoners
118 Ugly Sweater Parties

Creepy (especially when people of color like them too. And by 'like,' I'm referring more to fetishization, which really is what it generally is anyway... a fetish)
58 Japan
11 Asian Girls (especially creepy)
I'm surprised there's no listing for Anime. hunh?!

My whiteness score (I've been as honest as I can) = 20/123 = 16.3%
(read the descriptions, if you will, but don't impute all that you read onto me. I have my own reasons, too.)

1 Coffee
5 Farmer's Markets
6 Organic Food
15 Yoga
19 Traveling
24 Wine (not in a pretentious way; $3-5 Trader Joe's stuff will do fine for me)
26 Manhattan (can't help it...)
29 80s Night
32 Vegan/Vegetarianism (been a vegetarian all my life)
35 The Daily Show/Colbert Report
36 Breakfast Places (come on now, who doesn't?!)
48 Whole Goods and Grocery Co-ops (yea, yea, I know...)
59 Natural Medicine
64 Recycling
81 Graduate School
82 Hating Corporations
90 Dinner Parties
94 Free Health Care
112 Hummus
115 Frisbee Sports (it's not like I play it all the time, but when I do I enjoy it, so I guess it goes here)

What's your score?

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Rev-o-lu-tion Baby...

I'm tired. It's been a long week... in a good way... but I'm ready for things to get back to their normal rhythm. But since I'm not ready to go to bed yet, I figured it's time for a post.

A few days ago I had the opportunity to attend a performance of "Fringes-Margins-Borders," a show that highlighted "six compelling autobiographical works that examine lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender contemporary life in California." The show was a mixture of modern dance and jazz pieces, spoken word and hiphop, monologues, etc. - the usual stuff you'd expect to see at a performance art show. One piece in particular, though, really caught my attention. It was titled something along the lines of "127 ways of being a man"... unfortunately, I gave my program to someone and never got it back, so I don't have the exact name of the piece or the artist, who went by the name Scott something. My apologies to the artist and the production. [UPDATE: I actually found the intro to the piece on YouTube. The piece is called: "Becoming a Man in 127 EASY Steps." The artist is Scott Turner Schofield. Too bad I can't find the actual stories he narrates.]

In any case, Scott is a trans man whose act entailed a narration of different stories associated with his multiple identity markers. Technically, he was to have had a 127 stories, of which he'd narrate a couple based on the combination of markers picked by audience members. A friend who'd seen the show before mentioned to me though that the stories he used in this performance were the same he narrated in previous shows, regardless of the markers chosen. Oh well... be that as it may, I was quite taken up by one of his stories.

I won't go into all the details of the story, but the gist of it was that Scott once worked as a babysitter for a family to whom he was out as trans, and whose son was also aware of the fact that although Scott "was once a girl, he was now a boy." Everything seemed cool until, one day, when Scott was babysitting the son and his friend, out of the blue the son announced to his friend "Scott used to be a girl, but now he's a boy!" Long story short, Scott was put on the spot and had to explain the complexities of sex, gender, and sexuality to a pair of four-year olds. As might be expected, some of the exchanges were pretty hilarious, others really poignant... I won't mess with Scott's piece by trying to reproduce the narration/exchange... but the point of the piece, as I understood it was: one, what it means to raise children from a critical, socially conscious perspective, and two, the serious limitations of language in attempting to raise kids thus. My experience of this piece was really bitter-sweet because it reflected so many of my own hopes and anxieties about raising children.

I would like to have kids someday. But when I think of having kids, what excites me most is the act of raising them in a politically conscious way. A few years ago I was babysitting my cousins, all of them 8 years old or younger, when I realized how subversive one could be just by hanging around with kids - by just saying a few things here and there that might nudge their socialization in one direction rather than others. And that made he realize how immense it would be to raise my own kids; to have perhaps a kid whose first word is 'social justice.' Well, that's two words, so maybe I'll settle for 'justice' or 'critical' or something like that. They'll have plenty of time to learn 'mum' or 'mommy' or whatever, if indeed they chose to call me that. The point though is I want to raise my kids to be socially conscious; to be little racial and sexual warriors; to be little decolonial, queer resisters. I want my male or female or otherwise-bodied kids to all wear pink tiaras if they so chose, or little black ties, or whatever. You get the point, I hope. In short, I want to attempt to have, each day, the kind of conversation Scott did with his kids that one evening.

Of course, every time I attempt to describe my ideas, I am confronted by the impossibility of articulating them 'otherwise.' Even in my effort to think 'otherwise' I am first forced to recognize the 'normative' before getting to the site of the (possibly) 'non-normative.' It's frustrating as hell, so that no matter what I think, or say, or do, there is always some problematic inherent in it. But that is the disciplinary power of language in general... to arrest thought, speech and action that attempts to be 'otherwise.' And yet, we must persevere.

And then, there is the mere act of reproduction which in itself, especially for a 'straight' 'woman' like me, entails participation in the heteronormative ideal. I was recently reading Sara Ahmed's The Cultural Politics of Emotion, when I was reminded that no matter how subversively I raised any kids I might have, ultimately my actions would reaffirm the role of heterosexuality in the production of what I envisioned as my social ideal. Referring in particular to reproduction and the nation, Ahmed writes: "The object of love [ here, my kids?] is an 'offspring' of the fantasy of the national subject at stake in the ego ideal [me/my visions for a different social], confirming the role of heterosexuality in the reproduction of the national ideal [or in my case, my social ideal]" (137). Dammit! And yet, subversion's all I got.

When I sometimes express my ideas of child-raising to my family they not only think I'm crazy, they think my ideas are sadistic. Kids are cruel, they argue. Why would I want to raise my kids as anything other than 'normal' so that they could ragged on by others? Why would I force my ideals onto my kids and allow them to get hurt? But that's a frustratingly simplistic argument. I am not a sadist. Nor do I wish to live through my kids. But I do understand enough about psychoanalysis, and discourse theory, and theories of violence and power, and whatever else, to know that the social context within which we exist isn't just there, it is produced; and if change, revolution even, is to be enacted, new, or a different kind, of subjects must be formed. Raising kids within a socially critical/conscious context is enacting a form of decolonization, and whoever said that is pain-free?!

Besides, as Elizabeth Povinelli points out in Empire of Love, the issue at hand is, how do we raise kids who are capable of taking care of themselves "in the context of liberal corrosions?" Referring to Aboriginal communities in Australia she writes: "subjects who can live in and experiment with environments of numbing harm must be made, and grown out of the very environments that are poisoning them. The women and men I know constantly reflect on just this face, how to provide their children with theself-discipline necessary to survive the "hard facts" of poverty in the context of what they call "hard Aboriginal law" " (89-90). This logic may be applied to our everyday existence within the context of (neo)liberalism. Simply put, in the grand scheme of things there is no protecting kids from socio-personal pain, ugliness, disappointment, struggle. Might as well, then, raise them with the tools they'll need to confront, overcome, subvert, transform the pains of existence; to grasp the myriad moments of crisis and to deploy them as moments of micro-revolution.

This at least is what I dream of in the limited language available to me...

For, as Sara Ahmed writes in her elaborations on love and politics:
We must love the visions we have, if there is any point to having them. We must be invested in them, whilst open to ways in which they fail to be translated into objects that can secure our ground in the world. We need to be invested in the images of a different kind of world and act upon those investments in how we love our loves, and we live our lives, at the same time as we give ourselves up and over to the possibility that we might get it wrong, or that the world that we are in might change its shape. (141)

And so, I shall continue to love my vision of raising kids... until I know I've got it wrong or the world round me changes. And then, I shall re-imagine it all. But for now, besides what I attempted to describe above, I dream too of raising kids who don't fear hurt or pain, but who are strong enough to be weak. Who are strong enough to be haunted, and smart enough to face their own demons. Who realize that words matter, and that honesty requires strength and integrity. Who know that to love, and be loved, is a privilege and are not afraid of take up its immense responsibility.

I too have much yet to learn...

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Bleak Times (?)

Being in an Ethnic Studies department within an increasingly corporatized academic world requires one to always justify their existence. As recently as couple of weeks ago, a professor in the Anthropology Department at UCSD wrote a letter to the Dean of Social Sciences, protesting my department's stance on the Israeli war on Gaza (an issue I wrote about recently), and also suggesting that the existence of my department should be reconsidered since our work is founded upon recognizing race as a social category. Say what?! I still find such arrogant ignorance shocking... although really, I've encountered it so often I shouldn't be. But of course, such events are an excellent reminder of why we do the work we do.

In tough economic times, departments such as mine come under even great scrutiny. In fact, an article in the New York Times, titled "In Tough Times, the Humanities Must Justify Their Worth," suggested that "in this new era of lengthening unemployment lines and shrinking university endowments, questions about the importance of the humanities in a complex and technologically demanding world have taken on new urgency" and that "[t]he essence of a humanities education — reading the great literary and philosophical works and coming “to grips with the question of what living is for” — may become “a great luxury that many cannot afford.”" A pretty bleak proposition for an Ethnic Studies scholar!!

The bleakness of our future became pretty palpable this afternoon at a department meeting in which we discussed issues ranging from student employment to faculty hires to job prospects for graduating students. But then, someone e-mailed me the article below, and it made my mind leap with joy. An excellent article... it's all worth reading, but I've highlighted short sections that I think get to the heart of comprehending why we (i.e. critical social theory scholars and the like) must exist.


March 11, 2009

I do not believe that a student of human reality may be ethically neutral. The sole choice we face is one between loyalty to the humiliated and to beauty, and indifference to both. It is like any other choice a moral being confronts: between taking and refusing to take responsibility for one’s responsibility. -Zygmunt Bauman

In his sobering analysis of recent democratic decline, Sheldon Wolin has rightly argued that in a “genuinely democratic system, as opposed to a pseudo democratic one in which a ‘representative sample’ of the population is asked whether it ‘approves’ or ‘disapproves,’ citizens would be viewed as agents actively involved in the exercise of power and in contributing to the direction of policy.”2 There is a long tradition of critical intellectuals in American higher education extending from Thomas Jefferson to John Dewey, Edward Said, and Howard Zinn, who have all insisted that the university is one of the few spaces where the task of educating students to become critical agents and socially engaged citizens is not only crucial to the meaning of education but also an essential condition of academic labor and democracy itself. As a vast array of public spheres, including some of the nation’s major newspapers, either fall prey to corporate control or simply disappear, higher education becomes one of the few remaining sites where a society might question itself, where it might reflectively consider how lived realities measure against democratic practices and ideals. Universities thus provide the pedagogical conditions for existing and future generations both to defend democratic principles and to incorporate them into their own understanding of what it means to define themselves as engaged citizens and socially responsible adults.

Understanding higher education as a democratic public sphere means fully recognizing the purpose and meaning of education and the role of academic labor, which assumes among its basic goals promoting the well-being of students, a goal that far exceeds the oft-stated mandate of either preparing students for the workforce or engaging in a rigorous search for truth. While such objectives are not without merit, they narrow the focus of human agency, depoliticize education, and ignore the issue of civic responsibility, among other generally unacknowledged shortcomings. Defining education as a search for the truth and preparing students for the workforce says little about the role that academics might play in influencing the fate of future citizens and the state of democracy itself. Surely academics are required to speak a kind of truth, but as Stuart Hall points out, “maybe not truth with a capital T, but ... some kind of truth, the best truth they know or can discover [and] to speak that truth to power.”3 Implicit in Hall’s statement is an awareness that the priorities of big business and other powerful interests are not always, or even routinely, the priorities that shape intellectual commitment or pedagogical practice. To speak truth to power is not a temporary and unfortunate lapse into politics on the part of academics: it is central to opposing all those modes of ignorance, market-based or otherwise instrumental rationalities, and fundamentalist ideologies that make judgments difficult and democracy dysfunctional.

Amy Gutmann broadens the truth-seeking function of universities by insisting that “education is always political because it is connected to the acquisition of agency, the ability to struggle with ongoing relations of power, and is a precondition for creating informed and critical citizens. For Gutmann, what is unique about academics is the crucial role they play in linking education to democracy and recognizing pedagogy as an ethical and political practice tied to modes of authority in which the “democratic state recognizes the value of political education in predisposing [students] to accept those ways of life that are consistent with sharing the rights and responsibilities of citizenship in a democratic society.”4 And higher education, if it is to take its democratic ideals seriously, must be recognized as more than an outpost of business culture simply there to do the bidding of corporate power.5 Democratic societies need educated citizens who are steeped in more than workplace skills and the formal competencies of textual analysis. And it is precisely this democratic project that affirms the critical function of education and academic labor, while refusing to narrow its goals and aspirations to instrumental or methodological considerations. This is what makes intellectual labor different from other provincial notions of teaching, largely restricted to teaching the canon or the conflicts, and other narrowly defined pedagogical commitments. And it is precisely the failure to connect learning to its democratic functions and possibilities that creates the conditions for those pedagogical approaches that ignore what it means to receive a critical education.6

The goals of higher education and the demands of academic labor must also include teaching students to be responsive to deepest conflicts of our times, learning how to identify anti-democratic forces in the wider society, and connecting knowledge, power, and critical modes of agency to the task of imagining a more just world and demonstrating a willingness to struggle for it. Academics have a moral and pedagogical responsibility to unsettle and oppose all orthodoxies, to make problematic the commonsense assumptions that often shape students’s lives and their understanding of the world, but also to energize them to come to terms with their own power as individual and social agents. Higher education, in this instance, as Pierre Bourdieu, Paulo Freire, Stanley Aronowitz, and others have reminded us, cannot be removed from the hard realities of those political, economic, and social forces that both support it and consistently, though in diverse ways, attempt to shape its sense of mission and purpose.7 Politics is not alien to higher education but central to comprehending the institutional, economic, ideological, and social forces that give it meaning and direction. Politics also references the outgrowth of historical conflicts that mark higher education as an important site of struggle. As Pierre Bourdieu has argued, politics illuminates the complex ideological and institutional conditions that enable universities to function as democratic public spheres. At the same time, it makes visible the fact that such conditions are the outcome of “fragile social achievements that open up the possibility of more equality and justice, and to sacrifice them is to step backwards, whether this step is masked by a deterministic analysis of the 'market' or a naked assertion of self-interest by the wealthy and powerful.”8 Politics is thus not the bane of either education or academic research but rather a primary register of their complex relation to matters of power, ideology, freedom, justice, and democracy. The real enemies of education are those modes of politicizing education in which matters of critical dialogue, judgment, debate, and engagement are disabled through allegiance to domains of ideological purity, certainty, dogma, and assured knowledge—a species of fundamentalist thinking and practice that is not limited to any one ideological position or disciplinary terrain.

Nurturing critical agency is part of a pedagogical process that must be self-reflective, empowering, and directive, but not propagandistic. When the distinction between a political and politicizing education is collapsed or lost, the role of academics is reduced to that of either corporate clerks, hermetic specialists, or jargon-ridden, clever apologists for established power who justify their unthreatening combativeness by gleefully claiming “to profess nothing.”9 The smug call for academics to profess nothing or to “save the world on their own time” is not an educational virtue but a form of surrender, a corrosive cynicism parading as a form of professionalism, an ethical refusal to educate students to question official dogma, to create the pedagogical conditions for them to become moral agents and critical citizens, and to provide them with the knowledge and skills to engage the tension between existing reality and the promise of democracy. The “save the world on your own time” creed aligns too closely with the neoliberal incantation that “there is no alternative” and in the end means complicity with the established order. In this discourse, education as a fundamental basis for engaged citizenship, like politics itself, becomes a temporary irritant to be quickly removed from the hallowed halls of academia. In this stillborn conception of academic labor, faculty and students are scrubbed clean of any illusions about connecting what they learn to a world “strewn with ruin, waste and human suffering.”10

Yet the commitments academics enact are distinctively political and civic, whether they deny or willingly embrace such roles. University educators cannot ignore politics, nor can they deny responsibility for acknowledging that the crisis of agency is at the center of the current crisis of democracy. At the very least, academics should be more responsible to and for a politics that raises serious questions about how students and educators negotiate the institutional, pedagogical, and social relations shaped by diverse ideologies and dynamics of power, especially as these relations mediate and inform competing visions regarding whose interests the university might serve, what role knowledge plays in furthering both excellence and equity, and how higher education defines and defends its own role in relation to its often stated, though hardly operational, allegiance to egalitarian and democratic impulses.

The view of higher education as a democratic public sphere committed to producing knowledge, skills, and social practices that enable young people to expand and deepen their sense of themselves, their moral imaginations, the public good, and the imperatives of a substantive democracy has been in a state of acute crisis for the last thirty years.11 Harnessed to the needs and demands of corporate and military interests, higher education has increasingly abandoned even the pretense of promoting democratic ideals. The needs of corporations and the warfare state now define the nature of research, the role of faculty, the structure of university governance, and the type of education offered to students.12 As federal and state funding for higher education is cut, universities are under more pressure to turn to corporate and military resources to keep them afloat. Such partnerships betray a more instrumental and mercenary assignment for higher education, a role that undermines the free flow of information, dialogue, and dissent. When faculty assume, in this context, their civic responsibility to educate students to think critically, act with conviction, learn how to make authority and power accountable, and connect what they learn in classrooms to important social issues in the larger society, they are often denounced for politicizing their classrooms and for violating professional codes of conduct, or, worse, labelled as unpatriotic.13 In some cases, the risk of connecting what they teach to the imperative to expand the capacities of students to be both critical and socially engaged may cost academics their jobs, especially when they make visible the workings of power, injustice, human misery, and the alterable nature of the social order—all too evident in the recent firings of Norman Finklestein and Ward Churchill.

Educators need to defend what they do as political, support the university as place to think, and create programs that nurture a culture of questioning. But there is even more at stake here. It needs to be recognized on a broad scale that the very way in which knowledge is selected, pedagogies are defined, social relations are organized, and futures are imagined is always political, though these processes do not have to be politicized in a vulgar or authoritarian way. Again, the conditions that make the university possible as a democratic public sphere are inescapably political and should be defended as such, but such a defense should take seriously the distinctive role that academics play not merely in preparing students for the world in which they work and live but also in enabling them to function as individual and social agents capable of critically understanding their own capacities and responsibilities in working to expand the promise of a democracy that is increasingly under assault.

The utterly privatized, if not reactionary, discourse through which academics with any sense of public commitment are now upbraided and told to save the world on their own time mimics both the logic of the market and the silencing forces of the corporate and warfare state.14 Within this discourse, there is a needless severing of the connection between the private and the public, theory and practice, learning and social change, and the university and the broader social contract, with its implied ethical and political foundations. Such a crude dismissal of academic responsibility is not merely theoretically hermetic and politically naive; it is also part of an ongoing attack on the crucial civic and pedagogically responsible role that both the university and academics have in a society that—until the current global financial collapse—had aligned itself with the production of violence, greed, self-interest, cut-throat competitiveness, and a market-driven world bereft of ethical considerations. In a society that remains troubling resistant to or incapable of questioning itself, one that celebrates the consumer over the citizen and willingly endorses the narrow values and interests of corporate power, the importance of the university as a place of critical learning, dialogue, and social justice advocacy becomes all the more imperative. Moreover, the distinctive role that faculty play in this ongoing pedagogical project of democratization and learning, along with support for the institutional conditions and relations of power that make it possible, must be defended as part of a broader discourse of excellence, equity, and democracy. As Wolin points out, “For its part, democracy is ultimately dependent on the quality and accessibility of public education, especially of public universities. Education per se is not a source of democratic legitimacy: it does not serve as a justification for political authority, yet it is essential to the practice of citizenship.”15

For education to be civic, critical, and democratic rather than privatized, militarized, and commodified, the work that academics do cannot be defended exclusively within the discourse of specialization, technological mastery, or a market-driven rationality concerned about profit margins. On the contrary, academic labor is distinctive by virtue of its commitment to modes of education that take seriously John Dewey’s notion that democracy is a “way of life” that must be constantly nurtured and defended, or as Richard Bernstein puts it:

Democracy, according to Dewey, does not consist exclusively of a set of institutions, formal voting procedures, or even legal guarantee of rights. These are important, but they require a culture of everyday democratic cooperative practices to give them life and meaning. Otherwise institutions and procedures are in danger of becoming hollow and meaningless. Democracy is "a way of life," an ethical ideal that demands active and constant attention. And if we fail to work at creating and re-creating democracy, there is no guarantee that it will survive. Democracy involves a reflective faith in the capacity of all human beings for intelligent judgment, deliberation, and action if the proper social, educational, and economic conditions are furnished.16

Democracy is not cheap and neither are the political, economic, and social conditions that make it possible. If academics believe that the university is a space for and about democracy, they need to profess more, not less, about eliminating the racial, economic, and political conditions that fill their ranks with adjuncts,17 remove faculty from exercising power in university governance, and work towards eliminating the economic conditions that prevent working-class and middle-class youth from getting a decent post-secondary education.

Both the responsibility that academics bear and the political nature of that responsibility are especially clear given the current unprecedented economic meltdown the country is now facing. As the financial crisis reaches historic proportions, free-market fundamentalism is losing both its claim to legitimacy and its pretense to democracy. Even a Newsweek cover declared recently that “We Are All Socialist Now.”18 Despite this apparent growing recognition that market fundamentalism has fostered a destructive alignment among the state, corporate capital, and transnational corporations, there is little understanding that such an alignment has been constructed and solidified through a neoliberal disciplinary apparatus and corporate pedagogy mostly produced in the halls of higher education and reinforced through the educational force of the larger media culture. The economic Darwinism of the last thirty years has done more than throw the financial and credit system into crisis; it has also waged an attack on all those social institutions that support critical modes of agency, reason, and meaningful dissent. And yet, the financial Katrina we are now experiencing is rarely seen as part of an educational crisis in which the institutions of public and higher education have been conscripted into a war on democratic values through the endless reproduction of neoliberal beliefs, social relations, identities, and modes of understanding that legitimate the institutional arrangements of a cut-throat capitalism that has spawned rapacious greed, grotesque levels of inequality, the devaluation of any viable notion of the public good, and far-reaching levels of human suffering. There seems to be an enormous disconnect between the economic conditions that led to the current financial meltdown and the current call to action of a generation of young people and adults who have been educated for the last several decades in the knowledge, values, and identities of a market-driven society. Clearly, this generation of young people and adults will not solve this crisis if they do not connect it to the assault on an educational system that has been reduced to a lowly adjunct of corporate interests and the bidding of the warfare state.

This disconnect becomes clear in a recent article by Patricia Cohen in the New York Times in which she uncritically reports that in light of the current economic crisis the humanities are going to have a harder time defending themselves because they are often found inadequate to the task of educating students for future employment in the workforce.19 According to Cohen, the humanities in these tough economic times has to “to justify its existence,” by which she means it has to align itself more closely still with the needs of the economy—a view closer to training than educating.20 Rather then view the humanities, if not higher education in general, as one of the few public spheres left that can educate students to do more than reproduce a now widely condemned set of market-driven values, she wants universities to adopt them even more aggressively, in spite of broad public recognition that this mode of corporate-driven education has both undermined the economy and sabotaged any viable notion of critical agency and democracy. Oddly, Cohen argues that the free-market rationality that has undermined, if not ruined, so many basic institutions in American society need not be jettisoned by higher education but applied more stringently. Couple this argument with the news that many prominent newspapers are now failing and it becomes clear that the responsibility of faculty who inhabit the university can no longer downplay or “abandon the idea that life’s most important questions are an appropriate subject for the classroom.”21 Academics have a distinct and unique responsibility to make learning relevant not merely to the imperatives of a discipline, scholarly method, or research specialization but, more importantly, to the activation of knowledge, passion, values, and hope in the service of modes of agency that are crucial to sustaining a democracy in which higher education plays its rightful civic and critical pedagogical role. Renewing such a commitment, academics will more easily defend their role as public and engaged intellectuals, while also enabling higher education to live up to its promise as a valuable and valued democratic public sphere.

Henry A. Giroux holds the Global TV Network chair in English and Cultural Studies at McMaster University in Canada. His most recent books include: "Take Back Higher Education" (co-authored with Susan Searls Giroux, 2006), "The University in Chains: Confronting the Military-Industrial-Academic Complex" (2007) and "Against the Terror of Neoliberalism: Politics Beyond the Age of Greed" (2008). His newest book, "Youth in a Suspect Society: Democracy or Disposability?" will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2009.


1. Zygmunt Bauman and Keith Tester, Conversations with Zygmunt Bauman (Malden: Polity Press, 2001), p. 47.

2. Sheldon S. Wolin, Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008), p. 60.

3. Stuart Hall,“Epilogue: Through the Prism of an Intellectual Life,” in Brian Meeks, Culture, Politics, Race, and Diaspora: The Thought of Stuart Hall (Miami: Ian Rundle Publishers, 2007), pp. 289–290.

4. Amy Gutmann, Democratic Education (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998), p. 42.

5. Ian Angus, “Academic Freedom in the Corporate University,” ed. Mark Cote, Richard J. F. Day, and Greig de Peuter, Utopian Pedagogy: Radical Experiments against Neoliberal Globalization (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007), pp. 64–75.

6. This position is brilliantly articulated in Edward Said, Humanism and Democratic Criticism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004).

7. See also Henry A. Giroux and Susan Searls Giroux, Take Back Higher Education (New York: Palgrave, 2004).

8. Craig Calhoun and Loïc Wacquant, “Social Science with Conscience: Remembering Pierre Bourdieu (1930–2002),” Thesis Eleven 70 (August 2002), p. 10.

9. Stanley Fish, Save the World on Your Own Time (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).

10. Edward Said, Humanism and Democratic Criticism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004), p. 50.

11. See, especially, Christopher Newfield, Unmaking the Public University: The Forty-Year Assault on the Middle Class (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008).

12. I take up the issue of the emerging of the academic-military-industrial complex in Henry A. Giroux, The University in Chains: Confronting the Military-Industrial-Academic Complex (Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2008).

13. See Henry A. Giroux, “Academic Unfreedom in America: Rethinking the University as a Democratic Public Sphere,” in Edward J. Carvalho, ed., “Academic Freedom and Intellectual Activism in the Post-9/11 University,” special issue of Work and Days 51–54 (2008–2009), pp. 45–72. This may be the best collection yet published on intellectual activism and academic freedom.

14. For Stanley Fish’s latest version of this position, see

15. Wolin, Democracy Incorporated, p. 161.

16. Richard J. Bernstein, The Abuse of Evil: The Corruption of Politics and Religion since 9/11 (Malden: Polity Press, 2005), pp. 25–26.

17. On the crucial issue of the erosion of tenure track jobs and the growing casualization of academic labor, see Marc Bousquet, How the University Works: Higher Education and the Low-Wage Nation (New York: New York University Press, 2008). For a more pessimistic account, see Frank Donoghue, The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008).

18. See the February 7, 2009 issue of Newsweek and the accompanying story, Jon Meacham and Evan Thomas, “We Are All Socialists Now,” Newsweek (February 7, 2009). Online at:

19. Patricia Cohen, “In Tough Times, the Humanities Must Justify Their Worth,” New York Times (February 25, 2009), pp. C1, C7.

20. Cohen, p. C1.

21. Anthony Kronman, “Why Are We Here? Colleges Ignore Life's Biggest Questions, and We All Pay the Price,” Boston Globe (September 16, 2007).

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Lewis Black at Oberlin

I just got back from a wonderful, rejuvenating weekend trip to Oberlin. I have so much to think about, so much to say. But it's week 10 here at UCSD, which means I have much winding up to do. Besides, I am hooked to Octavia Butler's Fledgling, which I'm hoping to finish tonight.

So here are some fun clips from Oberlin, until I can write some more. Apparently, Lewis Black visited Oberlin after the 2000 election, did a little campus tour, visited with students, and of course, did a show. Too bad I wasn't a student there yet. My favorite line in all of this is: "So I asked everyone from around the country to tell me what school I should go to, and Oberlin College won." Oh yeah! Yes, I heart Oberlin, so get used to it...

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Home and Violence in "Khamosh Pani"

As I've mentioned before, I am in the process of writing my dissertation prospectus which I hope to complete by May, so that I can actually, finally qualify by the end of the year. I just began the writing process this quarter, and as always, it has been a daunting experience.

As I recently mentioned to a friend, I tend to write from a place/state of haunting. Most often, it is not a particular site that drives me, or a specific field or lens of analysis. The only thing that is constant is my obsession with violence. Thereafter, it is a particular concept, or a single line, that catches my attention and becomes the germ for my work. Consequently, I never begin with a question or a thesis - in fact, when I was writing my Master's thesis, I didn't really know what my research question was until I had actually finished writing. This may seem counter-intuitive, but since thinking and writing is processual, it actually works. So, in the case of my dissertation, the idea driving my research is the ontological distinction between 'body' and 'flesh.' I am interested in thinking through how this distinction might influence theories of violence.

I plan to look at three kinds of violence - intimate violence, terrorism, and the violence of global capital. For my thesis, I focused only on intimate violence, and used the 1947 Partition of India and Pakistan as my site for analysis. I plan to stick with this site for my dissertation as well... hopefully, I'll be able to build off some of the arguments/analysis I did in my thesis.

While researching the issue of intimate violence in Partition, I turned a lot to fiction - literary and film. One movie in particular - Khamosh Pani - haunts me. (The entire film is available on youtube with subtitles.)

It is something I keep going back to over and over again. And while I eventually did not use it in my thesis, I have used it in numerous other shorter pieces. I am using a part of it right now for my Cultural Studies class in order to analyze the possibilities of interpellation. At other times, I have used it to analyze issues of gender and political subjectivity, and to critique the concept of 'home.' I'm pasting below the piece I wrote about home. It's made up of excerpts from a larger paper, so the flow may be a little choppy. Below, I've also uploaded the clip with the most pivotal scene in the film.


Love, Violence, Loss: Reading the Significance of the Intimate Home through the scene of Partition violence

My definition of ‘home’ posits it as a material place that is integrally bound to structures of feeling, or a condition of being. First, as a subjective space, I anchor ‘home’ in the Lacanian notion of desire. Here, desire is configured in its narcissistic form – it is the desire of the subject to be whole, directed at an object that holds the promise of fulfilling this desire. This description of desire emerges from the primordial Oedipal moment wherein the child desires its Mother as that thing that holds the potential to fill-in the lack experienced by it. Of course, the child’s desire for the Mother is frustrated by the prohibitive Law of the Father. Lacan writes this moment of prohibition and the consequent frustration of desire as that which provokes the primordial transition from Nature to Culture, i.e. the moment at which a subject emerges. The subject, then, is always already a desiring, unfulfilled and incomplete being. Yet, a partial fulfillment of desire for fullness is achievable through the performance of intersubjective recognition. Consequently, I would suggest that home, as a condition of being is produced through a dialectic of desire and recognition. When this state of being becomes spatio-temporally mapped, it then produces home in its materiality, i.e. home as place.


In popular discourse, the meanings assigned to ‘home’ are fundamentally gendered, so that it is recognized as a site of political contention only in its masculine configuration as the locus of patriarchal power. However, home as the site for the formation of intimate subjectivities through configurations of love, violence and loss, is feminized and thus necessarily de-politicized. However, I would that the idea that the intimate meaning of home is apolitical is fundamentally false. In fact, often in the case of violence within the realm of 'home,' it is precisely this intimacy that becomes targeted in order to effect violation and loss - i.e. intimacy itself became an instrument of political violence.

Gendered conceptions of home are highly pervasive in Partition discourse, where intimate narrations of home are excluded from the process of signification that has cast Partition as a universal signifier of nation and nationalism, thereby reproducing the depoliticization of the feminized dimension of home. Yet, for numerous women in Partition, home was the site of unspeakable acts of political violence – of fathers and brothers killing women in their families; and of hundreds of women committing mass suicide. These acts of intimate violence were performed in familiar places – in the houses of family and friends, at the village temple, at the local well. But Partition discourse about home – especially about homes lost – rarely touches upon this intimate violence, focusing instead on the more politically potent idea of a ‘homeland.’ That is, the only way in which intimate violence can be spoken of, indeed valorized, is if it is attached to a larger social formation – so that, for instance, intimate violence becomes explained as the sacrifice or ‘martyrdom’ enacted by women in protecting the honor of their family, faith and nation. This valorization of the martyred woman, and the consequent (re-)domestication of home within the context intimate violence is made possible, however, against the spectral figure of the abducted woman.

In the context of Partition, the abducted woman represents a failure – not only her own, but also that of the patriarchal subject, i.e. of her potential sacrificer, in preserving the proper social order. By extension, then, she also represents the failure of the nation. Consequently, the abducted woman – referred to in Partition discourse as “disappeared” – is (re-)disappeared by Partition discourse itself. This re-disappearance is possible, however, only because of the depoliticization of the intimate. Yet, suspended within both, the material and subjective crisis produced by Partition, the abducted woman exists in constant confrontation with imminent subjective denial and the material loss of home. This contingent existence is demonstrated in terrifyingly violent ways in the film Khamosh Pani or Silent Waters.

Khamosh Pani introduces us to Ayesha, a single mother living with her teenage son in a small village in Pakistan. The film develops Ayesha’s sense of home by displaying her mutual relationships of love and recognition with her son – her only apparent kin – as well as with other villagers; moreover, the film moves through her house and her village, spatiotemporally marking them through the development of her intimate subjectivity, through for instance, pictures and memories of her deceased husband, and the continuum of her interactions at the village market. The contingency of Ayesha’s seemingly stable, un-ruptured existence, however, is revealed through the specter of the village well.

The audience is initially informed that Ayesha refuses to draw her own water from the well, preferring instead to have her neighbor deliver it to her house each day. For those familiar with the history of intimate violence in Partition, this detail, offered only in passing, bears grave significance for it forebodes the terrifying reality of Ayesha’s existence. This foreboding is later intensified through images of Ayesha’s memories – of young feet and laughing voices playing around a well. The narrative thread of these memories is developed in conjunction with the changing realities in Ayesha’s exterior life – with her son being swept up in a national movement towards extremist Islamic ideology, and the arrival of a group of Sikh pilgrims to her village. These events cause an unraveling of Ayesha’s subjective experience of home. The arrival of the Sikh men, one of whom is searching for his lost sister, provides the background for the deterioration of her relationship with her son, who begins to question his mother’s Muslim-ness, as well as the breaking off of ties between Ayesha and her closest friend, who wishes no longer to be seen with her. And the playing, laughing feet of her memories, become screaming, escaping ones.

The Sikh man looking for his lost sister is indeed the brother of Ayesha – Ayesha who once, before Partition, was Veero. The terrified feet in Ayesha’s memory, are Veero’s, escaping her father’s demands for martyrdom at the site of the village well. Her son is the one she bore with her abductor. Her deceased husband is that abductor. Before Partition, Veero was tied to her village as home through the bonds of love and recognition developed through her biological family; now, that same village is, or was, home to Ayesha, developed through the bonds of recognition with her husband and her son. For Veero, the place of the well represents a subjective denial, or death. For, I would suggest that the moment at which Veero was asked to jump into the well, was also that at which her desire, her demand for ‘home,’ was denied. Here the Law of the patriarchal home, exercised through violence, superceded home as the space of intimate love. Moreover, when Veero’s desire for fullness was answered by a summons of death, it replaced her name – Veero, that which defined her as the subject-object of love and belonging – with ‘woman’ – a mere signifier of purity and the object of law. In running away, then, Veero refused a choice between corporeal death and subjective death, hoping perhaps to be ‘re-found.’

Indeed, the only moment at which the film offers a glimpse of Veero/Ayesha’s abductor/husband is when he offers to marry her, for this pivotal gesture is constitutive of a moment of recognition that re-confers upon her a subjective existence, from which emerges the re-figuration of her old village as her new home. The well however remains a place of death, and thus, out of bounds. However, as Ayesha’s contigent existent approaches its limit, she is coerced back to the well due to the refusal of her friend to deliver water. Here she encounters her brother, who informs her that her ailing father wishes to see her before her dies. Refusing to return, however, Ayesha reminds him of what happened the last time they were at the scene of the well. “So many years since you’ve been happy after killing me. But I was alive. I made my own life without you all. Now this is my life, and this is my home. Now go, and leave me alone as I am.”

The reality however is that the re-surfacing of her brother, unearthed the threatening specter of Veero, destabilizing Ayesha’s contigent existence. The loss of love and recognition from her son and her best friend, and potentially from the rest of the village meant that for Ayesha the loss of home once again loomed before her. This time, however, Ayesha invited death to descend upon her, for the silent waters that had so long held her secret to finally engulf her. And so, Ayesha rejoins Veero, as a stark white figure set against a dark night takes that leap into the well – a leap that had merely been postponed but whose possibility had never been foreclosed.

The interplay between violence and love, or Law and love, as I have attempted to described here highlights the fundamentally political nature of home. In this presentation, I have sometimes referred to love more specifically as ‘intimate love.’ I use this phrase to distinguish this form of affective love, or lower-case ‘l’ love from what I think of as political Love, or capital-L Love. In so doing, I contend that political Love differs from intimate love, in that it does not preclude violence; that capital-L Love responds to the violence of capital-L Law through violence. However, my reading of the conception of ‘home’ suggests, however, is that the intimate, affective, femininized love is always already vulnerable to the violence of the political, and hence must be recognized as such. For, as the suicidal act of Ayesha/Veero insists, the realm of the intimate home is never beyond the purview of the political.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Indigenous Studies Symposium at UCSD

On May 8th my department will be hosting an Indigenous Studies Symposium in order to discuss how indigenous studies is crucial to problematizing and transforming the ethnic studies project. I just created a blog for the event, but I thought I'd post the Mission Statement for the symposium here as well.

Last year, the department hosted a much larger conference on the intersections between ethnic, indigenous and postcolonial studies. Information/coverage for that event is available here.

Please help spread the word!!


Mission Statement

As scholars in the Ethnic Studies Department at UCSD, we stand incredibly proud of the cutting edge critical race and ethnic studies work developed in our department, and in its potential to push the limits of the larger Ethnic Studies project. In this spirit, we find that in order for Ethnic Studies to move beyond the usual emphasis on immigration, diaspora and slavery paradigms, the critical potential of Indigenous Studies should become an integral part of our intellectual agenda. Just as the scholarship ‘about’ people of color does not describe our notion and practice of Ethnic Studies, scholarship ‘about’ indigenous people must reflect more than merely the violent history of the academy within indigenous communities. It must, in fact, engage the sophisticated indigenous theories, which have been circulating for many years, especially those that confront the ways in which colonial power still operates in nation-states. In the last few years, a number of graduate students and faculty have taken important steps towards facilitating this integration. These include the creation of the “Voicing Indigeneity” podcast, the Post-colonial Futures in a Not-Yet Post-colonial World Conference, and the proposal for an indigenous studies focused cluster hire.

Building on these efforts, we are organizing a one-day critical indigenous studies symposium to be held on May 8, 2009. The symposium focuses on native feminism scholarship because we believe it offers a critical perspective missing in both indigenous studies and in most analysis of race, gender, sexuality, colonialism and citizenship. We have invited Andrea Smith, Audra Simpson and Noenoe Silva, scholars who are at the forefront of this field of thought. Additionally, we have invited 3-4 senior graduate students who are not only moving the field in new directions, but more excitingly are doing so by employing theories emerging from our Ethnic Studies department, thereby highlighting the critical possibilities that lie at the interstices of these fields. Furthermore, this symposium anticipates our desire to improve the recruitment of indigenous graduate students, post-docs and faculty.

We hope the department will actively participate in this symposium in order to push the limits of our scholarship and political commitments, whether they directly fall within what is traditionally seen as the indigenous field or not. Ultimately, this symposium is an invitation to engage in a productive troubling of the ethnic studies project as well as to expand our understanding of what indigenous studies can be.