Parasite: No Spoilers

If you have not yet seen Bong Joon-ho’s Palme D’Or winner, Parasite, you should. Like so many other viewers, I am infected by this film and also do not wish to spoil any of its surprises.

I will restrict myself to one image from Parasite–that of a long staircase angled steeply against a wall. It is raining and three members of a family approach the top of this staircase. They are already drenched and they are still far from home. This image from Parasite is not on the web (yet), but the image it reminded me of is.

In Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away (2001), the protagonist, Chihiro gains work but loses her name by the owner of a spirit bathhouse. She knows herself only as Sen (One Thousand); that is, her sense of self has been shortened to a number. At one point, Sen finds herself on the outside of the bathhouse, at the top of a long, steep staircase that clings to the external wall of the bathhouse in precarious liminality. Neither fully inside nor outside the bathhouse, Sen wobbles hesitantly and then practically falls down the stairs and into the boiler room–indicated in the second image (right) by a glowing orange rectangle. In the boiler room, a spider-like man Kamaji directs the bathhouse mechanics of filling the baths with water and fragrances. It also is where we are introduced to tiny soot-ball creatures that seem to be at least alienated laborers, if not out-and-out slaves. The staircase–accessed only from this liminal exteriority–connects the beautiful bathhouse above with boiler room below. What seems interesting–and perhaps parallel with Parasite–is that the division between up and down is not that between no-work and work, or between consumption and production. The bathhouse is a place of work, after all, and the workers strive to satisfy the spirit-customers who, themselves, need to consume the services of the bathhouse because of the arduous labors they perform in the world.

And yet opposition is drawn and it is drawn starkly by this wall-clinging, steep, long, and precarious staircase. The urban staircase in Parasite brought this other animé staircase to mind, and led me to reflect on the divisions it is demarcating.


A word that moves me: Affect

Our faculty colloquium this fall asked colleagues to select one word that motivates our work in religion (teaching, scholarship, or both). My word, unsurprisingly, was affect. These are my remarks:

In turning to the noun, affect, I want to foreground its forcefulness, the way this noun indexes its correlative verb–to affect and be affected, to influence and be influenced– and I want to conjoin this forcefulness with an atmospherics that curiously dis-places agency.

Consider this. Claudia Rankine opens her recent short drama, The White Card, with two images. The first is one of Robert Rauschenberg’s “White Paintings”*, this one a triptych of plain white panels, and second a photograph by Robert Longo titled “Untitled (Ferguson Police, August 13, 2014).”** The photograph is also a kind of triptych, turned horizontal to Rauschenberg’s vertical panels, with two bands of blackness on the top and bottom of the photo and a center band of blotchy lights from police cruisers and tanks that bring the bodies of the police officers into relief. The juxtaposition of these two images works for Rankine to show how the violence of anti-black racism erupts out of the pervasive atmospherics of seamless whiteness.

The work that moves me right now is work on this atmospheric whiteness, this ability for racist norms and racial normativity to be lived and launched transparently, as unnoticeable and—as Merleau-Ponty puts it—as seemingly natural as the tone of light in a room, even while these racist norms and this racial normativity are deeply felt and deeply valued, an affective embrace evidenced most readily by the tremendous resistance to changing them. These questions about norms and normativity hook up with my recent reflections on theorizing religion as and through affective and discursive structures of valuation and transvaluation. Religion for me, these days, denominates collective (i.e., interpersonal and institutional) structures that name, codify, form, train, and ritualize the values that bind members of a collective over and over again. The binding through structures of valuation becomes the material grist for attempts to change, that is, transvalue, those structures. My interest in cinema derives in large part from the fact that directors and writers often evoke and deploy religion in just this affective way—as a shorthand for the characters’ shared values or as a gesture to pressures, practices, or presences that transvalue a film’s diegetically operative values.

My newest questions about the atmospheric and luminous qualities of norms and normativity have pressed me to consider not only how characters are filmed vis-à-vis their surroundings in ways that convey religion as valuation and transvaluation but also how the characters themselves emerge as normed subjects through the navigation of these structures of valuation. In this work I’ve been helped by two philosophers who were influential on the 68ers (Foucault and Deleuze), namely Étienne Souriau and Gilbert Simondon. Both philosophers examine how individuals emerge out of unchosen dependence on surrounding environments, with Souriau emphasizing the instauration of entities through different aesthetic regimes, and Simondon emphasizing the process of individuation out of differential resource gradients of a milieu. Agency, then, or (better) the differential capacities for agency are displaced to questions of environment, structure, and technology.

Taking this back to film and religion, I’m interested to see how the camera itself is functioning as a normalizing force that forms and deforms the persons and objects before it—not only how the camera is a milieu and an aesthetic that gives rise to subjectivities (or something like an individual), on the one hand, and to structures of valuation (or something like religion), on the other, but also how the unfolding of this emergence can cue scholars to the passive, not-quite-conscious, and always affective absorption of norms and normativity that, once extant, become very difficult to change.



Foucault: “the limits of enunciability”

Sean Scully, “Landline Yellow Line”

I return, finally, to Foucault’s early interest in limit. But as the past 12 weeks (!!) have seeped away, I have realized that to return to this question in the context of his relation to the Tel Quel group, on the one hand, and Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology, on the other, is too large and complex a task for a blog post. Here is a briefer engagement, which I hope can stand as a promise toward further thinking.

In January 1966, on the cusp of the April publication of Les Mots et les Choses (The Order of Things), Foucault writes to a friend: “Non, ce ne’st pas cela, le problème n’est pas la langue, mais les limites de l’énonciabilité”: “No, not that; the problem is not language but the limits of enunciability” (Dits et Écrits I, 36; the addressee is not named).  The problem–what problem?–is not language (here langue, a linguistic system such as French or Russian, and not langage, a style or pattern of use within une langue), but the limits of enunciability, the limits of the capacity to assert (something)(anything).

What does it mean to pinpoint the limits of enunciability as a problem? At least three things, I think:

  1. It means to seek in language not signification but that which signification borders and excludes. In recognizing that linguistic assertions block out and exclude meaning as much as they ground and substantiate it, Foucault’s attention to the limits of enunciability attends to language as both norm and technology of normalization.
  2. It signals a hermeneutic attentive not to desires or affects that are expressed but to those that are silenced. In sensing that words form channels for desires, Foucault attempts to peer over or beyond the boundaries of these channels toward desires(affects, intensities) that flow against or outside them, thereby evading the limits of enunciability, and leveraging (perhaps) something like encounter or shock with those limits, or transgression of them, or change within them.
  3. It pursues lines of inquiry that sink a scholar into discourse not so as to better understand what is said but rather to tease out, by attending to the space or structure of the work itself, the merest suggestion of those murmurings that limn discourse and steer its functioning without ever breaking through to expression. Such limits of enunciability lead Foucault to distinguish unreason from the binary of reason/madness (to approach, as he writes, the “murmur of obscure insects” (“ce murmure d’insectes sombre”, Dits et Écrits, 192) that precedes the division between reason and madness). Such limits suggest to Foucault that Rousseau’s writing structures language so as to function madly or deliriously, even if it is not itself ‘mad’ or ‘delirious.’ Such limits, finally (for here, skipping the usual references to Roussel and Bataille), lead Foucault in the 1964 Cerisy-la-Salle seminar on the novel to suggest “a chache, a blind spot, something from which one speaks and is never there” (“une cache, un point aveugle, quelque chose à partir de quoi on parle et qui n’est jamais là“). The poignancy and difference of the “new novel” comes from writing from or as this cache, writing words that effectively are limits more than they are indices or referents.

Foucault and Transcendence: Haunted by Merleau-Ponty, Affect, and the Norm of Determinacy

“We are condemned to sense,” Maurice Merleau-Ponty writes in his Preface to Phenomenology of Perception (Landes translation, lxxxiv). The statement concludes a paragraph not on our bodily schema or our being toward the world (être à monde) but on history, or the relation of (natural) perception to (social) history. He ends the sentence with the conviction that “there is nothing we can do or say that does not acquire a name in history.”

We are condemned to sense. This is to say that we are the kind of being, a kind of animal, that is condemned to pull meaning and orientation out of our habitats, or what we come to call our worlds.

My close reading of Phenomenology of Perception this summer has been juxtaposed with my return to volume 1 of Foucault’s Dits et Écrits. It is a forceful intellectual juxtaposition, by which I mean that each text has exerted tangible force on the other as I alternate between them over the course of my morning reflections. It has led me to a different reception of Foucault’s early interest in transcendence–particularly with regard to Binswanger’s existential analysis–and his interest in limit with regard to the history of psychology (the history of the science of madness), to early literature of so-called sexual perversion, and to the authors (Robbe-Grillet, Sollers) involved in Tel Quel. Next to PP what I hear in Foucault’s use of transcendence and limit involves what I take to be the latter’s equal assimilation and rejection of Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology, specifically his assertions in PP about the embodied necessary links between perceptual faith, perceived objects, language, norms, and a lived world.

This post will focus on transcendence. I will take up the limit next week.

In PP, Merleau-Ponty’s first substantial engagement with the term occurs in his chapter, “The Body as a Sexed Being,” which aside from its male and heterosexual presumptions, is a chapter anyone interested in affect studies should ponder for the ways in which the philosopher anchors human being in the “affective milieu” of sexuality, without collapsing that affective milieu into Freudian desire and without granting it supreme force or steering capacity in the body’s pervasive intentionality (or protensivity) toward the world. In the section Landes titles “sexuality cannot be ‘transcended” (171-174), Merleau-Ponty refers to sexuality as an “atmosphere” that is “continuously present in human life” (171). As an atmosphere, sexuality conjoins other parts of bodily being that Merleau-Ponty refers to as pre-personal, anonymous, a “haze” and “a principle of indetermination.” From indetermination, sense emerges, without humans having to try. This is the sense in which we are condemned to sense. Because existence “is the very operation by which something that had no sense takes on sense,” existence transforms indetermination into determination. “Transcendence,” Merleau-Ponty writes, “is the name we shall give to this movement by which existence takes up for itself and transforms a de facto situation.”

Transcendence here refers to a kind of climbing out of the indeterminacy of embodied living, an “escape that is never an unconditioned freedom” (174) out of nature and into history–though, crucially, human nature and human history cannot be separated from each other.

It is startling, then, that in Foucault’s first published essay, his 1954 “Introduction” to Ludwig Binswanger’s 1930 essay, “Dream and Existence” (“Traum und Existenz”), he conjoins transcendence to the dream(er) and to the freedom of indeterminacy!

Foucault’s early work is typically discounted by Foucault scholars as youthful and unimportant. [Here I have been influenced by Bryan Smyth’s “Foucault and Binswanger,” SPEP supplement of Philosophy Today, 2011, and Elisabetta Basso’s “On Historicity and Transcendentality Again. Foucault’s Trajectory from Existential Psychiatry to Historical Epistemology,” Foucault Studies 2012.]  I stake no position in that debate. Knowing that Foucault absorbed Merleau-Ponty’s lectures at the École Normal and also that he avidly read Heidegger, I’m interested only in what seems smoothly phenomenological and what seems other-than-phenomenological in his early writings.

As I read Foucault’s introduction to Binswanger’s text, he shifts emphasis from meaning (sens) to expression, and from concrete experience to dream. In both shifts, the effect is to underscore the gaps and silences in expression that are as important to meaning as are objects and words. (See Dits et Écrits, 1, p. 103), and to suggest the insufficiency of Heidegger’s (and Binswanger’s, and perhaps Merleau-Ponty’s) phenomenology in not grasping the normativity of the world-subject relation it theorizes.

The mad, the insane, also have their worlds, but they become Heraclitus’s idios cosmos, a private world that does not entwine with the ‘normal’ world around it. (Dits et Écrits, p. 119) For a connected example (salient ever since Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams), Foucault turns to the dreamer and the dream. The dream is a “plastic imaginary”, he writes (p. 97). It is in this sense of mutation, of moving between and beyond the determinations of one’s self and world, that Foucault seems to connect the dream to human transcendence.

For example in response to Spinoza’s linking of dream and transcendence, Foucault comments: “The dream, like all imaginary experience, is thus a specific form of experience that is not entirely reconstituted by psychology and the content of which designates man as transcendent being. The imagination, sign of transcendence; the dream, experience of this transcendence under the sign of the imaginary”. (p. 111) He also notes, drawing from classical literature on the dream, “the dream being to the imagination what grace is to the heart or will.” (p. 112)

In both of these quotations, the human ability to climb out is not oriented toward the determination that congeals an always-present (and always-pulsing, always affective) indeterminacy, but is rather oriented toward the gaps or silences, the plasticity of that determination in order to become-other(wise). This act of climbing out, this act of transcendence is in the dream, which is an expression of the imagination. The theological concept of grace is a perfect counterpart here, since the heart or will might have their desires, their motivations, and their anxious hesitations, but it is God’s grace that activates the heart or will and enables human possibility to become startling change.

The dream is not a fantasy, not the aimless or canny ramblings of the unconscious, but precisely a kind of worlding, a worlding that shows the human capacity for transcendence in the sense of the capacity to climb out of the normal(izing) worlds around us.

Foucault, having recently written on Kant’s anthropology, and anticipating his critique of the human sciences in The Order of Things (1966), concludes that, “The dream is an anthropological index of transcendence. (116)

The dream shows us that we are not condemned to sense.

Foucault then, by citing Shakespeare, links liberty to the dream’s ability to express the human capacity for transcendence. ) “If the dream carries the most profound human significations (significations), it is not in the measure where it denounces hidden mechanisms and shows up inhuman workings, it is on the contrary in the measure where it brings to light the liberty that is most original to man [or: ‘that is the very essence of human being’].” (p. 121)

Foucault does not here take on Merleau-Ponty. His introduction is not a critique of his teacher so much as what I might call a side-step away from iterations of philosophy he was taught in school. Where Merleau-Ponty seeks to understand the emergence and coherence of a world (“form is the very appearance of the world, not its condition of possibility. It is the birth of a norm, not realized according to a norm.” p.62), Foucault seeks to understand how and why that emergence and coherence become traps we wish (and have the ability) to transcend. Where Merleau-Ponty focuses on objects coming into felt experience and linguistic stability (“The whole life of consciousness tends to posit objects, since it is only consciousness (or self-knowledge) insofar as it takes itself up and gathers itself together in an identifiable object.” p. 74), Foucault turns to the dream, to the gauzy, gappy image-world that also signals consciousness and self-knowledge, but differently. Finally, where Merleau-Ponty rightly sees humans as like other animals that climb out of nature not by escaping it but by establishing norms within it (“the animal itself projects the norms of its milieu and establishes the terms of its vital problem.” p. 80),  Foucault sees humans establishing problems (such as the problem of madness) through norms and pegs as the vital task of humanity our desire and capacity to climb out of the naturalization of normativity.


Eradicating the Culture of Judgment: Humanities Doctoral Education


I’m sitting in another academic meeting. As the conversation turns to graduate student mental health, lived stress, and concerns about the academic job market, a faculty member interjects that while it might be an unpleasant fact, “graduate school just is a culture of judgment.” The sentence floats into shape in my distracted mind and jerks my attention back to this (always endlessly another) academic meeting. The heads around me nod silently. Because the sentence disturbs me deeply I lean forward to respond. But the words gathered too slowly in my head and someone spoke over me. The current of conversation quickly drowned out sentiment and made coming back to it difficult. And so I’m raising the matter here.

Since I don’t know what the faculty member actually meant, this post is not about the speaker of the sentence but rather how I received it. It is about my own sense of what it has meant for graduate school in the Humanities to be a culture of judgment and why I think it needs to change.

Perhaps graduate school in the Humanities has always been detrimental to our students’ mental health and stress levels, but I contend that conditions are much worse now as graduate education is currently organized within our contemporary socio-political-economic context. We are all caught up in the hurricanes of today’s particularly brutal iteration of capitalism that (1) mandates an entrepreneurial approach to everything, including one’s self and one’s “project”; (2) compresses (for the sake of “efficiency”) the time-to-degree from the nine year average I faced in the 1990s to a five year lockstep students must keep pace with or face financial penalty*; and (3) has corporatized the university away from intellectual endeavor (or even sustained thought) and toward the single, laser-focused goal of marketability.

This is not a learning context; it’s a pressure-cooker.

Add to this shared context the low wages accorded graduate student instructors and, thus, the debt that many of them rack up just to keep food on the table and a roof over their heads. (I’ve been told by a graduate student at my institution that they know of graduate students who have sold plasma in order to make ends meet.) Do we wonder why graduate students in the Humanities seem a bit desperate? Can we really be surprised at the increased requests for mental health accommodations?

Graduate students are constantly assessing the stresses they undergo and the sacrifices they make. Are they worth it? To what end are they aiming? To what “better life” are they oriented?

Perhaps (debatably) the stresses of graduate school–stresses that increasingly show up as depression, writing blocks, and anxiety disorders–would be worth its endemic difficulties if we faculty could promise a legitimate shot at the golden ring of tenure. But we can’t, and not because we are not training our students vigorously enough. Our students are smart, scrappy, and dedicated. They are passionate about their subfields and passionate about teaching. They jump the hoops we set out for them. They revise, edit, and grow in their writing. They professionalize like crazy. But tenure is shrinking nationwide and Humanities positions are shrinking in number in general. Too many doctoral students are applying for a shrinking number of tenure-track jobs, and too many doctoral students are entering a “no-exit” life of adjuncting positions, earning less than the poverty line working 2-4 jobs, often at 2-4 different institutions, teaching and grading without graduate student support, the stability of departmental regard (and voting rights), and sometimes without dedicated campus office space. Even students who miraculously win a tenure-track position are often teaching a 4/4 or 5/5 load that is physically and psychologically crushing.

The American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature published a joint report, “Job Advertisement Data 2016-2017” in May, 2018. It’s now two years out of date, but let me cite its “key findings” (I’ve added the bold font):

“• Positions advertised in AY17 increased 4.0% compared to AY16. This increase
in postings was primarily the result of increased listings for non-faculty positions.

• The total number of faculty positions decreased by 8.6% year over year from
AY16 to AY17. Within this percentage, several mixed findings can be highlighted:

     o Postings from research institutions are at an all-time low since AAR and
SBL began collecting employment data in 2003.
o The number of entry-level faculty positions increased by 11.4% year over
year from AY16 to AY17.
o The number of tenure-track faculty positions reached a six-year low.
o The number of postings from baccalaureate institutions is at seven-year

• For faculty positions, the most selected category for the annual course load
shifted from three to four in 2016 to five to six in 2017.”

Let me translate:

  1. Advertised positions for Religion doctorates increased in the Academic Year 2017 mainly by increasing administrative, library, and “other industry” (K-12, NGO, publishing) positions.
  2. Faculty positions overall are at “an all-time low”, but entry-level positions increased–this means that institutions gained teaching labor through post-docs, fellowships, Visiting Assistant professorships, and one-year teaching positions, all of which are insecure labor or what is increasingly termed “casual” and “precarious” labor.
  3. The decimation of tenure is reflected in the fact that the search for TT faculty positions hit a six-year low.
  4. Institutions without graduate programs are posting more faculty positions than institutions with graduate programs, meaning our students cannot find positions that will continue to support them as scholars who also teach, but only as undergraduate teachers.
  5. The institutions posting faculty positions (non-TT and mostly entry-level positions in mostly baccalaureate institutions) are also tending to increase the yearly course load from about 1.5-2 courses/semester to 2.5-3 courses/semester.

In light of these economic, academic, and professional contexts, I will venture that Humanities graduate school really can no longer afford to be a culture of judgment. The world in which I was trained, and the world of mentoring I sometimes witness around me was and is built around punitive assessment, chastisement, and expecting a certain disposition of subordination. We need to let go of shaming students with criticism and demerits; we need to stop lecturing them about all the ways they are failing to prepare themselves for the (nonexistent) job market. Instead of shame, we need to offer generative critical assessment in supportive mentoring relationships that gear into each student’s self-determined life plan.

The culture of graduate school should be a culture of mentorship around a shared generative practice of written thought and pedagogy.

What would it look like for faculty members to conscientiously swap out the hierarchical culture of judgment by which we were trained for a more egalitarian culture of mentoring?

What if faculty drop the notion that grad students must develop deep databases of knowledge and slick pedagogical skillsets and, instead, figure out how to mentor students toward smaller intellectual comparisons or exegeses that are more delimited, more personal, more practical, or more aesthetic (take your pick)?

What if faculty were to challenge graduate students to enter the Humanities classroom not ignoring their fields of study, but primarily bent on the internally varied task of galvanizing young adults for a lifetime of struggle (against depression, or racism, or capitalism, or climate change, or boredom, or gender essentialism, or addiction, or…)?

I’m thinking today that a dissertation is well viewed as a problematic node in an interesting matrix, not a magnum opus of original work (the latter relies not only on a timeline for graduate study no longer available to our students but also and more importantly on a model of subjectivity that is, today, ludicrous), and classrooms are well viewed less as spaces of knowledge transfer and more as spaces of choreography, where mental and physical patterns of perception, affect, and possibility can be channeled through the specific expertise we faculty members each hold dear.

As I feel it today, graduate mentoring does not entail training someone to be ready for the (nonexistent) job market or to accede to my expertise, but aims at the murkier, harder task of using my expertise to guide students into becoming who they are.

I may be wrong about much of this; I’m open to feedback. My central concern remains the desperate and unrealistic struggle for the golden ring of tenure and the consequences of this struggle on the mental, physical, and economic health of our students. If a doctorate is, now, a five year investment, then we and the Humanities will benefit if students are allowed to enter the contract of this investment on a more equal basis and to maintain as much control as possible over what those years need to accomplish for them. Should we not train them to be scholars? Sure, train them to be thinkers, and be assured that the particular skills of scholarship will come as the years unfold. Should we not train them to be teachers? Sure, train them up in what matters to you about teaching, but also ask them what they value about the classroom and what they think the next generation of students needs. Because we tenured faculty do not have all the answers and the ground is moving fast under our feet. Our graduate students can teach us much about how to inhabit our broken earth and unbearable lives with dignity and willed optimism.







*Though I can’t find a webpage verifying this policy, the Graduate School at S.U. will charge one course credit per semester (approximately $1500) for any doctoral student who wishes to remain an active student more than five years after passing their doctoral exams. The funding structure pressures students to complete their degree in five years: two years of course work, up to one year to study and sit for comprehensive exams (while serving as teaching assistants and sometimes also instructing their own courses), up to one semester to write and defend their dissertation prospectus, and 1.5-2 years to write their dissertation.




The Wayward Form of a History of Waywardness: the Affective Punch of Saidiya Hartman’s new masterwork

The title of Saidiaya Hartman’s new book, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, refers equally to the early twentieth-century black women (and men) she writes about and the writerly form of her historical account. Achingly researched from hard-to-access archives, Hartman crafts a historical voice that is engaged, affective, rebellious, and experimental. Here is a history that proffers sensorial descriptions as true to the constraints and broken promises of Reconstruction as to the hearts clenched around hopes for a life that is free, beautiful, and more. Hartman’s words–partly speculative, but always titrated from wide-ranging archival data–bring to life the visceral textures of apartments, neighborhoods, police entitlement, vagrancy laws, employment constraints, the happy happenstance of love or friendship, and the desires for love and fashion and all good things that were experienced, grasped, embraced, and rejected by women living from about 1900 to 1929. The book is loosely chronological but not heavy on dates, as if to make clear that chronological time cannot reflect or express the suffocating recursions and chaotic eddies that frame and channel black female life in a white supremacist society.

I read this book the way I open a precious gift: carefully turning each page, drawn into the smallest detail of packaging and presentation, and delighting in the gift’s substance, which cannot but be transformative. When is the last time you read a 350-page book that didn’t seem long enough?

Hartman expresses the goal of her book with words that draw out the meaning of her subtitle, intimate histories of social upheaval: “The endeavor is to recover the insurgent ground of these lives; to exhume open rebellion from the case file, to untether waywardness, refusal, mutual aid, and free love from their identification as deviance, criminality, and pathology; to affirm free motherhood (reproductive choice), intimacy outside the institution of marriage, and queer and outlaw passions; and to illuminate the radical imagination and everyday anarchy of ordinary colored girls, which has not only been overlooked, but is nearly unimaginable” (xiv). The verbs here are telling: recover, exhume, untether, affirm, illuminate. Together they describe an arc that is itself wayward, for this is not a typical history (recover, exhume) but a history that gently tugs at the knots of presumed judgment and unrelenting despair (untether) in order to imagine what is “nearly unimaginable” (affirm, illuminate).

The above description is embedded in Hartman’s opening few pages, titled “A Note on Method”, but I found even more compelling her brief, two-page meta-reflection on method that occurs about two-thirds of the way through the book. Titled, “Wayward: A Short Entry on the Possible,” Hartman reflects on a word that more directional than referential–an apt prelude, perhaps, to chapters that deal with incarceration and the tactics of musical rebellion. Wayward is vectorial. It is a word brimming with energy and movement, but of a kind that evidences tugging against the grain (or chains). To be wayward is not to be toward something definite, and also not necessarily to be against anything in particular. It is a word that suggests diffusion and palpates a kind of meandering or roaming. Unlike “untoward”, wayward is not simply against (normativity, propriety, expectation, obedience) but suggests a more complicated imbrication. In Hartman’s words, “Waywardness articulates the paradox of cramped creation, the entanglement of escape and confinement, flight and captivity” (p. 227).

Wayward is a term that conveys the affectivity of the Sisyphean task of black women persistingly bursting against constraints that are persistingly bearing down on them. Hartman calls it “a practice of possibility at a time when all roads, except the ones created by smashing out, are foreclosed” and “the untiring practice of trying to live when you were never meant to survive” (p. 228, italics in the original). These are precisely the stories and lives Hartment relates to us. Her book begins with the putative objectivity of photographs that Hartman undercuts with captions that “transform the photographs into moral pictures” (paraphrase, 20). And her book ends with the nearly unimagined voice of a chorine, a chorus-line girl, her body in motion within the enclosed boundaries of the stage: “How can I live? I want to be free. Hold on.”  The photographs reach out to readers and jostle us into an active engagement with the capture of the soon-to-be-called slums under the rubrics of science, and then, over the course of the book, the increasing volume and pressure of black women’s voices catch readers up in the straining dynamics of waywardness, tugging at us to pay attention, to know and feel with something that is not empathy but rather something more densely affective, like the vectorial quality of waywardness, like the sheer weight of reality…like the gravity that pulls a stone tumbling down a hill, like the effort that crouches behind the stone and begins to push it up. Again.

Intersectionality Wars: the affects of scholarly struggle

Jennifer Nash’s careful and high-stake book, Black Feminism Reimagined: After Intersectionality unfolds along two, equally important trajectories, that of the nature of scholarship and that of the nature of the self.  By nature, design, and the sediments of institutional and social violence, these two trajectories cross and re-cross each other and are fueled by an arc of affects that ranges from loss, anxiety, defensiveness, protectiveness, solidarity, and allegiance, to love, curiosity, and a deep yearning for freedom. Nash focuses particularly on the affect of “black feminist defensiveness” and its “proprietary attachments to intersectionality.” While she does at times discuss the affects driving white feminist attachment to intersectionality (including a white defensiveness to demonstrate allyship), her primary addressees are her black feminist peers; they are the “we” of her book.

She sets out her argument this way:

“I imagine black feminism as an affective project–a felt experience–as much as it is an intellectual, theoretical, creative, political, and spiritual tradition. …This book traces how defensiveness is largely articulated by rendering intersectionality black feminist property, as terrain that has been gentrified, colonized, and appropriated, and as territory that must be guarded and protected through the requisite black feminist vigilance, care, and ‘stewardship.'” (p. 3)

By keeping her primary focus on black feminist scholars and their relationship to intersectionality, Nash is able to keep steady pressure on the “affective traps” (p. 3) of property and commodification that continue to frame, capture, and exhaust black women scholars. These capitalist traps repeat on the level of scholarly conceptualization familiar historical conundrums that at once assert and deny personhood and citizenship to black women. Nash’s thorough articulation of the history of the term in the National Women’s Studies Association (Chapter 1) and in scholarly practices that she terms the impulse to tell and heed the “origin stories” of intersectionality (p. 39-45) and to commit to a hermeneutics of “originalism” (p. 61-76) point out the affective and structural resonances between the simultaneous promise/foreclosure of possessive individualism for black bodies in the academy and in our larger, white supremacist US society. Into this chiasm of visibility and invisibility, Nash inserts the claim that black feminist defensiveness over the proper (proprietary) use of intersectionality relegates black feminists–again–as service workers for women’s, gender, and sexuality studies, forever feeling the defensive and possessive obligation to correct and properly credit published accounts of intersectionality and to weigh in on what properly counts as intersectional scholarship. From page 4 to the last page of her text (p. 138), Nash refers to this obligation to perform affective service work (and its correlate in the academic expectation and obligation to perform “diversity” service work) eleven times.

Nash is clearly evoking the long history of black female domestic and other service workers in her nod to black feminist service work on behalf of intersectionality. As a religion scholar, this appeal to service work, along with her discussion of black feminists as “white feminism’s salvific figures” (p. 136) also evoke the labor of priestesses, of theological apologists, and of the service labor that black female bodies continually and voluntarily provide to many religious institutions.  I am perhaps particularly attentive to Nash’s quoting Joan Morgan’s concern that intersectionality has become a kind of “dogma” (p. 112, 113), with the suggestion here of a reified apologetics that is no longer a “productive analytics” (p. 113). To be dogmatic is to defensively protect the scripture and practices of a community, to watch out for hints of heresy and other sinful infractions, and to marshal resources in order to amplify, reconfirm, and recommit to orthodoxy. I realize I am over-reading Nash a bit here, which I do in order to draw out the affective lineaments of dogma so that I can better hear and feel the stakes of Nash’s alternative. Nash sets out to resituate and reclaim the task of black feminists as scholars of care, love, and witness. She affirms that black feminists are invested in myriad “new debates about eroticism, reproduction, visual culture, maternity, and surveillance” (p. 137), and she urges black feminists to embrace and return to their long labor to theorize strong connections between U.S. feminisms and transnational feminisms.  I also hear Nash reminding us about the art and rituals of pedagogy, since the grassroots and counter-hegemonic dynamics of black feminist pedagogy tend to embrace the pushback and change wrought by our students. Nash raises the question to me of what holding onto a “dogma” of intersectionality might be doing to our students, and to our pedagogical politics. Scholars may groan and resist the commodified pressures of publishing that, as Nash spells out, incentivize thin readings or even misreadings for the sake of clearing intellectual space for a young scholar to make her own intervention (p. 47), but I hear Nash asking about what might be gained if black feminists see this contortion of publishing as an unstoppable extension of the ongoing mutations (“travel”, p. 45) of concepts that always do occur in and through our teaching. Nash is imagining what would happen if black feminists refuse defensiveness and, instead, turn to other concepts and other intellectual urgencies.

Charles Peirce felt that William James had stolen and misused Peirce’s term, pragmatism, and so he suggested a new term, pragmaticism, which was, he hoped, “ugly enough to be safe from kidnappers” (CP 5.414). It seems to me a point in Nash’s favor that Peirce’s term was so safe as to become inoperative; pragmaticism is barely known outside of the tiny circle of Peirce scholarship, whereas pragmatism means all sorts of things to all sorts of scholars, business owners, politicians.

I will end with Nash’s own final words, which are beautiful and poignant:

“Letting go untethers black feminism from the endless fighting over intersectionality, the elaborate choreography of rescuing the analytic from misuses, the endless corrections of the analytic’s usage. Letting go allows us to put the visionary genius of black feminism to work otherwise. It is, thus, a practice of freedom” (p. 138).

Questions I brought home from Duke’s 2019 FTW (Feminist Theory Workshop)

My academic location in the study of religion always puts me in a discursive minority at the Feminist Theory Workshop.* There is the occasional religion scholar there, and sometimes graduate students from Duke or UNC-Chapel Hill’s religion program participate. Most academics, though, don’t really know what goes on in religion departments and don’t really care. And that can be…inconvenient.**

My particular way in to the study of religion is through critical questions of valuation and transvaluation, particularly the embodied, inter-relational, and technological forms that affectively transmit and sustain shared valuations. Questions of valuation are affective questions: we value what we hold dear and this “holding dear” multiplies affects and orients us as individuals and communities. Readers of this blog know that I approach religion as an affecognitive structure of valuation in which every affective patterning inevitably makes use of and is constrained by existing discursive and institutional arrangements. As such, our daily lives are saturated with a gooey mess of feelings, intuitions, practices, and assertions of values, and these inevitably press up against and interrupt other values, sometimes with relish or bafflement, sometimes with disgust or rage. I am curious about when these shared valuations express themselves or are denominated as “religious” or “spiritual”—and I seek to understand how they are transmitted and sustained by particular embodied, inter-relational, discursive, and technological forms.

This year’s workshop challenged me to think about a few broad thematics that I have brought home and continue to ponder. I am grateful to the four plenary scholars: Riley Snorton, Lauren Berlant, Jocelyn Olcott, and Kim Tallbear. I also want to shout-out to my on-site workshop interlocutors: Randall Johnson, Kim Hall, Rebecca Moody, and Courtney O’Dell Chaib.

Below I gesture to further thoughts on (1) valuation; (2) the differences and connections between the conceptual rubrics of structure, ecology, and web; and (3) the theoretical and political problem of limited or non-existent available grammars;

  1. Valuation. Extending last year’s presentation from Denise Ferreira da Silva, all four papers this year expressed the need to grapple with the ways in which every structure of valuation coalesces on a ground of nullification that in the United States is blackness. This fact of nullification and its relation to valuation raises the question of how attention to forms of embodiment and practice might be supplemented with acute attention to what makes that form both possible and valued. How might we grasp what escapes-form and why certain modalities of survivance come to be valued? As Snorton noted, how does the swamp as a horizontal ecology of external relationality constitute the vertical valuation of the “plantation zone”? As Olcott challenged us, how do we come to ascribe (or not) value to affective fields and practices of care? As Berlant suggested, how might we better attend to and value small gestures of perturbation in a larger social and affective landscape of erotophobia and trauma? The familiar dialectic of naming what is non- or under-valued, and then mobilizing thought and activism to get it valued fails to show how what counts or matters as “value” always coalesces on and out of grounds of nullification. Tallbear suggests this fact to me in the word-war between so-called water activists and self-named water protectors. Protection of water as a value, as a relation, is not valued in dominant culture—any more than care labor is so valued, as Olcott shows—but the question of what forms show up that non-valuing is something I need to think more about.
  2. Conceptual rubrics. The need to pursue better models of valuation raises questions about the relation and difference between the three theoretical rubrics raised by the plenary scholars: structure, ecology, and web. What might be the useful differences between scenes of structure (Berlant), scenes of ecology (Snorton), and scenes of web (Tallbear)? How are these frameworks of structure, ecology, and web useful for thinking about what remains, and how we might use what remains, in excess of the White supremacist capture of life? In their book with Lee Edelman, Sex or the Unbearable, Berlant writes that, “Structure is a process, not an imprint, of the reproduction of life” (p. 12). In “Swamp Sublime: Ecologies of Resistance in the American Plantation Zone,” M. Allewaert, cited by Snorton, calls ecology “an assemblage of interpenetrating forces” (341). In “Making Love and Relations Beyond Settler Sex and Family,” Tallbear writes of “a web or net in which relations exchange power, and power is in tension, thus holding the web or community together” (Clarke and Haraway, Making Kin not Population, p. 160). Do these different terms attend best to different problems or are they resonant? Do they work better, or differently, at different social or inter-relational scales?
  3. Staying with the Trouble of Grammar (Haraway). I heard Lauren Berlant as questioning how we might nudge our affectscape from erotophobia back toward something like erotophilia, while Snorton claimed, at the end, that he was quite simply interested in life, in Black life. How might we push for something like the positivity of sex or comedy or social transformation, without being heard as minimizing or resisting the trauma of violence? It feels to me that attempting such a push quickly runs us up against the limit of available grammars of analysis. Likewise: How might we theorize the swamp as an ecology of fugitivity that is life without minimizing the dynamics of capture and death that are articulated as social, state “care,” as Snorton challenged us? How do we insist on reconceptualizing value outside of capitalist logic and assumptions, as Olcott insisted, when we can barely imagine, much less speak, an outside or beyond of capitalism? How do we wrestle with the fact that all translations between indigeneity and the modern state form when all translations are, as Tallbear rightly noted, “terrible”? All four papers leave me with the challenge to face dead-on (or rather, erotically) the challenges of conceptualization and categorization, to hit my own walls of insufficiency and yet to stay, and to suggest tactics of research and activism that continue to touch and tease out what Amit Rai, in his recent book, Jugaad Time calls the “infinite sponginess” of the world.


*I was invited (and honored) to share remarks at the FTW closing round-table. I reproduce those remarks here in a slightly edited form.

**Prof. Lauren Berlant spoke at the workshop on the “inconvenience of others” and “erotophobia.”

Academic Form: Affective Blockage

I want to write about a failure of form. Or perhaps the failure is in me, or in our times. I’ll let you decide.

**   I went to a big academic event recently. I’m not going to name particulars because the particulars of this event do not matter as much as the way it replicated very general and familiar problems that I often have experienced with “academic discourse on very important matters.” (The event concerned topics of profound, I’d even say dire, importance.)

Here is the form: The event is divided into sequenced panels of five speakers. Each panel has a moderator. In order to honor the importance of the event’s topics, the organizers have creatively planned for audience participation and underscored the importance of audience collaboration.

To me, this form says (1) the questions being posed are critical, (2) they need to be approached from multiple perspectives and areas of scholarly and lived expertise, and (3) for the event to be successful, the audience needs to contribute to the thinking that will constitute the event. Excellent.

Why, then, does it fail? The five speakers, all of whom are gorgeous thinkers, do not really answer the pointed question the moderator asks them. They talk too long. The issues and problems and questions and conundrums multiply, aggregate, split apart, and fly around the room, pummeling all of us. No one can do anything in response because the words continue to come at us, fast and furious, filling up the spaces for thought and action. The many different levels and lenses and approaches used by the speakers start to feel weapon-like, some even akin to grinding axes. When one speaker happens to elicit applause, something shifts and all subsequent speakers angle toward that same buzz, seeking the same sweetness of adulation. Time is slipping away, and yet the moderator sticks to the script, amending protocol only slightly by asking each panelist to answer a final profound, complex, and compelling question in a miniscule amount of time. Because that’s impossible, the panelists do not keep to the sliver of time allotted them. In the end, the creative plan for audience participation is foreclosed temporally and structurally. The room is saturated with the heaviness of urgency and complexity. The excellent discourse of each panelist has boxed out the possibility of flow and seems to stand alone and unlinked, much less discussed and galvanized by the other panelists and by the audience.

This is what feels like failure to me.

Let me underscore that everyone involved in this event is smart and worth hearing. No one did anything wrong. And yet I experience this failure of form as a stoppage and frustration, and I experience it at almost every conference I attend. The failure feels akin to insisting on established models of expertise and delivery in an age that no longer expects or aligns itself with those models. To arrange an event such that a crowd sits in 90 minutes of silence before relentlessly articulated top-down expertise feels like imposing a traditional–white, male, mind-driven–Enlightenment model, even when the experts are not white or mind-driven and are actually using words to theorize against this model! 

In our age of Twitter and YouTube, texting and Instagram, participants now come to events carrying a dizzying range of knowledges and experiences. They come not only with a daily, habituated practice of commenting constantly on the world around them but also with a new cognitive and bodily sense that it is through that discursively engaged practice that they come to learn about the world. 

The moderated panel of experts that inevitably goes over time is an old form, built out of an old understanding of what the academy is and does, and out of a tattered grasp of what thinking is or what an argument might be. It materially blocks current affective, cognitive, and bodily expectations for thinking, for thought, for participation, for praxis.

What would it be, what would it take, to structure intellectual events for our times and our new practices of thinking, radically different from this old model?


**Image from: No copyright infringement intended.

“What kind of religion do you teach?”: Religion and valuation

When, over dinner party chitchat, I am asked what religion I specialize in, I typically answer with my training in continental philosophy and cultural studies. This disciplinary background means, I say, that I don’t approach religion primarily through an institutional location or historical narrative (the church or Jewish History) but instead through the diverse ways in which claims for and about religion “pop up” in socio-cultural exchanges. For instance, when and why do films or stage-plays turn to overtly religious figures (an Imam or a New Age hipster) to vocalize certain positions or practices? When and why, in a debate about mandatory prison sentences among friends, does one friend find it important to assert their religious identity: “I’m Buddhist…” Why are regional debates between conservative Christians and, say, secular humanists about whether and how to teach evolution, or whether and with what restrictions our nation should allow women to abort pregnancies seemingly so endless and unresolved?

What links each of these examples is what I think of as structures of valuation. “Religion” denominates and functions as complex and murky coagulations of values that are lived and received, actual and remembered, resisted and hoped-for. Sedimented in our bodies, our technologies, and our institutions, structures of valuation are always only partially available to epistemological or logical investigation because, as social terms and functions, “value” and “valuation” are fundamentally affective. The affective dimension of valuation is at the heart of Marx’s attempt to demarcate use-value and exchange value, an always blurry line that aims at the fact that some values (use values) are closer to biological and social needs (food, clothing, shelter), while other values (exchange values) pivot around factors like desire, aesthetics, and symbols of distinction.

That humans have some needs that are more basic than some wants is uncontested, but it is difficult to make a more specific assertion without raining down the chaos of history, because valuation not only solidifies a group (however spatially or temporally dispersed) but also solidifies who is not of that group. Valuation and its sedimented structures are, therefore, vehicles of social power and oppression, and therefore also can be leveraged as vehicles of social transformation against those very same relationships and assumptions about power and oppression.

Two important aspects of structure and value lie in a possible (sometimes contested) etymology of “religion,” both the binding evoked by “ligare” and the repetition of that binding indicated by “re-“. I can have my personal slew of idiosyncratic values, but these do not take on the discursive weight of “religion” unless they are patterned and shared, that is, unless these values take shape in, are formed into, specific verbal, embodied, inter-relational, or institutional attachments and practices, that bind persons to one another, not once but over and over again. Values are structured through repetition into valuations; and valuations take shape in lived orientations that maintain their importance and intensity through repetition.

Religion, in my work, is thus the structuring of valuation that binds (some) people together over and again. This repetitive binding engendered from and by structured valuations can also focus a line of inquiry about what separates religion from other types of valuation. I find this question interesting but not crucial. Religion signals the multiple repositories, capacitors, and intensifiers of human value. We certainly can ask what separates this kind of structured valuation from, say, a Bourdieuian habitus, or political normativity but I doubt we’ll find clear and consistent answers. It seems better to pay attention to when, where, how and by whom “religion” is used, and arrange our analyses around the difference this use makes.