Field Notes From the Present Blog Series by Austin D. Hoffman (Anthropology)

“Sanctuary is Not a Place”

By Austin D. Hoffman (Anthropology)

We were sitting on the picnic table outside the staff kitchen, watching a spectacular sunset over the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. As the radiant mosaic of oranges and purples faded to greys and blacks, Tricia and I were reminiscing about the eccentric cast of human and nonhuman characters that had found sanctuary here. We arose from our seats and began to head inside, eager to be embraced by the heat of the wood-burning stove. Then we heard the snarls.

Illiamna and Merlin
Illiamna and Merlin. By Camille Potts

              The guttural tonality indicated this was no mere scuffle, and we knew exactly who it was. We walked briskly up the path toward Merlin and Illiamna, two wolves who had been paired together in the same enclosure earlier that day. We peered through the twelve-foot tall chain-link fence down into the valley and saw Illiamna, the roughly 130-pound male arctic wolf, pursuing Merlin, a female wolfdog of nearly equal size. Something had set Illiamna off, and he was trying to latch onto Merlin’s haunches with his massive jaws. Merlin drew from the vast vocal and embodied language of her species to dissuade him. She emitted every warning sign, but to no avail. The other wolves in neighboring enclosures were howling with frantic alarm. We had to intervene before things escalated.

              “I’m gonna go around back and open the rear gate. You go down there and push them up towards me so we can separate Illy. Try to get between them if you can.” Tricia was the lead animal caretaker. She knew the wolves better than anyone, and she had to be the one to open the gate because Illiamna trusted her enough to walk past her. Despite my anxiety I was confident in her leadership. I grabbed the Y-pole outside the gate—an elongated metal rod with a padded forked end used for restraining and controlling the movement of large carnivores—and headed inside. I struggled to maintain balance on the icy hillside while also keeping eyes on the tangled mass of growling fur and fangs a hundred yards away. As I approached, Merlin recognized her chance for escape. She disengaged from Illiamna with such a burst of speed that he couldn’t react quickly enough to give chase, leaving a gap between them that I stepped into.

Illiamna Howling
Illiamna Howling. by Camille Potts

              As I planted my feet and extended the Y-pole at a 45 degree angle, I couldn’t help but lock eyes with Illiamna and marvel at him. Here is a creature that, were he in “the wild,” would be hunting caribou, moose and muskoxen. His bite force is twice that of a German-shepherd, and could easily crush my arm. Yet despite his formidable strength, I could see in his dark-golden eyes that he was scared and confused. He recoiled, flattening his ears against his head in a submissive posture. Like his wild brethren, Illy is wary of humans. As he began to probe for a way to get to Merlin, Tricia arrived at the back of the enclosure and opened the gate. He paced laterally, and I mimicked his movements, using the Y-Pole as an extension of my body to prevent him from sneaking past me. We continued this tense interspecies dance for maybe eight minutes, although it seemed like an eternity. Twice he tried to take an angle back to Merlin, but I was able head him off—just barely. He eventually realized I would not relent, and coyly retreated through the upper gate into an empty enclosure. Tricia immediately shut it behind him. They were unharmed. We finally exhaled.

              This incident happened this past January at Mission: Wolf (M:W), a non-profit educational sanctuary in the remote foothills of southern Colorado established primarily to care for wolves and wolfdog crosses rescued from the exotic pet trade. It is one of the oldest sanctuaries of its kind in the country, and uniquely, it is operated by a small community of live-in staff and volunteers. In this regard M:W is an intentional community, and shares in a long lineage of counter-cultural social experiments originating in the high deserts of Colorado and New Mexico. I lived here and coordinated the sanctuary’s educational programming from 2016-2018. It is both a centerpiece of my scholarly research, and a place I consider home.

people at M:W in winter 2017
M:W staff pose after processing meat for the wolves

              From the moment I relocated from Colorado to central Illinois to begin graduate school, I felt torn between my desire to pursue a Ph.D. and a deep sense of responsibility to M:W and the more-than-human kinship networks I’ve developed there. So I’ve returned every summer to reconnect with my two and four-legged friends, and to help out where I can, whether that be processing livestock donations for the wolves, repairing fences, or giving tours to visitors. These annual trips have become vital to maintaining and nurturing those kinship networks, and also providing me with a much needed respite from the stress of academia. But in summer 2020, I postponed my trip due to COVID-19. I simply couldn’t risk travel, for my own sake and for M:W. If the virus took hold in such a small community, it would be disastrous. I didn’t realize how important going home was to my mental and emotional health until I was prohibited from doing so. In the interest of self-care, I decided to use the winter break to briefly return to M:W. By this time there was more information available about how the virus spread, and the sanctuary had instituted a strict quarantine process to minimize risk.

              All of this perhaps seems disconnected from the vignette I opened this reflection with. I share it because it underscores both the practices of care integral to the sanctuary, and how the pandemic has thrown the importance of such care work into sharp relief. The popularity of M:W and sites like it continues to steadily grow. When the sanctuary was founded in the late 1980s, few people made the trek into the rugged and confusing backcountry roads. Now, 30 years later, the sanctuary sees several thousand visitors annually. Even the ice and snow of winter doesn’t prevent people from finding us. Most of them are drawn by the powerful anthropomorphic aura of wolves as charismatic megafauna, which also contributes to the desire to keep them as pets.  With the closure of the sanctuary due to health and safety protocols, a disquieting calm has settled over the community. The pandemic has held the encroaching forces of commercialization and eco-tourism in abeyance, for now, and has allowed the staff to refocus on long neglected projects. More importantly, without the need to constantly cater to the public and service-learning groups, we can focus on caring for those that brought us to M:W in the first place: the wolves. The pandemic has, paradoxically, “brought some of the sanctuary back,” as one staff member told me.

Wolves are highly social mammals who live in packs that bear a striking resemblance to human familial structures. The canine residents at M:W are, unfortunately, not candidates for reintroduction to the wild, given that they were born in captivity and are habituated to humans—just one ramification of the multi-billion dollar exotic pet trade. In the context of sanctuary, we try to emulate the conditions of wild wolves as best as possible by housing them in at least pairs of two so that they can have intraspecies companionship. Illiamna had lost his elderly mate in 2017, and Merlin, who had recently been transferred from a now defunct wildlife sanctuary, had never cohabitated with another canine. Being that the two are close in age and had seemingly been flirting from across the fence line, the attempt to pair them was made. Although their relationship got off to a rocky start, I’m happy to report they’ve been reunited and are now harmoniously coexisting. They even engage in play with one another and share meals. This companionship will almost certainly improve their quality of life in captivity. This pairing may not have happened, or could’ve been delayed indefinitely, if not for COVID-19, as the energies of the staff are often spread thin by the demands of the public.

Arrow, By Mark Dornblaser

Crisis precipitates change. Illiamna and Merlin’s newfound relationship is but one small example of how the current convergence of crises have forced us to (re)establish bonds of friendship and solidarity that help us survive, and, hopefully, flourish with one another. As for me, what I take away from my brief but intense confrontation with Illiamna is a realization that the precondition for Tricia and I’s ability to effectively respond to this conflict was the trust we had built both with the wolves and with each other. I had every confidence that her instructions were the right ones, and she knew that I could accomplish what she asked of me. This mutual confidence emanated from years of laboring together for the benefit of another species and learning how to communicate with nonhumans through the medium of our bodies. The impulse to care, to resolve conflict, became inscribed in our muscle memory. 

This is, I think, instructive for our times as conversations about the necessity of mutual aid and alternatives to state structures proliferate. The muscle memory of nonhuman care defies taxonomic boundaries and is also practiced between and among the human residents of M:W. It has become a sanctuary for people who are struggling under, and disaffected with, neoliberal capitalism, as well as members of the LGBTQ community, some of whom feel unsupported or unaccepted by their families. The impulse to care also extends beyond the confines of the sanctuary proper; one recent example is M:W’s support of the newly established Tenacious Unicorn Ranch, a nearby alpaca rescue run entirely by queer and trans people, which has been under threat by far-right militias and other reactionary groups. In this case there was an immediate recognition that our communities, our experiments in multispecies living, simply had to protect one another. And we were ready to do so, because we had been practicing. Maybe COVID-19 did restore some semblance of sanctuary—for all its contradictions—to M:W, or maybe it just revealed the reciprocal relationships that have always been at the heart of the place, which are now more vital than ever.

While I can’t say that my experiences at M:W prepared me for the pandemic (because what could?), they did help me recognize the necessity of regularly practicing care, building trust, and cultivating equitable and loving relations. They did remind me that such processes, while often occurring in subtle and mundane ways, accrete over time. In crisis, this accretion might help us have confidence in one another, and find solidarity across difference. This has been the case for me at least, and I trace this back to my time among wolves, where I was taught that sanctuary is not a place, but a practice.

Field Notes From the Present Blog Series by Dr. Nikki Usher (College of Media, Communications/Political Science)

“Tiny Homes in a Room of One’s Own”
By Dr. Nikki Usher (College of Media, Communications/Political Science)

For the holidays, I bought my wife a tiny tiny house kit.  

It sits, a promise of leisure time, a promise of personal space in a miniature box, and it is being built slowly…very slowly, with the spare moments carved out from parenting, research, teaching, and exercise (a genuine, if not enthusiastic, effort at self-care).

Photo of some of the Tiny Homes on sale at Art Mart, Champaign

The joke is that we’re Victorian ladies, trapped inside our homes and unable to leave.

She would have been the type to deal with her hysteria by building those tiny rooms you can find in museums. 

At the Art Institute of Chicago, the genre is best exemplified by the Thorne rooms that are decorated for the holidays. [Thorne herself was a 1930s artist with her own workshop, so these are more mythically Victorian rooms of feminist sublimination than actual ones, but bear with me for the case of reference]

These elaborate miniature rooms are built matchstick by matchstick, handcrafted porcelain dish by woven tiny persian rug, but there are also no people inside these homes — it is what separates them from children’s doll houses. In my much mythologized understanding of these miniatures, this makes the pain that inspired the labor so evident: these are not for play, but one of the few sanctioned expressions of creativity and expression these women had.  

Empty, perfect spaces that women trapped inside their gilded castles could call their own –all that they were allowed to dream of as free and under their control in a diorama-sized perspective– the literal instantiation of Charlotte Perkins Gillman’s The Yellow Wallpaper

This is not a joke, of course. That our present capitalist landscape has produced the context for a market for pre-built tiny houses so people can pass pandemic time building tiny houses. And that they are being micro-targeted to me, on my Instagram feed, during this pandemic, seems to be a particularly postmodern turn of events, given the origins of these tiny houses as a way to deal with tedium, depression, and a felt lack of actual personal space. [Again, this is more my own a-historical retelling, although you can see the feminist renarration of this act for the 21st century here.]

Unlike Thorne or any of the other women in the US and the UK (and elsewhere) who built these miniature rooms, we do not have time to actually build the homes. That’s the amusing bit of it – there is no time left to build brick by brick because the machinery of obligations that we owe to our institutions, our students, and ourselves. Trapped in our privilege, the way to deal is to buy a prefabbed version of the Victorian tiny house, a fantasy of some space we can call our own. But even that space (my wife’s is a greenhouse) is a copy of a copy, and I hear Adorno and Horkheimer shouting at me, judging the tiny tiny house version of a Yale lock. 

But it is that craving for space – I would like to think I’d have been the sad, poetic-Bloomsbury type of woman – that has me coming back to the one thing I miss so much, the one thing that is just so basic, the yearning of having a room of my own. I keep returning to Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, though only conceptually – it sits on a shelf outside my office, a floor below – there’s nothing for me in there in my “real” life as a scholar of elite media and evil tech platforms. I haven’t opened the book, just thumbed its back, and remembered its contents. It is laughable to me that the reason I own this book is because it was on Harvard’s prefrosh summer reading list. That’s everything, isn’t it? That it is still applicable is a reminder of that continued and now accumulated privilege I carry with me. 

That said, still, even having an office in pandemic life, one from which to do at-home work, the epitome of pandemic privilege, that space is not my own. 

This week, my child decided to take over my desk. He has colonized my office, just as he has every space in the house, but this was the week where he sat down at my desk and took to typing on my computer (he cannot read, so “typing”). Most afternoons, I am primary parenting, but at some point I do need a Thursday, just a few hours on a Thursday, for an afternoon to be a professor, just one weekday afternoon.

I have kept him off of Zoom. He wishes his other mom had “ten-year” so she could play more. He thinks I have “thirteen-year.” 

So he sat, in my space, sucked in by ABC Mouse, a software program heavily marketed to parents and children as a learning tool. Some schools have even purchased bulk subscriptions for stay-at-home learning. 

The chatter was endless, the software is designed to be addicting, and he happily spent two hours narrating the quest for 150 tickets to buy an ABC Mouse dog. He has a real dog, sitting in a crate. That’s another trapped animal in a room, another source of guilt, but there’s only so much she can be left unsupervised without a puppy’s reign of terror unleashed on an unwitting couch, now bleeding its foam.

His best way of playing in our space is to model our labor, working on a computer, typing something — for what?  And then the guilt, the constant guilt of not doing enough, not being enough, making bad decisions – it all hits, my wanting him to leave my stuff, my space, alone.  Space for work? Why? 

This morning that I write this, I have space because we have broken the moral code and have hired a babysitter (half-vaccinated, like me, tested within twelve hours, like us, masked)…the office space now mine, his “pseudo” i-pad, “leap pad” case splayed on the floor while the hand-me-down device rests charging. This is free writing – for me, unpaid. Am I wasting my time? Am I not using my time that I am paying someone else to give to me? Am I filling my space the wrong way?

The guilt hits again like a wave, his voice outside my door, narrating a story of teddy bears and a stuffed giraffe. They all play parenting roles in his ongoing imaginary story: a large bear is a designated uncle, while the giraffe (Charlotte, a large FAO-Schwarz-inspired, Melissa and Doug-knockoff provided by the grandparents) cooks for the rest of the animals.

Why does the giraffe have to go on a survival mission to feed the stuffies, who have run out of food? More guilt, am I not a good parent? What is he not getting from me that he is asking of his stuffed animals to parent him? 

And all he wants is to play, play at being a grownup, playing at work, playing at being in this grown up space, and as he does, this room of my own I crave slowly fills with love, no longer mine, and while spoiled by traces of guilt, is undeniably better than being alone. 

Field Notes From the Present Blog Series By Dr. Anustup Basu (English)

“Some Reflections on the Webinar Explosion in South Asia in the Time of Covid”
Anustup Basu (English)

At this point we are well aware of the extent to which the ongoing pandemic has unsettled intellectual lives and disrupted academic relationships and rhythms. It has closed off spaces, isolated bodies, and scattered established institutional and collaborative arrangements. These latter have been and are being re-tooled and reconfigured, primarily by way of web-based technologies. As a person who grew up in a small North Bengal town, did not see a television set till he was ten years old, wrote his first essays with a fountain pen, typed his graduate applications on a Remington, and drafted the first email of his life at the ripe old age of 27, I appreciate the historical perspective that while we are not the first set of humans on earth to face a pandemic of this magnitude, the internet is one of the many existential advantages we have today that our ancestors did not. I say this with the necessary skepticism and critical detachment with which we should approach internet and social media cultures. For good reason, most of us expect some of the forced innovations of this time — like participating in a graduate seminar over Zoom or researching online instead of visiting a library — to be temporary. Some, including me, are also wary that the corporatized academy will try to preserve some emergency measures (like a drastically increased percentage of online education) as permanent cost-cutting fixtures for the future. Nevertheless, these reflections on the webinar form, based on recent experiences, are prompted by two considerations. First, it would be fair to say that so far, such platforms of engagement have not been accorded the professional prestige of traditional conferences and talks. The pandemic has given us pause to wonder whether we should perhaps alter or qualify our views on this matter. Secondly, whether, in some circumstances, the webinar can be conceived of as a mode of intellectual engagement with its own set of values, its political and moral economies, rather than as a virtual substitute for the real thing.  For instance, can it be seen as a form that may be deployed, with needful caution and skepticism, to critically address the international division of academic labor and initiate a new culture of exchanges with the global south?  

Over the summer and fall of 2020, I delivered seven invited webtalks for various institutions in India. I have given talks in India before, but I can say that had it been any other year, I would have ended up appearing only in a couple of premier institutions in the list: perhaps at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) at Ropar and the Center for Studies in Borders and Movements (CSBM). As for the rest, they are, from a metropolitan vantage point, obscure colleges and universities in the suburbs or rural quarters of West Bengal with modest to meager resources. Under normal circumstances, they would not have thought of asking either me or my various First World colleagues from Canada, UK, Germany or New Zealand who participated in these engagements. Conversely, in practical terms, we would perhaps not have been able to go, even if we wanted to. It would not just be a question of having funds to buy an air ticket. It would be the more elementary question of having an airport within a few hundred miles of the institution. In one case, I had to speak on a Sunday morning, when it was late evening in India, because the organizers had decided that this was the hour in the week when their local internet connection was at its most reliable.           

It is necessary to consider the state of uneven development in the Indian context to understand why exactly, in various ways and in different degrees, this was a novel experience not just for me or my former college-mate, Upamanyu Pablo Mukherjee, now a professor at Warwick, but also scholars of a different generation like Partha Chatterjee or Dipesh Chakrabarty, as well as relative outsiders to immediate South Asian experience like Bill Ashcroft. Within a spectral reality that is bookended by slumdogs and millionaires — between brave new silicon valleys on the one hand, and the world’s largest hungry population on the other — higher education in India presents a stark picture of gross inequality. It features a handful of elite state and private institutions concentrated in major cities, developed suburbs, or colonial hill stations on the one hand, and a vast hinterland comprising thousands of colleges and universities lacking funds, amenities, infrastructure, and basic resources on the other. The divide is deep, historical, and runs along the lines of caste, class, gender, and borders separating the metropolis from the countryside. It is therefore not exactly the Global South we are talking about; rather it is a global south inside the erstwhile geopolitical global south of decolonization, neo-imperialism, and the Cold War. This is what is called a vernacular ‘Bharat’ inside an ‘India’ identified by the Anglophone knowledge system. 

In existentialist terms, my own position in this universe is a bit complicated, given my small-town origins. But after growing up in a small town, I went to an elite Indian university and then came to the United States for my doctoral education. Professional realities, family circumstances, and indeed, a lack of urgency and will have prevented me from returning to my hometown for more than two decades now, even though I visit metropolitan India almost every year. I now belong to a community of American-based intellectuals from South Asia. There is a game that I play from time to time, especially in big conferences like SALA or the annual affair in Madison, to reaffirm the essential homogeneity of this community. It pertains to whether one can place a complete stranger within three or four degrees of network separation, in terms of institutions, friends, colleagues, teachers, or students. So far it has worked out every single time; someone knows someone that I know, or someone is from somewhere that someone I know has been to. At the University of Illinois, we have had several PhD students from the subcontinent so far; most of them are not just from the same university, but from the same department that I went to. This whole phenomenon is frightening in a sense because ‘we’ – South Asians in the North American academy — in nominal terms represent a population of 1.4 billion people. It is not that ‘we’ in the first world academy do not have anything to do with that multifaceted universe in small town and rural India.  We take a deep, even conscientious anthropological and ethnographic interest in it. It is our object of study. But it would be fair to say that we are rarely able to engage in equitable transactions of knowledge with it. 

My seven engagements were a small droplet in a veritable flood of Indian webinars in the summer of 2020. I could gauge that through my social media feeds. This global network was itself established largely through Facebook. It was in that platform that I was initially approached by the organizers; a formal email arrived once I said a tentative yes. I understood quickly that the terms of engagement with the overall phenomenon were very simple: if you said yes to one, more requests would inevitably follow. I had quite a few more invitations that I had to turn down for one reason or the other. The talks were very well attended in each case, with hundreds of people from all over the subcontinent logging in, not just from all over India, but also Nepal, Bangladesh, or Sri Lanka. It was a radically mixed population that ranged from premier colleges and universities to disenfranchised faculty and students in the academic hinterland. In terms of North American parallels, it encompassed a population that included Ivy League coastal elites as well as people from the hundreds of community colleges that dot the landscape of J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegies. Sounds too good to be true? Indeed, there was another aspect to this phenomenon.  

The excitement and the energy was palpable, but there is no reason to romanticize the webinar explosion itself. I was warned by reliable peers in India that the outbreak was, for a good part, being driven by a spirit of opportunistic academic entrepreneurship. Conference organizers were soliciting funds from India’s University Grants Commission (UGC), asking for unfair registration rates, and, in the process, either advancing their own professional interests, or fleecing government money. The audience too, to an extent, was a captive one in some cases, with junior faculty and part-time lecturers being compelled to register for a certain number of conferences in order to get promotion or salary increase points. I tried, and successfully managed to steer clear of anything that looked and sounded dubious. From the glut of announcements that arrived every day, I could see that a lot of the talks were what might be called ‘cliff note’ lectures on single classic texts or undergraduate-friendly surveys on periods and movements. Perhaps it would be unkind to generalize that sentiment; in some cases it came with a seriousness of purpose and an aspirational horizon which would be fulfilled if, one day, Gayatri Spivak agreed to discourse on Wild Sargasso Sea or Frederick Jameson on Dog Day Afternoon. There was another set on the pandemic itself, to which I contributed my bit on epidemics and governmentality, that is, on how Europe, in the age of high imperialism and maritime trade, instituted a new regime of power (involving mass health measures, hygiene, nutrition standards, public sanitation and waterworks etc.) to combat small pox and cholera. But this ‘bio-political’ regime of security against the disease also assumed a mass genocidal form in Hitler’s Nazi cult, when the gas chambers were set up to protect the health of the race and the body politic against Jewish infection. Then there were serious explorations of recent shifts in disciplines and new critical interfaces (Humanities and Science) solicited by an academic population who wanted to engage with such matters in earnest, but often suffered a ‘lag period’ when it came to accessing latest books and journals on such developments. Finally, there were occasions where scholars were asked to share their latest work, no matter on what subject that might be. Two of my talks were on Hindutva as Political Monotheism, my latest book from the Duke University Press, that came out in the fall of 2020. It was at this point that things got really interesting for me. On one occasion, an organizer cheerfully informed me via Facebook that a pirated pdf of my book was being widely circulated. He quite helpfully sent me a copy. I could see that the document had been carefully redacted before circulation. The title page and table of contents were missing.  It began with the relatively bland and innocuous acknowledgements section and thus, if seized by the new overtly communalized police in North India, would not, in the first glance, come across as material as seditious as War and Peace for example.

My book, Hindutva deals with a particularly toxic brand of Hindu nationalism that has assumed the form of a classic fascist movement in India. The persecution and outright murder of intellectuals and journalists like M. M. Kalburgi or Gauri Lankesh, the imprisonment of octogenarian poet Varvara Rao or the scholar and civil rights activist Anand Teltumbe, on charges that are impossible for any rational mind to accept (for example, Tolstoy’s War and Peace, seized from a personal collection of books, was produced as evidence of surefire sedition in court) are examples of the political reality of violence, intimidation, and censorship now prevalent. So it is against this backdrop that one of the organizers called me a couple of days before one of my Hindutva talks. Ever since it was publicized on social media, they had been inundated by requests for the Zoom password from unidentifiable sources outside academic circles. There was thus a concern that we would be “Zoom-bombed” by zealots who have, in recent years, disrupted seminars, trashed exhibits, destroyed artworks, and beaten up students and faculty. I found out that mysterious unaffiliated profile visitors to my academia.edu page had increased the total count by 143% in 24 hours; it would climb to 2,664% eventually. I was open to the idea of changing the title of my talk in order to avoid a vitiated atmosphere, but the noted historian, Tanika Sarkar, who was chairing the event, did not agree. The event was shifted to Streamyard instead of Zoom with a fresh set of posters etc., and went off smoothly. I was well aware that being in the United States, I was not in immediate danger, but the organizers were. On another occasion, when I was asked to speak, I asked the coordinator whether I should pick a relatively non-controversial portion of my book. After all, he was located in a sensitive region of the country. What he told me in response will remain with me forever: “As it is, we will not live long. Please speak about the most controversial part of your book.”   

My experience with this summer’s webinar explosion in India was sobering and rewarding. I say this with a keener awareness of a mantle of paternalistic authority and entitlement inevitably and historically bestowed upon me by the international division of labor. There was no magical coming together of worlds. During Q&A sessions it became clear on occasions that sections of my audience did not understand me fully, nor I them. Sections of the audience itself did not understand each other sometimes. But if there was a poverty of conceptual language in the middle, all of us shared it, albeit in different ways. It alerted me to the quest for a new political vernacular in the era of globalization crisis and climate change that all of us should participate in, to the best of our abilities. This is an overall impelling – many-armed, eclectic, confused, and, at times animated by monstrous energies and babel – that comes from a new cartography of the global south. That is, the different global souths in India, in the United States, and elsewhere.      

Field Notes From the Present Blog Series By Dr. Catherine Prendergast (English)

“We All Get Sick and Die”
Written by Dr. Catherine Prendergast (UIUC, English)

“We all Get Sick and Die.” That used to be the subtitle of my courses in disability studies. It announced that disability studies demands a shift in our frame of reference with regard to bodies, away from a presumption of their invulnerability. I promised students that when they left the class, they would either identify as disabled (many already did coming in) or as only temporarily able-bodied. That used to be a tall order for college students in their late teens or early twenties, but it’s not anymore. Now, thanks to COVID, my students are thinking about illness and death all the time.

That change of perspective has altered my syllabus irrevocably. As many professors do, I had a no-fail opening assignment to deconstruct the prevailing common sense before we explored our topic in depth. I’d start students out by looking at what on the surface seems to be a progressive policy: the elimination of plastic straws. From an ecological standpoint, plastic straws are an unnecessary consumer perk, to be eliminated like any other form of extraneous packaging. However, plastic straws began as an accommodation device, and indeed are still an accommodation device for people with a wide range of motor and/or neurological impairments. Disability activists, facing proliferating bans on straws in their cities or at their favorite coffee houses, began to fight back, calling out the inherent ableism of banning straws. As we read their critiques, students who had thought themselves moral for campaigning for the elimination of plastics, suddenly had to reconsider what disability activists were calling ableist performative wokeness. We began to widen our  view of who benefits from accommodation devices: How many of us wore glasses? Relied on elevators to move into the dorms? Surely, they could just carry that box of books up ten stories. Students did research on how much of the world’s plastic waste is straws (under 1%) and began to question why disabled voices were kept out of the discussions—corporate and civic—that have led to blanket plastic straw bans. 

And throughout the semester I would sip openly, nearly obnoxiously, through a plastic straw in solidarity with crip defiance

That lesson plan is now dead. COVID killed it. As the disabled activists themselves foretold, once the able-bodied saw themselves at risk of death or disability, nobody would be worrying about the environmental impact of plastic straws anymore. Now, plastic is everywhere: the take-out food, the hand sanitizer bottles, the plexiglass that would separate me from my students were I forced to teach face-to-face (which, thanks to my administration, I am not). All semester, my students must spit into a plastic tube twice weekly as part of our campus-wide COVID testing protocol. They must have two negatives every week in order to enter university buildings. After a semester of high percentage of inconclusive tests, on December 4, 2020, the test’s protocol has changed so that they will no longer spit directly into plastic tubes, but will spit through plastic straws into plastic tubes. Just like that, the dependence of everyone upon plastic straws for continued health and mobility has been exposed. 

Although the pandemic would seem in this way to have been a levelling force, putting all students through a regime of medical testing and into greater touch with their vulnerability and mortality, in quieter ways it has been starkly stratifying. The University of Illinois, long lauded for opening Nugent Hall, an accessible dormitory for the physically disabled, and for staffing it with personal assistants through the Beckwith Residential Support Services program, had initially planned to keep Nugent Hall closed when it reopened campus. A petition by Nugent Hall residents and alumni forced the opening of the building, but the university maintained it could not, in the time of COVID, find assistants. But a disabled student resident I spoke with maintained that the real issue was that the university did not want to assume liability as the employer of these assistants. She easily found, and hired, her own. I join the Nugent Hall residents’ call for accountability over this deeply shameful chapter in our university’s history.

This chapter, too, the disability activists foretold. Alice Wong, a disabled writer and activist who depends upon a ventilator, wrote that times of scarcity and system stress provoke familiar conversations over “who is most likely to be saved.”  From triage protocols in overwhelmed hospitals ranking patients by their chance of survival–and starting from the top of that list–to  VIP access to cutting edge treatments, such as the antibody cocktail provided to Donald Trump when he got COVID, a pandemic is not so “pan” in its outcomes. COVID has exacerbated rather than erased already entrenched inequalities along the axes of race, class, and ability.

To this point I have been talking about the issues predominantly affecting the physically disabled. But my particular area of study is psychiatric disability. Because disability is the topic of my course, and students quickly learn that the stigmatization of disability is social (and therefore unnecessary) rather than natural, they are quicker to confide to me how they are really doing. And I would like to report they are not doing well. Anxiety and depression are running rampant, stemming from multiple causes: lack of social interaction; worrying about themselves, friends, parents or grandparents with COVID; and new financial concerns with un- and under-employment. I think of this surge of mental health concerns as the quiet epidemic within the noisier epidemic. 

Universities were already ill-equipped to support the mental health needs of their students. The ratio of counseling staff member to students typically runs near 1600 to 1. It does not even take a specialization in psychiatric disability to see the inadequacy of that figure, considering the incidence of psychiatric impairments in the general population. But courses in disability studies help students see their struggles not as personal failings, but rather as the consequence of a collective ableist imagination of who the typical college student is and is not.

I taught my last class this week and said goodbye to my students from the Fall, telling them to keep in touch. Unlike many professors, I like teaching over Zoom. I don’t find it difficult to connect with my students. It helps to consider that every technology is also an accommodation device. I’ll say that again: Every technology is also an accommodation device.

Every. Single. One. 

Professor Sean Metzger (Theater, Film & Television, UCLA) on Queer Theory – Response by Joe Coyle (Anthropology, UIUC)

[On Tuesday, November 10, Dr. Sean Metzger (Theater, Film & Television, UCLA) presented a lecture on Queer Theory as part of the Modern Critical Theory Lecture Series. Below is a response by Joe Coyle (Anthropology, UIUC)

Thinking Queer Theory Transnationally and Geopolitically
Joe Coyle (Anthropology, UIUC)

Sean Metzger’s Modern Critical Theory Lecture on queer theory traced important genealogies of the term “queer,” especially attending to the transnational as a vector for queer’s travels as theory, as commodity, and as difference. His presentation pushed for an understanding of queer that de-centers Euro-American contexts and epistemologies as the presumptive sites of queer knowledge production.

Metzger began by exploring one strand of queer theoretical production that has largely avoided the transnational, thereby naturalizing a global northernness. He situated the early work of Teresa de Lauretis and Judith Butler within this formation. Metzger identified Butler’s 1993 GLQ essay “Critically Queer” (and her prior work in Gender Trouble) as a major turn in the politics of feminism and the concept of queer. Appearing in the inaugural issue of GLQ, this work challenged the notion of the agential subject by attending to the ways social recognition precedes and conditions the formation of any subject. In this work, Butler develops the concept of performativity. Attempting to correct misreadings of her book, Gender Trouble, especially her discussion of the subversive potential of dragButler writes: “gender performativity is not a matter of choosing which gender one will be today. Performativity is a matter of reiterating or repeating the norms by which one is constituted” (22). Butler clarifies the performativity of queerness: “‘queer’ derives its force precisely through the repeated invocation by which it has become linked to accusation, pathologization, insult” (18). Because her reading of performativity challenges the self-determination of self-naming, Butler anticipates the critiques of queer that would follow, offering that “the critique of the queer subject is crucial to the continuing democratization of queer politics” (19). 

Metzger paired Butler’s work in “Critically Queer” with Neville Hoad’s GLQ article “Between the White Man’s Burden and the White Man’s Disease” (1999) to attend to tensions in queer theoretical production concerning the transnational. While Butler doesn’t attend to discourses outside Euro-American traditions, Hoad considers the transnational production of lesbian and gay human rights discourses in a postcolonial South African context. Addressing the problem of the ostensible “universalism” of gay and lesbian human rights,  he states that “these rights are extrapolated from a category called lesbian and gay identity, or, less specifically, ‘sexual orientation,’ which more often than not fails to map onto the bodily practices or more extensive worlding(s) of the subjects it promises to describe. Rights based on sexual orientation are also the newest particularity in the universalizing human rights legacy of the European Enlightenment” (561). On the other hand, he points out that South African cultural nationalist discourses appealing to tradition to make the case that homosexuality is a dangerous “Western import” disregard these effects on heterosexual practices: “Western cultural influence is equally pervasive in the wider ‘straight’ society…no one labels monogamous heterosexuality a decadent Western import, which, given the historical polygamy of many sub-Saharan societies, it may well be” (564).

To build upon this analysis of queer’s transnational currency, Metzger screened a video segment of the South African queer performance group Pink Money. Pink Money as “performance, party and protest in one” exposes “pink dollar” tourism and discourses of eroticized African difference, interrogating the ways so-called “gay universalism” speaks through the colonial desire for commoditized difference. The clip opened with artist Anelisa Stuurman providing the Swiss audience with a taxonomy of South African lesbian identities, each identity conveyed as a different kind of alcoholic drink, which another Pink Money artist offers to those in the audience to consume. After the audience drinks South African lesbian difference, artist Kieron Jina narrates his experience of being harassed by men in a club in Basel, Switzerland. Jina describes navigating men looking at him like he was “juicy tropical fruit,” a sashaying Grindr match, and a man who calls him Sweet Nefertiti and “puts his knees into pee on the bathroom floor.” “Now I’m a germophobe,” Jina proclaims, “and an African Queen, and when I think about having sex I think of Egyptian white cotton sheets. YOU CAN DO BETTER! I dashed out of there, back to the dance floor… GIRLS! They’re trying to eat me here!” he yells as he runs to the dance floor to begin voguing with the rest of Pink Money

To bring into relief the way histories of transnational violence can also be the source of imagining queer diasporic connection, Metzger turned to Natasha Omise’ke Tinsley’s 2008 article “Black Atlantic, Queer Atlantic.” In an examination of relationalities that emerged at sea through the transatlantic slave trade, Tinsley reads shipmate relationships of enslaved Africans as queer: “Queer not in the sense of a “gay” or same-sex loving identity waiting to be excavated from the ocean floor but as a praxis of resistance. Queer in the sense of marking disruption to the violence of normative order and powerfully so: connecting in ways that commodified flesh was never supposed to, loving your own kind when your kind was supposed to cease to exist, forging interpersonal connections that counteract imperial desires for Africans’ living deaths” (199). Tinsley examines the ways this history is drawn upon by the queer diasporic fictional literature of Maurine Lara and Dionne Brand to “harbor new routes to being, routes neither shielded nor boxed in by doors of hegemonic space, time, and identity” (211).

The final two pieces Metzger considered, Anjali Arondekar and Geeta Patel’s introduction to the GLQ special issue, “Area Impossible: The Geopolitics of Queer Studies” and Kirk Fiereck et al.’s “A Queering-to-Come” took “queer” to task by examining the geopolitics of certain queer theoretical imaginaries. In “Area Impossible,” Arondekar and Patel argue that the citational underpinning of queer theory was and continues to be drawn primarily from the United States. Moreover, they argue, when “invoking non-Euro-American sources, settings, and epistemes as exemplars, queer theory mostly speaks to US mappings of queer, rather than transacting across questions from different sites, colluding and colliding along the way” (152). By arguing for a renewed area studies approach to challenge these epistemological biases, they call for a broadened approach to empire that moves “beyond renewed assertion of US empire and US neoliberalism as the formative impetus for the politics of queer studies,” attends to geographically specific processes of racial formation, and practices a citational culture that does not retrench “particular hegemonic origin sites” of theory production (156, 157). 

Figure 3 First issue of GLQ 

From an African context, Kirk Fiereck, Neville Hoad, and Danai Mupotsa’s “A Queering-to-Come” addresses the geopolitics of queer theory by bringing to the fore “a usable past for both the lived experience and the study of African sexual subjects” and shows how “queer theory elaborated from Africa can inform queer theory’s Euro-American silent ethnocentrisms” (364). The authors propose the concept of the “African queer customary” to show how African sexual subjects inhabit customary practices in queer ways that “contest the secret normativities and ethnocentrisms of Euro-American queer studies scholarship, or even undo some of the heteropatriarchal norms of African ethnonationalisms” (368). 

Metzger concluded his presentation by reflecting on the journal GLQ itself in relation to the transnational. If by the fifth issue of the journal there was a concerted effort to engage the transnational explicitly, Euro-American scholarly norms still shape its modes of knowledge production. The project of engaging forms of queerness that work against the internal norms and logics that comprise Euro-American queer theory remains a pressing concern and points to some of queer theory’s own limits.