Ari Ne’eman, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Hortense Spillers, and Elizabeth Povinelli

From the Series: What Are You Reading? Responses to the Election and Inauguration

Photo by Patrick Tomasso.

The question of what to read in response to the shit storm of the election been surfacing in many ways. As the ill-fated election night wore on, I found myself reading and rereading #cripthevote tweets, scrolling back and forth between the staunch get-out-the-vote spirit of that afternoon and the increasing desperation of the evening, like toggling through a time machine that separated the moment before from the oblivion. I was reading, with increasingly frantic refresh button clicks, first as comedy, then tragedy, then farce.

In the days after the election, there was the question of what not to read. Many friends and colleagues swore off social media, or mainstream media, or all media other than the analgesic offerings of Netflix and Amazon (steer clear, I was told, of The Man in the High Castle: too close for comfort). I found myself trying to squeeze out more time to read and listen to my (too) few usual news sources, cringing at the sight and sound of his name, lusting after information and insight to reorient myself after realizing I had indulged too much in the unforgivable intellectual and ethical error of letting the unthinkable remain too unthought. I read Jacobin and Colorlines and Feministing and the New Yorker’s “Aftermath” collection, which arrived just in time for my airport hours on the way to the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association. I listened to Rachel Zuker’s prescient lecture on the poetics of wrongness, sent to me by a colleague in Rice's English department.

Now, days after the inauguration, I find myself mostly reading the emails that are flying as many of us in universities and colleges organize intellectual modes of collective endurance and resistance (including this forum). I would not go so far as to call this hopeful, but I would say that it seems to be something, rather than nothing, and I am grateful for that.

Yet as I continue to think about how to think and how to teach in this moment, I find myself focusing sometimes on the need for what feels like good information (in both the factish and ethical senses); sometimes on the need to refute the forms of liberal hope and optimism that helped get us here; and sometimes on the need to enact decolonial pedagogies and intellectual praxis.

One body of good information that I’ve been focusing on is about the effect of the proposed repeal of the Affordable Care Act and the transformation of Medicaid into block grants for people with disabilities. If you read (and teach) one thing about this topic, it should be Ari Ne’eman’s piece “I’m A Disabled American. Trump’s Policies Will Be a Disaster for People Like Me” (2016), written the day after the election. For the need to refute liberal hope and optimism and to decolonize pedagogies and practice, a few texts come to mind. Ta Nehisi-Coates’s Between The World and Me (2015) is eminently teachable. Not just a book about race, it offers a profound analytics of embodiment (which, of course, cannot not be about race), and it derives much of its power from a general refusal to tie the struggles of Black embodiment to the politically and historically neutralizing postracialist fantasy of liberal political optimism.

Hortense Spillers’s “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar” (1987) is a key text of critical black, black feminist, and African American studies. The distinction Spillers makes between body and flesh (“before the ‘body,’ there is the ‘flesh,’ that zero degree of social conceptualization that does not escape concealment under the brush of discourse, or the reflexes of iconography”) predates Gender Trouble by three years (in later editions, Judith Butler footnotes Spillers’s work as “extremely helpful” to her post–Gender Troublethinking) and anticipates Elizabeth Povinelli’s distinction between corporeality and carnality by two decades. That it has not been canonized within broader critical literatures on gender, political violence, or the historical, cultural, and semiotic overdeterminations of the body should embarrass and outrage those of us who work on questions of personhood and the body and don’t know or teach her work (Spillers’s name was never even mentioned in my graduate training, never mind appearing on a syllabus). Never has there been a more urgent moment to read and teach this text.

Finally, I am still digesting Elizabeth Povinelli’s latest book Geontologies: A Requiem for Late Liberalism (2016), but, as usual, her refusal of redemptive logics that transform the mess of the present into the promise of the future is a welcome departure in a discipline that can be too easily seduced by desire to see seeds of change in places where the future has no part. This is an essential analytical infrastructure for a moment in which none of us can responsibly continue with the privileged and indulgent fantasy that hope and change will get us out of this mess. Povinelli’s work, in Geontologies, to displace the culture concept and think though Indigenous analytics also offers a new model for decolonizing the anthropological episteme in ways that, she argues, conversations about ontology (nor older experiments with voice and text) can never do.