Speech, whistleblowing/leaking, and silence: languaging as a political force

Today’s news in many ways is not remarkable, in the sense that we’ve been submerged in a swampy mess of falsehoods and fictions that choke off our view of the world around us (see my recent post about Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation, which asserts that our definition of reality is served up to us, hot and processed, by social media in a steady stream that replaces our awareness of our agentive participation in this reality). I’m considering discussions of climate change – rather, the use of the term “climate change” – and an attack on a mosque in Bloomington, MN, as well as  the crackdown on leaks/whistleblowing by the Department of Justice under the Trump administration.

The unreleased report about climate change – which incidentally used to be called “global warming” before Franz Luntz, spin doctor extraordinaire and well-funded consultant to conservative politicians who seek to change public discourse through “winning messaging,” successfully assisted the George W. Bush administration in creating the less-alarming term – shared with the New York Times can be summarized below (though I recommend reviewing the executive summary and the first few pages of the report):

The average temperature in the United States has risen rapidly and drastically since 1980, and recent decades have been the warmest of the past 1,500 years, according to a sweeping federal climate change report awaiting approval by the Trump administration.

The draft report by scientists from 13 federal agencies, which has not yet been made public, concludes that Americans are feeling the effects of climate change right now. It directly contradicts claims by President Trump and members of his cabinet who say that the human contribution to climate change is uncertain, and that the ability to predict the effects is limited.

“Evidence for a changing climate abounds, from the top of the atmosphere to the depths of the oceans,” a draft of the report states.

This report evidently includes thousands of studies by eminent scientists and scholarly institutions which indicate that we are headed for a disaster at a world level that most rational people agree upon. Europe, for example, is struggling with a record-breaking heat wave ominously termed “Lucifer,” and in the U.S. folks in the West and Southwest have seen deaths due to daily highs unseen in our nation’s history.

Yet what’s important is the fact that the report was leaked to the Times due to concerns that it would be modified or censored by the current administration. This concern accords with Trump’s priorities regarding the question of economics vs. environment, as he has selected former ExxonMobil chief Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State and big oil-backed Scott Pruitt into the lead administrative role of the EPA. Further exemplifying Trump’s obvious commitment to U.S. economic status quo is his statement that the U.S. should withdraw from the Paris Agreement enacted in 2016 because it was a raw deal for America. In light of Trump’s apparent desire to silence various voices from all quarters against him and his narcissistic agenda to be the top dog business leader in the country (note that I said “business leader” and not “political leader”), this is a justifiable fear. We can’t forget the firing of James Comey or the fact that during his campaign, Trump leveraged calculated yet ardent attacks against the media in what the U.S. News and World Report called a “politics of intimidation” in his incessant tweeting.

This use of language as a political tool – the creation of variant forms of information which promote the occlusion of scientific research, the exclusion of reporters from White House briefings (and the eventual shift over to off-camera briefings to replace publicly broadcast events with the press), and many other changes which signal a consolidation of power by the White House as an attempt to control public discourse – is not a new phenomenon. Propaganda has been used over the course of U.S. history (and the history of all other countries) to persuade constituents that certain actions by politicians deserve their support, or else didn’t happen in the way that they appeared to happen. What’s terrifying about Trump is that he is exploiting the power of the White House to bully and silence journalists and to rewrite our history and current state of affairs to serve his own solipsism. It is through the use of language as a performative, highly contingent social tool that he is doing this, a means of manipulating our country’s anxious, angry social climate in acts of languaging that instantiate real-life results.

Silence, too, has the potential to operate as a performative, a process of political languaging. For example, the Washington Post recently reported that Trump has advocated violence against journalists in a tweet, a point on which GOP lawmakers have apparently remained silent. This silence enacts what might be considered tacit agreement with Trump’s comments. I suggest that we don’t read this silence as a lack of speech, but rather a very strong example of silence AS speech. It has great political force not to comment on threats, on violent speech and deeds, especially when one is in a position of power. It seems that we lack a better conceptualization of what silence can do in such circumstances (a point which my own research hopefully will attend to in the future).

To bring in a third dimension of languaging as political force, we can further consider the concepts of leaking and whistleblowing. John Kiriakou, a whistleblower who was incarcerated for almost two years for exposing the torture program of the CIA under George W. Bush, spoke on Democracy Now! about the role of whistleblowers in “bringing to light any evidence of waste, fraud, abuse, illegality, or threats to the public health or public safety.” Kiriakou explains overclassification and discusses the illegality of classifying a crime like torture (which is illegal under U.S. legal code and international mandate), which he exposed and for which he was prosecuted. Leaking, in contrast, is, according to Kiriakou, is sharing with journalists information which is sensitive or private but not classified. The blurring of the definition of these two terms is taking place under the anti-media campaign being waged by the Trump administration, under the argument that public safety and national security may be compromised if certain information is exposed. Making these vague statements justifies the punishment of reporters and journalistic sources for publishing leaked information, a form of silencing employed as a performative languaging move by Attorney General Jess Sessions in a recent press conference intended, no doubt, to intimidate journalists and win more leverage over the public record by calling it a “culture of leaking” that must be stopped. (Of course we could assume that Sessions’ actions are a stab at self-preservation, but this does next to nothing to defend his actions here or elsewhere.)

A final thought about silence/silencing is a connection I’m making with all of this and Trump’s vociferous lack of tweets about a bombing attack on a Bloomington, MN mosque in the heart of a Somali community in that city on August 5th. Trump is on vacation, but apparently he’s been tweeting regularly as always. This has not escaped the notice of many media outlets and political leaders, including the mayor of Bloomington himself, providing yet another example of the power of silence as a form of political languaging. What does Trump’s silence say? It is a clear example of tacit support of conservative groups in this country that suspect immigrants of terrorism, see Muslims as invaders and sources of instability in their communities, and feel reassured by earlier strains of U.S. nativism that portrays non-White Anglo-Saxon Protestants as a threat to the American Dream.

Silence, all of this is to say, is approval for these actions. Silence, in fact, commends and recommends actions like this. Let’s hope the symbolic violence of this political speech, enacted in the seemingly neutral contribution of silence to the public discourse, can become a viable part of how we see languaging and politics in this country. We don’t have any time to lose.

Violence, animals, and the stopping-of-thinking

I am a new-ish vegan, a feature of my existence that I consider to be less of an identity and more of a commitment. I don’t eat meat, dairy, eggs, honey, or anything else that comes from animals (to my knowledge – this is a looooong process of learning about animal exploitation, the differences between animal activism and animal welfare, the racialized dimensions of veganism and frictions in the pursuit of intersectionality and/or unity, and so on), and I am reading and learning a lot about the political philosophy, environmental philosophy, and cultural anthropology dimensions of such a conversation. Needless to say, it is a lot.

One place many scholars, animal activist and otherwise, continue to push and explore is the question of violence. (For an interesting ongoing exploration of this topic, check out Histories of Violence‘s short video clips of eminent scholars and public thinkers on the subject.) Concerns about this question vis-à-vis human beings have emerged from mass violence in times of war and genocide, individual violence in the case of sexual assault and domestic abuse (though one can easily make connections between individual cases of violence and broader structural violences that inform and support these cases), systemic/symbolic violence (as in the case of silencing in research, which I am currently deeply interested in, or in the case of inequitable testing and educational practices in public schooling which disadvantage certain groups of historically oppressed young people), and so on.

Yet when we turn to the question of violence against animals, the conversation becomes very complicated. This form of violence has been imbricated in our social existence at all levels of human experience: food, religion, entertainment and sport, clothing, protection, research, even our definition of home and domestic life. Non-human animals – which is the term many animal activists use, as they argue there is no inherent distinction between human and non-human beings under the general heading of “animals” – have, according to most human cultural traditions, existed to serve, sustain, accompany, and protect us. While it may seem like an emotional plea to approach this conversation by using terms like “violence,” it’s actually important to consider the fact that the exploration of violence as a topic of study in political science, anthropology, sociology, critical race studies, feminist and gender studies, postcolonial studies, queer studies, and philosophy is far from over. And very few of the scholars considering these topics, including Hannah Arendt, Franz Fanon, Gayatri Spivak, Homi Bhabha, Edward Said, and many others are taking a purely emotional tack (though emotion plays a powerful role in one’s ability to reason). Violence is a universal topic, in fact, in all of our lives, and different scholars and disciplines approach this from different histories and toward different objectives. I would not, for example, argue that the symbolic violence of silencing Black and Brown students in public schools via monolingual/U.S.-centric pedagogy is the same as sexual violence. Yet one of the possible functions of violence – to reinforce the power of the ruling class, group, or individual in a given social context – is very much shared by both examples.

And thus I come to my point. Rather than deliver an annotated bibliography of scholars who have written about violence and the relationship between human and non-human animals, I simply want to reflect on the meaning of a sign like this one on a street near where I live in Queens. Yes, we could all quite easily say that we agree, we should reject, question, and oppose violence. But what about the violences that have become so normalized that we don’t see them as such? I have a good friend who is deeply committed to anti-racist pedagogy and education in public schools. And he makes a real difference with his students. Yet he chomps on chicken without a second thought. (Actually, to be fair, we did talk about animal agriculture while he was eating, and he did state that he could become vegetarian, though he just couldn’t go all the way and become vegan.)

I’m not writing to rant about hypocrites. I am also one, as are all of us to some degree as a condition of participating in today’s society and political economic system. However, the stopping-of-thinking is the place where I want to suggest the seeds of violence remain underground, untilled, unmoved, and free to bloom into new forms as late-stage capitalism moves forward and we demand more and more animals for consumption, commodification, exploitation, and entertainment as an ineluctable requirement of “the way things just are.”

Yes, violence is a part of the way things are. But in the past we’ve made choices and changed our relationship to violence – whose potential always lies within us and around us – in different ways. We have pursued legislation and legal cases that have, some might argued, reduced abuses and oppressions in ways demanded by the sociopolitical times. What might lie ahead in terms of environmental violence (and environmental racism, which is an indirect result of this violence) or violence in a systematized form in the case of corporatized animal agriculture? Might we start to rethink the keeping and breeding of animals as pets, or their (ab)use in medical trials and scientific research? Could we consider that this keeps humans in a position of power that we’ve always assumed is “normal” but in reality generates potentially troubling consequences?

I don’t say any of this is easy or even possible yet. The point I’m making is, we’re not talking about this with the framework of violence in hand. The concern I put forward is that not doing so so perpetuates the problem, the many violences without name or demand for redress, and maintains the veneer that status quo is unavoidable. As in all questions about this bizarre and hard time, I hope that is not the case.

“We don’t ride on railroads they ride on us”: raucous listening against apathy

The title for this blog post is a slight misquote of Henry David Thoreau, a 19th-century social and political commentator best known for Walden who wrote about topics including the abolition of slavery and the value of civil disobedience, which he explores in an essay by the same name. Thoreau was concerned about, among many things, the exploitation of laborers and radical changes to our definition of humanity in projects of capitalist expansion under the teleological thrust of technological advance during the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century, including the mass construction of railroads:

We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us. Did you ever think what those sleepers are that underlie the railroad? Each one is a man…The rails are laid on them, and they are covered with sand, and the cars run smoothly over them…And every few years a new lot is laid down and run over; so that, if some have the pleasure of riding on a rail, others have the misfortune to be ridden upon.

(A discussion of Thoreau’s concerns about humanity, technology, and capitalism comes from this article in Wired.) I saw a version of the first line of this quote in a cartoon by Art Young, socialist and political satirist from the 1910s and 1920s, in an exhibit at the Argosy Bookstore, New York’s oldest independent bookstore open since 1925. See some examples below:

 
 

The last of the four cartoons is a version of the Thoreau quote. I found it interesting – and a bit depressing – to know that we continue to struggle with the balance between the pursuit of progress and the preservation of humanity. But what is important, really, is to remember that our humanity should not be defined after we’ve struggled toward the next innovation, the next profit. What should be happening is a radical consideration of humanity as a collective social project, radical in scope, that progresses toward a more egalitarian possibility.

Apathy would be one response to such cartoons – god we’re here again, we can’t escape our fate of self-destruction – and this is very much the feature of today’s politics and public discourse. I struggled with this as I left the Argosy Bookstore and headed to meet a friend for dinner in Queens. Emerging onto the street, I turned and saw a park full of people:

 

Groups of people, from different backgrounds, different countries of origin, different languages and religions and and views of the world, all sitting together as a community. It occurred to me that we are all part of a community, several, in fact, and we walk toward each other every day, sharing and singing and spitting and swirling into bigger and smaller spaces. This collective life cannot be taken from us. We can only give it away, along with the force of its voice and its will to change the reality in which we live.

Idealistic? Or realistic? Anything is more real than the stories told by the sociopath running our country and his cabinet of cronies. We can remember – we have always known – what is real and true for us, by us. Yes, capitalism seeks to convince us that we are consumers first and last, that we owe nothing to the person next to us and should fight for his seat. But this is not what our social histories will remind us, should we listen, raucously, together.

The radical unknowing of hope

I am reading Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation, a postmodern text from the 1980s about the simulation of the real which has replaced our conceptions of reality. It largely works as a critique of the media as a means by which we “recognize” the reality of our world as consumers, a reality which is in fact a simulation of a reality now lost to us. We no longer live in a political economy but rather a production-centered social arrangement which, like Disneyland, refers to a reality that is beyond our grasp,  one which is hidden from us (which is a falsehood because nothing exists outside of the simulation of reality, or hyperreality, in which we exist and understand ourselves). If it feels a little nihilistic, perhaps even a bit like the movie The Matrix, it should. (The book inspired and appears in the film.)

I am writing a paper to talk about the possibility of hope, the hope for possibility, in an era when reality appears ever-larger as a face on a screen, divvying up alternative facts between greedy news conglomerates and sinking all of us in the United States into various states and prostrations of apathy. My graduate students express this, and I also feel that same drag on my positivity, on my creativity, in the fact of what appears to be a superstructure that seeks to cancel out my participation except through Facebook posts and, haha, blogging.

Still, I have faith that this writing can be practice for something bigger. I came to a beautiful, poetic thought today while riding the long train ride to Manhattan from Queens, a thought about hope and a way its unknowing of our present time could mean something powerful, something real, and not a simulation of real as expressed by Baudrillard. This is my thought:

Hope is the articulation of what is possible at the somatic and political level. It is neither loud or quiet, and it necessarily is accompanied by cultural and historical voices. Like agency, it is conditioned by the times in which it comes into being. Unlike agency, however, it by nature is diachronic, occupying a distinct ontological position in relation to reality. There is an unknowing to hope: it must to a point be ignorant of the current limits to reality in order to project forward into possible future contingencies. Yet simultaneously, hope knows what we are capable of before we come to attempt it. This can be a single individual, of course, but hope also can be multiplied across relational lines as such capabilities, untapped, join with those of kindred spirits and equally in-pain or joyful folk.

I hope to write more against this reality, and I hope more writing will find me and others who wish to hope, and hope together.


Hopeful” by ALEX Hill PHOTO

Immigrants can be funny

Weird post title, right? I’ll explain. It’s not typical to think of immigrants as funny, indeed, it’s rare to think of immigrants as individuals in general. They are a group of (usually) poorer, (usually) browner, (usually) slightly strange people who come to this country to live. They are people we see in the news being deported, protagonizing a human interest story, barely surviving the crossing of the Mediterranean from northern Africa, or representing a small yet economically valuable statistical minority in Silicon Valley. They are folks hard at work all around us in the local bodega, grocery store, corporate office, mostly invisible and mostly silent.

Well, Chinese immigrant Joe Wong is not silent. I found this video a couple of months ago and laughed my head off at Wong’s classic timing and word play, delivered with sharp political commentary on U.S. monolingualism, xenophobia, racism, and ignorance about people from other places that make the audience wriggle and chuckle. “Am I in on something?” they seem to be thinking. “And should I be laughing?” when Wong offers up lines like the following:

I’m an immigrant to this country and I used to drive a used car with a lot of bumper stickers that are impossible to peel off. And one of them said, “If you don’t speak English, go home.” And I didn’t know this for two years.

The question always remains: who is he making fun of? Offering himself up as the guy who isn’t sure if the audience can understand him when he speaks or the guy who naturalized to the U.S. because he couldn’t do the thing he did best in China (e.g., “being ethnic”), threading through Wong’s stand-up is the constant reference to the absurd, both in human existence as a whole as well as U.S. assumptions about the immigrant experience. The point? It always depends, and varies just as much as those stories and personalities we all treasure as distinctly our own. We can be brilliant, or funny, or dull, or oddballs, or politically incorrect and yet still funny people. So can immigrants.

One more excerpt from Wong (I’m chuckling as I transcribe):

In order for me to become a U.S. citizen, I had to take these American history lessons, where they asked us questions like, “Who’s Benjamin Franklin?” We’re like “uuuhhhh…the reason our convenience store gets robbed?”

“What’s the Second Amendment?” We’re like “uuuhhhhhh…the reason our convenience store gets robbed?”

“What is Roe v. Wade?” We’re like “uuhhhhhh…two ways of coming into the United States?”

Yep, nothing PC about Wong. He helps us to see that as far as immigrants are concerned, there’s a lot more than pity than we can experience, including discomfort, offense, and/or hilarity. For starters.

Art, theory as “becoming”: the flows of possibility through our (never-)static realities

My advisor, Anna Stetsenko, published a book this year entitled The Transformative Mind: Expanding Vygotsky’s Approach to Development and Education. It illuminates her vision of the world as a place of possibility, conceptualized and made contingent again and again by our contributions to its ever-becoming – mattering – present, which always invokes the future while claiming the fruits of the past. Anna argues a great many things which I will touch on in upcoming posts, but this line encapsulates her philosophy, drawn from her experiences during the Cold War in the Soviet Union and during/after the fall of the Berlin Wall:

The lesson I was able (and lucky) to learn is that the future is actually always in the making now, in the present, and that big changes and shifts might be around the corner even as the present status quo still appears to be immutable and stable. (p. 18)

I love this idea, as it speaks to our ability to act as agents in our worlds, to embrace a view of collective social existence as one that only pretends to be static and given, which flows and changes constantly and awaits, even requires in its rhythms, the participation of all of us in its making.

Such a simple, yet monumental idea appeared in an artistic form in several pieces by Nancy Pantirer (check out her website here), who displayed several installations of her work at the Tribeca Open Artists Studio Tour this spring. She placed 8-10 paintings in a large loft space and set up a lighting display which over the course of a minute or so changed from light to dark, revealing the brilliant shift of different shapes from a recessed place to primary importance. Some of the images appeared humanlike, cloaked figures standing together, and others seemed like celestial bodies, flowing through otherworldly landscapes and spaces. I filmed (with the permission of the artist) several of these interactions of light and paint, feeling the amazing rush of knowing and coming to see images that were always there in the paint.

What a way to see our monolithic understandings of self, our assumptions about the day-to-day. Is it a miracle to come to understand what has always been the case: that the future is actually being made, in our hands, existing already and waiting for us to see it?

Education and civil society: a mini-festo and a short reading list (for starters)

I’m starting, with several fellow graduate students at CUNY, a Working Group on Philanthropy and Civil Society. We come from the fields of sociology, political science, social welfare, and other disciplines which, we argue, do not speak to each other nearly enough and share learning and language around the core questions we must face as members of a shared society. We decided as a group to provide the other members a short reading list, as well as a general background, for understanding how our field approaches the question of what civil society is and should be. Here is my post to the group, which may help educators looking for more of a critical approach to education get started…

The field of education doesn’t typically explore questions about civil society, tending instead to follow the general assumption that thoughtful, comprehensive education contributes to a healthy society. I hypothesize that this comes from a couple of issues in our field:

(a) We are interdisciplinary by nature (the subfield of pedagogy draws upon psychology, linguistics, social theory, philosophy, literary theory, sociology, and other fields; the study of schooling is situated in political theory and history; certain critical approaches to our work relate to feminist theory, critical race theory, postcolonial theory; and so on)

(b) The last 20 years have seen a trend toward developing educators in teacher preparation programs via the ethos of “teachers as technicians,” no doubt related in part to the marketization of education (consider the role of standardized testing and its justification on the grounds of data-driven decision-making in supplying or denying funding to public school and the selection of Betsy DeVos as our Secretary of Education for starting examples)

(c) We’re still in the mindset of prioritizing “inclusion,” which foregoes possibilities of “transformation” or sustained social change (this is a controverted claim I’m making but I stand by it)

It’s my opinion that teachers are not developed as thinkers. We focus on mastery of technique and instrumental understandings of history, policy, and the role of schooling in our country, rather than engage our teachers with the kind of critical collaboration we need to resolve much of the struggle of public schools and institutions of higher ed today. There is also a great divide between scholarship and schools, often depicted as abstracted and out-of-touch (in the case of the former group) and overworked and struggling to keep up with the daily demands on being in the classroom (in the case of the latter). Relatedly, educational research and educational practice do not always speak to each other, which further perpetuates this perceived divide. However, there are many teachers (some of whom I work with) who are deeply concerned and committed to conversations about social justice and ethical politically conscious approaches to education that are long overdue…

I have done my own work to learn about civil society and political philosophical approaches to these questions (which is why I loved [name redacted]’s list and can’t wait to jump in). I have some contributions which attempt to provide some starting points for those of us in education who approach this work on philosophical (ontological, epistemological), political, historical, sociocultural terms rather than as a mastery of a core skill set. It’s important to remember, though, that my selections are driven by the core principle that education can begin contribute to a vibrant democracy only if it is thoroughly understood for its cultural history as well as the political realities of this work. However, the status quo must be understood as contingent and subject to contributions by all participants in society, in a constant state of struggle and change. (This is controversial in my field!) See my choices below.

Five favorite readings:

Bakhtin , M. ( 1993 ). Toward a philosophy of the act (V. Liapunov , trans.; V. Liapunov and M. Holquist, eds.) (pp. 1-75). Austin: University of Texas Press. https://monoskop.org/images/2/26/Bakhtin_Mikhail_Toward_a_Philosophy_of_the_Act.pdf

Biesta, G. (2010). A new logic of emancipation: The methodology of Jacques Rancière. Educational Theory, 60 (1), 39-59.

Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau (2002). Hope, passion, politics. In Mary Zournasi (ed.), Hope: New Philosophies for change (pp. 122-150). London: Lawrence and Wishart. available at http://ro.uow.edu.au/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1087&context=artspapers

Du Bois, W. E. B., & Edwards, B. H. (2008). The souls of black folk. Oxford University Press.

Stetsenko, A. (2016). The transformative mind: expanding Vygotsky’s approach to development and education. Cambridge University Press.

Honorable mentions (so many more I left out!):

Amsler, Sarah S. (2008), Pedagogy against “dis-utopia”: From conscientization to the education of desire, in Harry F. Dahms (ed.) No Social Science without Critical Theory (Current Perspectives in Social Theory, Volume 25). Emerald Group Publishing, pp.291 – 325. http://eprints.lincoln.ac.uk/5679/1/Pedagogy_against_disutopia_Amsler_Nov_2007.pdf

Barone, T. (2006). Making educational history: Qualitative inquiry, artistry, and the public interest. In G. Ladson- Billings and W. F. Tate (eds.), Education research in the public interest: Social justice, action, and policy (pp. 213–230). New York: Teachers College Press.

Bourdieu, P. (1989). Social Space and Symbolic Power. Sociological Theory, Vol. 7, No. 1 (Spring, 1989), pp. 14-25. http://www.soc.ucsb.edu/ct/pages/JWM/Syllabi/Bourdieu/SocSpaceSPowr.pdf

Dewey, J. (2004). Democracy and education. Courier Corporation.

Emirbayer, M., & Schneiderhan, E. (2013). Dewey and Bourdieu on democracy. In P. Gorski (ed.), Bourdieu and historical analysis (pp. 131–157). Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Freire, P. (2000). Pedagogy of the oppressed. Bloomsbury Publishing.

Giroux, H. A. (1983). Ideology and agency in the process of schooling. Journal of Education, 165:12-34.

Holland, D. & Lave, J. (2009). Social Practice Theory and the Historical Production of Persons. Actio: An International Journal of Human Activity Theory, (2), 1–15.

Marx, K. Thesis on Feuerbach. https://msuweb.montclair.edu/~furrg/gned/marxtonf45.pdf

Smith, M., Ryoo, J. and McLaren, P. (2009). A revolutionary critical pedagogy manifesto for the twenty-first century. Education and Society, 27, 59-76.

Stengers, I. (2002). A ‘cosmo-politics’ – risk, hope, change. In Mary Zournasi (ed.), Hope: New Philosophies for change (pp. 240-272). London: Lawrence and Wishart. available at http://ro.uow.edu.au/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1087&context=artspapers

The struggle to define who is worthy: mass incarceration and mass deportation

I just finished watching an interview with Susan Burton, author of “Becoming Ms. Burton” and founder of A New Way of Life, a re-entry program for women of color who are adjusting to their new lives after prison, and Michelle Alexander, author of “The New Jim Crow,” on Democracy Now!. Alexander wrote the introduction to Burton’s book, in which she tells her story of losing her five-year-old son in a hit-and-run by an LAPD detective (the department never acknowledged her son’s death) and falling into depression, alcoholism, and eventual drug use. The War on Drugs had been powerfully in effect since the 1960s (see here for background, especially as it pertains to the criminalization of antiwar Black activists by the Nixon administration), and poor people of color, as an extension of what Alexander and others describe as the surveillance state, were being locked up for minor drug offenses that often received long sentences. Burton’s initiative is a powerful reminder that the U.S. narrative around this does not break from our generations-long tradition of other-ing Black and Brown people justified under various forms of political obfuscation, policy-making like gerrymandering and redlining, and media depictions that demonize people of color as simultaneously a threat and a problem to be solved.


This resonates powerfully with the parallel track of immigrant existence in this country – to which Black Americans in fact historically belong (slaves were the first immigrants, along with their captors) – which has been threaded into our story as a nation of White, Anglo people. Immigrants then and now maintain a position of lower-status people waiting to adapt and assimilate, often taking up blue-collar and unstable work that includes abuses and exploitation as part of the modus operandi. While this is not news for those of us who read and think on the progressive side of things, the connection made by Alexander in the Democracy Now! interview between the abuse of people of color and of immigrants heartened me. Under the script of settler colonialism, which arranges social relations via the White Western settler-as-savior/Black slave-as-laborer/Indigenous people-as-uncivilized-savage-awaiting-enlightenment, both Black Americans and immigrants are positioned to serve the dominant (White) state-supported control and use of resources inside our national borders. Those resources, recursively, include the labor of these individuals which is poorly compensated or even amounts to indentured servitude under corporate investment in prisons (in the case of convict lease, which some argue still happens today).

Alexander and Burton’s work makes a stunning claim: that we have choices about the way we look at drug use and the individuals who struggle with it. They speak of the ways in which we criminalize people, including poor women of color who have suffered trauma, abuse, and isolation in and out of prison, with the reckless malice which has resulted in the destruction of lives, families, and communities. This, Burton argues, itself is criminal, this seeing people as expendable, consumable, convert-able into fodder for the political fire and brimstone bursting from nativist, racist political pulpits. Alexander adds that immigrants, especially immigrants identified as people of color, are now suffering such similar depiction under the banner of racial politics that discursively justify punitive social controls which result in the dehumanization and division of people from each other:

Today, the enemy has been defined as those ‘brown-skinned immigrants sneaking across the border,’ and, you know, Donald Trump has been banging the podium, you know, saying, we must get rid of them…If we had risen to the challenge of the War on Drugs the way that we could have and should have, the system of mass deportation would not exist today…

And then:

I’m hoping that in the months and years to come that we’ll see more coordination and more unity between the movements to end mass incarceration and the movements to end mass deportation, and come to see it’s the same struggle to define who is worthy, who has dignity and value, and who is disposable, and ultimately, we are trying to birth a new America…

This speaks to the powerful need for social imagination, which Marx, Habermas, Stetsenko, and many others offer as a means of engaging with the possibilities always inherent to our realities and authoring ourselves and change through these possibilities. This world and its arrangements are contingent, open to disobedience as Hannah Arendt argued, and changeable.

Watch the full interview on Democracy Now! here (25:18-59:02).

“Who are you?”: Art as disruptor, generator of public space

At a graduate student conference called Radical Democracy at The New School a couple of weeks ago, I attended a panel in which several students discussed art and artists who sought to disrupt the status quo about how information is shared and important social issues are discussed among the people of any society. Institutionalized processes of dissemination and control of discourse can constrain access, as well as the range of response, to these issues, making it a less a representation of all voices in the community and more inclusion by selective bias (which tends to benefit those closer to centers of power.

The artwork presented by one of the students in the panel offered an alternative vision. Pasha Cas, a brilliant young Kazakh student who has been creating public art in postsocialist Kazakhstan since he was 16 years old, calls himself a “street artist” and engages passersby with important social issues like nuclear waste, international conflict, and human alienation and loneliness in new forms of capitalist labor arrangement and extraction in the 21st century. The goal: to disrupt the ways in which people access such debates — which influence each and every one of us — and to generate public discourses that are fresh, dynamic, and immediate at the visual level of the passersby. Such an approach abdicates the power of intellectual and art-world elites to control the narrative and determine the direction and scope of public engagement with our daily struggles in shared spaces. This is activist in its generation of public space at a time when we are atomized by exhausting work schedules and other experiences of isolation, suspicion, and fear. He thrills us by asking, “Who are you?” in his latest video (link here), a quesitons that seems too rarely asked in a world that appears to be more interested in the individual as consumer and the community as basis for homgenization.


“we dance!” (2016) by Pasha Cas (Temiratu, Kazakhstan)

See more examples and a brief interview here. Pasha Cas’s manifest video, «This Is Silence», can be found here.

Hip hop dance as rupture, aesthetic rising

I’ve been obsessed with hip hop videos since 2014, when I discovered Tricia Miranda, LA-based choreographer for stars including Beyoncé, Rihanna, and Missy Elliott. I took one hip hop dance class in Boston and can barely shake it in salsa or bachata outings (#cudjatellimwhite), but that doesn’t seem to matter when I tune in on the newest gorgeous turnout by Lia Kim, Kyle Hanagami, or newcomers like Phil Wright. Most of the videos I watch (with the exception of Kim, who I believe is based in South Korea) are filmed at Millennium Dance Complex in LA. The dancers crush it in groups to the latest hits and encompass all bodies, all types, all interpretations of power and being. To say it embraces “diversity” is frankly a total disservice. It’s not about diversity. It’s about f**k yes, here it is, sit your a** down and watch this because any story you were telling about me before I started dancing is officially beat. Women stride and pop and lock, men wreath their limbs like snakes, heavy girls destroy it, skinny players jump in and get huge. It’s about owning that stage, that camera’s eye, and doing this in my way now, probably never the same, so know me the way I’m telling you, right now.


KATY PERRY – Bon Appétit ft. Migos | Kyle Hanagami Choreography

So yes, it is an indulgence. But there’s something bigger happening here, I think, and I want to suggest that we can look at this amazing work with a smarter, sharper lens. I’ve been reading about identity as a form of social performance, especially in the work of Butler, rather than as a fixed category that is applied upon birth. However, nowhere is the fluidity and transversality of Who I Am better enjoyed than in the presence and unfinished breathings of art. When we think about art as a means of rupturing a set of givens in our social realities, what Barone sees as a way of refusing a mandated status quo premised on master narratives, we can see what is possible, we can articulate it using given tools that we bend and bite on to make work for us, in the here and now. We are possible-izing what social scripts want to insist is impossible, we are making reality, bringing past presences and future openings into a unity drifting and glorious and indeterminate. Something about dance, too, adds the component of sociocultural thinking which says we can’t do this alone because there is no “we” in solitude, I am not seen nor see without the rest of us and me together, using these tools and making something new together. 

See the first performance (0:00-1:29) of Tinashe – Party Favors, choreographed by Tricia Miranda. The space this dancer, Diana, occupies, exudes ownership as she makes choices and employs a language that is fully hers. She is strong, baseball-capped, sharp-jawed, clad in black, dredded, tattooed, long-nailed, maroon-lipped, mid-driff-showing, reaching, stabbing, controlled, snaky, masculine, feminine, other-ine. She is a woman of color and urban, but even in this space there is something that luminesces beyond those terms. What and how she disrupts what is expected embodies a rising to a different level of aesthetics, where unity itself is only possible through fragmentation and reconstitution. The only way to know her is to watch, again and again, to see her meanings. I highly recommend doing so.