Mishuana Goeman: "Electric Lights, Tourist Sights: Gendering Dispossession and Colonial Infrastructure at the Niagara Falls Border" - Response by Ethan Madarieta

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

posted under by Ted Faust
[On October 18, the Unit for Criticism & Interpretive Theory hosted the lecture "Electric Lights, Tourist Sights: Gendering Dispossession and Colonial Infrastructure at the Niagara Falls Border" as part of the Fall 2016 Modern Critical Theory Lecture Series. The speaker was Mishuana Goeman, Vice Chair and Associate Professor of Gender Studies at UCLA. Below is a response to the lecture from Ethan Madarieta, Comparative Literature.]

"Making Haunting Matter"
Written by Ethan Madarieta (Comparative Literature)

At the Niagara Falls border, the colonial infrastructure (the dam, tourist buildings, etc.) is a haunting, a reminder of the violent and gendered dispossession of Native lands and waters. Through colonial geography, environmental impact, and narrative, the settler-states (U.S. and Canada) continue to actively and passively dispossess and exploit Indigenous peoples, as manifest in both myth and matter. As the opening slide of “Before Dispossession, Or Surviving It” by Angie Morrill, Eve Tuck, and Super Haunts Qollective states: “The opposite, the endgame of opposing our dispossession is not possession—not haunting, though I’ll do it if I have to; it is mattering.”

When visiting Niagara Falls, the New York State Office of Parks and Recreation claims, “the only way to experience one of the world’s most amazing natural wonders right here in the U.S.A.” is on the Maid of the Mist boat tour (emphasis in original). This settler colonial myth of the Indian maid of the mist erases Native peoples, lands, and waters, while marketing tourism through a mock-Native story. There are many popular stories of Niagara’s “Maid of the Mist,” but one in particular, perhaps, dominates the settler colonial imaginary. This myth—a racist narrative of the settler-state—is that a male Elder yearly threw an anonymous, virgin Indian woman over Niagara Falls as a sacrifice to angry gods. This settler colonial narrative of the Native American woman in Niagara Falls speaks to the hetero-normative and patriarchal discourse of the “savage Indian,” and matches the polyvalent Niagara hydroelectric project physically, as symbolically manifest in the phallic Electric Building in Buffalo, NY.


This settler colonial discourse affectively maps (Jonathan Flatley) the nation-state and its technology with a gendered violence, and turns Native Americans into objects of an American imagination. In colonial nostalgia, the white colonizer must always remain essentially different, necessitating the pure fantasy of the savage other. Goeman draws our attention to how these narratives demonstrate a “masculinist rhetoric of capitalist endeavors” and turn Niagara Falls into “a sacrificing monument of death”—the death of a Seneca woman (Maid of the Mist). Such narratives de-property Indigenous relationships to the land and water by reconstituting them with the settler colonial myth of the savage other, and by commodifying and incorporating Indigenous bodies for the financing and reifying of the spatial power of the State.

An example of such an incorporation of Native bodies—peoples, waters, and lands—into the settler colonial logic of nationhood was the “accumulation of Indians and their labor into a tourist economy.” The regulation of, and eventual requirement of licensing for Indians selling arts such as the famed Tuscarora beadwork, was a way of regulating space through regulating sales. This, coupled with the exploitative economy of hucksters “performing Indian” in order to capitalize on the appeal of the “authentic” Indian in curiosity shops and hotels erased the unsettled historical context through which this economy emerged. This myth also extends into popular imagery where the whitening of the “Maid” over time serves as an allegory of the settler colonial whitening of Native lands and waters.


Mishuana Goeman, Tonawanda Band of Seneca, began her talk “Electric Lights, Tourist Sights: Gendering Dispossession and Colonial Infrastructure at the Niagara Falls Border,” by invoking the names of indigenous leaders from Central and North America engaged in struggles for water rights who have recently passed. She also drew our attention to current struggles over land use and water rights such as Native protests (e.g. Standing Rock Sioux) against the Dakota Access Pipeline. Goeman also thanked the peoples whose lands we, and the University, are on. This is a particularly salient invocation in a Federal Land-Grant University such as the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign which encourages cultures of racism through the “performing Indian” of the (ex) mascot Chief Illiniwek, and the Hollywood “Indian” music at half-time, which makes space for “performing Indian” through the singing and bodily gestures of the fans. This institution-sanctioned racism includes, but is certainly not limited to, the recent Illinois Athletics billboard campaign, which displays a racist pseudo-American Indian language. By evoking the presence of the Illinois and Miami people at the beginning of her lecture, Goeman reminds us of the colonized spaces we occupy in our daily lives. Goeman (re)maps settler colonial geographies through making matter this Native haunting (most Illinois and Miami were displaced to Oklahoma), by making these peoples present.

Continuously throughout her talk Goeman makes matter the haunting of the “Maid of the Mist” by evoking particular geographic and narrative spaces such as the Haudenosaunee Territory and the Long House story of Niagara Falls (told best, Goeman says, by Turtle Clan Faithkeeper Oren Lyons or OSWEGO professor Dr. Kevin White), thus rethinking and intervening in settler colonial power and disrupting the very idea of this haunting. Drawing on Avery Gordon’s “Some Thoughts on the Utopian,” Goeman thinks through haunting as “quintessentially an animated state in which a repressed or unresolved social violence is making itself known […]” (2004/2016). With this in mind Goeman asks: if this haunting ghost of the “Maid of the Mist” is a social figure, what social life is the death of this Indian woman making? Goeman suggests that the social life created through this death—a necropolitical project—is the consumption of hetero-patriarchal sociality, one that reinforces an epistemic violence that naturalizes male Native violence and sells Niagara Falls as a tourist destination and the “ultimate symbol of hetero-normative coupling.”

For such a social violence as that inflicted by the settler colonial powers of the U. S. and Canada, there can be no reconciliation, no possession for the dispossessed. The environmental, geographic, and molecular scars remain as a testament to the violent reality that the settler-state intends occupation to be a never-ending condition, which necessitates the kinds of refusals expounded by Audrey Simpson in Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life Across the Borders of Settler States, that is, the refusal to be incorporated into—to be ‘recognized’—by the U.S. The damming and diversion of the Niagara River was an environmental violence perpetrated at the same time as the U.S.-Canada treaty, which regulated the border (lands) and the distribution of hydroelectric power that has polluted and left colonial infrastructure still in place. Goeman says that this toxicity, too, has its own afterlife (haunting).

Rosy Simas “We Wait in Darkness”
Ending on a note of performative futurity in which the traumatic scars that have been carved on the DNA of generations of American Indians can be healed, Goeman gestures toward artist Rosy Simas’s performance and installation “We Wait in Darkness”. Goeman also brings to the present the continuing contestations by Native feminists of the flooding of Native lands through dam construction—capitalist endeavors which continue to displace Native peoples and affect their daily lives. Such demonstrations and practices draw connections between the violences perpetrated against women and the land, particularly the rivers, by settler-state powers that enforce the precarity of Native lands and peoples. The labor of making haunting matter, of bringing Native dispossession into the present, does not depict reality but brings into being—makes matter—Native voices, bodies, and places which destabilize and denaturalize settler colonial discourses. This labor presents the unsettled histories by which these discourses became real. It makes matter the Indian haunting in the American imaginary by disallowing the relegation of Native peoples and lands to the past, but evoking them as present.

In “We Wait in Darkness” Simas comments on the idea that historical trauma is written on the DNA and causes a molecular scarring passed on generationally. Simas writes, “If time travels in both directions, we can heal the scars on our grandparent’s DNA.” Perhaps this is done by making this haunting matter.

Works Cited:

Flatley, Jonathan. Affective Mapping: Melancholia and the Politics of Modernism. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2008.

Gordon, Avery F., and Leon Golub. Keeping Good Time: Reflections on Knowledge, Power and People. Boulder, CO: Routledge, 2004.

Rosy Simas. “We Wait in Darkness” http://vimio.com/113249630

Simpson, Audra. Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life Across the Borders of Settler States. Durham: Duke University Press Books, 2014.

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Paul C. Taylor: "What is Philosophical Race Theory?" - Response by Alex Jong-Seok Lee

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

posted under by Ted Faust
[On October 25, the Unit for Criticism & Interpretive Theory hosted the lecture "What is Philosophical Race Theory?" as part of the Fall 2016 Modern Critical Theory Lecture Series. The speaker was Paul C. Taylor, Associate Professor of Philosophy and African American Studies and Head of the Department of African American Studies at Penn State University. Below is a response to the lecture from Alex Jong-Seok Lee, Anthropology.]

“Racial Formation Theory Revised (with Semi-hostile Amendments)”
Written by Alex Jong-Seok Lee (Anthropology)

Towards the end of his lecture, Paul C. Taylor described his analytical approach as rooted in U.S. pragmatism, a philosophical tradition pioneered by John Dewey in the early 20th century. Broadly speaking, U.S. pragmatism challenges any sharp distinction between theory and practice, holding that truth and knowledge are obtained through a process of context-specific experimental inquiry rather than merely reflecting on the world through passive observations.

Taylor returned to this point after being asked by an audience member how he reconciled what he humorously dubbed the “weird sort of dance” between noting the “peculiarities” of people like Hegel and Kant (e.g., the latter’s legitimizing of racial differences he deemed natural) while also crediting the things that they “got right.” Uneasy with providing overly general answers to context-specific questions, Taylor instead advocated a case-by-case approach situated within the discrete aims and interests guiding a single inquiry. (Consequently, we can still appreciate W.E.B. Du Bois’ pioneering scholarship on race despite his traditional silence on gender and sexuality). Tacit in this example is an admonition to any scholars who are tempted to throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater when discussing theories deemed past their analytic sell-by date.

Taylor situated this appeal within the context of Omi and Winant’s pioneering hypothesis, racial formation theory (RFT). For him, RFT treated race as a processual affair while also presenting a middle ground between the view that race was both illusory and essential. This latter point emerged from the historical context of the late twentieth century from which RFT emerged. The familiar maxim, “race is neither real nor an illusion,” espoused by the likes of David R. Roediger, revealed RFT’s “groping for a metaphysical vocabulary.” The discipline of philosophy (albeit reconfigured), Taylor hoped, potentially could provide an alternative theoretical language on the matter.

Racial Formation in the United States (1992) by Michael Omi and
Howard Winant

A protégé of the pioneering philosopher of race, Lucius Outlaw, Jr., Taylor expressed delight at discovering as a graduate student Omi and Winant’s magnum opus, Racial Formation in the United States. This was a time when the 1990s Appiah debates and widespread commodification of African American culture put the question of race on continual trial. For Taylor, RFT was a social construction thesis that considered race “real” insofar as social realities grounded in social conventions were real. The theory’s true merit was its ability to make this argument in the context of a view that was painstakingly political. However, more recently, RFT has come under fire within scholarly works, such as Conceptual Aphasia in Black: Displacing Racial Formation and Racial Formation in the Twenty-First Century. Increasingly having to orient himself in relation to these commentaries, Taylor viewed his talk as a participatory process for rethinking RFT as less tethered to orthodox critical race theory (à la Derrick Bell) than widely allied with all scholarly fields aimed at understanding the meanings and mechanisms of race.

Do the Right Thing (1989) by Spike Lee. From indiewire.com

As Taylor noted, quoting from Barnor Hesse’s introduction to Conceptual Aphasia in Black (2016): “[RFT’s] exemplary social construction thesis has dominated the critique of race in the intellectual landscape of the U.S. academy since the late 1980s and made the critique of race thinkable only in a liberal multicultural idiom that presupposes a decisive liberal-democratic rupture with the racial ontology of the United States’ settler colonialism and its white supremacy nation-state” (ibid). Chief among Hesse’s disapproval of RFT was its supposed failure to foreground the centrality of violence to the constitution of race in the U.S. This, wrote Hesse, hindered our understanding of race as a deep, constitutive feature of Western modernity.

Conceptual Aphasia in Black: Displacing Racial Formation (2016) by
Khalil Saucier and Tryon P. Woods
Racial Formation in the Twenty-First Century (2012) by
Daniel Martinez HoSang, Oneka LaBennett, and Laura Pulido

Seeking further perspective, Taylor drew on an earlier critique of RFT, this time from Roderick A. Ferguson’s contribution in “Racial Formation in the Twenty-First Century (2012). Ferguson took greatest issue with the obstructing effect of historiographical assumptions behind RFT. Resting on a “declension hypothesis,” Ferguson wrote, Omi and Winant’s theory “tells a story of bold and transformative anti-racist movements during the 1950s and 1960s becoming fractured and destabilized in the face of an insurgent New right in the 1970s and 1980s” (2012:2). However, this periodization, Ferguson explained, “occludes anti-racist movements that were no less significant than the social formations around civil rights and national liberation… [movements that were] initiated by women of color and queers of color within the United States” (ibid).

Taylor later turned his attention to Nikhil Pal Singh’s work within Racial Formation in the Twenty-First Century. Like Ferguson’s critique, Singh complained that RFT focused too narrowly on a particular, historical and national context. RFT also undertheorized the concept of race, in part because of its narrow focus on this particular, historical and national context. Finally, in accordance with Hesse’s assessment, RFT prioritized a certain a kind of normative politics over deployments and resistances to sovereign violence. More specifically, Singh was referring to how these limitations have blinded RFT from “a racialized law-and-order project [that] was introduced during this period as the opening wedge in a broader reorientation of the very forms and dispositions of governance” (2012:280).

Taylor attended to these criticisms one by one. In terms of Hesse, RFT was viewed as an obstacle to thinking productively about race today. However, Taylor questioned the value of such an uncompromising view. Regarding Ferguson’s comments about RFT’s problematic periodization, Taylor reiterated the essential merits of Omi and Winant’s theory from a philosophical standpoint. It still offered a much-needed social constructivist answer to what for so long principally was thought of only as an abstract metaphysical question (i.e., the question of what constituted race). Taylor claimed that when engaging with historical theories philosophers generally were less sensitive to the kind of historical contextualization other disciplines might deem compulsory. Thus, being a philosopher allowed him certain license to interpret RFT in a looser fashion, namely the ability to effectively distinguish epistemic worries (concerns over RFT’s logic or grammar) from political ones over knowledge production. Lastly, Taylor suggested that Singh’s critiques might have had more to do with differing notions over what constituted the “political” than a fundamental flaw with Omi and Winant’s theory.

Ultimately, the recent attacks of RFT might have had less to do with the latter’s theoretical failings than with other factors occurring in contemporary academia. According to Taylor, criticisms of the theory could have been the effect of a certain neoliberal logic within higher education wherein RFT was deemed obsolete in an innovation economy. Another possibility was what Lewis Gordon called “disciplinary decadence” or how the popularity of certain academic disciplines permitted only their proponents to dominate professional spaces over less powerful ones (e.g., the “decline of Black Sociology”).

Taylor closed his talk by reiterating his training as a philosophical pragmatist. As such, he was less interested in the historical context of RFT’s development than in the theory’s analytic efficacy, especially as it related to social-justice aims. Consequently, the basic argumentative structure of RFT still worked in accommodating the anti-racist story that race scholars wanted to tell. Why not simply attach such criticisms (or “semi-hostile amendments,” Taylor joked) to a suitably revised account of RFT? For all scholars interested in how to think productively about the meanings and mechanisms of race in 2016 this is a question to consider. Read more

Thérèse Tierney: "Networked Urbanism: Geographies of Information" - Response by Peter Thompson

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

posted under by Ted Faust
[On October 24, the Unit for Criticism & Interpretive Theory hosted the Unit Distinguished Faculty Lecture, "Networked Urbanism: Geographies of Information," presented by Thérèse Tierney, Associate Professor in the Illinois School of Architecture at UIUC. Below is a response to the lecture from Peter Thompson, History.]

"Networked Urbanism: Theory and Practice"
Written by Peter Thompson (History)

The 1980s and 90s saw an increased interest in space and place among leading critical theorists. As Professor James Hay (Media & Cinema Studies) pointed out in his opening remarks, the works of Michel de Certeau and Henri Lefebvre were major motivating factors in this move toward spatial thinking. This critical turn inspired the critical Marxist geography of David Harvey as well as the conception of space and design developed in Frederic Jameson’s well-known definition of postmodernism. A little later, in the mid-90s, Doreen Massey advanced a feminist critique of spatial concepts, while Meaghan Morris asked how these ideas of space played out in cinema and literature. In various ways, these scholars argued that space is produced both physically and semiotically, thus both shaping our material world and the way that we discursively understand it. Professor Hay asked us to keep this field of theoretical work in mind as we consider the (possibly) new ways in which urban design and information technology are being integrated in the 21st century.

Thérèse Tierney’s presentation, “Networked Urbanism: Geographies of Information,” examined and historicized the integration of new technology into the development of urban spaces. With her academic home in the School of Architecture, she applies her practical knowledge of architectural design to examine the recent development of “smart cities.” The merging of contemporary information technology and architecture is broadly reflected in her previous publications: New Urban Mobilities as Intelligent Infrastructure (2015), The Public Space of Social Media (2013), Abstract Space: Beneath the Media Surface (2007), and Network Practices: New Strategies in Architecture and Design (2007).

Tierney first discussed the ways in which the conception of “the city” is in the midst of change. Challenges such as climate change, migration, population growth, and advanced telecommunications have encouraged architects, governments, and corporations to rethink the definition of the city. Previous studies of urban development employed statistical studies of fixed locations. However, considering the newly mobile (or flowing) nature of contemporary city dwellers, the urban theorist Edward Soja has argued that cities should be studied as systems in what could be termed as “networked urbanism.” The urban designer William Mitchell echoed this idea and furthered the integration of careful sociological study, architectural planning, and advanced computing.

The smartphone is the primary factor in the mobilization of urban spaces. Thus, smartphones can be viewed as the various nodes that create the urban system. Wireless apps for banking, car sharing, paid transportation, etc. further contribute to the expansion of this mobile network. The increasing development of these kind of technologies suggest that the 21st century “smart city” will be dependent on information technology. And while smartphones are privately owned technology, community WiFi and Hackathons can expand access to this kind of mobile network.

“Nodes of the urban system.” From The New Yorker

Professor Tierney argued that the utopian nature of the “smart city” is not a new phenomenon. In the 1950s and 60s, modernist designers and theorists hoped to improve city infrastructure through massive building projects such as Disney’s Project X. However, these projects were simultaneously progressive and conservative in their utopian visions. Architects conceived of new designs and utilized new technologies, but they assumed traditional and fixed lifestyles for the people who would populate their cities. The sense of a failed alternative future that is often associated with these midcentury designs can perhaps be attributed to the inability of designers to account for cultural change and human agency.

“Renderings of the city center in Disney’s Project X.” From Esquire

This should be a historical lesson for architects and urban planners who are currently developing the “smart cities” of the 21st century. According to Tierney, new designs should consider and incorporate the ways in which people utilize the city. In this vein, the integration of new information technologies should strive for a truly democratic process, one in which all inhabitants have equal access and cultural power. For this reason, governments might be better at developing the new “smart city” than private corporations, which generate new networking technology for their own ends (including tracking and targeted sales). The self-interested desires of these private corporations also raise the issue of privacy and data mining. We must ask ourselves who should control such massive amounts of private data and to what ends should this data be used.

“The Digital Stewards set up DIY WiFi in Detroit for community access.” From Commotionwireless.net

Professor Tierney’s talk exposed the ways in which “smart cities” are being imagined and developed in order to raise these kind of questions. While there are no easy answers to the problems of restricted access and corporate use, Professor Tierney hopes to raise awareness of these problems in order to inspire an inclusive collective imagination of our own future cities. Tierney hopes that this collective imagination will use information technology to encourage an idealized civitas, or a community bound by an expansive conception of citizenship.

Professor of New Media, Kevin Hamilton, gave concluding remarks. He viewed Professor Tierney’s presentation as the bridging of theory and practice that the Unit for Criticism has long championed. Ideally, urban designers are now incorporating the theoretical work on human subjectivity that has long guided sociological concerns. This would lead to a view of the city itself as ontologically dynamic. However, the historical view of this research raises questions about whether or not the technological integration into lived experience is especially new in any way. Perhaps we would prefer to decenter technology in our vision of the future city, and rather start from the human ontological definition(s) of technology. Perhaps we should consider what we are actually striving for in the reimagining of urban spaces: are we trying to envision “the good life” or are we simply aiming for basic survival? 

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Christopher Taylor: "Empire and the End of the Postcolonial" - Response by Debojoy Chanda

Thursday, October 13, 2016

posted under by Roman Friedman
[On October 11, the Unit for Criticism & Interpretive Theory hosted the lecture "Empire and the End of the Postcolonial’" as part of the Fall Modern Critical Theory Lecture Series. The speaker was Christopher Taylor, Assistant Professor in the Department of English at the University of Chicago. Below is a response to the lecture from Debojoy Chanda, English.]

“Is the Postcolonial Also the Post-Revolutionary?”
Written by Debojoy Chanda (English)

Over the last decade, critics have begun to ask whether postcolonial studies is a disciplinary formation whose moment has passed. A field that was consolidated between the end of the Cold War and 9/11, postcolonial studies was assailed by a sense of epistemological crisis after the World Trade Center attacks. Scholars worried that postcolonial theory appeared to have lost its relevance and efficacy, given its apparent inability to successfully anticipate or theorize these events. Against such a backdrop, Chris Taylor’s lecture, “Empire and the End of the Postcolonial” took up the question of temporality that he argues has haunted the field since its inception. Leading us through key articles by Anne McClintock, Ann Laura Stoler, and a PMLA panel, Taylor examined the question: when is the postcolonial? 

Taylor began his lecture by locating Afro-Trinidadian historian C. L. R. James’ 1938 history of the Haitian Revolution, The Black Jacobins, as a postcolonial text before its time. This was a text that took the Haitian Revolution as a prefiguration of a future revolutionary Pan-Africanism. James’ own position as an intellectual was located within a present defined by Italian Fascism and the rise of Hitler, a past that was the Revolution, and a possible future movement toward a Pan-Africanism. Given James' temporal location, postcolonial theorizations can be understood as situated either in a past or in a future moment. In other words, these theorizations are about chalking out revolutionary possibilities for an anticipated future, keeping in mind past anti-colonial revolutions and their lessons. If theorists critical of postcolonial studies fail to locate its topicality in the present, that is, according to Taylor, because postcolonial studies does not situate itself in a present. 

Given the apparent linearity of past and future within which postcolonial studies seems to be located, many critics, Taylor suggests, tend to view the ‘postcolonial’ as a moment that is in tandem with a larger Enlightenment telos of a linear world history. As a result, postcolonial studies is made to look like yet another problematic Enlightenment version of world history that needs to be abnegated in favor of more ‘correct’ theorizations. However, suspicions of world history as a standardized modular form are in fact articulated by postcolonial theorists like Partha Chatterjee, who discuss how a ‘First World’ narrative of capitalist development cannot be seamlessly imposed upon an ex-colonized ‘Third World.’ In addition, gestures toward ‘correct’ theorizations, Taylor points out, are rather incongruously expressed in terms like ‘World Anglophone studies’—a term that is fast supplanting ‘postcolonial studies.’ The irony of an ‘English’ disciplinary formation against which ‘Anglophone’ is reduced to an ‘other,’ is inescapable: the ‘World’ in question is in fact the ‘rest of the world,’ making ‘World Anglophone’ yet another essentialist category based on an Anglo-American ‘selfhood.’ Such gestures are insufficient to replacing a field faulted for having outlived its scholarly relevance. 

In keeping with its suspicions of a world historical telos, when socialist formations like the Soviet Union were collapsing and romantic possibilities of the First World Left and Third World guerillas walking shoulder to shoulder in an anti-colonial cause began to disappear, postcolonial studies unsurprisingly emerged as a powerful scholarly presence. Postcolonial theory is therefore a post-revolutionary theory. This post-revolutionary stance, Taylor suggests, is an effect of postcolonial studies’ Janus-like posture of looking ahead to a future revolutionary moment, in the face of the failure of past revolutions: the field was consolidated as Communism became a political possibility of the past, while Third World liberation was deferred to a future. Thus, revolutionary time did not seem to be building up to a culmination in the present that the ‘postcolonial’ could locate. Given this temporal disjunction from the point of view of a present, Anne McClintock expresses skepticism toward the ‘post’ of ‘postcolonialism.’ In addition, she is doubtful of ‘colonialism’ as a rubric that encompasses forms of colonization as disparate as internal colonization and imperial colonization. However, McClintock fails to realize that given its alignment with post-structuralism, postcolonialism rendered its own nomenclature under erasure—it was a category that was, after all, trying to uncover and view a past through means that colonization had already rendered dubious, and to theorize a revolutionary future that Anglo-American neoliberalism had already jeopardized. 

As for the ‘Global South,’ this was a term that made the borders defining ex-colonized countries nebulous, as a member of the audience pointed out. Taylor agreed that the term ‘Global South,’ by effecting this haziness, added another level of essentialism to these countries’ identities. However, he simultaneously drew attention to Benedict Anderson’s seminal text Imagined Communities (1983). In this text, Anderson emphasized that nations were, in the end, constructed through a process of emergence facilitated by ‘print capitalism,’ to use his oft-quoted term. According to Anderson, with capital expanding markets, a standardized orthography arose, and with it, disparate people located in the same homogenous empty time, began reading the same print forms together. As a result, they formed deep, horizontal kinships, and were able to imagine a nation-in-development together—a nation that was not dependent on definitions in terms of borders. 

The notion of print capitalism, according to Partha Chatterjee, in no way gave up the modular form of development associated with a nation-state. What the Subaltern Studies collective—of which Chatterjee was a member—tried to articulate, was the inability of an ex-colonized country to attain nationhood via a bourgeois-democratic revolution of the classic nineteenth-century type. Postcolonial theory tried to cope with this loss of a world-historical horizon, thus rethinking how one would write historiography. 

Adding to Taylor’s point about the loss of a historical horizon, I would say that postcolonialism is perennially haunted by the specter of a world history: according to Hegel, the Western colonization of a spatial entity actually begins this entity’s being-in-the world (and in world history) as a country (234). By this logic, if the emergence of countries qua nations is contingent upon their emergence on a world map, a map of a country can be said to emanate into a ‘world’ consciousness only when the West has ‘discovered’/colonized and written about this country. However problematic this may sound, until colonization happens, the country in question is not, by Hegel’s logic, globally recognized as an entity, and the writing of its history remains deferred. Postcolonial theory, from this point of view, can be seen as an attempt to question the writing of history as a whole—it writes against the grain. 

Taylor closed his lecture with a reference to a 2007 PMLA roundtable discussion between several scholars who addressed the futility of postcolonial studies in the present. The truth, according to Taylor, was that 9/11 and the Iraq War had caught many intellectuals off-guard, and they displaced their disenchantment upon postcolonial studies’ apparently Eurocentric (and world-historic) tendencies. Hence, perhaps, the backlash against postcolonial studies. This is the space and time within which Anglo-American academia locates postcolonial studies at present; however, Taylor’s point is that the discipline never temporally located itself in a present to begin with. Taylor ended with the question of how postcolonial studies could deal fruitfully with and emerge from this crisis in which it found itself. In other words, he seemed to suggest that postcolonial studies had now to articulate its position in the present. Given this quandary, reconfigurations of postcolonial theory are being effected. It remains to be seen which of these reconfigurations will stand the test of time. 

Works Cited

Agnani, Sunil, Fernando Coronil, Gaurav Desai et al. Editor’s Column: The End of Postcolonial 
      Theory?. PMLA Vol. 122 No. 3. pp. 633-51. Print. 

Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities. Verso: London, 1983. Print. 

Chatterjee, Partha. Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World: A Derivative Discourse. 
The University of Minnesota Press: Minnesota, 1993. Print. 

---. The Nation and Its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories. Princeton 
      UP: Princeton, 1993. Print. 

Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth. Trans. Richard Philcox. Grove Press: New York, 
     1961. Print.

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. Trans. S. W. Dyde. George Bell 
     and Sons: London, 1896. Print.

James, C. L. R. The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L'Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution. 
     Random House Inc.: New York, 1989. Print. 

McClintock, Anne. “The Angel of Progress: Pitfalls of the Term “Post-Colonialism”.” Social 
     Text, No. 31/32 (1992), pp. 84-98. Print. 
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Penelope Deutscher: "Biopolitics'" - Response by Michael Uhall

Thursday, October 6, 2016

posted under by Roman Friedman
[On October 4, the Unit for Criticism & Interpretive Theory hosted the lecture "Biopolitics’" as part of the Fall Modern Critical Theory Lecture Series. The speaker was Penelope Deutscher, Professor in the Department of Philosophy at Northwestern U. Below is a response to the lecture from Michael Uhall, Political Science.]

Foucault and the Necropolitics of Reproduction
Written by Michael Uhall (Political Science)

Typically speaking, the concept of biopolitics gets invoked in the context of its largely negative usage in Foucault’s theorization of the term. For Foucault, the term refers to the manifold ways in which political power affects, and is affected by, the bodily and material conditions that inform and subtend the political, but especially insofar as politics takes the alteration, management, or production of those conditions to be its specific objective. Foucault describes a shift in the mode of political power, then, or, rather, the emergence of a new kind of political power – called biopower – that largely overtakes and transforms political power conceived as mere sovereignty. On Foucault’s analysis, politics today is largely biopolitics – sometimes called the politics of life itself . Biopolitics takes its object to be the administration or regulation of the body and the body politic alike, precisely as bodies to be disciplined and populations to be managed and securitized.
(Fig. 1)

As Penelope Deutscher argues in her talk, however, it is very important to avoid disaggregating and reducing the terms and possibilities of Foucault’s analytical framework into overly periodized categories. In other words, it is far too simplistic to sketch the historical trajectory that Foucault recreates in terms of a fundamental discontinuity between an epoch in which sovereignty functions as the dominant form of political power and the epoch in which biopower dominates. To the contrary, as Deutscher notes, quoting from Foucault’s Security, Territory, Population (8): “There is not the legal age, the disciplinary age, and then the age of security. Mechanisms of security do not replace disciplinary mechanisms, which would have replaced juridico-legal mechanisms.  In reality you have a series of complex edifices in which, of course, the techniques themselves change and are perfected, or anyway become more complicated,  but  in which what above all  changes is the dominant characteristic, or more exactly, the system of correlation between  juridico-legal mechanisms, disciplinary mechanisms, and mechanisms of security.”
(Fig. 2)
For Deutscher, then, Foucault’s refusal to periodize overly in his work lets us see the various ways in which both biopower and sovereign power not only inform and interpenetrate each other, but also how these conflicting modes of power inflect and produce cultural formations or functional structures (i.e., dispositifs) in all their actual complexity, difficulty, and irresolution.

It is precisely here that Deutscher effects an intervention in the discourse of reproductive politics. On the one hand, she identifies the degree to which much of the post-Foucauldian theorization of biopolitics tends to foreground necropolitics, or thanatopolitics – that is, the tendency for biopolitics, ostensibly committed to the maximization of vitality in a population, to become its opposite, effecting broadly eugenicist programs intended to extirpate all life conceived as sick, undesirable, or weak. Even a cursory overview of the literature shows how prominent this emphasis is (e.g., in Giorgio Agamben’s Homo Sacer or in Achille Mbembe’s “Necropolitics”). On the other hand, given the many ways in which reproductive politics appear to fall well within the purview of the biopolitical, why, Deutscher asks, is there not more critical attention given to how the biopolitics of reproduction becomes imbricated with the “powers of death” Foucault so often foregrounds in his analyses?

(Fig. 3)
Deutscher employs an illuminating example of precisely such a place in which necropolitics, reproductive rights, and various figurations of sovereignty become entangled together – namely, in the visual rhetorics of anti-abortion billboards and roadside displays (see Figure 1). Here we can start to see the degree to which challenged, fantasmatic, multiple, and waning sovereignties get articulated and imputed to various subjects in various ways, as well as how discourses and dispositifs of affect, animality, criminality, motherhood, racialization, responsibility, and statistical enumeration traverse the contested political site: a site that is ostensibly coextensive with the body of the mother as such.

Particularly in the context of how abortion gets racialized in many of these billboards, it seems that Deutscher has put her finger on a very important and prescient example of just how biopolitics and necropolitics intertwine so as to inform, and be informed by, parallel and related discourses. In Figures 2-4, we can see how falsely affected concern for the black subject gets performed visually by means of deploying remarkably racist and storied rhetorics of animality (“Black Children Are An Endangered Species”), aggressive challenges to the legitimacy of black motherhood as such (“The Most Dangerous Place for an African-American Is in the Womb”), and implicit appeals to violence as stereotypically imputed to predominantly black communities (“End the Violence”). It is as if the only concern for people of color is when they are not yet born, as if white supremacy vocalizes itself quite explicitly in the following dictum: We care for you as long as you are not yet born, while you can still be used as a weapon against your communities and parents. After birth, you simply become our enemy again, no longer a weapon to be used in the slow-motion genocide being visited upon communities of color, but, now, only a target for systematic police brutality and harassment, subject to degraded and discontinued social services.
(Fig. 4)
Perhaps perversely, this brings to mind a nightmarish illustration by the Swiss artist H. R. Giger – “Birth Machine Babies” (Figure 5) – in which the fetal form, environed in the firing chamber of some monstrous firearm, gets represented as a bullet, simultaneously an instrument for killing and a rather strange sort of subject whose brief existence gets figured entirely in terms of its weaponization.
(Fig. 5)
More generally, Deutscher also draws our attention to some methodological principles or suggestions drawn from how Foucault, in fact, articulates his analyses. First, she argues, it is possible not only to read Foucault better by means of attending more carefully and closely to the historical and theoretical contradictions he emphasizes, but also to employ the categories and terms he provides us with to more provocative ends. In other words, the Foucauldian frame functions not just to show us how our subject positions are invalidated by their implication in various states of affairs (e.g., structural injustices). Perhaps more importantly, however, it enables us to articulate and examine the complexity of the world in which we are acting and reacting.

As Deutscher emphasizes, all modes of power are always already multimodal. A hand raised to another person in care can be read not only as a gesture of care, but also as a gesture of the assumption of right, or of appropriation. Indeed, such a gesture might well be both of these things at the same time – both care and appropriation, equally and incommensurably. This is because any given mode of power traverses multiple registers, just as it is traversed by multiple temporalities. As Deutscher notes, we all-too-often expect a phenomenon we encounter to be one thing. We expect this from our objects of study, but we also expect it from our theorists (such as Foucault). To the contrary, she suggests, awareness of the multiple modes of power that transect any given site of interest makes possible modes of productive disruption that otherwise might remain inaccessible to us. This is as equally true for our objects of study as it is for the theorists we employ.
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Alejandro Madrid: "Soundscapes, Sound Archives, and the 'Sounded City'" - Response by Marc Adam Hertzman

Monday, April 4, 2016

posted under by Ted Faust
[On March 31, the Unit for Criticism & Interpretive Theory hosted the lecture "Soundscapes, Sound Archives, and the ‘Sounded City.’" The speaker was Alejandro Madrid, Associate Professor of Musicology at Cornell University. Below is a response to the lecture from Marc Adam Hertzman, Assistant Professor of History.]

Soundscapes Past, Present, and Future
Written by Marc Adam Hertzman (History)

I am extremely grateful for being invited to participate in this event, and for the chance to engage with this fascinating paper. Madrid’s critical appraisal of the Fonoteca Nacional brings to the fore questions about a number of perennially interesting, vexing topics—nationalism (and the “post-national”); the relationship between nation and city, rural and urban, and lettered and oral; new and old forms of cultural ownership and authorship; the “democratization” (or not) of cultural and political institutions and spaces; and the always complex personal and intellectual relationships that develop in “the field,” to name just a few. In ten to fifteen minutes it would be impossible to adequately address one, let alone all, of these topics. Aware of the limitations here I would like to elaborate three sets of questions that Madrid puts on the table for us.

In assessing the Fonoteca’s self-consciously “bottom-up” project, Madrid is skeptical. Drawing on Angel Rama’s foundational text The Lettered City, Madrid suggests that, whatever its intentions, the Fonoteca project reproduces power relations and hierarchies that its architects had hoped to challenge. This, Madrid points out, raises troubling questions for those who see in today’s wired world a newly democratic, egalitarian public sphere. Rather than pointing us toward a world of more access and opportunity for a greater number of people – not to mention the valorization of previously marginalized groups and traditions – the Fonoteca becomes instead emblematic of how even the most well-intentioned national projects so often turn into “top-down, civilizing” projects. As a result, and whatever its intentions (stated or real), the Fonoteca doesn’t lead to a “democratization of sound” and instead functions more as a wall between the “late capitalist” present and the utopian “post-national” future that Madrid refers to at key moments throughout the text.

His critique puts us face-to-face with some of the most important and challenging debates in Cultural Studies, Latin American Studies, and Ethnomusicology. And again, I’d like to talk about just three of those.

Beyond the Lettered City
The first of questions grow from Madrid’s stimulating delineation of the “sounded city.” As noted, the paper dialogues with and, I think, effectively critiques Rama’s Lettered City, as well as its critics. Envisioning intellectual and public spheres, and their attendant power relations and hierarchies, in sonic terms is all well and good, Madrid shows, but moving beyond the fetishization of literacy does not, in itself, do us any good, and in fact may in some ways be more pernicious, buttressing old pecking orders under the guise of revolutionary change.

Madrid’s argument resonates with – and also diverges in key ways from – Joanne Rappaport and Thomas Cummins’ award-winning Beyond the Lettered City, set thousands of miles to the south, in the colonial Andes, centuries before the creation of the Fonoteca.[1] One of Rappaport and Cummins’ most important contributions is the challenge they present to the very notion of binary literate and non-literate spheres. Contrary to the idea that some forms of expression and knowledge production are often understood, as Madrid puts it, as “pre-modern,” Rappaport and Cummins show oral and written forms to be conspicuously intertwined. In Europe and America, “town criers” shouted out written pronouncements and proclamations. Maps, painting, and khipus – woolen knotted cords used to keep records, share news, and convey or perform any number of tasks that we often associate with writing – all suggest that the binary between written and non-written forms of literacy is a colonial invention. We find a similar point, for example, in the Koran, whose texts originated in oral recitations.

One wonders, then, what makes today’s “sounded city” different than earlier ones. What exactly is unique about the moment in which we live? Ana Maria Ochoa Gautier suggests that the aural has intensified in the last two decades. Building off this idea, Madrid sees an “increasing relevance of sound culture within a sector of the educated middle and upper classes” and “a new epistemological model, one in which sound becomes as important as the written word in trying to make sense of the natural, social, and cultural world we live in.” “In a way,” he continues, “knowledge about sound and participation in alternative sound scenes have become markers of cosmopolitan intellectual distinction” that define Mexico’s “apparent postnational ‘sounded city.’”

These are provocative ideas, worth interrogating a bit further. How does the “intensification” that Ochoa Gautier refers to compare with the remarkable transformations in technology and modes of distribution that came with the rise of the phonograph and subsequent innovations in recorded sound at the turn of the twentieth century? Returning to the Andes and again going back in time, we find a truly vibrant, connected set of sonic universes in colonial Cuzco, what Geoffrey Baker calls an “urban soundscape” or a “sonorous city.”[2] How, then, does Mexico’s contemporary “sounded city” compare to those from hundreds of years ago? I ask not to suggest a trans- or a-historical reading, but rather in the hope of honing in more closely on what is and is not unique about the moment in which we currently live and in which Madrid’s paper is set.

Along with Argentina, Brazil, and Cuba, Mexico was at the forefront of sound recording technology during the first half of the twentieth century. But the power of sound far exceeded the nascent technology. Corridos, the “soundtrack” of the Mexican Revolution, functioned as what anthropologist Robert Redfield called the “newspaper of the folk.”[3] In what ways, then, does today’s “sounded city” differ from earlier ones?

Madrid emphasizes change especially among the educated and affluent in Mexico City. Here again, it would be interesting to also think about what came before, not only in 1970s and ‘80s, but the 1920s, ‘30s, and ‘40s, when Mexican elites, much like their counterparts across the Americas, took special interest in folklore and used new technology to capture and reproduce sound, often with ideas and goals that, at least on the surface, don’t seem that different than those of the individuals under consideration in this paper.

Moving on now to a second, related set of questions about the national and postnational…

The National… Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow
In the paper’s opening pages, Madrid frames the history of national music archives with the example of Austria’s Phonogrammarchiv, “the first sound archive in the world.” As he points out, the intention there was to collect music from all over, a project he writes, that was “encyclopedic, civilizing, and largely imperialistic-nationalistic.” That last term, “imperialistic-nationalistic,” is very interesting, especially given the paper’s juxtaposition of the national and the postnational. On one level, it seems that the Austrian example leads us towards thinking about the ways that external imperial projects become reinscribed or reinvented within national borders. Does Mexico City, in this case, represent a kind of metropole to the rural interior? On another level, the Austrian project to collect music from around the globe makes us think twice about the meanings of the postnational. In my own work, I’ve explored the way that Brazilian nationalism, and the fight against musical poachers from Europe and North America, helped galvanize the domestic defense of musical and intellectual property right. As imperfect and even oppressive as it is, the national has represented a refuge and source of support for musicians in a way that the postnational may not. If there is a single question here it is what, exactly, does this postnational looks like, and what specific impact it has on age-old global imbalances and inequalities in the music market. And here I’m thinking especially of Professor Madrid’s edited collection Postnational Musical Identities, which delineates a number of possible postnational pasts, presents, and futures.[4] Which kind are we dealing with here?

Sonic Ownership
This set of questions leads us to a final cluster of issues surrounding musical property and ownership. Here, the work that Brazilian ethnomusicologist Carlos Sandroni has done on Mário de Andrade is especially useful.[5] Like Robert Redfield, the Lomaxes, Zora Neale Hurston, and so many other anthropologist-ethnographer-cum-music-collectors of the era, Andrade endeavored to understand and preserve Brazil through field research, interviews, photographs, film, and recorded sound. In 1938, he directed a Folklore Research Mission that sent researchers into the rural North and Northeast to gather music, stories, and traditions before modernity and urbanization would destroy these “pure” cultures. (Interestingly enough, one of the four main researchers, Martin Braunwieser, was born in Austria.)

The project was funded by the city of São Paulo and produced several books in the 1940s and ‘50s. For the next three decades, the collection remained housed in a city office. Researchers began to work with it again in the 1980s, and their work was facilitated by an agreement signed in the 1940s with the Library of Congress in Washington, which held copies of all the sound recordings. During the 2000s, CD sets and a DVD were published.[6] Sandroni, a widely respected scholar, worked with the collection until the late 1990s, when he moved to Pernambuco, one of the states that received Andrade’s researchers. His first thought was to make the archive public and to create new recordings in the same localities in order to study “continuity and change in traditional music,” with many of the same intentions as the Fonoteca.[7] He soon had a different idea. In 1997, he traveled to Tacaratu, a small town in the interior. Using the notes from the original researchers, and relying on elders in the community, he tracked down a son of two individuals who Andrade’s team recorded in the 1930s. Rather than make new recordings, he shared. “Before our visit,” Sandroni recounted later, “nobody in Tacaratu knew that their city had been visited 60 years earlier by researchers from São Paulo, much less that photographs and recordings made their were deposited in a cultural institution 3000 km from there.”[8] Putting in the painstaking work of tracking down those individuals recorded decades earlier, Sandroni replicated similar encounters not only with descendants but also the original musicians, some of whom had never heard the sound of their own voice on a recording.

These encounters, through which Sandroni in a sense repatriated sounds and images collected – taken – so many years earlier were invariably emotional and positive. They present interesting points of dialogue with the Fonoteca project, which I’d like to return to now to conclude:

First, Sandroni’s project represents an interesting counterpoint to the Fonoteca, and not just because it focused on returning rather than recording. As Madrid shows, the Fonoteca originally hoped that individuals and communities from around Mexico would upload recordings, thus creating a map of the national soundscape. But the lion’s share of contributions came from urban areas. And so, like Redfield and Andrade before them, the scholars who Madrid discusses set out to record the hinterland. For me, the issue of whether those recordings are “bottom-up” or “top-down” is only part of a larger story. Indeed, and as Sandroni and so many other ethnographers readily admit, this kind of encounter is inevitably rife with hierarchy and imbalance. I wonder, then, whether we might focus not only on those things but also now in terms of the possible futures that the recordings, however problematic, may have.

Some of the best possible futures might be post-national, but if the experience of Sandroni is any indication, that might be missing the point a bit, too. Many of the men and women who reencountered their music were proud to have been included in a project now being studied and celebrated as a rich chapter in national history. Less important than the impositions, blindnesses, and insensitivities of Andrade’s team was the ability to reconnect, now years later, with something that was theirs.

What repatriation or reclamation mean – legally, morally, emotionally – is exceptionally complex and exceeds, I think, the analytical payload of “the democratization of sound.” As Sandroni argues elsewhere – and as others, myself included, have suggested – Creative Commons and democratic, universal access to intellectual or artistic production can have unintended, even perverse effects, such as hurting or limiting the rights of artistic producers.[9] For all the value that open access has on the consumption side, it can be brutal for producers of few economic means seeking to stake their livelihood on the art they create, especially when those producers reside on the wrong side of persistent social-discursive divides: literate-oral, refined-popular, individual-collective, etc.

To close, I’d say that I think that the postnational and the “democratization of sound” are only parts of this fascinating story that cannot be fully understood or remedied in bottom-up/top-down terms and that instead must be confronted with more varied models and with an eye not only the past and present, but also the future.

I’m grateful to Professor Madrid for writing such a stimulating paper and bringing all these fascinating issues to the table.

[1] Joanne Rappaport and Tom Cummins, Beyond the Lettered City: Indigenous Literacies in the Andes (Durham, NC: Duke University Press Books, 2011).
[2] Critiquing Rama, Baker suggests that “music, sound, and performance” were “equally integral” to literature in the colonization and urbanization of the Americas.  “The ordering of the city [was] conceived and enacted not only in verbal but also in sonic terms, exemplified by the concept and practice of harmony.”  Geoffrey Baker, Imposing Harmony: Music and Society in Colonial Cuzco (Durham: Duke University Press Books, 2008), 20, 22.
[3] He titled one chapter of his ethnography of 1920s Tepoztlán “Literacy and Literature.”  Mark Pedelty, Music Ritual in Mexico City (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2004), 122, 124; Robert Redfield, Tepoztlán, a Mexican Village: A Study of Folk Life (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1930).
[4] Ignacio Corona and Alejandro L. Madrid, Postnational Musical Identities: Cultural Production, Distribution, and Consumption in a Globalized Scenario (Lexington Books, 2007).
[5] Carlos Sandroni, “O acervo da Missão de Pesquisas Folclóricas, 1938-2012,” Debates, no. 12 (June 2014): 55–62; Carlos Sandroni, “Notas sobre Mário de Andrade s a Missão de Pesquisas Folclóricas de 1938,” Revista do Patrimônio Histórico e Artístico Nacional, no. 28 (1999): 60–73.
[6] Sandroni, “O acervo da Missão de Pesquisas Folclóricas, 1938-2012,” 56.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid., 57.
[9] Carlos Sandroni, “Propriedade intelectual e música de tradição oral,” Cultura e Pensamento 3 (December 2007): 65–80.
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