Gaurav Desai: Precarious Futures, Precarious Pasts: Climate, Terror and Planetarity – Response by Brandon Jones

[On October 17, the Unit for Criticism & Interpretive Theory hosted the lecture “Precarious Futures, Precarious Pasts: Climate, Terror and Planetarity” as part of the Fall 2017 Modern Critical Theory Lecture Series. The speaker was Gaurav Desai (University of Michigan). Below is a response to the lecture from Brandon Jones (English)]

Toward Reparative Justice: Climate-Induced Migration, Postcolonial Studies and the Politics of Representation
Written by Brandon Jones (English)

Building on recent efforts by Rob Nixon, Elizabeth DeLoughrey, Dipesh Chakrabarty, and others to expand the purview of postcolonial studies to engage with pressing concerns of ecocriticism, environmental justice, and the Anthropocene, Gaurav Desai issued a rallying cry for the field’s continued political relevance. Framing the talk as a rare instance, for him, of direct political interventionism, he tackled the complex systems of national, social, economic, environmental, and representational factors and consequences involved in global processes of climate-induced migration. In doing so, he made a compelling and practical case for how developed nations can offer hospitality to ecological refugees—forced migrants that do not qualify for the rights and protections of international refugee law, which applies only to political refugees—through practices of reparative justice rather than neo-colonial benevolence and charity.

Desai bookended the talk with a reading of Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies (2008). In the novel, one of the main characters, Deeti, becomes a village pariah in the wake of her husband’s death and finds herself in indentured servitude on a ship bound for Mauritius. Her husband had worked in an opium factory in Uttar Pradesh, and when her companion on the ship hands her poppy seeds, she reflects on how much of her destiny has been shaped by this tiny crop. The seed comes to metonymically represent the range of forces, both natural and social, that have created the conditions of poverty, food scarcity, and displacement that made Deeti’s current plight possible. Not simply a symbol of Deeti’s vulnerability and forced migration, the seed is represented as a material-semiotic participant in the structural, causal chain of events that have brought her here.

Desai Blog image 1This moment in Ghosh’s novel, Desai contended, serves as a timely lens for helping us attend to the increasing impact of climate change and other ecological factors on conditions of forced migration today. Following Ghosh’s reflection on the role of the novel in understanding and engaging with the challenge of climate change in The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (2016), Desai thus began by introducing the climate crisis as “also a crisis of culture, and thus of the imagination” (9). As opposed to the relatively fast-pacing and short temporality that characterizes the human scale of novelistic plots, the natural disasters and climate-induced phenomena we experience today are products of “slow violence,” to use Nixon’s influential term, that have unfolded over long, nonlinear timelines that the novel genre was never designed to represent.

Critical and postcolonial thought, too, encounter a new challenge under the specter of climate change’s deep temporality in terms of what an emancipatory framework for subjects of the developing world might look like. Empire, it seems, may not have been the vehicle of global capital and environmental degradation as it has often been conceived; the uneven manner in which it distributed wealth, industry, and subjectivity around the globe meant that less humans and regions were extracting resources and polluting the environment than would have otherwise. The irony, in other words, is that if justice and equality were more common historically, our planet would be the worse for it. If emancipation in terms of freedom to exercise the autonomy and access the resources of the modern rights-bearing subject means exacerbating climate change, what alternative is there? How can we achieve justice both for those in the developing world who have been denied the opportunity to pollute, as well as for our asphyxiating environment?

Turning to contemporary instances of climate-induced migration, Desai suggested, could be a fruitful strategy for both novelistic representation and postcolonial thought to contemplate what such an alternative emancipatory framework might look like. Considering first the Syrian Civil War and refugee crisis, Desai pointed us toward two different types of narrative responses. The first is the humanitarian and charitable response epitomized in the virality of the image of a drowned Syrian refugee boy on a beach in Turkey. The iconography of the image employs the rhetorical appeal of the spectacle—quick violence resulting directly from a body’s exclusion from the protections of a rights-bearing subject.

The second is an environmental justice response that takes a longer look at how the slow violence of drought and crop failure in the Middle East from approximately 2006-2011 displaced a large rural population from the countryside to the city. This population influx exacerbated tensions between ethnic groups, made it possible for ISIS to control water as a weapon of war, and contributed to Syria’s overall descent into national fragility. Desai additionally pointed us to the ways in which the shrinkage of Lake Chad and subsequent reduction of arable land in Nigeria created conditions of resource insecurity that terrorist groups like Boko Haram could exploit to control and displace vulnerable communities. His point was that it matters which aspects of such conflicts involving forced migration we focus on and narratively represent, for visions of justice and emancipation look markedly different from what we’re used to when we consider the widespread but non-spectacular influence of climate change.

In particular, they shed a sharply critical light on the fundamental inadequacy of our current rights-based legal regimes, and advocate for listening to the discourse, demands, and experience of actual refugees to understand the types of grievances requiring repair. The president of the Pacific Island nation of Kiribati, for instance, which is at a high risk of disappearing due to advanced sea level rise, has rejected the label of “climate refugees,” and by extension the rights-based framework of international law under which the categorization of “refugee” would qualify his nation’s citizens for protection. The president objected to the label because of how it casts his people as victims and downplays their strength and resilience. He opts out of the new identity category because he understands that the citizens of Kiribati have a stake in how they become represented in an emergent discourse.

The people of Kiribati are what Isabelle Stengers calls an “objecting minority” or “objecting public.” Objecting publics exercise “not as their aim but in the very process of their emergence the power to object and to intervene in matters which they discover concern them” (Stengers 160). Instead of being considered “climate refugees,” the people of Kiribati prefer to be trained as “skilled migrants” (Farbotko and Lazrus 383). Rather than charity, benevolence, and modern rights, they are asking those offering hospitality for aid in reconfiguring local practices so they can endure environmental displacement and establish new lives elsewhere. They are asking, in other words, for what Desai termed a more “reparative” form of justice than international refugee law and charitable hospitality allow. They are asking, as were those suffering in the wake of Hurricane Katrina objecting to the connotations of foreignness attached to them through the term “refugee,” for new options of practicing citizenship. These are grievances not against individual acts of spectacular violence, but against a now debunked social contract based on nation-state geopolitics.

Desai concluded by returning to the figure of Deeti in Sea of Poppies. He notes that there is no evidence in the text that she makes use of the poppy seed gifted to her. If only momentarily, it seems she finds a way of moving forward without succumbing once more to the environmental and political conditions of her displacement that the seed represents. These are the figures, and the manner in which they are represented, that Desai calls us to attend more closely to—those “refugees […] without refuge” that force us out of habits and feelings of charitable benevolence toward the displaced (Haraway 100). With more diligent vigilance over who cultivates what parts of the environment and in what ways, we may be able to envision a planetary future that adheres to more reparative principles of justice.


Richard Keller: Life After the Nation-State: Biopolitics and Beyond – Response by Michael Uhall

[On October 10, the Unit for Criticism & Interpretive Theory hosted the lecture “Life After the Nation-State: Biopolitics and Beyond” as part of the Fall 2017 Modern Critical Theory Lecture Series. The speaker was Richard Keller (University of Wisconsin). Below is a response to the lecture from Michael Uhall (Political Science)]

Living with Biopolitical Nightmares
Written by Michael Uhall (Political Science)

Richard Keller raises an urgent question for everyone who wants to understand politics today: Is biopolitics obsolete?

When we talk about biopolitics, we’re talking not only about Michel Foucault’s ambiguous, yet remarkably fertile foray into the historical mutations of power. We’re also talking about an entire research paradigm addressing itself to the capacious and idiosyncratic set of cross-cutting political theories that both criticize and integrate questions about biology and the life sciences. Our biopolitical archives consist of diverse fields ranging from the history of eugenics and racialization to contemporary problematics in bioethics, the medical humanities, and posthumanism. For Foucault, biopolitics refers to the partial transformation of sovereign power into various modes of biopower. He describes sovereign power in terms of direct political authority over death – characterized by him as the power to let subjects live and to make subjects die – whereas biopower articulates itself through anthropometric regimes exemplifying the obverse power to make subjects live and to let subjects die.

Other theorists approach and expand upon biopolitics in a variety of ways: in terms of philosophical narratives exceeding the constraints of modernity’s advent (e.g., Giorgio Agamben, whose eight-volume Homo Sacer series maintains that an originary conceptual distinction between βίος, or bios, and ζωή, or zoe, leads to globally disastrous biopolitical consequences), as a potentially affirmative site of interaction between our largely deracinated political communities and the vital materiality of the body itself (e.g., Roberto Esposito, who describes biopolitical modernity in terms of a self-consuming immunitarian dynamic), and through a broadly postcolonial lens (e.g. Achille Mbembe, who argues that biopower generates itself by imposing conditions of material and social death upon colonial subjects).

Figure 1Figure 1: “Untitled” by Zdzisław Beksiński.

For Keller, however, the question about the relevance of biopolitics today takes shape in a very specific context – namely, in our context, in the conditions of brutal austerity, ecological crisis, political decay, and state failure we observe around the world today. After all, for Foucault, biopower appears as an apparatus or a function of the changing state form, and modernity heralds the transformation of the state into an increasingly biopoliticized regime. Hence, Keller’s questions raises some very interesting additional questions for us to consider. Can or do biopolitical regimes outlive the states that birthed them? Is it meaningful or useful to speak of biopolitics when “traditional” modes of biopower might appear to be eroding? How does biopower articulate itself across torched landscapes and wastelands, through populations that states have lost or failed to track? (A multitude of speculative possibilities suggest themselves here, for we can imagine such failures of mapping either as occasions for the intensification of security regimes or as opportunities for rebellion and refusal. Might we not then read Jorge Luis Borges’s “On Exactitude in Science” as a parable of liberation – and its “Tattered Ruins […] inhabited by Animals and Beggars” as a testament to the failure of biopower to tame or trap the wildness of the world?)

Figure 2
Figure 2: “Untitled” by Zdzisław Beksiński.

Keller addresses some of these questions by examining several intriguing texts, all of which highlight the role and significance of liminality for any new biopolitics after the state. Specifically, he highlights recent work by John M. WillisDebarati Sanyal, and Peter Redfield. In various ways, all of these scholars direct our attention to novel forms of biopolitics that exceed the “normal” conditions of state biopower. Indeed, these three examinations of refugeeism, religious securitarianism, and state failure raise the question of whether or not this strange thing we call biopolitics (it is by now almost a platitude that “biopolitics” is too polysemic to be defined) was ever as European, state-centric, or Western in its diagnostic structure as it appears to be in the Foucauldian discourse.

Something to consider, however – and Keller does discuss this – is the degree to which the fetish for privatization in modern Western culture inflects the domain of biopolitics as we find it. The concern here is that state failures prove vulnerable for corporate opportunism. However, it is certainly true that Foucault himself always sutured together biopolitics and political economy into various hideous historical hybrids of domination. Indeed, even Foucault’s late lectures on the “Birth of Biopolitics” largely concern themselves with the emergence of neoliberalism as cultural form and norm. In this regard, we should wonder about the degree to which biopolitical liminality offers avenues of escape rather than more opportunities for market segmentation. (Potential examples abound: compare Google’s provision of emergency balloons intended to provide Internet access in Puerto Rico with stories of United States soldiers calling firearm customer service hotlines for technical advice during the heat of battle.)

Figure 3
Figure 3: “Untitled” by Zdzisław Beksiński.

I’m reminded of nothing so much as K. W. Jeter’s nightmarish imaginary of future human subjects so biopolitically constrained that they are not even allowed to die – those he refers to in his dystopian cyberpunk novel Noir (1998) as “the indeadted.” The near-future world Jeter depicts could easily be ours, and in many ways, it is. Consider only the afterlife of e-waste and the practices of shipbreaking>. There is no functional government, no state that has not collapsed; the de facto sovereigns of this dying Earth are massive corporations that do not “rule” so much as they sequester themselves within the high temples of profit. All products and services come at a price no one can afford. Consider the following as a snapshot of that future, a future where the wolf flow of climax capitalism binds everyone and everything together in a surveilled economy of infinite productivity from which there no longer appears to be an escape:

The entire economy of the dead – the indeadted – and of the dead territory in which they existed […] varied: there were high-functioning corpses such as McNihil’s wife, and low-level scrabblers such as the ones he had seen from the window of the train coming down here. A lot resulted from whatever shape the particular deceased was in when the reanimating transition was made. If some poor bastard had scoured out his neural pathways with various pharmaceuticals, reduced the cortex in his skull to a red sponge squeezed down to its last endorphins and catecholamines, then all the batteries and add-on sensors and motivational prods that could be retrofitted onto his chill-cased spinal column weren’t going to make him into anything more than a shambling scrap-picker. The little scattered herd of unfortunates out along the tracks used their low-grade but effective skills to pluck out recyclable metals or anything else of possible value from the rubbish heaps that the garbage-laden trains dumped off twice a day. Cheaper to let the idiot dead scavenge and collect, in their slow, hunched way, than spend the money for automated scanning machinery to do the same thing. Which proved that being in trouble was a relative thing. McNihil felt an old horror, familiar enough to be almost comfortable, deep at the floor of his gut, when he saw the pickers and scavengers going about their black-fingered rounds, like crows minus even a bird’s intelligence. But they didn’t seem to mind it. Rooting around for scraps of aluminum foil, the still-shiny tracings off busted circuit boards, probably didn’t even bring in enough to service the interest on whatever debt load they had died carrying. “Died” in that other world, the one the officially living inhabited. So most of them – short of coming across some lucky find, maybe an ancient collectible Lone Ranger and Trigger lunch-box at the bottom of some unexplored slag-pile – were actually just scrabbling themselves deeper into debt, becoming more truly indeadted with every bent-spined raking of splintered fingernails across the mulching discards of the world they were no longer part of. They could go like that for decades, McNihil knew. With no cellular regeneration, the scavengers would wear away their hands against the corrosive, sharp-edged trash, until they were poking through it with the stumps of their forearms, their backs permanently fused into perfect half-circles. And beyond: dismaying rumors circulated, of the torsos of unlucky deadtors scrubbed free of all limbs, chests dryly flayed to breastbones and spidery ribs, the exposed batteries draining down to the last feeble amperage fraction. […] Being in the territory of corpses made it difficult to put away the grim images. Of worse things yet, of poor bastards worn down to ragged skulls, trailing an umbilicus of batteries after them as they inched their way across the bleak landscape with little motions of their dirty-white jawbones. Digging out glittery bits of old gum wrappers with their eroded incisors, nudging like dung beetles their little wads of recyclable detritus to the redemption center at the zone’s border, making another meaningless nick at the tab they’d accumulated in that other, pre-death life. Like Marley’s ghost, dragging around a chain whose links were instead forged out of the enticing perishables of the cheap-’n’-nastiverse… (87-88)






Jodi Dean: “From Allies to Comrades” – Response by Benjamin D. O’Dell

[On October 9, the Unit for Criticism & Interpretive Theory hosted the lecture “From Allies to Comrades” as part of the Fall 2017 event series. The speaker was Jodi Dean (Hobart and William Smith Colleges). Below is a response to the lecture from Benjamin D. O’Dell, English]

“From Allies to Comrades”: What’s in a Name?
Written by Benjamin D. O’Dell (English)

Figure 1. Jodi Dean, The Communist Horizon (2012), Verso.

Leftists have long been divided on the subject of whether the diversity of groups within the left’s political coalition undermine or advance meaningful political action.  For those who sympathize with a Marxist point of view, categories like race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation are often thought to divert attention away from the material struggles that play a more determinant role in a Marxist view of society.  Jodi Dean has renewed this debate in light of our current political landscape.  Her talk “From Allies to Comrades,” both identified the limitations of a divided left and made the case for the value of the term “comrade” as a foundation for a more decisive form of political engagement.

Dean— who previously spoke at the Unit for Criticism’s conference on Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture at 25:  Theories for the New Millennium” in September 2013—sees the American left largely divided between “survivors and systems.” “Survivors” refers to the identity politics and theories of intersectionality that animate things like LGBT activism and the work of social justice movements such as Black Lives Matter.  “Systems” denote the left’s preoccupation with the apocalyptic dimensions of climate change and environmental devastation.  For Dean, the opposition between “survivors and systems” produces a left devoid of a coherent political platform; instead we find either the assertion of particularity, an emphasis on the unique survival of individual groups, or an obsession with the impossibility of survival.  Yet more and more, she believes that individuals on the left are recognizing the limits of the political practices that have organized the preceding generation.  In addition, new methods of communication including hashtags and memes have become a tool for breaking through the noise of previously entrenched talking points.  In her talk, Dean argued that these trends present the opportunity for a renewal of communist thinking via the idea of the “comrade,” a term that signifies a sense of belonging that cuts through the determinations wrought by the present.

Dean presented four interrelated theses in her talk:  first, that the “comrade” names a generic relation between individuals that is characterized by sameness, equality and trust; second, that “everybody” (but not “anybody”) can be a comrade; third, that the individual is “the other” of the comrade; and fourth, that the relationship between comrades is mediated by their relationship with truth.  The connection between these theses is perhaps best understood in the example Dean provides from Greta Garbo’s role in the 1939 comedy Ninotchka.  In that film, Garbo plays a no-nonsense Soviet envoy who is sent to Paris to steer three Russian officials back on track after they become seduced by western capitalism.  When Garbo’s character arrives at the Paris train station, the three men who have been told to receive the envoy but not given the name of the person, mill about the platform looking for “their man” before they realize that the comrade they are waiting for is, in fact, a woman.  On screen, the men’s surprise is used to invoke just how far they have slipped into the realm of western decadence.  When the men apologize for not bringing the envoy flowers, she sternly warns them not “to make an issue” of her womanhood.  Shortly thereafter, when they attempt to secure a porter to carry her bags, she rejects their offer and declares that the porter’s labor is a form of “social injustice” (to which the porter humorously replies, “That depends on the tip!”).

NinotchkaFigure 2. Ninotchka (1939), MGM.

In her talk, Dean used this scene to illustrate that, in its purest form, comradeship is not about a personal connection or similarity between individuals.  Rather, it is about a fidelity to certain political truths.  It involves a rigorous engagement to collectivity and an abandonment of oneself in the unfolding of the consequences of this commitment.  Although often confused with certain attributes (such as “the man” the Russian officials await in Ninotchka), “comrade” is a term that refers to a kind of generalized sameness that cannot be marked in terms of race, gender, ethnicity, nationality, or personality.  Being a comrade does not require an uniformity of identity but rather an expectation of reliant, consistent, and practicable action in pursuit of a common purpose.  The comrade is, thus, in Dean’s view, a figure that facilitates political action.

The Q&A following Dean’s talk found many in the audience questioning the history of the term “comrade” in various cultural contexts.  While listeners were intrigued with the idea of a term that could cut through contemporary social divisions, many were unsure that “comrade” could shoulder that weight.  How, one audience member asked, can a term like “comrade” be reclaimed in a place like Cuba, where the term has often carried notions of difference, exclusion, and separation, particularly in regards to members of the LGBT community?  Others noted the ironic usage that the term has acquired in other Latin American nations.  While acknowledging these histories, Dean remained committed to the necessity of reviving the best parts of the emancipatory and egalitarian struggles that are wrapped up in the idea of the “comrade.”  She suggested that in a crowded media sphere like today, one cannot simply create new terms.  Instead, we must occupy old forms and redeploy them for present struggles.










Geoffrey Bennington: “Derrida and Deconstruction” – Response by Patrick Fadely

[On October 3, the Unit for Criticism & Interpretive Theory hosted the lecture “Derrida and Deconstruction” as part of the Fall 2017 Modern Critical Theory Lecture Series. The speaker was Geoffrey Bennington (Emory University). Below is a response to the lecture from Patrick Fadely, English]

“The Logic of the Trace”
Written by Patrick Fadely (English)

palimpsestOne of the complaints sometimes lodged against deconstuction as a mode of critique is that it has little to say about the ‘real world’, that its focus on language and textuality makes it liable to overlook pressing social, political, and ethical problems. Professor Geoffrey Bennington’s talk showed the opposite to be true, and demonstrated how Jacques Derrida’s descriptions of the structure of language carry over into other domains, providing valuable insights into such exigent issues as political sovereignty and the ethical relation to other. Through his exceptionally lucid explication of deconstruction’s interest in language qua writing, Professor Bennington provided a sound introduction for those unfamiliar with Derrida, and at the same time presented a compelling argument that Derrida’s wide-ranging corpus can be thought of as a series of meditations on the logic of the trace.

In order to understand the significance of Derrida’s thought, Bennington pointed out, it is helpful to start with Ferdinand de Saussure, whose reflections on language gave rise to the “linguistic turn” in twentieth-century philosophy. Saussure’s name is often associated with the dictum that the relationship between a word (the signifier) and its meaning (the signified) is wholly arbitrary—that there is no inherent reason to call a leafy, fruit-bearing plant a “tree,” rather than “árbol” or “Baum” or, for that matter, “table.” But this had been established well before Saussure, and was really only a starting point for his thinking about language. From this observation follows a question about the identity of the sign: given that the sign does not get its identity by virtue of its relationship to the thing it signifies (because that relationship is wholly arbitrary), where can we say this identity comes from? It cannot be the result of some primal scene of agreement on shared conventions, because language is always already inherited and handed down. The radical implications of this question—which Saussure eventually backed away from, but which Derrida took as fundamental—is that the identity of the sign arises only by a relation of difference between itself and all other signs.


Deconstruction, Bennington explained, radicalizes this insight: once we have accepted that all meaning is the result of differential relations among signifiers, we are led to the conclusion that difference and absence must play as much of a role in our thinking about language as do identity and presence. This Derridean radicalization of Saussure’s insight inaugurates the logic of the trace, which served as the central concept in Bennington’s talk. In the logic of the trace, the presence of meaning is brought into being and accounted for by the play of a spectral and dynamic force field of differences—that is, traces. If we apply the logic of the trace to the field of language in general, then the structure of language comes to seem more in line with what has traditionally been said of writing (it bears witness to an absence, lacks vital motivating intention, and is subject to mechanical repetition) than what has traditionally been said about speech (it bears witness to a presence, is alive with the speaker’s intention, and exists uniquely in the moment of its utterance). If applied to politics, this same logic reveals that what we think of as sovereignty depends upon a prior set of internal and external relations that tends to dissolve the self-identity of sovereign power. When applied to the subject, the logic of the trace means that the self only emerges through a prior (ethical) relation among Others—that what we call the self is in fact always already an other. In all these areas, Bennington’s talk showed, these markers of identity—the sign, the nation-state, the subjective self—are compromised, spectralized, hollowed-out and in principle ‘defeated’ by the ‘others’ that bestow and disrupt their identification.

90df942fce11bc47110b7cc57d7633c8The Q&A raised several interesting issues. For example: is it not the case that we human beings are the agents that make meaning? Do we not stand outside the textuality of the real and establish is significance? Professor Bennington demurred, saying that although it is always tempting to try to find some meaning or agency that transcends the play of signification, it will always be pulled back into that orbit, if only because its entire raison d’etre is to put an end to the endless dynamism of difference. Professor Vicki Mahaffey asked about the relationship between deconstruction and psychoanalysis: couldn’t it be said that much of what Derrida posits about the logic of the trace bears a more than passing resemblance to what Freud (and, later, Lacan) describe in the relationship between conscious and subconscious, in which identity is based upon a prior relation to difference, and wherein intent and meaning are always haunted by unintended significance? Here Bennington pointed to Derrida’s reading of Rousseau in Of Grammatology, where Derrida insists repeatedly that he is not doing a psychoanalytic reading—a gesture of refusal that will be familiar to readers of Freud and Lacan, and one that hints at a deep connection between the work of deconstruction and the work of psychoanalysis.

Toward the end of his prepared remarks, Professor Bennington had playfully staked out a ‘categorical imperative’ for deconstruction: “Be hospitable to the event of the arrival of the other in general; and be inventive when you can.” His talk met both demands admirably. 

Jennifer Doyle: "Sex, Paranoia & the Workplace" – Response by Tim Dean

[On March 30, the Unit for Criticism & Interpretive Theory hosted the lecture “Sex, Paranoia & the Workplace” The speaker was Jennifer Doyle, Professor of English at UC-Riverside. Below is a response to the lecture from Tim Dean, Professor of English.]

Response to Jennifer Doyle’s “Sex, Paranoia & the Workplace”
by Tim Dean, Professor of English

Jennifer Doyle and I met for the very first time today; but I have admired her work for over a decade, and all the more so after reading her recent book, Campus Sex, Campus Security (published by Semiotext(e) in 2015).  One of the things I admire most is her capacity to keep the critical lens focused on sex, especially at a time when the field of Queer Studies has retreated from the difficulties of thinking sex in favor of other objects of study.  From her first book, titled Sex Objects: Art and the Dialectics of Desire (2006), Professor Doyle has focused on how libidinal energies and impasses shape the cultural and social fields.  This focus strikes me as deeply psychoanalytic, even when Doyle steers clear of particular psychoanalytic methods and vocabularies.  In my remarks today, I want to situate her reading of Freud’s “Case of Paranoia” in relation to her work as a whole, before opening the floor to discussion.  I would like to articulate a number of observations and questions, but I will try to be brief.

In both her reading of Freud’s case and her recent book, Doyle is interested in the desires, anxieties, and disavowals that structure the workplace—including our workplaces at public universities.  In her reading of Freud, she has an explanation for why the workplace has become intolerable for the woman in question.  And in her book Campus Sex, Campus Security, she has an explanation for why our working conditions at public universities have increasingly become intolerable.  But they are not the same explanation, even though both turn on “sex.”

In her reading of Freud’s case, Doyle raises the possibility of a non-pathological paranoia—what she calls “a healthy kind of paranoia.”[1]  When conditions are structured to prevent a certain possibility for a particular class of persons in the workplace (here, women), then something like a paranoid response appears reasonable.  Calling it “paranoia” is a way of de-legitimizing the response, a way of denying that what the woman has perceived is real.  It’s all in her head.  Doyle is right to claim that, no, it’s not all in her head, it’s structured into the conditions of her workplace by the gendered division of labor.  The woman in Freud’s case, quite apart from the “revenge porn” scenario she conjures avant la letter, is perceiving something that the professional men involved staunchly disavow, namely, the workplace as a sexual space.

But what exactly does it mean to describe the workplace as a sexualspace?  It means something different in Doyle’s reading of Freud than it does in her reading of public university campuses in the 21st century United States.  In her reading of Freud, Doyle draws on a particular Italian Marxist-feminist account of labor—associated with Silvia Federici and Leopoldina Fortunati—to argue that the woman in Freud’s case is caught in the contradictions that structure the capitalist division of labor between production (in the workplace) and reproduction (outside the workplace).  In this schema, sex is “not only administered as that which ‘happens’ outside the sphere of work; it is positioned as ‘the opposite’ of work.”[2]  There is thus no conceptual space for accommodating sex in the workplace and, indeed, no possibility of acknowledging sex as itself a form of work.  This is one way of explaining why our society cannot really think through the category of sex work—and why male sex work in particular seems to short-circuit rational thought.  To grasp how sex and work are not each other’s opposites likewise obliterates the distinction between pleasure and labor that organizes Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1930).

At the end of her reading of Freud, Doyle refers to “the collective disavowal of the fact that ‘work’ is always already sexed.”[3]  Here, I believe the term “sexed” means gendered—i.e., the workplace is structured by a gendered division of labor that uniquely disadvantages women.  I have no quarrel with that claim, but I worry about how the term “sex” has slid from meaning something libidinal—sex as in fucking—to meaning sexual difference, sex as a term European feminists use where we would be more likely to use the term gender.  The fact, as Doyle puts it, that “‘work’ is always already sexed” is not the same as saying that the workplace is a sexual space.

Another way of articulating my concern would be to say that the Marxist feminist critique of the gendered division of labor, valuable though it is, keeps in place a distinctly heterosexual paradigm for understanding sex.  That paradigm makes it harder to see how, for example, same-sexsexual harassment functions in the workplace or on campus.  When gender difference organizes your concept of sexuality, certain things become invisible, or much harder to perceive.  This is a problem with the intellectual tradition Doyle is drawing upon in her reading of Freud; but it’s a problem that does not appear in her book Campus Sex, Campus Security, where she uses the term “sex” differently.

What Doyle describes as a collective disavowal of the libidinal dimension of the workplace takes an historically specific, neoliberal form on contemporary college campuses.  In my view, that disavowal helps to explain how queer theory, once it became institutionalized in the university, stopped paying attention to sex.  In the mid-1980s, Gayle Rubin announced—in an article (“Thinking Sex”) that inaugurated the field—that “The time has come to think about sex.”  But by the end of the millennium, queer theorists had simply decided they would prefer not to.  Jennifer Doyle represents a notable exception to that institutional retrenchment, and I am profoundly grateful for the searching brilliance of her latest book. 

One of the things Campus Sex, Campus Security makes evident is how “sex” has become what renders the campus and its administrators insecure.  The most acceptable campus discourse about sex is how to stop it from happening.  In the latest incarnation of a Foucaultian nightmare, sex has become something that must be, above all, administered.[4]  Outside of biology labs, there is virtually no space on campus for actually thinking sex.  There are plenty of campus spaces for thinking about how to getsex.  And every campus has multiple sites for engaging intellectually with questions of gender (even though those sites tend to be under-resourced and under attack).  But if you’re searching for a place on campus to theorize human sexuality apart from a biological model, you are basically out of luck.   

Sex is not supposed to contaminate the campus as a workplace.  Now, when I went to college in the 1980s, it was precisely in order to have sex (and perhaps secondarily to reflect on what that meant).  All my undergraduate feminist friends talked incessantly about which professors they wanted to shag; as students we speculated endlessly, and in minute detail, about what various faculty members would be like in bed.  I’m not sure how much has changed since then (you tell me); but what has changed is the growth of a large and complex bureaucracy to administer sexual complaints.  At universities such as the ones Doyle describes in her book, the campus bureaucracy has become increasingly militarized, not to mention paranoid about securing boundaries in a way that deserves to be diagnosed as pathological.  (We are not talking here about “a healthy kind of paranoia.”)

When my college friends and I generated a discourse whose sole object was our professors’ sex lives, we did so as a result of the phenomenon that Freud named transference.  “He whom I suppose to know, I love.”  Transference is a psychoanalytic term for describing the libidinal energies that pervade relationships structured hierarchically.  Transference is the engine that drives psychoanalysis in a clinical setting and it permeates hierarchical institutions such as schools.  It’s a way of talking about the libidinal component of our relationship to authority.  I would argue that sex haunts the workplace in large part because transference goes unrecognized and unacknowledged.  Freud said that the essence of psychoanalysis lay in handling the transference.  One might say that the essence of teaching lies similarly in handling the transference that permeates pedagogical relationships.  When a teacher or a student fail to recognize that what’s happening between them is transferential, that’s when they are most likely to end up having sex.  And by now we have a pretty good idea of how that story ends.

Let me redescribe what I’m trying to get at here.  In the Marxist-feminist critique of the division of labor that Doyle invokes, there is a division between production and reproduction that creates an impasse for women in the workplace and fails to acknowledge certain kind of labor as labor.  Partly in response to this impasse, Italian Marxist philosophers such as Maurizio Lazzarato and Antonio Negri have developed the concept of immaterial laborto describe “labor that produces an immaterial good, such as a service, a cultural product, knowledge or communication.”[5]  In my own research on sex work, I’ve been using the idea of immaterial labor to think through forms of affective labor, aesthetic labor, and glamourlabor.  What psychoanalysis adds to this account of immaterial labor is the crucial idea of unconscious labor—the work that our minds do, in the service of pleasure, unbeknownst to us.  (Freud uses the term arbeit, the basic German word for work, to describe this mental labor)  We might say that the unconscious is the ideal laborer of capitalism because our minds continue working even when we’re asleep.  What they produce is a called a dream—an immaterial product if ever there were one.

Transference is a way of talking about the unconscious component of all human relationships that are structured hierarchically.  It acknowledges that there is another kind of work going on, work that is intentional but eclipsed by consciousness.  The workplace is a sexual space because every human being who occupies that space is accompanied by a ghost, namely, their unconscious.

[1]Jennifer Doyle, “Rethinking a Case of Paranoia as a Workplace Complaint,” Studies in Gender and Sexuality, vol.18, no.1 (2017), 10.
[2]  Doyle, “Rethinking,” 11.
[3]  Doyle, “Rethinking,” 12.
[4]  Here Doyle’s account recalls political anthropologist David Graber’s brilliant critique of contemporary bureaucracy in The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy (2015).
[5]  Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Harvard University Press, 2000), 290.

A State with No Budget (with apologies to America)

By James Treat, Associate Professor, Religion

On the first part of the journey
I was looking at all the life
There were plants and birds and rocks and things
There was sand and hills and rings
The first thing I met was a gov with a buzz
And the sky with no clouds
The heat was hot and the ground was dry
But the air was full of sound
I’ve been through the college in a state with no budget
It felt good to be out of the money
In the college you can remember your debt
‘Cause there ain’t no one for to give you no funds
La, la, . . .
La, la, . . .
After two years in the college sun
My face began to turn red
After three years in the college fun
I was looking at a river bed
And the story it told of a river that flowed
Made me sad to think it was dead
You see I’ve been through the college in a state with no budget
It felt good to be out of the money
In the college you can remember your debt
‘Cause there ain’t no one for to give you no funds
La, la, . . .
La, la, . . .
After nine terms I let the state run free
‘Cause the college had turned to work
There were plants and birds and rocks and things
There was sand and hills and rings
The world is a college with its life underground
And a perfect disguise above
Under the cities lies a heart made of stone
But the leaders will give no love
U-C I’ve been through the college in a state with no budget
It felt good to be out of the money
In the college you can remember your debt
‘Cause there ain’t no one for to give you no funds
La, la, . . .
La, la, . . .

Anita Say Chan: "Technological Futures & Networked Time at the Periphery" – Response by Gabe Malo & elizaBeth Simpson

[On March 13, the Unit for Criticism & Interpretive Theory hosted the lecture “Technological Futures & Networked Time at the Periphery.” The speaker was Anita Say Chan, Associate Professor of Media & Cinema Studies and the Institute of Communications Research at UIUC. Below is a response to the lecture from Gabe Malo & elizaBeth Simpson (Institute of Communications Research).]

“Seeing Spaces: Re-centering Peripheries”
Written by:
Gabe Malo (ICR): Lecture, Q&A, and Conclusion
elizaBeth Simpson (ICR): Introduction and Response

Prof. Anita Say Chan was introduced by Prof. Cameron McCarthy, who praised her “consistently stellar and brilliant scholarship and intellectual forward motion.” McCarthy began his remarks by drawing a contrast between W.W. Rostow’s five-stage theory of modernization development, and Chan’s work which “contributes to subaltern efforts to rethink contemporary center-periphery relations in the digital age.” In particular, he took up her book, Networking Peripheries: Technological Futures and the Myth of Digital Universalism in which she “explores cultural imaginaries of global digital connections expressed in Peru and the rising zones of subjugated and artisanal knowledges in transnational peripheries and in the rapidly transforming globalizing context of post-development states.” He placed Chan among feminist scholars such as Ien Ang, Saskia Sassen, and Doreen Massey, noting that Chan takes up James Carey’s call to assert the public significance of her work, and in so doing “to expand the field of reference in academic discourse.” 

Source: MIT Press
Anita Say Chan is Associate Professor in Media and Cinema Studies and the Institute of Communications Research. She is also Faculty Leader of the INTERSECT Learning to See Systems Research Group and Faculty Co-Leader of the Recovering Prairie Futures IPRH Research Cluster

Lecture: Technological Futures and Networked Time at the Periphery
The talk began with Prof. Chan considering the notion of the technological periphery not only in its stabilized dimensions but also in its temporal dimensions. She argued that the relation between the technological “center”—places like Silicon Valley—and the technological “periphery” is largely shaped by the relations of labor, tech, and power to particular real and imaginary temporalities. Her talk focused on Peru as a site for digital culture in order to critique the physical and temporal localities that place it on the technological periphery in Euro-centric paradigms. Such a conception, she stated, ignored the advancements and adaptations which have occurred on the technological periphery. 

She opened her presentation with a discussion of the One Laptop Per Child program, which was widely embraced by Peru at the time of its expansion, before turning to the more recent incursion of Intel and Hewlett-Packard on the scene as part of 2014’s Encuentro Internacional Virtual Educa which was sponsored by the Peruvian Ministry of Culture. Such encounters seemed on the surface to reinforce the standardized temporal relationality between the technological periphery and the technological center; however, Prof. Chan’s analysis illustrated the fundamental disconnect between the real and imaginary temporalities that exist on the technological periphery. 

The temporality of Peru, in the Western imagination, is largely based in the past, whereas the trappings of technology are placed within imaginaries of the future. In this comparison, Prof. Chan drew parallels between her approach and that of Latin American scholars like Walter Mignolo, who argued that sites such as Peru that are on the periphery are conceptualized as being outside history. These temporal stereotypes—those of a place without history, or a place in need of guiding technologicalization—are challenged by the actual experience of technology in the Peruvian sites of Prof. Chan’s study. For instance, Peruvian educators did not unquestioningly adopt the technologies presented at Encuentro Internacional Virtual Educa; instead, ideas of forcing accelerated adoption of new technology have been met by resistance as individuals instead attempt to rework dominant logic and tempos of technological economy according to their collective diversities, needs, and histories. These histories—both long-distant and quite recent—have frequently been ignored by those who are writing the codified histories of technological innovation.
Caption: A Scene from Encuentro Internacional Virtual Educa in Lima, 2014
Source: Wikimedia Commons

It was with this idea of history that Prof. Chan closed her talk, drawing both upon her experiences with technological practices in Peru and her experience as a member of the Prairie Futures group, which considers the technological significance of and contributions from the American Midwest, a peripheral place in relation to putative US centers of technological innovation such as Silicon Valley or MIT. Prof. Chan focused on Peruvian hackerspaces as examples of the uncomfortable and fraught frictions that occur when the temporalities of technological space intersect with traditional and local temporalities. In discussing these spaces, she was able to show that such frictions are not irreconcilable; modes of communication central to the Andean world, such as rituals, were made central within hackerspaces, and these practices opened the door for productive consideration of the relationalities between technology, humankind, nature, and that which is uncontrollable through humankind’s interventions. These intersections and new relationalities, Prof. Chan argued, represent ways in which history can be remembered, and through which the periphery can be seen as contributing to the technological landscape, rather than being eclipsed by it.

Response: Intentional Interdisciplinarity
Emily Knox, Assistant Professor of Information at the School of Information Sciences at UIUC, author of Book Banning in 21st Century America, and 2015 recipient of the Illinois Library Intellectual Freedom Award delivered the response to Prof. Chan’s talk. 

Positioning her talk at the intersection of technological pasts, futures, and makerspaces, Prof. Knox introduced the concept of “disruption,” and unpacked the meaning of “informatics.” She described her presentation as having three anchors: people, information, and technology, particularly technology-in-the-world. Placing emphasis on the importance of story collecting in the information sciences, Prof. Knox returned numerous times throughout her presentation to the need for intentional interdisciplinarity, asking, “How do you give people access?” and “How do you offer the tools you have to others?” As example, she provided histories of technology-as-tool at UIUC including computer-based information retrieval circa 1966 and synchronous online education courses beginning in 1996.

Source: Makerspace Urbana
Using hacker/makerspaces as points of access, Prof. Knox then made connections to Prof. Chan’s work of critically evaluating so-called technological peripheries, bringing specific attention to ethical concerns about gender in these spaces, which so often replicate dominant norms of white masculinity. Referencing support for blended practices at Makerspace Urbana (e.g. cross stitching with conductive thread and LEDs) as an example of intentional interdisciplinarity, Prof. Knox then engaged the mission statement and anti-harassment policy of Makerspace Urbana as a pivot to emphasize the challenging but vital work of engaging foundational inquiries such as “what can we do to make sure the space is more inclusive?” when conceiving projects but also at points of transition. Demonstrating inclusivity in action, Prof. Knox closed by inviting attendees to visit Makerspace Urbana and consider learning to solder (“it’s very easy, it opens up a whole new world of electronics to you, I promise”); to participate in Heartland Makerfest as an attendee or table host; or to provide input as to how Makerspace Urbana can avoid de facto gender segregation as it expands into a second room. 

Follow-up questions to both the main lecture and the response centered on the multiple sensibilities within local (and extrapolated global) contexts. When asked a question about the sensibilities of solidarity and safe spaces in the current political moment, Prof. Chan pointed towards Donna Haraway’s conception of situated knowledge. She also gestured towards work on networks of care and feminist science as examples illustrating the importance of visibilizing not only data, but the labor that goes into the presentation of that data, and placing that visibility as critical to creating such spaces effectively. The visibility of old technologies in a modern context was also interrogated and brought into local contexts, with Prof. Knox discussing the care and mindfulness utilized when deciding which technologies to include in Makerspace Urbana. Also in this vein, a question about the uniqueness of studying Peru as an example of the technological periphery was answered via comparisons to the overlooked-but-vital centrality of the Midwest in the development of information technology. After the lively Q&A session adjourned, many of the participants—as well as the speakers—left to attend Cyberfest at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications.