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.
We were sorry to learn of the death of philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy on August 23. Nancy, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the University of Strasbourg was the author of numerous books, most recently, Sexistence. He was 81 years old when he passed Monday evening.
Nancy studied with Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jacques Derrida, both of whom influenced his scholarship. In their obituary, Le Monde said that one way to characterize his work was its abundance. He wrote about many topics, from literature to politics, to the history of philosophy, psychoanalysis, art, religion, sexuality and even the Covid-19 pandemic.
In addition to writing many successful books, Nancy was Program Director at the International College of Philosophy between 1985 and 1989.
In October, we will publish Nancy’s final bookThe Deconstruction of Sex, co-written with Irving Goh. They discuss how a deconstructive approach to sex helps us negotiate discourses about sex and reconsider our relations to ourselves and others through sex. Nancy also contributed toJacques Rancière (2009).
Goh said, “I had the immense fortune to have worked rather closely with Jean-Luc, from my doctoral dissertation to several translations of his papers, journal special issues and edited volumes dedicated to his work, and finally to The Deconstruction of Sex. There can be not enough words to say how generous he was both intellectually and as a person, and of course, his generosity extended not only to me but also to a bunch of other younger scholars and more. I have said/written lately that he possessed an indefatigable force: a force that seemed to fuel that generosity, a force that perhaps also accounted for his incredible prolificacy and unrivaled energy in engaging in philosophical dialogues whenever asked, a force that also no doubt enabled to live on for many, many years after a heart transplant. Naively, I thought that force inextinguishable in him (and stupidly, I chided him for not speaking enough about weak/waning forces…). But he was clearly the wiser, way much wiser, to respond by saying that if there were such a force, it was one that he had no control in summoning, of which he had no way of knowing either. He knew that that force was beyond human determination, one with its own momentum, rhythm, duration, etc. That force has now decided to leave Jean-Luc. But that does not mean that I’ll miss him any less. In fact, it makes me miss him even more.”
Claire Colebrook, author of the afterword toThe Deconstruction of Sex, said, “You didn’t have to work closely with Jen-Luc to experience a generosity of spirit and intellect that was singular and remarkable for someone whose writing possessed such range and originality. Unlike many of the European great names of his generation, Jean-Luc was genuinely self-effacing, less interested in his own ideas than he was in the next generation of thinkers. He was less concerned with maintaining legacies (and certainly not his own) than he was with forms of collaboration that would open a future. His specific use of the term ‘deconstruction’ was not to mark a brand, but to mark a dissolution and dispersal of the present for the sake of something other than the tradition that he knew so well.”
In Liz P. Y. Chee is Research Fellow at the Asia Research Institute and Lecturer at Tembusu College, both at the National University of Singapore.In her new book,Mao’s Bestiary: Medicinal Animals and Modern China, she complicates understandings of Chinese medicine as timeless and unchanging by historicizing the expansion of animal-based medicines in the social and political environment of early Communist China. Chee is Research Fellow at the Asia Research Institute and Lecturer at Tembusu College, both at the National University of Singapore.
In Mao’s Bestiary, your focus is on the production rather than the consumption of animal-based drugs. As a reader, it’s hard not to wonder about the efficacy of some of the therapies you describe. From the consumer’s perspective, do you have a sense as to why faunal medicalization remains popular?
I agree it’s hard to understand why demand continues in the present day despite the lack of science-based proofs of efficacy, and given the awareness that so many animal species are facing extinction, but let me provide two reasons. One is prestige. In China and elsewhere in Asia, rare animal parts and tissues have been highly valued within a gifting economy. I first became aware of this on a trip to Boten City, Laos in December 2009, where in the lobby of my hotel, which faced the entrance to a casino, venders were selling boxes of bear bile wrapped in neat red packaging. Jill Robinson, founder of Animals Asia Foundation, has discussed how such high-end animal medicinals are often never consumed, but permanently displayed as trophy objects. Others have written of how the gift of an expensive animal-based medicine to a sick relative is taken as a sign of caring, regardless of whether it is used.
A more general reason is the belief, deliberately cultivated during the period I write about, of the greater potency of animal tissue in preventing or curing diseases as compared to herbs. The Chinese medical belief of “like-cures-like” has always contributed to the use of animals parts as cures, though my book documents many cases of animals being given new medical powers in the modern period that have little or no sanction in classical texts. Contributing to the decimation of the rhino population, for example, has been a surge in Vietnamese demand for rhino horn, based on its claimed efficacy in curing cancer, or just hangovers. And in post-war Singapore, the horns of Saiga antelope were made into a cooling drink. I remember drinking this as a child and believing in its cooling effects. That Saiga horn is still openly sold here probably relates to this earlier marketing, which like all marketing need not be backed by scientific proofs. When such parts and tissues are officially banned, their trade goes underground, or operates through the internet. Only educating consumers has a chance of ending it.
Instead of using Eastern and Western medicine as analytic categories, you compare Chinese medicine with biomedicine. What do you think Western historians of science and medicine, or, perhaps, historians of Western science and medicine, can take away from this reframing of geography and tradition?
“Eastern” and “Western” are artefacts from the colonial period, so didn’t work for me in telling this story. Even “Chinese medicine” and “biomedicine”, the two broad-brush descriptors I settled on, needed to constantly be given more nuance in the text. It’s well-accepted now that “Chinese medicine” is a modernizing and heterogeneous set of practices and materials, hence full of innovation, and I’ve further documented that. But another reason the directional categories didn’t work in my manuscript is because Soviet or socialist medicine had a large influence in China from the 1950s, and its openness to herb-based and animal-based therapies—which were out of favour in “The West”—acted as a bridge to traditional Chinese drug culture. Russia is also in Asia, so its floral and faunal materia medica overlapped with that of China, as did its medicinal farming of deer. Other scholars have already documented the way that Japanese research influenced the whole range of medicines in China, including traditional pharmaceutics, and we can add North Korea in the case of bear bile farming. As a Singaporean, I was also very aware of the north-south axis; how what happens to the north of us effects the Southeast Asian rain forest where we live, and which has traditionally supplied so many animals for Chinese medicinal markets.
In your own life, you have been both a consumer of Chinese medicine and an activist for wildlife and biodiversity. How do these two things sit in tension for your generation? How do you imagine this tension might shape conversations about Chinese medicine moving forward?
I’m currently in my early 40s, and it’s not easy to generalize about my generation of Chinese-Singaporeans. While we’re more educated than our parents, we’re still quite immersed in inherited ways of thinking. My family origins are in Southern China, where animals were never treated humanely or with a view toward conservation. I was brought up eating shark fin soup and consuming Chinese medicine made with dried lizards, in addition to the antelope-horn drink I mentioned. I only became sensitized to ethical issues around animals in my late teens, but even then felt powerless to change anything. One turning point came when I saw (in the early 2000s) a BBC documentary on bear farming, and then witnessed it first-hand in Laos. While I think I’m still more the exception than the norm among my generation, an active minority of us have contributed to a strong and increasingly effective movement for the ethical treatment of animals here, as I mention in my book. We are ahead of China in that regard, though attitudes there are changing as well.
I’m more hopeful about the younger generations of Singaporeans and Chinese, who have been more outspoken in voicing their distaste for exploiting endangered species. The Guizhentang controversy of 2012, which I describe in my book, and which saw young mainland Chinese demonstrating against bear bile farming in front of the company’s outlets, was early evidence of a more dynamic and ethically-focused generation evolving. Celebrities like basketballer Yao Ming have also spoken up in challenge to conservative voices in the Chinese medical community. As an academic, my job is to contextualize and explain why and how animals came to be medicalized on such a scale. And my book rejects the claim that an unbroken Chinese tradition is the reason for the current industrial-scale exploitation, thereby skipping over the influence of nation-building in Mao’s China. But even without this historical evidence, I believe the younger generation prefers a Chinese medicine which does not endanger biodiversity, threaten the survival of species, harm individual animals, or harm us through the spread of zoonoses. They realize that continuing to medicalize animals is not essential to the survival of this healing tradition. It may rather threaten it.
You reference the COVID-19 pandemic several times in your introduction, and again in your conclusion. What impact, if any, do you think COVID-19 will have on future uses of medicinal animals? Do you think your book would have looked different if you had started it, and not finished it, in the middle of a pandemic?
As mentioned, one origin of this book was the trip I made to a bear bile farm in Boten City, Laos, a story I tell in the introduction. My team and I were there because the bears were diseased and dying, and I was struck that liquid extracted from sick bears was being sold locally as “medicine.” So zoonotic disease was a specter hovering about my project from the beginning. But I was more interested at that moment in the ethical question of how Chinese farmers could engage in such a cruel practice, and the historical question of where medicinal animal farming originated, and why. Going into the archives to understand faunal medicalization as an historical process, zoonoses faded from view because they were outside the consciousness of my actors and informants. Now of course they are front and center. But in some sense I’m glad I finished the book just before the pandemic, so as not to see the history of medicalizing animals solely through that contemporary lens. I’m hopeful, however, that the pre-history provided by the book will be useful to those working today to limit zoonotic disease by ending the global wildlife trade, so much of which is linked to medicalization. “Tradition” has always been a black box (or perhaps wall) limiting what people felt they could do to institute change. Understanding it as a process of constant re-invention and choice, and in this instance one that has become detrimental to both human and animal health, is an important step.
Today we celebrate Anthropology Day! Duke University Press joins the American Anthropological Association to recognize the research and achievements of anthropologists around the world. Check out these exciting possibilities for the discipline’s future with our new and recent titles. We hope especially that you’ll share them with your students.
Marilyn Strathern’s Relationsprovides a critical account of anthropology’s key concept of relation and its usage and significance in the English-speaking world, showing how its evolving use over the last three centuries reflects changing thinking about knowledge-making and kin-making.
In Afterlives of Affect Matthew C. Watson considers the life and work of artist and Mayanist scholar Linda Schele (1942–1998) as an entry point to discuss the nature of cultural inquiry, decipherment in anthropology, and the social conditions of knowledge production.
Bret Gustafson’s Bolivia in the Age of Gas 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.
Andrew Bickford analyzes the US military’s attempts to design performance enhancement technologies and create pharmacological “supersoldiers” capable of becoming ever more lethal while withstanding various forms of extreme trauma in Chemical Heroes.
Building Socialism by Christina Schwenkel analyzes the collaboration between East German and Vietnamese architects and urban planners as they attempted to transform the bombed-out industrial city of Vinh into a model socialist city.
Abigail A. Dumes’s Divided Bodies 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 Demanding Images, Indonesia’s post-authoritarian public sphere, Karen Strassler explores the role of public images as they gave visual form to the ideals, aspirations, and anxieties of democracy.
Dwaipayan Banerjee explores the efforts of Delhi’s urban poor to create a livable life with cancer as they negotiate an over-extended health system unequipped to respond to the disease in Enduring Cancer.
Lyle Fearnley’s timely Virulent Zones situates the production of ecological facts about the likely epicenter of viral pandemics inside the shifting cultural landscapes of agrarian change and the geopolitics of global health.
Porkopolis by Alex Blanchette explores how the daily lives of a Midwestern town that is home to a massive pork complex were reorganized around the life and death cycles of pigs while using the factory farm as a way to detail the state of contemporary American industrial capitalism.
Arlene Dávila draws on numerous interviews with artists, dealers, and curators to explore how and why the contemporary international art market continues to overlook, devalue, and marginalize Latinx art and artists in Latinx Art.
As vast infrastructure projects transform the Mekong River, Andrew Alan Johnson explores of how rapid environmental change affects how people live, believe, and dream in Mekong Dreaming.
Paper Trails edited by Sarah B. Horton and Josiah Heyman examine migrants’ relationship to the state through requirements to obtain identification documents in order to get legal status.
In Writing Anthropology, edited by Carole McGranahan, fifty-two anthropologists reflect on scholarly writing as both craft and commitment, offering insights into the myriad roles of anthropological writing, the beauty and the function of language, the joys and pains of writing, and encouragement to stay at it.
Check out our full list of anthropology titles, and sign up here to be notified of new books, special discounts, and more. Share your love of anthropology on social media with the hashtag #AnthroDay today.
February is Black History Month! To celebrate we are sharing some of our recent books and journals that explore this essential field.
In Emancipation’s Daughters, Riché Richardson examines how five iconic black women—Mary McLeod Bethune, Rosa Parks, Condoleezza Rice, Michelle Obama, and Beyoncé—defy racial stereotypes and construct new national narratives of black womanhood in the United States.
Brigitte Fielder’s Relative Races presents an alternative theory of how race is constructed with readings of nineteenth-century personal narratives, novels, plays, stories, poems, and images to illustrate how interracial kinship follows non-heteronormative, non-biological, and non-patrilineal models of inheritance in nineteenth-century literary culture.
Brandi Clay Brimmer analyzes the US pension system from the perspective of poor black women in the period before, during, and after the Civil War outlines the struggles of mothers, wives, and widows of black Union soldiers to claim rights in the face of unjust legislation in Claiming Union Widowhood.
Powers of Dignityby Nick Bromell examines how Frederick Douglass forged a distinctively black political philosophy out of his experiences as an enslaved and later nominally free man in ways that challenge Anglo-Continental traditions of political thought.
In A People’s History of Detroit, Mark Jay and Philip Conklin use a Marxist framework to tell a sweeping story of Detroit from 1913 to the present, outlining the complex socio-political dynamics underlying major events in Detroit’s past, from the rise of Fordism and the formation of labor unions to deindustrialization and the city’s recent bankruptcy.
Painter, photographer, and cofounder of AFRICOBRA Wadsworth A. Jarrell tells the definitive history of the group’s creation, history, and artistic and political principles and the ways it captured the rhythmic dynamism of black culture and social life to create uplifting art for all black people in AFRICOBRA.
In Universal Tonality, jazz critic and historian Cisco Bradley tells the story of the life and music of bassist and composer William Parker, who for fifty years has been a monumental figure in free jazz. Join Bradley, Parker, our own Senior Executive Editor Ken Wissoker, and Anthony Reed for a special live online event on Friday, February 19.
Maureen Mahon documents the major contributions African American women vocalists have made to rock and roll throughout its history in Black Diamond Queens. These women include Big Mama Thornton, Betty Davis, Tina Turner, and Merry Clayton. Catch Mahon, along with Daphne Brooks, at an online Black History Month event about Black women in rock, sponsored by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on February 22.
Infamous Bodiesby Samantha Pinto explores how histories of and the ongoing fame of Phillis Wheatley, Sally Hemings, Sarah Baartman, Mary Seacole, and Sarah Forbes Bonetta generate new ways of imagining black feminist futures.
“Policing, Justice, and the Radical Imagination,” a special issue of Radical History Review edited by Amy Chazkel, Monica Kim, and A. Naomi Paik, helps us imagine a world without police by examining historical cases in which people resolved social problems and maintained social peace through means other than relying on formal institutions of law enforcement.
And check out our Racial Justice Syllabus, one of several staff-curated syllabi focusing on today’s most critical issues.
Today’s post is by Sexual Hegemony: Statecraft, Sodomy, and Capital in the Rise of the World System editor, Max Fox. Fox is also an editor of Pinko magazine, a former editor of the New Inquiry, and translator of The Amphitheater of the Dead. In Sexual Hegemony, Christopher Chitty traces the 500 year history of capitalist sexual relations, showing how sexuality became a crucial dimension of the accumulation of capital and a technique of bourgeois rule. Christopher Chitty (1983–2015) was a PhD candidate in the History of Consciousness at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
I met Christopher Chitty in 2009, in the context of a student movement against the university as presently constituted. We occupied buildings, issued communiqués and rallied support, statewide at first, then nationally and internationally. I had thought at the start we might not have had a resonant cause, but soon discovered that the financial crisis and ensuing recession ran directly through campuses everywhere. Though supposedly a machine for class stability if not mobility, the university instead was sequestering exotic social villains like credit default swaps and the end of economic growth in our tuition, stabilizing itself by immiserating us. In this, we discovered that the university was not apart from the world but showed us exactly how it worked.
The university held itself up as a refuge from the market where thought could take place. But the movement against it was my most significant teacher, and Chris personified it for me. And his research into what was revolutionary about the sexual liberation movement addressed another question, one that I hadn’t been able to formulate to myself. I didn’t yet know how to square the obvious shortcomings of the NOH8 era of lobbying for gay rights with the equally plain danger presented by its enemies, but Chris braided the critique. I took our arguments about the bankruptcy of the university seriously, and when I left school and committed myself to building a publishing infrastructure that could support and circulate left thinking outside of an academy that seemed unsupportive at best, it was above all Chris and his work that I had in mind.
So when he committed suicide, suddenly, in 2015, I almost collapsed. Grieving his death also meant grieving the political coherence that I felt his work had promised me. But it was not just my self concept at risk. His work concerned the meaning of the struggle in which hundreds of thousands had died, and its bearing on the future liberation and survival of everyone else. He had impressed upon me that the losses from the HIV/AIDS epidemic were not just private tragedies but formed a front in the wider war against the global liberation struggle of the 60s and 70s, and so represented a revolutionary legacy which we let fade at our own peril. With these as the stakes, I simply could not let his project end with him.
So taking on the work felt like no decision at all, though I had never edited such a lengthy text nor did I really see the level of intellectual preparation it would require going in. I had to play a number of different roles — researcher, archivist, fact-checker, copy editor, agent, etc. I drew the line at ghostwriter. Freud mentions in “Mourning and Melancholia” that neurotic identification with the lost object is “the expression of there being something in common, which may signify love.” But however much I loved Chris and however much I wanted to continue living out the aspects we shared in common, this process was a long confrontation with how much he eluded me.
Chris left numerous versions of the chapters he’d been working on. To adequately present his work I had to dig around in his digital files. I both craved and feared that I would uncover an intact manuscript that neatly presented a polished, compact system. But there were only drafts, notes, incomplete sketches of what even in its unfinished form struck me as monumental. I opened one google doc that promised a full chapter on the American century which stopped loading after the third page. I panicked, afraid that the file had been corrupted somehow, but scrolling to the bottom revealed that he simply hadn’t written any further. It felt like I had lost him all over again. I couldn’t work for the rest of the week.
Given such a volatile process, it’s not a surprise that it took about five years to publish Sexual Hegemony, though I had had much more optimistic plans. At each step of the way there was a new delicate, unrushable negotiation with his family, the publisher, the collaborators, etc. I was lucky to be graced with a supportive social world. I had generous friends and comrades who offered to let me watch their pet or empty apartment when I had to find a place to focus, and forbearing boyfriends and roommates who put up with what must have been difficult moods for years at a time. I was able to finish it thanks to cheap rent and flexible copywriting gigs I took on to subsidize the work. And the willingness of relative strangers like Christopher Nealon and Courtney Berger to agree to collaborate on such a project with an untested steward like me was an act of faith I can only attribute to the unmistakable power of Chris’s work.
I am grateful for everything that allowed me to share it with readers from a platform that encourages that it will be read. And I am proud that I refused to let mere death prevent his insights from getting out. But how do I register the simultaneous tragedy it represents? I find it very hard not to see him as a casualty of the university which we struggled against together. The fact that I was able to arrange support for my efforts with his work posthumously isn’t a triumph, either, just a story of differently distributed costs. The oblivion still menacing attempts at thinking and writing seriously outside of the academy is a grave political risk as the university now enters an even deeper crisis than the one which brought Chris and I together in 2009. But the fear that gripped me when he died, that he might somehow take the memory of this movement with him, has thankfully abated. Maybe because now the crisis we fought is so endemic as to be unremarkable, our strenuously defended political orientation is more widespread. As I wrestled him these past five years to preserve his legacy in a book, I didn’t anticipate another metamorphosis that continues, though without him. Behind my back grew a movement ready to see itself in him, take his thought, and begin the work of tearing everything down.
Cressida J. Heyes is H. M. Tory Chair and Professor of Political Science and Philosophy at the University of Alberta and author of Self-Transformations and Line Drawings. In her new book Anaesthetics of Existenceshe draws on examples of things that happen to us but are nonetheless excluded from experience, as well as critical phenomenology, genealogy, and feminist theory. Heyes shows how and why experience has edges, and analyzes phenomena that press against them.
Anaesthetics of Existence: Essays on Experience at the Edge isn’t about any single topic. It makes a case that “experience” is a social and political category, and so some things we undergo do not get included. By examining those “edges” to experience—our lives as unconscious subjects, or subjects outside normative regimes of time, or subjects whose subjectivity is fractured rather than consolidated by what happens to us—it tries to revivify debates about how “the personal is political.”
It came out with Duke in early May, as pandemic lockdown had settled into place and even the immediate future was radically uncertain. I joked uneasily that I had published a book about checking out just as it became mandatory. Those of us in white-collar jobs who had “pivoted” to working from home while we simultaneously supervised online schooling for kids found ourselves trapped in small spaces for long periods of time, doing the same things with the same people, all on a screen. Others—from librarians to wait-staff—were abruptly furloughed or laid off, and found their anxiety increasing as the pace of life slowed. Wage-workers in industries suddenly labelled “essential,” by contrast, were still showing up for their jobs as grocery clerks, delivery drivers, hospital cleaners, or care assistants, dealing with studied indifference to health risks, staff turnover, and unpredictable shifts. Terrifying news stories emerged about doctors and nurses in northern Italy or New York City who were working as continuously as humanly possible, refusing themselves sleep, as they grappled with monstrous ethical challenges about whom to ventilate, or the organizational nightmares of massively increased nurse-to-patient ratios in ICUs.
Everyone’s experience of time changed.
In my book I argue that “anaesthetic time” is that diffuse, unpunctuated, and inattentive temporality that characterizes a certain kind of relaxation or down-time, typically experienced in the late evening, after the kids have gone to bed, especially for parents in day-jobs with regular weekday schedules. I suggest that the marketing of cheap, sweet alcohol to “moms who need wine” is a way of exploiting this need for a temporal experience antithetical to the scheduled, productive, multitasking, flexible-for-others “postdisciplinary” time of paid work and domestic labour. These two experiences of time are flip sides of the same coin. For those of us who work in this temporal economy, they sustain each other, and are carefully cultivated by various vested interests and sometimes by our own work ethic. If we are wage slaves, we might be able to resist, but we can’t simply opt out.
In some ways, the pandemic time of those of us privileged enough to be locked down in our homes is a strange combination of mutated postdisciplinary time and anaesthetic time, without the clarity of their juxtaposition that makes them part of a meaningful temporal system. Some of us are overwhelmed with constant online meetings and “Zoom fatigue,” while others are lost without the punctuation of arriving at work and leaving, grocery shopping and other errands, going to the gym, dropping the kids at daycare, or whatever temporal habits form the grammar of our lives. At the start, some spoke of time moving grindingly slowly. As the millennial meme had it, “I’ve lived through four decades: the 1990s, 2000s, 2010s, and March 2020.” As the summer has flown by, other have noted that time speeds up when it is flat and monotonous, no longer pleasurably interrupted by vacations, summer arts festivals, or community barbecues. It is hard to remember when, exactly, trivial things happened, or to put everyday events in temporal order.
No wonder that as the temporal disruption continues, many people chafe at the idea that they should work but not play. “Opening the economy” is government code for providing survival income for millions of people who might otherwise have been seeking out loan sharks and waiting in line at the food bank. But it also means an uptick in work that recreates postdisciplinary time: the delivery trucks and gig service vehicles that zip around my urban neighbourhood have multiplied; the increasingly shrill memos and finger-wagging webinars about the need for university teachers to step up for a fall online started back in May; the moms who are supervising homeschool and bored kids while trying to sell mortgages via cellphone need more than wine. All this without a concomitant time out is not what any of us—especially, but not only, the middle-class and male “us”—were promised. This explains in part why public health pronouncements about the need to stay home, stay away from the bars and beaches, “stay alert” (as the UK government unhelpfully but tellingly advises), to stay sober in every sense are not compelling. A postdisciplinary time marked by constant vigilance is unendurable.
In her brilliant book Enduring Time, Lisa Baraitser makes sense of suspended time—“modes of waiting, staying delaying, enduring, persisting, repeating, maintaining, preserving, and remaining—that produce felt experiences of time not passing.” The pandemic has put many of us into suspended time, in one way or another, and revealed the extent to which the prior organization of work and leisure comprised a system in which the petty rewards of anaesthetic time were one of the things that kept it going. Baraitser suggests we rethink our cultural disrespect for enduring, with its associations with feminized care work, unskilled labour, or the lives of prisoners. In pandemic time, many of us are producing less, consuming less, travelling less, doing less of the things that feel most like doing. As my book argues, the privileging of certain kinds of agency that manifest through certain kinds of action is a political problem. This pandemic provides a painful and uneven opportunity to examine the temporal systems that give meaning to our experience and tell us what we are worth.
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.
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.
InYouth 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 Endby 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 Trafficby 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.
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.
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.
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
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?
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:
Silence can be judgement free
Silence can obscure good as much as it protects bad.
Silence itself has a presence.
Silence is layered, contradictory, and not just a negative.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.”
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
“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).
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.
“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.”
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.
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?
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.
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.