Sunday, January 15, 2012

Reflections on ASA 2011

The tenth of a series on the 2011 convention of the American Studies Association. Here's Parts One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Six, Seven, Eight, and Nine.

The 2011 convention of the American Studies Association, as I experienced it, was full of tantalizingly interrelated work on such topics as oppression, disability, race, and resistance. The issue of black female agency, for example, that would be celebrated most overtly by Jean-Charles was first raised in Ahad’s Tan Confessions piece, as was the question — faced by Johnson in founding and publishing Tan Confessions — of how you can repress a thing when you have to name, read about, and discuss what you’re trying to repress (much in the mode of Delany’s Aunt Laura).* Indeed, that dialectical dilemma is part of what informs Baldwin’s concern that you’ll let your fight with the oppressor define you — that you’ll be constrained by your enmities. Such a problem appears in the binary thinking that Thomas finds in depictions of the sissy. It’s that context that highlights the significance of how, in John Charles’s words, “black authors showed that they could say other things.”**

Stringer’s remarks on the “pulp clichés that are central to Wright’s work” and how the liberal critics of the Fifties ignored those features of U.S. culture put me in mind of Baldwin’s rather intense disavowal of not only protest fiction and Popular Front literature but hard-boiled fiction. And how ironic that disavowal is, in the light of such statements as Baldwin’s
In the truly awesome attempt of the American to at once preserve his innocence and arrive at a man’s estate, that monster, the tough guy, has been created and perfected; whose masculinity is found in the most infantile and elementary externals and whose attitude toward women is the wedding of the most abysmal romanticism and the most implacable distrust
, which actually articulates the very critique of masculinity that noir fiction frequently engaged in. Moreover, Jernigan credits Another Country with using low-affect hard-boiled prose, manifesting unease with the disciplinary and judgmental, and lauding “the eternal heterogeneity of the self” — all features of Fifties noir fiction, many at odds with the uses to which the Fifties U.S. and some of its literary novelists put existentialist thought. There’s also something very noir in Tuhkanen’s account of the role fascination with the grotesque other plays in Baldwin — such fascination, as Kristeva describes it in the opening pages of Powers of Horror, is central, for example, to Highsmith’s fiction.

I asked Thomas after his panel about the history of the black sissy, particularly in black art rather than in black characters created by the likes of Kushner, and he acknowledged that it was too complicated a thing even to start discussing. Then I learned from Godfrey about the use to which Wright put the sissy and, more disappointingly, the importance in Baldwin of masculinity (and the silencing of Ida in the course of Vivaldo’s awakening) as well as more general suppression of female and feminine voices, which makes the agenda of black feminist criticism all the more urgent.

I got a lot out of the citations on the Affect panel, particularly Tongson’s, and of the documentation of activism and analysis of domination that McRuer always excels at: I think McRuer is one of those social commentators who brings a thorough understanding of history and resistance to his critique of how the powerful abuse and vitiate the ideal of “diversity.” I wasn’t sure how to take some of the more grandiose claims I heard from some of the other panelists to the effect that the Affective Turn was creating a powerful ethics and challenging the presumption of the subject and undoing human mastery – they resonated a little too much with the ASA trope of “With these radical analyses of Dickinson, we can begin to form a new intersubjectivity that resists the neoliberal imperatives of our age and, hopefully, go on to smash the state.” So it was generally refreshing to hear concrete discussion on the Black Feminist Criticism panel that located agency, offered genealogies and biographical content for scholars’ affective investments, and spelled out models of praxis such as Koritha Mitchell’s. duCille’s worry about atomization/isolation and her concern that we’d come a lot farther on paper than we have in the outside world were both necessary as a matter of keeping it real and useful inasmuch as some of the other panelists helped mitigate those anxieties. The panel managed to address representation without treating bad representations as the foundational injustice of society – in the process, like Harry Thomas, it sought to recover disenfranchised populations from the lies that circulate about them – “to correct the narrative on behalf of the most vulnerable.”

DeLoughrey, Franklin, and Martini on the Environment panel addressed a different set of midcentury erasures than the denial of black female agency. Franklin and DeLoughrey in particular raised issues of great relevance to medical and disability issues, not only in discussing the teratogenic war machine but in addressing how the scientific establishment is basically brought up to find criticisms of its hegemony unintelligible, much as the medical and bioethics establishments are selected and trained to resist the perspectives of the vulnerable and the disabled. Hence Nelson and Bliss on the Race, Health, and Justice panel were in a sense recounting the sequels to these midcentury horrors — Bliss with her disconcerting account of how the establishment refunctions liberatory language to fit its agenda of benignant imperialism, and Nelson with her indispensable history of one organization’s resistance to biological victimization. Greene’s story of neoliberal incursion into formerly public facilities also included an account of the self-reinforcing and victim-blaming nature of racist rhetoric, an issue that McRuer and Abdur-Rahman had raised. I think Nelson’s distinguishing the BPP agenda from the disability movement’s goals could be the start of a fruitful discussion: recall that she said the Party framed its goals in terms of protection rather than access. Now, we know from Katherine Henry’s Liberalism and the Culture of Security that there are pitfalls to the rhetoric of protection (heck, we know that from Sojourner Truth); but we know just as well, thanks to work in the queer and disability fields, that “access” is susceptible to the same kind of co-optation as “diversity”: Melanie Yergeau remarked on Margaret Price’s brilliant Access Panel at MLA 2012,
the aim of access, much like the whole of behavioral therapy, is to make disabled people “indistinguishable from their peers” (Alyric, 2008). We live in a world that conflates disability with undesirability. It is more convenient that we cease being disabled than it is for the world to become more inclusive of disabled people.

Reconfiguring interviewing practices, or dismantling ableist approaches to classroom management, or reinventing workplace events—these are not undertakings that happen in the name of access.
Rather, what’s happening in the name of access is this: reconfiguring disabled people, dismantling their ways of being and knowing, and reinventing them, as best we can, into normate clones.
So I wondered, what about Nancy Hirschmann’s suggestion that we frame disability issues, for example, with the rhetoric of “freedom”?

The disability panel, and my conversation after the panel with the Smithsonian’s historian of medicine, Katherine Ott, engaged with issues that had appeared in the talks of Franklin, DeLoughrey, Bliss, duCille, and Jernigan. Burch’s central question of how we apply this knowledge we’ve accumulated, and the whole panel’s concern with disseminating knowledge and spreading a liberatory perspective in hard times, echoed the worries of duCille and the interests of others on the Black Feminist Criticism panel. The attention that Burch and that one auditor gave to acquired disability resonated, of course, with the whole Environment panel as well as with the work on war and disability that scholars have done in the wake of Henri-Jacques Stiker – the issue of refugees and the topic of global disability were also themes that McRuer works hard at addressing. The complementary questions from the audience of “Where do I see people like me represented?” and “Are we too invested in the identity of the scholar and in self-disclosure?” recalled to me the whole question of what to do with the self in one’s liberatory agenda, an issue raised by Tukhanen (who invoked Bersani’s denunciation of the self) and Jernigan (in his celebration of Baldwin). My conversation with Ott, which was somewhat inspired by Nelson’s work, addressed the issue of how and whether these innovations could show up in medical education. At present, the history of medicine is generally taught in universities as a series of forgivable mistakes leading up to our glorious present day; and medical students are socialized into a mindset that can be inimical to, say, disability movement values.*** Innovations such as “Narrative Medicine” get co-opted in the sort of way Bliss and McRuer describe liberatory rhetoric being abused. But a number of scholars believe in working to change that situation, no matter how slim the odds seem to be.

Breu’s talk on the Thanatopolitics panel shared Sean Greene’s interest in Shock Doctrine politics coming home to roost. The “material turn” that Breu’s interested in did not seem to be about rocks or relations with the inanimate – indeed, I thought it might overlap with disability theory issues such as Anne Finger’s resistance to metaphor or Tobin Siebers’s New Realism of the Body. I recommended (as I often do to literary scholars interested in critiques of neoliberalism) that Breu take a look at McRuer. It also related to the abjected peoples whom DeLoughrey talks about. In general, the members and auditors of the Thanatopolitics panel did a good job of combining history, theory, literature, and an account of social justice without claiming the ability to transcend the subject (on the one hand) or reinscribing exclusionary discourses (on the other). Now, one exclusionary discourse that I’ve learned something about is what counts as legitimate for literary study: given time, I think I could have offered Kevin Floyd some suggestions as to why Delany’s novella has received so little attention in quarters where it deserves notice.

I am grateful to everyone named above for what I learned at ASA 2001.
* This dilemma is related to the point I addressed in my review of Larbalestier's Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction: "science fiction foregrounds its engagement with 'the discourses of knowledge' to a greater extent than other kinds of fiction. Science fiction stories, and discussions thereof, spell out their claims about the nature of the universe and its inhabitants: therein, principles of ethics, science, ontology, and history are presented and contested, not tacitly assumed. Hence even the most reactionary affirmation of traditional gender roles in the genre's earliest years acknowledged the idea of nontraditional gender relations, by virtue of naming what it sought to exclude: 'these texts offer the possibility . . . of being something other than a proper man or woman, and thus they problematize the notion of a true sex' (13). Misogynistic science fiction stories, and those of feminists manqués, participate energetically in their own deconstruction."
** In the classroom, I have occasionally faced the task of persuading a white reader that one could interpret a black author to be doing something other than expressing resentment over racial oppression.

*** One scholar frustratedly says, "These people arrive on campus in their Lexuses and raise their hands with Rolex watches on them and say their practices can't afford to pay for sign language interpreters when deaf patients need them" — that is, they're taught very early never to relinquish their anxiety about money.

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