#ASA2012 panel notes: Difference Incorporated

Another set of notes/transcripts from a wi-fi-less panel at American Studies. As before, these notes are my interpretation of the participants’ words and may be misguided. Contact them or read their books for clarification…


Difference Incorporated

Chair: Grace Kyungwon Hong (UCLA)
Panelists: Erica Edwards (UC Riverside)
Fatima El-Tayeb (UCSD)
Roderick Ferguson (U of Minnesota Twin Cities)
Habiba Ibrahim (U of Washington Seattle)
Jodi Melamed (Marquette U)

Grace Kyungwon Hong chair and moderator.

Intro to the panel and to the Difference Incorporated book series with U of Minnesota Press: editors are Hong and Roderick Ferguson. Immense important work of Richard Morrison (in audience), who had the idea. Series features work on political, epistemological, intellectual challenges we face in this moment where forms of precarity and violence that have always been diferentially dispersed by race, gender, sexualty, are exacerbated rather than alleviated by new processes of affirmation/recognition of difference.

Work that emerged out of interdisciplinary fields (AS, Ethnic Studues, WGS, queer theory, postcolonialism) that emerged in concert w liberation struggles of C20. We are indebted to these fields and movements but our contemorary conditions challenge us to come up with new languages, strategies. To rethink vocabs and analytics we have inherited from earlier histories. Interventions have been institutionalised in ways that privilege definitions of power and institutional hegemony in repressive relationship to minoritised difference. Liberation is understood as affirmation of minority difference — yet in response to these movements we see new forms of racial and gendered power that works through the affirmation of difference in addition to repression and marginalisation. Expansion of bourgeous classes & working class/poor counterparts regulated by elite community members; expansion of minoritised life for some depends on the exacrbation of social death for others. How to characterise what race, gender, sexuality means? What methodologies must be used to enage with these processes?

5 authors today have taken on these challenges, exciting and innovative. Each will discuss their book and then open up for discussion.

Erica Edwards, Assoc Prof of English at UC Riverside. Author of Charisma and the Fictions of Black Leadership; second project on African American lit and the war on terror.

Fatima El Tayeb, Assoc Prof of Literature at UCSD & UCHRI fellow. Author of European Others: Queering Ethnicity in Postnational Europe.

Roderick Ferguson, Prof of American Studies at U of Minnesota. Aberrations in Black: Toward a Queer of Color Critique; coeditor of Strange Affinities; book came out yesterday The Reorder of Things: the University and its Pedagogies of Minority Difference

Habiba Ibrahim, Assoc Prof of Lit at U of Washington. Author of Troubling the Family: The Promise of Personhood and the Rise of Multiracialism.

Jodi Melamed, Assoc Prof of English & Africana Studies at Marquette U, Fulbright fellow in Berlin this year. Represent and Destroy: Rationalizing Violence in the New Racial Capitalism; new project Capitalist Metabolisms on biofinancialisation.

Erica Edwards.
Each writer in the series modeled the work that she wans to do, the kind of presence in the world that she aspires to.

Placing her book in context. Theorising how Af Am lit since WW1 has restaged & productively disrupted “charisma” scenario for Af Am masculinisation. Simultaneous engagement & disengagemnt with idea that social change is only possible in presence of charismatic black male leadership. Charisma seen as phenomenology or as a structure of authority; for her it is a storytelling regime, a set of performative prescriptions, covering over a matrix of liberatory impulses that compel and contain black movements for social change.

Sometimes unwelcoming homes for black feminist critique: ethnic studies, women’s & gender studies, performance studies, cultural studies. Book is aligned with classic black feminist texts like the Combahee River Collective Statement; more immediate precursors include Hazel Carby’s Race Men.

Liberatory and disciplinary potentials of charisma matter in context of the series’ central problem, power’s operation through affirmation of difference. Finessing the story of incorporation. An example: Oprah Winfrey on the Obama campaign. She introduced him to a mostly black crowd as the fulfillment of freedom dreams of black liberation: “Dr King dreamed a dream, but we can vote it into reality.” Conjuring a scene of messianic longing and offering Obama as messianic fulfillment. Book and movie [missed title] quote: “is he the one?” “I do believe that ve is the one.” Winfrey as John the Baptist to Obama’s Jesus. The one who would restore stability in the wake of economic crisis; the package of the president authorised by fiction.

“Obama time”: appearance of charismatic leader called up history of black civil rights leadership, while casting figures like Jesse Jackson as remnants, out of time. New black leadership as wholly within establishment; a clash of gifted sons and prodigal fathers. Racial difference spectacularised within context of American empire.


Fatima El Tayeb

Thanks to everyone involved in series; if you work on race, you are usually the odd one out, so it’s exciting to have a community.

Working on Europe is particular in a sense that western Europe is often lumped together with US as “west”: but there are important differences. The management of race is quite different in Europe, east and west, than in the US. Most Europeans explain that by assuming that race is not relevant in Europe; difference incorporated means an incorporated difference within the west, Euro narrative in which a main difference from the US is the importance of race (another is the importance of religion). Europe appears as colorblind and secular by contrast, especially NW Europe, which identifies itself as the “real” Europe.

Myth of Euro colorblindness related to myth of post racial US. Europe as always where others are already moving to. Hard to challenge this story from within continental framework that constantly externalised race as that which doesn’t need to be theorised; no theory of racialization has come out of the European context, where intense focus is on class. Ironic since class is deeply racialized in Europe.

Book’s goal: find a theorisation for European processes of raclaialisation, to show that this story of colorblindness produces a Europe that is maintining a normalized Christianised secular whiteness through an idelogy of colorblindness that claims not to see racial difference, that silences it. Using race at the same time to constantly produce nonwhite populations as noneuropean, “aliens from elsewhere.” Showing racial production as not national but European — variations by nation but also commonalities, common narrative. Eg idea that racial populations are eternal migrants. A temporality where people of color are frozen always in the now, always a migrant even three or four generations after the actual migration. Allows the assumption that Europe doesn’t have race because it doesn’t have people of color who embody race as part of deep structure; POC who are there are just temporary.

The book shows that this srtuctrue exits and is challenged constantly by those it renders impossible: Europeans of color. Looking at activist artist groups active since the 80s, queer of color collective in Netherlands, some more recent groups. Models that exist for Europeans of color tend to exist outside of Europe; particularities of Euro situation can produce something that changes our understanding of racialization. Not just saying “well, there are black Germans.” Interaction of historis of migration, colonialisation, religion that create connections between black, Muslim, Roma groups.

A conversation about racialization in difference spaces that does not erase differences by coming up with a model that fits everybody, but allows us to think of things from a new perspectuve. Eg: Roma are perceived and self identify as black in Easter Europe; Muslim and black diaspora in western Europe fundamentally intersect; concrete movements of groups on the ground, how they do something that is new: enter the debate in Europe as Europeans, something that is difficult for many white Europeans to understand.

Roderick Ferguson

Thanks to everyone for agreeing to be in the series!

The Reorder of Things. Used to explain that he was working on: what if Foucault had written The Order of Things not about the human sciences and the rise of ‘man’ (philosophy, philology, history) but about the disciplinary formations that came about to displace those human sciences (ethnic, queer, women’s disability studies) and all the figures that came about to displace “man” (woman, immigrant, queer, person of color)– that would be the book I would write. At a bar in Philly, David Eng suggested calling it The Reorder of Things.

Thought experiment: the homework assignment he set himself: thought he was going to write a book about the interdisciplines, locating them in discussions around the corporate university. The more reading and archival research, the more something else seemed to be going on. Student and social movements aren’t necessarily reflections, offspring of capitalism; when they arose, capital didn’t know anything about minority difference. It looked to those movements to find a language. Things academic would be the teachers, state and capital would be the students––ready to receive some sort of knowledge around how to manage minority difference, how to talk about it, how to deploy it.

Book reengages Marxist notions of praxis. What does it mean to practice in institutional settings where you are there, but so many other folk are not there? The university affirms minority difference, but you know that something is wrong. How do you provide for that and how do you provide a history of that? How not to assume that this is not only your personal response but something historical; something is wrong when everyone affirms minority difference but you do not see the kind of redistribution, the kind of new communities, that you imagine in your work.

Habiba Ibrahim.

Thanks everyone.

Troubling the Family motivated by questions of multiracial movement in 1990s. When that moment occurred, it seemed as if there was a discourse around a new way of thinking about race: the attempt to change the census, get new categorizations to allow multiracal subjects to identify as such. Question was: why was this the horizon of activism at this moment? What kind of movement was this –– compared to activism of the kind that gained steam in 1960s-70s? What had shifted in ideas of what kind of activist labor was possible — into this non movement?

Conversations around the census that emerged: cross play of identitarian interests. “Mark one or more” option was what eventually emerged; options suggested included a “multiracial” box to tick. Groups like NAACP were against this multiracial movement because thinking a demographic according to multirace would seem to undercut civil rights gains not focused on status recognition. Conversation staged in terms of an older vanguard of activist organizations (60s/70s) vs younger groups.

Multiracialism along the black/white colorline. That blackness is mixed in this country is not a secret. So why should it seem that mixedness and blackness would be at the crosshairs of each other’s antagonism? Why the schism, why the dischord?

Multiracial proponents mostly white women with mulltiracial children, looking for ways that their children could be recognized in public. Family and wellbeing of children, integrity of the privatised sphere of family. What does the family mean with respect to the possibility of activism at this particular moment? Politicising of the family by multiracial proponents showed privatizing of political/social work.

Book looks at missed opportunity of multiracialism. Instead of thinking that all they could have wanted was to have individual families recognized in public, or to have any indvidual be recognised in their full personhood, maybe there was a missed opportunity in the multiracial movement’s not recognizing its own preconditions. Its dependence on analytics of 1970s era feminist movements: “the personal is political.” Not the 1990s remix, “the political is private”! How to think through the contributions of women of color feminist thought, and to ask what kind of moment could have emerged in the 1990s if that alternative historiography had been present in thinking through a politics of multiracialism.


Jodi Melamed.

Thanks everyone. Book approaches the question of difference: the concept of the new racial capitalism.

Cedric Robinson: racial capitalism is capitalism, not a kind of capitalism. Capital comes from accumulation, accumulation comes about when people are divested of resources: to remix Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s definition of racism, accumulation requires group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death, and racism enshrines the fictions of different human capacities that allow that.

Marx is bad on race but has some important moments. “On so-called primitive accumulation” makes fun of the ‘fairy tale’ of the lazy exploited; a fairy tale called ‘race in political modernity.’ Social relations of letting live and making die. Racialisation values human capital differentially, while seeming simply to sort people by race.

The NEW racial capitalism doesn’t differentiate from the old but highlights changes that occur when racial capitalism incorporates dominant antiracisms: differential incluson and exclusion, modes that are more flexible than color lines, racializing those who benefit from existing power arrangements as fit, those who are exploited by them as unfit. Racial capitalism relies on normative and rationalizing modes of power, using our antiracist sentiments to train us into dominant modes of capitalism rationality.

White supremacist racial capitalism used killing and coercion to promote progress and freedom for whites; now unevenly liberal freedoms are extended to people of color, and the same set of norms becomes the toolkit for new archaeologies of capitalist development.

Dominant antiracisms’ focus on individualism. Racial liberalism: ‘we are all the same under the skin’ reducing concepts of racism to prejudice, universalising American dream. Liberal multiculturalism restricts recognotion of race to individial prejudice, while marketing of diversity provides alibi for prison industrial complext &c. Neoliberal multiculralism uses rhetoric of diversity to assist the penetration of market logics into new domains. Bio(political)(finanicial) affirmation: the need to change up the valuation and devaluation of humanity in an instant, to drive capital expansion (eg security firms).

Ending on a happy place: this work, this series, strengthens our capacity to recognise forms of difference that do make a difference. Interrupting notions of who can relate under what terms. Oppositional formations that our scholarship affirms: united by an extra ordinary materialism. Other ways of being.

Q&A: panel responses to one another’s talks.

HI comment on convention center site. This center constructed 5 years ago; formerly a military base. Here we are in the belly of the beast in multiple ways; how can we talk about what it means to labor under the domain of empire?

GH: former military sites get turned into tourism. Keith Camacho at UCLA calls it “militourism”; the idea of Puerto Rico.

GH question for Jodi: “difference that makes a difference”: can the panel talk about a moment of that?

RF: wanted to do archival work on student movements that aren’t often talked about. Movement at UCSD, 1968-9, around Third College; students created an alternate curriculum for “Lumumba-Zapata College” including Fanon, whiteness studies. “We do not intend this college to train students into their own bourgeoisie, or into what Nixon called black capitalism.” Already an awareness of how minority difference is manouvered — we don’t talk about students this way, as already having that awareness.

RF cont: Toni Cade Bambara 1970 short story [missed title]: Miss Hazel’s children, black militants, organize a party for the “grass roots” in the neighborhood; story shows how a kind of black power politics/aesthetics regulates the people it claims to represent. “Mama, stop dancing like that, it’s not politically conscious.” Miss Hazel refuses the regulation done in the name of black power and pride; her repertoire of liberation includes running a bath with rose water, epsom salt, and oil: speaks to affective negotiation with power structures “we have to take care of the old folks.” What menus of interventions do we need in the academy?

FET: racialised difference in Europe does make a difference, that is why it is so suppressed. Violent economic exploitation that Europe is still engaged in; forms of exclusion produce a model in which forms of racial oppression are very obvious (racist murders every day) but what people talk about instead is how the sexism, homophobia, antisemitism of Muslim communities will ‘collapse Europe from the inside.’

FET’s work on performance, eg safer sex performances in queer clubs, archives that leave few traces yet are exactly what is necesary. Not so much moments of differences as the whole structure.

JM: dominant affirmations of difference seem to have to be done in a single-issue way: race OR sexuality OR gender. Single issue terms mask the violence that occurs when they are divorced from others –– why women of color feminism is such an important theoretical context. The differences that make a difference come from activism.

HI: methodological approaches; multiracialism as a kind of cottage industry. Little of this work takes seriously the contributions of black feminist thought. CF Sharon Holland, The Erotic Life of Racism – there seems to be a temporal endpoint to the contributions of black feminism, in the 1980s. As if the only subjects to be implicated by women of color feminism should be women of color, as if labor is only pertinent to subjects it speaks about and for. Thinking in the book about rebooting the tools that we have, about taking them seriously. About an alternative temporality. Racialization works along varying temporal logics; we can’t only be stuck in the 90s, the 60s, or where race is embodied. What are the preconditions for how we arrive at a moment?

EE: has been thinking about what it would take to retrieve heterogeneity of black political struggle, through cultural production of literary texts? To find a different archive for African American literature and political struggle?

Audience Q: Futurity. How do the projects relate to different forms of futurity — children, academy, political, transnational?

HI: all the work takes temporality seriously; can’t think about racialization without it. One thing she is tracing is the focus on children and how it makes sense when the horizon of the political sphere is limited to the family, reducible to the well being of multiracial children who need to be affirmed. This might come from a half-realized recognition that the law is no longer the horizon toward which movements focus. Post-Loving vs Virginia, the heterosexual marriage market opened up to the production of multiracial children. A crisis not spoken explicity: what happens when law is not the focus? Weakening of the public sphere; so how do we think outside normative privatised relationships to family? Speculating about an alternative version to this moment, this movement: other lines of coalition, other ways of imagining how we an think about connections, an analysis that leads to some kind of liberationist politics outside of this moment. A version of futurity that comes outside the focus on how we legitimize ourselves as kin.

GH: we can think of social movements, liberationist movements as interventions around temporality. Incorporation is about narrowing moments into a normative trajectory, but what is important about them is multiplicity of temporalities that they allow to exist. Incorporation flattens and the books go back and retheorise: what could have happened? What heterogeneities do literary texts preserve? Capacious heterogeneous temporalities — this is why we have to build archives out of ephemeral performances that exist outside the temporality of permanence, outside the idea that if a movement lacks a certain kind of longevity then it has failed.

RF: critiquing the temporality of permanence. That became the logic of instititionalizing the interdisciplines. If they’re not departments, if they’re not funded, then they don’t have legitimacy of permanence. From the opening of his book, Adrian Piper collage address to God “God, you fucked up”; “you have serviced me to death”– naming illness and stalled work. Self portrait as a downed airplane with two white men in hats looking over the wreckage; “PIPER” on side. ‘I was brought in under the conditions of affirmation and look at me now.’

RF cont: Very easy to write on the university as a closed system, to say that there is no future. Didn’t want to leave it there. Archival resource became available: passage from Their Eyes Were Watching God, “ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board; for women, the dream is the truth.” Ends his chapter with “the dream is still the truth”; we can’t evaluate based on a temporality of permanence or a conventional notion of success. Achievements will be there one moment and gone the next. We don’t lay down and die; we go somewhere else.

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