Artist Talk – Joana Moll – Response by Asiya Ikhsanova

[On April 12th, 2018 artist Joana Moll delivered an artist talk for Technocultural Futurisms, a symposium affiliated with the university-wide initiative Illinois 150: The 21st Century University and Research for the Public Good. Below is a response to Moll’s artist talk by Asiya Ikhsanova (Comparative and World Literature).]

Response to Joana Moll’s Artist Talk
Written by Asiya Ikhsanova (Comparative and World Literature)

There exists a long tradition of art reflecting on social and political anxieties of its time. Meet Joana Moll, an artist and researcher based in Barcelona and Berlin, whose work critically engages with some of the most contentious issues in today’s world, such as surveillance, online tracking, and digital communication. Although some of Moll’s research concerns U.S. border politics and American corporations, this brilliant and, at the same time, fascinatingly depressing artist talk was Moll’s first presentation of her work to a U.S. audience. The talk was co-organized by the Unit for Criticism, Art + Design, and the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA).

Two of Moll’s projects, AZ: Move and Get Shot (2011), cleverly titled to evoke parallels between reality and video games, and The Virtual Watchers (ongoing), examine the subject of US/Mexico border surveillance. Despite the similarity in the subject matter, the two projects are strikingly different in their approach. AZ: Move and Get Shot is essentially represented by six cameras placed at the border that are programmed to record any movement and that Moll can access. The Virtual Watchers on the other hand, is a kind of meta-surveillance, with Moll observing those who observe others. This second project was inspired by the effort of the Texas Border Sheriff’s Coalition to engage civilian populations in border surveillance, thus crowd-sourcing national security. In 2007, the Texas authorities created the website “Blue Servo” which provides its visitors access to a network of surveillance cameras and sensors placed at the Texas-Mexico border. Visitors to the website are encouraged view the live streaming video feed from the cameras and report any “suspicious criminal activity” to the sheriff.  The website inspired emulation in Britain with the crime surveillance project titled “Internet Eyes,” which did not survive in Britain, but recently made its way to Brazil. Unlike “Internet Eyes”, which had the intention to pay the “watchers,” Blue Servo relies on free labor. In fact, the Texas website presents surveillance almost as entertainment by stressing that the network “feeds live streaming video FREE-OF-CHARGE to the user’s computer.”  Driven to learn more about the website visitors, Moll joined the Facebook community of the Blue Servo users, which allowed her to gather material for her project. Presented as a collage of Facebook exchanges, The Virtual Watchers is ultimately a study of the human psyche, and, more precisely, of the effects of intoxication that the illusion of power gained by playing the role of “Big Brother” yields.

Samir Rafi's Pastel.jpg
Samir Rafi, Untitled, year n.a., pastel, 50 x 70” via Picasso Art Gallery, Egypt.

In Algorithms We Trust

Moll’s media art goes beyond being simply politically conscious. It is also keenly conscious of its own modes of production and operation, that is, of its dependence on technology and the ecological impact of those technologies. In search for a new aesthetics that would reflect the changes in today’s world, Moll’s media art both utilizes algorithms and exposes the questionable effects of our reliance on them. Initially introduced to facilitate making small decisions, algorithms eliminate the necessity for human intervention in many areas of today’s life. Yet delegating minute work to algorithms requires, as a payoff, that we give them agency, which ultimately allows them to affect important decisions.

Moll’s project titled Algorithms Allowed demonstrates that algorithms are not only allowed, but are most welcome anywhere, regardless of political borders and economic considerations. It focuses, specifically, on the websites of the countries embargoed by the U.S. government to demonstrate that certain products and features (especially those offered for free, like Google Fonts) cross political borders. William Gibson’s 1996 vision of the web as a “post-geopolitical meta-country” is certainly true today. What Moll is trying to demonstrate is how pervasive and at times stubbornly stupid–despite their intelligence–algorithms are. Her experience with trying to sell Google trackers found on a North Korean website, on EBay as a txt. file, which resulted in a failure due to the “product’s” lack of compliance with the U.S. policy, inspired Moll to reflect, through media art, on the idea of “algorithmic governance.”

Screenshot of DEFOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOREST, a net-based piece by Joana Moll which depicts the amount of trees needed to absorb the amount of CO2 generated by the global visits to every second.

The Costs of Googling

The last project I will mention is concerned with the environmental costs of technological progress. Titled DEFOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOREST , the work reflects on the amount of CO2 emissions generated from the global use of Google every second. We are addicted to Google. With the average of 52,000 visits per second, the use of Google generates 500kg of CO2 every second, which, according to Moll’s estimation, would require 23 trees per second to absorb the emission. To help visualize the issue, Moll has created a web page that generates the image of 23 trees per second needed to compensate for the global use of the search engine. Conscious of the irony of both ostensibly “solving” the problem of CO2 emissions and contributing to it, Moll’s DEFOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOREST is certainly successful in reframing and defamiliarizing the issue of ecological impact of technology. This and similar projects create new (media) space for reflecting on the ecological costs of the big data, as well as a new aesthetic approach to representing them. Most importantly, they prevent us from forgetting about environmental issues and, one can only hope, inspire action.

Keynote by Amitav Ghosh, “Embattled Earth: Commodities, Conflict and Climate Change in the Indian Ocean” – Response by Dilara Çalışkan

[On April 10th, 2018 author Amitav Ghosh delivered the keynote address entitled “Embattled Earth: Commodities, Conflict and Climate Change in the Indian Ocean,” for the university-wide symposium Illinois 150: The 21st Century University and Research for the Public Good. Below is a response to the lecture by Dilara Çalışkan (Anthropology).]

Response to Amitav Ghosh’s lecture “Embattled Earth: Commodities, Conflict and Climate Change in the Indian Ocean”
Written by Dilara Çalışkan (Anthropology)

How do we discuss the relationships between continents across time through following the histories of trade wars, colonialism, and liberalism?  How can we talk about the centrality of the Indian Ocean in the histories of trade wars, recent shifts in climate change and its relation to the global impacts of neoliberal economies? How can we listen to the violent histories of the past and present that emerge through the commodification of desire for a clove tree? These questions were at the background of Amitav Ghosh’s talk “Embattled Earth: Commodities, Conflict and Climate Change in the Indian Ocean.” His presentation started with a brief history of the commodification of desire exemplified in the trade of clove and continued through the histories of other commodities such as tea and pepper emphasizing their role in trade wars that defined Dutch and British colonialism. While looking at the violent histories of trade wars that emerged from colonial desires to control the circulation of certain commodities like sugar and opium, Ghosh revealed how this history still affects and dominates our everyday life. He encouraged us not to understand climate change as a purely science problem, but to recognize the intimate relationships between power, liberalism and empire in the Anthropocene.

Clove Tree
Clove Tree – Andrew Zaga – Sunday Spotlight

Taking a global perspective on the first and second Opium Wars between China and United Kingdom, Ghosh identified these wars as turning points in world history that created the close correlation between military force, modernity and economic growth. Pointing to the relation between the carbon economy and western forms of production and consumption, Ghosh argued that it launched global processes of the homogenization of desire on a scale that was never seen before in the history of the world. Today, while we desire homogenized commodities (though clove is not really one of them anymore) and look for ways to connect countries to one another in understanding climate change, we do not give much attention to the crucial historical role of militarization.

Andries van Eertvelt, The Return to Amsterdam of the Second Expedition to the East Indies, 1599

Why, he asked, are we not talking about military forces when we talk about carbon footprints? Why do we not see the relationship between climate change, the global circulation of oil and  securitization? In opening a space to ask these questions, Ghosh looked closely at the political reconfigurations taking place around the Indian Ocean now. Examining the recent changes produced by the global trade and logistics revolution, he discussed the links between massive movements of people due to economic changes, the desire for a better life (as he said “whatever that means”) that propels them, and the negative impacts of these movements on climate change. He observed how certain governments like the United States and its military intervene in the name of “humanitarian aid” while being one of the biggest contributors to climate change and political upheavals that cause the massive movements of people in the first place.

Ghosh closed his talk by coming back to the question of desire and example of the clove trees with which he had started his lecture. He noted that clove trees, which were once only found in the Moluccas, are now dying because of climate change. Pointing to the tendencies that create complex causal relationships between capitalism, climate change, wars, and acts of migration, he said “climate change is an important factor in this relationship but the uncanny realities of the Anthropocene cannot be explained through simplistic cause and effect relationships.” In a talk that ranged from the medieval period to the 21st century, Amitav Ghosh revealed how empire and power still continue to be one of the most important factors shaping the flow of people and change in climate.



“The Open Secret of Racial Capitalist Violence”– Response by Mimi Thi Nguyen

[On March 27th, 2018 the Unit for Criticism & Interpretive Theory hosted the lecture “The Open Secret of Racial Capitalist Violence” by visiting scholar Jodi Melamed (Marquette). Below is a response to the lecture by professor Mimi Thi Nguyen (Gender and Women’s Studies and Asian American Studies).]

Response to Jodi Melamed’s lecture “The Open Secret of Racial Capitalist Violence”
Written by Mimi Thi Nguyen (Gender and Women’s Studies and Asian American Studies)

I found Jodi Melamed’s “The Open Secret of Racial Capitalist Violence” to be incredibly expansive in its scope and generative in its provocations. For today, as a transnational feminist scholar of war and liberal empire, I want to think alongside two insights from Melamed’s rich conceptualization of managerial, administrative violence. The first insight is about what she calls settler capitalist logisticality. As she illuminates so well, the unimpeded flow of racial capital necessitates multiple forms of violence, and a variety of agencies are recruited here–highway patrols, corporate mercenaries, intelligence agencies, legislators, and we might add data miners and data brokers, among others— to ensure command and control of those flows and to criminalize others. In doing so, settler capitalist logisticality claims the whole planet for its jurisdiction, “subtended by intense paranoia and militarism.” As such, every flow must be securitized –through borders, gateways, zones, and corridors— in order to continually safeguard comprehensive infrastructures of accumulation and “ownership.”

Toward these ends, Melamed elaborates upon what she calls their geoeconomic strategies, including the collaborations between agencies of legal and extralegal violence in Palestine, and also at Standing Rock. Melamed describes so well the marshaling of local and federal law enforcement and counter-intelligence operations as well as private security firms to protect privately owned “critical infrastructure” in the name of “national security.” (TigerSwan, known for conducting counterterror operations overseas, applied its militarized tactics in North Dakota, and described water protectors as “generally follow[ing] the jihadist insurgency model.”[1]) These forces are also cooperating to create new categories of crime and criminality to prosecute political protesters. Since Black Lives Matter and Standing Rock, at least sixty measures have been proposed, and a handful approved, to expand the definition of criminal trespass, raise the penalty for a riot conviction, classify the obstruction of traffic or railways as a felony, restrict public assembly on public land and schools, protect drivers who “unintentionally” hit protesters with their cars, and punish journalists for “obstruction of government functions.”[2]

I want to consider such campaigns as Melamed discusses in her elaboration of settler capitalist logisticality as concurrent with an intensive detention and deportation regime funneling humans into an archipelago of private prisons; the authorization of ICE along a hundred-mile zone contingent with the U.S. borders with Canada and Mexico; repeated anti-Muslim travel bans which also heightened our security theater at all points of crossing; and anti-trafficking measures masquerading as moral crusades – these are all aimed at creating new categories of crime and criminality to further control the movements of bodies and capital. Our colleagues Naomi Paik and Lisa Cacho have elaborated eloquently about the first three[3]; to consider another example of racial capitalist violence disguised herein as humanitarian governance, I will focus for a moment on anti-trafficking measures, described as the new abolition by its proponents to fight “modern day slavery,” which do nothing to address structural impoverishment, governmental debt, or labor abuses, and instead criminalize the movements of those who perform labor deemed unlawful. We might easily observe that the new abolitionists hail from those imperial states for which human trafficking laid the foundations for racial capitalism; or as Sarah Hunt writes about the Canadian state discourse of trafficking of indigenous girls and women, “trafficking discourses largely draw attention away from the role of the state in colonial violence toward indigenous peoples and instead appeal to the state for a more powerful legal response to trafficking.”[4] In the last few years, we have seen an uptick in the criminalization of sex work under cover of anti-trafficking campaigns, including the militarization of the police in concert with dozens of law enforcement agencies and nonprofit organizations in Superbowl cities ahead of the annual event, most recently in Minneapolis in January 2018; and, a month later, the raids by the New Orleans Police Department, the Louisiana Alcohol and Tobacco Control, and the Louisiana State Police on strip clubs on Bourbon Street, ostensibly to combat human trafficking but leaving hundreds of dancers without work right before Mardi Gras.[5] These raids are part of a mayoral effort to gentrify the red light district into a more “family-friendly” destination. With the aid of developers and a chain of non-profit, Catholic-affiliated homeless shelters, such raids are part of the administrative securitization of borders and their “crossings,” criminalizing sex workers as trafficking in themselves.

We see a similar carceral logic in FOSTA (Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act) and SESTA (Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act). Passed in the last few weeks with strong bipartisan support, FOSTA /SESTA are Congressional bills that amend federal law to hold websites criminally responsible if they assist or facilitate sex trafficking. Already, classified ads site Backpage has been seized after a years-long legal battle about its sex trade advertisements. But also, Craigslist removed its personals, and Google and Microsoft have banned the sharing of sexually explicit materials (preventing sex work performers from sending direct-sales videos) on its platforms, including Drive and Skype. What unfolds through these and other anti-trafficking acts is both border control and also the attenuation of livable spaces for sex workers’ autonomy. Without being able to screen clients themselves, FOSTA/SESTA will push sex workers into more dangerous street work; increase police harassment and violence, including theft and rape; and further criminalize trans and queer people of color, and persons who live in neighborhoods designated as “high crime” profiled as “doing” sex work, for something as simple as carrying a condom. It is not rescue if your livelihood is destroyed, and you are incarcerated and deported![6]) These measures furthermore flatten distinctions between trafficking and migration, and trafficking and sex work, while doing nothing to address the violence of racial capital – indeed, these measures augment national security and capitalist interests via humanitarian governance. Consider the first anti-immigration act, the Page Act of 1875, which prohibited the migration of all Chinese women for probable prostitution to prevent male laborers from creating immigrant communities, or the Palermo protocols, adopted by the United Nations to supplement the 2000 Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime, which bundles human trafficking with illegal arms trading as criminal concerns, rather than as labor rights. Thus, like deportations and travel bans, anti-trafficking measures also escalate administrative violence while also facilitating the militarization of the police and the authorization of other legal and extralegal agencies (such as the Department of Homeland Security, ICE, and non-profit Christian evangelical organizations) with police powers.

It is on this note–that with settler capitalist logisticality comes the intensification and proliferation of power and violence—that I want to turn to the notion of “the lethal interlude,” or what Melamed identifies as “the time between theoretical conquest and actual conquest, between claims of discovery and ownership and the always incomplete and resisted establishment of settler state sovereignty.” Here Melamed cites Nicholas Brown, who writes, “Indigenous theory calls attention to a fundamental paradox, whereby violence has not ended, yet invasion has not succeeded, signaling both the failure of settler colonialism as it highlights the continuous character of dispossession.” In this lethal interlude, Melamed observes, the entanglements of “legal and extralegal violence […] flexibly attain on the ground an authoritative political, social, and economic ordering of space,” because the rule of law or capital (and their coupling) is not completed.

But what would be its completion? Which is to say, I am interested here in the notion of failure, because I am not sure that failure is what it is. In the present we find that as states (and some empires) concede the impossibility of achievable security, resilience and risk as paired concepts build crisis into the administration of life, proposing that unforeseeable, and likely inevitable, disruptions are our “new normal,” and promising the intensification of capacities to adapt to this disturbing order. We also know well now that the indeterminacy of terror became the motor for the preemptive exercise of war powers, but also for their expansion – which we face on new fronts (or fronts made new again, as the Korean War has never been declared over) with the appointment of John Bolton to National Security Advisor. I observe this because if risk to “critical infrastructure,” for instance, is rendered as pure potential, realizable at any coming moment, then risk becomes a continuous state, a permanent and pervasive crisis saturating all aspects of life, requiring more and more administrative governance. I am thinking here of the last preemptive wars launched during the Bush administration, in those places –Afghanistan, Iraq—to which the United States military forces and private mercenaries promised freedom. Transition (like interlude, a pause) is the assurance US forces will usurp illegitimate powers for a time, and following a timetable for occupation, will bring an end to such rule. Transition is deeply logistical – it produces and is produced by socio-technical assemblages and management systems for identification, assessment, and mitigation; constant regulation and surveillance regimes are put in place to account for transition objectives, target strengths, and predictive estimates of return. Understood in this way, transition belongs to a calculative infrastructure that borrows from colonial measures (of governing, of civilizational being) and accelerates, rescales, and refines these measures with new instruments, to promise an end to rule without delivering it. As the NATO Secretary General cautioned in 2010, “We need to be clear about what transition means and doesn’t mean. Transition means that Afghan authorities take the lead, and we move into a supportive role. But it doesn’t mean a rush for the exit.” [7] Indeed, last July, Erik D. Prince, founder of the private military company Blackwater Worldwide at the request of Steve Bannon, Trump’s then-chief strategist, and Jared Kushner, his senior advisor and son-in-law, submitted a proposal that the war in Afghanistan be handed over entirely to a mercenary fighting force, led by a viceroy who would report directly to Trump. (He cites the British East India Company, a private company that was the instrument of British colonization for centuries, as a model.[8]) In the meanwhile, more (and more permanent) bases have been built as command posts for drone strikes across Pakistan’s borders. So perhaps it is not that settler capitalist logistics aim to end the lethal interlude, and conquer all risk to its operations. As Melamed has illuminated so well, the failure of the interlude to end because risk to critical infrastructure, to capital mobility, to military adventures, is ever-present, inevitable, and profitable (as we see in Tigerswan’s motto, “solutions to uncertainty” does not aim to end uncertainty, but to sell the need for its “solutions”), is the reason for the intensification and proliferation of lethal forms – and so perhaps this is not a “failure” at all, but the aim.

[1] Zoe Carpenter and Tacie Williams, February 16, 2018, “Since Standing Rock, 56 Bills Have Been Introduced in 30 States to Restrict Protests,” The Nation:

[2] Ibid.

[3] See Naomi Paik, 2016, Rightlessness: Testimony and Repress in U.S. Prison Camps since World War II (University of North Carolina Press), and Lisa Marie Cacho, 2012, Social Death: Racialized Rightlessness and the Criminalization of the Unprotected (University of Minnesota Press).

[4] Sarah Hunt, 2015/2016, “Representing Colonial Violence: Trafficking, Sex Work, and the Violence of Law,” Atlantis 37.2 (1): 32.

[5]From an article on by Nessa Moreno, “the state of Louisiana defines trafficking, and how it translates materially to sex workers who are under 21 (or perceived to be by law enforcement): you’re working within a group, it’s technically considered trafficking. You’re driving yourself from place to place or an Uber, you have a space you’re working out of, that’s trafficking. If you’re working in a place like a strip club, where management holds on to your money, that’s their definition of trafficking.”

[6] Moreover, some sex workers report that pimps, who do engage in trafficking and labor abuses, are hoping to capitalize on such changes that render sex workers more vulnerable.

[7] NATO press release, 23 April 2010.

[8] Sean McFate, July 17, 2017, “The ‘Blackwater 2.0’ Plan for Afghanistan,” The Atlantic:

The Open Secret of Racial Capitalist Violence – Response by Ezgi Guner

[On March 27th, 2018 the Unit for Criticism & Interpretive Theory hosted the lecture “The Open Secret of Racial Capitalist Violence” by visiting scholar Jodi Melamed (Marquette). Below is a response to the lecture from Ezgi Guner (Anthropology).]

Logics and Logistics of Racial Capitalism
Written by Ezgi Guner (Anthropology)

Jodi Melamed began by acknowledging the indigenous nations of Illinois whose absence within the borders of the state testifies to “the open secret of racial capitalist violence,” the topic of Melamed’s new book project and the day’s lecture. The open secret, as conceptualized by Melamed, refers to the violence inherent to capitalism, which is reproduced by the mundane technicalities of administrative power. Thus, she argues, capitalist violence is not a thing of the past, of a historical moment marked by primitive accumulation or originary accumulation as Melamed translates Marx’s notion that is transcended in the present. Rather, it is systemic and ongoing, recursive and constitutive, pervasive, yet not omnipotent. The settler colonial logics that resulted in the territorial dispossession of the native peoples of Illinois, today underpin neoliberal forms of accumulation on a global scale, and produce similar effects. Settler regimes in the present reverberate with those of the past, just as earlier forms of U.S. settler colonialism echo in Israel’s occupation of Palestine.

Faith Ringgold, Committee to Defend the Panthers, 1970
Faith Ringgold, Committee to Defend the Panthers, 1970

In order to discuss how all capitalism is racial capitalism, Melamed went back to Marx, reading a quote from his critique of the ideological naturalization of social inequality inherent to capitalist relations of production. Marx argues that in the “nursery tale” of capitalism, its fictional origin story, the distinction between “the frugal elite” who make wealth without having to labor and “the lazy rascals” who labor without making wealth, serves to justify capitalist social asymmetry. For Melamed, the unequal human worth and capacity reflected in this fairy tale is mapped onto racial hierarchies that are being reproduced by global capitalism in the present. Administrative power is the means through which racial violence becomes an “open secret” under the guise of routine calculations and everyday procedures.

Mona Hatoum, Hot Spot III, 2009
Mona Hatoum, Hot Spot III, 2009

In her larger work, Melamed discusses administrative power as (1) police procedures, which she calls “the visible hand of the market”; (2) exercise of rights, which amount to the right to be unencumbered by concern for the wellbeing of others; and (3) geoeconomic strategies of command and control. Her talk mostly dwelled on the third form of administrative violence, geoeconomic strategies, which are materialized in settler capitalist logisticality. By settler capitalist logisticality, Melamed means the infrastructures of accumulation and property ownership that sustain capital circulation, control mobility, and reproduce social inequality. Borders, checkpoints, free trade zones, reservations, and global assembly lines, among others, build and maintain securitized and asymmetrical flows.

The discussion following Melamed’s lecture was centered around the question of alternatives. Are alternative forms of collective existence possible in a world where the terms of social relationality are dictated by administrative violence? Can the social separateness imposed by racial colonial capitalism be reversed? Indeed, Melamed responded, she might not have emphasized it enough, but after all human sociality could not be captured by the logics and logistics of racial capitalism in its totality. Our lives resisted yielding to the norms and forms of racial capitalism every day in multiple ways. More than anything, forms of resistance like boycotts and blockages that interrupt settler capitalist logisticality become sites of alternative sociality. From Charlotte and Ferguson to Palestine and Standing Rock, social resistance does not only disrupt racial capitalism, but generates novel forms of relationality. Two days after Melamed’s lecture, Tariq Ali, speaking of the revolutionary movements of the 20th century, remarked that history does not repeat itself, but it echoes. Just like the earlier forms of settler colonialism and racial capitalism keep echoing in contemporary forms of accumulation and dispossession, so does the history of resistance, as we most recently witnessed with the March for Our Lives movement!

“Interior Frontiers:” As Political Concept, Diagnostic, and Dispositif – Response by Mark E. Frank

[On January 18th, the Unit for Criticism & Interpretive Theory hosted the lecture “’Interior Frontiers:’ As Political Concept, Diagnostic, and Dispositif’” by Nicholson Distinguished Visiting Scholar Ann Laura Stoler (New School). Below is a response to the lecture from Mark E. Frank (East Asian Languages and Cultures).]

Thinking with Stoler
Written by Mark E. Frank (East Asian Languages and Cultures)

“This moment is one for which we should have been prepared.” From the podium at Knight Auditorium and in the global shadow of the far right, Ann Laura Stoler delivered a lecture for the age of Trump and Le Pen, rhetorically migrating between continents but often dallying in the French milieu she has inhabited for much of her life. The evening lecture landed like a reconnaissance report by an agent whose self-directed assignments have seen her dialoguing with philosophers and “hanging out” with the Front National. It was an alert that we have arrived in an era when the political concepts and categories on which social theorists have honed their skills “may seem inadequate” as she put it—but more importantly, it was a clarion call to participate in the “conceptual labor” needed to move on, and a demonstration of what that might look like.

This moment was one for which I should have been prepared. I came to see Stoler the historical anthropologist, the author of books like Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power and Along the Archival Grain from which I have borrowed turns of phrase in an effort to—as Stoler would say disapprovingly—“authorize” my theoretical framework. But what we got on Thursday was Stoler the philosophe, Stoler the theoretician who recoils from theory. For if, as Barbara Carnevali contends, philosophy “functions under long, frustrating timings” while theory is “quick, voracious, sharp, and superficial,” then Stoler is squarely on the side of philosophy. Her task as she identified on Thursday was “to discern the work we do on concepts and that concepts exert on us.” “I avoid theory,” she elaborated in her seminar on Friday. “I like thinking instead of concept work.”

Concept work, concept labor… Again and again, Stoler communicated these imperatives through her dictum and her often burdened comportment, underscoring the point that meaningful critique is by necessity an onerous, laborious process. The goal is not to cite some Foucault here and Derrida there in an attempt to authorize our claims, but rather, to engage them at length, to think with them.

On Thursday evening, she was thinking with the philosopher Étienne Balibar, whose notion of frontières intérieures—rendered in English as “interior frontiers”—she tracked through his papers from 1984 to 2015. The concept itself originated not with Balibar, but with the German philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte, who, when Napoleon breached the external borders of the German Territories in 1804, proclaimed to his compatriots that “the first, original, and truly natural boundaries of states are beyond doubt their internal boundaries.” Fichte’s internal boundaries were not lines on a map, but the invisible bonds upon which national identities rely. Language, it seems was the quintessential example in Fichte’s imagination—the French could infiltrate German borders by strength of arms, but not the German language.

Though American politics largely receded into the lecture’s background, the topic of boundaries within borders struck me as apt at a time when Trump’s slated border wall distracts from the instruments of exclusion within our borders. Fichte’s appeal to the notion of internal boundaries resonates in an unsettling way with the impulses that perpetuate ethnic and racial inequalities today, and so, as Stoler noted, it is difficult to comprehend why Balibar should seek to recuperate it in the late twentieth century. He was, after all, a sort of egalitarian, a onetime member of the Communist Party whose condemnation of the racism endemic to the Party saw him expelled. For Balibar, it would seem, the notion of frontières intérieures was valuable for its explanatory power. The external borders of states are insufficient to explain the enclosure of ethnic and national identities, which in fact are often cited as justifications for those borders; rather, it is the uncharted interior boundaries that paradoxically unite people by dividing them.

Stoler clarified that if she has difficulty pinpointing the nature of Balibar’s interior boundaries, this is because in three decades of work he offers neither an analysis nor an explicit description of the term, even as he deploys it in ways that “exceed the prompt” in Fichte’s lectures. In attempting to interpret Balibar, Stoler took especial interest in his engagement with the writings of psychoanalyst André Green, who has emphasized the porous, composite, and multi-dimensional nature of boundaries in human experience. The skin, for example, is often taken to be the boundary of the individual body, and yet skin is porous; moreover, our points of contact with a person may involve a composite of eyes, ears, genitalia and other features. For Green, a line of demarcation is never in fact a line, but rather a permeable territory, a field of activity.

Something in this formulation of internal boundaries resonated with Stoler’s experience of colonial history: it resembled the shifting and invisible criteria that perpetuated the comfort zones of the colonizers, that sustained the notion of whiteness and the prestige associated with it. In one of the lecture’s few turns to historical anecdote, Stoler related the story of a Dutch judge in colonial Saigon who determined that a métis boy should be tried as a native after citing a bevy of facts: the boy’s French was poor, he did not exhibit an appropriate disdain for Germans, and relationship to his “petit blanc” father stretched the bounds of propriety. Separating the boy from colonial identity was not an easily discernible or linear border, but an entire field of criteria representing the conditions of colonial comfort. Towards the end of the lecture, Stoler contemplated the appropriate spatial metaphor for interior frontiers. If they are not visible lines, perhaps they are hallways, or even “dark, infrared corridors” (recall that infrared light is invisible to the naked eye).

For me, there was an irony in this search for a metaphor, because the “frontier” is itself a rich geographical metaphor worth mining. While the lecture employed the terms “frontier” and “border” more or less interchangeably, a contrast of those terms might have been productive. In the imagination of Frederick Jackson Turner the American frontier was not so much a line as a shifting field of activity, which was precisely what differentiated it from the fixed borders of Europe. The tension between complex and linear notions of the boundaries between states—frontiers, borderlands, borders—is what animates much of borderland studies today. It is also worth noting that the term “frontier” is a problematic translation of Balibar’s frontières intérieures: Consider, for example, that in the context of the European Union, frontières intérieures is a legal term designating the borders between states within the Union, and that the English rendering of this term is not “interior frontiers” but “internal borders”. By my understanding, that which the French call frontière translates most comfortably as “border” and not “frontier”; in fact, one might speculate that the Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders) are not doctors without frontiers, but doctors on the frontier of medical practice.

Stoler’s analysis of frontières intérieures in the writings of Balibar was ultimately left unfinished in the sense that she was unable to reach a definitive resolution to some of the apparent contradictions in his thought, and in the sense that she ran over time and had to jettison the last section of the talk. It was an uncommonly inconclusive lecture, one that took both speaker and audience a little out of our depth, and I believe that was precisely the point—it was not so much an answer as an exercise in conceptual labor. Attendees pelted Stoler with the grandest sort of grand questions (What is the relationship between the individual and the polity? What kind of person do interior frontiers produce?) to which she responded with a scholarly mix of insight and humility (frequently, “I don’t know” or “I haven’t gotten that far”).

Stoler image

Figure 1. External and internal borders. From the film Labyrinth

Interest in Stoler’s Friday workshop apparently exceeded the capacity of the first venue arranged by the Unit, which relocated to the executive boardroom of the Alice Campbell Alumni Center where we were seated around a table so comically enormous that it became the topic of much pre-seminar chatter—the table was a signifier of “white male power” joked Stoler (in the Orwellian sense that every joke is a tiny revolution). The theme of gender inequality was a latent presence that bubbled to the surface from time to time; at one point noting male appropriations of her ideas without citation, Stoler momentarily protested the “misogyny of citation”.

But Stoler spent much more time communicating a vision of social critique that defies masculine norms in its embrace of uncertainty. She related that the hardest part of her career has not been finding answers, but rather coming up with questions, and specifically the kinds of questions for which she genuinely had no prior answer. She challenged the room to be frank in our writing about the questions for which have no ready answers, asking “do you hide them, which is a very male thing to do?” Stoler has made a career of critiquing racial and gender inequality, yet unspared in her remarks on Friday were what she described as the “cottage industries” of gender and race theory whose comfortable “PC” consensus can be anathema to true inquiry.

Most seminar participants were graduate students, and so the latter portion of the seminar turned to the process of writing a thesis or dissertation. Stoler has authored six books and edited three more. Some of us wondered, whence her vision, her prolific energy? At all points in her responses she emphasized the painstaking nature of her work—a book that took decades to write, book projects that swallowed chapters from others, book projects that simply atrophied and died. Turning to her own experiences as a graduate student, Stoler related a sordid scenario: she became so stressed out by her dissertation that she somaticized it with migraines and indigestion, so unhappy with the final draft that she collated it backwards and deposited it that way, sharing it with no one outside her committee except her friend and mentor Jim Scott.

For those of us, like me, at fisticuffs with our own dissertations, it was a regrettably familiar image. But it was also a message that curiosity is more important than surety, and that one can fall short of their own metric of perfection in the short term and still aspire to one day become someone as gutsy, luminous and impactful as Ann Laura Stoler.


The Future of Queer Theory / The Usure of Modernist Form – Response by Diana Sacilowski

[On November 28, the Unit for Criticism & Interpretive Theory hosted the lecture “The Future of Queer Theory / The Usure of Modernist Form” as part of the Fall 2017 Modern Critical Theory Lecture Series. The speaker was Andrew Leong (Northwestern U). Below is a response to the lecture from Diana Sacilowski (Slavic Literatures & Languages)]

The Past Futures of Queer Theory
Written by Diana Sacilowski (Slavic Literatures & Languages)

In answering the question, “What is the future of queer theory?” Andrew Leong follows José Esteban Muñoz in offering a retrospective glance that looks at the various “futures” of queer theory. Rather than looking towards the future as some horizon or blank space on which to posit something new, like Muñoz, he examines the futures of queer theory that “have been.” Engaging with long histories and with meta-narratives, Leong ultimately turns away from a de Manian undoing and dismantling of all narrative, towards an idea of usure, the erasure and rubbing away of inscription and form, which allows for a palimpsestic understanding of narratives and of the futures of queer theory.


Doing so, Leong, rather appropriately for the last lecture of this fall’s Modern Critical Theory Lecture Series, traced the development of the various theories encountered over the course of the semester. From German Idealism to Marx to José Esteban Muñoz’s concept of “queer futurity” in Cruising Utopia (2009), via Ernst Bloch, on the one hand, and to Lee Edelman’s idea of the queer as the space of no future in No Future (2004), by way of Derrida, Saussure, and Lacan, on the other, Leong explored these theories’ consolidation and convergence, their contact and mediation with one another.

In an effort to visualize this coming and working together of these various theoretical approaches, Leong provided a triangular scheme of his thought process, helping to outline his approach, to situate both Muñoz and Edelman within larger historical contexts, and to explain why he turns back in talking about the future of queer theory. The points of his triangle were marked by the terms “money” at the apex and “thought” and “language” at the bottom; “Future” linked “money” and “thought” on one side, “Figure” joined “thought” to “language” at the base, and “Usure” connected “language” back to “money.” Throughout his lecture, Leong referred back to this diagram to suggest various theoretical connections between money, language, and thought.

In linking “thought” and “money” by way of “Future,” Leong drew from a passage from Speculate This! (2013), which notes that in the seventeenth century the word “species,” with etymological roots meaning outward appearance, also signified coin, drawing a connection between form and money. The text also points to the double-meaning of the idea of speculation – with both cognitive and economic undertones, the idea of speculation involves a kind of conceptualizing or projecting into the future, whether intellectually or financially.

The base of his pyramid derived from Edelman’s Lacanian reading of social realities. Here representing the impossible Lacanian Real, or for Edelman any essentializing concept of identity or politics, “thought” is inherently inaccessible without mediation, without the structures of language, without figural relations that inscribe and sustain social identities. Indeed, for Edelman, queerness, while also not an essential identity, but a figural one, is precisely that which exposes this unstable structure, namely, the fantasies that underpin political and social realities.

The final side of Leong’s pyramid, connecting “language” and “money,” the linguistic and the economic, via the idea of “usure,” involves the “Exergue” of Derrida’s White Mythology (1971). In this opening section of the text, Derrida plays on the two meanings of the French word “usure,” looking at it both as usury, as excess revenue from interest on a loan, as surplus value, but also as usage, as wear and tear or deterioration. Derrida frames the issue as a philosophical discussion between Aristos and Polyphilos on the language of metaphysics. Polyphilos imagines a metaphysician’s use of language as a kind of grindstone rubbing away the exergue of a coin (and here Leong points out another play on words by Derrida, “exergue” meaning both the space on a coin used for inscription and something outside of a work, like an epigraph). The grindstone erases indications specifically identifying the coins in any way, freeing them from physical limitations, lifting them to a more abstract, universal level, and granting them an unlimited and immeasurable value.


And yet, perhaps no real value or signification at all. Derrida builds upon this connection between language and money by noting Marx’s own words on the interchange between the linguistic and the economic, as well as by pointing to Saussure’s argument that both language and money gain meaning, gain value, whether semantic or monetary, only through a system of exchange and comparison. Both signs and pieces of coin hold no intrinsic, fixed worth or significance, but rather operate according to their relative position, their similarity or dissimilarity, to others things, pieces of money, ideas, words, etc., as determined by their environment.

Leong completed his retrospective glance of the convergence of various theoretical currents in his understanding of the “futures” of queer theory by delving briefly into Marxist conceptions of money and commodity. He, moreover, pointed to Edelman’s and Muñoz’s own interesting instances of usure. Both of these texts, examining ideas of futurity and the queer, feature epigraphs, exergues, from modernist writers, inscriptions that have been, moreover, rubbed away and altered – Muñoz uses a modified quotation from a text by Oscar Wilde, placing a period where the original author used a comma; Edelman turns to Virginia Woolf, allowing the quotation to drift off with the use of ellipsis where Woolf had originally placed a colon. Both scholars, looking at the future of queer theory, usure modernist form and turn to writers writing at the end of the long nineteenth century (according to Arrighi’s formulation), showing the continued resonance of these forms at the end of the long twentieth century.

Leong concluded his lecture with a reading of Japanese writer Yoné Noguchi’s “Chicago” (1900), illustrating an interesting convergence of the key ideas of his talk – money, figuration, and  the queer.

Ariella Azoulay: Potential History of the Archive: The Micro Study of a Macro Institution – Response by Laura Elizabeth Shea

[On November 9th, 2017, the CAS/MillerComm Lecture Series hosted the lecture “Potential History of the Archive: The Micro Study of a Macro Institution,” given by Ariella Azoulay (Brown University). Below is a response to the lecture from Laura Elizabeth Shea, PhD Candidate in Art History.]

Ariella Azoulay: Potential History of the Archive: The Micro Study of a Macro Institution
written by Laura Elizabeth Shea (Art History)


Ariella Azoulay. Source: Mike Cohea/Brown University.

A “conceptually elegant and actionable” scholar is how Associate Professor and Chair of Art History, Terri Weissman introduced Ariella Azoulay, Professor of Modern Culture and Media and the Department of Comparative Literature at Brown University on Wednesday evening in the Knight Auditorium at the Spurlock Museum. This term, actionable, is one used by Azoulay herself in her influential book on visual culture and politics, The Civil Contract of Photography, published in English in 2008. The text theorizes photography as a civil contract among the camera, photographer, photographed, and spectator, a contract which demands an accountability and responsibility from all spectators.

Similarly, in her lecture, Azoulay called for researchers to take decisive actions against the allure of the archive. She implored scholars to approach the archive as a place of imperial violence whose objects reveal more about the imperial project than they do about the categories and taxonomies of the people it organizes. She argued the archives must be approached by researchers who are not trapped by the seemingly sacrosanct status of the things it purports to protect and preserve. In the archive, documents of the remote past are sterilized, neutralized, and history is made to seem inevitable through the way material objects are presented and used, and thus, both the archive’s institutional structures and its material objects must be addressed with a sense of high alert, if it is interacted with at all. The material for the talk came from the last chapter of her new manuscript in which she analyzes reparations in various cultural contexts.

The Civil Contract of Photography, 2008. Source: MIT Press.

Azoulay’s lecture identified and then broke down the trust we put in archives to index, categorize and display documents for us to study, discuss and write about. While she did not identify a particular archive, in her talk she referred to visual documents surrounding the institution of American slavery, specifically prints, drawings, photographs, and maps, a topic which, she said, was influenced by her move to the United States several years ago. The images she chose to show in her presentation were many, and often depicted figures actually using the very kind of papers and documents now stored in the archive.

For example, she displayed a print of white, armed slave patrollers, reviewing the documents that were required of black enslaved people upon leaving the plantation where they were forced to live. Azoulay argued that this was not an image of slaves

and their lack of mobility, but an image of certain individuals we are supposed to recognize as slaves, who suffer from an unbounded archival violence through which they are forced to bear their identity solely as the category of slave, without a past or history. She proposed that we see the armed slave patrollers as archival guardians, placing the category of ‘slave’ over and above anything else the people appear to be or were. These archival guardians, she continued, rarely act alone, but alongside peers that approve of what they are doing, including, it is presumed, those that have accepted, kept, stored, and protect such documents without recognizing their violence. Imperial archives thus invent the past as a realm where enslaved people are reduced to ahistorical categories or archival tags. This effectively makes neutral the effects of abominable crimes. And, she added, merely writing about and preserving documents does not question the violence they helped to regulate.

Additional examples included photographs and maps. Azoulay showed a photograph of multiple sculptures destined for an “African Negro Art” show at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York in the early twentieth century. The black and white photograph depicted the sculptures laid out on display for a customs inspection before their transport to and installation in the museum. Actions such as stealing, looting, and purchasing diverse objects and displaying them together in one Western institution (the custom house) and destined for another (the Western museum), is, for Azoulay, destroying diverse social, cultural, and political fabrics. This reductive streamlining is an example of a strategy for fitting diverse and violently acquired things into the “neutral” imperial archive. Using an image of Elmina Castle, the coastal trade village set up by the Portuguese, she argued how the multiplicity of records regarding the sale of people at such places ensured the perpetrators would be shielded from accountability. The archive, through records and maps of relevant, testifying documents filled with dates and spatial demarcations, acted as a cover for actions that need reparation.

Azoulay also included documents of first-person accounts, including the 1847 Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave. Written by Himself. The projected quotation read, “The man who stole me as soon I was born, recorded the birth of all the infants which he claimed to be born on his property, in a book which he kept for that purpose.” The men and women kidnapped were never simply slaves, but carried a whole world, a whole history with them. However, in the archive, in such documents as the man’s record book, Azoulay argues, a slave is a slave is a slave. Stored in the archive and tagged as “slave,” even such rich texts as Brown’s can essentially become a document detached from the realm of human affairs. This is what Azoulay termed “paper-regulated destruction” – that is, to destroy whole worlds using the guise of documents which function – in protection of the perpetrators – as authorized scripts.

Azoulay acknowledges the seduction of the archive for scholars, and she warns of its invitation to enter as a trap. The scholar is first welcomed into the archive through the aura of the papers, believing they are not acting from an imperial vision, but from neutral documents, making them more receptive to the idea that history is formed by individuals who can act alone against imperial power. The scholar is then seduced to seek and reconstruct missing pieces that imperial actors themselves concealed. Thus, scholars are caught within the circle of the archive, led to believe these documents tell a true story of imperial regimes which only they can reconstruct. In reality they become trapped into the violent, circular logic of the archive.

Azoulay closed her talk closed by imploring scholars, her audience, to envision going on strike of the imperial archive enmasse. She cited historical precedents for this, including W.E.B Du Bois, who stopped going to the archive because of its circulatory trap. Azoulay purports a kind of scholarship that, in her words, keeps the shutter open instead of closing it, storing it, and labeling it.

The question and answer period addressed issues of applying the concept of the violent imperial archive to additional cultural contexts, including the construct of Orientalism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Azoulay responded affirmatively, arguing that the history of imperialism overrides any cultural taxonomies by its one taxonomy. She recognized the particularities of different contexts, but suggested that the destructivenesss of the imperial enterprise constantly renews itself. Another audience member queried the possible violence of the documents themselves, which Azoulay was careful to reframe, bringing the culpability back to the people who used them. She made a crucial point here, too: the rights that we often defend and advocate are, in practice, worldless rights because they are not applied to the worlds destroyed. Rights that are not inscribed anywhere else but in documents are not human rights because they require a document and an institution a priori.

Azoulay is also a filmmaker. A Thursday morning screening of her 2004 film, I also dwell among your people: Conversations with Azmi Bishara, in Hebrew with English subtitles expanded upon the theme of worldless rights brought up in the Q and A and further elucidated her ideas on citizenry, imperial violence, and, what she called, the “propaganda machine.” The film was a series of interviews with Bishara, an Arab citizen of Israel who formerly represented Israel’s Palestinian minority in the Knesset, but who has since been forced to leave the country. Through a series of news clips, speeches, and interviews, often framed as if he was talking to no one (symbolic of his political reality), Bishara made a passionate appeal to the need for full citizenship, rights, and political participation for Arabs in Israel. The film ultimately reveals, what Weissman called in her introduction of Azoulay, the incredible “impact and political urgency” of Azoulay’s collective body of work.