CESA 2011 Social Movements plenary liveblog

I had hoped to liveblog more yesterday, but didn’t quite have the energy and sadly missed the beginning of the queer plenary; the #cesa11 Twitter feed has been amazing, though.

The Social Movements and Activism plenary is now beginning. Speakers are Scott Lyons, Andrea Smith, David Lloyd, João Costa Vargas, and Laura Pulido. As yesterday, this is liveblogging, which means I am typing very quickly and may mishear or misquote––please correct anything that seems wrong! I’m trying to capture as much as I can what is said, to archive (never an innocent act, of course) rather than to comment; I will try to make a more thoughtful post-conference blog entry.

Ofelia Cuevas opens by explaining that the keynote is late in beginning because they were stopping police from arresting a 12-year-old boy for stealing plastic from a recycling bin. Critical Ethnic Studies acting in the world.


Scott Lyons.

Any social movement will produce both good and bad; these things are never pure or innocent, and in Native history, never either Indian or white. He has a mistrust of grand narratives––including settler colonialism. It exists, but it doesn’t work in the same way in all places. His students think that it does: they know a story, that the Indians got jacked and a few remnants are reclaiming their cultures. He gets them to look at more historical, specific situations.

That’s what he wants to do here, giving a history about Leech Lake Ojibwe reservation in Minnesota. Mixed and complex population. Dennis Banks organizer of Red Power movement in Lyons’s childhood. He remembers AIM action, passing through an armed checkpoint with his terrified white mother.

Since Red Power, small explosion of development in Leech Lake; 3 gaming facilities; tribe is largest employer in county, operating stores, halfway house, schools, ambulance service, college. He credits improvements in daily life to the pressure of movements like AIM, including making white population aware of formerly invisible Indian existence. Improvements are connected to the movement but the line is not direct. Problems of the area can be connected more directly to historical acts of US govt: treaties and development, eg routing a highway around the area. In the 60s “absolutely nothing was happening” there. Since 60s, poverty is still widespread; crime & chemical abuse and violence that go along with it; racism; environmental effects from unaccountable polluting industry; languages losing speakers.

Leech Lake’s story is told in the media as tragedy; always a problem when this narrative genre is used to tell an Indian story. Demands from the audience emotional catharsis, not social change. Early c20; Charles Eastman produced a narrative that resisted the tragic mode.

3 claims in response to this narrative, in defense of “Leech Lake’s actually existing history.”

1. Most damaging influences come from a history of colonization; colonization defines the existence of the reservation. Reservations are colonized territories and their residents have dual citizenship (American since 1924); they are colonial citizens. On the reservation, rights to American citizenship aren’t the same as elsewhere. US Courts invented “domestic dependent nationhood” status to define status of Indian nations (more authority than state law).

2. Leech Lake possesses tremendous amount of social and cultural difference within–also produced by colonization. No single Ojibwe religion for at least 200 years; to talk about the religions of Ojibwe, must include Catholics, atheists etc. And many languages (he is speaking in one of them now) and races; and no lives that perfectly conform to imagined standards of Ojibweness as a purist would imagine. Feels awkward to make this argument as late as 2011, but still necessary; he wants to talk about what actually is without discrediting it via discourses of assimilation and authenticity.

Conundrum: a program of decolonization seems like the solution to colonization, but this often ends up with enforcing new traditionalisms.

3. Given LL’s historical entanglements w colonization and its internal cultural diversity, any program must start not in the past as we imagine it but squarely in the present: in modernity. With encounter and with colonization. Understudied and underutilized concepts like domestic dependent nationhood are opportunities that could be built upon.


João Vargas Costa

What he has to say about social movements is in the realm of possibilities rather than fully actualized practices: improbable possibilities. Why doesn’t black suffering and death appeal and effectively mobilize beyond a seemingly unique catastrophic moment? Why are black suffering and death forced into conversations that focus on the experiences of nonblacks?

Echoes of a future, maybe present, whose dystopia offers possibilities for freedom. When, reluctantly, non black people become temporariliy, perhaps, of all things, black themselves. The dystopia of black genocide may bring about the almost unthinkable possibilities of nonblack insights; from those who might become soon to be black. The democratizing of experiences concentrated among the Afro-descendant has been almost unthinkable because the connection between blackness and death has formed blackness & rendered it almost impermeable. This is a stretch, a contortion of the imagination, that imagines the dystopia of black death something that would make possible a degree of compelling and sustainable empathy with black people.

The mechanics of what he is trying to imagine are intrinsically antiblack, organizing against the gains of black radical traditions in Brazil and the US. Antiblackness is reaching a saturation point. Antiblack mechanics in range, intensity, times and spaces across which they is are applied makes them morbidly promising. Morbid but promising. Contemporary antiblack technologies inevitably interpellate nonblack bodies. At the limits, they dilute difference into a mass that, because of its imprinted familiarity with social and physical death, becomes a black mass.

Rio de Janeiro police killings: massacre in 2007 before Pan-American Games. What preceded and followed the massacre suggests a state of permanent war, despite Brazil’s alleged racial democracy. 1500 police killings in Rio in 2003, mostly in mostly black areas. 2014 World Cup, 2016 Olympics; Giulani is hired as security adviser; massacres exemplify trends whose numbers even out as evidence of the Brazilian state’s genocidal project. We need to do something about 2016 Olympics; it cannot go down as the South Africa World Cup, as the Olympics in Georgia.

The story cannot go on forever; there are only so many black bodies that can be killed.

Military response against drug dealers in Brazil inevitably affects those not involved in drug commerce. Drug dealers are a fraction of a percent of those who live in neighborhoods undergoing intense policing. What was a focused military intervention, as much about black bodies as about reclaiming black land, spills over; unintended people and neighborhoods are affected.

Shifting to Austin, Texas; a writing workshop in a youth detention facility. He is part of the project and is radicalized by the youth (a workshop on this at 4.30 today). 2008 Texas data: incarcerated youth 26% Anglo (40% overal pop), black youth 26% (15% overall) Latina 50% (44% overall). Latino youth are becoming familiar with the transgenerational logics of incerceration that have long characterised black experiences in the US.

By virtue of forced transgenerational familiarity with the radical dispossession of incarceration, Latino youth in Texas’s dystopia gain insight into the excess of suffering and death that has characterised blackness; an opportinity that presents strategic possibilities beyond black life and death worlds. Those not black, not yet black, are already next in line; black dystopia spreading over other groups.

Hope for a syncope, a shift in worldview, even if contradictory; an expansion of the horizon of political possibilities. A generative crisis as a necessary consequence when the state becomes a naked genocidal machine. Life becomes death and will have to be redefined as death will color its very constitution. Imagining extended sensibilities, altered scales of humanity, freedom.


Laura Pulido

Turning the lens on ourselves: critical ethnic studies scholars and the workplace. Recent events in her own department have forced her to ask hard questions about Ethnic Studies and social movements. Should critical ethnic studies be a social movement? It should have connections to social movements. She was inspired by Andrea Smith’s talk about the revolution, but is also very saddened. As critical ethnic studies scholars, at times, perhaps at this time, we lack social movement capacity–what Ruthie Gilmore calls infrastructure.

She had always been clear what her job as scholar activist is: understanding the truth of how it is for workers, often of color and often immigrant and often surplus, mostly and working to make things better for them. She teaches at USC, the largest private employer in LA; how it treats its workers matters and it has consequences for workers elsewhere in SoCal. She feels responsibility as tenured employee to push for employer to be fair. Will talk about the complexities of this with regard to academic labor.

In looking for new chair for dept, being rejected by the Dean––in dept’s consultative committee decided that Pulido and Halberstam, nominated by dept, would be “unacceptable.” Why were two human beings, two senior scholars, one woman of color & one queer, treated this way? Not just rejected but impersonally so; never mentions names, rendering invisible in memos to dept, just demanding someone “appropriate” via a national search. This is a rejection of critical ethnic studies in favor of an uncritical ethnic studies. A punishment for speaking out in favor of tenure reform? They had been working for an open tenure process, which is part of working for transparency for workers and better working conditions.

Ethnic Studies is not under threat at private institutions like USC that want ethnic studies to help achieve vaunted diversity; but they want it minus the social movements, minus the activism. They don’t want the lens turned on the university as a workplace itself. Enough in the dept are living a version of critical ethnic studies that the institution could not tolerate it.

How to make critical ethnic studies not about counting bodies of color but about addressing power? Do we mobilize only about things we can agree on? That won’t mobilize the revolution we are thinking about. The institution is bigger than any individual; it just keeps moving on, instructions are given, assumption that we will comply, and often we do comply. Demoralizing for students to see teachers, dept, discipline treated this way. Difficult decisions re: what it means to get involved or to get out. This is the process of creating critical ethnic studies; if we don’t do it now, when will we do it?

What do do–reach out to colleagues who are fighting the implosion of the UC system? Organize boycotts? The tenure struggle couldn’t get enough interest to have media attention. Critical ethnic studies’ lacks power–but power is something we can build. Here and now, let’s start building a social movement of critical ethnic studies. Begin with the person next to you, build a network, build contacts. Next time critical ethnic studies is under attack, we will know who to turn to and how to respond.


David Lloyd

Suspend for the moment the pessimism of the intellect and move toward the optimism of the possible. What can we fill a gym for if we can fill it for critical ethnic studies? For divestment from Israeli occupation?

Activism vs scholarship. The work of ethnic studies has been to deconstruct opposition between subject and object of knowledge––from Du Bois on how it feels to be a problem to Denise da Silva’s work on the subject of transparency and affectability. The demands for representation within the university from ethnic studies scholars and activists exceeded their ends; they transforming university and faculty body and threatened to transform the culture of the university. Multiple alternative perspectives shadowed the subject of transparency with its real opacity. How to renew that critical energy in the face of transformation of the liberal state in an epoch of violent accumulation?

History of the commons: struggles about finding the means to life taken from people when the material first commons was enclosed. These include welfare, health, education, more. The second commons, public means to biological live and life in common, all being subjected to neoliberal marketization and privatization.

This time of crisis is a time of abundance. Scarcity is artificially and systematically produced in and through abundance. The subprime crisis was initiated not by a lack but by an excess of finance capital. Where it is projected to spend a trillion dollars on phony wars, there can be no shortage of resources. But crisis is the neuron bomb of capital: it kills all things but preserves property.

Abundance raises the spectre of a possibly just distribution of means rather than expropriation and exploitation. The spectre of abundance haunts the history of colonialism, feared and enclosed and destroyed.

Spenser: out of the abundance of the heart, the tongue speaks. (Spenser supported colonization and genocide of the Irish). A sentiment that we can feel from watching Egypt and Wisconsin, maybe; but Spenser wanted to extirpate abundance. He was among the English that drank in Irishness with the milk of Irish nurses; a fear of an alternative way of life in common that could be read only as idleness, incivility. The pattern set in Ireland would be adapted to genocidal colonialism across the Atlantic.

Scott referred to “perfectly contented nature” of a native living outside capital, with no desire for accumulation. Rather than finding a desert and making it bloom, the settler finds a state of abundance and reduces it to scarcity, to a state of emergency. Its instrument is fear: a state of imaginary siege for the settler.

Adorno wrote to Benjamin that the goal of the revolution is the elimination of anxiety. Aiming at a potential for the abundance of the heart: by the redistribution of the overabundance that capital has already produced, seeking to end the manic overproduction of goods for which capital exploits the planet. As opposed to now, when goods are redistributed upwards to create fear and produce discipline among the dispossessed.

The frenzy of destruction we now live in was unforeseen even in the Communist Manifesto. The violent processes of war and exploitation are one with the system of the university, tied to it systematically. There is no return to the status quo, no return to the University as it was tied to a liberal state form compelled to foster dissent by the ideological conditions of a cold war that is now over. That model proved able to absorb the first ethnic studies, dulling its critical edge by competition for scarce resources. Under the new university regime, the pretense of cultural pluralism falls under the shadow of “excellence” and “diversity”. As the welfare state’s remnants come under assault, the new regime seeks to generalise the colonial model of the state of emergency.

The university has less and less interest in the humanities and critical social sciences as it has less and less use for a critical citizenship as the liberal state withers away. The corporate state has no interest in critique and alternatives, as with Maggie Thatcher it utters “there is no alternative”. So ethnic studies is to be reduced to the empirical study of social problems, or it will be a recreational supplement to applied knowledge along with English––and we will be expected to be profoundly grateful for the largesse of philanthropy.

Critical ethnic studies must seek the language of redistribution, as Angela Davis called years ago for activists not to give up on the language of desegregation. It must break down the enclosures, forging links with social movements. Think from the perspective of the Palestinian call for “right to education”; what they are calling for is an education not merely for professional skills or for qualifications, but for the collective living on of their society. Critical ethnic studies must demand not only a right to enter the situation but a transformation of life itself.

My battery ran out at this point, but Lloyd closed with a call to action for the Palestinian Call for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions against Israeli state violence and occupation.

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