Thursday, November 8, 2018

The Cascadia Subduction Zone, Vol. 8, 4

The Fall issue of The Cascadia Subduction Zone is out. The issue includes a short fiction by Susana Vallejo (translated from the Spanish by Lawrence Schimel), poetry by Deborah L. Davitt, Lesley Wheeler, and Sonya Taaffe, a Grandmother Magma column by Julie Phillips, Karen Burnham's column, and reviews of work by Rebecca Roanhorse, Rachel Fellman and others. The issue's featured artist is Heather Tatarek. You can purchase single copies or subscriptions at; the electronic edition is $3 for an issue or $10 for a year's subscription, while the print edition is $5 for an issue or $16 for a year's subscription.

Volume 8, 4
Flash Fiction
by Susana Vallejo
Haunted ~ Ceres ~ Reborn in Blood ~ Contemplation ~ The Barn-Raising
   by Deborah L. Davitt

Racketing Spirits ~ Hairy On the Inside ~ 
Bad Dragon ~ Where Dragons Come From ~ 
White Noise Machine Now With Twelve Settings!
    by Lesley Wheeler

Ariadne in Queens A ~ Vixen When She Went to School
    by Sonya Taaffe
Grandmother Magma
The Hearth in the Spaceship
“The Shobies’ Story” by Ursula K. Le Guin

   reviewed by Julie Phillips 

Dust Lanes
Short fiction reviews
   by Karen Burnham

Book Reviews
The Breath of the Sun, by Rachel Fellman
   reviewed by Arley Sorg
Heroine’s Journey, by Sarah Kuhn
   reviewed by Erin Roberts
Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny, by Kate Manne
   reviewed by Nancy Jane Moore
Trail of Lightning, by Rebecca Roanhorse
  reviewed by Kathleen Alcalá

Featured Artist
Heather Tatarek

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Gemma Files' Invocabulary

I'm pleased to announce the release of Invocabulary, a collection of poetry by Gemma Files in both print and e-book editions. You can read a sample of purchase it at

Myths and fairytales, monsters and magic, dead gods and forgotten goddesses—these are the subjects that most often inspire Gemma Files' third collection of speculative poetry. By running folk horror symbolism through the filter of contemporary language, she maps the shadow-side of fiction out with spells, curses, confessions and prayers in an effort to show how the stories we tell ourselves pull us headlong forward through history, illuminating all the most unsolvable central mysteries of human existence in words of both faith and fear.

Friday, September 28, 2018

Gwynne Garfinkle's People Change

I'm pleased to announce the release of People Change, a collection of stories and poetry by Gwynne Garfinkle. People Change is the sixty-third volume in Aqueduct's Conversation Pieces series.

The stories and poems in People Change illuminate the personal and feminist concerns evoked by classic horror movies and other aspects of popular culture. Mining the implications of figures like the Bride of Frankenstein, Samantha Stephens, and the Stepford Wives, the book explores such themes as family and misogyny. At times horror merges with autobiography, as in "It's a Universal Picture." The women and girls in Gwynne Garfinkle's stories variously seek the gift of flight and the gift of friendship, real and imaginary.

You can read a sample from the book or purchase it at

Sunday, September 23, 2018

The Adventure of the Dux Bellorum by Cynthia Ward

I'm pleased to announce the release of The Adventure of the Dux Bellorum, a novella by Cynthia Ward, as the sixty-second volume in Aqueduct's Conversation Pieces series This is a sequel to The Adventure of the Incognita Countess (published by Aqueduct in 2017).

 Intelligence agent Lucy Harker receives the most dangerous assignment in the world—keeping Winston Churchill safe on the Western Front. Despite her unique abilities as Dracula's daughter, she loses Churchill to Kaiser Wilhelm's inhuman allies. If she's to recover Britain's greatest leader, Agent Harker must gain the aid of her Austrian lover, Countess Karnstein—better known as Carmilla. But the notorious vampire is keeping secrets that might doom the British Empire.

You can read a sample of the book as well as purchase it at

What the critics say about The Adventure of the Incognita Countess:

"[G]rand and smashing recursive steampunk in the manner of Alan Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and a splendid romp indeed."
  —Asimov's SF, Paul Di filippo,

"It's a story that defies the pressure to be a queer tragedy, and plays with that trope rather heavily, calling to mind the ways that queerness is often an element of the monsters depicted in Victorian literature, but here it's allowed to be reclaimed and celebrated...[A]n impressive bit of world building, and it almost begs for further exploration. At least, I would be more than willing to return to this world of monsters, intrigue, and spies. An excellent read!"
  —Quick Sip Reviews, Charles Payseur, 

Saturday, September 22, 2018

2018 Elgin Awards

The Science Fiction & Fantasy Poetry Association (SFPA) has announced the winners of the 2018 Elgin Awards for best collections of speculative poetry published in the previous two years. Named after SFPA founder Suzette Haden Elgin, awards are given in two categories: best chapbook and best full-length book.

2018 Elgin Award Results:

Full-Length Book Category
First Place: Liberating the Astronauts • Christina M. Rau (Aqueduct Press, 2017)
Second Place: Satan’s Sweethearts • Marge Simon & Mary Turzillo (Weasel Press, 2017)
Third Place: Love Robot • Margaret Rhee (The Operating System, 2017)
Chapbook Category
First Place: A Catalogue of the Further Suns • F. J. Bergmann (Gold Line Press, 2017)
Second Place: Astropoetry • Christina Sng (Alban Lake, 2017)
Third Place: The Terraformers • Dan Hoy (Third Man Books, 2017)

This year’s Elgin Awards had 22 nominees in the chapbook category and 30 nominees in the full-length category, one of the largest years since the awards were first established in 2013.

Here at Aqueduct we're particularly pleased that Christina M. Rau's Liberating the Astronauts (Vol. 55 in our Conversation Pieces series) won in the Full-Length Book Category. (You can read more about the book and download an excerpt at

Congratulations to everyone who placed!

Thursday, August 30, 2018

The WisCon Chronicles, Vol. 12: Call for Submissions

WisCon Chronicles 12: LGBTQ+ Identities 
by JoSelle Vanderhooft

Hello, WisCon community! I’m thrilled and honored to announce that Emma Humphries and I will be editing WisCon Chronicles Volume 13, the theme of which will be LGBTQ+/queer/QUILTBAG identities.

We’re looking for submissions ranging from roughly 1,000 to 4,000 words. Pieces up to 5,000 words will be considered, but shorter lengths are preferred. This collection aims to be as intersectional as possible, so we are particularly interested in essays by (but by no means limited to) LGBTQ+ people of color, disabled people, immigrants, working-class people, people of (any) faith, and from other groups that experience multiple oppressions in addition to those against gender identity and sexual orientation. Additionally, we also encourage submissions by members of the community whose voices are under- or unrepresented in LGBTQ+ publications, including (but, again, not limited to): asexuals, aromantics, bisexuals and other multisexuals, intersex people, and nonbinary, genderqueer, and genderfluid people, as well as people whose identities have a complicated relationship with culturally dominant notions of what being LGBTQ+ means. We are also interested in hearing from LGBTQ+ people who are members of communities whose history ties in closely with LGBTQ+ history. In addition to personal essays on LGBTQ+ identity and its intersections with other identities, possible topics can include.

 ·Essays about LGBTQ+ fandom history and participation in fandom.

· LGBTQ+ presence at WisCon and other conventions, including con policies that are helpful or harmful to LGBTQ+ people.

 · LGBTQ+ fan works.

· The ongoing development of LGBTQ+ programming at WisCon and other feminist or feminist-friendly conventions.

 · Experiences at WisCon LGBTQ+ writers have had (good, bad, and otherwise).

 · Works of LGBTQ+ SF/F (prose, poetry, or any combination thereof)

· Academic essays on LGBTQ+ readings of SF/F media presented at WisCon.

Please submit your pieces, including a short query, by November 5 to Please also email this address with any questions.

Accepted file formats are .rtf, .doc, and .docx. If you need to submit in another file format, please query first so we can make sure we are able to accommodate you. We look forward to seeing your submissions!

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

The Breath of the Sun by Rachel Fellman

I'm pleased to announce the release of Breath of the Sun, a debut novel, by Rachel Fellman, in both print and e-book editions. You can read a sample from the book at Aqueduct's site as well as (of course!) purchase a copy there. 

Lamat Paed understands paradoxes. She's a great mountain climber who's never summited, the author of a tell-all that didn't really tell anything. For years she guided pilgrims up the foothills of the Sublime Mount, leading them as high as God would let them go. And then she partnered the apostate Southern priest Mother Disaine on the most daring, most blasphemous expedition in history—an attempt to reach the summit of the sacred mountain, the top of God's head. Disaine returned in triumph, claiming to be the first person since the prophet to have summited and lived. But Lamat went into hiding.

Now, late in life and exiled from the mountain, Lamat finally tells her story to her partner, Otile. It's the story of why she really wrote her first book all those years ago, how she came to be cast out from the mountain-dwelling Holoh people, and how she fled to the anonymity of the city to hide from her fame. Most of all, it's the story of her bond with Mother Disaine—the blasphemer, charlatan, and visionary who stole Lamat's life to serve her own purposes—and what really happened on their last, greatest expedition.

Sarah Tolmie, author of The Stone Boatmen, loved the book. "Not since The Left Hand of Darkness has any book conveyed to me the profundity of the winter journey and the intensity of relationships forged in it. But where Le Guin was always evasive about religion in her sublime mountain landscapes, Fellman is direct about it. She creates an immanence in her mountain, The Body of God, that her characters respond to with an authentic and credible religious passion, one that gets mixed up with all other passions in their lives.

"The creed of Asam is elegantly crafted, beautifully quotable: Your bodies are the compaction of stars and your minds are the compaction of history. Be decent to each other; pity each other, for it is not an easy state to be made of so much and live for so little a time. The prose throughout is simple and luminous, with many sentences that hang in the mind: Sometimes I think there is nothing sadder than a toy. They usually have faces, but they have no use. Altogether a book that is about much more than ambition to scale a peak."

Publishers Weekly loved it too, giving it a starred review: "Fellman's riveting debut melds prophecy, postcolonial politics, and mountaineering in a nuanced secondary-world fantasy. Scarred from a calamitous expedition she'd rather bury, Lamat Paed, indigenous mountain guide and climbing memoirist, is finally telling the true story of her last, traumatic climb: leading the charismatic and manipulative Mother Disaine, member of a religious order of academians, to climb the mountain that Lamat's Holoh people consider the body of God. Interlacing the expedition with Lamat's marriage-destroying first climb, prophecies, and manuscript footnotes from Lamat's lover, Otile, Fellman ably executes an ambitious structure and delivers an atmospheric, poetic, and occasionally wry and brutal story that moves with the gentle but unstoppable momentum of an iceberg. This is a compassionate and finely observed debut from an author to watch."

Rachel read from Breath of the Sun at WisCon, and will be reading it from it again at Borderlands Books in  September. I just happen to have a photo from her WisCon reading:

Monday, July 23, 2018

The Cascadia Subduction Zone, Vol. 8, 3

The summer issue of The Cascadia Subduction Zone is out. In it you will find flash fiction ("Roots" by Sara Codair and "The Canonization of Junipero Serra" by Nancy Jane Moore), poetry (by Gwynne Garfinkle and Alexandra Seidel), and a memorial to Kate Wilhelm and Gardner Dozois. And of course it has reviews: Karen Burnham's column "Dust Lanes," Amy Thomson's appreciation of Suzette Haden Elgin's linguistic sf for our "Grandmother Magma" column, and reviews by Kathleen Alcalá and others of four new novels. Finally, the issue's featured artist is Jeanne Gomoll, who gives us a taste of her on-going "Space Babe" series.

The CSZ is available for purchase at Electronic copies are $3, print copies $5; electronic subscriptions $10, print subscripts $16.

Vol.8, 3 (July 2018)

In Memoriam 
Kate Wilhelm and Gardner Dozois

jungle red
   by Gwynne Garfinkle
The Shadow of the Peak
    by Alexandra Seidel

Flash Fiction
    by Sara Codair
The Canonization of Junipero Serra
    by Nancy Jane Moore

Grandmother Magma 
Suzette Haden Elgin’s Native Tongue and Láadan
   reviewed by Amy Thomson

Dust Lanes 
Stories in Capricious #9, edited by A.C. Buchanan
   by Karen Burnham

Book Reviews 
The Mere Wife, by Maria Dahvana Headley
   reviewed by Kathleen Alcalá

Medusa Uploaded, by by Emily Devenport
   reviewed by Phoebe Salzman-Cohen

A Study in Honor, by Claire O'Dell
  reviewed by Cynthia Ward

The Invisible Valley, by Su Wei
   reviewed by Arley Sorg

Featured Artist 
Jeanne Gomoll

Monday, July 9, 2018

L. Timmel Duchamp's Chercher La Femme

I'm pleased to announce the publication of Chercher La Femme, a new novel by L. Timmel Duchamp (i.e., me!), which is scheduled for official release on August 1, 2018. It is available for purchase in print and e-book formats through Aqueduct's website now.

Novels, of course, always have origin stories..Sometimes a word or phrase, sometimes a dream, sometimes even an image that however fleeting lingers long after it has been glimpsed. In this case, reading Stanislaus Lem's Solaris and watching Andrei Tarkovsky's exceedingly long film based on that novel planted the seed of this novel in my mind. Over the course of two years I drafted the original version in the early 1990s.  I then set it aside. Some fifteen years later, Helen Merrick offered me a perceptive critique. Since I lacked the time to do anything with it then, I saved it for future consideration;.it proved tremendously helpful when I decided to read the manuscript during one of my Port Townsend writing retreats.

On a more personal note, because the novel is written from a non-dystopian perspective, a part of me worried loudly that it might seem out of step with 2018's horrendous fake reality, but in fact its perspective has proven to be helpful for my thinking, rather than evasive. In a sense, it's more fully grounded in 2018's reality than it was in 1993's, without being swallowed up by the social psychological pervasiveness that many of us are struggling to escape. Dare I say aloud that that in our hearts, many of us feel certain that the triumph of neoliberalism can only be a dead end for our species? 

You can  read a sample from the book.Or purchase it here:

Here's a brief description:

"Everything about the humanoids inhabiting the planet La Femme is beautiful and desirable. Even their names are a pleasure to the tongue, a pleasure that can be experienced only in meat space."  —Paul 22423
They named the planet "La Femme" and called it a paradise and refused to leave it. Now Julia 9561 is heading up the mission to retrieve the errant crew and establish meaningful Contact with the inhabitants. Are the inhabitants really all female, as the first crew claimed? Why don't the men want to return to Earth? What happened to the women on the crew? And why did Paul 22423 warn the First Council to send only male crew members?

"Speculative fiction at its purest."
 —-Vonda N. McIntyre, author of Dreamsnake and The Moon and the Sun

"Chercher La Femme, which unfolds in a strange, complex, alien future, effectively explores several themes: of personal identity and how it holds itself together but is also porous to experience; of communication with alien life forms and how amorphous and challenging that might be; and of the visceral power of alien forms of beauty and art, giving the story compelling depths. The tense stretch between the Pax and the "Outsiders" offers an interesting representation of the real-world tension we now live with, between low-tech societies and those racing to colonize outer (and inner, personal) space in all sorts of ways.

"There's some interesting tidal stirring going on at the more cerebral levels of modern SF, which I think began with books like A Voyage to Arcturus and Solaris. It's now manifesting itself in, for example, Jeff Vandermeer's Southern Reach books and in this book, Chercher La Femme, as well as in films like Arrival, They Remain, and of course Annihilation. Human bafflement and consternation characterize these stories, in the face of the most alien kind of alien-ness we can imagine at this point, and a necessary softening and yielding of our age-old infatuation with a propulsive, often violent drive to control (or kill) whatever is ineffable and strange to us.
 —Suzy McKee Charnas, author of The Vampire Tapestry and the Holdfast Chronicles

And here's Publishers Weekly's review:

Aqueduct editor Duchamp's concentrated and demanding examination of what's accepted as "self" is cleverly and convincingly presented as a simple piece of science fiction. Diplomat Julia, a member of a socialistic human society known as the Pax, is the head of a mission to a far-off world, La Femme. The mission's primary purpose is recovery of the first ship sent to make contact with La Femme's inhabitants, though further diplomatic advancement is planned as well. Julia is distracted from the mission objectives by her deep analysis of her life thus far and the utopian ideal she lives by, particularly when she deals with her splintered crew. What she and her crew find upon arrival is enough to shake them all. Duchamp (Stretto) makes abundant challenges to gender norms and raises questions of what constitutes alienness, and the novel's humanistic approach and unwavering commitment to Julia's frank introspection go beautifully with a precisely detailed world. This thoughtful tale bears rereading and contemplation.
  —Publishers Weekly, June 2018

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Le Guin Tribute Anthology: A Call for Submissions

Here is Rose Lemberg, on a volume to be published by Aqueduct Press:

Call for Submissions: Ursula K. Le Guin tribute poetry anthology

I am seeking submissions for an anthology of poetry in tribute to the life and works of Ursula K. Le Guin. The anthology is tentatively titled CLIMBING LIGHTLY THROUGH FORESTS, and it will be published by Aqueduct Press sometime in 2019.

Ursula K. Le Guin was perhaps most known for her SFF fiction, but she was a prolific poet, with a dozen poetry collections in print (her last poetry book is forthcoming from Copper Canyon Press this Fall).

Unlike her big-idea SF, her poetry was often more personal in scope, engaging closely with land and landscape of the Pacific Northwest; much of her poetry is not speculative at all. Le Guin was a complex, prolific creator whose work influenced and touched so many of us.
For this anthology, I am seeking poetry that engages with Ursula K. Le Guin’s life and work broadly construed – including her fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. I will be looking for a variety of voices, themes, treatments, and approaches. Both critical and celebratory approaches are welcome, as is anything in-between.

You are welcome to engage with specific books and/or stories, or take it in other directions. Your poems do not have to be speculative, although a speculative element is always welcome. There are no length or style limitations. Very short and very long works are welcome. Experimental forms are welcome. Prose poetry is welcome. Rhymed and formal poetry is welcome. I truly welcome poetry of any kind. Please do not send me short stories or nonfiction, however.

As always, I am hoping to receive poetry from people from a variety of backgrounds. Everybody is welcome to submit! I welcome work from people who belong to marginalized/underrepresented groups and communities,  including from Black people, Indigenous people, and/or people of color, from migrants, from non-Western and non-Anglophone people, from disabled and neurodiverse people, from LGBTQIA+ people, from people of all genders. You do not need to be marginalized to submit. I welcome submissions from new and established voices, seasoned poets and people who never wrote poetry before. Please don’t self-reject!

Where to submit: Please submit up to 3 (THREE) poems to If you are sending a reprint, please indicate where and when it was first published. Your submissions should be titled LE GUIN SUBMISSION: Your last name

Please do not submit more than 3 poems total for this call (you can send them together or separately).
Editorial form of address: since people ask me about this! “Dear Editor” is great.”Dear Rose” or “Dear R.” is also fine. Please don’t call me either Ms, Mr, or Mrs.

Payment: The tribute anthology is a paid opportunity: we are paying $20 per original poem. While I am primarily looking for original poetry, I will consider reprints as well (payrate for reprints TBD).

An important note on rejections: Ursula K. Le Guin’s work and life was important to many of us. It can be heartbreaking to receive a rejection for work that deeply matters to us. Unfortunately, I will only be able to fit a limited amount of poems, and I foresee some difficult decisions to come. Whatever the outcome of your submission will be, please rest assured that I will review it with utmost care, and that a rejection is not a reflection on yourself, your craft, or your personal connection to Ursula K. Le Guin’s work – but simply the reality of publishing.

Submissions period: the anthology is open to submissions (as of July 3rd, 2018), and it will be open to submissions till October 15th, 11:59 Central. I will let you know within 90 days of submission whether your work is accepted, rejected, or held for further consideration.
I’m looking forward to reading your work!

Friday, June 22, 2018

The False Promise of Vanguardism: MLA 2018, part nine

This is the ninth part of a series wherein I share my notes on the panels I attended at January's convention of the Modern Language Association. Here are part one, part two, part three, part four, part five, part six, part seven, and part eight.

637. Du Bois in a Comparative Context.

I attended in order to hear Vilashini Cooppan’s “The Wince of the Flesh: Du Bois’s Embodied Humanism,” but nobody was coming in from the West Coast, so the “panel” turned into Brent Edwards introducing Gayatri Spivak. Spivak had no problem filling two time slots, even though she was also slated to give an award speech later in the evening. Over 100 people were in attendance.

Spivak made sure that the mic worked and everyone could hear her, then thanked Hortense and Nahum for being there. In 2009 she had given the Du Bois Lecture, asking why Du Bois referred to the fugitive slaves’ joining the Union Army as a “general strike.” Then last year, she co-taught a course on Pan-Africanism, wherein she and her co-teacher did not agree but were always supportive of each other. Du Bois’s Pan-Africanism differs broadly from earlier Pan-Africanisms. It is illuminated by his understanding of Russia and China, of Stalin’s origins.

Du Bois thought white people who were anticolonial in the metropole were marvelous and that their work was undone by the whites out in the colonies. In 1946, B.R. Ambedkar wrote to Du Bois asking that black America circulate a petition to the U.N. in support of the untouchables. Remember that postcolonialist and Pan-Africanist efforts predate current post-globalization class alliances! Du Bois wanted to get into struggles interior to colonial space. But look at Dark Princess: it belongs with Bulwer Lytton and H. Rider Haggard! He tries and fails to overcome the problem of the bourgeois understanding the subaltern, and creates an embarrassing fantasy of India. Ambedkar shows us how one can work in many rhythms on many fronts, but predigital as well as digital international struggles are helped when there is class continuity.

Look at this book on Gandhi, inscribed by Nehru to “W.E.B. Bois.” Du Bois is always invoked by the nationalist bourgoisie. You cannot just wish cross-class alliances into being! [William Empson knew that—jbl] Du Bois and Ambedkar were both middle-class men who struggled with discrimination out in the world. In The Annihilation of Caste, Ambedkar wrote of Gandhi, “The world owes much to rebels who dare to argue in the face of the pontiff.” Cf. Nahum Chandler on Du Bois’s biography of John Brown. But Du Bois’s “I have suffered from racism as you from casteism” did not catch on.

Consider the implications of Marx’s great commentary on the Times’s coverage of Jamaica. Now, Ambedkar wrote caste into reproductive heteronormativity. Spivak has worked hard in the past thirty years to learn what the subaltern were denied and how they were cognitively impaired by their deprivations. It is urgent that we understand how peoples can be deprived of frameworks of knowledge and understanding. She opposes the astonishingly resilient Christian conviction that we all already know everything: if that’s so we should burn the universities down. Now, without the abstractions that they’ve been denied a grasp of, colonial struggles cannot achieve subaltern agency (What’s distressing, Spivak added in a commentary on a slide she was showing, is the condition of Du Bois’s books and notes in Ghana. They are in open stacks in the library, where high school kids can come and study them for exams. There is no bibliographer, and much vermin. Soon they will be covered with mouse shit and teenagers). So much nonsense has been written on the “radically unknowable” subaltern, and Spivak is going to a conference on Monday where she’ll be celebrated and hear more such nonsense. Du Bois’s inability to imagine the subaltern episteme, or stateless social groups on the fringe of history, does not make the texts more good; it makes them less good.

When Spivak met Annan [?], he was impressed that she knew, when he said “the tall one and the short one,” that he meant Lumumba and Fanon. All were deeply aware of the postcolonial. But there are serious historical limitations to the flexibility of our identities, among them the inability to imagine colonial subjectivity from the outside. Du Bois in his 1948 revision of the Talented Tenth proposal wrote, “It is clear that in 1900, American Negroes were an inferior caste . . . “ Today, “leadership training” is all over the place, but what about the concept of followership? Du Bois had “assumed that with knowledge, sacrifice would automatically follow.” Expanding the range of the word “caste” is a form of Travelling Theory.

The academic intellectual needs to prepare the ground once again for an epistemological relocation. This is where we need Spillers’s concept of ambivalence, invoked by Chandler to discuss particularity. Reconstruction-era legislator Alfred Gray’s 1868 “The Constitution: I came here to talk for it, and if I get killed, I will talk for it” is . . . something something invoking Spillers, Glas, and the empty position left by the Constitution. By analogy, all the reading required is in the daily news: it comes from Flint, Michigan; it comes from Lagos, Nigeria.

Spivak ended her presentation with a long ontological question for Spillers and Chandler, and a reminded to Brent Edwards to speak into the mic.

Edwards said that to him, the panel title “Du Bois in a Comparative Context” meant Du Bois read from elsewhere, but that Spivak was evidently thinking of Du Bois as a model comparative thinker. Look at that failed 1946 encounter between Du Bois and Ambedkar. Both were committed and deliberately working within the frame of constitutionality and the state/international politic, making efforts at generalization about the group that was not allowed to generalize. It is the elite talking to the elite. But Spivak, Edwards keeps telling her, speaks in shorthand: What is Du Bois and Ambedkar’s “amphibolic relation with identitarianism” that Spivak asked Spillers about? What was the amphibolism, Gayatri? How are they both breaking down identitarianism and building it up? Is Du Bois’s inability to get the struggle interior to colonized space a failure of method? Of comparativity? “Can we imagine this spectacular revolution?”—In Black Reconstruction Du Bois emphasizes the radicalism of recognizing the enslaved as human.

But “Worlds of Color” was published both at the end of The New Negro and in the Spring 1925 issue of Foreign Affairs. In it, he writes of The Shadow of Portugal, The Shadow of Belgium, The Shadow of France, and The Shadow of England, and he tries to think comparatively about the idea of “colored labor.” How much hope is there for bringing The Shadow of Shadows together? Is it something other than a differential ontology of social formations? Finally, what difference does it make to sit with Du Bois’s work in Ghana?

“Should I respond to this,” asked Spivak, “because then it would allow no time for questions. With respect to contact with the Du Bois archive, with his notes, that contingency of work that is not written for others allows me to . . . I don’t know. Others will tell me if it makes a difference. I’m not transforming it into data; I’m trying to internalize it . . . something happens to me, and I can’t give it up.”

Now the metonymic obligation is such that—“amphibolic identitarianism” was the only way to express what she saw in those authors. It’s like Hegel: Hegel keeps saying the same damn thing, and he both fears and hopes that readers will make the mistake of thinking he’s writing about a subject.

There is not some given figure of a comparativist: the failure of comparison is the normative deviation of the comparativist. There is even mishandling of the subaltern in Notebook 25. The methodic criterion is that we’re taught to think with the ruling class—vanguardism—we need the methodology to understand the subaltern and not elevate the ruling class. Marx is my brother, but I’m not a fundamentalist. The great failure of socialism-from-above is the idea that the global communities of color are ready to unite. Du Bois’s metaphors are fighting against the false promise of vanguardism.

Nahum Chandler asked whether the Du Bois/Ambedkar discussion might be read as not about success/failure or continuity/break but as the statement of a certain necessity and an affirmation of that difficulty for us: is there not an order of temporality in which that is useful? Think what it poses as our own limit today, in the century that’s ongoing. Chandler is interested in restaging a reading of Ambedkar’s story. Remember that Du Bois is already seventy-eight and Ambedkar is in a completely different place (“I don’t agree,” Spivak interjected): each is facing the post-1945 rearrangement of states across the globe.

Spillers said, that this was for her a relatively new Du Bois and that she’d have to think more about the relevance of ambivalence before answering; Spivak said she knew she could trust Spillers to come through on that implied promise to answer. Spivak mentioned that, as a student of De Man, she does not accept the idea of a rhetorical question: “I am suspicious of people who are suspicious of what they call a rhetoric of suspicion.”

An audience member noted that a shadow speaking to another shadow need not lead to yet another shadow. Another audience member said that what she found beyond brilliant in Spivak’s analysis was her reading of Marx, because Marx is generally read as a colonialist: anticolonial Marxists don’t like his 1857 letters. So she’s glad Spivak pointed out that Marx was making an argument about the way to think transnationally. She said she was not comfortable with the direction Marxist historians are taking, using the Critique of Political Economy transnationally to give workers agency: that makes an end-run around the problem of translation.

In response to the “shadow” question, Chandler cited a few thousand passages from Du Bois demonstrating his pre-1920 signs of his nascent colonial awareness, analyzing his engagement with Plato, and tracing the culmination of both in his notes for Africa and World Peace in the ‘40s. Boy these people know their archive! Spivak said, yes, we have to not immediately read Du Bois—and this has nothing to do with Eurocentrism—we reopen Du Bois to see him reading Plato and reading Marx. It’s a question of scholarship, that we must do this rather than reading him in light of our received understanding of Plato and Marx.

The sense of caste at work among the subalterns is almost impossible to grasp unless you make a no-holds-barred acknowledgment that they are not just Good People Because We Were Bad.

I began to worry about Spivak because she was sounding hoarse and she still had a major award acceptance speech to give later in the evening. She admitted to not being sure what the Marxist historian in the audience was asking. Was the historian saying that her fellow historians are generalizing the subject again? Visualize that sick little hunchbacked man still writing in prison so that we could be thinking. And we are thinking of the mass of the electorate in Asia, in the U.S., who are not generalizable, and citizenship would generalize them in a good way—and this is where our thinking stops. What’s amphibolic is history! That we imagine a straight line of a subjectivization scares me, because then who’s subjectivizing them into what?

Spivak offered her thanks and concluded.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

But Does Fiction Make Us Better? MLA 2018, part eight

This is the eighth part of a series wherein I share my notes on the panels I attended at January's convention of the Modern Language Association. Here are part one, part two, part three, part four, part five, part six, and part seven.

568: Against Empathy

There were maybe fifty people in attendance.

Joshua Landy announced that he would take it as a given that the U.S. political situation is catastrophic. What role should fiction and criticism play in remedying that? It’s natural, in the Shelleyan tradition (see also Rorty and Nussbaum) to think that fiction will help us by increasing empathy. There’s been a drop in empathy among college students of late—Sherry Turkle blames it on cell phones. But bigots do not, in fact, lack empathy! They use it on the wrong people and entities. Coates has written that “racism . . . is broad sympathy toward some and broad skepticism toward others.” Empathy advocates would say, okay, make artifacts that make us empathize with the right people. Suzanne Keene’s research shows that the empathy fiction generates makes students nicer to those in their in-group.

So what can literature do? Toni Morrison, Richard Wright, Spike Lee, and Ralph Ellison all work in part by blocking empathy. Do the Right Thing is one of the great artworks of the twentieth century, but the art, not Radio Raheem, is the object of our empathy. Radio is deliberately not a positive image. The visual approach to the black characters is highly stylized, the approach to the Italian-Americans more realist: they’re the ones who get more face shots and more signs of interiority. Bigger Thomas and even Invisible Man have imperfections that make them hard to side with: Ellison is celebrating imperfection. Pilate Dead is a problematic moral center: her love leads to catastrophe. Ditto Milkman’s epiphany in the hunting scene; in general, Milkman is no great shakes and refuses to consider the effects of his actions on the women around him.

Fictions can be political without being empathy-generators. The blocking of empathy facilitates a) nuanced moral judgment, such as the ability to discriminate among categories of wrongdoing b) the capacity to step back from our representations—the Brechtian ability to recognize narratives. Spike Lee’s point is to equip us with a bullshit-detector; Harriet Beecher Stowe cannot strengthen our capacity to step back from our representations and see them for the illusions they are.

What do people coming of age today need? An understanding of politics, of law, of history . . . literature and literary studies can offer critical reasoning skills and techniques of logical argumentation. Landy ended his talk with a weird denunciation of anti-Enlightenment and anti-reason positions, and said people who cannot follow Bruno Latour’s path and change course on these issues should shut up for several years.

Patrick Colm Hogan promised to show us problems in how we think about empathy and ethics, but to argue only against the use of the affect heuristic in moral evaluation. The biases Paul Bloom identifies affect spontaneous empathy, but not the cultivated empathy that ethicists advocate. No one is urging us to use spontaneous empathy as a moral criterion (although everybody does). Ethical principles demand systematic and unbiased consistency. Cultivated empathy is a response to the biases of spontaneous empathy. The objects of right-wing empathy should get our empathy, but so should everybody else: we need to resist the saliency and group-identity biases in determining whom we identify with. Prudence entails empathy with my future self; ethical considerations are of the same sort; so we can make empathic decisions on behalf of someone’s future self or future society, and they might require inflicting or failing to relieve current suffering. We need to cultivate ethics more assiduously for generic unknown persons.

Certain sorts of narratives may reduce prejudice against outgroups. And empathy—a nontargeting but universalizing empathy—is necessary for action. Here Hogan took on the arguments in Paul Bloom’s book one by one and argued contra Bloom that empathy is distinct from the egocentric responses of emotional contagion and personal distress. He spoke of having asked a doctor recently whether his Parkinson’s would soon affect his faculties, as that would be tragic for someone whose entire life rests on complex cognitive processes. The doctor gave a brutally unempathic response, and Hogan described, using colorful corporeal metaphors, how that’d made him feel.

So what do we mean by “empathy”? A mnemonic re-experience of the situations we imagine others to be in. It simulates a target’s experience and responds to that experience with a parallel emotional stance. It necessarily occurs en route to sympathy. We may modulate our responses based on our judgment of the appropriateness or deservingness of the other’s distress. Localized emotional sharing is subject to modulate. What we need is the ethical expansion of modulation across space and time.

Paul Bloom expressed gratitude to both Joshua and Patrick for their accurate and generous readings of his book. When he first published his “Against Empathy” article, he expected a small but positive response. The amount of denunciation he got on Twitter shows that people use “empathy” to mean many many things. What Paul Bloom means is more or less the Scottish Enlightenment idea of “sympathy,” chiefly as described by Adam Smith, not “everything good” or “the capacity to judge what other people are feeling,” as his Twitter detractors variously seemed to think. There’s lots of research on how our brains in a literal sense feel people’s pain. Empathy is seen as a good, but it’s just a spotlight: remember the impact of the photo of the drowned Syrian boy. It has a narrow focus. Empathy is innumerate, biased, concrete, and myopic, even in Hogan’s refined definition. People don’t care about numbers: they respond the same way to “How much would you pay to save eighty birds from an oil spill?” when the number is changed. Our empathy is also biased toward the dominant group, the in-group, or the fandom: people were less willing to inflict or condone pain inflicted upon a man who they were told was a fan of the same soccer team they liked. Granted, all of these biases apply to all of our affective lives, but empathy’s especially vulnerable.

See Elaine Scarry on “The Difficulty of Imagining Other People”: we need to change tactics. We don’t give everybody else an imaginary weight equal to our own. We erase our own dense array of attributes, à la Rawls. Empathy has immense power: there’s a great deal of pleasure in living out another life. But does fiction make us better? What side do we take on Nussbaum v. Posner? Paul Bloom is not entirely convinced that lit scholars are much nicer than scientists or even stockbrokers. Does reading fiction improve Theory of Mind? The results of studies making that claim are fragile.

Josh and Pat are both moving toward focused empathy. And once you’ve decided what the right thing and the wrong thing to do is, you can use empathy to make it easier. Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Birth of a Nation are both powerful empathic works. We can resolve to teach the right works, or teach all the works in the right way—that’s Nussbaum’s position—but there are people who are more powerful than literature professors, promulgating their own narratives. People who measure high on empathy are also high on retribution; and DJT mobilizes empathy very well. But there are other moral motivators. Remember the Buddhist distinction between empathy and compassion. Compassion is caring for somebody: in mindfulness meditation, you don’t feel suffering. In confronting the suffering of the world, the Buddhist feels bliss.

Are empathy and concern psychologically distinct? How much you empathize does not correlate with how much you care for/about people. Look at how many expressions of fear or hostility we see in a Wordle for high-empathy people versus the more positive terms that dominate one for high-compassion people.

The first questioner in the audience said, Paul, I love most of your work, but why do you have to go to compassion? Affective routes will always lead us to biases: we need impartiality, universality, and systematic thinking. Not all personal experiences and emotional responses. Paul Bloom replied, ha, most people ask why I needed the “rational” in “rational compassion,” not why I needed the “compassion”! The reason is that you need motivation. A descriptive theory of what makes people do good things. Moral motivation could be wrong about future shame and future guilt. Something something Smithian about concern for your reputation.

Another questioner said that in the Buddhist tradition, to have compassion is to be suspicious of narrative and to be detached from all personal notions. Does fiction produce empathy that leads to harm? Landy said, the movie Adaptation and Beckett’s trilogy chip away at our idea of narrative, but yeah, that’s true of most fiction. A third questioner made an observation about irony, which may be constitutive of the literary, and asked whether the uses and abuses of irony apply to the Nussbaum v. Brecht narrative? Landy opined that romantic irony in Do the Right Thing is the Brechtian drive.

A fourth questioner noted that there’s a gap between examining empathy in the literary and in your life. The paradox of Kurtz . . . what is entailed in identifying empathy within the literary domain? What would be entailed by looking at empathy outside the literary? What case could be made for a connection? ‘cause the case has not been made for an analogy. Paul Bloom remarked that there’s plainly overlap: seeing someone’s hurt isn’t too different from hearing a story. But! Empathy in fiction and journalism is always mediated and rhetorical: it judges what’s worthy and what isn’t. Hogan asked, literature as general training for empathy? Or as specific training for seeing a specific group as human? We have some evidence for the efficacy of the latter, not so much for the former.  Landy replied that the result of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in the South was a hardening of racist attitudes and a literary backlash, which included the work of Thomas Dixon. People’s responses are wildly variable—Not so wildly, said Hogan: there are statistical tendencies.

A fifth questioner asked, what about when the ethical response is that you cannot walk in the shoes of the other? Vide Sontag. Paul Bloom said, even if empathy were a good way of making moral judgment, we’re incompetent at it. We are very bad at knowing what it’s like to be in a situation unlike our own. Look at these absurd Disability Simulations that are supposed to help people understand what disabled life is like. Hogan replied, those are problems with the falsity of the simulation, not problems with the empathy.

A sixth questioner said it’s part of our style as literary critics to be detached. How would I write as a critic, if I were to empathize? Hogan (I think it was) said, there’s a literary genre that’s supposed to inspire compassion in its audience: what about tragedy? Paul Bloom said art can move us in a great many different ways. Lalita Pandit Hogan said, Tragedy makes a distinction between emotional contagion and empathy, between pity and catharsis. Paul Bloom said, when Trump makes you feel for Kate Steinle in order to mobilize xenophobia, he’s telling you a story: that’s not emotional contagion. Patrick reminded us that Plato said you can’t be good soldiers if you’ve seen tragedy, ‘cause then you’d pity the enemy; and that’s what Aristotle is refuting. Some questions arose about whether ethics come first or last.

Another questioner brought up Berlant on sentimental citizenship and how empathy is used to uphold the status quo and liberal individualism if we don’t think about power relations about about who’s being sympathized with. Paul Bloom agreed that empathy favors the needs of people in power. A final questioner asked, Can’t compassion fall victim to the same pitfalls as empathy? Paul Bloom said, Not to the same extent. Hogan objected that universalizing does not mean projection.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Your Human Worth Is Greater Than That: MLA 2018, part seven

This is the seventh part of a series wherein I share my notes on the panels I attended at January's convention of the Modern Language Association. Here are part one, part two, part three, part four, part five, and part six.

411: 1968 – 2018: The Movement, the MLA, and the Current Moment

There were about twenty people in the audience, most of them well over sixty.

Paul Lauter spoke of how, when the MLA convened at these very hotels in 1968 (the Hilton and the Sheraton, now the Americana)—the year of the Tet Offensive, Chicago, Johnson’s abdication, RFK’s assassination, etc.—he had organized a thing, a disruption of professional norms . . . there were many threads of activism going on: the No Chicago campaign made its presence felt, Chomsky got to speak against the war in a large auditorium, and Louis Kampf was arrested for hanging radical posters on the hotel walls. The MLA Radical Caucus was established, and many unexpected events enused: there was a motion for a Committee on the Status of Women in the Profession, there was fundraising for the arrested poster-tackers . . . although their resolutions against the war somehow did not bring the war to a halt, they succeeded at democratizing education and diversifying the canon and the faculty, and presaged the MLA’s fights against the crapification of academic labor. 1968 produced changes that affected all our lives.

Ellen Schrecker tried to place the events of ’68 and the context of that era’s radicalism. In 1965, a group organized an annual socialist scholars’ conference; in ’68, a group of young scholars organized the New University Conference. Most of the action took place within the disciplines and within old or new professional societies. For example the Sociology Liberation Movement published Insurgent Sociologist magazine. The Review of Radical Political Economics and Radical History Review are still around . . . there was Anthropologists for Radical Political Action, various groups in psychology, Science for the People, the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Committee of Concerned Asia Scholars (mainly radical grad students demanding that faculty take a stand on the war). Radical students and faculty proposed resolutions within their fields and at their home institutions, while the Establishment in each field strongly opposed “politicizing” their disciplines. Many of these radical groups were interested in interdisciplinarity, in Marxism . . . were skeptical of “objective scholarship” . . . emphasized moral and ethical issues in their fields . . . opposed the post-WWII wave of quantification. In some fields, scholars struggled to figure out how to combine their scholarship and activism. Some compartmentalized, some gave up academic life . . . and less radical individuals entered the fields when those fields became successful, so the disciplines’ radicalism faded.

Frances Smith Foster could not attend: after having waited eight hours at the San Diego airport, she and her fellow passengers were told that nobody was getting into JFK so the flight was cancelled. In her paper, read by Joan Hartman, she said that Sankofa is a belief that one must retrieve from the past what’s useful for surviving the present and founding the future. That Faulkner line was right about the past. And re-memory is different from, and more important than, memory. Nell Painter Irvin says that what we can see depends heavily on what our culture has told us to look for. The MLA admitted its first African American member in 1884. The two first African American members, however, stopped attending in 1897.

In 1968, Houston Baker, unaware of the Alternative Convention that was going on, saw only one other person of color at the official MLA. He came to understand the racism at that convention thanks not to internal critique of the organization but to his students. Foster felt similarly objectified by white male scholars ten years later. “Naming the Problem that Led to the Question”—Nellie McKay understood the problem well: opportunistic white scholars, white students being steered away from African American studies, a shortage of black scholars being produced. Consider Maynard Mack’s conclusion that the 1968 MLA Disruption revealed “the profound mistrust that was there to divide us” and his call for unity and communication, versus Lauter, Kampf, and Ohmann’s accounts of their failures and successes. Foster’s paper ended with some moving final lines on what remains to be done, which I was unable to take down.

Sarah Chinn then spoke on the theme of “Moving without The Movement.” Let’s take a detour out of the MLA and on to the college campus. How well did the political experiences of ‘68—and did the political experiences of ‘68—inform future students?

The ‘80s are now regarded as a vapid ideological wasteland marked by a dearth of progressive engagement. Sarah remembers them as a maelstrom of political organizing, but also the lack of a “Movement.” Indeed, ‘80s activists wondered how all of the disparate programs of the ‘60s could have constituted a single Movement. Much of that Movement was male-dominated, insensitive to nuance on racial issues, ambivalent about gay liberation . . . but they did see all the oppressions as connected. Talk of “The Movement” seemed wholly foreign in the ‘80s, and its clear sense of purpose seemed weird, as did its veterans nostalgic generalizations. And what had The Movement achieved long-term? Believing in The Revolution just broke people’s hearts: it seemed better to focus on specific goals and issues.

The divestment movement defined Sarah’s first two years in college: endless meetings, the campus shanty, the arrests . . . it became the seedbed for her later activism, with CISPES, or against ongoing segregation in the U.S.; it taught her to back up arguments with research. But! She had no longterm interaction with older activists, except for veterans of lesbian feminism, from whom she learned about the thriving feminist scene: “These women wanted to teach us, and we wanted to learn.” This was very different from the presentism she saw in anti-apartheid activism, where little connection was made to past anticolonial struggles. How, as activists, do we succeed and fail at conveying lessons to people who come after us? 

In 1968, Dick Ohmann was mad as hell. About the war, racial oppression, the stodginess of the MLA . . . he hardly had a systemic critique or strategy, but he and his cohort achieved many successes without a plan, as well as two . . . nonsuccesses. The “job crash” of 1969 led to a job-seekers’ caucus . . . but fifty years is a long time for a crisis to persist. Remember that we’re one industry that has not bounced back from the ’07 recession: the number of tenure track jobs is down by 60% from just before that crash. In 1971, MLA membership exceeded 31,000; in 2016, just over 24,000, while undergraduate enrollment has grown by 150%.

The context of college education has dramatically changed, and not in ways that portend well for arts & sciences. We’ve seen the degradation of university labor’s process and product. In today’s terms, the humanities and social sciences are hard-pressed to compete in vocational education. Once-robust fields like law and medicine are becoming similarly etiolated—see Radical Teacher 99. This degradation of labor and worker-control that has happened since WWII, led by the Coorses and Waltons and Kochs, has established the neoliberal social order that has little room for such 1968 ideals as inclusivity, the common good, or social planning. The successes of 1968 led to the Culture Wars of the ‘80s, and the free marketers and culture warriors and evangelicals triumphed.  We need to look squarely at how we lost while winning since 1968.

An audience member asked, What are the lessons going forward about what we can do today. Ohmann replied that capitalism has a great capability to swallow everything up. Chinn said, We learned there were thins we can win. Someone (Ohmann?) added that liberal embrace of multiculturalism was a terrible mistake and we thought the Culture Wars would pass . . . we could not believe that this issue was important to people . . . in the ‘60s we had the sense that we could just keep going and be confident the revolution would come: we haven’t grappled with heartbreak and we haven’t transmitted techniques of resistance.

Schrecker observed that The Movement came out of the civil rights movement; Chinn said the only equivalent movement today is Black Lives Matter, which reaches into people’s lives. An octogenarian woman behind me, about whom more anon, congratulated Paul Lauter on his award and said, there’s a genuine disagreement about what constitutes the curriculum: the Culture Warriors are not being disingenuous. The Culture Wars concerned the nature of the education of the elite. Allan Bloom was serious. And she added that the transgender movement is another important “bridging” movement that also reaches into people’s lives.

Ohmann said, yes, but now the Culture Wars are focused on PC. And he fears that movements are going down the road of identity politics (Audience member: “Dick, I never thought I’d hear you agree with Mark Lilla”). Another audience member thinks we should have made composition a central part of our mission rather than foisting it on adjuncts. David Laurence spoke of the untrustworthiness of projections about higher education. Twenty (?) years ago, enrollment decline was supposed to be the great threat to higher ed, but it turned out to be inflation.

Louis Kampf, in the audience, said we need to be less ambitious and to question whether literature, composition, and the humanities have this great transformative power. In 2016, many of Kampf’s dear friends and colleagues and family in the radical community declined to support the nomination of a candidate who, despite some very disturbing shortcomings, was the only chance progressive had and instead gambled on the dream of a revolution and voted for Bernie Sanders in the primary, thus contributing to Trump’s victory. So Louis hesitates to answer, “What should we do.”

Chinn sought to rebut Kampf by making a claim for the transformative power of the humanities, especially in public institutions. We see over and over that as soon as POC gain access to a social good, it is either taken away, costs more, or is devalued. Look what happened after CUNY instituted Open Admissions: within six years, free tuition disappeared. Ditto the humanities: as soon as marginalized people claim the humanities as a transformative site, it’s devalued, as if only when it belonged to the elites was it worth something and when it belongs to nonelites, it’s no good. Look at how Wall Street has soared this week, and yet, when NYC is broke, there’s austerity; and when NYC is flush, there’s austerity. The fact that right-wing legislators are saying don’t sit with Shakespeare (Du Bois reference intentional), just become good little worker bees, is the very thing to which the humanities say no, your human worth is greater.

Lauter said that was the theory behind what we were doing with the Heath Anthology, and we were more successful with diversity than with addressing the culture of a working class world. When Lauter directed the Servicement’s Fund, reaching the GI’s was the most important part of opposing the war within the U.S. Can we do that work within the framework of institutions of higher ed?

Octogenarian woman behind me asked, why did state legislatures start to disinvest from higher ed in the ‘70s? And what is happening in the community colleges? Joan H said, all the technical fields now have so many requirements that the amount of required humanities keeps shrinking. Ironically, the Culture Warriors thought that students could be corrupted by three hours a week in one semester. Speaking of community colleges, an audience member said that the state limits literature courses and faculty are discouraged from teaching literature. CC students may bring very limited energy to the humanities.

Vince Leitch spoke out against the adjunctification of the disciplines and said it’s a mixed blessing that the university is so flexible. The country’s sought since the 1880’s to exterminate the Left. Faculty predominantly identify with management, not labor. And remember, The Movement was spontaneous, not organized—like Occupy, not Black Lives Matter. And what became of Occupy?

I had wanted, at some point in the Q&A, to connect some of the comments to the old trope of “Politics are intruding upon our pastoral, hitherto conflict-free university” that was raised in opposition to war protestors in the ‘60s and ‘70s, in opposition to queer and anti-apartheid and anti-weapons research protestors in the ‘80s, in opposition to grad student unionization in (and since) the ‘90s, and in opposition to student calls for sensitivity in the present. I am glad I didn’t, because I would have decried Catharine Stimpson as the major proponent of the view that grad student unionization was destroying the delicate horticultural relationship between students and the faculty; and Stimpson, it turned out, was that octogenarian woman behind me.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Adaptability, Accountability, Vulnerability: MLA 2018, part six

This is the sixth part of a series wherein I share my notes on the panels I attended at January's convention of the Modern Language Association. Here are part one, part two, part three, part four, and part five.

390: Disability Issues in the Profession: Negotiating between Theory and Best Practices

Notwithstanding the generic title, the panel was about disability and foreign language learning. Twelve people were in the audience, maybe sixteen max: a lot of people left early on and then some arrived. The panel opened with Elizabeth Hamilton, who’d collaborated with Tammy Berberi on an essay in the Building Pedagogical Curb Cuts anthology and on Worlds Apart? Disability and Foreign Language Learning. Why, she asked, should language educators lead in accessible pedagogy? Because we know culture, diversity, and stories; we engage nuance and perspective and audience and voice; our programs are poised for leadership, and our methods are already multimodal. Universally-designed options become moments for metacognitive awareness. Think about the bass-baritone Thomas Quasthoff, seen in this image with Daniel Barenboim. Labeled a “child of thalidomide,” he was unable to meet the requirement to play the piano in order to be admitted to the conservatory, so instead he had to seek private study, found great teachers, and became a big name.

Heidi Soneson directs the study abroad program for the University of Minnesota and facilitates access to study abroad for students with disabilities, which takes empathy and attention to the four modalities of language-learning accommodation: flexibility, inclusion, access, and accountability. She explained Universal Design and then talked about how her office considers which programs can accommodate the needs of a disabled student. Factors include size of class, rigidity of testing, duration of travel, pre-arrival preparations, nuanced problem-solving, and the ability to adjust. On the inclusion front, countries “more advanced” in terms of disability law may be worse for students: the Senegal program, it turns out, is more flexible than a location in France. Re: duration, it turns out that a longer program might make fewer unfeasible demands than a shorter one.

Considering access, one asks what benefits the host nation provides. Montpellier offers accommodations for mobility-impaired French university students, but the University of Minnesota’s center there needed to be remodeled for access. Accountability is paramount: full disclosure in a timely manner on the part of the student, etc. etc. At this point, overloaded with material to absorb from all these panels and the book exhibit, I started drifting off and thinking about Senator Kamala Harris.

Benjamin Fraser began his presentation by citing Corbett O’Toole on the necessity of disclosing one’s connection to disability. Fraser is not disabled. He knows ASL, he’s worked with Deaf scholars, he has a brother-in-law with Down Syndrome, intellectual disability, and epilepsy. He’s concerned with the disconnect between the strong social model and its application to the lives of actual cognitively disabled people. There are classics about the representation of physical disability and its centrality to communication and history, but. We must stage an encounter between the strong social model and the medical/clinical approach to cognitive disability. We have to talk about “function.” As Bérubé points out, it is real; but it can never be a meaningful measure of human worth.

Recalling Elizabeth Donaldson’s paper, Fraser cited collaborative self-representation involving autistic and cognitively disabled and mentally disabled creators. Fraser can’t answer the question elicited by reading Titchkosky [would that I had written that question in my notes!] but can cite three interesting programs. There are course sections at East Carolina, capped at 14, that only serve students with documented need; there’s the REACH program at the College of Charleston, which promotes language learning for the intellectually or neurocognitively disabled. What if colleges sought to collaborate with organizations like Creative Growth, where the sculptor Judith Scott worked? What changes and collaborations must we introduce in order to make contact with and include the cognitively disabled?

Tammy Berberi was unable to attend; her frequent collaborator Elizabeth read her paper for her. States of Insecurity, it told us, are nothing new: the U.S. first asserted English-only paranoia in 1795. But now we have the mental health crisis on college campuses. Look at the recent Chronicle of Higher Ed report on anguished college students. There’s a mental disability epidemic, as reported in the Chronicle’s video, “Facing Anxiety.” 42% of Berberi’s students are the first in their families to attend college. Many think they cannot or should not finish a degree. Five years ago, inspired by Cathy Davidson, Halberstam made a plea for Unlearning What We Know. Hegel’s and Ricoeur’s notions of recognition are present in Alexandre Jollien’s account of his adventures inside an institution for children with CP, “In Praise of Weakness.”

How, then, can I invest the classroom with a sense of presence and intention? Mindfulness through regular contemplative praxis develops one’s capacities, compassion, and openness to new experiences, promoting neuroplasticity and language learning, lowering students’ affective filter. Studying another language, in turn, develops emotional flexibility, improves executive function, reduces impulse-control problems.

Although French theorists have long spurned identity politics, group identification is necessary. Both Stiker and Kristeva highlight openness and vulnerability. Kristeva, discussing “the battle for the dignity of the disabled,” suggests “inscribing vulnerability at the center of the political pact”; Stiker advocates “the right to simply be as one is, and to be accepted on those terms”; these principles align well with Mindfulness Intervention. Berberi knows the opposite of these values when she sees it—a syllabus full of rules and of consequences for violating them, one full of helicopter teaching. Her own syllabus contains a disability statement with three parts, covering due date issues, attendance issues, and participation issues in interesting ways.

My notes on the Q&A are a little sketchy. Someone asked a question about Boaz Keysar. Another person asked about the treatment of disability in other countries, and Elizabeth replied that disability studies and the U.S.-influenced disability movement are having an impact but inclusion in the K-12 educational system is not well-understood. Someone asked advice about putting together a book about teaching canonical literature from a disability perspective; I and other respondents suggested she look at the work of Finger and Bérubé, and talked about Berberi’s and Quayson’s experience of trying to persuade old-school academicians that canonical literature is full of disability. One auditor pointed out that Bérubé has a TED talk on these issues. Finally, someone asked about dealing with multiply-disabled disadvantaged students; Heidi said, you have to think about the individuality of disability—what does the student want and what are their needs.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Whose Bodies Are Salvageable? MLA 2018, part five

This is the fifth part of a series wherein I share my notes on the panels I attended at January's convention of the Modern Language Association. Here is part one. Here is part two. Here is part three. Here is part four.

303: Blackness and Disability: A Special Issue of the African American Review

Twelve years ago, I attended a “Disability and Blackness” MLA panel that included only one black presenter. So it was a big relief to see that this panel contained as many black scholars as white scholars. Except that thanks to weather conditions, only half the panel was able to show up; so there was only one black presenter present. 

Tim Lyle began by describing the structure of the new disability issue of African American Review and then read a paper by the absent Anna Mollow called, or perhaps relating to a longer work called, “Unvictimizable: Toward a Fat Black Disability Studies.” The paper began by talking about Eric Garner and the pattern of victim-blaming associated with every death of an unarmed black citizen. Congressman Peter King and Pantaleone’s other defenders added to the blame the fact that Garner was fat. Tamir Rice was described as overweight and we were told that “His size made him menacing.” Terrell Day’s and Barbara Dawson’s size were similarly blamed. Fatphobia and ableism work with racism to support an ideological double-bind. This is not a new invention: the discourse of protection combined with the idea that black people are unvictimizable created similar tropes as far back as slavery.

The new racism pathologizes black suffering. Black people are still stereotyped as undisciplined and unable to control their appetites. We need a methodology that takes note of the imbrication of racism, ableism, and fatphobia: all three combine to create a discourse in which black lives are seen as expendable. Different fields and movements each theorize fatness, blackness, and disability in different ways but don’t talk enough to each other.

Tim Lyle’s own essay addressed HIV/AIDS in black women’s writing, focusing on Pearl Cleage’s What Looks like Crazy on an Ordinary Day. Why was it met with such cultural approbation, and why were folks who discussed it talking only about Ava and not Eartha? Both have HIV! But Ava earns her legitimacy in opposition to Eartha: Ava ends up the unthreatening, safer, healthier, productive citizen, no longer an outsider or a threat. Her story relies on the abjection of the queer black bodies. Eartha refuses to rehabilitate and falls out of the narrative almost completely. The novel overlooks the particularities of the infected black body—what has to happen to legitimate the person with AIDS? Treichler called the problem “an epidemic of signification.” Queer and disabled bodies are often excluded from the conversation.

Sarah Orem’s talk was not a description of her contribution to the AAR, but it was relevant to her cultural history of activism on the part of homebound individuals. So what about A Raisin in the Sun? It’s about capitalism’s disabling and deadly impact on working-class African Americans. Activism is generally figured as demanding energy and presence in public, but Hansberry doesn’t ask disabled women to practice bold self-advocacy; she asks others to recognize what disabled black women are up to. Look at different characters’ responses to Ruth. Mama’s response to Ruth’s fainting demonstrates the pressures on middle-class black women to seem put-together all the time. Beneatha has a different idea from Mama’s about what Ruth is suffering from—that “acute ghettoitis” carries a lot of meaning. Beneatha recognizes that Ruth needs a doctor, the doctor she has been moved to become. Note her attentiveness to physical fragility. The play rejects the norm of rugged, self-reliant individuals in favor of interdependence.

Dennis Tyler spoke of the relevance of Black Disability Studies to the conference’s “States of Insecurity” theme. His contribution to the journal issue focuses on the Jim Crow regime and the work of James Weldon Johnson. He asks, what was Jim Crow designed for and outlines disability as a conduit for oppression, marking the uneven distribution of citizenship. Tyler first examines Johnson’s personal encounters with Jim Crow, then how disability and stigma work in The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. In his memoir, Johnson cites an instance of how disability is encoded in Jim Crow. A deputy in the Jim Crow car says of a disabled white man there, “I can’t bring that crazy man into the white passengers’ car!” The Jim Crow car is what Mitchell and Snyder would style a Cultural Location of Disability. Jim Crow figures both blackness and disability as threats that must be segregated. We lose vital information if we don’t consider blackness and disability together.

Robert McRuer asked Sarah, what about the space of the liquor store in Raisin? It seems like a pharmakonesque poison/cure. And that three-day drinking binge—is Walter rehabilitatable? Sarah’s reply invoked the question of Walter’s manhood and its relevance to Mama’s opposition (on the basis of disability politics) to the store, and also noted that the store is a semipublic space in opposition to the domestic spaces the women operate in. Dennis asked, yes, which black bodies are salvageable?

Liz Bowen asked, what do people think about Jasbir Puar and the state-imposed debilitation of a population? How does the concept of debility apply here? Dennis said, What does debility offer that disability doesn’t? Look at the historical and theoretical and legal understanding of disability. The historical definition has always considered the societal component. Tim also has strong views on Puar: he said, “I don’t want to touch that question” but added that there are culturally specific understandings of disability and that we should look at Sami Schalk’s contribution to the issue.

Anna Hinton asked about how respectability politics have always been a barrier to disability politics, as have class-based divides. Are things improving? Sarah suggested that Brittney Cooper talks about the productive side of disability politics but acknowledged that respectability politics are shot through and through with disability, so sure it’s a barrier. Tim said he tried to acknowledge the progressive things that Cleage’s novel does, but at that historical moment it can only go so far. Cleage was trying to save black lives in the mid-‘90s, and there’s a crisis of imagination: she can’t imagine unapologetic and unpenitent HIV-positive bodies.  Tyler credits Brittney Cooper and Candace Jenkins for appreciating the way respectability politics have allowed certain black women to survive. Lavelle Porter, from the audience, pointed out that Cleage does open up the problematic of innocence and disability: the novel criticizes the “almost-a-virgin” narrative of the “innocent victim” of AIDS. Tim said, yeah, that’s there early in the novel; but Ava has to lose some of her spunk as she gets closer to a heteronormative life narrative.

I had to hit the restroom; when I returned, Dennis was talking about ideology and I Am Not Your Negro. Julia Miele Rodas noted that Dennis had talked about vulnerability and about ingenuity, and she wanted to consider stigma. When she teaches disability studies in an overwhelmingly POC environment, she encounters immense resistance—lots of “I don’t want to go there.” Dennis observed that much of the nineteenth-century discourse was about black people being too disabled for freedom rather than talking about the ways the system has imposed disability on your body. Sarah said she was teaching Women’s Popular Literatures at a large state school, and all the black women were like “Please don’t make us read Beloved again.” It seemed as if it was too close to home and traumatic. Tim explained that he’d taught “HIV/AIDS and the Color Line,” and students react very differently to Cleage’s novel vs. Marlon Riggs’s documentaries. They could talk about the domesticated milieu of Cleage, but no one wanted to talk about the boldly HIV positive bodies in Riggs. What happens, he asked; why do their bodies drop out? Look at what Cathy Cohen has to say in Boundaries of Blackness. We have to get at some of the logics that determine who’s represented.

After the Q&A, I mentioned to Hinton that Anna Mollow and Jennifer James on the first Blackness & Disability panel a dozen years ago had made relevant points about respectability politics.