Author: Camille Wright

Camille Wright was born and raised in Raleigh, North Carolina. She is currently the Books Publicity Assistant at Duke University Press, where she started as a journals marketing intern in May 2017, and CEO and founder of Merch by Millie, a handmade apparel and accessories shop. Other organizations Wright is involved with include Believe Ticket Project, where she creates email campaigns, graphic content, fact sheets and ask letters, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., and Girl Scouts of America.

Q&A with Vanessa Díaz

Vanessa Díaz is Assistant Professor of Chicana/o and Latina/o Studies at Loyola Marymount University. In this Q&A she discusses her new book Manufacturing Celebrity in which she draws on ethnographic fieldwork, her experience reporting for People magazine, and dozens of interviews with photographers, journalists, publicists, magazine editors, and celebrities, Díaz traces the complex power dynamics of the reporting and paparazzi work that fuel contemporary Hollywood and American celebrity culture.

Chapter Two touches on the frustration that paparazzi experience when they are villified by celebrities, the media, and the public. Often there is a negative perception of paparazzi since they take the pictures. Why do you believe paparazzi receive the sole blame? 

There are so many layers to this question. It’s really important to start off with the fact that there is a long history of celebrity irritation with paparazzi. After all, the term evolved from the 1960 Federico Fellini film La Dolce Vita in which the annoying celebrity photographer was called “paparazzo”—Italian for mosquito. The magazines and other media outlets need the paparazzi to be the bad guys of celebrity media, creating the perception that they are solely responsible for the lack of privacy faced by today’s stars, so that the media outlets can position themselves on the side of celebrities, furthering their relationships with the stars they cover.  If paparazzi are the only ones out on the streets gathering the images that the magazines and other media outlets want and, frankly, need to sell their product, the paparazzi are the only ones in the line of direct contact with the celebrities. A magazine editor sitting in his office in a fancy high rise building in Hollywood is specifically and strategically positioned to not be blamed, despite the fact that he may be requesting the photo that the paparazzi are trying to get. Paparazzi are workers operating in the informal channels of an often highly formal media production process, within a hugely profitable corporate system, doing the dirty work for the celebrity media industry. 

Since the demographics of the Los Angeles paparazzi shifted to being predominately Latinx, which I discuss in the book, the media and public discourse surrounding paparazzi has become highly racialized and xenophobic. So whereas there used to be general annoyance around paparazzi work, the language towards and the legal action taken against paparazzi was not anything like it is now. For instance, major news articles from outlets such as the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, and AP have referred to contemporary paparazzi as “illegals,” “pack animals,” “knuckle-scraping mouth breathers,” and “foreigners working on…questionable visas.”

Can you elaborate on the process of deciding the final photos that are published in a magazine?  

The decision as to which photos get published is entirely at the discretion of the staff of the media outlets (reporters may weigh in, but the decision is usually made photo editors, with approval from other senior editorial staff). The decisions tend to be made based on newsworthiness, so whatever is most newsworthy to that particular outlet. For example, the week that Kim Kardashian had her first wedding to former NBA player Kris Humphreys, all of the weekly celebrity magazines featured photos of their wedding, since it was the big (celebrity) news of the moment. When Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie were first photographed together as a couple, People magazine bought those paparazzi images as an exclusive (meaning nobody else could buy the rights) and they were featured in a huge spread in the magazine. The magazine knew this story was big for their audience, and for celebrity and entertainment news more broadly, so they invested heavily in these photos since they knew it would boost sales. 

It’s important to note that paparazzi take images based on what is deemed “newsworthy” in the moment, and that has very much to do with what they know the magazines want. So, while the paparazzi do not directly help the magazines decide which photos to publish, their work and their own judgement of newsworthiness in combination with the magazines’ and other media outlets’ decisions themselves impact which images end up circulating. 

How do you believe advancements in technology have impacted the paparazzi industry? 

There are so many ways, it’s hard to know where to even start. Technological advancements have impacted every realm of every media industry across the board. Even when I started reporting for People magazine in 2004 as an intern, the reporting that didn’t make it in the magazine was mostly used on their website just to create extra content, because most people were still not getting their news online. That shifted dramatically over the next few years and media outlet websites started to be the place where news broke. Whereas before it was the printed newspaper or printed magazine that held the breaking news, and stories were held specifically so that they could appear in printed press to break the news, it became customary to break news online first, since more and more people started getting their information online. So, while the internet was exploding, so was the digitization of images, which had huge impacts on how images were shot and circulated. As I discuss in chapter two of the book, in 2001 around fifty thousand digital photos were received by the magazines, but by 2011 that number had jumped to over eight million. Now most outlets receive close to twice that number per year. So that means a lot of different things. It means that there are more paparazzi taking images because there is more demand. It also means that there is an excess of photos that are taken because obviously the images can’t all be published. It means that there is more competition because there are more photos. And it means that photographers, like most other media workers, have to work extremely quickly and around the clock to ensure they get their content shared first. A minute difference in transmitting a photo can mean losing a sale if someone else get a similar shot and uploads it first.  

During your research, when did you make the connection between gender disparity and the sexualization of women reporters? 

I actually noticed this immediately after starting my internship with People magazine in New York, prior to starting my research in this area. I saw it when I covered red carpet events. I saw it in the way that stories were assigned at the magazine. When I became a stringer for the LA Bureau of People magazine in 2005, I saw it even more in Hollywood than in New York. There was always a conversation among the reporters (who I noticed from the beginning were mostly women) about the different ways that employers pressured them into particular kinds of situations with celebrity men. Once I started doing the research for the book and interviewing people about this, I heard more and more stories, many of them extremely disturbing, about the ways that women reporters were asked to handle themselves to help get a story. The most public of the situations is the one I discuss in the opening of the book, Natasha Stoynoff’s assault by Donald Trump. 

You discuss the #MeToo movement in Chapter Five. Why do you believe the #MeToo movement is important, especially within the entertainment industry? 

#MeToo became such a force in the entrainment industry because the type of abuse of power that is often exercised in cases of sexual assault is rampant throughout Hollywood. In fact, Hollywood is full of really serious and egregious abuses of power, abuses of labor, racism, gender discrimination and forms of abuse. And what’s amazing is that the whole image of Hollywood, and its movies, television shows, and celebrities, are all putting on a show for us. That’s what Hollywood does—it produces stories, it produces shows, and it creates very strategic images to draw in audiences, not to turn them away. And so it’s no accident that the kind of abuses of power I’m describing are simply not the picture we get when we look at beautiful glossy magazines like People and Us Weekly. And so I think the Hollywood figures who came forward as part of the #MeToo movement did so to help people see these layers. And so that’s part of what I’m trying to do in the book too—to understand the institutional complexities of the Hollywood-industrial complex, which I discuss in more depth in the book and which helps give us a framework for the level of institutional force of Hollywood. 

 How do magazines play positive and negative roles in the promotion of body image and standards, specifically for women? 

The magazines have the potential to play a positive role on body image and beauty standards, and they sometimes play at least a marginally positive role. But most of the coverage contributes to negative body image perceptions. Across the weekly magazines, there is a consistent focus on stories that celebrate women’s weightloss, regardless of how healthy that weightloss may be. And, often times, the weightloss is focused on women who just have just given birth. So, not only are the expectations unrealistic, they are often unhealthy. As chapter six in the book discusses, many body-focused stories develop out of magazine workers ridiculing women’s bodies. The very climate of the conceptualization of body-focused coverage is negative. Even in the moments where the magazines attempt to confront negative perceptions, like the famous example I use in the book of Tyra Banks on the cover of People magazine, posting in a bathing suit and posing the question, “You call this fat?” Banks is photographed in a bathing suit, looking slim and trim. So, the point of the story is to prove that she isn’t fat, rather than to celebrate different body shapes and sizes. To be clear, it’s not just celebrity magazines, though. American culture more broadly celebrates unrealistic body and beauty standards that are also incredibly Eurocentric. The magazines reflect that. In the moments where the celebration of certain bodies are not reflective of Eurocentric standards of beauty, we often see that it takes place through the celebration of typically non-white features on white bodies, like the Kardashians/Jenners who physically alter their actual bodies. The representation and limited celebration of very particular kinds of women’s bodies in magazine and in popular culture more broadly is troubling. 

What is the correlation between celebrity reporting and hard news in the Trump Era? How has reporting and news changed in the past few years? 

In the book, I explain the story of Natasha Stoynoff, the former People magazine reporter, and my friend and colleague, who was sexually assaulted by Donald Trump while interviewing him for the magazine. While I was doing the research for this book, she had confided in me about this experience in both 2011 and 2012 during recorded interviews, with the expectation that I would anonymize everything. Then she came out publicly with the story in 2016. That my research on celebrity media became intertwined in the U.S. presidential race is emblematic of the way Trump has impacted what we understand as news. While there were always blurred lines between entertainment, celebrity, and politics, the distinction between entertainment and news media is not an empirical reality, but rather a function of a public imaginary—that there should be a difference between so-called hard news and entertainment news. The dynamics I talk about in the book are increasingly relevant to media in general, international politics, and to the state of American culture more broadly. 

There is an interesting parallel in how Donald Trump fomented hatred of mainstream news media outlets like CNN and NBC News by relating to White House and national reporters in ways that mirror how celebrities often relate to celebrity media producers, especially paparazzi. He understands how to use the media to generate interest, such as when he revealed his Supreme Court nominee Apprentice-style on prime-time television. Yet he constantly performs anger toward the very media who gave his candidacy, and now his presidency, nonstop coverage. He disparages them as “fake news” and “dishonest.” This behavior mirrors the way celebrities rely on paparazzi shots for promotion while simultaneously performing hatred toward them. For Trump, it is directly carried over from his career as a celebrity. In his book How to Get Rich, he wrote, “If I happen to be outside, I’m probably on one of my golf courses, where I protect my hair from overexposure by wearing a golf hat. It’s also a way to avoid the paparazzi. Plus the hat always has a big TRUMP logo on it—it’s automatic promotion.” Trump references wanting to avoid the paparazzi while in the very next sentence revealing how he uses them to promote his own brand—a celebrity tactic I explore in depth in chapter 4 of the book. 

While Trump has used celebrity media strategically to build his brand, he has also exploited, humiliated, and assaulted celebrity reporters. Since becoming president, he has continued this belligerent behavior in White House press conferences and other media events. Trump has kicked out, verbally bullied, and even banned news reporters and media outlets from his press conferences. His ire has been directed at the corporate media entities themselves, as well as individual media laborers. For example, in 2015 Trump had Univision’s Jorge Ramos symbolically deported from a press conference while yelling at him, “Go back to Univision,” another way of telling the Mexican American reporter to go back to Mexico. This kind of racialization and racialized discrimination is closely linked to the treatment of Latino paparazzi I expose in the book. A 2016 Dallas Morning News op-ed titled “Trump Can’t Treat Press Like Paparazzi” pointed to Trump’s problematic approach with the political media: “Trump may see these reporters as an extension of the paparazzi that hounded him when he was a reality television promoter and real estate mogul. They aren’t. The press pool isn’t about staking out celebrities.” The article insinuates that, unlike political reporters, paparazzi are and should be treated as problems. Trump has drawn no distinction between the celebrity news and hard news outlets that have followed him at various stages of his career. While using them for self-promotion, he has treated the political press with the same disdain that he showed to celebrity media producers— including Natasha Stoynoff. 

Read the introduction to Manufacturing Celebrity and save 30% on the book using the code E20DIAZ.

New Books in September

With summer quickly coming to an end and the new academic year upon us, now is the perfect time to replenish your reading list! A great place to start is with our diverse array of new titles arriving this month.

Diary of a Detour is film scholar and author Lesley Stern’s memoir of living with cancer, where she chronicles the fears and daily experience of coming to grips with an incurable disease and turns to alternative obsessions and pleasures, from travel and friendships to her four chickens.

In Traffic in Asian Women, Laura Hyun Yi Kang demonstrates that the figure of “Asian women” functions as an analytic with which to understand the emergence, decline, and permutation of US power and knowledge at the nexus of capitalism, state power, global governance, and knowledge production throughout the twentieth century.

Abstract Barrios by Johana Londoño examines how the barrio has become a cultural force that has been manipulated in order to create Latinized urban landscapes that are palatable for white Americans who view concentrated areas of Latinx populations as a threat.

In Keith Haring’s Line, Ricardo Montez traces the drawn and painted line that was at the center of Keith Haring’s artistic practice, engaging with Haring’s messy relationships to race-making and racial imaginaries.

In Youth Power in Precarious Times, Melissa Brough explores how youth-centered forms of civic and cultural engagement in Medellín, Colombia, create networks of change that have the possibility to transform and democratize cities around the world.

Abigail A. Dumes offers an ethnographic exploration of the Lyme disease controversy to shed light on the relationship between contested illness and evidence-based medicine in the United States in Divided Bodies.

Examining theater, performance art, music, sports, dance, and photography, the contributors to Race and Performance after Repetition explore how theater and performance studies account for the complex relationship between race and time. The collection is edited by Soyica Diggs Colbert, Douglas A. Jones Jr., and Shane Voge.

Beyond the World’s End by T. J. Demos explores a range of artistic, activist, and cultural practices that provide compelling and radical propositions for building a just, decolonial, and environmentally sustainable future.

The contributors to Indigenous Textual Cultures examined the ways in which indigenous peoples created textual cultures to navigate, shape, and contest empire, colonialism, and modernity. The collection is edited by
Tony Ballantyne, Lachy Paterson, and Angela Wanhalla.

In Cultural Revolution and Revolutionary Culture, Alessandro Russo rethinks the history of China’s Cultural Revolution, arguing that it must be understood as a mass political experiment aimed at thoroughly reexamining the tenets of communism itself.

Animal Traffic by Rosemary-Claire Collard investigates the multibillion-dollar global exotic pet trade economy and the largely hidden processes through which exotic pets are produced and traded as lively capital.

Monica Popescu traces the development of African literature during the second half of the twentieth century in At Penpoint. She shows how the United States and the Soviet Union’s efforts to further their geopolitical and ideological goals influenced literary practices and knowledge production on the African continent.

Bolivia in the Age of Gas by Bret Gustafson examines the centrality of natural gas and oil to the making of modern Bolivia and the contradictory convergence of fossil-fueled capitalism, Indigenous politics, and revolutionary nationalism.

In this genealogy of Hindu right-wing nationalism, Hindutva as Political Monotheism, Anustup Basu connects Carl Schmitt’s notion of political theology to traditional theorems of Hindu sovereignty and nationhood, illustrating how Western and Indian theorists imagined a single Hindu political and religious people.

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Watch the Teaser and Trailer for Vanessa Díaz’s New Book Manufacturing Celebrity

Vanessa Díaz is the author of the new book Manufacturing Celebrity. She is Assistant Professor of Chicana/o and Latina/o Studies at Loyola Marymount University. Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork, her experience reporting for People magazine, and dozens of interviews with photographers, journalists, publicists, magazine editors, and celebrities, Díaz traces the complex power dynamics of the reporting and paparazzi work that fuel contemporary Hollywood and American celebrity culture. This guest post by the author introduces the trailer and teaser for her new book.

As a multimedia ethnographer and documentary filmmaker, I always knew I wanted to create a book trailer for Manufacturing Celebrity. The prospect of capturing the essence of the over 300 pages of Manufacturing Celebrity in a few minutes of video was daunting. However, because the book itself is rich with images from my own photography, the photography of the paparazzi I worked with, and material from the magazines I write about, imagining a visual representation of the book was organic. I started developing ideas for the trailer early this year, with the assistance of two research assistants at Loyola Marymount University, Malik Gay-Bañuelos and Steven Uribe. We decided that it was important to focus not only on the main issues, questions and conundrums the book presents, but specifically to highlight the stories of the paparazzo Chris Guerra who was killed on the job and former People magazine reporter and sexual assault survivor Natasha Stoynoff who ground my discussion about precarity in the manufacturing of celebrity. By the time we started to make progress on the trailer’s development, the pandemic hit and we had to conceptualize video production in a new way. I set up the camera equipment lighting in my living room, and recorded my own interview while Malik and Steven interviewed me via FaceTime. Video editor Larissa Díaz Hahn of The Díaz Collective took my interview, original footage shared with me by the paparazzi, images from the book, my archive of celebrity reporting clips, and archival news footage and began masterfully piecing together the trailer. It was a collaborative process and we went through various iterations, with a focus on doing justice to the central themes of the book and, most importantly, the incredibly intense stories of my friends and colleagues Chris and Natasha. The goal of the trailer is to provide an engaged, visual representation of the book that encapsulates in a few minutes what is at stake with the stories I’m telling and why this book matters in this particular moment in history. The trailer shows the ways the book centers on issues of power, privilege and positionality in a way that resonates with the present moment. As the U.S. remains in an uprising focused on addressing systemic racism, and as Hollywood figures remain at the center of controversy due to rampant abuse of power on racial, gender, and intersectional levels, Manufacturing Celebrity breaks down the larger stakes of celebrity culture and demonstrates how the Hollywood-Industrial Complex is part and parcel in the broader systemic inequalities of the U.S. The trailer offers a small taste of the complicated questions and analysis Manufacturing Celebrity forces the reader to grapple with. You’ll never look at celebrity magazines the same again.  

Read the introduction to Manufacturing Celebrity and save 30% on the book using the code E20DIAZ.

Dispatches on AIDS and COVID-19: Continuing Conversations from AIDS and the Distribution of Crises (Dispatch Three)

Today’s guest post is the final part of the short series curated by the editors of AIDS and the Distribution of Crises, Jih-Fei Cheng, Assistant Professor of Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Scripps College, Alexandra Juhasz, Alexandra Juhasz Distinguished Professor of Film at Brooklyn College, City University of New York, and Nishant Shahani Associate Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the Department of English at Washington State University. The contributors to AIDS and the Distribution of Crises outline the myriad ways that the AIDS pandemic exists within a network of varied historical, overlapping, and ongoing crises borne of global capitalism and colonial, racialized, and gendered violence. Last week’s post can be viewed here.

Dispatch Three

Silence doesn’t Rhyme, But it Repeats: AIDS, BLM, COVID-19, and the Sound of What is Missing, a conversation in 4 parts

Ted Kerr and Alexandra Juhasz

PART 1

https://lh6.googleusercontent.com/rsIPBk74KujFNZ10waNNPGQhGZ4W81q2SM7_GM0B71-lJmX845UfgXV7BcRpDBa1l0oteVphjmuiI0uPbBTeZrfoRkNQqDAu6PvEMI7H2MMWxlkdbWxPWVbgE6z8kj5o_vQgxAR8

Mural in SoHo, part of a larger installation in the spirit of the Black Lives Matter movement. (photo: Theodore Kerr, June 2020).

Ted: Before we dig-in, let’s check-in. I will start. I’m beginning this conversation with you in mid-June, and I’m in Prospect Park after a run. I have felt reasonably okay these last few months, all considering. But last week, I hit a wall. I was sad and defeated everyday. This morning, after a run, now sweaty, I am feeling my resilience a bit. Yesterday I checked in with friends, journalled, and got some air. All together, I feel witnessed and able to to be part of the world again. 

Alex: I’m writing myself into this conversation at the end of June. Since you started this document, a lot has happened, including the murder of George Floyd, and a global response of Black Lives Matter activism, honoring him, as well as so many other people killed by police: Tony McDade, Breonna Taylor, and Elijah McClain. It is a good thing you hit a wall when you did, and recovered. As we enter the summer, we will need to marshall all our energy … again. 

In terms of recovery, as I’ve been saying for awhile now, COVID-19, Black Lives Matter, and the folly of Trump and his cronies, particularly as experienced by those of us in NYC, has left me feeling weird: like I can’t access, trust, or understand my own responses or feelings. There’s too much that is big, everything is too uncertain, nothing happens, everything happens. Less sure of myself, I have consistently fallen back on my writing, my friends, and my various collectives of trustworthy comrades. I have fallen back on you, Ted, and you have been there. Thank you.

Ted: I have been thinking a lot lately about shift work, and how in moments like the one we are in now, we need to be taking shifts between activism, its related administrative labor, and the emotional work this demands. Another word for falling behind, or feeling different, could be reprioritizing or “taking a break.” I am happy to be consistent in your life as you respond to COVID-19, Black Lives Matter, and the political freefall we are in. 

With that in mind, the reason I thought we should get on the page together is because I wanted to revisit some thinking we did when we were writing our book together, We Are Having this Conversation Now: The Times of AIDS Cultural Production (forthcoming, Duke University Press). I think some of our ideas realized then could be helpful now. 

Alex: Concerning silence?

Ted: Yes. Right now, a lot of people are trying to think productively about the relationship between HIV and COVID, us included! And for the most part I think this is helpful. But, I actually think there is room for more, specifically around mourning. 

Alex: We’ve been talking about these changing connections, disconnections, parallels, intersections with HIV/AIDS ever since COVID-19 arrived. And, whenever AIDS is part of a conversation, or the culture, mourning is present.

Ted: It has been helpful to me when you name the absence of mourning, be it from political leaders, or from our culture or friends. You have been talking about this with me on our walks in the neighborhood—after you stopped self-quaranting when you were sick with COVID-19 in March—and this is something you were bringing up in our group calls with our activist collective, What Would an HIV Doula Do, even when you were taking care of yourself at home with the virus. 

Alex: I am glad you were listening. 

Ted: Of course. And to sum up what I have heard you say: in the earlier days of COVID-19 you desired for us to consider a kind of networked relationship between the absence of public mourning and a lack of robust discourse led by and about people suffering with COVID-19 and those who recovered. This is an absence that seems familiar to you, to us, because of HIV.  

Alex: Yes, given all my work, and that of so many peers, over decades and across continents and communities, to create a lively, honest, diverse representational culture around HIV/AIDS, I do find absence—be it of mourning or information—to be particularly confusing and upsetting. As someone struggling with COVID without medical attention, where I have found some solace and help has been reading about other people’s experiences. Early on, this was on Facebook posts of friends and peers, each alone in her respective apartment and living with COVID. That impulse quickly developed into important fora led by people-wth-COVID who together discussed our symptoms, remedies, fears, and unanswered questions. Here’s a key connection to AIDS activism, and feminist self-health before that. Communities of impacted people engage in people-led medicine and care when Western patriarchal big pharma fails us. Our friend and fellow-Doula JD’s DOCUMENT is a great example of this (link to come). 

Ted: I think what you are saying is so important. In the absence of an allopathic response to your health concerns, you wisely turned to the community for information.

Alex: I will say this: alongside the personal frustration of needing basic information to better my physical experiences with the virus was another ache, around how to understand the huge amount of loss within me, around me, around us. Sure, I would make noise at 7pm, and eventually join the Black Lives Matter protests. I would witness the long line of patients waiting to be seen at the hospital next to my boyfriend’s house. I would hear the sirens at night as people were rushed to hospitals where there might not be enough beds or respirators. I would flinch at the sound of fireworks that went off wondering what role police and community tension played in setting them off. I would pay tribute to the people I knew who died and to friends who were losing loved ones. But all of this seemed so piecemeal, so inadequate. 

The huge wave of COVID-19 suffering, illness, and death was not being met with any sort of meaningful response from the US government. But I felt that this was matched by our own lack of engagement around the suffering and death that this was causing. Even though the proof of our piecemeal engagements and efforts were everywhere, I was—and am—still struggling with a Novel Coronavirus Silence. 

Next, Part 2: What is Silence? 

PART 2

Alex: In our first post, we came up with a new term to describe our feelings in the ongoing emergence of COVID-19: Novel Coronavirus Silence.

Ted: But is it silence? Or rather, what do we mean when we say silence? In our book, we have two major sections that create a structure to understand the history of the cultural response to AIDS, one of them dedicated to silence. We look at the role silence plays in understanding the history of AIDS culture, and the ongoing crisis. We begin by talking about the silence that defined the early period of AIDS. But we have come to understand how silence continues to function after the introduction of HAART. And today, even as we see significant attention to AIDS in cultural discourse, there are other silences when it comes to the stories we tell and don’t tell. 

Alex: One of the fundamental claims of our book is that we can’t overestimate the role that silence plays when it comes to AIDS. Silence = Death, yes, and then so much more. The title of our book’s second section is “Silence+,” a phrase I crafted to help capture the capricious, multiple, evolving, and defining role we see silence playing throughout the cultural history of AIDS. As per the ideas of my book with Jih-Fei and Nishant: a kind of scattering, a distribution of silence across place, time, community.

Ted: In the Introduction of our forthcoming book we write: “Here is the thing about silence: it is not absence, it is not lack. Silence is full, powerful.”

Alex: Then, throughout the book we continue exploring and evolving what we mean by silence. Here is a brief sampling: 

  1. Silence can be judgement free
  2. Silence can obscure good as much as it protects bad.
  3. Silence itself has a presence.
  4. Silence is layered, contradictory, and not just a negative.
  5. Silence is the absence of exchange, of network, of connection; silence twinned with isolation. 

Ted: And it is point number 5 that I want us to discuss here. It is not true to say that there is no public mourning occurring regarding COVID-19. Not only is there a plethora of voices bemoaning the lack of memorial (which itself begins to act as a form of memorial), but we do see public mourning projects. Take, for example, The New York Times cover from May 24th, 2020. The names of 1000 people who died in the US of COVID-19 were printed as a grim statistical gesture to the 100,000 people who had died in the US to that point. There is also the #NamingTheLost vigil. It took place over 24 hours, starting on May 20th. The names of many of those who have died were read. There are also the Naming the Lost walls that have sprung up in neighborhoods across New York, on which people add their names to a participatory physical list of the dead. 

https://lh5.googleusercontent.com/xH957mBGHp4sfdkr4h9R3Ryu4sSysjsU8KV20SSiS7mgHdr2jE4MJkTfAdyTlyjUvXoTPKXtXbxHEOnIuQbLdgp3Xn736ul3BqPsg-4m-6TXawXPmCLhj6kVosHhj8SFiaPXUkym

May 24th, 2020 front cover of The New York Times (photo: Theodore Kerr, May 2020) 

Alex: While those examples point to what I am hoping for, as such, they can not fully capture the enormity of our loss. They are not yet adding up. Let me state my claim clearly: I am looking for, and not finding, robust and moving cultural moments in which I can feel, share, mourn, and witness with others.

Ted: I am with you. That is why our #5 definition of silence stays useful: 

Silence is the absence of exchange, of network, of connection; silence twinned with isolation. 

When it comes to COVID-19 we are in the Silence of mourning. Which is not to say that there is an absence of mourning, rather, the abundance of cultural production of mourning feels separate, siloed, non-networked, unconnected, absent of exchange, and mostly in isolation. The outpouring of mourning projects, even when considered together, are not making enough noise to break through the silence. 

Alex: Well, we are still isolating in place.

Ted: But that alone can’t be the answer. 

Next, Part 3: Black Lives Matter and a Protest Culture of Mourning

PART 3

Ted: We ended our last post thinking about sheltering in place, or as artist Frederick Westin Call’s it, Sheltering in Grace. But, in fact, in NYC we are in Phase 2, and for a month or more, many of us have been out protesting, Black Lives Matter, even when we were still in Phase 1.

Alex: As I was still regaining my strength after having been sick in March, it was so healing for me to leave the apartment and to attend the protests. In the face of so much death and suffering, and the absolute callousness and cruelty coming from the highest offices of this country, I needed people, I needed release, I needed hope and collectivity. And this comes down to witness. I need to be witnessed, and I need to witness others. This virus has impacted the whole world, and I need to know that we are all able to witness that much loss and devastation, and still growing, in the varied ways that each one of us might need.

Ted:I think this brings us to what is happening with Black Lives Matter. Mid-June I walked around the SoHo area of Manhattan. Boards that were put up to protect shop windows by companies scared their stores would be targeted during protests have now become canvases for amazing and inspiring murals and memorials in honor of the Black lives that have been lost to police and state violence. On some of the scaffolding there are strips of paper that share the names of the dead, along with a few lines about their lives. 

Murals in SoHo, including a mural honoring Layleen Xtravaganza Cubilette-Polanco who died June 2019 at Rikers Island after staff failed to provide her with medical care that could have saved her life.  (Theodore Kerr, June 2020) 

Alex: This is a quiet compliment to the noise of protest.

Ted: Totally, or maybe these are disruptions to the commercial and capitalist visuals that until recently, marked this area

Alex: In thinking about these murals and memorials, one can’t help but think of the many cycles art has played in that neighborhood. It is inspiring to think about how street art has taken over the commercial space that was once alive with artists lofts and galleries. 

Ted: I love that you used the word cycle. Because I think that too is related to the activism of this time. Black Lives Matter is not new. But, as friends have pointed out to me, more white people are participating than ever before. And this in part is because one of the major calls of the 2020 Black Lives Matter movement has been around silence. White people are being called in to not hide behind silence: another reminder, as we suggest, that silence has a presence.

Alex: And a pressure. The absence of silence can be quiet, empty, meaningful; it has impact and power. 

Ted: Right, and silence works on various registers. The streets of SoHo were pretty empty of people as I walked around and took photos. The silence, if you will, was anything but quiet. It provided me with some of what I think you are looking for. I felt enveloped by shared grief, by an outpouring of networked and connected anger, mourning, and determination. I was feeling this in proximity to other people, and felt witnessed in the act. 

Next, Part 4: Protest = Mourning 

PART 4

Ted: Building off the SoHo murals we discussed, I just want to name that the Black Lives Matter marches have memorial aspects to them as well. We name the dead as we occupy the streets, pledging to work for justice in their name. This is a spiritual declaration we make together in public, which we’ve done before in times of health and political crisis. I think about the fierce pussy broadside for Visual AIDS, and the way it keeps the spirits of the dead alive without forgetting about the politics. 

Alex: It is a version of SAY HIS NAME / SAY HER NAME / SAY THEIR NAME, a very common chant in the current Black Lives Matter protests here in NY. When we do this, we always admit that there are too many names to say but saying each name matters. 

Left: Activists in Brooklyn repurpose a lightbox sign on Breonna Taylor’s birthday to honor her life. (Theodore Kerr, May 2020). Right: For the Record, fierce pussy for Visual AIDS curated by Risa Puleo, 2015 

Ted: Maybe one of the barriers to COVID-19 memorialization is where and when we choose for the story to start. Black Lives Matter was actually a movement born in a phrase within shared mourning. In the aftermath of Trayvon Martin’s death, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi came together online to share their grief. Their words, Black Lives Matter, emerged. Here we are, seven years later in a fierce justice movement that was rooted in mourning, so there was never a need to braid grief into the process. 

Left: A memorial in Fort Greene Park organized by young Black women in Brooklyn for Oluwatoyin Salau, a Black Lives Matter activist who was murdered by a man who offered her a ride. Right: a pop-up memorial set up in Fort Greene park for people who have died due to police violence. (photo: Theodore Kerr, 2020) 

Alex: I was going to say earlier that the foundation of mourning of the movement is not just in the chants or the art installations throughout SoHo. Along with the demonstrations, there have been public memorials, public funerals, and other installations for public mourning in places like Fort Greene park. Memorials permeate every space of this movement. 

Ted: Black Lives Matter, at least as I hear it, is an example of the phrase Honor the Dead, and Fight Like Hell for the living. 

Alex:  I think the same could be said for AIDS. The earliest AIDS activism was rooted in hope for sure, but also the looming presence of death. And anger. Always anger. That’s the full mix, Ted.

Ted: I want to say 2 things: I think the best AIDS memorials are still activism, and i would suggest America’s cult of exceptionalism, and Trump’s bravado have robbed us of the depth of a response rooted in grief+. The foundational story of COVID-19 in this country has been one of dismissal, denial, and underplay. There was also an acceptance of death in the name of financial stability, and attempts at quick fixes, and then more denial. It’s no wonder we are still in the Silence of mourning; we not only have to wrestle with our grief, but we have to push back against a very real wall of distracting sound that is trying to drown out our experiences and feelings. All of this while new cases are being diagnosed, deaths are resurging, and less people are taking precautions because cities and states are opening back up in the name of “progress.” 

Alex: AIDS is also rooted in hope and death, political and public neglect, and denial. 

Ted: True. So what is the difference? What is it about COVID-19 and this moment that finds us, even after more than 100,000 dead, unable to mourn? 

Alex: Is that the question? 

Ted: Okay, what was it about AIDS that allowed grief to be shared in public beyond the neglect, or in spite of the neglect, or because of the neglect? Was it the candle light vigils that started before the virus had a name? Was it the Names Project’s creation of the Quilt that took something folksy, relatable, and familiar, and turned it into something radical while still being comforting? Was it all the AIDS related gardens that sprung up providing a metaphor and a practice for our human relationship to the land? What is it about Black Lives Matter, which is also about hope and death, political and public neglect, and denial that allows mourning to go unsilenced? 

Alex: I think these questions are closer to what we can be asking, and gathering all the information is a good start. But if you are looking for a unifying answer, there is not one. And that is really important.  What we have learned about silence is that no single thing has the power to break through on it’s own. Yes, important and moving things happen—like the candle light vigils—and then those prepare us for something bigger—like the Quilt—but change is an assemblage over time. 

Left: AIDS quilt in front of the Washington Monument. (YEAR? permissions). Right: Artist’s rendering the faces of people who have died of Police and state violence outside of NYC City Hall as part of Occupy City Hall. (Theodore Kerr, June 2020) 

I can say as someone who saw the quilt many times, I know that while we AIDS activists in the earliest moments of this history were uncertain if we wanted to lead with mourning (see Crimp: Mourning and Militancy), you couldn’t help but be moved by that display. 

Ted: When some of the quilt panels came to Edmonton when I was a teenager in the 90s, on display in a busy theater atrium, I went. It felt monumental to me. I can still sense the powerful silence of our viewing. A nearby indoor waterfall was the only sound, aside from the slow shuffle of our feet, and the sobbing of some of the people around us. 

Alex: One of the things we develop in our book is how silence can be restorative. It is a place where we can cry, be despondent, and also gather our power, much like what you described at the start of this conversation when you say you hit the wall and then repaired yourself. You needed that moment of isolation to recharge and renew your commitment. 

Ted: True. So maybe we can focus less on the Silence of mourning, and consider how we can ensure everyone is getting what they need within the silence. 

Alex: Preparing ourselves and each other is often a good start before we mobilize. 


Catherine Yuk-ping Lo

COVID-19 is like a demon-detector or monster-revealing mirror unraveling the omnipresent structural racism in our society. I write this piece as a Chinese woman, working as a professor and living in the Netherlands. Countries in Europe were mainly having a wait-and-see approach even though the Chinese government decided to lockdown Wuhan and its neighboring cities on the 23rd of January. In mid-February, from China and Asia, the virus reached the European continent (although we have much to glean via critiques of first occurences from AIDS and the Distribution of Crises). On Valentine’s Day, a Chinese tourist who tested positive for the virus passed away in France, becoming presumably the first person to die due to COVID-19 in Europe. On the 21st of February, the region of Lombardy in Italy reported the first local transmission of the virus. Initially, two regions near Milan and Venice were the hotspots for cases; therefore, the Italian government locked down 12 towns in the northern part of Italy on the 23rd of February, exactly one month after the lockdown of Wuhan. The Italian government expanded the coronavirus restriction zone to include the entire nation on the 9th of March, placing all 60 million residents on lockdown. 

The first cases of COVID-19 in the Netherlands were all related people with a travel history of Italy, reported on the 27th of February—the week of the Carnival Holiday in the Limburg region I talked about the initial outbreak in the Netherlands with two other lovely ladies on our way to church. Since we all experienced the SARS outbreak 17 years ago, we did not take the disease lightly. We all had a nagging presage that something terrible is going to happen in the Netherlands and the region.  

When the cases kept increasing, we discussed whether we should wear masks on the street, because we understood the different mentality between people in Hong Kong and those in the Netherlands. In Hong Kong, learning from the SARS experience, locals believe wearing a mask is a civic duty and a gesture of mutual empathy. Wearing a mask is not only about self-protection but also protecting others from infections. In contrast, Dutch people once believe that masks are solely for sick people and even caretakers of sick people. The logic of not wearing a mask is that: if you are sick, then you should not go out. If you go out, then you are not ill. If you are not ill, then you do not need to wear a mask. Wearing masks is, therefore, unacceptable in society; the act would generate fear and panic. We eventually decided not to wear masks (even though we firmly believe the efficacy of this protective measure) based on straightforward logical reasoning: as ethnically Chinese, we are people of color; and people of color wearing masks in public are often placed at a higher risk for racial profiling.

While living in the Netherlands for almost two years, I have thus far never experienced any sort of verbal or physical harassment because of my gender or race. However, on that day I was on my way home from church on a cloudy Sunday afternoon, while not wearing a mask due to my anxiety of being a marked body. A local white man on the street yelled at me, “RUBBISH!” Whether I wear a face mask or not, given the color of my skin, I am already marked, especially when people relate the color of my skin to the origin of the virus. Both AIDS and COVID-19 are tangled in genealogies that mark their origins in certain georgraphies or communities. With AIDS, what started as GRID was soon identified among populations irrespective of social, economic, or sexual markers. In the case of COVID-19, the virus was initially called “Wuhan Pneumonia” (wuhan feiyan) by the Chinese authorities when the first cases were reported in Wuhan in China in December 2019. Beijing, later on, replaced the name “Wuhan Pneumonia” with “New Coronavirus” (xin guangzhuang bingdu) to avoid essentializing the name of the virus to China across the globe. The WHO eventually named the virus COVID-19 to delink the correlation between the disease, the country, and the people.

The name of the new coronavirus has become one source of diplomatic tensions between China and the US recently. To divert the anger of both domestic and international audiences regarding the initial slow response to the outbreak, China has attempted to alter the well-accepted understanding of the origin of the disease. A respected epidemiologist and SARS-fighter Zhong Nanshan, changed the narrative on the 27th of February by suggesting that the virus that supposedly first appeared in China may not have originated in China after all. In mid-March, Zhao Lijian, a spokesperson of the Foreign Ministry, promoted a conspiracy theory that the virus had originated in the US and was brought to Wuhan by a US delegate who attended the Military World Games. The state-run media continued to report the conspiracy theory in late March, the time when the total confirmed cases in the US surpassed the number of cases in China and Italy, and the US has became the country having the highest number of reported infections.

In responding to the Chinese accusation of the spread of “American coronavirus” to Wuhan, Trump has engaged in a war of words by framing the disease as “Chinese virus” and more recently, the racist moniker “Kung-flu.” The announcement of terminating relations with the WHO is another move the US has taken to show dissatisfaction with the supposedly growing Chinese influence on the international organization. Trump alleged that the Chinese government covered up the COVID-19 outbreak that has cost more than 100,000 American lives and over 1 million lives worldwide, and that the WHO has been effectively controlled by Beijing. 

It is not a coincidence that cases of verbal and physical abuse towards Chinese, East Asian, and the Black community have surged in the U.S amid the global COVID-19 outbreak. There have been cases of physical attacks against East Asians in the UK and Canada as well. But COVID-19 also becomes the backdrop against which there is a rise of anti-black sentiment in China. In April 2020, news images circulated of African people sleeping under bridges, families with children being evicted from their rented accommodation, as well as businesses denying entrance and service to Black individuals in Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong province of China. These incidents  occured after over a 100 residents from African countries tested positive for COVID-19 in Guangzhou. These incidents expose the prevailing racism against Black people in China, despite the supposed multicultural color-blindness propped up by authorities.

In my book entitled HIV/AIDS in China and India: Governing health security published in 2015, I suggested that one way to counter AIDS stigma was government accountability, but also to insist on  community forms of knowledge dissemination through alternative media, discussion groups, and forums that interrogated discrimination and stigma towards the illness, infected individuals, and “high risk” groups. Since COVID-19 does not simply supplant these forms of political work in the arena of HIV/AIDS, It is imperative that we continue these forms of activism with renewed energy.  

Thinking about Small, Needful Facts

Nishant Shahani

I have been teaching Ross Gay’s poem, “A Small Needful Fact” for several semesters over the last few years in Queer Literature and WGSS classes at my university. And yet, it’s one of those texts that is difficult to “teach”—its understated beauty and aching tenderness carries its own profound weight, not really requiring lengthy explication or extensive pedagogical rumination. So what does one “teach”? What can I really say?  Sometimes pedagogy doesn’t require too many words. Foucault usefully reminds us that there are no binary divisions between speech and silence. Silence can labor in the same performative vicinity as speech. 

mage

In early June, I attend a rally in Berkeley in solidarity with black lives organized by a group of black and women of color students training to be physicians. Their demands include: understanding racism in conjunction with police violence as overlapping public health emergencies; comprehensive antiracist training for medical students, practicing physicians, and associated healthcare providers; and more urgently, an immediate end to militaristic use of tear gas by the police on protestors in the midst of pandemic that causes severe respiratory health outcomes and problems with breathing. A young black woman who identifies herself as a physician in training comes to the mike to address some of these issues. Overwhelmed by the gravity of the moment, she discontinues her prepared speech addressing some of the above talking points, and instead chooses to read out Ross Gay’s poem, “A Small Needful Fact.”  

Pedagogies of silence. Struggles to speak.  Both seem to encapsulate the difficulty of how to bear witness to these moments in vocabularies that sometimes seem to exceed or escape us. Our own words do not always do what we need them to do. But these very failures can still be instructive. Gay’s “A Small Needful Fact,” simultaneously animates and salvages these scenes of silence and incomplete speech. Its own tentative hesitations and tender qualifiers—“perhaps,” “in all likelihood,” “some of them” capture a quality of thoughtful hesitation and considerate caution. For Gay, the realm of the factual seems to be provisional, bathed in the “maybes” of the subjunctive. Their “smallness” pushes against the confident grandeur and assertive certitudes of definitiveness. 

And yet, despite caution, these facts are needful. Or, to use, Alexandra Juhasz’s words, “we need gentle truths for now.” In the preface to our book AIDS and the Distribution of Crises, Cindy Patton usefully reminds us that “stable objects of analysis are hard to come by…(when) the careful work designed to document the fragile construction of ‘the real’ has also been hijacked from the other side: the neoliberal claim that postmodernists do not believe in any truth.” Such co-options of poststructuralism have transformed postmodernist challenges to singularity and universalism “into a cynical assault on any notion of facticity.” (Patton, i).

“Facts” and “truth” are categories that have undergone significant forms of hermeneutic pressure by projects of decolonial, feminist, queer, disability, and critical race theory. How might these very projects allow us to reclaim the categories of “truth” and “fact” in this moment?  How are these reclamations enabled when we consider truths to be gentle, or facts to be needful

“Need” can be an imperative or framed as an imperious command. But need can also be an expression of affective and material longing. It can be a desire for that which is vital, especially under conditions of precarity, austerity, and the uneven distribution of life chances. 

But I would add, the qualifications of “needful” and “gentle” are also epistemological in their importance. They allow us to think about not only the content of truth and facts, but also its form. How do we write in ways both gentle and needful in moments that are marked by the distribution of multiple crises and pandemics? 

I am drawn to the subjunctive mood of the poem—its provisional “perhaps.” The “in all likelihood” creates a through line to the rich archive of black feminist and black queer thinking (which, not surprisingly, does not get enough credit as an epistemology or as a hermeneutic of thinking and writing).  Gay’s subjunctive mood is reminiscent, for example, of Saidiya Hartman’s mobilization of critical fabulation in her archival meditations on Venus in Two Acts. For Hartman, the very encounter with the archive is ridden with risks of replicating its violence: “How does one revisit the scene of subjection without replicating the grammar of violence?”; “How can narrative embody life in words and at the same time respect what we cannot know?” Like the “perhaps” and “in all likelihood” of Gay’s poem, Hartman suggests that speculative arguments “exploit the capacities of the subjunctive”—“a grammatical mood that expresses doubts, wishes, and possibilities.” 

What-might-have-beens offer us roadmaps to what could be. In the conclusion to Black on Both Sides, C. Riley Snorton writes the story of Phillip DeVine, the disabled black man who was murdered by white supremacists along with Brandon Teena. DeVine’s life and death is left out of much of the queer Brandon Teena archive, including the film Boys Don’t Cry. Snorton’s conclusion insists that DeVine’s story “requires nothing short of invention,” and offers an analysis that combines small, needful facts and fiction. Snorton writes: “How does one access a language outside of and in contradistinction to the governing codes that currently determine human definition such that it gives rise to new meanings, forms of life, and genres of being?”

When I teach Snorton’s essay and students refer to this conclusion, they often misspell DeVine as “Divine.” Perhaps it is simply auto correct that unintentionally creates a new spelling of his name.

“Things I never did with Genevieve: Let our bodies touch and tell the passions that we felt. Go to a Village Gay Bar….” — Audre Lorde, Zami: A New Spelling of my Name. Biomythography accounts for the subjunctive—the could-have-beens of history.

“Sometimes you have to create your own History.” — End credits of The Watermelon Woman

For one of my students, the fact that the watermelon woman is not an “actual” historical figure but a work of fiction creates a sense of bathos. Perhaps they are let down by the idea that verisimilitude is always already ventriloquized. But when we push through this initial disappointment, we arrive at the power of the flim’s function as biomythography, of recognizing that what passes as “fact” can be fiction, but also that fictions can be gentle and needful facts. Biomythographies, as Snorton reminds us, are “invitations to create different discursive structures for human identification, ones that contravene colonial modes of cataloging difference in favor of the possibility of engendering ways of life and genres of being based on the specificities of lived experience.” 

Perhaps, or, in all likelihood, Eric Garner put plants very gently into the Earth. And these plants perhaps, or in all likelihood continue to grow. There is much to mine here in thinking about the relation between blackness and ecology; on environmental redlining; on the whiteness of green critiques. 

“In what I am calling the weather, antiblackness is pervasive as climate. The weather necessitates cheangeability and improvisation; it is the atmospheric condition of time and place; it produces new ecologies.”

Christina Sharpe – “In the Wake”

We could (perhaps?) think of abolition as a kind of “new ecology” that “might continue to grow” in contradistinction to the weather that produces and sustains the climate of anti-blackness.

Sharpe’s turn to ecology and the environment offers a through line back to Gay’s small and needful fact—of the role that horticulture might have played in Eric Garner’s life. 

In the last few weeks, I have been drawn to our book cover of AIDS and the Distribution of Crises, with a reproduction of Zoe Leonard’s powerful installation “Strange Fruit.” Perhaps I am attracted to its contemplative meditation on loss and repair in the midst of global pandemics in which we are still stumbling our way through new rituals of mourning, militancy, and melancholia. 

But perhaps the cover can speak to us in yet another way—if anti-blackness is as pervasive as the weather, it permeates entire ecologies of rotting fruit. Rather than singular bad apples, it is the entire orchard of fruit that is rotten to its core. 

Abolition, as Ruth Gilmore Wilson often reminds us, is not simply a negation, but a productive practice. 

It is perhaps converting sunlight into food—making it easier for us to breathe.

Following A Small Needful Fact

Jih-Fei Cheng

“And just as each plant takes up a certain quantum of light for its own purpose and produces its own singular disjunctive pattern of branch and leaf, so every object contracts and dilates time” (102).

–Tavia Nyong’o, Afro-Fabulations: The Queer Drama of Black Life

Just as a camera lens might capture light to visually record and make history, so do plants and other organisms photosynthesize and absorb memory about events that lead to changes in climate, ecosystems, and global health. The way plants bend, move, or are manipulated in response to stimuli, including human interventions, tells us a lot about the histories of racism and public health.

Six years ago, on July 17, 2014, in Staten Island, Eric Garner suffocated under the chokehold of police officer Daniel Pantaleo. Although Pantaleo was not initially indicted, the person who witnessed and video recorded Garner’s murder, Ramsey Orta, was terrorized by police and eventually arrested and convicted for possession of a weapon and drug charges by police officers. Orta served his jail sentence until May 2020. For allegedly selling loose cigarettes without tax stamps, Garner paid with his life.

Less than a month later, on August 9, 2014, officer Darren Wilson of Ferguson, MO pursued Michael Brown on suspicion of stealing from a convenience store. Wilson shot Brown six times, leaving his lifeless body in the street for four hours. Protestors contend that Brown stated beforehand, “Hands up, don’t shoot!” As the 2017 documentary film, Stranger Fruit, depicts, the accusation levied against Brown was taking cigarillos.

When George Floyd exited a Minneapolis, MN convenience store on May 25, 2020, he was accosted by police officers responding to an allegation that Floyd made a transaction using a counterfeit $20 bill. The video recorded by Darnella Frazier shows officer Derick Chauvin, whom Floyd once worked with at a local nightclub as security, use his knee to pin the back of Floyd’s neck onto the ground for around 8 minutes until Floyd asphyxiated and died. Floyd’s purchase was cigarettes.

On June 23, 2020, shortly after midnight, Breonna Taylor and Kenneth Walker were awoken to the sounds of someone forcing their way into their Louisville, KY apartment. Fearing for their lives, Walker used his licensed handgun to shoot at the intruders. Police serving a “no-knock” warrant used a battering ram to breakdown the couple’s door. The officers fired a barrage of ammunition into the apartment, eight of which struck and killed Taylor. Although police had already detained their main suspect earlier at a different home, they decided to investigate Taylor’s apartment in the middle of the night and without their body cameras turned on. To this date, none of the officers involved have been arrested for Taylor’s murder despite public outcry. The police never found what they were supposedly looking for in Taylor’s apartment: drugs, or a link to selling drugs.

Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel, The Jungle, widely publicized the horrors and labor abuses of U.S. industrial meatpacking. That same year, to protect consumers, the U.S. Pure Food and Drug Act was passed to “prohibit interstate commerce in adulterated and misbranded food and drugs.” This led to the establishment of the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA). Although tobacco is plant that is cultivated as a lucrative drug, its commercial distribution never came under the regulation of the FDA until 2009. By 2016, the tobacco industry totaled $117 billion in revenue. The lobbying of government, skewing of science, and racially targeted marketing have ensured that the U.S.-based company Altria—formerly Philip Morris International), and the world’s leading tobacco company—has operated since the mid-nineteenth-century with very little government interference.

As the general name for a plant that is indigenous to the Americas in many varieties, tobacco and its harvest became crucial to the survival of the first successful colony of Europeans in Roanoke, VA. Their displacement of Native Americans, enslavement of African descended peoples, and exploitation of tobacco became part of the architecture for settler colonialism. During the mid-nineteenth-century, tobacco was one of the earliest crops that supported the new republic of Colombia to gain its economic independence for a short while. After the abolition of slavery across the Americas, dispossessed Indigenous, formerly enslaved Black, and Asian “coolie” laborers were forced through various vagrancy laws, citizenship exclusion laws, and/or “Alien land laws” to work on white-owned plantations and businesses. Armed guards patrolled the fields to prevent direct sale of tobacco by workers. Slave patrols became the foundation for the modern U.S. police

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth-centuries, drug laws across the United States targeted marijuana and “laid a foundation for the bifurcation of the drug market and the origins of the war on drugs.” The U.S.-sponsored global “War on Drugs” ramped up throughout the twentieth-century. Under this cover, U.S. military operations undermined the sovereignty of nations in Latin America and Asia. Meanwhile, the domestic militarization of law enforcement in U.S. urban centers dovetailed with the conversion of former agricultural lands into prisons. The use of racial profiling measures, such as “stop-and-frisk,” and elevated penalties for drug offenses, which further targeted racialized urban communities, led to the massive incarceration of Black and Brown people. Although some states have legalized marijuana, its increasingly lucrative industry has been dominated by white male CEOs while those who were previously convicted under marijuana and other drug-related charges remain imprisoned.

Today, we turn to the FDA to take advantage of the speedy clinical drug trials made possible by impassioned AIDS activists. However, we rarely pause to consider the racist roots of food and drug industries—that is, the history of mass agriculture involving Indigenous dispossession, African enslavement and incarceration, and immigrant laborers who are denied rights and can be detained indefinitely. During the late nineteenth-century industrialization of agriculture, the first virus, the tobacco mosaic virus (TMV), was “discovered” by western scientists in the tobacco plant. All viruses, including HIV and COVID-19, are based upon TMV as the foundational and experimental model. A majority of the world’s laboratory experiments on diseases, including HIV/AIDS and COVID-19 are conducted using the “immortal” HeLa cell line developed using the cancerous cervical cells taken from patient Henrietta Lacks by her doctor, George Gey, without her knowledge and prior to her death from the illness. Lacks was born in 1920 in Roanoke, VA and initially grew-up in the former slave quarters of her grandmother. She spent her early years as a tobacco farmer. Our privatized agriculture, food, and drug industries are enabled by the history and persistence of race, gender, and class disparities.

As U.S. pharmaceutical corporations continue to source taxpayer funds to develop lucrative drugs during the HIV/AIDS and COVID-19 global pandemics, we must ask ourselves: How do we ensure public health amidst an increasingly, globally privatized environment?

Vox.com reports, “Even during the market calamity the coronavirus pandemic has caused, [CEO Jeff] Bezos has consistently been one of the few exceptions in the billionaire class who has been in the green. Amazon is more essential than ever, and its stock is up 25 percent this year, as is Bezos’s net worth. That success, while the economy craters…” Simultaneously, in Peru, Graciela Meza, executive director of the regional health office in Loreto, bemoaned the lack of access to public health interventions and medical care that she and her constituents face amidst the pandemic. “‘There’s no oxygen in the lungs of the world,’ Meza remarked bitterly, referring to the city’s Amazon location. ‘That should be the headline for your story,’ she added.” Fascist Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro is persecuting Indigenous peoples and razing the Amazon rainforest in order to intensify extractive practices, such as mining. Meanwhile, we as consumers delight over the easy access we gain to manufactured products that rely on such extractive practices.

Simply, we are replacing the Amazon rainforest with its virtual mall version. Except, we are paying for it with the lives of our most vulnerable and eventually our global wellness. 

We associate the positivity of the color green more with the U.S. dollar than the green of our ecosystems. We are appalled at the dramatic climate changes already underway, but do not consider it a sacrifice if we can order cannabis and hemp products online and get toilet paper delivered to our doorsteps in less than a few days. A seemingly lower price point and the need for physical distancing amidst the COVID-19 pandemic renders Amazon(dot)com’s convenient online order-and-delivery service “essential.” Yet, Amazon(dot)com’s essential workers, many of whom are Black, continue to strike for fair wages and appropriate safety measures amidst the pandemic. The profitability of Amazon(dot)com derives as much from its employees’ high risk and low wages as from the corporation’s ability to undersell mom-and-pop competitors. Under Amazon Web Services, the company copies and integrates software that is created by other tech companies across the world wide web. By expanding its software platform, Amazon(dot)com is able to collect data, form partnerships, and direct consumer traffic across an array of locales, markets, and institutions. This includes Amazon(dot)com’s selling of facial recognition software to police, which the company did not halt until this past June in response to Black Lives Matter protests, while using its Alexa technology to track and provide health data to governments. The prospect of Amazon(dot)com replacing all of our taxpayer funded social safety nets is on the horizon—and, by “horizon,” I mean our line of sight which is persistently directed at our laptop and smartphone screens.

The current movement for Black Lives is the result of earlier years, decades, and centuries of Black feminist, queer, and trans activism. Movement leaders recognize that the murders of Floyd and Taylor, as well as the murders of Black transwoman Nina Pop and Black transman Tony McDade, during the COVID-19 pandemic are no coincidence. By making resources scarce and inaccessible, privatization embeds violences in our communities, especially targeting those with the least access and institutional protections. Privatization chokes Black lives. It refuses Native sovereignty and custodianship of the environment. It dismantles our natural resources. It destroys the public and makes us globally unhealthy.

In 1920, U.S. bacteriologist C. E. Winslow described public health as the “untilled fields” (23). Winslow emphasized a shift in focus away from environmental sanitation to communicable diseases, arguing for widespread access to medical care and standardized living conditions. One hundred years later, we have not supplied the most basic, frontline measures to disease prevention: universal healthcare and universal housing. In an essay titled “Forgotten Places and the Seeds of Grassroots Planning,” Ruth Wilson Gilmore argues, “A bottom-up politics of recognition in the face of threatened annihilation enhance[s] a syncretic rescaling of identity…In the United States today, white people suffering from a concentration of environmental harms…have learned to call what is happening ‘environmental racism’…This stretched understanding of racism enables vulnerable people to consider the ways in which harmful forces might be disciplined and harms remedied” (45). How, then, might we understand the coincidence between the COVID-19 pandemic and state violence as environmental racism? How does this framing help us understand and remedy racism as systemically embedded in our environment?

Although people bristle at the formerly used term “social distancing” to describe our COVID-19 public health model, it is certainly more accurate than “quarantine” or even “lockdown.” An even more accurate description for our failing pandemic abatement plan, absent of universal healthcare and housing, is “socioeconomic distancing” or “environmental racism.” To bridge the socioeconomic gap and stem environmental racism, Black Lives Matter protestors occupy public space with masks and the sharing of supplies for collective care against police violence and COVID-19. They call for the abolition of police and the funding of healthcare and housing. Activists lead us in experimenting with how to plant seeds, grow roots, and nurture ecosystems together rather than rely on massive extraction, consumer algorithms, and contact tracing to keep us atomized and unjust.

Grade Distribution

Cindy Patton

“Granma, what did you do in the deadly Pandemic of 2020?” Her answer is: “My dear, that was a terrible time! Many people died, but by God, our students took their final exams.”

March 2020

In a mere blink of the eye, universities in North America undertook a massive transformation whose duration – and durability – remains unclear. Students were sent packing, and faculty were shuttled into virtual training sessions about virtual teaching strategies. Some changes felt charmingly familiar: the difference between searching for appropriate “actual” classrooms and the quest for open bandwidth initially seemed to be one of scale. But the redistribution of teaching to these many web-worlds put universities in competition for bandwidth: from corporations and government bodies attempting to remain responsive to their markets or publics to the countless lonely stuck-at-homes who were variously working and looking for companionship, everyone seemed to be logging on at the same time. Connections constantly “froze” and restarted.

The implication of the difference between actually sitting in a room with someone, versus watching them appear and disappear at the whim of electrons shooting across space was mundane and apocalyptic by turn. In our new “classrooms,” students who previously zoned out before our eyes, could now mimic net-failures. But as the epidemic’s first wave expanded across the globe, we had a disconcerting realization that students could and would soon make choices about how to continue their “higher education.” As we slowly steeled ourselves to the heartbreak of young people’s diverted or crushed sense of their futurities, they faced a pragmatic question: should they stay the course with expensive degrees that, except for a brand name their diploma would bear, were now undifferentiable from “cheap ones”? Higher prestige brands argued that it was worth staying the course until the resumption of in-person classes with their superior teachers. (As a result of the media coverage of the “pay for admission” scandals, most people were newly and acutely aware that in addition to cushier environments that would make anyone’s learning easier, high prestige institutions conveyed the symbolic capital of “connections,” which meant that graduands would start life higher up on the food chain.)

For the most part, there wasn’t a lot of courageous or visionary decision-making during the spring-that-was-to-end-online. Decisions reflected the patron relation between faculty and students, and between administrators and faculty. At my own university there was an astounding lack of leadership, although perhaps not uniquely. I fantasized that in other places, Someone Was Actually In Charge. The simple issue of how to finish (or whether to finish, or what finishing “as planned” might mean) dragged on for weeks, in the apparent (and baseless) hope that things might, just might, quickly sort themselves out. A weird academic machismo seemed to infiltrate even the tiniest decisions, a fear that if we changed things much from “the old normal” (shutting down unnecessarily, changing grading standards) administrators and faculty would look silly.

Cheating students

The Great Shutdown happened when most universities and colleges had 4 or 5 weeks remaining in their semester, and among the many issues to be managed was “assessment.” Many other universities more prestigious than my own made timely decisions about how grading would work, thus enabling their (overall more priviledged) students who needed to go home to make decisions about their lives without worrying about their grades. Perhaps the familiarity of this long-contentious aspect of our work meant that everyone had something to say, making grading seem like a logical focal point with the power to bring all other questions into a rational discussion of “what to do.”

At my university, the question about grading dragged on and on. At my mid-tier, R-1 institution, there was reluctance to go the P-F route, perhaps because of the longstanding jockeying attempt to demonstrate that our grades “mean” something. Many, many faculty were also fighting behind the scenes: we were not of one mind, but we tried to provide advice about a rational grading-system that would correspond to the type of class and their previous forms of assessment. Finally, students took matters into their own hands and demanded a decision (they were allowed to petition for  P-F; or drop courses late without penalty).

The question of simply stopping the semester early – discussed covertly by some, maybe many, faculty – never seems to have been taken seriously by our administrators, and the moral bankruptcy of their decision-making became very clear: those of us who directly challenged upper level administrators got two types of answer. First, “we owe it to students to allow them to finish the term” underscores the patronizing attitude of administrators and many faculty – we know better than students what they need to do in order to survive in this pandemic. Second, the claim that “we need to make sure that no one is cheating,” which launched a thousand needs for invigilation technologies, just seemed like the dying preoccupation of a dying profession.

To my surprise, this animating rationale for “going on as usual” only amplified. After the semester ended, collections of anecdotes and various research initiatives emerged to document the rise of cheating during the semester’s untimely end. The question seemed to almost entirely center on “did they cheat or not?” and if so, how could the gaps invigilation gaps be remedied now that virtual classrooms are our lives for some time to come?

The discussion of cheating overlooked  purpose of the “assessment tools” that form the platform from which cheating and non-cheating occurs. Are there forms of teaching in which something called “cheating” would not occur at all? Is it possible to teach without regard for ranking students (almost exclusively through the assignment of grades), an activity that is the precondition for the motive to cheat?

Trusting students

In my first year or so of teaching, my grades were deemed “too high,” and I was remanded to a “resource” in which I would learn how to curve my grades. My fellow group members and I delicately raised questions about the tension or even contradiction between “grading” students and supporting their growth as persons and as scholars. I started referring to this group as “high graders anonymous,” a place where participants admitted to their addiction, but had little motive or means to give it up. As a proud lifelong member of high graders anonymous, I have almost semesterly been required to justify my grades to my department chairs. Eventually, I realized that there is nothing “they” can do; they can’t fire me for giving grades that “do not match the predictive curve.” I consider the alignment of my teaching and my grading to be a matter of academic freedom, and I have tried in my very small way, to model a form of learning that does not articulate to grades. This requires me to build up a system of trust between myself and my students.

  Those of us with many years’ experience of teaching through trust probably have some sense of how we have accomplished that task (or, sometimes this time, had not), but mostly, trust-building has become part of our modus operandi. This trust is a little difficult to characterize. There is something about asking students to trust me to help them achieve their scholarly goals, but to measure that by standards that they develop outside the usual competitive framework of grades. I ask them – I trust them —  not to “get outside help” (whose pedagogical utility I could not assess) for the mere purpose of improving their grade. I ask them not to “cheat” and I ask them to trust me not to use grades as a form of punishment. I agree with Foucault that “normation” – in this case, through ranking with grades – is inextricably bound up with punishment. 

Longlife learning

We will be in for a rough few years, as this pandemic pulls the carpet out from under our teaching. Few of us have much experience “teaching online.” that would soon become the stock in trade of teaching. The issue is not so much that we cannot adapt to the technologies non-face to face teaching, but that in the “virtual classroom” we do not yet know how to instill “virtue.” Indeed, I am not at all sure that the University system is a virtue producing machine.

I think back to the early years of the AIDS pandemic: it is a truism now that “patients” and activists usually knew more than their doctors. That as in part because there was an insurgent demand across disease categories to “listen to the patients’ experience,” but much more, we crafted a new form of knowledge that was in dialogue with researchers and doctors with highly specialized ways of producing information, but we also spent a huge amount of time building capacity in ourselves and our community to understand science and change ill-informed views – among our doctors and among ourselves.

I probably over-estimate the success of my generation of AIDS activists work to build on the ethos and strategies of the “science for the people” movement of the 1970s, where ordinary citizens worked together to develop the capacity to understand science. In the early years of the AIDS epidemic, learning was active and the knowledge we produced improved individual lives and built a community.

We are not at that place today in the current epidemic. I probably should not have been surprised to discover that the majority of my non-science colleagues, let alone “ordinary people” are not only shockingly innumerate, but also disinterested in systematically acquiring an understanding of the scientific foundations that would make them able to participate meaningfully (rather than mean-spiritedly) in local debates. In the early years of doing safe sex education, I noticed that people were happy to give up activities that they liked least, but reluctant to do the things that would actually make a difference.  Eventually, the solution to the AIDS epidemic was pharmaceutical, an outcome that I continue to believe was not a necessary end and not the best end. At this very early stage of coming to terms with a new class of viruses, it is critical that we make decisions at a point when we are still unable to measure the impact of the not-yet-known, and many people scoff at the reality there much remains unknowable, because biomedical research designs don’t do a very good job at modelling human activity. Not least among these human activities is the capacity to undertake moral questions about who deserves our attention and care.

Read the introduction to AIDS and the Distribution of Crises free online and save 30% on the book with coupon code E20AIDS.

Dispatches on AIDS and COVID-19: Continuing Conversations from AIDS and the Distribution of Crises (Dispatch Two)

Today’s guest post is a part of the short series curated by the editors of AIDS and the Distribution of Crises, Jih-Fei Cheng, Assistant Professor of Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Scripps College, Alexandra Juhasz, Alexandra Juhasz is Distinguished Professor of Film at Brooklyn College, City University of New York, and Nishant Shahani Associate Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the Department of English at Washington State University. The contributors to AIDS and the Distribution of Crises outline the myriad ways that the AIDS pandemic exists within a network of varied historical, overlapping, and ongoing crises borne of global capitalism and colonial, racialized, and gendered violence. Last week’s post can be viewed here. The final post will be shared to the blog next week.

Dispatch Two:

Theodore (Ted) Kerr

I was going to take this time to discuss the amazing work that WHAT WOULD AN HIV DOULA DO? has done over the last few months. But instead here is a link. I have been moved by recent events to craft something new. 

I want to start by saying for many reasons this week has seemed the hardest of all since sheltering in place began.This has to do as much with the ongoing Coronavirus epidemic as with the white supremacist violence we continue to see everywhere including but not limited to Minneapolis, and Central Park; along with the limited uptake in my social circles regarding the cyclone that hit Bangladesh, the future of Hong Kong, Hungry’s national outlawing of trans lives, the fact that pre construction is still happening on Wet’suwet’en land, and so many other pressing calamities. 

This is to say nothing of the personal dramas unfolding in the lives of so many loved ones. Sick dogs, work fall outs, cancelled opportunities, break ups, the mental health of our offsprings, PTSD from surviving prison, the lingering tightness of breath from maybe surviving COVID-19, looming debt, and yet unnamable losses. 

With all that said, it has also been the week when I have been the most grateful for the internet, and the ways it can be used to build community and share hard won wisdom from our recently departed ancestors.  

Members of the RADICAL MONARCHS, an activist organization for young girls of color started a hashtag: #StaceyTaughtUs in honor of  Asian American Disability activist Stacey Park Milbern who died earlier this month. My friend Josephine attended Milbern’s online memorial last week, and later that day my friend Cory who also attended, began posting Stacy Taught Us contributions online, some of which I want to share:

Stacey taught me to pay attention to the things we do together, even when they seem so everyday, that I might not even notice. 

Stacey taught me that finding your ancestors is as much about changing the way you look for them as it is about where you look for them.

#StaceyTaughtUs how much we can change. That we can feel so certain about the rightness of our position, and then when we let people into our lives who have very different experiences than we do, that rightness and that position can change.

In honor of her work, two of Milburn’s peers created a syllabus, gathering much of the work Milburn leaves behind. It is where I came across a speech she gave last year in which she ends with the following words: 

We do this work together. With each other. Build a tribe. Let people in. Be vulnerable when it’s safe to do so and sometimes even when you are sure it’s not. Own your mistakes. Take a chance. Stand up for your friends and people who aren’t your friends. Stand up for yourself when others don’t. We all need each other. We need you. We love you. 

I sit in my tiny room fueled by Milburn’s legacy; namely the community she builds between the living and the dead, and her push towards a shared sense of positive empowerment. Leading with a love ethic, and progress rooted in interdependence is humbling, refreshing, and instructive.

Is it too much to say that Milburn –  from beyond the grave – can be seen as providing a answers to our questions today? I am not sure, but I am reminded that any lessons we take from what we may call the AIDS response are best when they include a refusal of any calcified idea of AIDS related knowledge. Milburn inspires me to ensure I am being nimble and porous when I consider notions of we, or learned

What AIDS and The Distribution of Crisis makes so clear is something I am picking up on in Milburn’s work: there is a togetherness in our seeds, and our bloom. Our past, present, and future are best experienced un-silo’d, we can messy in the best possible of ways. 

Without overlooking or dismissing our own collected, and recognized AIDS archives, we are wise to remember that our shared futures reside in the knowledge and communities of the movements HIV has long been entangled with: black liberation; anti-colonial organizing; reproductive justice; advancements in disability policy and practices; redistribution of wealth, and climate change to name a few.

In the age of COVID-19, with so many looking to what they may call AIDS for answers, I am reminded that AIDS is an assemblage and so too has always been the response. To find answers in our midst – be it related to security or structural racism or other pressing issues – we must figure out how to continue to look deep within, and always out. 

“Pre-existing Conditions”

Nishant Shahani

As I struggle to lend some coherence to scattered thoughts marked by multiple and mutual logics of crises, I am drawn to a seemingly marginal quote footnoted in Cindy Patton’s brilliant foreword to AIDS and the Distribution of Crises. Patton invokes the notion of “writing under erasure” to describe “an analytical strategy in which one marks a word that is inadequate to a concept but for which there is no better word” (xv). In a moment marked by both an intensification yet prolonged continuation of precarity, all writing can be viewed as a form of “writing under erasure,” both in its limited descriptive capacities but also, more violently, in that writing takes place under conditions of black death—or state-sanctioned killings to be more accurate. “Writing under erasure” marks a way to (inadequately?) describe the very inadequacy of words to “keep up” with the shifting contingencies of the quotidian. But such modes of accounting also require that we do justice to longer calcified histories informing events that seem exceptional and mundane at the same time.  To write in this moment about AIDS, or about COVID-19, or about police killings is both an acceptance of erasure but also a struggle against its purported inevitability. It is a way, to use Lauren Michele Jackson’s useful provocation to “metabolize race ‘happening,’ despite the fact that race is always happening.”

Throughout AIDS and the Distribution of Crises, we pay attention to this double movement that subtends the temporality of crises. The spectacular character of its pronouncements perform an intensification of “now;” but if “race is always happening,” then crises are not simply turning points as the epidemiological etymology of the word inadequately suggests. Instead, they are always marked by prolonged duration—i.e. by the pre-existing conditions around “crises in housing, access to water, migration and movement across borders, incarceration, racialized and gendered structures of wage labor” referenced in the above prompts. The relationship between AIDS and COVID-19 can be described through recursive loops rather than discrete logics of analogy conveyed through models of similarity or difference. With COVID-19, even the logics of recursivity between waves might be inadequate. The imminence of the much feared “second” wave has been an important way to foreground the longue dureé of crisis—but in fact, it might only perform the reductive work of erasing continuity through the calculus of sequence.  

I italicize the phrase “pre-existing conditions” above since it does some heavy lifting in multiple contexts of crises distribution that mark AIDS, COVID-19, and the pandemic of police killings. “Writing under erasure,” as Cindy Patton reminds us, is not simply “lacking visibility;” (xv) instead, it is a kind of replacement mechanism. The disappearance of pre-existing conditions that marks COVID-19 when seen through the scandal of a crisis “turning point” is replaced by the magnification of different “pre-existing conditions.” These are dangerous, even lethal substitutes. Within the corporate language of health insurance, “pre-existing conditions” mark certain bodies as “risky”—their putative volatility becomes a way to naturalize capitalistic logics of extraction and accumulation. As importantly, healthcare within neoliberalism becomes a matter of personal responsibility as a foil for the recalcitrance of subjects reified as “risk pools.” In this light, pre-existing conditions do not simply refer to diabetes or asthma that might pre-date coverage plans. They also become the necropolitical logics through which unruly bodies get blamed for their own failures to perform adequate care of the self. The failure to adequately conform to imperatives of “good” health indexes other “transgressions”: immigrant laborers in meat packing plants who supposedly cause spread of COVID-19 due to unsanitary “home” lives (rather than poor working conditions), queer bodies engaged in bareback sex or drug users causing spread of HIV/AIDS (rather than trans/homophobia or lack of accessible healthcare) or most recently, the supposedly inefficient hand washing abilities of people of color (rather than the lack of widespread testing and PPE equipment). 

When do “pre-existing conditions” fade away from analytical frames and when are they amplified? In the instance of George Floyd’s killing, “pre-existing conditions” were mobilized to frame him as a risky subject responsible for his own death through the language of race-based medicine. (The initial report of his murder was framed as a “medical incident.”) Subsequent charging documents referred to “underlying health conditions including coronary artery disease and hyperintensive heart disease” and “potential intoxicants in his system” as contributing to his death. In a recent essay in the Scientific American a group of physicians have offered a collective response to these reports, calling them a form of “structural gaslighting” through “the weaponization of medical language emboldened white supremacy with the authority of the white coat.” The excavation of prior history is also its foreclosure. Pre-existing conditions (Floyd’s medical history) function as a smokescreen to obscure histories of what Jackie Wang calls “carceral capitalism”—the economic and state-sanctioned technologies of punishment and dispossession that render black life disposable.

It is not coincidental that attempts to foreground pre-existing conditions of Floyd’s medical history sit in close proximity to the supposed scandal of false currency and the fatal 20-dollar bill that “necessitated” the involvement of law enforcement in the first place. If pre-existing medical conditions exonerate state-sanctioned violence, then the offense of counterfeit capitalism exists in the same vicinity as medicalized justifications, not only for the act of killing, but for the existence of policing and prisons as well. The amplification of pre-existing conditions (medical history, “fraudulent” exchange of currency) does the work of erasing other structural pre-existing conditions under the guise of context to grammars of violence. Lost from these frames are those acts of economic fraudulence committed by the state in nexus with its private investors, or the abdication of safety nets and healthcare in the service of speculative capital and debt economies.

When we talk about AIDS history, it often leads back to this moment in the early 1980s in the United States, and the urgencies of that time. But everything before this moment gets lost.

–Theodore (Ted) Kerr, “Dispatches on the Globalization of AIDS”, AIDS and the Distribution of Crises, 44.

“Everything before this moment gets lost” is a useful framing for these scattered thoughts on the erasure of pre-existing conditions (even when “erasure” assumes the form of visibility). In another context, Kerr’s statement on AIDS history and the limits of first occurrence formulations could also describe our memories of a world prior to COVID-19 that get lost, reframed, or bathed in an incredulity around time. “It feels like a lifetime ago” encapsulates the remembrance of quotidian communal activities prior to quarantining and social distancing; a shrinking of space compensated by the stretching of time. A friend who is a psychological
anthropologist
by training, describes to me an odd sensation she experiences of watching any images of people gathered in groups at concerts, sporting events, or movie theatres prior to the outbreak of COVID-19 infections. Even though these images predate our present, she still viscerally responds with anxiety and concern. How to put in words this very particular sensation of asynchronicity, or being out of temporal lockstep? Projective anachronism? The push or pull of the present on to the past? Once again, Patton’s mobilization of “writing under erasure” is instructive—words might be inadequate, but in marking their inadequacy, we articulate how impossibility serves as both placeholder and condition of possibility and meaning. 

“…perhaps this book aims to produce another kind of crisis—a crisis of meaning

–C. Riley Snorton, “On Crisis and Abolition,” Afterword to AIDS and the Distribution of Crises, 316.

In “Toward the Horizon of Abolition,” Mariame Kaba draws attention to the relationship between temporality and the limits of political imaginations in thinking about prison abolition: “…once things are actualized into the world and exist, you can’t imagine how the world functioned before it. It’s like we develop amnesia.” Pre-existing conditions (or a world without prisons) disappear from view, when policing and prisons are naturalized in our present. Abolition as an analytical and activist tool becomes a way to counter the erasures that amnesia performs in naturalizing structures of violence as the solutions to violence. Abolition might be a key tactic in impeding the spread of COVID-19—humanitarian release of prisoners could be a very pragmatic starting point. Perhaps the time has come “now” (although it has always been time) to think of abolition as a way of writing under erasure, but also as a way of acting against it. 

Baby You Can Drive My Car or The Hunger Games 

Emily Bass

“The traffic must be so much better than usual,” I say to my friend Lillian who lives outside of Kampala, where the roadways and roundabouts are perpetually snarled with cars, motorcycle and minibus taxis. “No, it’s not,” she says. “I went to the Ministry of Health yesterday and there were cars everywhere.” She laughes. Heh heh heh. Covid covert movement laughter. The nervous mischief chuckle that comes when, in April 2020, amidst lock-down in Uganda and the United States, we confess that we’ve been on the road. “I needed a sticker,” she says. “One for my vehicle so I can drive around. I called someone there. I told him that there were women living with HIV in their homes and I needed to go to them. It was essential business. He said you come right away. So I did. I got one.” 

Lillian is the Executive Director of the International Coalition of Women Living with HIV in Eastern Africa. She is one of my best friends. She recently wrote in a feminist journal about how she used our regular contact during asynchronous moments in our countries’ COVID-19 pandemics—America was weeks ahead of most African shut downs. She listened to what I was doing. She listened when I said, “Don’t be embarrassed about stocking up on groceries. Don’t worry what people think or say. It will happen soon.” She was able to buy all of the food supplies she needed for her household before the prices got jacked up. Heh heh heh

HIV-related work affords access for some people and some organizations to specific forms of power and specific types of resources. This distribution of power and resources is shaping the response to the COVID 19 epidemic in Uganda and in many other nodes of the transnational activist world whose borders are those of so-called ‘global AIDS.’ Long-standing friendships and activist alliances were geographically separate and made intimate via Zoom, Whatsapp and email long before work from home began. We have been sharing of information across the time zones of a pandemic for a long time. I speak to Lillian from the future. I hope she does not catch up. 

Lillian deploys her power in Uganda. She is one of the most prominent women living with HIV in Uganda. She knows everybody. She speaks regularly on the global stage. When she wants to speak on the radio or television, she can. She takes to the airwaves to talk about syndemics of COVID-19 and HIV. 

Her power, accrued over decades, reflects her skills, brilliance and palpable solidarity. The first network of people living with HIV in Uganda saw these things. When they had a paid position, they offered it to her. When that network got a grant from DfID, her executive director wrote a budget line in for her antiretroviral therapy. That was more than twenty years ago. 

Status earned and conferred in the context of one epidemic’s hierarchy of access and influence affects what is possible in the context of another epidemic. She can pick up the phone and get a sticker the same day. She is free now to move around. 

On the subject of movement: for most people, HIV does not cause chronic symptoms or debilitation for many years after it enters the body. People are ambulatory. The virus is not airborne. You can sit together in the same room, stand in the street, ride the same car. On weekends, Lillian used to drive around the country with the other members of the national network explaining HIV to people outside of the capital. They made their own curriculum. 

Those weekend road trips changed the Ugandan AIDS landscape and they changed her sense of how non-scientists can shape a public health response. She needed that sticker. She could not get it without HIV. She got it because of a virus she carries and another that she does not. People living with COVID-19 cannot drive around in vans and explain to other people what is happening and how to take good care. Both pathogenesis and public health containment measures make this impossible. 

On the subject of containment measures: every day in Uganda, the Ministry of Health tweets the number of confirmed cases from truck drivers, their nationalities and the number of foreign truck drivers returned to their countries of origin. The surveillance capabilities lie with the Ministry of Intelligence, as it has been explained to me. When the Ebola outbreak was underway, the military would call the CDC and tell them the name, license plate and ID for anyone who entered with a fever. They would call back when the person had been detained. Freedom of movement is illusory, perhaps one could even call it, in this case, a fever dream. Truck drivers have begun to falsify information, turn off their phones. 

The sex workers who work truck routes are easier to find. The government has arrested and threatened those working on the commercial routes. They are trying to work on those routes because they are hungry and they need food. While the President promised food supplies, that relief was slow in coming. Sex workers often did not receive them. In Lyantonde a group of sex workers went to the media because they had been removed from a list of priority recipients. A friend watched and posted about seeing a government donation truck refuse to leave supplies at guest houses where sex workers rented rooms. The official said the women didn’t cook there. In fact, they did. Sometimes the presumption of movement is the problem. The state’s interest in intimate details is selective, myopic: your temperature, your license plate; not where and how you make a home.

Many of the sex worker groups that have raised these concerns constituted themselves in the context of the AIDS response, within which hunger was and is an ongoing issue. In one of the towns I visit often, a woman with HIV told me proudly how she took her medication even when she didn’t have any food because it was what she knew she had to do. This is what is known as compliance. In his field work in Mozambique, the anthropologist Ippolytos Kalofonos heard this: “All I eat is ARVs.” Kalofonos witnessed the ways that uneven distribution of food aid vouchers among PLHIV groups created competition and distrust, how it hurt solidarity. 

The erasure of hunger from HIV programming is also an erasure of the reality that the things which people need to do to acquire food can involve proximity with HIV. This includes sex work. This includes continued cohabitation with a person who abuses you. COVID-19 reverses this erasure in the context of a network of community systems that have been weakened by the history and ongoing practice of forgetting that ARVs are not food. 

Strategies developed and used in the context of the historic and ongoing HIV epidemic are being used in the context of the COVID-19 response. These include turning to the media, working the system, sharing information across coalitions connected in virtual space. 

The richness of these resources and systems is not what it should or ought to be because of the deprioritization of specific types of services for AIDS funding. I think here of Cindy Patton’s vital reminder not to sentimentalize acts of agency in the context of the failure of the state, especially a state that we know is watching every move we make. Lillian uses her personal status to work the system. That is not a systematic response. 

In Gulu, sex workers threatened to produce a list of 35 Gulu District Administration workers who are their prominent and notable customers if they did not receive food ASAP. The district administration asked them to hold on. 

Read the introduction to AIDS and the Distribution of Crises free online and save 30% on the book with coupon code E20AIDS.

Dispatches on AIDS and COVID-19: Continuing Conversations from AIDS and the Distribution of Crises

Today’s guest post is curated by the editors of AIDS and the Distribution of Crises, Jih-Fei Cheng, Assistant Professor of Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Scripps College, Alexandra Juhasz, Alexandra Juhasz is Distinguished Professor of Film at Brooklyn College, City University of New York, and Nishant Shahani Associate Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the Department of English at Washington State University. The contributors to AIDS and the Distribution of Crises outline the myriad ways that the AIDS pandemic exists within a network of varied historical, overlapping, and ongoing crises borne of global capitalism and colonial, racialized, and gendered violence. This post is a part of a short series. The following posts will be shared to the blog once a week over the next two weeks.

The contributions below grew out of our investments in marking and launching the publication of AIDS and the Distribution of Crises in late April. More importantly, we wanted to continue conversations that we began in the book about HIV/AIDS in light of COVID-19. We wanted to continue the format of “dispatches” in our book that allowed for more scattered and informal meditations. After contacting all the contributors to the edited volume, we planned logistics around synchronous conversations and asynchronous writings. For both formats, we asked our contributors to respond to the following questions:

  • How can we think of AIDS and COVID-19 through logics that are both synchronous and asynchronous, temporally distinct yet overlapping, convergent and simultaneously divergent? How do we temporalize multiple durations of multiple crises, especially given that neither AIDS nor COVID-19 have singular histories or monolithic subjects?
  • Since we collectively theorized the distribution of crises in our book (what Emily Bass evocatively theorized as “scattering”), how might we attend to the scattered logics of pandemics in the context of COVID-19? How do modes of social distancing magnify our experiences of being scattered and how do we find each other in its midst? In what ways does the pandemic simultaneously warrant a “scattered” lens so that we can think of COIVD-19 not just in epidemiological terms, but one that attends to crises in housing, access to water, migration and movement across borders, incarceration, racialized and gendered structures of wage labor.
  • How might we hold accountable structural racism in the midst of pandemics? Plans for abating the COVID-19 pandemic have called for more data to demonstrate structural needs. This means increasing tracking systems and surveillance to illustrate the higher rates and incidences of infection, sickness, and death–particularly among Black, Native, Brown, and global south communities. Simultaneously, advocacy groups are collecting data on anti-Chinese/Asian discrimination and violence. How do we leverage data intersectionally to track and address structural vulnerability and systemic violence without resorting to carceral logics, such as policing and prisons?
  • We have been struck by the casual invocations of phrases such as “when this is over,” “I can’t wait for things to go back to normal,” and “we have the right to work.” How might the presumptions about the temporary conditions of crises train our attention on quick social, political, or economic fixes rather than structural changes? What is the role of biomedical solutions (i.e., drugs, vaccines, plasma with COVID-19 virus antibodies, etc.) in addressing pandemic crises? How can we learn from histories and ongoing realities of HIV/AIDS in attending to these questions?

Dispatch One: 

Discussions on Temporality, AIDS, and COVID-19:

Moderated by Alexandra Juhasz

Respondent: Emily Bass, Bishnupriya Ghosh, Pato Hebert, Cait McKinney, Juana Mariá Rodriguez, Julia A. Jordan-Zachary

Introduced by Nishant Shahani:

If I’m getting my dates correct, Jih-Fei, Alex, and I started working on AIDS and the Distribution of Crises in 2016. At this initial moment, the impetus behind the book was to offer a social and political barometer of the times and the current state of AIDS, both politically and academically. Part of our motivation was to attend to the distribution of HIV and AIDS at precisely the moment when it was increasingly being framed as over or as something that belonged to the past. In the book we call this retrospective framing “a national fiction of democracy, which served the tools of US empire and global capitalism.” 

Fast forward to 2020 when our book comes out last month, right as COVID-19 escalates into its moments of crises. When sharing the book with friends and colleagues, I casually commented on the strangely coincidental timing of its release: who would have thought that a book about one pandemic would come out precisely during the midst of another one? But I now think this initial casual observation is actually a bit misplaced. If, as we argued in our book, that AIDS indexes multiple and ongoing crises, if we refuse idea of AIDS and pandemics in general as having singular points of origin and finite conclusions, then the overlap of AIDS and COVID can never be reduced to the temporality of coincidence. So in today’s conversation, we want to draw on this temporal critique of first occurance and triumphant biomedical end points to think about the ongoing nature of pandemics, especially in light of COVD 19. In their own way, each of our contributors in the book grapples with what AIDS looks like if we begin with contesting the supposition that AIDS began in the early 80s among a cluster of white gay men and ended when combination therapies hit markets in the mid 90s. Rather than constituting the concluding moment of the book, several of our essays begin with the axiom that crises are not simply epidemiological, but also socially and politically produced. We of course see this with COVID 19 and its scarcity models—of hospital beds, ventilators, and protective equipment. These forms of scarcity are not simply inevitable or axiomatic, but are consequences of austerity logics that are central to the project of neoliberalism, and which produce multiple crises in the plural. Rather than simply investing hope in medical cure, perhaps we can turn to investing in diagnosing a failing globalized system and move on from there to name strategies of collective survival. 

If we can understand pandemics through the lens of enduring structures such as environmental racism, settler colonialism, incarceration, militarism, and gentrification, then rather than focusing on when they begin or when they will end, we can ask how pandemics scatter and proliferate. And then more importantly, we can ask how we will respond and act. I look forward to hearing our respondents’ thoughts on some of these questions.

(Actual event begins at the 15.55 mark)
Discussions on Solidarity: AIDS and COVID-19:

Respondents: Marlon B. Bailey, Andrew Jolivette, Theodore (Ted) Kerr

Moderated by Jih-Fei Cheng

Introduced by Nishant Shahani: 

While today’s prompts are distinct in their approach to thinking about the relation between AIDS and COVID-19, they once again build on the discussion we began last week on the limits of theorizing AIDS through definitive periodizations. The idea of pandemics as crisis moments or singular turning points can be useful, but in some senses they also can be quite reductive. On the one hand, they foreground urgency and the necessity of solidarity and action; but they also frame these modes of urgency as states of exception rather than modes of slow death or crisis ordinariness, to use Lauren Berlant’s terms, that are diffused over long durations and distributed over different geographical and geopolitical contexts. We are interested in both what precedes putative first occurences of pandemics and also in what persists in their supposed aftermaths. So in the introduction to AIDS and the Distribution of Crises, we ask, and I think this in many ways is the guiding question of our book: “How is AIDS one or many of the outcomes and expressions of crises that are made ordinary and exceptional at the same time? And how are the durations and intensities of crises experienced in specific contexts?” 

In thinking about the contexts of crises distribution, one of the goals of this book was to refuse making whiteness and the global north a default referential point for an understanding of AIDS. The goal was not simply to insert ignored groups into founding narratives without questioning the centrality of those narratives in the first place and interrogating how they came to be. So for example, in decentering the global north, we were not interested in simply theorizing the global south through what Bishnupriya Ghosh calls in her contribution in the book, a “cartographic projection.” The attention to difference without essentializing difference is particularly important as we extend our conversations about AIDS into thinking about COVID-19. For example, it is not enough to simply stop at foregrounding the disproportionate impact of COVID on black and brown people which tends to naturalize predisposing conditions to race rather than attending to the environmental or structural conditions of racism. It is worth recalling the work of scholars like Dorothy Roberts who have refused biological understandings of race that end up naturalizing socially made health disparities to logics of genetic difference. We thus have to be careful that our understanding of differential impact does not shift the conversation away from limited resources about access to healthcare to one of personal responsibility so that disproportionate impact can then be explained through individual failing rather than state neglect and state-sanctioned violence.

In relation to the two prompts that Jih-Fei began with, I’d like to leave us with a few quotes from our book that begin to grapple with these questions. In a roundtable on the globalization of AIDS in our book, Theodore (Ted) Kerr, one of our respondents today, asks: “I wonder what histories could be uncovered, what actions could be taken, and what discussions could be had if we took a longer approach to AIDS history.” And I’ve been thinking a lot about these words in light of the state-sanctioned police killings these last few weeks since a longer approach to AIDS history would also incorporate an understanding of white supremacy, and of the criminalization of black and brown bodies. In the same roundtable in our book and in a similar vein, Eric Stanley suggests that “the epidemiological foundations of what we have come to know as HIV/AIDS are the haunts of conquest and chattel slavery.” If we take longer approaches to past and futures of AIDS, how might we think of these hauntings as constitutive of our current crises in terms of housing, access to clean water, sick leave, and food security among various other issues?

In this light, the invocation for a moment when the pandemic is over undercuts the persistent nature of crises. It also obscures their multiple and intersecting iterations. Just as we understand pandemics as not exceptional but constitutive of capitalism, similarly, we cannot think about black and brown death as if it were simply a glitch in the system—it is, in fact, the system’s feature and intrinsic to US democracy –or US empire: these terms are and have always been fungible. But perhaps we can use this desire for a post-COVID world as an occasion to think about and enact abolitionist critiques since pandemics be can only ever be over if we imagine and fight for the abolition of prisons and white supremacist and settler logics of policing, containment, and incarceration. It was important to us to end our book with C Riley Snorton’s piece on crisis and abolition. So I want to end by reading just one important idea from Riley’s concluding essay as yet another prompt for this conversation today or for our thinking in general:

AIDS is not the only metaphor for premature death. So is the prison, or living under occupation, or in underdevelopment, or living while Black, while trans, while undocumented, while poor. Many folks living with AIDS are also living with a combination of the aforementioned conditions. But if one believes that AIDS, and its precipitating and attendant crises, are structural and ideological, then one must consider how those very spatiotemporal formulations also forge abolitionist strategies and imaginaries.

Read the introduction to AIDS and the Distribution of Crises free online and save 30% on the book with coupon code E20AIDS.

Re-framing and Refusing the Enduring Colonial Fascination with Polynesian Origins

Today’s guest post is by Maile Arvin, Assistant Professor of History and Gender Studies at the University of Utah. In her book Possessing Polynesians she analyzes the history of racialization of Polynesians within the context of settler colonialism across Polynesia, especially in Hawai‘i. She argues that a logic of possession through whiteness animates European and Hawaiian settler colonialism.

Where did Polynesians come from? How did they end up living on some of the most isolated island in the world? How should Polynesians be classified racially? These questions may sound innocent, but are, in fact, over two centuries old. They were repeatedly asked and answered by white social scientists in nineteenth-century philology and early twentieth-century anthropology, forming a special field of study dubbed “The Polynesian Problem.” These studies largely claimed that Polynesians had white ancestry, a latent whiteness which could potentially be rehabilitated through white settlement of Polynesia. In this way, such studies have long upheld the logics of settler colonialism, white supremacy, and anti-blackness, as I explain in my book Possessing Polynesians. Unfortunately, in some key ways, these questions about Polynesian origins, and their animating colonial logics, continue to shape social scientific research about Polynesian people. 

A new genomic study just published in Nature is the latest to weigh in on Polynesian origins, claiming to document the genetic presence of ancient Indigenous South American ancestry among eastern Polynesian peoples, including those from the Tuamotus, Marquesas, and Mangareva (all occupied by the settler colony of French Polynesia) and Rapa Nui (Easter Island, occupied by Chile). The study has sparked a round of headlines expressing wonder at the notion that Polynesians and Indigenous South Americans had contact from as early as 1150 A.D. (see, for example, coverage in the New York Times, Guardian and Science).     

Figure I.1 in Possessing Polynesians. “Polynesians “Polynesians a-ok!” Honolulu Star- Bulletin Honolulu Star- cartoon, 1962.

To many Polynesians, this “new” evidence that our ancestors met Indigenous South Americans in the twelfth century is not terribly surprising. Since at least the 1970s, the revitalization of long-distance voyaging across the Pacific Islands, using traditional double-hulled canoes with traditional methods of reading the stars and currents, has proven that Indigenous peoples were and continue to be more than capable of navigating across the Pacific Ocean. So why the surprise from mainstream news outlets? And what’s the problem with genomic scientists using Indigenous DNA to investigate ancient migrations? 

There are many ethical considerations to the actual practice of genetic research, but here I’m going to focus instead on the larger narratives that the recent Nature study help promote. This is not to dismiss the importance of questioning how and why Indigenous DNA is collected, stored and used (see some discussion of these issues with this study, including by archaeologist Guillaume Molle here, and biological anthropologists Lisa Matisoo-Smith and Anna Gosling here), but to note that even if the details of scientific research practices were completely ethically sound, the conclusions of such studies and the ways they get reported can still perpetuate colonial ideas. 

Case in point, this headline from Nature:  “Native South Americans were early inhabitants of Polynesia” (July 8, 2020). This framing of the study’s conclusions makes a big leap. Instead of only positing contact between Polynesians and Indigenous South Americans, this headline suggests that Indigenous South Americans were the first to inhabit Polynesian islands and thus may be the ancestors of Polynesians. As this Nature article highlights, this theory of an eastward settlement of the Pacific Islands was the obsession of Norwegian Thor Heyerdahl. In 1947, Heyerdahl, who could not swim, infamously drifted on a balsa wood raft from Peru into the Pacific in an attempt to prove that Polynesia was settled by a mythical, now-extinct white race who had preceded the Incas. Heyerdahl did not believe that Polynesians or Indigenous Peruvians could have purposefully navigated the Pacific Ocean; he and others at the time advocated the theory of “random drift.” This was a racist idea that discounted Indigenous oral traditions and practices documenting deep knowledge and experience with long-distance navigation. He continued publishing on these ideas into the 1960s. 

Even during his life, Heyerdahl’s theory about an eastward settlement of Polynesia was largely discredited. “Random drift” was not widely dismissed until the revitalization of Indigenous voyaging beginning with the Hōkūleʻa’s first voyage from Hawaiʻi to Tahiti in 1976. But, as I note in Possessing Polynesians, Heyerdahl’s underlying belief in an ancient white race settling Polynesia was not the spontaneous invention of an individual racist. Migration routes and grandstanding methods aside, Heyerdahl’s belief in an ancient, advanced white race who settled the Polynesian islands and subsequently “degenerated,” was actually very much in keeping with a century of prior white settler scholarship. From the work of Australian John Dunmore Lang, who claimed in 1834 that Polynesians were likely the descendants of ancient Grecians or Romans, to American anthropologist Louis Sullivan’s belief in a “pure” Polynesian type that was almost “Caucasian” in the 1920s, white settlers were fascinated with the possibility that ancient white people were the real Indigenous people of Polynesia. In this logic, which I term the logic of possession through whiteness, by making Polynesians proximate to whiteness, white settlers staked their own claims to indigeneity in Polynesia, since through this circuitous reasoning, white people preceded Polynesians and could, through settler colonialism, “help” contemporary Polynesians regain a measure of civilization they had long lost. Polynesian people today must necessarily continue to challenge the consequences of this logic in a variety of paths towards decolonization. 

Most of the recent mainstream coverage of the Nature study references Heyerdahl, while only some reference Polynesian voyaging traditions. But none of those references frame Heyerdahl and the theory of eastward settlement of Polynesia within this much longer history of white supremacist and settler colonial social scientific study of Polynesian origins. This is a problem because claims about Indigenous origins can be and are used to undercut their claims to indigeneity and to bolster settler colonial claims to a place. To invoke Heyerdahl without any recognition of the history of the politics of his theories and their impact on Indigenous peoples allows colonial knowledge production about Polynesian origins to continue to circulate without naming it as such. (Others have made similarly critical points about Heyerdahl, including Kanaka Maoli scholar Sara Kahanamoku here, and Smithsonian geographer Doug Herman here.)

Polynesians have a multiplicity of origin stories. These stories also have deep histories and politics. There should be more widespread discussion and engagement with Polynesian peoples if and how their origins should be investigated through genomic science. But whether or not such research continues, there must be a deeper reckoning with and refusal of the ways Western science stakes possessive claims to Indigenous lands and bodies. 

Read the introduction to Possessing Polynesians free online and save 30% on the book with coupon code E19ARVIN.

Q&A with Harriet Evans

Evans, HarrietHarriet Evans is Emeritus Professor of Chinese Cultural Studies at the University of Westminster and Visiting Professor in Anthropology at the London School of Economics. She is the author of The Subject of Gender: Daughters and Mothers in Urban China and Women and Sexuality in China. In her newest book, Beijing from Below, she tells the history of the residents in Dashalar—now redeveloped and gentrified but once one of the Beijing’s poorest neighborhoods—to show how their experiences complicate official state narratives of Chinese economic development and progress.

Beijing from Below explores the lives of the urban working class in Dashalar, a neighborhood that borders Tiananmen Square in Beijing. What is the historical importance of the neighborhood, both in the context of your research and in the history development in Beijing?

First, Dashalar is known in Beijing as being a very particular kind of neighbourhood with unique social, demographic and cultural characteristics going back in time that make it “unrepresentative” of anywhere else in the capital. I don’t think this is a very helpful way of thinking about what the study of a neighbourhood—or anywhere for that matter —can tell us. Every place has its own singular characteristics. As a kind of inter-disciplinary historian-cum-anthropologist my intention is never to look for what is representative but rather to think about the kinds of issues and questions that are shared across historical and spatial boundaries. So what does the very specific history and contemporaneity of Dashalar tell us? What issues are highlighted by its history through to the present that prompt reflections on other places and people across time elsewhere?

Dashalar is a small neighborhood of about 1.26 square kilometers just outside the former inner-city walls, southwest of Qianmen, the gate at the southern end of Tian’anmen Square. Its main street runs westward from Qianmen Avenue and is intersected by Meishi Street on the north-south axis. Historically part of the outer city, it has long been known as ‘South City’ (nancheng), To this day, reference to South City is shorthand for the vibrant liminal world of street vendors, rickshaw pullers, street entertainers, gamblers, prostitutes and vagrants of the capital’s “traditional” popular culture immortalized in Lao She’s famous novel Rickshaw Boy, first published in 1937. Dashalar is also often referred as the “eight big lanes” (ba da hutong). Being able to name the “eight big lanes” is a mark of your familiarity with “old Beijing”, as I discovered once when I was wandering about and fell into a conversation with a local man who questioned me about my understanding of the neighborhood’s history. The term itself refers to the eight main lanes of the neighborhood’s red light district before 1949.

I have not studied the early history of the neighborhood but between the late Qing and early Republican eras (roughly between the 1870s and the 1930s) Dashalar was known for its opera singers, teahouses, eateries and prostitutes. It was where court personnel from the Imperial palace (the Forbidden City) at the northern end of the Square went to indulge their pleasures, where aspiring literati travelling from other parts of the country stayed as they prepared for the imperial examinations, and where many Han officials lived, barred from living in the inner city by the Manchu government’s segregationist laws. It was also a place where itinerant merchants from outside the capital crossed paths with beggars and the down-and-out hoping to make a living from the vibrant melée of people traversing the neighborhood.

In the context of the history of Beijing, Dashalar has long been one of the central Beijing’s most densely populated and poorest neighborhoods, with a mixed and mobile population of Han, Manchu and Muslim people. During the Mao years (1949-1976), but particularly during the famine years of 1959-1961, Dashalar was the destination of large numbers of near destitute people from the rural areas attempting to find a means of making a livelihood in the capital. It was also a neighborhood affected by the massive demolition and relocation projects underway from the mid-1950s to enlarge Tian’anmen Square and build the Great Hall of the People and the National History Museum as part of the capital’s construction of its famous “ten great buildings.” By 1965, it was reported that the amount of “old and dangerous housing” had doubled that of 1949. A combination of scarcity, population density, inadequate investment in housing and services, and an overwhelming policy emphasis on productivity repeatedly undermined the designs, intentions and plans formulated for Beijing’s older districts between the 1950s and the late 1970s.The 1976 earthquake further exacerbated the situation, and subsidies to enable people to undertake repairs were woefully inadequate. In all, under a policy of “not letting the roof fall in, not letting the walls collapse, but repairing serious leaks,” the area suffered from extreme neglect.

Between the early 1980s and 2000, the date when the government initially hoped to stage the Olympics, various plans for the old city’s development marked Dashalar for regeneration to “transform [its] old and dilapidated housing”. Dashalar then appeared in another protection plan in 2002 as one of the “twenty-five historical areas of Old Beijing city,” two thirds of the housing of which was graded as dilapidated. Demolition of parts of the neighborhood finally got underway in late 2004 with the widening of its main north-south road axis and the relocation of large numbers of local residents, powerfully recorded in Ou Ning’s documentary film, “Meishi Jie” (2006) While pedestrians had to pick their way through piles of rubble, debris and litter, posters appeared on courtyard doors and walls explaining the government’s concern for local residents. Evacuation orders were put up, and notices appeared urging inhabitants to “say farewell to dangerous housing” (gaobie weifang) in return for monetary incentives offered for voluntary relocation. Enormous billboards displaying computer-generated images of the reconstructed neighborhood celebrated the commercial splendors of Dashalar’s history, and in preparation for the 2008 Olympics, shop owners were ordered to re-furbish their shop fronts with new signage and grey paint, at their own expense. Street vendors and pedicab cyclists were cleared from the lanes as the local government implemented a policy of physical, spatial and social cleansing of the neighborhood. Full scale reconstruction of the neighborhood’s main West Street where I worked only began in the winter of 2008-9, with migrant workers laboring alongside bulldozers late into the night to lay new pipes and wiring in excavated street, leaving a tangle of open wires and piles of rubble in the tiny pedestrian margins left at the sides of the street.

Despite policy intentions of the local Xuanwu government, lack of funds and the demographic density of the neighborhood effectively scuppered plans for infrastructural improvements, and until very recently, no significant infrastructural changes were made there. Local residents continued to live in cramped and damp dwellings, with no sanitation, or even hot water. An official 2005 survey of Beijing’s “urban corners” noted that it had a population of nearly 60,000, with a density of 45,000 people per square kilometer, more than double that of other inner-city areas, with many families living in rooms of less than ten square meters. It was also noted that some 90 per cent of the nearly 3000 “big cluttered courtyards” (dazayuan) in the ten single-story communities (shequ) of Dashalar were “dilapidated housing” (weijiu fangwu).  30 per cent of the local population were classified as “masses in difficulties” (kunnan qunzhong). Nearly a fifth of the population were a “migrant population” (liudong renkou). Until it was administratively merged with the inner city’s Xicheng (West City) in July 2010, the Xuanwu District government responsible for Dashalar was also known as the poorest of the capital’s districts.

Linking my research interests with this brief outline of the historical development of Beijing prompts a number of thoughts:

  • First, the story of China’s massive internal migration from rural to urban areas is a well-known aspect of China’s engagement with global capitalism. In mainstream media and academic terms it is largely seen as an effect of the marketization of China’s economy, the relaxation of controls on mobility, and the privatization of employment and property ownership, and as such is one of the best known features of China’s spectacular urban growth in recent decades. The specific characteristics and size of this recent migration are, of course specific to recent decades. However, the longer historical perspective outlined above reveals migration from the rural areas as a recurring feature of the neighborhood’s history, begging questions—to which I will return below—about the shifting constitution since the early days of the People’s Republic of the hierarchies defining urban-rural relations and the significance of local Dashalar people’s self-identification as “authentic” “old Beijingers.

Second, my focus on a group of people I call urban subalterns in preference to the value-laden category of the “underclass” (zui diceng) widely used in Chinese sociological analyses reveals a lengthy and inherited experience of urban poverty not revealed in dominant accounts of the urban working class of the Mao era as recipients of state accommodation, education and health benefits.

Third, the recent commercial “heritagization” of Dashalar after decades of what the local residents experienced as neglect by the state contributes to a new characterization of “old Beijing” which basically ignores the ethnic, religious, regional and social diversity of Dashalar’s past. The emergence of a “nostalgia industry” accompanying this “re-invention” of an “old Beijing” tradition, and apparent in the quantities of coffee table books of photographs of “old Beijing” is part of a heritage discourse that ignores long-term local residents’ claims to belonging to the neighborhood. In their terms, it basically denies them human and social recognition as people worthy of consideration, and replaces this with what they consider to be a “fake” old Beijing. Nevertheless, local people are not averse to using this heritage version of “old Beijing” as a way of making money as well as an ironic assertion of their historical claims to their own neighborhood. Their collective self-referencing as the real “old Beijingers” emerges as an implicit and ethical demand for recognition.

All this underlines the place of Dashalar as a central site of local self-identifications. It was literally the the only site of social and emotional experience for a number of the people I got to know there, some of whom had rarely, if ever, left the neighborhood. And even though over the years I was working there it was physically and spatially transformed, effectively excluding its long-term subaltern residents from the gentrified delights appearing on their doorsteps, Dashalar remained in people’s memories and narratives as a centre of belonging. The place then is remade, but in its remaking it remains a site of attachment and rootedness. And not only for the people who continued to live there. The only person I knew there who had made it good as a successful local restauranteur and photographer lived with his wife and family in a gated community to the south of the neighbourhood, but Dashalar, the place where he was born and had grown up, centred his everyday activities and his photographic passions.

Finally, I want to say something about the party-state. One familiar trope about the Chinese state gives it a kind of monolithic control over ordinary people’s lives. Historically, the Chinese state has reached into neighborhood life in many distinctive ways sustaining the state’s extension of control under the new communist government in 1949. However, despite the fact that local life in Dashalar was ultimately framed by the policies and structures of the new government, the latter’s attempts to mould its subjects into good socialist citizens whose primary loyalities were to the collective good met with uneven success. On the contrary, my study shows how despite such attempts, the family remained the dominant focus of local people’s efforts and passions.

The book has a unique structure: longer, narrative chapters with direct quotations from residents of Dashalar, followed by brief, analytic interludes. How did you choose that structure, rather than following a more standard monographic format?

I had been thinking about how to structure this book for a long time and consulted various ethnographies (not about China) as inspiration but none really worked. What I wanted was to find a structure that combined a flavor of local life, including its spatial, material and sensory qualities, and the personalities and voices of the people I knew, with detached attention to conceptual analysis. Accordingly, my first nearly final draft was largely structured around the individual families I knew best, and was narrated as much as was possible in the voices of those people. For their narratives, I drew on the recordings of conversations I had made over the years, together with my copious fieldnotes. The narrative structure of the main chapters of the book was, of course, the result of my editorial decisions to find a way to convey their voices in a form that I hope does justice to them and their concerns.

At this point, I was invited to discuss some of the chapters with a bunch of history graduate students, who had read a couple of the chapters in advance. In the discussion we then had, they made it clear that while they enjoyed reading these people’s stories, they would benefit from a bit more guidance about how to interpret them. What were the main themes that emerged from these stories?

My response was to retain the main chapters, more or less as they were, and follow them up with what I call brief analytical interludes discussing what for me were the main themes and questions raised by their stories. The final concluding chapter then collates these themes under other, broader ones, which to different degrees link the specific experiences and stories together.

Is there a story, or chapter, in particular that resonates with you?

This is a difficult one, for they all have their part to play in my analysis.

But I guess, on a human level, the story that touched me the most was the migrant couple’s, whose resilience, determination, dignity and deep commitment to each other as well as their children enabled them to endure unspeakable suffering and social discrimination. The violent abuse they were subjected to by the law enforcement officers and the police constituted a clear violation of their most basic human rights. What kept them going was the desire to see their children, and particularly their son, through higher education. They expected that eventually they would return home to Shaanxi when they could no longer work and would be cared for by their son who they anticipated would marry and have a child there. The tragedy of their story played out, for them, in the mismatch between their expectations and what they saw as their daughter-in-law’s rejection of them. Their son was a deeply loving young man, who on numerous occasions, in front of me, had demonstrated his affectionate respect of his parents. He was torn between his attachment to his parents and his desire to lead a different kind of life, and to bring up his child together with his wife in ways that could not respond to his parents’ expectations in their terms. While therefore, the tragedy was the effect of destroyed hopes and expectations of filial support on the part of the older generation, this story also reveals the tragedy of unanticipated generational shifts in conditions of extreme scarcity and precarity, in which, to paraphrase Lauren Berlant, hope and optimism can produce cruel effects.

The other really moving thing about this couple is that in contrast with others I knew I Dashalar, they never asked anything of me, in either financial or other terms. Their depleted resources left them with virtually nothing, except anguished grief, which they did not hide from me.  For Li Fuying and his wife, my presence and support signified not a source of material support but of recognition of their difficulties and their pain, at a moment when no-one else seemed to be around to offer any comfort. Ultimately, I think they saw my attempts to understand them and my recognition of their grief as offering the hope of repair.

On the level of methodology, your work uses oral history to center the lives of the urban working class, whose experiences are usually not incorporated into the dominant historical narrative. Could you say more about how you think of the relationship between histories from “below”—which often rely on memory, or non-archival sources of information—and “official” histories?

My book combines conventional archival research, ethnographic research conducted in short spurts over a period of years, with an unorthodox kind of oral history. Unorthodox in that I did not sit down to record individuals’ life histories, nor do I refer to their real names. In methodological terms, one section of the introductory chapter sets out how I see the relationship between these three methods.

In brief, I think of them as corresponding with, contrasting and even challenging each other in ways that shed light on the multiple character of history. We all know that the local archival collections available (then) to researchers, and which I was fortunate enough to be able to access, were/are highly selective in that huge chunks of the recent past are simply omitted from the available record. Hence the extent of the famine’s (1959-1962) effects in the neighborhood only emerges obliquely in references, for example, to child health and food shortages in nurseries and kindergartens. The extent of the Red Guards’ violence in the neighborhood is simply absent from the local archive. Nevertheless, numerous other details were telling, particularly when interpreted within the context of my familiarity with the spaces and people of the neighborhood. So for example, one account of “social ills” in the late 1950s, referred to a local woman, formerly a prostitute, who complained about the inadequacy of the cotton rations, and was reported as saying that she didn’t even have enough to cover her behind. I laughed out loud when I read this, so appropriately did it seem to conjure up what could have been the response of Meiling, a woman who had spent three years in detention for prostitution during the anti-spiritual pollution campaign in the early 1980s. So, in this and other instances, the archival sources revealed all sorts of detail that I could make sense of because of my knowledge of the neighborhood. Far from confirming what I had anticipated, namely the limits of lacunae of the official archive, they often surprised me because of their reference to local narrated experiences.

Another point I want to make about doing this kind of “old school” archival research is that the documents themselves were often painstakingly written by hand, with crossings out and spelling mistakes galore….In instances where the document in question was a plea to the authorities for support to do things like finance the building of an extra toilet for nursery children, when the terms of address had to be carefully chosen so as to avoid outright refusal, the materiality of the document gives evidence of the blood, sweat and tears that produced it.

Memories are always slippery, and there is a whole body of literature out there called memory studies. For me, in this book, the value of the memory with all its selectivity lies not in a comparison with, legitimation or contestation of the documented archive, but rather in what it conveys about the remembering and forgetting subject. The flip side of a memory is what is forgotten or silenced, and of course, what is remembered or not does not stay still. Rather the past that is remembered today may well say as much about today as it does about the past. So memory becomes a vector of how people bring together their pasts in a way that makes sense of their presents, and even their hopes for or desires for the future. So memory is tied up with multiple temporalities that in turn unevenly converge with and depart from the discursive narratives of “official” or “mainstream” history.

The final point here I want to make is that claims are often made for oral histories that seem to be imbued with a sense of the moral high ground—that because the oral history can reveal the downside of history that is often excluded from the official or dominant record, that therefore it is more truthful. I think this is highly dubious, as is the whole notion of “historical truth.” The poor and marginalized do not have a prerogative over the oral. Indeed, as many have argued, the quality of the spoken that emerges in oral histories may be far from revealing the interior experience of the speaking subject, particularly the female subaltern subject. Much depends on the historian’s purpose and positionality.

The situation in Dashalar, and Beijing in general, continues to rapidly change. What, in your opinion, do you think the future of Dashalar is?

The future of Dashalar is already there, in the form of its cool coffee bars and restaurants, and its sparklingly modern architecture. But this process of gentrification is still patchy and the new spaces frequented by hip young global professionals obscure the messy alleys and “big cluttered courtyards” behind them. The other aspect of Dashalar’s situation is its appropriation by the commercial heritage industry as part of the “brand” of “old Beijing” that dominates tourist websites of the capital.

978-1-4780-0815-6What do you hope readers will take away from Beijing from Below?

That is a difficult question…because there are too many things I want the reader to take away, but in a nutshell, I think the first thing is the understanding that history is multiple, it doesn’t simply follow a neat or progressive path, any more than change does. While certain aspects of what we understand as mainstream history and change are clearly beneficial to some people, this depends on and is constitutive of the disadvantaging of others. So our responsibility as historians and anthropologists is to try to articulate how and why these often inconsistent but concurrent processes take place.

Beyond giving voice to the experiences of people left out of the dominant historical record, this study challenges a number of familiar arguments beyond my general comments about oral history. Some of these are shared by commentators and academics of China studies. Others make anthropological points that have maybe universal value.

  • Rural-urban labor migration in China in the past few decades is a new stage in a longer history of rural-urban migration. At one extreme there are large numbers of successful migrant labourers who manage to explore the entrepreneurial opportunities offered by the market to gain access to urban services, property ownership and family security. At the other are those who are pushed into migration by desperation, poverty and a determination to give their children a better future than their own. The documented evidence of the violent abuse and violation of basic human rights experienced by these (remember the so-called “low-end migrants” forcibly removed from Beijing in 2018) demands greater publicity.
  • Historical narratives and received knowledge.

Published narratives of experiences of the Mao era, and particularly the Cultural Revolution, focus on the educated urban elite of cadres, intellectuals, professionals and students, those for whom there are archival and biographical records of persecution and death, years spent in cadre schools and labor camps, and in the countryside as “sent down youth.” It is through the so-called “victim literature” and its concerns with the suffering perpetrated on the nation’s educated elite, that the Mao era is best known both to Western audiences and to younger generations in China. In this, moreover, there is a frequent slippage between the Mao era and the Cultural Revolution, such that the Cultural Revolution effectively becomes synonymous with the Mao era as a whole. The forgetting and simplification of the different stages and experiences of the Mao era in official historiography reproduces this slippage.

The urban subalterns such as those whose stories I have narrated here —the street vendor of Buddhist trinkets, the garbage collector, the public lavatory cleaner, the illiterate “housewife” and member of the household-based production group—made no claims to a privileged victimhood. They did not have any noticeable social or political stakes in debates about the legacy of the Mao era, nor did they have the educational skills or social capital to record their own, or their families’ experiences.

This contextualization of the Mao era and the Cultural Revolution reminds us that dominant media and academic narratives of both Mao and the Cultural Revolution reveal appalling suffering and brutality, yet which is ideologically framed to correspond with ongoing political priorities articulated by the urban educated elite. The moments which were most prominent in my interlocutors’ stories focused on the famine years more than the Cultural Revolution. Nor did their memories correspond with the rupture between the Mao and post-Mao years which structures the dominant official versions of the recent past, and exercises overwhelming discursive weight in the Western media. Rather, their narratives urge us to remember that the received knowledge endlessly reproduced by our media corresponds—unevenly—with the agendas, explicit or otherwise of the media barons and their governments, and these agendas correspond with ideological and political interests. However the temporalities structuring the memories of the past narrated in my book suggest other priorities, sometimes converging with, sometimes departing from those of official discourse.

  • In contrast with much public commentary on the Chinese state’s efforts to establish an effective legal system, the experience of many including those whose stories appear in this book is that state policy oriented to improving the legal system through the enactment of laws does not in itself lead to greater regularization of social and economic practices. On the contrary, corruption and the arbitrary abuse of power emerge as such predictable aspects of the legal structure as it is practiced at the local level, that in the eyes of those affected by it, such as many of those who appear in this book, they have become associated with the legal system itself. This of course, has more general applicability as a critical corrective to dominant media and political assertions about the efficacy of the rule of law in many societies, including our own.
  • The Chinese state

One of the most salient paradoxes of this study concerns the contrast between a state which was instrumental in shaping the conditions of existence of the people of Dashalar and its apparent absence in their everyday language and activities. The agencies representing the state in the experience of my interocutors appeared in the form of occasional benevolence to obscurity, negligence and apparent absence, and even worse to out and out physical violence and psychological abuse, mostly perpetrated by the local patrol officers and policemen. However, imagining the state as a portentous agent “above” (shangmian), as local people generally referred to it, did not make it external to the embodied concerns of daily life. It penetrated the interiority of people’s homes in the form of the ordering (or disordering) of space, in the anxieties, struggles and family disputes over residential security, in fundamental concerns about health and hunger, in despairing anger, and in abject resignation to “fate,” and very occasionally, in explicit protest. In extreme, but by no means exceptional cases, as we have seen, it attacked the bodies as well as minds of its subjects. In this sense, the state was a profoundly constitutive force at the heart of local people’s social, bodily and affective lives. It was thus intimately terrifying in the extent of its powers.

At the same time, this should not be interpreted as a concurrence with the view of the “totalitarian” state, which I do not think is a useful term. If anything, this study reveals how, even in conditions of close everyday supervision by state agencies, the people targeted for control by those agencies manifest a stubborn recalcitrance, if not outright refusal, to go along with the state’s demands…The image that comes to mind is of someone silently digging in their heels in refusal to go along with the demands of others. What also comes to mind are Scott’s famous “hidden transcripts” as “weapons of the weak.”

  • Exchange, recognition and agency

An anthropological issue. This study has given me a profound lesson in how to understand ethnographic research as a process of exchange. While one’s interlocutors may have a range of instrumental interests in tolerating or even welcoming the researcher’s presence, including gifts, monetary loans, the acquisition of cultural capital and so on, such concerns should not be seen as antithetical to ethical concerns. If I was seen and treated by some of my interlocutors as a source of material advantage, I was also treated as witness to attempts to define an ethical way of living in the ordinary everyday.

This connects with what I understand as the desire for recognition. A major reason explaining my acquaintances’ willingness to share their stories with me was in my view because my interest in their lives signified a recognition of them as human subjects in a world which consistently withheld from them all that the desire for recognition implies: respect, consideration and justice. Long years of having been denied even the basics of human respect occasionally exploded in rage and despair: in Meiling’s vociferous claims to virtue, in Zhao Yong’s loud accusations against the police for infringing his human rights after a minor traffic offence, or in Li Fuying’s tortured memories of police brutality, forcible separation from his wife, and finally his despair when having to face his son’s decision to lead his life in ways that clashed with his own sense of self, as apparent in his hopes and expectations.

Interpreted through the lens of agency, my Dashalar acquaintances’ narrations of their experiences, memories and longings can be thought of as expressions of desires to assert a kind of authority in their lives. Agency here appears not as a “synonym for resistance to relations of domination,” as the late Saba Mahmood put it, but rather a form of struggle on the part of disadvantaged people to claim a dignity in an environment which, objectively, denied it to them. Understood in these terms, the expression of agency can be conceptualized as a search for recognition, not in the sense of identity politics, but, following Nancy Fraser, in a way that contrasts with the customary depreciation experienced by the subject, subordinating her to the impossibility of participating in social life as an equal of others. This is a kind of ethical recognition that acknowledges the subject’s performance of personhood as that of a full partner in social interaction,

Read the introduction to Beijing from Below free online and save 50% on the paperback edition with the coupon EVANS50 until June 30, 2020.

Sa′ed Atshan and Katharina Galor, co-authors of The Moral Triangle, interviewed by Sandra Korn

The Moral TriangleSa’ed Atshan is Assistant Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at Swarthmore College. He is the author of Queer Palestine and the Empire of Critique. Katharina Galor is Hirschfeld Visiting Associate Professor of Judaic Studies and Urban Studies at Brown University. She is the author of Finding Jerusalem: Archaeology between Science and Ideology. In their co-authored book, The Moral Triangle: Germans, Israelis, Palestinians, they draw on ethnographic fieldwork and interviews to explore the asymmetric relationships between Germans and Israeli and Palestinian immigrants in the context of official German policies, public discourse, and the impact of coming to terms with the past.

We invite you to watch Sa′ed Atshan and Katharina Galor’s interview with their acquisitions editor, Sandra Korn.

Read the introduction to The Moral Triangle and save 50% off of this book and all in-stock books and journal issues through May 25th using the code SPRING50.

Joshua Neves on the Coronavirus (COVID-19), Anti-Chinese Racism, and the Politics of Underglobalization

Neves, Joshua photoJoshua Neves, author of Underglobalization:
Beijing’s Media Urbanism and the Chimera of Legitimacy
, is Associate Professor and Canada Research Chair, Film Studies at Concordia University and coeditor of Asian Video Cultures, also published by Duke University Press. He wrote this post on February 21, 2020 and updated the statistics today, March 11.

In the 2018-19 flu season, the United States’ Center for Disease Control (CDC) estimated that 16.5 million Americans saw a health care provider for their illness, 490,600 people were hospitalized, and 34,200 people died from influenza. Such data helps us to temper recent panic about the coronavirus, contagion narratives, and the repressive Chinese state. 

To be sure, the strict management of information and party-state bureaucracy have plagued China’s response to the virus. My aim here is not to downplay what are very grave challenges to public health, but rather to turn attention to the ways the viral outbreak has also been swollen by frenzied news and social media around the world. Among the many responses in North America and Europe, for example, is a resurgent anti-Chinese racism. This includes suspicions about exotic animals and racialized ideas about sickness and disease, as well as alarm about surgical mask shortages, government cover ups, and entire cities under quarantine. As a recent US headline puts it, “First the media sold you overblown fears. Now it’s selling false comfort.”

But there is little new in this hysteria over China as a breeding ground for pandemics. From counterfeit medicine to authoritarian capitalism, China plays a complicated role in stories about the world system. On the one hand, it’s laboring population serves as factory to the world and has sustained the global economy through stagnation and crisis. It both produces the world’s best known things and is derided as a menial laborer or copycat—and not, that is, a designer. A major theme in recent news coverage centers on profits lost to factory closures. In many such stories, concerns about the well-being of migrant workers, among others, seems limited to their inability to get to work. On the other hand, even while China co-creates what we have come to know as globalization, its ambition and the challenges it poses to the Washington Consensus have led many to see the country as a global villain. Alongside Russia, Iran, etc., the PRC increasingly fills an imaginary void in post-Cold War geopolitics. It is the “other” that “we” organize our anger or fear around. 

What interests me about the tensions framing the COVID-19 outbreak is that China is at once understood to be inside and outside of the world or proper society of nations. It is both a prime mover and sickly underminer. This contradiction—including mistrust, intolerance, fear—must be tied to a history of anti-Chinese racism in North America and elsewhere. Not surprisingly, the current “yellow peril” is once again linked to the exploitation of Chinese workers, as well as a deep suspicion of these same people’s motives and lifeworlds. It highlights the inequality of global supply chains—a current logic of racialized capitalism—which seek to move things in specific directions and keep everyone in their place. It is this sense of global order that the virus ignores with its potential to spread where it should not. Contagion thus not only refers to the unruliness of new flu strains, but to the new mobilities of Chinese people, products, and technologies. The latter includes US attempts to block the Chinese company, Huawei, from building 5G infrastructure around the world. Officials claim that Chinese built networks will allow Beijing to infiltrate critical telecom infrastructure, making them insecure and threatening. These same reports rely on language that could just as well describe panic about the infectivity of influenza. Per Vice President Mike Pence, “We cannot ensure the defense of the West if our allies grow dependent on the East.”

The point of highlighting such tensions is not to bracket the very real problems posed by the People’s Republic of China or its vision of the future. But it is to refuse sweeping and prejudicial assessments of China and the Chinese, which inform insidious racisms by tethering ideas about counterfeits, censorship, exotic animals, the flu, and much more, to particular bodies. Put simply, these critiques are widespread, confused, epidemic—and demand more nuanced attention from journalists, scholars, and publics. What remains undigested by routine critiques of China, and is once again brought into relief by the recent outbreak of the outbreak narrative, is how smug dismissals buttress troubling ideas about the munificent “West” and the “free world.” This is one of the most menacing and normalized aspects of anti-Chinese racism in the North Atlantic. It locates viral contagion in Asian cities and populations, naming them as external threats, thereby consolidating a violent clash of civilization understanding of the earth. Here is safe; there is toxic.

It is important to add that, contrary to Euro-American assumptions about Chinese repression and citizen compliance, political dissent is endemic and visible across the PRC. For example, in Social Protests and Contentious Authoritarianism in China, political scientist Xi Chen describes both the dramatic rise and routinization of social protest in China and also how, “beneath the surface of noise and anxiety,” China’s political system remains stable. This is a complex political formation and no doubt differs from the imagination of protest in places like the US. But these differences notwithstanding, it is important to understand that protest and dissensus are frequent responses to life in contemporary China—and many Chinese citizens are “more than ready to blame the Communist Party for suppressing public health information and closing ranks against the people.” What is distinct, and marks an increasingly global condition, is that such protests are not made within formal civil society. Instead they are quasi- or il-legal, and suggest new modes of political society. Consider the January 2020 essay, “When Fury Becomes Fear,” from the outspoken former academic and critic, Xu Zhangrun. In searing prose, Xu argues that the current epidemic sounds a “viral alarm” and “has revealed the rotten core of Chinese governance.” See Geremie R. Barmé’s translation of Xu’s essay here, a Wuhan diary here, a typical report about netizen responses here, or the Sinophobia tracker here. What matters about such examples, is that they refuse the self-righteous politics of pity—where, for example, Americans are free and Chinese are controlled—and instead demands that we re-examine the workings of popular politics under globalization, which includes China and the so-called “West.”

Screen Shot 2020-02-21 at 12.42.46 PMAs I write, 4,379 people have died from the coronavirus and nearly 119,108 cases have been confirmed. Currently over 1000 deaths have been reported outside of China, with Wuhan, Hubei Province, still the most affected area. While details vary, reports indicate that lockdowns and curfews affect hundreds of millions Chinese citizens. The strictest rules, per the South China Morning Post, keep 60 million Hubei residents from leaving their homes. Further coverage suggests that the epidemic may now have peaked, as its spread slows in China, though others note that Japan is now a hotbed for the virus, with new cases also confirmed in the Philippines, South Korea, Iran, Egypt, and others. I linger on the current flu epidemic, stories about its (mis)management, and its Asian hosts and itineraries because they bring into relief a range of issues that are critical to what I call underglobalization

978-1-4780-0805-7When writing Underglobalization, I struggled to make sense of the contradictory and often racist understandings of China that co-exist in much official and popular discourse. As above, I was struck by the way that China is both dismissed as a fake, parasite or outlier nation and, at the same time, is critical to both the global economy and institutions, and to the everyday experience of the world. This paradox brings into relief deep structural conflicts over what constitutes political, economic, and social legitimacy in the present and future. Against such antagonisms, Underglobalization charts how a wide range of social actors underperform or refuse to implement the specific procedures and protocols required by globalization at different scales. Put differently, what international law (like the TRIPS Agreement) identifies as illegal must also be understood, in many contexts, to be locally valid. One important ramification of this claim is the recognition that contemporary global dynamics are shaped by increasing tensions between (il)legality and (il)legitimacy. Most simply the book asks: what happens when legal contracts around the world—including rights, civil society and citizenship—fail or become dangerous, and on what ground are political relationships reclaimed and sustained? 

Save 30% on the paperback edition of Joshua Neves’ Underglobalization using the coupon code E20NEVES and download the introduction here.