The Weekly Read for March 4, 2023 is Crip Genealogies edited by Mel Y. Chen, Alison Kafer, Eunjung Kim, and Julie Avril Minich. The contributors to Crip Genealogies reorient the field of disability studies by centering the work of transnational feminism, queer of color critique, and trans scholarship and activism, showing how a white and Western-centric narrative of disability studies enables ableism and racism.
Crip Genealogies is part of the series ANIMA: Critical Race Studies Otherwise, edited by Mel Y. Chen, Ezekiel J. Dixon-Román, and Jasbir K. Puar. Books in this series bring together queer theory, postcolonial studies, critical race scholarship, and disability theory to foreground the oft-occluded import of race and sex in the fields of posthumanist theory, new materialisms, vitalism, media theory, animal studies, and object-oriented ontologies. ANIMA emphasizes how life, vitality, and animatedness reside beyond what is conventionally and humanistically known.
Prefer the print version? Buy the book and use coupon code E23CRIPG at checkout for a 30% discount!
The Weekly Read is a weekly feature in which we highlight articles, books, and chapters that are freely available online. You’ll be able to find a link to the selection here on the blog as well as on our social media channels. Enjoy The Weekly Read, and check back next week for something new to read for free.
The Weekly Read for February 4, 2023 is Cooling the Tropics: Ice, Indigeneity, and Hawaiian Refreshment by Hi′ilei Julia Kawehipuaakahaopulani Hobart. In this fascinating book, Hobart charts the social history of ice in Hawaiʻi, showing how ice and refrigeration underpinned settler colonial ideas about race, environment, and the senses. Paige West calls it “a beautifully written, genre-bending contribution that is one of the only truly transdisciplinary books I have ever read.” From now until April 6, you can download it for free.
For a preview, catch Hobart’s interview on Getting Curious with Jonathan Van Ness.
The Weekly Read is a weekly feature in which we highlight articles, books, and chapters that are freely available online. You’ll be able to find a link to the selection here on the blog as well as on our social media channels. Enjoy The Weekly Read, and check back next week for something new to read for free.
Stay warm and comfy this February by curling up with a good book. Take a look at our many new titles coming out this month!
In Death’s Futurity, Sampada Aranke analyzes posters, photographs, journalism, and films that focus on the murders of three Black Panther Party members to examine the importance of representations of death to Black liberation.
Lucia Hulsether explores twentieth and twenty-first century movements from fair trade initiatives and microfinance programs to venture fund pledges to invest in racial equity, showing how these movements fail to achieve their goals in Capitalist Humanitarianism.
In Between Banat, Mejdulene Bernard Shomali examines homoeroticism and nonnormative sexualities between Arab women in transnational Arab literature, art, and film to show how women, femmes, and nonbinary people disrupt stereotypical and Orientalist representations of the “Arab woman.”
In Kids on the Street Joseph Plaster explores the informal support networks that enabled abandoned and runaway queer youth to survive in tenderloin districts across the United States.
In Unkowing and the Everyday, Seema Golestaneh examines how Sufi mystical experience in Iran and the idea of unknowing—the idea that it is ultimately impossible to fully understand the divine—shapes contemporary life.
Catherine E. Walsh examines social struggles for survival in societies deeply marked by the systemic violence of coloniality to identify practices that may cultivate the possibility of living otherwise in Rising Up, Living On.
The contributors to Eating beside Ourselves, edited by Heather Paxson, examine eating as a site of transfer and transformation that create thresholds for human and nonhuman relations.
Drawing on memoir, creative writing, theoretical analysis, and ethnography in Santo Domingo, Havana, and New Jersey, Carlos Ulises Decena examines transnational black Caribbean immigrant queer life and spirit in Circuits of the Sacred.
The contributors to Sovereignty Unhinged, edited by Deborah A. Thomas and Joseph Masco, theorize sovereignty beyond the typical understandings of action, control, and the nation-state, considering it from the perspective of how it is lived and enacted in everyday practice and how it reflects people’s aspirations for new futures.
Spirit in the Land, edited by Trevor Schoonmaker, accompanies the art exhibition of the same name at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University. The exhibition, which runs February 16 to July 9, examines today’s urgent ecological concerns from a cultural perspective, demonstrating how intricately our identities and natural environments are intertwined.
When Forests Run Amok by Daniel Ruiz-Serna follows the afterlives of war, showing how they affect the variety of human and nonhuman beings that compose the region of Bajo Atrato: the traditional land of Indigenous and Afro-Colombian peoples.
In Letterpress Revolution, Kathy E. Ferguson explores the importance of anarchist letterpress printers and presses, whose printed materials galvanized anarchist movements across the United States and Great Britain from the late nineteenth century to 1940s.
Examining the 2002 pogrom in which Hindu mobs attached Muslims in the west Indian state of Gujuarat, Moyukh Chatterjee examines how political violence against minorities catalyzes radical changes in law, public culture, and power in Composing Violence.
In The Briny South Nienke Boer examines the legal and literary narratives of enslaved, indentured, and imprisoned individuals crossing the Indian Ocean to analyze the formation of racialized identities in the imperial world.
In Crip Colony, Sony Coráñez Bolton examines the racial politics of disability, mestizaje, and sexuality in the Philippines, showing how heteronormative, able-bodied, and able-minded mixed-race Filipinos offered a model and path for assimilation into the US empire.
Hunter Hargraves is Associate Professor of Cinema and Television Arts at California State University, Fullerton. His new book Uncomfortable Television examines how postmillennial television made its audiences find pleasure through discomfort, showing that televisual unease trains audiences to survive under late capitalism, which demands that individuals accept a certain amount of discomfort, dread, and irritation into their everyday lives.
In your introduction, you describe your book as “a historiography of television’s formal relationship to pleasure” (7). In layman’s terms, how would you summarize the project or main intervention ofUncomfortable Television?
Uncomfortable Television examines why, as television’s key forms, genres, and viewing practices changed dramatically throughout the early twenty-first century, television also began to make us feel more uncomfortable. For most of the twentieth century, TV was popularly thought to be a family-friendly entertainment medium. Audiences found pleasure in the simple setups of a sitcom, for example, and knew when to laugh thanks to the canned laugh track. Or they would watch a police drama and know who to root for, since these programs had clearly defined heroes and villains. In the twenty-first century, however, we derive pleasure on TV from much darker affects and situations. We cringe at irritating and awkward protagonists. We binge series that depict frequent instances of sexual assault and racialized violence, occasionally asking audiences to show some degree of sympathy for these “antiheroes.” As television evolved throughout the 2000s and early 2010s to include more serialized narratives, more high-quality aesthetics, more legitimation from cultural elites, more fan cultures, and more programming in general, it used these changes to mask this shift in pleasure—that’s the thrust of the book’s intervention.
In addition to this historiography, Uncomfortable Television both argues for an attention to affect and performance in television studies and offers a critique of neoliberalism. How do you connect these cultural and political/economic components in your analysis?
With respect to the first part of this—the attention to affect and performance in television studies—it’s partly coincidental: as television changes in the 21st century, affect studies also begins to emerge as an interdisciplinary field, giving scholars across the humanities and social sciences new vocabularies to make sense of cultural texts. Within media studies, most of this engagement with affect tends to focus on film, however, which I attribute to television’s “low” commercial status; at the time, television was thought as formally too uninteresting and too simplistic to merit affective inquiry. I argue that television has always been invested in the production of affect, but its looser narrative structure means that this investment occurs on different terms. In the book’s first chapter, for example, I go even further back and look at the British cultural historian Raymond Williams’ canonical writings on television and on affect—what he calls “structures of feeling”—to diagram how television represents the habits, behaviors, and feelings of everyday experience.
As far as neoliberalism goes, the connection is a little more direct: late capitalism thrives on an uncomfortable viewer/consumer in part because it can offer costly solutions to alleviate this discomfort. Beyond this, however, the changes to society enacted by neoliberalism—the outsourcing of the welfare state to private institutions, the valorization of entrepreneurship despite the precarity it engenders, and the reorganization of consumer society around the individual rather than the nuclear family—all pave the way for the proliferation of discomfort. Targeting the individual viewer rather than the family unit, for example, means that producers are no longer required to make family-friendly content, since narrowcasting has enabled each member of the family to watch different programs on different devices, thus resulting in programming with less restrictions when it comes to profanity, sex, and violence. Television has consistently taught audiences how to adjust to new economic realities going as far back to its popularization in the 1950s, which was strongly connected to the development of a postwar consumer society and the middle-class, suburban lifestyle associated with the “American dream.” Uncomfortable Television argues that postmillennial television has a similar function, teaching its audiences how to live under the anxiety and precarity common to neoliberalism.
Can certain forms of discomfort be productive, or otherwise preferable to or distinct from others? How might you distinguish become “uncomfortable” and “offensive,” for example?
Discomfort is tricky to dissect, in part because it is pretty subjective: in your example, what is uncomfortable for one viewer might be offensive to another viewer. (And I acknowledge how my own position as a queer White male influences my readings of discomfort throughout the book.) But because television criticism has expanded throughout the twenty-first century, encompassing blogs, think pieces, podcasts, and social media commentary, I think it becomes a lot easier to map the nuances of audience discomfort. Now, that doesn’t necessarily recoup it as fully productive: in the book’s first chapter, I look at HBO’s Girls and the celebrity persona of its creator, Lena Dunham, who is satirically characterized as an irritating and entitled millennial who just doesn’t have it together. Irritation is rarely thought of as “productive” because it is too minor to provoke serious action. But I read Girls as reclaiming irritation in all of its forms—such as trolling or calling out—as weapons of survival for millennials in an economy stacked against them, which can result in fundamentally strange and contradictory feelings of joy and pleasure.
You assert that “television is a medium fundamentally of the present” (8). Can you expand on this distinction between television and other forms of media and on their differing temporalities/relationships to time?
Within television studies, TV has been historically thought of as a “medium fundamentally of the present” because of its liveness, since for the first half of its history its programming wasn’t easily archivable or replayable, aside from syndication and re-runs. This is why so many of the programs that garner high ratings over the past twenty years—sports and big reality competitions—rely on an unspoiled viewer watching live, despite advances in recording technology. Beyond that, and more relevant to my book’s project, television’s scripted storylines also creep out across several seasons, making it hard to periodize easily. A stand-alone film that moves towards closure more easily reflects its time of production and release, whereas television can tell a story across several years or even decades, making it harder to categorize affectively. One aside I make in the book is that even though shows like Friends and ER were some of the most popular series of the 2000s, their episodic forms are of the 1990s, so that throughout their runs they present a mix of historically-specific affects that isn’t always recognizable at their moment of broadcast. In Uncomfortable Television’s conclusion, for instance, I look at discomfort from the perspective of when a program’s comedic style feels too dated or problematic for the current time. I use the example of blackface in 30 Rock, which audiences enjoyed ironically fifteen years ago but now is considered inappropriate; in fact, series creator Tina Fey pulled episodes containing blackface from streaming platforms following the 2020 murder of George Floyd and the subsequent Black Lives Matter uprisings.
What’s your favorite television show (that would hold up under critical scrutiny, in your opinion), and what is your “guilty pleasure”?
This is hard, since I have so many favorites! Most of my recreational viewing actually falls into so-called “guilty pleasures”; I have a perverse interest in reality television, watching a lot of gamedocs like Big Brother and melodramas like the Housewives. Sometimes I think I became a scholar of television in part to rationalize my love of these programs and to subject them to the kind of critical scrutiny that still accounts for their many voyeuristic pleasures. But as far as more legitimated television goes, I tend to stan series that are invested in narrating the complexity of minoritarian experience—Paramount+’s The Good Fight might be my favorite drama from the past few years.
Read the introduction to Uncomfortable Television for free and save 30% on the paperback with coupon E23HRGRV.
New year, new books! Check out the great new titles we have coming out in January:
In Wake Up, This Is Joburg, writer Tanya Zack and photographer Mark Lewis offer a stunning portrait of Johannesburg and personal stories of its residents, showing how its urban transformation occurs not in a series of dramatic, widescale changes but in the everyday lives, actions, and dreams of individuals.
Chérie N. Rivers shows how colonial systems of normalized violence condition the way we see and, through collaboration with contemporary Congolese artists, imagines ways we might learn to see differently in To Be Nsala’s Daughter.
In Code, Bernard Dionysius Geoghegan traces the shared intellectual and political history of computer scientists, cyberneticists, anthropologists, linguists, and theorists across the humanities as they developed a communication and computational-based theory that grasped culture and society in terms of codes.
Lee Edelman offers a sweeping theorization of queerness as one of the many names for the void around and against which the social order takes shape in Bad Education.
Jennifer Lynn Kelly explores the significance of contemporary solidarity tourism in Palestine/Israel in Invited to Witness, showing how such tourism functions both as political strategy and emergent industry.
In River Life and the Upspring of Nature, Naveeda Khan examines the relationship between nature and culture through the study of the everyday existence of chauras, the people who live on the chars (sandbars) within the Jamuna River in Bangladesh.
Drawing on fieldwork in a Chinese toxicology lab that studies the influence of toxins on male reproductive and developmental health, Janelle Lamoreaux investigates how epigenetic research conceptualizes and configures environments in Infertile Environments.
In On Learning to Heal, Ed Cohen draws on his experience living with Crohn’s disease—a chronic, incurable condition that nearly killed him—to explore how modern Western medicine’s turn from an “art of healing” toward a “science of medicine” impacts all whose lives are touched by illness.
Joseph C. Russo takes readers into the everyday lives of the rural residents of southeast Texas in Hard Luck and Heavy Rain, showing how their hard-luck stories render the region a mythopoetic landscape that epitomizes the impasse of American late capitalism.
Josen Masangkay Diaz interrogates the distinct forms of Filipino American subjectivity that materialized from the relationship between the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship and Cold War US anticommunism in Postcolonial Configurations.
In The Spectacular Generic, Cori Hayden explores how consumer access to generic drugs has transformed public health care and the politics of pharmaceuticals in the global South.
Petrus Liu challenges key premises of classic queer theory and Marxism in The Specter of Materialism, turning to an analysis of the Beijing Consensus—global capitalism’s latest mutation—to develop a new theory of the political economy of sexuality.
In Uncomfortable Television, Hunter Hargraves examines how postmillennial television made its audiences find pleasure through discomfort, showing that televisual unease trains audiences to survive under late capitalism, which demands that individuals accept a certain amount of discomfort, dread, and irritation into their everyday lives.
Lara Langer Cohen excavates the long history of the underground in nineteenth-century US literature in Going Underground, showing how these formations of the underground can inspire new forms of political resistance.
Travelling from Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean to South America and the eastern United States, the authors of Vanishing Sands, Orrin H. Pilkey, Norma J. Longo, William J. Neal, Nelson G. Rangel-Buitrago, Keith C. Pilkey, and Hannah L. Hayes, track the devastating environmental, social, and economic impact of legal and illegal sand mining over the past twenty years.
Vincanne Adams takes the complex chemical glyphosate—the active ingredient in Roundup and a pervasive agricultural herbicide—to explore the formation of contested knowledge in Glyphosate and the Swirl.
As the weather cools and the holiday season approaches, treat yourself to one of our great new December titles!
In On Paradox, Elizabeth S. Anker contends that the faith in the logic of paradox has been the watermark of left intellectualism since the second half of the twentieth century, showing how paradox generates the very exclusions it critiques and undercuts theory’s commitment to social justice.
Piro Rexhepi explores the overlapping postsocialist and postcolonial border regimes in the Balkans that are designed to protect whiteness and exclude Muslim, Roma, and migrant communities in White Enclosures.
The contributors to Turning Archival, edited by Daniel Marshall and Zeb Tortorici, trace the rise of “the archive” as an object of historical desire and study within queer studies and examine how it fosters historical imagination and knowledge.
In Feltness, Stephanie Springgay considers socially engaged art as a practice of research-creation that germinates a radical pedagogy she calls feltness—a set of intimate practices of creating art based on touch, affect, relationality, love, and responsibility.
Ain’t But a Few of Us, edited by Willard Jenkins, presents over two dozen candid dialogues with Black jazz critics and journalists who discuss the barriers to access for Black jazz critics and how they contend with the world of jazz writing dominated by white men.
In Poverty and Wealth in East Africa, Rhiannon Stephens offers a conceptual history of how people living in eastern Uganda have sustained and changed their ways of thinking about wealth and poverty over the past two thousand years.
Examining a wide range of photography from across the global South, the contributors to Cold War Camera, edited by Thy Phu, Erina Duganne, and Andrea Noble, explore the visual mediation of the Cold War, illuminating how photography shaped how it was prosecuted and experienced.
Through close readings of slave narratives, scrapbooks, travel illustration, documentary film and photography, as well as collage, craft, and sculpture, Jasmine Nichole Cobb explores Black hair as a visual material through which to reimagine the sensual experience of Blackness in New Growth.
The contributors to New World Orderings, edited by Lisa Rofel and Carlos Rojas, demonstrate that China’s twenty-first-century rise occurs not only through economics and state politics, but equally through its relationships and interactions with the Global South.
Focusing on his personal day to day experiences of the “shelter-in-place” period during the first months of the coronavirus pandemic, Alberto Moreiras offers a meditation on intellectual life and the nature of thought under the suspension of time and conditions of isolation in Uncanny Rest.
In Ruderal City, Bettina Stoetzer traces the more-than-human relationships between people, plants, and animals in contemporary Berlin, showing how Berlin’s “urban nature” becomes a key site in which notions of citizenship and belonging as well as racialized, gendered, and classed inequalities become apparent.
Veit Erlmann examines the role of copyright law in post-apartheid South Africa and its impact on the South African music industry in Lion’s Share, showing how copyright is inextricably entwined with race, popular music, postcolonial governance, indigenous rights, and the struggle to create a more equitable society.
Rumya Sree Putcha uses the figure of the Indian classical dancer to explore the complex dynamics of contemporary transnational Indian womanhood in The Dancer′s Voice.
In Feminism in Coalition Liza Taylor examines how U.S. women of color feminists’ coalitional collective politics of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s is an indispensable resource to contemporary political theory, feminist studies, and intersectional social justice activism.
Hiʻilei Julia Kawehipuaakahaopulani Hobart charts the social history of ice in Hawaiʻi in Cooling the Tropics, showing how ice and refrigeration underpinned settler colonial ideas about race, environment, and the senses.
The contributors to Siting Postcoloniality, edited by Pheng Cheah and Caroline S. Hau, reevaluate the notion of the postcolonial by focusing on the Sino-sphere—the region of East and Southeast Asia that has been significantly shaped by relations with China throughout history.
Rupal Oza follows the social life of rape in rural northwest India to reveal how rape is a language through which issues ranging from caste to justice to land are contested in Semiotics of Rape.
Fall is in full swing, so curl up with a hot drink, a cozy sweater, and a new book! Check out our October releases.
Memories of a Gay Catholic Boyhood is John D’Emilio’s coming-of-age story in which he takes readers from his working-class Bronx neighborhood and Columbia University to New York’s hidden gay male subculture and the political and social upheavals of the late 1960s. You can catch John D’Emilio discussing his book at the Calandra Italian American Institute in New York City later this month.
Exploring her attraction to tininess and the stories of those who share it, Barbara Browning offers a series of charming short essays that plumb what it means to ponder the minuscule in The Miniaturists.
Gavin Butt tells the story of the post-punk scene in the northern English city of Leeds in No Machos or Pop Stars, showing how bands ranging from Gang of Four, Soft Cell, and Delta 5 to Mekons, Scritti Politti, and Fad Gadget drew on their university art school education to push the boundaries of pop music. Butt will launch his book at an exciting event in Leeds this month, featuring performances by Scritti Politti and The Mekons77.
In Fragments of Truth, Naomi Angel analyzes the visual culture of reconciliation and memory in relation to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that Canada established in 2008 to review the history of the Indian Residential School system, a brutal colonial project that killed and injured many Indigenous children.
Drawing on the archives of the Black Panther Party and the National Black Women’s Health Project, Sami Schalk explores how issues of disability have been and continue to be central to Black activism from the 1970s to the present in Black Disability Politics. Schalk launches her book at an event at the Ford Foundation in New York City on October 26.
In Changing the Subject, Srila Roy traces the impact of neoliberalism on gender and sexuality rights movements in the Global South through queer and feminist activism in India. Roy is speaking about her book at The New School and Columbia University later this month.
Filipe Maia offers a theological reflection on hope and the future in the context of financialized capitalism in Trading Futures, arguing that the Christian vocabulary of hope can provide the means to build a future beyond the strictures of capitalism.
Coming from the worlds of cultural anthropology, geography, philosophy, science fiction, poetry, and fine art, editors Sophie Chao, Karin Bolender, and Eben Kirksey and the contributors to this volume of The Promise of Multispecies Justice consider the possibility for multispecies justice and speculate on the forms it would take. The authors have developed a multimedia website where you can learn more about this collection.
In Health in Ruins, César Ernesto Abadía-Barrero assesses neoliberalism’s devastating effects on a public hospital in Colombia and how health care workers resisted defunding.
Jovan Scott Lewis retells the history and afterlife of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre and its century-long legacy of dispossession in Violent Utopia, placing it in a larger historical and social context of widespread anti-Black racism and segregation in Tulsa and beyond.
In a new revised and expanded twentieth anniversary edition of his classic book Big Game, Small World, sportswriter Alexander Wolff travels the globe in search of what basketball can tell us about the world, and what the world can tell us about the game.
AnaLouise Keating provides a comprehensive investigation of the foundational theories, methods, and philosophies of Gloria E. Anzaldúa in The Anzaldúan Theory Handbook.
Nomenclature collects eight volumes of Dionne Brand’s poetry published between 1983 and 2010, as well as a new long poem, the titular Nomenclature for the time being.
Hispanic Heritage Month which takes place September 15-October 15, celebrates the generations of Hispanic Americans who have positively influenced and enriched our nation and society.
Today, September 26, is Gloria E. Anzaldúa’s birthday, so it’s a fitting day to share our new titles in Latinx studies, including The Anzaldúan Theory Handbook, by AnaLouise Keating. Through archival research and close readings of Anzaldúa’s unpublished and published writings, Keating offers a biographical-intellectual sketch of Anzaldúa, investigates her writing process and theory-making methods, and excavates her archival manuscripts. The book also includes extensive definitions, genealogies, and explorations of eighteen key Anzaldúan theories as well as an annotated bibliography of hundreds of Anzaldúa’s unpublished manuscripts.
In A Kiss across the Ocean, Richard T. Rodríguez examines the relationship between British post-punk musicians and their Latinx audiences in the United States since the 1980s. Melding memoir with cultural criticism, Rodríguez spotlights a host of influential bands and performers including Siouxsie and the Banshees, Adam Ant, Bauhaus, Soft Cell, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, and Pet Shop Boys.
The contributors to Consuelo Jimenez Underwood: Art, Weaving, Vision, edited by Laura E. Pérez and Ann Marie Leimer, examine the artistic practice of artist Consuelo Jimenez Underwood, whose innovative art and urgent engagement with a range of pressing contemporary issues mark her as one of the most vital artists of our time.
In The Florida Room, Alexandra T. Vazquez listens to the music and history of Miami to explore the city’s sonic cultures and its material and social realities. She transforms the “Florida room”—an actual architectural phenomenon—into a vibrant spatial imaginary for Miami’s musical cultures and everyday life.
In Junot Díaz: On the Half-Life of Love, José David Saldívar offers a critical examination of one of the leading American writers of his generation. He explores Díaz’s imaginative work and the diasporic and immigrant world he inhabits, showing how his influences converged in his fiction and how his writing—especially his Pulitzer Prize–winning novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao—radically changed the course of US Latinx literature and created a new way of viewing the decolonial world.
Juan Herrera maps 1960s Chicano movement activism in the Latinx neighborhood of Fruitvale in Oakland in Cartographic Memory: Social Movement Activism and the Production of Space. From Chicano-inspired street murals to the architecture of restaurants and shops, Herrera shows how Fruitvale’s communities and spaces serve as a palpable, living record of movement politics and achievements.
In Toward Camden, Mercy Romero writes about the relationships that make and sustain the largely African American and Puerto Rican Cramer Hill neighborhood in New Jersey where she grew up. She resists narratives of the city that are inextricable from crime and decline and witnesses everyday lives lived at the intersection of spatial and Puerto Rican diasporic memory.
In The Lettered Barriada: Workers, Archival Power, and the Politics of Knowledge in Puerto Rico, Jorell A. Meléndez-Badillo tells the story of how a cluster of self-educated workers burst into Puerto Rico’s world of letters and navigated the colonial polity that emerged out of the 1898 US occupation. They did so by asserting themselves as citizens, producers of their own historical narratives, and learned minds.
Check out all our great titles in Chicanx and Latinx studies here.
Following Lauren Berlant’s death last summer, Erica Rand agreed to shepherd Berlant’s new book On the Inconvenience of Other People to publication. In today’s guest post Rand describes that experience and introduces the book.
Today Lauren Berlant’s book On The Inconvenience of Other People is out. It appears in the series Writing Matters!, founded in 2019 by Lauren, Saidiya Hartman, Katie Stewart, and me. I’m writing to tell you a bit about the book. Not what it’s about: I invite you to encounter the book for yourself, in your own way and time. Instead, I want to share with you some things I did and learned as I helped move Inconvenience from the completed manuscript—which Lauren submitted, soon before they passed, in June 2021—to the book in print. I took on this project both as a Writing Matters! co-editor and as a close friend, two interdependent roles I mark through the use of “Lauren” and the pronouns “they/them.” Neither corresponds to one of those roles, or to a personal vs. professional relationship; I mean to sidestep the narrative that presents Lauren’s pronouns as an index of intimacy.
As I indicate in Inconvenience’s “Note to the Reader,” I did the tasks ordinarily performed by a book’s author during the production phase. I reviewed the copyedited manuscript, responding to suggested changes and corrections, and checked the page proofs. I wrote material for the marketing department to work with—much helped by abstracts that Lauren had submitted—and interacted with people at or outside the press as they needed or wanted me and as I needed or wanted them.
My description of the process might be dispassionate, but my experience of it was anything but. Sometimes it was heart-swelling and heart-breaking at once, especially when I encountered lines I could conjure Lauren saying aloud. Like this comment on the common or commons: “The concept is so overloaded you might think that it’s empty, but you’d be wrong.” I could hear a pause after the comma, slightly longer than what a comma versus a period would suggest, then a slight shift. The second part might sound a bit quip-like, maybe with a slightly deepened or higher voice at the end, then a deliberate two-syllable laugh sound, a visible twinkle, a smile with closed lips.
Then there was the anxiety of copyedits, which I had foolishly expected to be easier to handle than copyedits on my own work. Ordinarily, I respond to copyedits with a mix of deep, articulated gratitude and would-be savvy, treating my responses to proposed changes as components of an invented bargaining relationship. I imagine, for example, that maybe I can keep my beloved “and/or” if I give up some parentheses I liked, or that if I give up “and/or” without a fuss, maybe my desire/desperation to change “butch-femme” back to “butch/femme” will not read as dubious attachment to a slash mark. I have no evidence that anyone evaluating my responses ever thought they were in any such relationship with me, although my perception is hardly unique. When I used the term “invented” in sharing my progress on this blog post with my writing accountability group, everyone protested: No, no, that’s really how it happens! You give some, you get some, especially if you are polite. Say please and thank you. You don’t want to seem like—or be!—that writer who rejects every suggestion.
With Inconvenience, I planned to proceed differently. I certainly wouldn’t bargain away anything I thought Lauren wanted, and I knew that no editor involved wanted me to. We had a mutual, explicit goal: to produce the book that Lauren wanted, lightly edited so as to be as close as possible to the manuscript they submitted. I anticipated that I would primarily be approving obvious changes—deleting an extra space between “of” and “the,” following Duke style about using “19th” or “nineteenth,” fixing a few unintended ambiguities, relocating a stray comma.
I was wrong. Even seemingly small decisions were often far from smooth sailing. For example, the Duke style guide rejects amidst for amid. Me, too. I find amidst needlessly elongated, like cohabitate, and weirdly archaic or up-classing, although I know it’s become more widespread than back when it began mysteriously to appear in my students’ papers, where I thought it represented an attempt to signal academic seriousness or, more interesting, a migrated convention from some time-traveling pop culture I kept trying to ferret out. Lauren’s manuscript, to my surprise, had amidst several times. I had to decide whether their usage was significant or fine to change. Since I couldn’t distinguish amidst’s contexts from the more frequent uses of amid. I went with the latter.
And what ambiguities were, indeed, unintended? The copyeditor flagged “Paul leans on the old mattress on the wall” in Last Tango in Paris. The mattress, not Paul, was touching the wall, correct? If so, how about “propped against the wall,” more clear in referent? Sure, why not? Lauren was setting the stage. What about “this clash between wanting to be disturbed in sex and yet simpler in pleasure”? Could I clarify that? I thought I could, but every tweak I tried involved a lot of words and seemed like a gloss—too much of my interpretation.
Plus, I always kept in mind a conversation between me and Lauren early in 2021 after I read the almost penultimate draft of Inconvenience. I asked if they might spell out what they mean by writing through a series of “assays” and “in a parenthetical voice,” two key experimental aspects of the book. OK, they said, and/but: “Here’s the difference between your writing and mine. When you anticipate the reader stumbling over something, you try to smooth it out. I don’t.”
I rarely needed that reminder to check myself. It functioned usually as an affectionate “that’s Lauren” when I came across a paragraph-length sentence that in a draft of mine might have turned into seven. The comment nagged at me most for small decisions, such as one involving this sentence:
Think of the clumsy physicality sex induces, in the body, the voice, and the face; the confusions and resignations of knowledge even in a scene of delight; the small and large breakdowns of concentration and confidence all throughout any episode, and the work of quieting that down so things can proceed.
The copy editor wanted to change “quieting that down” to “quieting those down.” Hmm. Did Lauren want to designate that the breakdowns added up to one big breakdown-to-be-quieted? In that case, keep that. Did they mean to convey quieting all of that down or want readers to decide what to agglomerate? Then this or those could work. Maybe they had barely thought about it. I finally decided “those” could accommodate “that” and left the correction. Even in anti-bargainer mode, I didn’t want to reject every suggestion. I didn’t think Lauren would want to be that writer either. I did, however, restore a comma after “induces.” Lauren sometimes used commas for rhythm, pause, or speed-up. I tried to listen for those.
I used that last example partly to entice you. Once you’ve read that gorgeous, super-smart characterization of sex, can you really bear to miss anything else? The pleasures of the text are many. So, too, were the pleasures of the process, including the chance to notice habits that I would not have recognized apart from this triangulated relationship with copyediting. For example, Lauren started many sentences “There is” or “There are,” establishing the very existence of something as part of writing about it. They also used terms, such as suicidiation, that are still heading toward Merriam-Webster, and various departures from standard usage: terms or metaphors, including Teflon, portmanteau, and laser, in ways that seemed, only at first, a bit to the side of working; a few words re-tensed or combined to function more usefully, such as beyonding or democracy-under-capitalism. None of that, maybe, is a big deal. But discerning habits as I went along felt like an unanticipated gift of new intimacies unfolding between us. Once I discerned habits I usually worked to uphold them. One exception concerns meticulous guidance in the copyediting away from subtly ableist language. I thought that Lauren would have welcomed, for example, being nudged toward alternatives to “see” as a way to convey recognize, understand, or notice. I now scrutinize my own writing accordingly, too.
That guidance is one of countless labors of editing, design, consultation, and love that went into the production of Inconvenience. Thank you Susan Albury, Andrea Klinger, Aimee Harrison, Scott Smiley, Laurie Shannon, Katie Stewart, and Courtney Berger.
As for the book itself, while I told you that I wouldn’t describe what it’s about, I leave you with Lauren’s summary at the end of the preface. I know it will grab you:
Looking at sex, democracy, and the desire for life in a better world than the one that exists, the entire book tries narrating from the granular ordinary ways to lose, unlearn, and loosen the objects and structures that otherwise seem intractable. How not to reproduce the embedded violence of the unequal ordinary? People say, “You got this!” “We can do this!” But it’s more like, “Once you let in the deaths, all that follows is life.” A thing to be used.
Penny M. Von Eschen is William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of American Studies and Professor of History at the University of Virginia. In her new book, Paradoxes of Nostalgia, Von Eschen offers a sweeping examination of the cold war’s afterlife and the lingering shadows it casts over geopolitics, journalism, and popular culture.
Your introduction discusses the many ramifications of the dissolution of the Soviet Union on American domestic politics, from the rise of family-values conservatism in the 1990s to the War on Terror to Trump’s appropriation of alt-right nationalism a few years ago. What do you think it was about the American experience of the cold war that created such a lasting impact on American society?
Cold war ideology and practices encouraged an American identity structured around an enemy and a deep sense of an existential threat to the American way of life. With the disappearance of the Soviet bogeyman, prominent politicians set about the construction of new enemies at home and abroad. Looking outward, academics, policymakers, and popular culture (think of Tom Clancy and Hollywood) turned to a clash of civilizations frame where Muslim peoples in particular were seen as constituting a threat to the “West.”
Looking inward, with declining standards of living for the middle class and accelerating inequality in the global economy, many Americans began turning on each other. The conservative rhetoric of “family values” had long been a staple of the New Right but escalated dramatically in the early 1990s. Now that the US government (really New Deal/Great Society liberalism) was no longer held as a superior model to the Soviet state, government itself became the enemy, pitted against the family in the minds of Pat Buchanan and leaders of the Christian right. Since the late 1940s, cold war attacks against “godless communism” mobilized an anti-communist consensus premised on the idea that the US was a Christian nation. Those key conservative tenets of the Reagan era, the Christian right and antigovernment ideology, accelerated after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The roots of a later convergence between American and Russian conservatives can be seen in the early nineties. With the Soviet enemy gone, “family values” conservatives scapegoated Black Americans, immigrants, and LGBTQ people, and discredited government as protecting the lives and livelihoods of these undeserving groups. Rebooting the cold war notion that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, anti-government Americans found new, if unexpected cultural bedfellows from right wing Russians.
And critically, the lasting impact of the cold war on American society lies in the decisions made—and the roads not taken—in the years surrounding the collapse of the Eastern bloc. Widespread calls for political openness, a serious reckoning with the cold war past and proposed reforms to address the social, economic, and environmental costs of cold war policies were largely ignored. Instead, US foreign policy was defined by the projection of unipolar military force and a doubling down on the extractive and ecologically destructive industries that had sustained cold war militarism.
The cold war is commonly understood to be a conflict between American capitalism and Russian communism. Does this obscure the nature of the conflict and its aftermath? What other forces affected the development of the post-cold war world order?
Indeed, that view distorts both the conflict and its aftermath, and in both cases conflates democracy and capitalism in a way that doesn’t hold up under serious scrutiny. Capitalism, the pursuit of profit, entailed control of global resources that was inherently undemocratic, leading to US overt and covert interventions in countries where the US access to resources was at stake. In terms of the conflict itself, the Reagan administration had justified its support of brutal right-wing dictatorships in Latin America, Asia, and Africa—one example of many is General Augusto Pinochet’s in Chile—arguing that supporting right–wing authoritarian governments was acceptable as long as they were anticommunist. Policymakers justified such anti-democratic policies by claiming that such dictatorships could be reformed from within, whereas left “totalitarian” governments could not.
After the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the eastern bloc, US policy makers began to justify interventions into sovereign nations in the name of “democracy.” But triumphalism’s conflation of capitalism and democracy helped justify radical deregulation of industry and banking, leading to the outsized influence of money in politics and severely undermining democratic institutions. There had been a genuinely utopian aspect to the cold war, with each side promoting universal values and claiming that its system could bring prosperity and happiness to its citizens and the world. After the collapse of the Eastern bloc, instead of viewing government as responsible for protecting the well-being of society, US state policies shifted to deregulation, privatization, and increased incarceration. As economic inequality increased, these shifts led to disinvestment in public infrastructure, underfunded public education, and media consolidation, making daily newspapers and independent media a vanishing resource. In the United States, politicians and journalists saw voter suppression as compatible with the idea of free elections. Economic inequality on a global scale set the stage for anti-democratic resentment in the United States and a global turn to the right. Cold war triumphalism fueled the hubris of American exceptionalism, free trade, and catastrophic wars in the Middle East. Before and after 9/11, anti-immigration policies fueled a politics of blame and xenophobia, distracting many Americans from examining the forces undergirding economic inequality.
You write that the vision of the cold war was and is constantly contested, both by prominent political figures but also by the public. How has one particular vision of this past come to be solidified?
The past is always being rewritten for the aims and perceived needs of the present, so in that sense, the history of the cold war has never solidified; but two dominant threads have profoundly shaped US politics. First, conservatives in the early 1990s declared that with global communism defeated, the “real cold war” has only begun. This time, the targets in what increasingly came to be viewed as a Manichean struggle, were government social programs, and in the right’s “culture wars,” all who did not fit the mold of a white, heteronormative Christian nation.
The afterlife of the cold war has shaped foreign policy, as well. Cold war triumphalist narratives—the idea that the United States “won” the cold war through military might, have shaped justifications for war from the earliest post-cold war interventions in Panama and Iraq, through the war on terror, and even to this day in Ukraine. Above all, this idea of US “victory” though military strength has elevated military responses over diplomatic solutions. This is starkly illustrated in responses to Russia’s criminal invasion of Ukraine. The western response has shifted from the immediate goal of defending Ukraine against the Russian invasion—a strategy where diplomacy could and should have been the centerpiece—to an expansion of war aims approaching the totalizing logic of the cold war.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine seems to bring this discussion out of the realm of memory. How do you see nostalgia for the cold war affecting responses to the invasion?
The war in Ukraine is very much a contest over memory. Putin seeks to mobilize an invented and mythologized history harkening back to sixteenth century Tsarist Russia. He sees Ukraine as an integral part of Russia. Putin rewrites history, asserting a Russian, not a Soviet past. In his view, the Soviet Union betrayed Russia’s legitimate imperial claims by giving too much autonomy to Ukraine and other regions. Needless to say, his self-serving view of the past is perverse and contradictory. Putin attempts to court African countries and the global south more broadly, by claiming the legacy of past Soviet support of anti-colonial and independence movements. At the same time, he rejects the egalitarian values that these movements stood for.
It seems like, even before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, tensions between Russia and NATO have been rising over the past decade. What was your experience like in writing this book during these developments?
The experience? Ongoing distress. It was claims about NATO expansion along with the US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, that prompted my investigations into triumphalism and nostalgia. Like the justifications for the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, calls for the expansion of NATO relied on distortions of history; both exemplify the dangers of US triumphalism. At every juncture during the expansion of NATO, diplomatic alternatives were available. When George H. W. Bush and Gorbachev declared the end of the cold war in 1989, Gorbachev, like US Secretary of State James Baker, believed that there had been a clear understanding that NATO, viewed by both sides as a cold war creation, would not expand, and certainly not to Russia’s borders.
The expansion of NATO epitomizes the rejection of a vision of a multipolar demilitarized world in favor of the assertion of US unipolar power. Another path not taken was a burgeoning environmentalism. Instead, US policymakers doubled down on support for fossil fuel industries. In the very same week Germans dismantled the Berlin Wall, the US denounced a global climate agreement by attacking climate scientists. As US policymakers pursued control of oil reserves in the former Soviet sphere, they sought to weaken the United Nations and other multi-national organizations. Indeed, NATO expansion and undermining the UN constituted the two foreign policy pillars of the Republican Party’s Contract With America in 1994. In the victor’s history version of the cold war, diplomacy was suspect by definition, portrayed as appeasement and weakness, leaving militarism as the only solution to conflict.
In 2014, when tensions over Ukraine led to the collapse of the Obama administration’s 2009 reset with Russia, Jack Matlock Jr., the last US Ambassador to the Soviet Union, drew an analogy between the active American role in organizing street protests in Kiev, and the hypothetical prospect of foreigners leading Occupy Wall Street movements. His point was that American policy, in expanding NATO and placing military bases near its borders, had needlessly provoked potential retaliation from Russia. None of this, of course, justifies Putin’s brutal invasion of a sovereign country. But if the United States is to have any constructive role in ending rather than expanding the conflict, it would have to begin with an honest account of its post-1989 role in the region. In addition to the tragedy for the people of Ukraine and Russia, the war highlights the utter failure of the post-cold war global order to wean itself off oil, and the failure to create strong multilateral institutions that could meaningfully address global climate, health and inequality.