Category Archives: Scholarship of note

Mass Incarceration, Higher Education and the Legitimacy of Violence

I’ve got a post over at Anthropoliteia in reaction to some provocative commentary by Jonathan Simon on the current UC Strike.  Here’s a tidbit:

What Jonathan’s work in Governing through Crime has shown, however, is that one of the few remaining–maybe the only remaining–domain in which the violence of governance seems legitimate to American voters is in the domain of crime control and punishment. It therefore has become the trope through which all American governance is filtered.

What we’re left with is, on the one hand, a massively inflated, impractical and unjust incarceration system and–importantly–on the the other hand, no way of conceiving any other legitimate form of governance.

This is not a question of corporate greed versus educational egalitarianism, or even good guys versus bad guys (as much as I’d like to hate on Mark Yudof along with everyone else), but of finding a way–literally–of justifying the very real kinds of violence involved in supporting education; of including higher education into the political calculus of life and death.

via Jonathan Simon’s provocative thoughts on the UC Strike « Anthropoliteia: the anthropology of policing.

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The Death of the University, Cultural Studies and Unicorns (not necessarily in that order)

I admit i came to this a bit late, but Michael Bérubé has written an article over at The Chronicle of Higher Education, entitled “What’s the Matter With Cultural Studies?”  that has caused quite a stir.

Now I hate to make light of the article, which I think is actually very good and extremely important, especially for those of us who are upset at what’s going on at the University of California right now–the article is extremely good at reminding us, not to get to Battlestar Galactica on y’all, that all of this has happened before.  Stuart Hall predicted Thatcherism before it happened, he reminds us, so looking back at how the academic left responded, what worked and what didn’t would probably be pretty helpful.  It probably would be most helpful, I think, for those of us state-side concerned with privatization of the university to read Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State, and Law and Order (1978) and then Audit cultures: anthropological studies in accountability, ethics and the academy (2000) and make sense of what did and did not happen over there in the UK in between.

Having said all that, Bérubé does have a knack for punchy sentences.  My three favorite:

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via unicorn wolf lazers fuck you
  1. “… you might as well be asking about the carbon footprint of unicorns.” A group of cultural studies graduate students at UC Davis have actually taken this one up.
  2. “False consciousness, after all, is what’s the matter with Kansas.” This is in reference to Thomas Frank’s book What the Matter With Kansas?
  3. “It’s the neoliberalism, stupid.”

What is neoliberalism and how can we tell?

I just came across a neat blog called Decasia: critique of academic culture run by Eli Thorkelson, a graduate student in the anthropology department at the University of Chicago.  I started to offer a response to his though-provoking post on neoliberalism in the academy when I realized that really I was running on so long that my thoughts should be a post of their own.

In essence, Eli is trying to work through how to ask questions about neoliberalism from an ethnographic perspective–in other words, how to think through the contingencies and particularities of an object that itself traverses many such contexts.

This, of course, is one of the great anthropological questions of the past 30 years, and has been played out in everything from Eric Wolf to Arjun Appadurai to Aihwa Ong and Anna Tsing; from everything from the anthropology of globalization and modernity to the anthropology of the state to the anthropology of humanitarianism.

Appropriately, I think, Eli and friends are trying to tackle this problem through the specific case of universities: how can we make sense of what seem to be linked issues–shared problems, if not exactly shared responses–in the very nature of academic practice today?  I ran into a similar issue when developing my dissertation project on police reform in France: so much of what was going on with Nicolas Sarkozy’s reform of the Police nationale seemed to follow a set script, but it wasn’t long into my time there that i realized that the issues at stake in his “culture of results” were different than, say, what was going on in Berkeley, or London.

How to make sense of this?

For starters, Foucault’s suggestion– in “What is Critique?” and elsewhere— has suggested that “liberalism” is best understood as a form of governance which seeks its own principle of limitation and therefore its corresponding form of critique–liberal critique– is to ask the question: do we have too much government?  In other words, continual and reflexive self-limitation on the power and scope of governance is the characteristic feature of liberalism across its various manifestations.  Beyond that, however, the particular mechanism of this self-limitation is variable.

If the first part of Foucault’s formulation (liberalism as form of self-limitation by government of governance) can be buttressed by the work of everyone from Albert Hirchman to Max Weber, the second part (thinking through the various mechanisms of liberal governance) is most fruitfuly approached, i think, by a group of scholars who follow the work of Nikolas Rose.

For example, rose argues that the distinguishing characteristic of neoliberalism is not “lack of governance,” “accumulation of wealth,” “excess of greed,” or even “privatization” (all popular definitions of the term).  rather the difference between “classical” liberalism and “neoliberalism” is that whereas the former sought a principle whereby the role of government could be limited through the cordoning off of separate “public” and “private” spheres, the latter attempts to use a set of techniques developed in the Market–located, for classic liberalism within the “private” sphere–to better regulate a variety of domains–including those classically relegated to the “public sphere”.

Now, several anthropologists–Aihwa Ong and Jim Ferguson being chief among them, I think– have taken up Rose’s work here in order to focus on the myriad ways neoliberal techniques have been taken up for purposes not predicted by grander theories of economic transformation.  Their point here is, I think, that neoliberalism is  a technical toolkit that can be used in the service of a whole array of political projects.

Now, having said that, in my own dissertation I argued that, while the police reform that I was ethnographizing was indeed a form of liberalism which made use of some of the management techniques usually associated with neoliberalism in the Rose/Ong/Ferguson post-Foucaultian understanding of the term, I’m not sure that it was the sole mechanism of self-limitation.

On the one hand, I think I’m “not sure” mostly because neither were the people I was studying.  in a very tangible sense, they were trying to figure out how to delimit the legitimate violence they were entrusted with.  On the other hand, this very fact seems to suggest that there was at least some kind of experimentation with another, yet emergent, form of liberalism.

Dr. Ong and I have been going back and forth a bit about this ever since: what, for example, I ask her, would a new form of liberalism look like, if it were neither “classical” nor “neo” liberalism?  Can we see any evidence of such a thing in the world around us?  For example, in the post-economic collapse U.S. where there at least circulates the idea that market techniques are not in themselves sufficient “regulation”?

This is the terrain I think Eli & co. are on as they try to think through everything from the University of California’s current economic crisis to Mexican student protests of the 1990’s to ethnic violence at Cameroonian universities.  It is exciting territory, and I’ll be interested to see what they find…

Further reading

Appadurai, A. (2000). Grassroots Globalization and the Research Imagination Public Culture, 12 (1), 1-19 DOI: 10.1215/08992363-12-1-1

Fassin, D. (2007). Humanitarianism as a Politics of Life Public Culture, 19 (3), 499-520 DOI: 10.1215/08992363-2007-007

Ferguson, J., & Gupta, A. (2002). Spatializing States: Toward an Ethnography of Neoliberal Governmentality American Ethnologist, 29 (4), 981-1002 DOI: 10.1525/ae.2002.29.4.981

Foucault, M., Faubion, J. D., Rabinow, P., & Hurley, R. (2000). “Omnes et Singulatim”: toward a critique of political reason (Vol. 3, pp. 298-325). New York: New Press.

Foucault, M., Schmidt, J., & Geiman, K. P. (1996). What Is Critique? (pp. 382-398). Berkeley: University of California Press.

Kearney, M. (1995). The Local and the Global: The Anthropology of Globalization and Transnationalism Annual Review of Anthropology, 24 (1), 547-565 DOI: 10.1146/annurev.an.24.100195.002555

Ong, A. (2000). Graduated Sovereignty in South-East Asia Theory, Culture & Society, 17 (4), 55-75 DOI: 10.1177/02632760022051310

Ong, A. (2006). Neoliberalism as exception : mutations in citizenship and sovereignty. Durham [N.C.]: Duke University Press.

Rose, N. (1999) Powers of freedom: reframing political thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University press.

Tsing, A. (2000). The Global Situation Cultural Anthropology, 15 (3), 327-360 DOI: 10.1525/can.2000.15.3.327

WOLF, E. (1999). Anthropology among the powers Social Anthropology, 7 (2), 121-134 DOI: 10.1017/S0964028299000117

Trade secrets and revelations

Thanks to the online journal American Ethnography Quasimonthly for it’s special issue on Luche Libre.  Included in this issue is a portion of Heather Levi’s The World of Lucha Libre:

In the world of lucha libre, the story is always under construction. Even if “everybody knows” that the matches are fixed, that does not excuse wrestlers from presenting an alibi, from constantly recreating a story of what is really going on. And the question of what is “really” going on is complicated. Some fans and commentators (for example, Nonini and Teraoka 1992) point to the list of injuries suffered by wrestlers as evidence that it is not fixed. The real damage to real bodies is represented as an indication of the reality of the contest. That was my assumption when I smelled Seminarista’s blood in Puebla. Yet, in that instance, as in others, the status of “realness” was complicated. Wrestlers are sometimes paid extra to bleed. Before the wrestler is supposed to bleed, someone (the wrestler, or sometimes the referee) makes small incisions on the wrestler’s forehead. At the proper moment, the opposing wrestler hits the cuts to reopen them, and the victim appears to bleed from the blow.  A trick? Sure, but it is their real blood. Perhaps that is the real secret—that there is no blood capsule, no ketchup, no chicken blood: just the real human blood of the wrestler.

Lucha libre is thus constructed around the public secret of the fixed ending. Yet the secret of the fixed ending is only one of a number of back secrets, of stories told and stories hidden, of secrets revealed to conceal still others. The secrecy of the fix stands for a series of dissimulations, for the mystery that animates the genre

via American Ethnography | Trade secrets and revelations.

the-world-of-lucha-libre

Now, if that doesn’t make you want to go out and read ethnography I don’t know what will…

BookWars « Anthropoliteia: the anthropology of policing

Jeff and I have been talking about ways to include discussions of pedagogy on Anthropoliteia, so I thought I’d give a shout out to a neat little documentary I came across recently (actually it was recommended to me by Gary Handman, the Director of the Media Resources Library here at Berkeley). The movie is called BookWars.

via Anthropoliteia