American Studies

New Books in July

We are now mid-way through the summer, and it’s not too late to stock up on books to add to your summer reading list. Check out these brand new titles coming out in July!

978-1-4780-0602-2Journeys through the Russian Empire is a lavishly illustrated volume that features hundreds of full-color images of Russian architecture and landscapes taken by early-twentieth-century photographer Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky and juxtaposed against those of contemporary photographer and scholar William Craft Brumfield. Together their images document Russia’s architectural, artistic, and cultural heritage. This one will look gorgeous on your coffee table!

The contributors to 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.

978-1-4780-0954-2Written for humanities graduate students and the faculty they study with, Katina L. Rogers’s Putting the Humanities PhD to Work grounds practical career advice in a nuanced consideration of how graduate training can lead to meaningful and significant careers beyond the academy.

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

In ¡Presente!, Diana Taylor offers the theory of presente as a model of standing by and with victims of structural and endemic violence by being physically and politically present in situations where it seems that nothing can be done.

978-1-4780-0945-0Drawing  on numerous interviews with artists, dealers, and curators, in Latinx Art Arlene Dávila explores how and why the contemporary international art market continues to overlook, devalue, and marginalize Latinx art and artists.

In The Wombs of Women, Françoise Vergès examines the scandal of white doctors forcefully terminating the pregnancies of thousands of poor women of color on the French island of Réunion during the 1960s, showing how they resulted from the legacies of the racialized violence of slavery and colonialism.

In Embodying Relation, Allison Moore examines the tensions between the local and the global in the art photography movement that blossomed in Bamako, Mali, in the 1990s, showing contemporary Malian photography to be a rich example of Western notions of art meeting traditional cultural precepts to forge new artistic forms, practices, and communities.

Never miss a new book! Sign up for our e-mail newsletters, and get notifications of new titles in your preferred disciplines as well as discounts and other news.

Revisiting Written in Stone, A Guest Post by Sanford Levinson

svl55-largeSanford Levinson holds the W. St. John Garwood and W. St. John Garwood, Jr. Centennial Chair in Law at the University of Texas Law School. In today’s guest post he writes about how his 1998 book Written in Stone continues to be relevant but in constant need of updating. We published a 20th Anniversary Edition in 2018. Through August 31, 2020 we are offering a 40% discount on the book with coupon code STONE40. We hope you’ll consider adding it to your reading list or syllabus.

This fall, for the third time, I will be teaching a “reading course” at the Harvard Law School on “Monuments and Memorialization.” Needless to say, among the readings is my Duke University Press book Written in Stone: Public Monuments in Changing Societies. Originally published in 1998, the Press published a second edition in 2018, with what turned out to be a new afterword of some 20,000 words, together with a new cover—a picture of Robert E. Lee’s statue being removed from Lee Circle in New Orleans—and a variety of other new photographs of controversial monuments. When the second edition was initially planned in 2016, the thought was that I would write a new afterword of about 5,000 words and that the new edition would be published in early 2018 (at the latest). As John Lennon famously sang, though, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” Among the things that happened between initial plan and publication in September 2015 was the massacre in Charleston, the 2016 March in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the ensuing taking down of many monuments, particularly in the states of the Confederacy. And, of course, at the present time the entire country is experiencing the aftermath of the murder by a Minneapolis police officer of George Floyd in Minneapolis, including the renewed attention on monuments (and building names) across the country. For example, Lake Calhoun, in Minneapolis, named after John C. Calhoun, the leading defender of the slavocracy in his long career in American politics, was renamed, though not without controversy, Bde Maka Ska, described by the Minneapolis Star Tribune as “its original Dakota name.

Written in StoneGiven events in Minneapolis; Richmond, Virginia; Bristol, England; and Brussels, Belgium, to name only and handful of recent locales where monuments have come down or places renamed, friends have encouraged me to prepare a third edition of Written in Stone. There is a good reason for not doing so at the present time: Such an edition, at least at this time, would have to be published in a loose-leaf version! As I prepare my syllabus for the course this fall, I find myself revising it almost literally every day, as new actions are undertaken and arguments presented. Just this week, toward the end of June, 2020, for example, it appears very likely that Washington and Lee University, in Lexington, Virginia, will drop Robert E. Lee’s name, though, no doubt, some students, both African-American and white, might at least wonder why the slaveowning George Washington deserves continued honor.

And Princeton University, after deciding in 2018 to retain Woodrow Wilson’s name for its eminent School of Public Affairs, announced that it would drop it. Princeton President Christopher L. Eisgruber wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post explaining his own change of mind. Eisgruber took note of “Wilson’s genuine achievements,” not to mention his centrality to the development of Princeton because of his service as one of Eisgruber’s predecessors. Wilson, therefore, “is a far different figure than John C. Calhoun or Robert E. Lee, people whose pro-slavery commitments defined their careers and who were sometimes honored for the purpose of supporting segregation or racism. Princeton honored Wilson without regard to, and perhaps even in ignorance of, his racism.” Eisgruber now believes that “ignorance” was “precisely the problem. Princeton is part of an America that has too often disregarded, ignored and turned a blind eye to racism, allowing the persistence of systems that discriminate against black people….”  There is nothing innocent about naming programs or buildings. “When a university names its public policy school for a political leader, it inevitably offers the honoree as a role model for its students. However grand some of Wilson’s achievements may have been, his racism disqualifies him from that role.” It is no longer possible to “disregard or ignore racism when deciding whom we hold up to our students as heroes or role models…. Our commitment to eliminate racism must be unequivocal, and that is why we removed the name of Princeton’s modern-day founder from its School of Public and International Affairs.”

Fortunately, Written in Stone, especially in its expanded second edition, pays extended attention to a number of analyses of policies about monuments that were prepared at a variety of universities, including Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Duke, and the University of Texas, as well as by a special committee appointed by the Mayor of New York. I also treat at length an absolutely remarkable speech by former New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu explaining his decision to remove a number of Confederate statues from the city’s public space, including the aforementioned one of Robert E. Lee.

At the present time, there are two central issues at the forefront of the controversy over monuments and memorialization. First, who exactly deserves the kind of public honor that is conveyed, say, by a statue in front of a major public building? In New York City, for example, a statue of Theodore Roosevelt in front of the New York Museum of Natural History that was explicitly considered by the Mayor’s Committee, which recommended against removing it, has now been slated for removal because it demeans African- and Native-Americans in placing them in a decidedly subordinate position to Roosevelt atop his horse. Many statues of Christopher Columbus are being removed, not to mention, of course, the myriad of statues honoring those who took up arms against the United States in 1861-65 and vigorously advocated the maintenance of white supremacy (including lynchings) thereafter. Some of these examples seem quite easy to resolve. Others, as with Roosevelt, Columbus, or Woodrow Wilson, appear considerably more difficult.

But, especially to a lawyer like myself, a second important issue involves the process by which decisions to remove (or maintain) statues or to rename buildings or, as in Minnesota, lakes, should be made. Even if one heartily approves, for example, of attempts to remove the slaveowning and anti-Native American Andrew Jackson’s statue from Lafayette Park, in Washington, one can, at the same time, be disturbed if that decision, in effect, is made by demonstrators (or, as some people might describe them, a “mob”). It is not simply that a structured process would give people an opportunity to make a variety of conflicting arguments, with the final decision made by bodies ranging from a city council to the voters in a local referendum; rather, it is almost certainly also the case that the losers who might lament the demotion of their own “heroes” from the public square might at least feel somewhat mollified if they felt they had a fair opportunity to make their arguments and they lost “fair and square.”

Q&A with Jane Bennett

Jane Bennett is Andrew W. Mellon Professor of the Humanities at Johns Hopkins University and author of Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, also published by Duke University Press.

In her newest book, Influx and Efflux: Writing Up with Walt Whitman, she explores the question of human agency amidst a world teeming with powerful nonhuman influences, drawing upon Whitman, Thoreau, Caillois, Whitehead, and other poetic writers to link a non-anthropocentric model of self to a democratic pluralism and a syntax and style of writing appropriate to the entangled world in which we live.

Your book Vibrant Matter introduced so many of us to new materialist theory—the idea that we as humans are deeply engaged with a more-than-human material world. How does Influx and Efflux relate to the questions you took up in that book?

Vibrant Matter honed in on vital forces overlooked by a picture of the world as divided naturally into passive-reactive objects and active-creative subjects, and it figured the human being as one lively element among others within the complex ecology of human-nonhuman assemblages. It trained a cyclops eye on the liveliness of the ordinary nonhuman entities and processes by which we live—think, for example, of the powerful lure of certain objects and possessions, or of the effects of pesticides or pharmaceuticals on health, or of how you follow the lead of your materials as you cook, draw, garden.

In highlighting a more-than-human vitality, and in pitching its analysis at the grand, even cosmic level of “matter,” Vibrant Matter also cast shade on some other important efforts. These efforts include those defending humanism as an indispensable tradition of inquiry in the face of attacks against it as economically useless; or those exposing structures of (gendered, racialized, capitalist) injustice; or those in search of a philosophy of human agency that accounts for both its assemblage-quality and its capacity to add something qualitatively new to the world.

Influx and Efflux speaks to these previously shaded efforts, especially that last one. It returns to the matter of human subjectivity. What models of self and efficacy make sense within a non-anthropocentric ontology? What kinds of “I” and “we” can act effectively, and live well, alongside so many other lively bodies and forces? How to affirm the strange bubbling up of “individuality” within a world of vibrant matter? To pursue these tasks, I use Walt Whitman’s American poetry as my guide. I seek help also from other poetic voices unafraid to name, ride, and “write up” whatever laudable possibilities circulate quietly, even in dark times.

The book’s title references Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” in which the ocean’s flowing in and out refers to everyday movements in which outside influences enter bodies, infuse and confuse their organization, and then exit, themselves having been transformed into something new. Why did you choose to think with the phrase “influx and efflux” for this book?

I am drawn to pictures of the world that emphasize the role of becoming while also thinking about how entities (knots and clots) form in the process. One of the ways to do the latter is to acknowledge the configuring power of metamorphosis—to include within one’s “structural analysis” the arrangements made by rhythms of self-alteration (“influx and efflux”). It is notable also that Whitman’s phrase describes a process operative both in the ocean and in the “I.” The self that emerges in Leaves of Grass is the product of a process that repeats across human-nonhuman borders:

Sea of stretch’d groundswells,
Sea breathing broad and convulsive breaths,
Sea of the brine of life and of unshovell’d yet always-ready graves,
Howler and scooper of storms, capricious and dainty sea,
I am integral with you, I too am of one phase and of all phases.
Partaker of influx and efflux I.

—Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself” (Section 22)

You write about Whitman’s approach to the power of sympathy as a physical force: he saw his poetry as generating a cloud of possibility for abolitionist thought by highlighting the linked value of every body-soul, rather than directly engaging with the racialized violence of slavery in a way that might make people defensive. What might poetry have to offer for us in the polarized and tense political moment we are in right now?

There are loud voices in American politics today avowing hate, racism, guns, patriarchy, xenophobia, greed, extreme inequality, and authoritarian rule. For them, sympathy and empathy are but expressions of weakness. They deny not only their entanglements with other people but also their profound susceptibility to nonhuman forces—preferring to believe that climate change or a viral pandemic is a hoax propagated on behalf of the weak.

Such views have faced a direct, forceful, and high-intensity counter-response—by a militantly pro-democratic opposition to entrenched structures of privilege and domination. I applaud the Left’s use of outrage, revulsion, and militancy in the effort to counter right-wing attitudes, judgments, and actions. Influx & Efflux, however, takes another tactic—it leans into other moods and it relies more upon indirect powers, including wonder at the vitality of matter and a protean attraction to the bodies and things one regularly encounters. It seeks to harness the power of wonder and those vague, ahuman affections (“sympathies”) on behalf of a decent, egalitarian, and ecological public culture. I think that neglect of the energy of protean sympathies has made its own contribution to the rise of the cruel, authoritarian, and earth-destroying politics we currently endure.

It’s not that positive moods and indirect influences should replace the critical orientations and more express forms of opposition practiced by the Left; they are offered instead as a political supplement to them. The rhetorical groove of the book is less calling out and more calling toward, but I don’t think that renders it depoliticized, especially if “political” denotes that which is capable of inducing societal transformation. There is a form of political efficacy that relies upon direct action and intense affect, but there is also a form proceeding by subtle influence and gentler sensitivities—by a force that is only apparently “weak.”

Your own doodles appear on the book’s cover as well as throughout the manuscript. How should readers approach these doodles? What is their relationship to the written text?

People exist and subsist on many planes or registers at once—the conceptual and the spatial, the shaped and the vague, the static and the vibratory, the everyday and the cosmic. Each plane intersects with the others in experience, such that “experience” is itself an overrich mix of impressions, tempos, feelings, and moods. In short, life is complicated. Or, as Paul Klee put it, “It is not easy to orient yourself in a whole that is made up of parts belonging to different dimensions.”

The doodles—as lines and shapes on their way to elsewhere (Klee says they are “out for a walk”)—express, perhaps, one of the many non-linguistic registers of experience. The peculiar experience of agency that comes to the fore while doodling—an “I” that is carried along by a creative process that would not be the same without me and yet carries on whether I am there or not—is one theme of the book. The doodles speak without words to what the process-forward philosophy of the book also tries to pronounce.

One of the questions you explore in your work is what it looks like to write in a non-anthropocentric way. How do you include the more-than-human in your writing practice?

Simply naming and describing the presence of the not-quite human in any given field of perception, conception, reception, or deception is a start. Work to undo the learned tendency to overlook those aspects of one’s encounters that are not apparently useful for pragmatic action. Another tactic is to pay close attention to the verbs you speak—do they insinuate that the humans on the scene have more power or control of the action than they really do? The book experiments with using “middle-voiced” verbs as a way to “write up” a multi-specied kind of agency. Even though the “middle voice” is not marked formally in English (as it is in classical Greek and Sanskrit), it is still present in certain ways of speaking. It designates performances undertaken within an ongoing field of activities, rather than decisions of subjects who enter a field either to do something (the active voice) or to be acted upon (the passive voice). For example, the verbs “to partake,” “to inaugurate,” “to inflect,” and “to attest to” express an efficacy that both receives and twists, an efficacy that no singlet could own.

One of your chapters takes up Thoreau’s attempt to filter the influence of humans out of his life, but maximize the influx of the not-quite-human sparks of the Wild. Is there anything Thoreau might offer for those of us who are spending this springtime physically isolated from other humans?

Yes, lots. Get outside, even around the block. Make good advantage of the official (coronavirus pandemic) directive to avoid people, to eschew anthropocentrism. Now you can notice the intensive swarms of otherwise insignificant things in your immediate vicinity. This practice of attention may slowly expand (even cosmic-ize!) your perspective. You too are, when all is said and done, a minuscule bundle of energies in a cosmic swirl. The news, social media, the internet, and your conventional frame of mind/body all focus relentlessly on the social, political, economic, human-historical dimensions of your existence. But your being is also elsewhere, in excess of those planes or dimensions. You are other-than-human and more than conventional too: you live via and are impressed by a virtual realm that is real even if not expressly overt. Inhabit that more fully.

Read the introduction to Influx and Efflux free online and save 30% when you use coupon code E20BNNTT.

New Books in June

Summer is just around the corner. As this new season begins, we’re releasing some exciting titles in history, art, anthropology, and more. Check out these brand new books arriving in June!

A Primer for Teaching Pacific Histories is a guide for college and high school teachers who are teaching Pacific histories for the first time or for experienced teachers who want to reinvigorate their courses. It can also serve those who are training future teachers to prepare their own syllabi, as well as teachers who want to incorporate Pacific histories into their world history courses.

In Disordering the Establishment, Lily Woodruff examines the development of artistic strategies of political resistance in France in the decades following World War II, showing how artists countered establishment ideology, challenged traditional art institutions, appealed to direct political engagement, and grappled with French intellectuals’ modeling of society.

Pointing out that presumptions of solidarity, antagonism, or incommensurability between Black and Native communities are insufficient to understand the relationships between both groups, the scholars, artists, and activists contributing to Otherwise Worlds investigate the complex relationships between settler colonialism and anti-Blackness to explore the political possibilities that emerge from such inquiries. This volume is edited by Tiffany Lethabo King, Jenell Navarro, and Andrea Smith.

In Trafficking, Hector Amaya examines how the dramatic escalation of drug violence in Mexico in 2008 transformed how people discussed violence and the rules of participation in the public sphere.

Sa’ed Atshan and Katharina Galor draw on ethnographic fieldwork and interviews in The Moral Triangle to explore the asymmetric relationships between Germans and Israeli and Palestinian immigrants in the context of official German policies, public discourse, and the impact of coming to terms with the past. You can watch Assistant Editor Sandra Korn interview Atshan and Galor here.

Never miss a new book! Sign up for our e-mail newsletters, and get notifications of new titles in your preferred disciplines as well as discounts and other news.

New Titles in Women’s and Gender Studies

We regret that in the ongoing efforts to mitigate the spread of the COVID-19 virus, we will be unable to meet with you during the Berkshire Conference of Women, Genders, and Sexualities, which has been cancelled. Check out the virtual conference to listen to pre-recorded plenaries.

We know that many of you look forward to stocking up on new books at special discounts at our conferences, so we are pleased to extend a 30% discount on all in-stock books and journal issues. Use coupon code BERKS20 to save 30% when ordering online. Journal subscriptions and society memberships don’t qualify for the 30% discount.

Check out some of the exciting titles we would have featured in our booth at the Berks. 

In I Never Left Home, poet and revolutionary Margaret Randall tells the moving, captivating, and astonishing story of her life, from her childhood in New York to joining the Sandanista movement in Nicaragua, from escaping political repression in Mexico to raising a family and teaching college. Watch a video of Margaret Randall discussing her memoir here.

In Second World, Second Sex, Kristen Ghodsee recuperates the lost history of feminist activism from the so-called Second World, showing how women from state socialist Bulgaria and socialist-leaning Zambia created networks and alliances that challenged American women’s leadership of the global women’s movement. Listen to an interview with Kristen Ghodsee here.

Jennifer C. Nash reframes black feminism’s engagement with intersectionality in Black Feminism Reimagined, contending that black feminists should let go of their possession and policing of the concept in order to better unleash black feminist theory’s visionary and world-making possibilities. Read an interview with Jennifer Nash here

Lynn M. Thomas constructs a transnational history of skin lighteners in South Africa and beyond in Beneath the Surface, theorizing skin and skin color as a site for antiracist struggle and lighteners as a technology of visibility that both challenges and entrenches racial and gender hierarchies. Watch an interview with Lynn Thomas on South African TV here.

From The Guiding Light to Passions, Elana Levine traces the history of daytime television soap operas as an innovative and highly gendered mass cultural form in Her Stories. Read an interview with Elana Levine in Jezebel here.

In Mafalda, Isabella Cosse examines the history, political commentary, and influence of the world-famous comic character Mafalda from her Argentine origins in 1964 to her global reach in the 1990s. Recently, the Argentinan goverment has been using Mafalda to educate citizens about wearing face masks during the pandemic. Read Cosse’s blog post on the campaign here.

The contributors to Spirit on the Move examine Pentecostalism’s appeal to black women worldwide and the ways it provides them with a source of community, access to power, and way to challenge social inequalities. This volume is edited by Judith Casselberry and Elizabeth A. Pritchard.

Ana María Reyes examines how the polarizing art of Beatriz González disrupted Cold War aesthetic discourses and the politics of class and modernization in 1960s Colombia in The Politics of Taste.

In Vexy Thing, Imani Perry recenters patriarchy to contemporary discussions of feminism through a social and literary analysis of cultural artifacts—ranging from nineteenth-century slavery court cases and historical vignettes to literature and contemporary art—from the Enlightenment to the present. Read an interview with Imani Perry here.

If you were hoping to connect with one of our editors about your book project at the Berks, please reach out to them by email. See our editors’ specialties and contact information here and our submissions guidelines here. We are now accepting submissions online!

Our journal issues in women’s and gender studies are also included in our 30%-off sale.

In “(En)gendering: Chinese Women’s Art in the Making,” new from positions, contributors—including artists, art historians, critics, and curators—consider how the work of contemporary women artists has generated new approaches to and perspectives on the Chinese art canon.

Radical Transnationalism: Reimagining Solidarities, Violence, Empires,” an issue of Meridians, looks at the expansive domains of transnational feminism, considering its relationship to different regions, historical periods, fields, and methodologies.

As you prepare for your fall classes, be they virtual or in-person, we invite you to check out our Feminist Politics and Women’s Rights syllabus and our Revisiting Queer Studies syllabus. Both feature journal articles that are freely available until September 30, 2020 as well as suggested books you might want to teach. 

Once again, we’re sorry to miss you in person but hope the 30% discount will make it possible for you to pick up some new books and journal issues. Use coupon BERKS20 at checkout.

Q&A with Alex Blanchette

Alex Blanchette is Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Environmental Studies at Tufts University and coeditor of How Nature Works: Rethinking Labor on a Troubled Planet. In his newest book, Porkopolis: American Animality, Standardized Life, and the Factory Farm, 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.

How did this project start? What first led you to study the industrialized agrarian town you call Dixon in the book, which residents refer to as one of “the red meat capital[s] of the world?”

The gist is that I wanted to live in what is arguably the most “industrialized” of American industrial meat towns. Porkopolis started as a doctoral dissertation in the mid-2000s. At that time, the area where I grew up was seeing (in retrospect, relatively modest) growth in confinement animal agriculture. One impetus for the research was to inhabit a possible future for my home region. Agribusiness corporations in Dixon birthed and killed about 7,000,000 hogs per year through the labor of some 5,000 people. They were amongst the most vertically integrated meat production facilities—meaning that they control and derive profit from every stage of the species’ life and death, from genetics facilities all the way to bone-rendering plants. And they purported to be generating the world’s most uniform animal at scale. These companies appeared to be expressing a teleology for the future of agricultural capitalism. They were claiming viable paths for the renewed industrialization of an organism that already bears the weight of some 150 years of accumulated industrial engineering. This opened up the question of what labor with these overworked animals tells us about the very old yet ongoing intensification of industrial processes in swathes of a supposedly ‘post-industrial’ United States. And it is how I ultimately arrived at the ethnographic method and terms of critique that Porkopolis develops. Rather than a typical meat exposé that paints these places and the people who work within them as morally deviant or exceptional from American norms, the book moves across the modern hog’s life and death to examine fledgling workplace struggles and the consequences of trying to find new value in an intensely-valued organism. It takes hog life as an icon of our exhausted late industrial present.

Many studies of industrial farming focus on the harm caused to either the animals or the workers. You argue that the factory creates a “human-pig entanglement” with wide-reaching implications. How are humans in the factory managed in relation to pigs’ needs?

Ethnographic research taught me that centering analytical focus on either “human” or “animal” well-being has become a tough distinction to maintain. The states of human labor and hog bodies are intertwined in these agribusinesses. And though they are presently conjoined to mobilize projects for industrial growth, it also presents the possibility of political interventions that do not see human and animal interests as antithetical.  Most simply, making uniform hogs at scale—for branding purposes, or for increasing line speeds at the kill stage—has come to require a lot of specialized work. Whether it is someone who exclusively works on intensifying hog instincts in artificial insemination, or someone who makes 10,000 repetitive cuts of the left shoulder every day, realizing more standardized hog bodies requires some people to gain unique, intimate, and even potentially radical knowledge of particular dimensions of swine. 

Yet, further capitalizing on animal bodies—while maintaining existing scales of concentration—has also led to attempts to remake human life and labor. For instance, managers felt compelled to intervene in employees’ living arrangements outside of work to reduce the risk of hog diseases from the slaughterhouse transferring across human bodies and infecting barns of pigs. Taken-for-granted forms of nuclear kinship and household-making practices were becoming threats in terms of their effects on pig proliferation. This led companies to enact forms of social distancing ideals to protect hog growth, well before this practice became a common term to protect human health in the wake of COVID-19. Conversely, the very physical composition of the hog, I would argue, is inseparable from the state of rural labor. Using pig genetics that are very fecund but also biophysically fragile necessitates a lot of work to care for and regularize piglet bodies. The sustenance of these capitalist pigs requires low-paid (yet knowledgeable) labor. I do not think we can easily separate racial projects to further cheapen labor today from how industrial animals physically appear on farms. A constellation of things—precarity-making squads such as ICE, discourses that frame everyone working on farms as “unskilled,” or outdated policy that makes it difficult for farmworkers to unionize—can be seen to be manifesting within the very diminished qualities of pigs’ muscle fibers.

Modern capitalism assures that every part of the pig is used to create over 1,000 product codes. What are the ethical implications of this for people who object to the factory farming system?

By the end of Porkopolis, one of the points that I emphasize is that we have paid insufficient attention to the ways that capitalist slaughter, for a very long time, has built its margins and profit by developing commodities that arch far beyond food. A factor that underlies the remarkably cheap American meat of today is all of the other non-meat products made from hog bodies. These range from pet food flavorings, to various kinds of adhesives and infrastructural materials, to fat converted into biodiesel, and to a series of biomedical drugs derived from animal organs. Even though this is not new—the early 20th century Chicago meatpackers said they used “everything but the squeal”—it remains an ongoing process as companies try to achieve growth by disassembling hogs in more precise and diverse ways, creating new economic claims on animal biology. 

This is often greeted as a neutral matter of economic rationality, or even as a laudable act of stewardship by limiting “waste.” Yet, efforts to find more “sustainable” ways to transform excess biological material into commodities also have the effect of sustaining this system of corralling and taking life, making society as a whole more dependent on these facilities. A consequence is that it has become difficult to go about one’s everyday activities without being in contact with processed hog particles in infrastructure and the built environment. Amidst discussions that exalt the market as a space where we can (and must!) make ethical choices, there have been parallel efforts to turn the conduct of our everyday lives into a minor subsidy to meat. I think that it is important to at least politicize these kinds of processes. Minimally, it would reveal how much science and knowledge is expended to develop this unending array of products—the sheer amount of human creativity diverted to maintain industrial animal growth.

Slaughterhouses have become hotspots for COVID-19 across the United States. Does your research on human-animal relations have anything to add to our current moment?

The moral, economic, and biophysical pressures being foisted onto people who work in slaughterhouses across the United States are unfathomable. Not only does Donald Trump’s invocation of the Defense Production Act mark an attempt to limit corporations’ legal liability for sickening workers. We even see governors going further to deflect moral culpability from agribusiness by making absurd racist claims that outbreaks across slaughterhouses result from the social lives of immigrants rather than cramped, refrigerated warehouses where 150 years of obsessive industrial refinement ensure that every square inch is dedicated to maximizing output and labor productivity. From workers being denied bathroom breaks on the line because these systems cannot “accommodate” the bladder, to companies compelled to include the cost of injuries in their profit model, the human body was a (largely ignored) problem of production for this system long before COVID-19 threatened to make meat less plentiful. One of the points of Porkopolis is that so-called efficiency itself has long been out of control on American meatpacking lines. Increased efficiency is synonymous with physical violence. Hogs’ bodies are standardized across their lifetimes through quasi-invasive labor to intensify line speeds via simplified repetitive motions at their death—leading to harmful and painful burdens on the tendons of workers as they make thousands of cuts.

 But this new moment has also started to expose the vulnerabilities of unending productivity, and we are witnessing things that were rare in the 2010s. There are protests in packinghouse parking lots, and calls for boycotts of meat from worker advocacy organizations. Children of people who work in slaughterhouses are coming together to refuse the idea that their parents should risk their lives for a livelihood—or for meat. Our analyses should try to follow the lead of these emerging voices, activists, and demands.  

So I will just make a narrow point for further context on why the use of the Defense Production Act for meat is so troubling. These models have evolved to the point where agribusinesses deploy (and exploit) labor to monopolize all known money in the porcine species. We might say that these companies are totalizing because they are fragile: they are trying to realize value under low profit margins (that they helped create). But they are also fragile because they are so totalizing: they require so many distinct labor processes to create new niches of profitable pork and animal products, and maintain their model. The sheer quantity of people working in modern slaughterhouses is a reflection of this totalization, as people carve animals into ever-finer sale-ready pieces in acts of labor that would have, a couple generations ago, been done by urban butchers in a less concentrated value chain. Loins injected with flavoring. Shoulders sliced thinly for higher-margin export. The working and reworking of skeletons. The issue is not only that slaughterhouses have become so large that single plants ship 5% of the national pork supply. It is also how the unending search for more value and value-added products packs more people into refrigerated rooms. Invoking the Defense Production Act naturalizes and renders indistinguishable a wide array of labor processes under the label “meat.” I have read little state guidance—let alone regulatory force—on a host of things that could conceivably create space in these plants: mandating reduced daily slaughter capacity, slowing disassembly line speeds, barring certain value-added tasks, or even just cutting up animals less. Some of those things are happening due to a sheer shortage of labor, but the question is whether this industry can sustain them indefinitely. 

We should be questioning whether meat itself is essential, in this moment or otherwise. I do not believe it is. But what the DPA and its oppression of workers appears to be about is an effort to sustain cheap meat—and, further, a refusal to grant us even a moment of pause to question the social value and racial logics of industrial “efficiency.”

What is something you hope readers will take away from this in-depth account of factory farming in the United States? What kind of future research do you hope it might inspire?

This is an extension of what I said above. Despite the fact that I have encountered few people who think that contemporary animal agribusiness is a socio-ecological ideal or even a good thing, I am always struck by the social resources and imagination that is being marshalled every day to keep these institutions in the world. It is almost paradoxical: their late industrial vulnerability seems to call out for and invite people to help them. When these animal assemblages near collapse due to their own scale and concentration—during this pandemic, but also in many other moments such as when a hurricane event buries a community in manure—we tend to instantly see even ostensible critics proposing new inventions, fixes, or schemes to make them more tolerable. If we keep performing these institutions as indispensable, then the cumulative ideological effect is to block our ability to believe that there really are other viable and desirable ways of doing things. I hope that Porkopolis is a contribution to ongoing conversations on experimenting with alternative ways of more equitably working, living, and eating—but also of learning to effectively insist on the need to let some things go. 

Read the introduction to Porkopolis free online. Save 50% off this and all in-stock titles with coupon SPRING50 until May 25, 2020.

Preview our Fall 2020 Catalog

F20-catalog-coverWe’re excited to unveil our Fall 2020 catalog. Check out some highlights from the season below and then download a copy for a closer read. These titles will be published between July 2020 and January 2021.

On the cover we’re featuring an image from artist Lorraine O’Grady’s Writing in Space, 1973–2019, which gathers her statements, scripts, and previously unpublished notes charting the development of her performance work and conceptual photography. The book is edited by Aruna D’Souza.

We lead off with Diary of a Detour by Lesley Stern, a memoir of living with cancer and the unexpected detours illness can produce. Poet Eileen Myles calls it “the most pleasurable cancer book imaginable.” It’s illustrated with delightful drawings of Stern’s chickens, who brought solace during her journey.

The Sense of BrownThe next pages feature a couple of queer studies superstars: Jack Halberstam and the late José Esteban Muñoz. Muñoz was working on The Sense of Brown when he died in 2013. Scholars Joshua Chambers-Letson and Tavia Nyong′o have edited his unfinished manuscript and added an introduction. The book is a treatise on brownness and being as well as Muñoz’s most direct address to queer Latinx studies. Jack Halberstam’s new book Wild Things offers an alternative history of sexuality by tracing the ways in which wildness has been associated with queerness and queer bodies throughout the twentieth century. It’s sure to please fans of his bestselling previous books Female Masculinity and The Queer Art of Failure. LGBTQ studies scholars will also want to check out Information Activism: A Queer History of Lesbian Media Technologies by Cait McKinney and Sexual Hegemony, in which Christopher Chitty traces the 500-year history of capitalist sexual relations by excavating the class dynamics of the bourgeoisie’s attempts to regulate homosexuality. And Left of Queer, an issue of Social Text edited by David L. Eng and Jasbir K. Puar, offers a detailed examination of queerness and its nearly three-decade academic and political mainstreaming and institutionalization.

Two books on the fall list will be helpful to recent PhDs as they navigate the job market and the complicated world of academe. Putting the Humanities PhD to Work by Katina L. Rogers grounds practical career advice in a nuanced consideration of the current landscape of the academic workforce. And we announce a fourth edition of The Academic’s Handbook. This edition of the popular guide is edited by Lori A. Flores and Jocelyn H. Olcott and is completely revised and expanded. Over fifty contributors from a wide range of disciplines and backgrounds offer practical advice for academics at every career stage, whether they are first entering the job market or negotiating post-tenure challenges of accepting leadership and administrative roles.

How to Go Mad without Losing Your MindBlack studies continues to be a strong part of our list. This winter we publish a new book by Katherine McKittrick. In Dear Science and Other Stories she presents a creative and rigorous study of black and anticolonial methodologies, exploring how narratives of imprecision and relationality interrupt knowledge systems that seek to observe, index, know, and discipline blackness. Dear Science is the first book in the new Errantries series, edited by McKittrick, Simone Browne, and Deborah Cowen. In Sentient Flesh R. A. Judy offers an extended meditation on questions of blackness, the human, epistemology, and the historical ways in which the black being is understood. And we’re also looking forward to La Marr Jurelle Bruce’s How to Go Mad without Losing Your Mind, an urgent provocation and poignant meditation on madness in black radical art.

Latinx ArtFall brings some great new art and art history titles, including Latinx Art by Arlene Dávila, who draws on numerous interviews with artists, dealers, and curators to provide an inside and critical look of the global contemporary art market. Looking at Latinx aesthetics from a popular culture perspective, Jillian Hernandez’s Aesthetics of Excess analyzes the personal clothing, makeup, and hairstyles of working-class Black and Latina girl to show how cultural discourses of aesthetic value racialize the bodies of women and girls of color. And in ¡Presente!, Diana Taylor offers the theory of presente as a model of standing by and with victims of structural and endemic violence by being physically and politically present in situations where it seems that nothing can be done. In Liquor Store Theater, Maya Stovall uses her conceptual art project—in which she danced near her Detroit neighborhood’s liquor stores as a way to start conversations with her neighbors—as a point of departure for understanding everyday life in Detroit and the possibilities for ethnographic research, art, and knowledge creation. In Beyond the World’s End, 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. And 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.

The Meaning of SoulIf you love music books, you’re in luck this fall. We offer Black Diamond Queens by Maureen Mahon, which documents the major contributions African American women vocalists such as Big Mama Thornton, Betty Davis, Tina Turner, and Merry Clayton have made to rock and roll throughout its history. And in The Meaning of Soul, Emily J. Lordi examines the work of Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone, Solange Knowles, Flying Lotus, and others in order to propose a new understanding of soul, showing how it came to signify a belief in black resilience enacted through musical practices.

We’re featuring a great group of Latin American studies titles this fall. In The Cuban Hustle, Sujatha Fernandes explores the many ways artists, activists, and ordinary Cubans have sought to hustle, survive, and express themselves in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse. We also welcome back returning authors Brett Gustafson with Bolivia in the Age of Gas and Joanne Rappaport with Cowards Don’t Make History.

For a Pragmatics of the UselessWe welcome back a number of other returning authors as well. In History 4° Celsius Ian Baucom continues his inquiries into the place of the Black Atlantic in the making of the modern and postmodern world. Catherine Besteman offers a sweeping theorization of the ways in which countries from the global North are reproducing South Africa’s apartheid system on a worldwide scale in her new book Militarized Global Apartheid. Erin Manning’s latest book For a Pragmatics of the Useless explores the links between neurotypicality, whiteness, and black life. Joseph Masco returns with The Future of Fallout, and Other Episodes in Radioactive World-Making, which examines the psychosocial, material, and affective consequences of the advent of nuclear weapons, the Cold War security state, climate change on contemporary US democratic practices and public imaginaries. And in The Wombs of Women, Françoise Vergès traces the long history of colonial state intervention in black women’s wombs during the slave trade and postslavery imperialism as well as in current birth control politics.

Fall also brings essential new journal issues in political science and political history. In “Fascism and Anti-Fascism since 1945,” an issue of Radical History Review, contributors show how fascist ideology continues to circulate and be opposed transnationally despite its supposed death at the end of World War II. And “The ACA at 10,” a two-part issue of the Journal of Health Politics, Policy and Law, marks the tenth anniversary of the Affordable Care Act with essays from prominent analysts of US health policy and politics that explore critical issues and themes in the ACA’s evolution.

There’s so much more! We invite you to download the entire catalog and check out all the great books and journals inside. And be sure to sign up for our email alerts so you’ll know when titles you’re interested in are available.

New Titles in Native and Indigenous Studies

We regret that in the ongoing efforts to mitigate the spread of the COVID-19 virus, we will be unable to meet with you during the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association conference, which has been cancelled. 

We know that many of you look forward to stocking up on new books at special discounts at our conferences, so we are pleased to extend a 50% discount on all in-stock books and journal issues through May 25. Use coupon code SPRING50 to save 50% when ordering online. Journal subscriptions and society memberships don’t qualify for the 50% discount.

Check out some of the great titles we would have featured in our booth at the NAISA conference.

The Black Shoals

In The Black Shoals: Offshore Formations of Black and Native Studies, Tiffany Lethabo King uses the shoal—an offshore geologic formation that is neither land nor sea—as metaphor, mode of critique, and methodology to theorize the encounter between Black studies and Native studies and its potential to create new epistemologies, forms of practice, and lines of critical inquiry.

Brenna Bhandar examines how the emergence of modern property law contributed to the formation of racial subjects in settler colonies in Colonial Lives of Property: Law, Land, and Racial Regimes of Ownership, showing how the colonial appropriation of indigenous lands depends upon ideologies of European racial superiority as well as legal narratives that equated civilized life with English concepts of property.

Robert Nichols reconstructs the concept of dispossession as a means of explaining how shifting configurations of law, property, race, and rights have functioned as modes of governance, both historically and in the present in Theft is Property!: Dispossession and Critical Theory.

Sacred Men

In Sacred Men: Law, Torture, and Retribution in Guam, Keith L. Camacho examines the U.S. Navy’s war crimes tribunal in Guam between 1944 and 1949 which tried members of Guam’s indigenous Chamorro community and Japanese nationals and its role in shaping contemporary domestic and international laws regarding combatants, jurisdiction, and property.

Kevin Fellezs traces the ways in which slack key guitar—a traditional Hawaiian musical style played on an acoustic steel-string guitar—is a site for the articulation of the complex histories, affiliations, and connotations of Hawaiian belonging in Listen but Don’t Ask Question: Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar across the TransPacific.

In a brilliant reinvention of the travel guide, Detours: A Decolonial Guide to Hawai’i, artists, activists, and scholars redirect readers from the fantasy of Hawai‘i as a tropical paradise and tourist destination toward a multilayered and holistic engagement with Hawai‘i’s culture, complex history, and the effects of colonialism.

Fictions of Land and Flesh

Maile Arvin analyzes the history of racialization of Polynesians within the context of settler colonialism across Polynesia, especially in Hawai‘i, arguing that a logic of possession through whiteness animates European and Hawaiian settler colonialism in Possessing Polynesians: The Science of Settler Colonial Whiteness in Hawai’i and Oceania.

In Fictions of Land and Flesh: Blackness, Indigeneity, Speculation, Mark Rifkin turns to black and indigenous speculative fiction to show how it offers a site to better understand black and indigenous political movements’ differing orientations in ways that can foster forms of mutual engagement and cooperation without subsuming them into a single political framework in the name of solidarity.

If you were hoping to connect with one of our editors about your book project at NAISA, please reach out to them by email. See our editors’ specialties and contact information here and our submissions guidelines here. We are now accepting submissions online!

Our journal issues in indigenous studies are also included in our 50%-off sale.

saq_119_2_coverGetting Back the Land: Anticolonial and Indigenous Strategies of Reclamation,” new from the South Atlantic Quarterly, offers diagnosis, critique, and radical visions for the future from some of the leading thinkers and experts on the tactics of the settler capitalist state and on the exercises of indigenous jurisdiction that counter them.

Contributors to “Mesoamerican Experiences of Illness and Healing,” an issue of Ethnohistory, address how Mesoamericans experienced bodily health in the wake of the sixteenth-century encounter with Europeans, which resulted in a tremendous loss of life and significantly impacted indigenous communities’ health and healing strategies.

Coming soon, “Indigenous Narratives of Territory and Creation: Hemispheric Perspectives,” an issue of English Language Notes, explores narratives of territory and origin that provide a foundation for the practice of symbolic reclamation of land. And our journal Hispanic American Historical Review, the preeminent journal in Latin American history, regularly publishes articles in indigenous studies.

Once again, we’re sorry to miss you in person but hope the 50% discount will make it possible for you to pick up some new books and journal issues. Use coupon SPRING50 at checkout and see the fine print on the sale here.

New Books in May

SPRING50_SaleApril20_Blog_ExtendedMay25

We’re pleased to announce that we’ve extended our Spring Sale through  May 25, which will allow you to pick up some new titles at 50% off this month. Use coupon SPRING50 to save.

In the beautifully illustrated, full-color book  AFRICOBRA, painter, photographer, and cofounder of Chicago arts collective 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.

Eric Zolov presents a revisionist account of Mexican domestic politics and international relations during the long 1960s in The Last Good Neighbor, tracing how Mexico emerged from the shadow of FDR’s Good Neighbor policy to become a geopolitical player in its own right during the Cold War. Look for a Q&A with Zolov on our blog later this month.

Through innovative readings of gay and lesbian films, Lee Wallace offers a provocative argument in Reattachment Theory that queer experiments in domesticity have profoundly reshaped heterosexual marriage to such an extent that now all marriage is gay marriage.

François Ewald’s The Birth of Solidarity—first published in French in 1986 and appearing here in English for the first time—is one of the most important historical and philosophical studies of the rise of the welfare state. This edition is edited by Melinda Cooper.

Louise Amoore examines how machine learning algorithms are transforming the ethics and politics of contemporary society in Cloud Ethics, proposing what she calls cloud ethics as a way to hold algorithms accountable by engaging with the social and technical conditions under which they emerge and operate.

In Re-enchanting Modernity, Mayfair Yang examines the reemergence of religious life and ritual after decades of enforced secularized life in the coastal city of Wenzhou, showing how local practices of popular religion, Daoism, and Buddhism influence economic development and the structure of civil society.

In Writing Anthropology, 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. This collection is edited by Carole McGranahan.

In Beijing from Below, Harriet Evans tells the history of the residents in Dashalar—now redeveloped and gentrified but once one of the Beijing’s poorest neighborhoods—to show how their experiences complicate official state narratives of Chinese economic development and progress. 

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 in Porkopolis. As the coronavirus tears through meatpacking plants around the U.S., Blanchette’s analysis is highly relevant. We’ll feature a Q&A with him on our blog later in the month.

Drawing on examples of things that happen to us but are nonetheless excluded from experience, as well as critical phenomenology, genealogy, and feminist theory, Cressida J. Heyes shows how and why experience has edges, and analyzes phenomena that press against them in Anaesthetics of Existence.

In The Government of Beans, Kregg Hetherington uses Paraguay’s turn of the twenty-first century adoption of massive soybean production and the regulatory attempts to mitigate the resulting environmental degradation as a way to show how the tools used to drive economic growth exacerbate the very environmental challenges they were designed to solve.

Never miss a new book! Sign up for our e-mail newsletters, and get notifications of new titles in your preferred disciplines as well as discounts and other news.

 

The Virus in Detroit: A May Day Post by Philip Conklin and Mark Jay

For May Day, here’s a guest post by Philip Conklin and Mark Jay, authors of the new book A People’s History of Detroit, which uses a class framework to tell a sweeping story of Detroit from 1913 to the present. 

Peoples History of DetroitSince the outbreak of the coronavirus, two notable strikes took place in the Detroit area. On March 17, bus drivers from the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 26 walked off the job in protest of fatal work conditions, shutting down Detroit’s public transit system. Among the workers’ complaints were unhygienic buses, lack of access to rest rooms, and forced close proximity to maskless passengers. Detroit is the poorest large city in the US, and due in part to the high cost of auto insurance more than a third of Detroiters can’t afford a car; the result is that, even as the pandemic ravages the city, hundreds of thousands of Detroiters are forced to rely on the underfunded, overcrowded bus system to get around. “This is death walking around here,” Roderick Nash, a city bus driver, said. “And nobody’s taking it serious.” The city government responded to the strike by suspending bus fare collection during the pandemic to limit passengers’ interaction with drivers, providing masks for passengers, and making more toilets (including porta potties) available for drivers. But days after the strike, drivers reported that conditions remained unsafe, with passengers still lacking access to masks. The government’s safety measures came too late for Jason Hargrove, a city driver who, just days after posting a video on social media complaining about safety conditions on his bus, died of coronavirus.

Two weeks after the bus drivers’ strike, 40 workers at an Amazon warehouse in nearby Romulus launched a protest action of their own. According to organizer Mario Crippen, Amazon treats their employees as “expendable.” “It’s a scary, scary place to be right now,” Crippen said. “There’s no hand sanitizer, no face masks given out. We’re limited on glove use. . . . They’re not worried about anyone’s safety, they’re worried about shipping out packages.” Amazon responded to a similar strike in Staten Island by firing the lead organizer and deriding him as “not smart.” Following a precedent set by Henry Ford a century ago, Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos has decided it’s simply better business to deploy harsh union-busting tactics than to acquiesce to the basic, humane demands of his workers.

amazon

As we argue in our A People’s History of Detroit, Detroit has long served as a metonym for the myths and fantasies of urban life in the United States, a sort of endlessly generative symbolic backdrop for our national unconscious—from the industrial miracles of the early 20th century, when Detroit was the manufacturing hub of the world and the birthplace of the manufacturing middle class, to the deindustrialized landscape of poverty, crime, and decay from the latter third of the 20th century up to the present—or, rather, the recent past. Now, Detroit is being hailed as the “greatest turnaround story in American history,” as billions of dollars of real estate investments transform the derelict cityscape into an urban playground of consumption, entertainment, and white-collar industry. In light of this “funhouse mirror” effect (to quote local celebrity journalist Charlie LeDuff), one might wonder, what can the Motor City tell us about the coronavirus epidemic? Indeed, Detroit has also magnified the problems of this virus, as Michigan falls just behind New York and New Jersey in COVID fatality rates, with Detroit tallying 35 deaths per day in early April.

Crises, however universal they appear, have unequal effects, which reflect the inequalities of society more broadly. Much like “natural” disasters, epidemiological ones hit hardest among the most vulnerable sections of the population. On the other hand, crises can also serve as catalysts for coordinated action on the part of these groups. Detroit autoworkers took advantage of the high demand for labor during World War II to jockey for better working conditions at the notoriously dangerous and enervating auto factories that had been converted to produce military equipment, striking despite a nationwide strike ban negotiated by union leaders and government officials behind the backs of the rank-and-file. In early 1944 Detroit workers averaged a dozen strikes per week, making the Motor City the leading center of workplace militancy. That year one workplace death, five amputations, and one hundred serious injuries occurred per day in Michigan.

The two recent labor actions in Detroit highlight a similar dynamic of workplace unsafety and worker power during crises—the essential difference now is the severity of generalized precarity among the working classes. Amazon warehouses are particularly illustrative of the current situation. The corporation has opened several massive “distribution centers” in the Detroit area in recent years. Employees inside these behemoths have denounced their “inhumane” working conditions, decrying the company’s union-busting techniques, as well as productivity standards that force people to stay on their feet all day long and leave no time for bathroom breaks. One undercover reporter described “employees collapsing at work, suffering panic attacks, pulling muscles and more.” Even in the midst of the pandemic, Amazon continues to hire workers for its Metro Detroit warehouses, despite workers’ insistence that the work they’re doing is not essential. “People are ordering the same stuff as usual,” one employee who took part in the strike explained. “If it was purely medical supplies and if Amazon actually stepped up and did that then I’d be much more willing to put myself [on what feels like] the front lines because we get stuff from everywhere, but that’s not what’s going on. . . . It’s people ordering the same cat litter, toys, ramen noodles.” According to another worker, “We aren’t heroes and we aren’t Red Cross workers—we are working people who pack and deliver goods. We’re working through a crisis not by choice but by necessity.”

Although most of the media coverage surrounding these and other workplace concerns have understandably focused on the particulars of the coronavirus, it’s important to bear in mind that deadly work conditions and worker “expendability” are nothing new in Detroit. If there is an abiding truth of the past 100 years of Detroit’s history, it is this: the city’s prosperity is built on its workers, and its hardships have likewise been borne by them. And a cursory glance through the annals of the modern Motor City shows the high cost even of this “prosperity,” which at every turn was wrenched from the living grasp of labor.

A 1973 report by the US Department of Labor found that significantly more people died each year inside U.S. factories than on the battlefields in Vietnam. The report “estimated 65 on-the-job deaths per day among auto workers, for a total of some 16,000 annually.” These deaths pale in comparison to the toll of industrial diseases, which the Public Health Service estimated took a remarkable 100,000 lives each year at this time. Foundry workers, machinists, and coarse-metal finishers were at significantly greater risk of fatal heart disease and lung disease than other workers. These were the jobs that Detroit’s black workers were primarily assigned, making the city’s black population particularly vulnerable to premature death—just as black workers and those living near polluting factories are particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus today.

In their struggle for safe and dignified living conditions, Detroit activists have not only come up against profiteering businesses, but also governments who have slashed public programs and the social safety net in favor of subsidies to these same businesses. For decades, organizers such as Maureen Taylor and Marian Kramer, have been leading the struggle for a universal living wage and adequate healthcare for impoverished Detroiters. If their basic demands had been met, non-essential workers would not have to risk their lives by getting on the bus each day to get to degrading, underpaid jobs throughout the metro area. But instead, tax breaks for big business and austerity for the masses have been the order of the day, compounding the devastation of the COVID-19 crisis.

To get a sense of the government’s priorities, consider the fact that in recent years, the Detroit government spent $547 per capita on police, whereas, throughout Michigan, per capita spending on food stamps was $22, and per capita spending on public health was less than $13.

Across the country, and the world, urban landscapes have been vacated to stop the spread of coronavirus, with images circulating online showing abandoned streets in usually bustling areas. The eerie emptiness of tourist traps and national landmarks is enough to spook even a nonbeliever. But ghostly landscapes are nothing new in Detroit. A New York Times writer recalled being “unnerved” by the emptiness of Detroit’s downtown back in 2001. “It felt like the beginning of a zombie apocalypse movie,” he wrote.

Starting in the 1940s, the “Big 3” auto companies fled Detroit precipitously, first to the suburbs, then increasingly to low-wage areas across the world. By the late 20th century, after decades of federal cutbacks and failed initiatives to lure investment to the Motor City, signs of this corporate abandonment were unmistakable. This dramatic situation led to a range of competing visions for the future Detroit.

One vision was to make the city a spectral theme park of decay. Camilo Jose Vergara, the famous Chilean photojournalist and author of American Ruins, made the following suggestion for Detroit in the April 1995 edition of the leading architectural magazine Metropolis: “As a tonic for our imagination, as a call for renewal, as a place within our national memory, a dozen city blocks of pre-Depression skyscrapers [should] be stabilized and left standing as ruins: an American Acropolis…Midwestern prairie would be allowed to invade from the north. Trees, vines, and wildflowers would grow on roofs and out of windows; goats and wild animals—squirrels, possum, bats, owls, ravens, snakes and insects—would live in the empty behemoths, adding their calls, hoots, and screeches to the smell of rotten leaves and animal droppings.” Coronavirus has given us a glimpse of this dramatic vision, as animals have ventured into urban spaces formerly occupied by humans.

Against this fetishization of decay, a second vision for Detroit’s future was proposed by the late activist Grace Lee Boggs, who saw in Detroit’s abandonment the seedbed of revolution. Boggs was inspired by the fact that, as Detroit hollowed out, activists were responding in a myriad of inspirational ways, by repurposing vacant buildings, creating communes, community schools, starting small businesses, and planting urban farms:

Detroit, which was once the symbol of miracles of industrialization and then became the symbol of the devastation of deindustrialization, is now the symbol of a new kind of society, of people who grow their own food, of people who try and help each other . . . When you look out and all you see is vacant lots, when all you see is devastation, when all you see—do you look at it as a curse, or do you look at it as a possibility, as having potential?

Boggs’s vision is a powerful one; but it was not only activists who saw potential in the city’s emptiness. “Detroit has bottomed out,” Dan Gilbert’s business partner John Linkner wrote in Forbes in 2012, “so now, there’s nothing but upside.” In recent years, investors have pounced. Gilbert has led the way, purchasing around 100 buildings in the city, making him the owner of more than half of downtown Detroit. Even after Gilbert wrangled hundreds of millions in government subsidies, at one point even threatening to move his company QuickenLoans to Cleveland, the corporate media has hailed Gilbert’s efforts. The Atlantic wondered if he was “Detroit’s New Superhero,” while the New York Times called him a “missionary.”

Repudiating Vargas’s American Acropolis, companies and wealthy individuals are buying up the quintessential subjects of ruin porn photography to enact their own vision. And there is no more dramatic ruin than Michigan Central Station, which, when it was built in 1913, was the tallest train station in the world. Closed in 1988, the abandoned train station has for decades been a mecca for urban spelunkers, the subject of myriad investigative reports, and a go-to backdrop for post-apocalyptic Hollywood action films. Now, in an almost too-perfect metaphor for the current remaking of Detroit, Ford plans to turn the train station and its surrounding area into a 1.2 million-square-foot “innovation hub” geared toward “mobility solutions that will shape the future of transportation.” According to a local columnist, “Ford’s act of faith in Detroit’s future with the enormous investment it will bring signals a new era.… From now on, redevelopment will occur as the natural and expected outcome in a city once again on the move.” Corporate investment is seen by those in power as the solution to Detroit’s abandonment. But even while these investments have failed to address the needs of poor Detroiters, the coronavirus epidemic has shown just how fragile this “solution” is even for those on the receiving end of its benefits.

A445,_Michigan_Central_Station,_Detroit,_Michigan,_United_States,_2016

As workers in Detroit, and around the world, protest against deadly workplace conditions, capitalists are using the crisis as an excuse to justify automation. This is nothing new. There is a long history of capitalists using worker protests against inhumane conditions as a pretext to invest in labor-saving technology, leading to unemployment and an increasingly hectic pace of work, as human labor is forced to adapt to “the inhuman speed of the machine.” Under the banner of public health, the current wave of automation is sure to reproduce these same effects, barring coordinated government intervention or a robust response from workers’ movements.

As people around the world attempt to maintain their work and their lives during the pandemic, they are forced to find creative ways to adapt to the limitations imposed by the crisis. While the ensuing innovations are an encouraging sign of our collective imagination and resilience, one can’t help but wonder whether these adaptations will serve to further the encroachment of labor-saving technology into new realms. To give just one example, academic workers are being forced to find ways to provide instruction virtually. This happens amidst an already prevalent trend toward online education; as the CEO of online learning platform Coursera has explained, “The current crisis will accelerate this trend.” The implications for the casualization of academic labor attendant to this trend are already being felt. At UC Santa Cruz, the pandemic hit in the middle of a months-long labor action by underpaid graduate student workers, and the move to a virtual learning and working environment has undermined their ability to withhold their labor and to disrupt the functioning of the university, which insists on “business as usual” during the pandemic.

What first appear as “innovations” and “creative adaptations” to the pandemic, take on another valence: they are forced accommodations to a “leaner”, more exploitative regime of capital accumulation. In effect, workers are being compelled to participate in their own devaluation. In the last half-century, political elites of deindustrialized American cities dealt with its growing “surplus population” and the recalcitrance of radical labor activists by hounding them with police and throwing them in prison. With millions more workers slated for redundancy as the coronavirus accelerates automation, and amidst unprecedented (and ever-increasing) ecological catastrophe which threatens humans and ecosystems across the globe, we shudder to think how the coming crises will be resolved.

If the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the fault lines of our unequal society, it’s no wonder that Detroit, which has long been a benchmark of the extremes of urban life in America, has been hit harder than most cities by the coronavirus, and also had already evinced many of the crisis tendencies wrought by this virus. Deadly working conditions, abandoned urban landscapes, structural unemployment due to automation, and extreme precarity—these have been the order of the day in Detroit for the better part of the last 100 years, coronavirus or not. Today in Detroit, a corporate revival is hailed as the answer to the city’s protracted decline, but this has proved tenuous for the Detroiters hardest hit by recent dispossessions. Even as the New York Times acknowledged that “there are no real assurances that gains will be spread democratically across the city, or that city planning and public resources will serve the needs of everyday Detroiters,” it found solace in the vague “hope . . . that private individuals will keep the greater good in mind.” If this hope seemed far-fetched before, in the midst of the devastations wrought by COVID-19 it now appears so remote as to appear ridiculous.

Leaving aside the fact that a primary source of pandemics lies in the ravages of the capitalist system, we can see that COVID-19 is an accelerator of global capital’s rampaging devastations. However, like other crises, it also presents an opportunity for workers to assert their power, for the animation of our political imaginary, and for a radical restructuring of society’s priorities. 52 years ago tomorrow, May 2, 1968, 4,000 workers walked off the job in protest of deadly conditions at the Dodge Main plant in Hamtramck. DRUM’s actions inspired dozens of other anti-capitalist unions to form across the city, and they all eventually coalesced into the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, an organization committed to challenging the power of the “parasitic, cannibalistic, vulturistic corporate elites who ruled Detroit. If the latter continue to have their way, crisis will remain the norm for most Detroiters.

Mark Jay is a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Philip Conklin is a PhD student in the History of Consciousness at the University of California, Santa Cruz. After attending the University of Michigan, they met while working as tutors in Detroit public schools. They lived and worked in Detroit for about seven years, during which time they founded a small literary magazine and continued their work with Detroit’s youth. A People’s History of Detroit is available for 50% off during our Spring Sale with coupon SPRING50.