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What To Do with Bruno Latour?

February 28, 2012

Theory Mondays: Alondra Nelson on Reassembling the Social


For IRWAG’s first Theory Monday of 2012, several faculty members and graduate students gathered for a discussion of Bruno Latour’s 2007 book Reassembling the Social.  After an introduction to Latour’s careerfrom his work in Cote d’Ivoire to his influential scholarship on the sociology of scienceProfessor Alondra Nelson asked the question that brought us all together in the first place: What, if anything, does Latour have to offer feminist and sexuality studies?  Should feminism take Latour’s work as an object of study, or could Reassembling the Social be used as a recognizably feminist method? 

Latour’s book is motivated by his sense that the “social” as a category of analysis has lost most of its meaning, that it has become a standard but ultimately useless answer to many of the questions posed by social scientists and humanists.  To say that something is “socially constructed” conceals the mysteries of the social’s heterogeneous practices and negotiations.   For the social is neither a static thing nor a place you can visit.  It is a process of associations amongst actors. 

As Professor Nelson, Professor Lila Abu-Lughod, Sonali Thakkar, and others pointed out, faced with Latour’s desire to deconstruct and reassemble the social, our reaction may be understandably wary.  The social has served as an important category for feminists and queer theorists, who have often been interested in peeking behind the curtain of “social norms.”  But Latour’s point is that by invoking the social only to pull it aside in search of something else we lose an important opportunity for analysis.  Forget about the man behind the curtain for a moment, in other words.  The curtain deserves our attention.

Turning Reconstructing the Social into a manual for research can be difficult, Professor Nelson noted, but she finds it indispensible as a provocation or a reminder that we should never use the term “social” without clarification—without understanding the social as always contested.  In light of Latour’s influence, we must wonder what this means for our common, interdisciplinary language and its institutions. Professor Abu-Lughod half-jokingly wondered, do we need to rename the Center for the Critical Analysis of Social Difference?  What would we call it? 

- Jamie Parra

Dancer's Food, Academic's Jacket: Alice Sheppard

February 10, 2012

Alice Sheppard joked, during the question-and-answer period after her lecture/performance, that when she packs her bags for events like this one, she has to remember to bring her dancer's clothes, dancer's food, academic’s printer, academic's jacket.  The audience laughed, and so did she, but of course it's not really a joke: Alice is both a dancer and an academic, and she shared work of both types on February 9th in the James Room at Barnard Hall, sponsored by the Future of Disabilities Studies and the Center for the Critical Analysis of Social Difference.

Sheppard, who has also been a musician and a professor of medieval literature, came to dance late in life, in response to a dare from disabled dancer Homer Avila.  She made her professional debut in New York with infinity Dance Theatre, and joined the AXIS Dance Company in 2006.  

She spoke at Barnard about the body, her own body, and embodiment.  She spoke about the difference between “showing spine” and “having backbone,” about Michelle Bachman’s “titanium spine,” and about her own relation to her titanium chair as an almost literal extension of her body.

At one point, she asked the audience to imagine themselves – in their own, current bodies, as they were – in a wheelchair.  She laughed when everyone sat up a little straighter, and told them that those wheelies they’d all just yanked their arms back to perform would have spilled them backwards onto the floor.  She asked everyone, instead of pushing, to pull – and to feel the connection of chair to sitz bones to spine, and out through the top of the head to space.  She asked the audience not to imagine being disabled, but to imagine being more aware of the spine, and the pull of force it creates to make movement, and its titanium potential to move embodied through the world.

Sheppard mentioned at one point the silencing effect of praise – of people who have no experience with disability praising a person in a wheelchair for her “bravery” or as an “inspiration,” just for her ability to move through the world.  Professor Chris Baswell, during his response after Sheppard’s presentation, mentioned wryly that he himself rarely gets such praise anymore, and wondered if perhaps some of those comments were due to Sheppard’s youth, or beauty, or gender.  (When he was younger and did get such praise, he noted, he was sometimes mistaken for a woman.)

The question-and-answer period was particularly engaging.  Sheppard seemed the most relaxed and excited when asked questions about her physicality – dancing and the preparation for and technicalities of it.  “Does it hurt to get down on the floor like that?” someone asked her.  After a long pause (she let them spin out unselfconsciously before answering many of the audience's questions), she replied, “You're not supposed to say yes to that question,” and then added: “You have to learn how to fall.”

Sheppard performed a short dance piece after her talk, a work in progress not yet set to music, but narrated by Baswell for the sake of a more complete accessibility.  “She moves toward you,” he said; “the chair dances without her for a moment.”  Suddenly excited: “She is up on her casters!”  And as the dance ended: “Hands on knees, she sits still; breathes.”

- Jessica Lilien

"Counting His Bastards and Prostitutes": Davarian Baldwin and the Sociological Imagination

February 7, 2012


On December 7, the IRWAG conference room hosted a riveting discussion centered on W.E.B. Du Bois and touching on questions of sociology, intellectual history, and gender politics. Entitled “Counting His Bastards and Prostitutes: W.E.B. Du Bois, the Chicago School, and the Racial Routes of the Sociological Imagination,” Davarian Baldwin’s lecture provided an invaluable starting-point from which a rich conversation emerged.

Baldwin, the Paul E. Raether Distinguished Professor of American Studies at Trinity College, began by articulating a revised framework for considering the roles of both anti-black racism and sexism at the origins of American sociological traditions. Providing a reading of Du Bois’s momentous 1899 study The Philadelphia Negro that highlighted Du Bois’s debt to female reform figures such as Jane Addams, Florence Kelley, and Ida B. Wells, Baldwin noted that the work of Du Bois and his female predecessors was forcefully excluded from the burgeoning field of academic sociology. “The Negro Problem was central to mapping out visions of American sociology,” Baldwin asserted. “And yet, Du Bois’s text, the landmark work of urban sociology in the United States, was never reviewed by the American Association of Sociology.” Du Bois was brought to the University of Pennsylvania to study Philadelphia’s influx of black migrants, but the conclusions he reached, Baldwin contended, often worked against the material interests of his white patrons.

If Du Bois presented a problem for dominant sociological currents in his blistering critique of structural racism, the women whose influence can be seen in his text were likewise inadmissible to the sociological canon. Placing the University of Chicago at the epicenter of the development of social sciences in the U.S., Baldwin made clear that Chicago School academics like Robert Park explicitly presented the new discipline as antagonistic to the work of Addams, Kelley, Wells and other figures. “Park sought to move beyond what he thought of as do-gooder reformers and replace their version of sociology with a rigorous empiricism based on observation and facts,” Baldwin argued. What Park and his colleagues offered was a masculinist vision of intellectual life, one which insistently wrote women (and black men) out of the sociological mainstream.

Taking pains to elaborate the gendered dimensions of this early vision of American sociology, Baldwin simultaneously noted the white supremacist dynamics at the heart of the academic movement. Through an extended engagement with Park, Baldwin detailed his assertion that “Chicago School sociology was an ivory tower variant of broader societal Old South nostalgia.” The precise ways in which the plantation model played out in the academy provides an intriguing testimony to the intertwining of race and gender formations at this pivotal moment for the discipline. In his descriptions of the hierarchical racial “temperaments” that replaced a strictly biological notion of race in American sociology, Baldwin noted that “the Negro was considered the lady among races, attracted to music and bright colors.”

Rather than conclude with this sort of hegemonic sociological imaginary, Baldwin closed his talk by emphasizing black contestations of Chicago School sociological models. Foregrounding the work of E. Franklin Frazier, in addition to St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton’s Black Metropolis, Baldwin called attention to the competing visions of sociology which took shape in the context of urban black radical organizing work throughout the 1930’s. Upon opening up the floor for discussion, Baldwin took questions on issues ranging from models of colonial citizenship to the presence of fictions at the edges of sociological possibility. The rich conversation which followed bore witness to the level of interest Baldwin’s talk had piqued among his audience – interest that would linger long after the event’s formal conclusion. 

--Kaveh Landsverk

Creating Dangerously: A Conversation with Edwidge Danticat

February 5, 2012


On October 21, 2011, writer Edwidge Danticat spoke at the Africana Studies Program's Distinguished Alumnae Series about her book Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work, as well as her time as a student at Barnard.  Danticat, a Haitian immigrant to the U.S., proposed the power of reading and writing as dangerous forms of resistance, stressing the idea that every act of creation is a risk.  To create dangerously then, means also to create fearlessly, requiring the search for truth despite powers that may oppose it (such as oppressive regimes).  Danticat said that storytelling gives strength to both the teller and the audience, and thus artists often create for something larger than themselves.  After reading a passage about an immigrant mother who searches for a way to tell a story to her child, she noted that her best writing teachers were the storytellers of her childhood in Haiti and Brooklyn, many of whom were illiterate.

Danticat's insights reminded me of the political nature of both writing and reading.  It made me curious as to what many of the authors of the books and articles I read in my gender studies courses hope to achieve in their writing.  Is it greater consciousness for themselves and their readers?  Do they hope to have some kind of concrete effect on the way things function (or does an increased awareness lead to change in and of itself)?  Danticat's comment about the illiterate storytellers who influenced her also made me wonder about whose stories/viewpoints can be heard and spoken and whose are left out or silenced.  I think this question is particularly relevant in any discussion about Western feminism and “Third World women.”  While writers like Chondra Mohanty and Uma Narayan stress the importance of understanding “local” contexts, one must ask through what channels we can receive this contextual information (i.e. whose voices are allowed to travel across national, cultural, or linguistic borders), especially if some of the women we are talking about cannot read or write.  This discussion about who is heard and why they are heard is relevant not only in a global landscape, but also within our own nation.

--Renee Slajda

CCASD Keywords: Movements

October 11, 2011
by akn2110

On Wednesday, September 21, 2011, The Center for the Critical Analysis of Social Difference (CCASD) held its first event of the semester, continuing its series CCASD Keywords: Interdisciplinary Roundtable Conversations. This installment focused on the topic of "Movements." The event began with introductory remarks by Janet Jakobsen, Professor of Women Studies and Director of the Barnard Center for Research on Women, who highlighted how the CCASD series focuses on "the type of work our critical languages do." The panelists included Paul Scolieri, Assistant Professor of Dance at Barnard College; Dorian Warren, Assistant Professor of Political Science and the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA); and Lila Abu-Lughod, Joseph L. Buttenwieser Professor of Social Science and Director of CCASD.

Professor Scolieri reflected on dance as a site for embodying social change through identity and representation, and explored the dynamics between physical movements and social or political movements. He drew on examples of dance traditions that respond to social conflicts, such as the 16th-century dances of indigenous peoples wherein they reenacted the scene of their people's domination by European colonizers. Scolieri commented on how "within these choreographies there is a way of enacting resistance," memorializing the story of violence and encounter, while often also serving as a coping mechanism. Scolieri then turned his discussion to the way in which various forms of activism use dance to do what scholar Gene Sharp described as creating political "interference" through bodies. Scolieri illustrated his point with the example of women in Chile who reappropriated the national folk dance of the cueca by publicly performing a "cueca sola" to mark the absence of those disappeared under Pinochet's government. Scolieri concluded by underlining how dance can "express trauma and violence that is sometimes beyond discourse."

Professor Dorian Warren discussed what defines a social movement from a political science standpoint. He outlined the key elements of successful social movements, including clarity of purpose, relentless outreach, learning space, leadership, cellular structures (small networks of people connected to each other), and popular media. Warren then discussed the ongoing debate about the role of organizations in social movements, as to whether they constrain or sprout such movements.

Lila Abu-Lughod began her talk by explaining how she, "as an anthropologist, never felt comfortable using the term 'movement.'" She regards with suspicion the way that resistance movements were celebrated and romanticized in the academy. Abu-Lughod then cited examples of various movements in the Muslim world and analyzed the way in which their activities were portrayed by the groups themselves, as well as by the western media. She specifically discussed the recent uprising in Egypt and explored the relationship between revolutions and the movements that contribute to making them happen. In many cases, the previous activities of smaller movements are critical for laying the groundwork for the revolution that follows, as was the case with the worker movements in the Egyptian textile factories prior to the January uprising. However, she highlighted the way in which western media gave more attention to the role of Facebook and Google in the uprising, unfairly favoring "those who could present an English-language and branded 'Arab Spring.'"

A lively discussion followed the talks in which the panelists responded to each other's points and took questions from the audience. Professor Jakobsen reflected on the effects and problems of memorialization and the way in which it can determine "whose story is solidified into history." Professor Scolieri added that even choreography operates as a kind of historiography, as dance movements are passed on. Professor Warren, when asked about how the success of a movement is measured, concurred that while success is difficult to measure, it could be seen in whether the target change was achieved. From the audience, Professor Marianne Hirsch, of English and Comparative Literature, asked the panelists to consider how participation in social movements have changed in the digital age, where online petitions remove activism from the site of the physical body. Urvashi Vaid, of the Center for Gender and Sexuality Law, also raised questions about the relationship between emotion and social movements, reflecting on how the desire to belong often plays a part in movements. Overall it was a well-received and engaging event.

—Alicia Nadkarni

"Diagrammatics as Physiognomy": Alexander Weheliye and W.E.B. Du Bois

October 11, 2011
by kll2130

Alexander Weheliye, of Northwestern University, began his September 27 lecture entitled “Diagrammatics as Physiognomy: The Place of Graphics and Photography in W.E.B. Du Bois’s Sociological Work” by noting a critical lack. While scholars have made much of Du Bois’s use of photography in venues such as the 1900 Paris Exposition, his consistent employment of statistics and diagrams has received a relative paucity of critical attention. In focusing his analysis on the statistical charts prevalent throughout Du Bois’s 1899 tome The Philadelphia Negro, Weheliye sought to fill this scholarly void and, in so doing, enrich his audience’s understanding of Du Bois’s sociological intervention.

As Weheliye made clear, Du Bois utilized his extensive diagrammatic schema to historicize “the Negro” as a product of material conditions rather than biological or hereditary conceptions of race. More simply, Du Bois’s intervention was to position his “Philadelphia Negro” as an object of sociological inquiry as opposed to a natural problem to be explained away. As Weheliye put it, Du Bois’s charts ask readers to consider race “as a set of historical, social and economic relations; in other words, the color line.” Perhaps the most provocative aspect of Weheliye’s argument was his contention that Du Bois turns to statistical diagrams because he came to realize that photographs are formally incapable of portraying these relations. Weheliye asserted that while photography is bound to a representational logic depicting existing individuals and groups, statistics provide Du Bois with an opportunity to present his black subjects enmeshed in the historicized context of material power relations. Furthermore, statistical diagrams afford a means for Du Bois to contest contemporary discourses revolving around black extinction. In Weheliye’s words, “Du Bois secures Negro futurity by offering up a statistical archive.”

Of course, questions of gender played a crucial role in the sort of futurity Du Bois imagined. According to Weheliye, the diagrams in Philadelphia Negro pay rigorous critical attention to black women’s labor. Through linking white household structures and black family labor patterns in his charts, Du Bois consistently asserts the pivotal role black female domestic workers played in Philadelphia’s economy. While in Philadelphia Negro Du Bois does not textually articulate anything akin to his emphasis in future work on the labor of enslaved black women, the statistical charts provide a glimpse into his development of this line of thinking. As Weheliye contended, in diagrammatically indicating how white and black labor and wealth are mutually-constitutive, Du Bois implicitly centralizes black women within these intertwined economies and socialities.

It should be no surprise that a lively discussion followed Weheliye’s provocative lecture. Conversation began with IRWaG core faculty member Alondra Nelson asking Weheliye to what extent he considered his project uniquely Du Boisian as opposed to a tracking of broader post-Reconstruction anti-racist black intellectual trends. IRWaG Director Saidiya Hartman further inquired whether photography is formally incapable of capturing dynamic power relations and physiognomies or if the incapacity in fact resided in Du Bois’s conception of the photograph. The extensive discussion which followed these questions and Weheliye’s responses functioned as a neat illustration of the vibrant, dynamic social scene Weheliye found in Du Bois’s diagrammatic imagination.

—Kaveh Landsverk

Towards An Intellectual History of Black Women: Conference Report

June 21, 2011

Over the course of three days this April, a group of four scholars—Professor Farah J. Girffin of Columbia, Professor Mia Bay of Rutgers University, Associate Professor Martha Jones of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and Professor Barbara D. Savage of the University of Pennsylvania—convened the conference “Toward an Intellectual History of Black Women: An International Conference.”  This conference, as the web site announced, featured emerging work on black women's contributions to black thought, political mobilization, creative work, and gender theory.  Scholarly panels, roundtable discussions, and a keynote delivered by Professor Elizabeth Alexander focused on black women as intellectuals across a broad geography including Africa, the Caribbean, North and South America, and Europe.  Over a period of three days, we aimed to piece together a history of black women's thought and culture, mapping the distinctive concerns and historical forces that have shaped black women's ideas and intellectual activities.

The conference, which drew so much interest it sold out and had to be streamed live on the web, delivered on its promise of convening a truly diverse group of speakers. Graduate student and conference aid Brittney Taylor described the event after the final session: “it was an inspiring conference that highlighted the rarely recognized, but myriad spaces where black women have contributed and continue to contribute to the intellectual activities of our society through the panelists, the women who were presented on, and the attendees.”  Not only did the conference offer an opportunity for attendees to engage with work attempting to reclaim historically marginalized voices and topics, it also argued for the history of black women to be examined with the same rigor and seriousness afforded to other intellectual traditions.  Taylor and other conference goers, ranging from graduate students to academics to community members, all seemed to find something of interest.  With panel topics such as internationalism, aesthetics, the carceral state, and activist/intellectuals, the conference’s structure truly addressed a wide range of important issues in the lives and histories of black women.

Keynote speaker Elizabeth Alexander, examining what she termed a “pre-history of African American studies,” punctuated the conference’s goal of reassessing the emergence and legacy of black women’s history.  Alexander’s address, titled simply “A Prehistory of African-American Studies,” examined the work of black women scholars before the oft-noted institutional “birth” of African American studies in 1968.  As she notes, this originary tale relies on the recognition of universities and colleges, but that should not negate the work done outside of these institutions.     

Co-sponsored by multiple institutes and groups, including IRWaG, Toward an Intellectual History of Black Women represented a collective effort to bring together numerous voices to engage these various sets of questions.  In doing so, the conference set a profound precedent for not only the direction of scholarly treatment of black women’s history, but also, as Taylor elucidated for us, the spaces out of which these histories continue to emerge.         

—Nikolas Oscar Sparks