Time Out of Joint: The Queer and Customary in Africa

GLQ_26_3_prIn “Time Out of Joint: The Queer and Customary in Africa,” a new issue of GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, contributors investigate how queer theory might change when African texts, experiences, and concepts are placed front and center rather than treated as examples or case studies.

The authors consider what the concept of customary does to the dialectic of tradition and modernity that is at the heart of much Africanist scholarship. Can queer theoretical texts travel beyond the North Atlantic world that made them without reproducing imperial ways of knowing? Can there be an African queer theory? In posing these questions, the authors encourage readers to consider queerness from and within Africa, exploring what African customary forms of gender and sexuality might do to the antinormativity of queer theory and how presumptions within Euro-American queer scholarship contribute to Afro-pessimist or Afro-optimist scholarship.

The issue’s introduction by editors Kirk Fiereck, Neville Hoad, and Danai S. Mupotsa is free to read online. Keguro Macharia’s article “belated: interruption,” which considers belatedness in relation to the encounter between queer and Africa, is free as well through the end of September.

Learn more about GLQ or purchase “Time Out of Joint” here.

Spring Awards

We’d like to celebrate our many authors who have earned various awards and honors for their books this spring. Congratulations!

Suzanne Preston Blier’s book Picasso’s Demoiselles has won the Robert Motherwell Book Award from the Dedalus Foundation and was also selected as a finalist for the PROSE Awards from the Association of American Publishers.

Nina Sun Eidsheim’s book The Race of Sound was selected as a finalist for the Big Other Book Award for Nonfiction from Big Other magazine.

Sasha Su-Ling Welland’s book Experimental Beijing has won the Joseph Levenson Book Prize (Post-1900) from the Association for Asian Studies (AAS).

Juno Salazar Parreñas’s book Decolonizing Extinction has received an honorable mention for the Harry J. Benda Prize from the Southeast Asia Council of the Association for Asian Studies (SEAC/AAS).

Renisa Mawani’s book Across Oceans of Law has won the AAAS History Book Award from the Association for Asian American Studies (AAAS).

The following books were selected as finalists for the Lambda Literary Awards from the Lambda Literary Foundation: Beside You in Time by Elizabeth Freeman, Bloodflowers by W. Ian Bourland, Honeypot by E. Patrick Johnson, Queering Black Atlantic Religions by Roberto Strongman, and Trans Exploits by Jian Neo Chen.

Kathleen M. Millar’s book Reclaiming the Discarded was selected as a finalist for the SEA Book Prize from the Society for Economic Anthropology (SEA).

Matt Brim’s book Poor Queer Studies was selected as a finalist for the O.L. Davis, Jr. Outstanding Book Award from the American Association for Teaching and Curriculum.

Elspeth H. Brown’s book Work! was selected as a finalist for the Mary Jurich Nickliss Prize in US Women’s and/or Gender History from the Organization of American Historians (OAH).

Aren Z. Aizura’s book Mobile Subjects has won the Sylvia Rivera Award in Transgender Studies from the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies (CLAGS).

Noémi Tousignant’s book Edges of Exposure has won the Ludwik Fleck Prize from the Society for Social Studies of Science (4S).

Sara Ann Wylie’s book Fractivism has won the Rachel Carson Prize from the Society for Social Studies of Science (4S).

Esther Gabara’s book Pop América, 1965–1975 has received an honorable mention for the Alfred H. Barr Jr. Award from the College Art Association (CAA).

We also congratulate our own Design Manager Amy Ruth Buchanan. She was honored by the Association of University Presses for her design of Susan Laxton’s book Surrealism at Play

Q&A with Harriet Evans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Exchange, recognition and agency

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

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

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

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

Policing, Justice, and the Radical Imagination

rhrPolicing, Justice, and the Radical Imagination,” a new issue of Radical History Review, is now available free online through the end of September.

The issue, edited by Amy Chazkel, Monica Kim, and A. Naomi Paik, helps us imagine a world without police by examining historical cases in which people resolved social problems and maintained social peace through means other than relying on formal institutions of law enforcement. Contributors consider what new relationships and ways of dealing with violence and harm might emerge when we focus our gaze on those specific historical moments when people chose to carve out communal relations that operated beyond the policing function of the state.

Several articles from RHR‘s archive that address policing are also freely available through the end of September—see the full list on RHR‘s blog The Abusable Past.

Start reading “Policing, Justice, and the Radical Imagination” here. To subscribe to Radical History Review or purchase an issue, visit dukeupress.edu/rhr.

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.

Political Protests and Movements of Resistance Syllabus

politicalprotestsOur syllabi series highlights articles, books, and journal issues that encourage thoughtful discussion of today’s most pressing issues. The Political Protests and Movements of Resistance Syllabus, new today, lists titles that tackle topics of political protest, resistance, and activism. Subjects include transnational social movements, spatial reclamation, student occupation, protest literature, and more.

All journal articles and issues in this syllabus are freely available online until August 31, 2020. The books in this syllabus can be purchased from your local independent bookseller, from online booksellers, and at dukeupress.edu.

Start reading the Political Protests and Movements of Resistance Syllabus, or explore our full list of syllabi, many with free journals content.

Health policy experts on the inequities, politics, & lessons of COVID-19

Seventeen health policy experts provide insight into the COVID-19 pandemic in a new series of articles published by the Journal of Health Politics, Policy and Law, available free online for three months.

The authors, focusing primarily on the United States, explore topics such as COVID-19’s disproportionate impact on people of color and how the US can reduce, rather than exacerbate, social and health inequities in future rapid response.

They outline the conditions of political communication that led to divergence along party lines and suggest social interventions to help us recover, such as universal health insurance, paid sick leave, tax reform, and investments in parental leave.

Explore the full list of articles here, all available as pre-publication manuscripts.

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.

Indigenous Narratives of Territory and Creation: Hemispheric Perspectives

The newest issue of English Language Notes, “Indigenous Narratives of Territory and Creation: Hemispheric Perspectives,” edited by Leila Gómez, is now available.

Indigenous activism in the Americas has long focused on the symbolic reclamation of land. Drawing on interdisciplinary perspectives, contributors to this issue explore narratives of territory and origin that provide a foundation for this political practice. They study Indigenous-language stories from displaced communities, analyzing the meaning and power of these narratives in the context of diaspora and the struggle for land.

Essays address topics including territorial struggle and environmentalism, Indigenous resistance to neoliberal policies of land dispossession, and alliances between academic and Indigenous knowledges and activisms.

Browse the table of contents and read the introduction, freely available.