A Sexist Machine Can’t Do Feminist Work*

A dark thought: Most faculty working in higher education do not believe that sexual harassment is real.

Harassment is process-based: victims generally have a dossier of materials evidencing the truth of their experience. But, to the sexist, the evidence of harassment simply reinforces their sense of the victim’s sexualization — it proves that the victim has a body problem. The victim brings sex to work, and the victim should punished for it. The victim becomes a problem because she/he/they receive sexualized attention — they are treated as a lightening rod, as inviting and bringing it onto themselves.

For the sexist, it is easier to believe that someone has been falsely accused than that a person in their community has been harassing their colleagues/staff/students — or, more nearly, they can’t imagine what harassment is. It might surround them; they might participate in it — but they don’t experience it as wrong. They experience it as just the way things are. The sexist has a lot invested in the naturalization of sexual harassment.

Because sexists do not see sex-based forms of harassment as harmful — no matter the evidence, sexist faculty and sexist administrators won’t support a harassment charge because they don’t believe the complaint’s foundation: they don’t believe that sex and gender based forms of bias are unfair, they see sexual subjects as degraded and their own sense of professionalism is defined in an oppositional identification: they are not “like” the complainants, and never will be.

Sexist colleagues, furthermore, imagine sexual harassment as an aberration rather than the rule. They imagine it is something that happens somewhere else — the truth of it is deferred — situated in a different time and place. On television, maybe.

Feminist colleagues, by contrast, see sexual harassment as a constant within racist/patriarchal hierarchical structures, and understand their work in relationship to this given. At the University of California, for example, men make up a significant majority of ladder-rank faculty. At one campus (UCSD), they comprise 75% tenured and tenure-track faculty. Men dominate university level committees for this reason — the structure is sexist. Gender imbalance will, furthermore, be exaggerated by committees which require seniority and equal representation across the colleges (the kinds of committees that, on some campuses, adjudicate harassment charges). Some disciplines have much bigger gender disparity issues than others — so a college wide committee is more likely to have dramatically marginalized female membership. Feminists faculty, staff and students struggle against the effect of this imbalance in all sorts of ways.

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Feminists do not debate if the patriarchal workplace exists. They will instead debate how one goes about building an anti-sexist/anti-racist workplace. If many important university level committees tend not to be dominated by women; they are even less likely to be dominated by feminists. A university level committee dominated by men who have no training regarding sex/gender bias is unlikely support any sexual harassment complaint. This is, at least, what I see from my perch. This is the story behind the poor administration of complaints against faculty: the administration handles things badly — but so do the faculty themselves.

You can’t make sexist machine to do feminist work.

This is one of the reasons harassment complaints are so painful for the impacted community. The institution itself fosters a cloud of disbelief around harassment complaints — the nature of that disbelief is sexed and raced. How disbelief collects around faculty and students is racialized — a woman of color with a complaint, a white man with a complaint — a complaint against a white man, a complaint against a woman of color — who does a community embrace, or exile? Who feels able to come forward at all? What abuse will an administration feel compelled to confront? What abuse will an administration ignore?  It is all contingent.

You can’t ask a racist machine to do feminist work.

(To read more about racism and university structures, I recommend the anthology, The Imperial University. It is not about sexual harassment, but it really digs into the politics of how universities operate, as institutions. See also Sarah Ahmed’s On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. )

Sexual harassment can seem baked into an institution’s culture — at times it appears to function as a kind of regulation which marks who belongs and who does not. Anti-harassment activism on college campuses aims to reveal and unravel this tie between harassment as a behavior (confined to the story of one person’s abusive conduct and another person’s victimization) and harassment as an aspect of institutional culture (in which harassment reproduces and enforces already existing forms of bias).

Harassment is process-based. Miserable events accumulate — toxic advising interactions, quid-pro-quo forms of sexual harassment, unwanted advances which persist over the victim’s objection, sexual assault, professional forms of abuse. Sometimes individual events don’t appear, in and of themselves, to be all that alarming. An email. A note. Some weird gossip. A slightly inappropriate remark. An expression of attraction. One person transgresses a professional boundary. The other pushes back. An apology might be issued, and then it starts again. Gaslighting and implied or explicit threats will be mixed into everyday interaction. Incidents assemble into a history and seem to predict a future: a future in which harassment never ends. A future in which one’s membership in a profession is contingent upon living with harassment.

Experiences of harassment and bullying intensify and generalize the victim’s experience of vulnerability. This is particularly intense within a hierarchical organization like a college or university. For students, this sense of “it will never end” can map onto “until I graduate” or “unless I quit school.” One must endure, or not — what it means to not endure it — that might mean dropping out, quitting. It might mean filing a complaint — but filing a complaint will mean enduring more. Victims of this kind of abusive behavior may find that the environment around them feels poisoned. It may, in some ways, actually be poisoned. This is a terrible experience, and it is not that uncommon. The difference between an institution’s discriminatory culture and an individual’s behavior can be really hard to discern when the institution fails to respond to the latter.

The institution’s discourse tends to presume that harassment and discrimination are aberrations — that they are rare, and that a harassment-free and bias-free workplace/classroom is the norm.

The institution responds to those harassment cases it acknowledges with a policy adjustment designed to prevent future harassment. But no policy will eliminate harassment. It can only administer and manage what has already happened.

I wonder if any large, intensely hierarchal organization — especially a university which has a claim on the idea of the establishment (on a sense of the ordering of the world) — could ever be totally free from harassment.

The institution encourages a paranoid relationship to sexualized harassment, in particular — over and above all other forms of harassment. It’s a fully sanctioned form of paranoia. One is encouraged to be on the constant look-out for things that could be harassing. The risk averse language of the institution fosters this attitude. And it’s remarkably ineffective when it comes to addressing the crisis of actually existing harassment.

I am not especially paranoid by disposition — I don’t see sexual harassment lurking in every interaction. I do, however, see all communities within the university as sexual communities — the disavowal of that fact enables sexualized harassment.

If harassment is endemic to university life it is an effect of the university’s hierarchal structure — these structures are deeply racist and sexist: the evidence for this is everywhere.

The campus is a broken place.

A frank, non-defensive relationship to that fact — a frank embrace of the fact that the university is fucked up — might yield something different — something more depressive than paranoid — it might yield imaginative, generous practices. It might make talking about encounters with abusive behavior easier and more productive. It might.

I’m not sure.

Every classroom is defined by a history of exclusion. That fact haunts harassment cases. We notice who is in our classrooms, and who is not. Who got in. Who didn’t. Students notice who is teaching them, and who is not. Graduate students, junior faculty are haunted by the fear of failure — for the academy scales that fear up to maximum capacity.

It is not that every person who doesn’t get through the classroom door, doesn’t graduate, doesn’t get tenure, or doesn’t get a decent job is a victim of harassment — though some people will have been. I’m saying more nearly harassment hums with the histories of exclusion which define the institution. Harassment is haunted by the threat of exile, expulsion, isolation. Harassment has an intimate relationship with discrimination.

Harassment-free/bias-free workplaces/classrooms are ideals towards which we can always only strive. If you see that work as part of the everyday cultivation of each other’s wellbeing, that work need not be crisis driven; it need not be defensive. It can actually be joyful, generous even when it is difficult.

I think. Maybe.

The anti-harassment organization must have a very fluid, dynamic relationship to its own institutionality — to its own stability, to its own sense of order. This kind of practice might not be something a large institution can effect itself, but organizational groups within that institution (e.g. departments, programs, student organizations) can certainly create a space that is far, far more imaginative, creative and welcoming than that created when one does only what the law requires — only what keeps our work from being unlawful.

The organizational culture I imagine is probably a mood. It is probably not sustainable. It is probably something a group moves through.

Students, I think, have better access to this kind of dynamism — students are acutely aware of the temporariness of their time on campus, their community changes from year to year, and they are not burdened with the inertia of conservative forms of institutional memory.  Or, they are burdened with it — but that burden is foisted onto them — and they resist this.

The school must change with students — it has zero choice in this. Often this change is brought about by student activism, through student resistance and intervention. It’s also brought about by student debt, by student access to college prep courses, by students moving from racially diverse high schools to white majority institutions, by social and economic crisis.  Anti-harassment activism is a part of a wave of campus-based activism effecting change, and should be seen in relation to other forms of campus action: actions supporting undocumented people, abolitionist movements, movements forcing especially elitist white majority universities to confront their racist roots. These movements are not the same — they may in some cases be in tension with each other. But these movements are changing campuses all over the country — in my view, for the better.

Faculty  — whether they be sexist or feminist — can resent being asked to be accountable to the university’s culture — it feels like so much more work. It requires a different kind of expertise than that which most of us acquired in our graduate training. Furthermore, faculty, at least in my experience (working at a large public institution), do not see themselves as the authors of a campus culture. So, meeting a student-led push to transform campus culture will feel burdensome. It requires a form of labor, furthermore, for which the university cannot account. You do not get promoted as a scholar for doing this kind of work. In fact, this kind of diversity work — especially when it is performed in response to a crisis (filing a complaint, supporting a colleague or student’s complaint) can feel like a disruption of work. It is. Imagine putting “filed sexual harassment complaint against X, saw complaint process to its completion with ambiguous result” down on your c.v.!

For the victim, harassment interferes with work and while filing a complaint is meant to make work possible, that also interferes with work. Absorbing harassment and resisting harassment meet each other on this point: through harassment we encounter the organization’s underbelly — we encounter the foundational disavowals which define labor, value — we encounter the institution’s mythologies and our investments in them. (I’ve been taking this up in more academic work.)

Ideologically, work and sex are situated as mutually exclusive — sex work is the exception which proves the rule. Sex and work are positioned as things that cannot be in the same place at the same time. This is a central problem in Marxist feminist work. In Marxist feminist scholarship, one must attend not only to the situation of the person who labors, but for the people who labor in order to make that person’s labor possible. The latter is reproductive labor — the labor of clothing, feeding, caring for, nurturing, birthing, rearing etc. All that unpaid/underpaid labor is hidden in the paradigmatic worker’s wage.

Sexualized harassment exploits this division of productive and reproductive labor — the submerged world of care, sexual life, housework. Harassment dynamics will draw love and labor from us; they absorb and digest our capacity for care, and our capacity to care.

Anti-harassment work confronts the disavowals and contradictions which ground the institution —  it is one place where we experience the limits of what work is — the limits of what can be known as work.

The institution will not respond to anti-harassment work by transforming into a structure in which harassment is impossible.

A wild thought: the feminist anti-harassment worker labors not for the love of the institution, but for love of that labor itself. She must tuck that piece of information away, and guard it from the accountants!

 

 

*This post excerpts and revises a section of a 7000+ word essay I posted on July 1. I’m using this blog to write and think out loud. I’ll be posting revisions of posts on this theme as I’ve overcome by the need to work stuff through.

Notes on Anti-Harassment Writing

A couple of years ago, I wrote Campus Sex/Campus Security — a short, performative text which addresses the braiding of discourse on sexual vulnerability and campus security.  People sometimes ask me about the way the book is written. I do not dwell on my own experience with the campus complaint system. That fact defies the expectations that some readers bring to a book concerned with Title IX administration, harassment and campus sexual culture. 

I have also been in conversation with students about this book — I have the impression that it gets a lot of classroom use, and that campus activists read it. (Nothing could make me happier.) Readers — especially student readers — have asked me challenging questions — questions which speak to the intensity of the fall out when people abuse each other’s trust, and when that abuse is sexualized. Over the past few months I’ve been writing in response to those questions — I think I’ve been trying to write out something like a methodology. I’ve decided to share that work here. This is less an essay than a survey of some of the defining aspects of harassment dynamics and the situation of trying to write about them.

[Note: I’ll be editing this for a few days after I post this. I’m using this as a place to develop clarity, hopefully in conversation with readers. There is a lot of contradiction to the topics I’m addressing here and it is a real challenge to try to parse them out. Major revisions on 7/2, 7/5, 7/12]

Harassment Dynamics and the Institution

People tend to assume they know what harassment is. Living with harassment, however, will teach you that each case is different and that harassment is complex, profoundly social and adaptive. Harassment can seem baked into an institution’s culture — at times it appears to function as a kind of regulation which marks who belongs and who does not. (This is an explicit aspect of mainstream sports culture.) Anti-harassment activism on college campuses aims to reveal and unravel this tie between harassment as a behavior (confined to the story of one person’s abusive conduct and another person’s victimization) and harassment as an aspect of institutional culture (in which harassment reproduces and enforces already existing forms of bias).

Harassment, bullying and stalking are all process-based: the boundaries around these processes are unclear. It can be hard to explain when and why it started. Miserable events accumulate — toxic advising interactions, quid-pro-quo forms of sexual harassment, unwanted advances which persist over the victim’s objection, sexual assault, professional forms of abuse. Sometimes individual events don’t appear, in and of themselves, to be all that alarming. An email. A note. Some weird gossip. A slightly inappropriate remark. A request for a date. An expression of attraction. But for the target, they pile up. One person transgresses a professional boundary. The other pushes back. An apology is issued, and then it starts again. Incidents assemble into a history and seem to predict a future: a future in which harassment never ends. A future in the profession which is contingent upon living with harassment.

Experiences of harassment, bullying and stalking intensify and generalize the victim’s experience of vulnerability. This is particularly intense within a hierarchical organization like a college or university. For students, this sense of “it will never end” can map onto “until I graduate” or “unless I quit school.” One must endure, or not — what it means to not endure it — that might mean dropping out, quitting. It might mean filing a complaint — but filing a complaint will mean enduring more. Victims of this kind of abusive behavior may find that the environment around them feels poisoned. It may, in some ways, actually be poisoned. To victims, it can appear as if a faculty member’s abusive/bullying conduct has been tolerated by their discipline, department, college, etc.

This is a terrible experience, and it is not that uncommon. The difference between an institution’s discriminatory culture and an individual’s behavior can be really hard to discern when the institution fails to respond to the latter.

The institution’s discourse tends to presume that harassment and discrimination are aberrations — that they are rare, and that a harassment-free and bias-free workplace/classroom is the norm. The institution responds to harassment cases with a policy adjustment designed to prevent future harassment.

No policy will eliminate harassment. It can only administer and manage. I wonder if any large, intensely hierarchal organization — especially a university which has a claim on the idea of the establishment (on a sense of the ordering of the world) — could ever be free from harassment.

I am not especially paranoid by disposition — I don’t see harassment lurking in every interaction. A paranoid relationship to harassment is sustained by an all-or-nothing sense of harassment. One is on the constant look-out for things that could be harassing; every instance of harassment is freighted with an enormous amount of meaning. The risk averse language of the institution can foster this attitude.

A frank, non-defensive relationship to harassment, however, might yield something different — it might yield imaginative, generous practices. It might make talking about encounters with abusive behavior easier and more productive.

The challenge of the university, as an institution, is that every classroom is defined by a history of exclusion. That fact haunts harassment cases. We notice who is in our classrooms, and who is not. Who got in. Who didn’t. We might reflect on what happened to make being in school, or in our school, impossible for individuals and for whole communities. First generation students, in particular, are acutely aware of this question.

It is not that every person who doesn’t get through the door is a victim of harassment — though some people will have been. I’m saying more nearly that within an institution, harassment hums with the histories of exclusion which define the institution. Harassment is haunted by the threat of exile, expulsion, isolation. Harassment has an intimate relationship with discrimination.

Harassment-free/bias-free workplaces/classrooms are utopian ideals towards which we can always only strive. If you see that work as part of the everyday cultivation of each other’s wellbeing, that  work need not be crisis driven; it need not be defensive. It can actually be joyful, generous even when it is difficult. The anti-harassment organization must have a very fluid, dynamic relationship to its own institutionality — to its own stability, to its own sense of order. This kind of practice might not be something a large institution will effect from the top down, but organizational groups within that institution (e.g. departments) can certainly create a space that is far, far more imaginative, creative and welcoming than that created when one does only what the law requires — only what keeps our work from being unlawful.

Students might have better access to this kind of dynamism — students are acutely aware of the temporariness of their time on campus, their community changes from year to year, and they are not burdened with the inertia of conservative forms of institutional memory. Students push against that inertia every day.

The school must change with students — often this change is brought about by student activism, through student resistance and intervention. Sometimes change happens because teachers and student affairs staff reach out to students, listen and collaborate. Anti-harassment activism is a part of a wave of campus-based activism effecting change, and should be seen in relation to other forms of campus action: actions supporting undocumented people, abolitionist movements, movements forcing universities like Yale and Princeton to confront their racist roots. These movements are not the same — they may in some cases be in tension with each other. But these movements are changing campuses all over the country — in my view, for the better.

Thinking out loud here (in response to faculty resistance to anti-harassment activism): Activists working in student organizations sometimes have more experience with forms of accountability, with experiments in group-work than faculty — sometimes faculty can resent being asked to be accountable to the university’s culture — it feels like so much more work. It requires a different kind of expertise than that which most of us acquired in our graduate training. Furthermore, faculty, at least in my experience (working at a large public institution), do not see themselves as the authors of a campus culture. So, meeting a student-led push to transform campus culture will feel burdensome. It requires a form of labor, furthermore, for which the university cannot account. It is work that doesn’t count. You do not get promoted as a scholar for doing this kind of work. In fact, this kind of diversity work — especially when it is performed in response to a crisis (filing a complaint, supporting a colleague’s/student’s complaint) can feel like a disruption of work. It is. Imagine putting “filed sexual harassment complaint against X, saw complaint process to its completion with ambiguous result” down on your c.v.!

For the victim, harassment interferes with work and while filing a complaint is meant to make work possible, that also interferes with work. Absorbing harassment and resisting harassment meet each other on this point: through harassment we encounter the organization’s underbelly — we encounter the foundational disavowals which define labor, value — we encounter the institution’s mythologies and our investments in them. (I’ve been taking this up in more academic work.)

Ideologically, work and sex are situated as mutually exclusive — sex work is the exception which proves the rule. Sex and work are positioned as things that cannot be in the same place at the same time. This is a central problem in Marxist feminist work. In Marxist feminist scholarship, one must attend not only to the situation of the person who labors, but for the people who labor in order to make that person’s labor possible. The latter is reproductive labor — the labor of clothing, feeding, caring for, nurturing, birthing, rearing etc. All that unpaid/underpaid labor is hidden in the paradigmatic worker’s wage. Sexualized harassment exploits this division of productive and reproductive labor — the submerged world of care, sexual life, housework. Anti-harassment work confronts the disavowals and contradictions which ground the institution — I think it is one place where we experience the limits of what work is — the limits of what can be known as work.

This division of labor is also important to understanding the operations of racial capital — meaning, among other things, the articulation of race and sex in relation to each other within an institution requiring the production of black bodies, of racialized bodies which it might assemble into its machinery as raw material — the systematization of sex and violence in relation to black people’s bodies. Discourse on sexual vulnerability and safety is that history’s murderous instrument. Campus Sex/Campus Security is meant to push the reader to think about this. That form of crisis is important to the project of CS/CS: it is that book’s starting place. This is one reason I do not focus on my own experience of harassment. While racial dynamics impacted my case — the way sympathy might or might not mobilize around me as a figure has a lot to do with whiteness, gender, authority and power, for example. But to discuss my “case” would have derailed the story of the racialization of the discourse of campus sex and campus security. It might also have invited the revivifying of the harassment to which I had been subjected (and which thankfully stopped).

Escalation, Disavowal, Trolling

If I am writing now about why CS/CS is written the way it’s written, it is in part because people (mainly in my own circles) have been asking me to speak about Laura Kipnis’s work Unwanted Advances.  For a lot of reasons (some of which I describe here), I would rather focus on my own work. The problems with Unwanted Advances have been addressed by the philosopher Jonathan Ichikawa and a few others. There are so many differences between our books — I think the only thing we have in common is that we were both the subject of Title IX investigations (I filed a complaint and one was filed against me in response) and we both write about sexual politics. We have this in common with Jane Gallop. (Feminist Accused of Sexual Harassment was important to me and I recommend it.) In writing CS/CS, I worked to minimize the risk that the book might re-activate the harassment dynamic in my own life, and that I also not risk aggravating the harassment dynamics operating around the cases I engaged. By the time I wrote the book, almost all had been resolved, at least administratively. I had tried to write about ongoing cases at Northwestern and at Columbia, but I threw that writing out. The only thing that work was doing was seasoning the text with juicy writing about sex scandals. I felt that my writing sounded like a so-so episode of Law & Order: SVU. So, that material had to go.

The biggest methodological challenge to writing about harassment — especially if you are writing about recent or (even harder) ongoing cases of harassment — is writing without contributing to, intensifying and escalating the harassment dynamic. Shadowing that problem is the more local issue of what saying nothing does — for, let’s say you are in a situation in which a colleague is being harassed. If you say something, you will become involved — as a witness and, possibly, as a target of harassment. When you write about harassment cases, in other words, you become involved in that case — whether you know it or not. When you sit down to write about harassment, you should think about the function of your work in relation to that story’s harassment dynamic.

Most people back away from situations in which speaking up about harassment risks becoming involved in harassment. This, however, is one of the primary conditions of possibility for harassment’s continuation. Bullying and harassment are not simple conflicts between two people. These are social dynamics which concentrate around an agent and an object of harassment. A community makes harassment possible. People in and close to that community have an obligation to intervene.

When I was at the nadir of my experience of being harassed, I came across the following passage in an essay on risk management and stalking. I’ve shared it often, because it helped me to articulate why the language of conflict — so often used to tell harassment’s story — was so very unhelpful. It is also suggests how the problem of harassment dynamics can be aggravated in an intensely articulated hierarchal environment like a school, especially where that school attempts to intervene through processes that take the shape of mediation.

There is a conflict between the stalker’s desires and the victim’s interests, but they are at one in being at risk of damage from the stalking situation. There can be a tragic symmetry between the victim forced to live an increasingly restricted life in a state of constant fear and the stalker’s devoting all his or her time and resources to a futile and ultimately frustrating pursuit. Both the victim’s and the perpetrator’s lives can be laid waste. This is not to argue for equivalence between victim and perpetrator. In stalking, there are real victims and real perpetrators; one offends and the other is offended against. However, they share the chance of disaster. These perspectives, which encompass the risks to stalkers and victims, have the advantage for health professionals of minimizing the ethical dilemma concerning whose interests one is serving: the patient’s or the victim’s. (Paul Mullen, Rachel Mackenzie, James Ogloff, Michele Pathé, Troy McEwan and Rosemary Purcell, “Assessing and Managing the Risks in the Stalking Situation” in Journal of American Academy of Psychiatry Law 34:439-50, 2006)

People sometimes rationalize doing nothing using this sense of ethical conflict: reducing a case to some version of he said/she said, the fact of harassment itself is dissolved into a cloud of uncertainty regarding whose “side” one should take.

Harassment and bullying do not always intensify into a form of stalking — but they share the geometry described above and they are worsened when the group holding harassment gets stuck in this impasse. People tend to sink into this sense of a conflict (between accused and accuser) and absolve themselves of any responsibility to the issue by leaning into their own sense of uncertainty. The above description of the stalking dynamic emphasizes the behavior itself as the problem. By shifting one’s thinking to the behavior, one begins to find a way out of an impasse.

The person who harasses and bullies has an investment in the harassment dynamic, they have an investment in framing their behavior in terms of conflict. If the group within which harassment unfolds frames the crisis only in terms of conflict — they risk amplifying the harassment dynamics. The victim usually, at minimum, wants to the harassment to stop; they want to be left alone. But the person invested in the harassment dynamic wants to keep the harassment dynamic going — in a very bad case, the harasser’s investment is only this. There is no negotiating that problem, there is no “resolution” because there can be no giving this person what they want — the simply harassment has to stop.

Harassment can escalate and intensify around the confrontations intended to make it stop. Filing a harassment complaint, for example, is, in a bad case, going to guarantee an escalation in the harassment dynamic. The victim will be drawn into a harassment dynamic: harrassment will make this impossible to avoid. A whole community has to work together to support the victim and the community’s own integrity through the process of bringing harassment to a stop.

All too often, the group witnessing harassment will respond to the crisis as a simple conflict — as if, if only the victim cooperated and were amenable, things would be OK. In fact, the group may concentrate its anger and resentment on the victim because their resistance to harassment is what makes it surface as a problem. By treating harassment as conflict the group operates as a conduit for the harassment dynamic. This is to say that if a community is not intentional in its response to harassment, it is at risk of intensifying and escalating it.

Bullying and harassment are enabled by a group’s passive complicity. In my experience, this takes the form of a disavowal. This is a serious issue for communities impacted by harassment — they bear a collective responsibility for what happened but acknowledging this is painful. The case at Penn State is the most intense example of this — when I read reports on that case, I see a lot of men who knew Sandusky was abusing the boys he was “mentoring” and who disavowed the fact that they knew. Disavowal is a very powerful psychic phenomenon. It is not a question of knowing and pretending one doesn’t know. It is more nearly not having the capacity to be present to what one knows. Penn State’s football program is cult-like — it is a whole way of life organized around the lionization of its patriarchs. A man in that circle exploited his position to groom and abuse vulnerable youth —  a wide circle of people were psychically invest in maintaining a structure which protected the abuser. What does it mean to confront this if you are a part of that structure?

Confronting sexual harassment and sexual abuse within intensely hierarchical and often deeply patriarchal structures is genuinely challenging — at stake are people’s senses of themselves, their work and the institutions which organize their lives. Writing about things of that order should be difficult. The stakes are high for everyone invested in the Penn State’s patriarchal figureheads: if people will defend these men to a point that defies reason it is because they have an intense investment in them. Those men give them a sense of who they are — that is why they are called father figures.

That collective disavowal allows harassment dynamics to flourish and intensify. It is harassment’s condition of possibility. When the only person who complains is the victim because everyone else is afraid of becoming one themselves, the entire community becomes harassment’s medium.

The stakes in the collective disavowal which is the precondition for the flourishing of a harassment dynamic are high. Writing about harassment dynamics within a specific, high-profile community (like Penn State’s football program) will almost certainly mean that you will become a target of trolling. This, however, is not a reason not to write about these stories at all. But as a writer, when you receive this kind of trolling, you have to bear in mind the effects of your response.

Engaging stories about harassment, bullying and sexual abuse especially within sexist, tightly knit or intensely defined communities (sports, certain academic scenes, gaming) will expose you to harassment and bullying. It is isolating. Every feminist writer who has written about sexual violence in sports has experience with being trolled — with receiving rape threats, death threats. The worst trolling I’ve gotten was in relation to my writing about a case of sexual violence within an MMA gym community. Every now and again, four years later, creepy comments about that article pop up on my blog — I believe those comments are from fans or friends of the accused (possibly the accused himself). I am an aggressive moderator. I do not publish comments which insult/escalate. I do not publish sexist/homophobic/transphobic or racist comments. Sometimes I don’t publish comments because I don’t like them. I curate the comments sections on all of my blogs. No post of mine will turn into a forum for harassment.  (See Anil Dash’s helpful guidelines for keeping your blog free of harassing discourse.) It is a shame — a crying shame — that this is not the standard blogging practice. Most editors are eager to stir up controversy — and so blogging platforms and sensational media outlets will publish stories on harassment cases hoping to stir shit up in the impacted community. It makes for entertaining reading — for everyone except victims and their communities. For us (and yes, this has happened to my department), those social media platforms extend and deepen the crisis.

What Is It About Title IX?: (More) Disavowal, Segregation and the Division of Labor 

Title IX looks simple: it bans sex-based discrimination in schools. As students, staff and faculty take up primary language of this ban, however, they force institutions to take on genuinely challenging questions like: What is sex? What is sexual? What constitutes consent? 

Title IX’s passage led to the recognition of sexual harassment as a form of sex-based discrimination and to the recognition of the failure to address sexual violence within school communities as also, potentially, discriminatory. The challenge of administering Title IX is a feminist problem. By this I mean: Title IX attempts to regulate sexism out of existence. Nothing short of a dramatic re-organization of our lives would bring this about. So much about its administration is confusing, so much about the application of this law feels invasive. If you were really going to eliminate the use of sex as a barrier to access to educational opportunity, you’d have to re-imagine what school is! Of course aspects of Title IX enforcement feel like a threat to the academic’s way of life. That’s just what it is — this piece of legislation (like all legislation banning sex and race-based forms of discrimination) is written as if the structures of power and authority which organize our lives were not fundamentally sexist and racist. Adding to this — racist and sexist organizations/institutions are charged with enforcing these bans against racism and sexism. Of course it’s a mess.

Now, this isn’t how the Title IX officer at my university looks at it. That isn’t how the Department of Education looks at it. That’s how I see it, as a feminist theorist committed to ideology critique.

A friend who works as an investigator once told me that every complaint is a “situation.” People who address harassment within their organizations by engaging its systems create a situation for that organization. They create a problem — that’s how it feels for the institution. Even if the people administering a complaint are sympathetic, the institution itself responds to a complaint as a problem. It’s structural; it’s environmental; it’s affective. The person who says “there’s a problem” is, in other words, at risk of embodying the problem — and that’s the problem. That’s how sexism and racism work.

So much contradiction inhabits the complainant’s situation.

Title IX forces school communities to confront the disavowal of that fact that schools are sexual communities — that disavowal is sexism’s foundation. This is paradoxical, because, at the same time, within Title IX regulation sex often appears as a violent intrusion on a non-sexual space.

The culture of school is defined by a disavowal of the school as a sexual space. Thus girls, in particular, are subject to dress codes. No visible bra straps, is a common one — anyone who has worn a bra is likely to know the fidgety worry about this undergarment. Straps that slip off the shoulder, that don’t cooperate up with your outfit’s neckline. The question of what a bra strap is — is it the same if what you wear on your chest is closer to sports bra? The sexual body is policed, aggressively — in a sexist environment, bodies marked as female, feminine and queer create noise and static as they move through that institutional space.

School is the site of so much humiliation on this point. Debilitating anxiety about menstruating through one’s clothes, anxiety about using school bathrooms (which can be the site of sexual harassment and homo/transphobic violence), the misery of having large breasts — students who are marked as sexual subjects struggle to feel welcome in school. One’s sexualization is experienced as at odds with one’s capacity to work and learn: school policy and social practice will reinforce that feeling. In sexist spaces, sex is conjured through intensely structured social rituals and symbolically expelled. All too often gender non-conforming students and students of color are forced into this scapegoating role.

We accept this division of sex and work/school in our day-to-day lives — indeed, it is all but impossible to function professionally without participating in that disavowal. (An important exception: feminist communities practicing sex work.) The maintenance of this collective disavowal of the fact that we are always sexual subjects comes at a cost — this disavowal intensifies the sexualization of subjects in a minority position within the space of school and work (as bodies who don’t belong, as bodies who belong to the space behind or underneath those structures). The story of the collusion of Penn State staff and administrators with years of sexual abuse is one example of what this level of disavowal can enable. The overwhelming domination of certain fields by men is another.

As a queer theorist, I have been struck by the way sex and race are segregated from each other in discourse on campus sex and campus security. Even in the above paragraphs — whose body feels sexual on a campus, and why, is racialized. Whose suffering is normalized is racialized. Whose body represents a threat to the stability of the forms of disavowal and exclusion which give an organization its sense of stability and cohesion is racialized. Whose body is recognizably sexual is racialized. This segregation of race and sex from each other in conversations about the campus should signal a problem — when this happens, something has really gone off the rails. When this happens, we enable the enlistment of a racialized discourse of risk and threat in the service of sexualized discourse of security and safety.

The Form of Campus Sex/Campus Security

Campus Sex/Campus Security is meant to be read out loud. It is written as a Jeremiad: it should give the reader a sense of a world in which the moral high ground is poisoned. I want the reader to feel a sense of urgency in that — not (only) because the world is corrupt, but because, for me, a queer ethics requires removing oneself from that particular space of entitlement. The book is unusual for me — I hardly use the first person. The book’s preface (which I wrote at the editor’s request) describes the situation which brought me to writing the book — I was stalked by a student, a campus committee indulged a discussion of my breasts, hair, sex life and scholarship on their way to deciding that I wasn’t, in fact, being harassed. That committee’s behavior has, actually, had a heavier impact on my working life than the original crisis. That’s not unusual for complaints — they tend to produce compound injuries. The harm produced around harassment can escalate as it is scaled up from a person’s abusive conduct to an institution’s. 

Most of the sentences in Campus Sex/Campus Security are short. The writing is descriptive. It is cut with an occasional flash of speculative thinking (“What would it require of the world for sexual violence to mean less? What part of it would be gradated? Would it be less sexual? Less violent? Less absolute? Or more?” [64]). But for the most part, I try to focus on what happened — I try to create the sense that something is happening

It was important to me that the text feel alarming but not sensationalizing. The book pivots on very real stories in which people were brutalized by police, sexually assaulted, betrayed and humiliated. How to tell those stories without trafficking in the suffering of others?  This was particularly challenging because in two of the most intense stories of physical violence, I was writing from viral YouTube videos documenting the victim’s encounter with the police. I drew, too, from reporting and investigative literature surrounding those cases. It was important to me that people understand these encounters as violent. Those sections were the hardest to write, and some passages still make me uneasy.

In Campus Sex/Campus Security, stories of specific cases of police violence are recounted with a detail that is not available where cases of sexual harassment are concerned. There is a dramatic asymmetry in the presentation of information about cases of sexual assault and cases of police violence. Police violence, in CS/CS, is particularized and visible. Sexual violence is generalized and dispersed. Were I writing the book today, I would not write that difference in quite the same way — I would try to challenge it more explicitly. Too many people have been killed by the police. Too many students. Were I writing that book today, I might start with Michael Brown’s enrollment (or intention to enroll) at a for-profit school. That detail in his story — it speaks to something unbearable — something carried by students all over the country. A sense of school as a space of transformation, a sense of school as something that’s going to fix your life – and the heartless greed which would exploit desire for something — something that will help.

There is a large public appetite for stories about student/student and student/faculty sexual harassment — that appetite skews writing about the challenges of life on university campuses. Nearly all of what one reads on this subject is sensationalizing. That kind of writing, in my view, feeds a general public hostility towards higher education  — the escalating discourse of controversy and scandal turns “the campus” into a kind of garbage can into which the public (which includes students and teachers) dumps its sense of betrayal, rage and despair. School has long served that symbolic function — but in this historical moment, that free-floating resentment of the school as an apparatus is fused to a campaign to strip the public of its access to free, robust and meaningful education. It turns the campus into a space in which students and faculty can be beaten by the police. That is what Campus Sex/Campus Security is about. 

Today, the discourse of campus harassment swings between painting the campus as a “hunting ground” — a place where you will rape or be raped — and as a place overrun by mobs of hysterical feminists wielding false/overblown accusations — either deliberately or because they are so fragile they take their hurt feelings for assault. When writing CS/CS it was important to me that the book make those swings visible — and that I ask why, at this moment (the book was published in 2015), the campus is framed so often as a conflict zone (in which faculty and students are at war with each other, and with “the administration”), why that conflict is so explicitly sexualized and why people are so ready to blame students for the campus’s problems. 

Proximity and Knowledge, Confidentiality and Reticence

Laura Kipnis describes the campus as overrun by hysterics (Unwanted Advances). When I read the book I noticed that she references a case to which I am connected. The story she reproduces in the book is inaccurate. I know this. I reached out to Kipnis to let her know that the story she presented in her book was wrong. She wrote that she was “pretty aware that there are multiple sides to all these stories, and various interests involved in affirming or contesting the various versions.” She then indirectly confirmed my suspicion that she’d only talked to one person in the case (by not answering me when I asked if she’d talked to anyone but the accused). Our correspondence was brief and telegraphic. 

I’ve been thinking about that exchange. I’ve been wondering whether there is room for me to write about Kipnis’s work at all given her comment about a case to which I am connected — and given my desire to avoid writing about that. I have felt cornered by that situation. I would normally review the book. But I can’t — for all sorts of reasons — my proximity to a case she mentions being the most salient. So, I’m writing about the situation of reading her book knowing that one of the stories she presents as emblematic is, in fact, not true. I find myself smack up against my own unwillingness to say any more about what I know than that. (Do I have to? Really?) The issue for me is that the entire discussion of harassment in that book is oriented by assumptions I reject. The conversation that book stages is one I refuse to join. I don’t believe in the version of the world conjured by that book. I do, however, know that a lot of people enjoy the idea of that world — the idea that selfish, hysterical, vengeful and entitled students are ruining things. That feminists destroy everything fun (for more on this sexist version of what feminism is, and for a critique of discourse on students, see Sarah Ahmed’s blog, Feminist Killjoys).

In public discourse about sexual harassment cases, the fact that many people who file complaints aren’t eager to talk about the details of their case is widely acknowledged but poorly understood.

While in some contexts, confidentiality rules limit what one can say about campus harassment and discrimination — those contexts are more limited than most people realize. More often, a vague sense of the rules legitimizes a person’s desire to not-know or not get involved — often this serves the important purpose of naturalizing one’s sense of subordination to an institution. I learned this when an administrator admonished me for “gossiping” about my case. When I insisted that I had the right to discuss what was happening to me, she told me she would check with campus counsel. She got back to me and told me that yes, indeed, I had the right to talk about what was happening to me. It astonished me that either of us had thought that I might not. It astonished me that I waited for the school’s permission

Students sometimes think they can’t talk about their cases, faculty will be told some version of the same. Some campus staff will give you that impression. Some campuses will write policy that amplifies that impression; during investigations campuses may even threaten people — harass people who talk to much about their own cases. Mandatory reporting policies push members of the campus community to stop conversations about sexual violence in order to warn their interlocutor, “I may be required to share whatever you tell me with the appropriate offices.” This is another way of escalating the sense that some things should not be discussed. 

The reality is that, in general, when you are the subject of the case (as victim or as accused), you can share your own materials. Certain aspects of cases staged in public universities are, furthermore, a matter of public record — accessible via freedom of information act requests. The details of the Marcy case, for example, were produced through a FOIA request. The case I’m connected to is a part of the UC’s big document dump earlier this year. 

The reality is also that within the harassment dynamic, the more you say, the more you share, the more “out” you are, the more you feed the beast. Rule #1 in blogging: “don’t feed the trolls.” A lot of reticence regarding ongoing cases is about managing this problem.

There are many contexts in which the people close to harassment cases practice reticence in an expression of a commitment to ending that harassment. A department chair might not speak about a case because, as someone with executive authority, they are bound by confidentiality rules which, for instance, protect the privacy of a student’s disciplinary record. They might also want to avoid sharing information which might be instrumentalized within a harassment dynamic. A witness to a case might not speak about what they know because the case is stigmatizing. Their reticence might also express a desire to minimize the sense of crisis in their community. Whole communities can agree to keep a low profile, not in order to cover up what happened but in order that they might confront it together, and deal with it. During investigations a community might go relatively quiet in order to support the process. These are a few good examples in which reticence is practiced in the interest of impacted community.

There are also plenty of terrible examples of campuses clamming up to protect people who abuse their power and authority. There are examples of abusive people who manipulate confidentiality rules in order to shield themselves — these people might, for example, threaten to file complaints against and sue victims/survivors/complainants for libel. Cover-up and harassment enforcing a cover-up is endemic in sports — see, for example, the massive crises within the football programs at Baylor and Penn State and the situation of US Gymnastics. Those cases were cracked by people who filed complaints and by investigative journalists tracking those complaints. Jessica Luther’s writing on this subject (Unsportsmanlike Conduct) is exemplary; Dvora Meyers is currently reporting on gymnastics for Deadspin

Cases involving sexual harassment require intentional forms of transparency within the impacted community and the cultivation of awareness regarding the needs of people in that community. Stalking cases require that the victim’s community be informed of the problem so that they don’t unwittingly become instruments of harassment (by, say, giving out the victim’s phone number or teaching schedule). Where harassment is ongoing, community requirements are quite similar. Where harassment is ongoing, secretiveness about that fact will make the harassment worse. It is not wrong to say: “I am being harassed by X.” “X is harassing our community.” Unless, of course, the reverse is true — and that’s the nut of the problem, really. If you aren’t close to a case, you often can’t tell if the harassment story you are hearing is true — it might be that the person who tells you that they are being harassed is actually harassing. That’s the grim, miserable truth. Harassment victims may have less convincing stories than the person harassing them because, frankly, when you are being harassed/stalked you never have a good answer to the question: “Why is this person harassing you?” A victim might say something like, “I don’t know. I wish they would stop.” But the harasser might say “That person is out to get me! Let me explain everything that’s evil about them.” The latter is more interesting and engaging. Some people abuse because they feel persecuted — those feelings are real, and they are convincing to people who do not know any different. .

There is also a need to create intentional forms of privacy for all concerned especially while a case is being sorted out. This can be essential to providing some degree of relief, for victims, from harassment — this is especially important where harassment unfolds in professional contexts. These needs for transparency/discretion are not necessarily at odds with each other. Not all practices of publicity are the same. Not all practices of privacy are the same. Every case is different. 

This is not to say that campus administrative practices are reasonable. They are often illogical, unproductive and harmful. What I mean to communicate here is: the decisions people make about what to say to whom are not always guided by policy. They may be guided by ideology, a need to disavow, or by a need for space. They might be guided by policy — but in my experience, remarkably few people actually read whatever the policy might be. And, furthermore, some policy is confusing and actually impossible to honor.

Reading and Writing Harassment

Harassment campaigns are now sometimes intensified via social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, as well as through the unmoderated comments sections of a range of websites. Within those media spaces it can be hard to tell the difference between a story about harassment, and a story that is itself harassing. It can even be hard to tell the difference between transparency and harassment. 

As I hope one might glean from all that I’ve written here, the uncertainty that haunts writing about sexual harassment is not only an effect of an institution’s confidentiality rules. It is an effect of sexual harassment itself — it is an effect of the discourse of sex, sexism, the relational and social nature of harassment. This does not mean that the identity of the agent and the object of harassment is unknowable. This information is knowable by the community of people impacted by harassment. It is knowable to harassment’s victims.  It is not always knowable, however, to the agent of harassment — some of them are driven to harass by persecution complexes. Nothing you say will convince them that the victim (or the system) isn’t out to get them.

People reading about harassment cases should be careful about engaging the story via comments sections and social media. If you aren’t in the community immediately impacted by a case — if your encounter with the “news” of a case is only through social media/blogging — by commenting, engaging that story you are at risk of being instrumentalized in someone’s harassment campaign.  Casual publicity often intensifies and aggravates harassment dynamics.

Kipnis of course explores the question of what one can and can’t say — the first of her publications to take on Title IX administration was centered on a case unfolding on her own campus, a case which she treated as emblematic of a national problem. She then wrote about her experience of being investigated after students close to that primary case filed a complaint against her — that led to her book.

Writing about sexual harassment is very hard to do without participating in the discourses and economies of harassment. This why Kipnis was subjected to a complaint. She became a part of the story. The first article that she published brought even more attention to the case than it had already generated — for some people impacted by the case, that attention intensified the harassment dynamic patterning their lives. For others involved in that story, the attention she brought to the case might have felt empowering, helpful. Kipnis’s op-ed escalated things at Northwestern, and she became involved in the case. That was entirely predictable. 

Like Kipnis, I wrote a book in response to a close encounter with the administration of harassment.  Our books, however, are as different from each other as are our cases. As I stated above, I don’t write much about my own case.  Over the two years it took for my case to unwind, I wrote lots of emails, memos and complaints. I’m appalled now when I look back at all that writing— long, insanely detailed narration of all that I’d been through. I sent unreadable emails to my Dean, to various administrators — to colleagues of all sorts. I don’t know what I thought these people could do. I was scrambling,  scrambling for some moment of recognition — some connection with the apparatus — I realize now that I was caught in the maw of what some scholars have called “institutional betrayal” — and that I’d placed myself in the dead-end situation of demanding that the institution somehow “fix” the problem. The institution can’t — to this day — even see that there is a problem. (Some of the problems created by the poor administration of my case remain an aspect of my working life.)

I found myself in a situation in which I had to tell the story over and over again as I ran the gauntlet of university proceedings, as my EEOC complaint was processed, as I navigated campus police, security teams, the District Attorney’s office. By the time I got to the end of that process, I experienced telling the story — the compulsion to tell the story — as a part of the harassment dynamic which had shaped far too much of my life.

In CS/CS, I work-through the situation of being compelled to narrate. My position as a critic is usually quite legible in my work — but in my writing on harassment, I hardly use the first person — I wanted to dissolve into the text. Harassment makes you want to disappear. This aspect of the text frustrates some people — that’s OK. CS/CS is meant to frustrate certain readers.

I was eventually relieved of the need, compulsion and obligation to tell the story — all of this dissolved when the harassment itself ended. The residue of the crisis, for me, took the form of a need to write about the situation of having to — I wanted to describe the coerciveness of that storytelling structure. Doing so has been a way of letting a lot of stuff go, and of getting myself to a place from which I can advocate for other models of working together. Doing so was important as a way of practicing theory as a form of working-through.

With regards the case that Kipnis gets wrong: I am not a complainant or even an important witness. I am connected to it, however, as a teacher working in the impacted community, and I am connected as a scholar who writes about sexual harassment and security discourse.  It is no small part of my working life — I’m impacted by it — but it is not “my” case, exactly. It is our case, meaning, the harm was done to a community of people — I’m a member of that community, and I’m committed to anti-harassment work. 

While I was looking to process the difficulty of writing about these things, I reached out to colleague who was reading Kipnis’s book. I wanted to connect, to talk out this issue with someone in the field — I wanted to talk about what it means to write about actual cases without researching them (as Kipnis had done). That person replied with a remark that was nearly identical to Kipnis’s. They said, “I wouldn’t take the word of people involved in the case on faith any more than I’d take the Kipnis version.” 

Involved in the case in what way, I wondered? What did they imagine I was going to say? Is what Kipnis says about something that happened to people close to me more valuable than what I have to say about it? Am I too close, I wonder, to say anything? Does the fact that I write about harassment — as someone who has been harassed — make me less reliable, rather than more? 

Do I need to recount the details of my own case in order for the reader to believe that I have anything useful to say about harassment? Do I need to authenticate my expertise with a performance of my own misery? Or have I already done too much of that for this, even to read as, say, scholarship

CS/CS is written from inside that problem.

Anti-Harassment Writing

Bullying and harassment are social phenomena — they only happen within a group structure. The group facilitates — it amplified and conducts. The bully and the bullied are not two sides having a bad conversation — harassment is not a dialogue. It is a powerful, debilitating dynamic which acquires additional force from the discriminatory, hierarchical structures that define academic life. It’s a form of surveillance and punishment. It is fueled by paranoia, and it breeds paranoia. It’s incredibly difficult to confront alone, never mind stop.

There is a very big difference between writing about harassment, and writing guided by a commitment to fighting harassment dynamics. When I want to write in response to a case I’m reading about — never mind a case I’m involved in — I interrogate that impulse. What do I bring to the conversation? Does this story cycle need my participation? Will my writing make anything better?

Nothing short of long-form investigative journalism will give an outsider meaningful perspective on individual harassment cases, and even then a lot goes unsaid. Consider that infamous Rolling Stone article: that a source is compelling does not make that source reliable. This is true whether one is talking about someone who says they were victimized, or someone who says they were falsely accused.

I also feel strongly that a harassment case should not make news if all it does is make news. Publicity with no intention beyond itself amplifies a sense of crisis.

As you read the next “hot take” on a harassment case — or feel compelled to write one — consider the very real possibility that the story you write is or will evolve into an instrument of harassment. I’m not saying don’t write, but if you keep this in mind, you will write differently.

Campus Sex/Campus Security attempts to create the conditions of possibility for insight — for the reader to sense what harassment is, without amplifying harassment’s debilitating effects. 

Imperial Scaffolding

The Walker Art Center postponed the June 3 opening of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden in order to dismantle “Scaffold,” a work by the artist Sam Durant.

“Scaffold” combines architectural elements of seven historical scaffolds used in state-sanctioned hangings. It includes the elements of the structure built for the December 26, 1862 mass execution of 38 Dakota men in Mankato. This largest mass execution in US history was ordered by Lincoln in the same week he issued the Emancipation Proclamation. It is a terrible gash in U.S. history marking the violence hidden in nationalist, white supremacist mythologies of freedom. Members of the region’s American Indian community protested the inclusion of this work in the city’s public garden. After consulting with protesters and the artist, the Walker announced that it would take the work down.

[For a very thorough overview of the arc of this story, its historical and community contexts, see “Everything You Need to Know About Gallows Being Removed from the Sculpture Garden,” and also this statement from Chief Arvol Looking Horse — published on this Facebook account. The comments accompanying that post include different perspectives on “Scaffold” and its dismantling.]

Within the context of Documenta (where it was first exhibited in 2012), “Scaffold” had a certain power. There, it manifested a critique of the art world’s limits – but the limits of that critique become too painful to bear when the work is placed in a public park 80 miles from the city in which these men were murdered.

Reviewing the history of that execution, I was struck by the fact that the special correspondent who reported the story for The New York Times dedicated a long paragraph to the scaffold:

The instrument upon which the extreme sentence of the law was to be performed, was constructed in a very simple yet most ingenious manner. It was erected upon the main street, directly opposite the jail, and between it and the river. The shape of this structure was a perfect square, and not, as has been stated, a diamond. The cause of this latter error being made was because the sides of the structure was not parallel with the front line of the jail; but being built on an oblique across the roadway presented a point or angle to both the river and jail. The base of the gallows consisted of a square formed by four rough logs, one foot each in diameter, and twenty feet long. From each corner of this square rose a heavy round pole, running up to a height of twenty feet, while from the centre came another but heavier timber, rising to about the same height. At an elevation of six feet from the ground was a platform, so constructed as to slide easily up and down the corner pillars, and with a large opening in the centre around the middle mast or post. From each corner of this platform a rope or cable was fastened to a movable iron ring that slid up and down middle mast by means of a rope fastened to one of its sides. This rope was taken to the top of the mast, run through a pulley, and returned to a point between the ground and the second frame or platform, and made fast. The mechanism of the whole thing consisted in raking the platform by means of the pulley, and then making the rope fast, when by a blow from an ax by a man standing in the centre of the square, the platform falls; the large opening in its centre protects the executioner from being crushed by the fall. About eight feet above the platform, when in its raised position, was another frame similar to the ground square, morticed into the corner pillars. Into these timbers were cut notches, ten on each side of the frame, at equal distances, and a short piece of rope was passed around the beam of each notch, and tied securely. Depending from this again was the fatal noose. And now having described the scaffold as it appeared when ready for its victims, we pass to.

[I feel] Durant must have read this account: his work taps into its cold turn to the architecture of a hanging. This intensely clinical, almost unreadable paragraph leads directly into the account of the hanging itself. The paragraph serves as a form of suspense — a delay in the reader’s gratification. You can read that article (link below) if you like, but, before clicking through, beware. The story is saturated with racism. It makes grisly turns to the suffering of the executed — it holds very little back — the emotional economy of this dispatch moves towards its terrible resolution, concluding with the victorious shouts from people in the crowd who saw their own wounds avenged in mass death. One wants to bear witness, but not from a position that confirms the authority of the settler colonial state. [NYT: The Indian Executions: An interesting account, from our special correspondent]

Responding to the community outcry regarding Durant’s citation of this history, Olga Viso, the museum’s Executive Director, published a thoughtful open letter expressing a readiness to be present to her institution’s decision, and to take responsibility for the museum’s lack of awareness. The artist was eager to do the same. By withdrawing this large public sculpture — and by arriving at this decision so quickly (in barely a week?) — the Walker and the artist have demonstrated a willingness to confront the limits of (in this instance) anti-racist art made by white people within institutional contexts dominated by white people. From inside the museum, one must ask: am I drawn to this work because it is strong and challenging, or because the artist’s orientation to these traumatic histories is closest to my own? What does that mean? Does this work address the communities my institution serves? How? Is the community which holds that traumatic history a part of my institution’s audience? Does my institution have the capacity to support the difficulty of this work? Is it supportable? Does work like this engage people who recognize, who know, who feel these wounds? How?

I’m attracted to the story of “Scaffold” because, while one might be tempted to frame the dismantling of this work as a form of censorship, the withdrawal of the work signals, in my view, a willingness to be present to the difficulty of making work about state-sanctioned murder — it signals an openness to confronting, to recognizing a work’s limits. “Scaffold” is startling, strong — but it also feels cynical, almost fascistic in its formalism.

A Star Tribune story by Alicia Eler featured the following observation from writer and activist Sasha Houston Brown:

“It’s five generations ago, and really we have to realize that 1862 was not that long ago,” said Sasha Houston Brown, who is Dakota. “I think it should publicly be taken down so we can see it come down. It’s really traumatizing for our people to look at that and have it just appear without any warning or idea that they were doing this. And it’s not art to us.”

Brown describes the work as callousness and as “not art to us.” This situated denunciation (“not art to us“) is pointed — the articulation of the boundary between art and not-art is profoundly colonial. Not only does that distinction relegate much indigenous cultural expression to the category of artifact, it also coats the reception of contemporary art by Native artists in a language of folk art — placing such work at terrific remove from art historical discourse about contemporary art practice. That reception may also be oblivious to the work’s engagement with traditions themselves — an engagement might be critical, playful, parodic, imaginative, speculative, biographical, apocryphal and more. Furthermore, museums have absorbed into their collections objects with profound meaning — objects stolen from people and exhibited in a state of what one can only describe as an ongoing cosmic violation. [For an introduction to this important subject and how it matters to artists, see David Garneau’s lecture, “From Colonial Trophy Case to Non-Colonial Keeping House“]

The questioning of what art is, who an artist is, and what an artist does is right on the surface of much contemporary art-making. In an essay on the artist James Luna, Paul Chaat Smith describes the Native artist working experimentally/conceptually as an “escape artist” who eludes institutional forms of capture — whose practice is articulated through flight.  He writes:

“To mount a serious challenge to the accepted order of things involving Indians, a prerequisite for making Indian conceptual art, one must become an expert in the fine art of staging jailbreaks…I am speaking not of literal jails but of the ideological apparatus that powerfully creates its own world of expectations and normalcy.

In North America, the ideological prison that confines Indian agency has unique features. We have never been simply ignored, or simply romanticized, or been merely the targets of assimilation or genocide. It is rather all these things and many more, often at the same time in different places. The prison is a dreamcatcher, a vapor. It is both vicious and flattering, flexible and never monolithic. It can’t be refuted or denied. It just is. Most devastating of all, the ideological prison is capable of becoming an elixir that we Indian people ourselves find irresistible.  [From “Luna Remembers” in Everything You Know About Indians is Wrong]

Contemporary artists working from and with indigenous contexts are scarcely visible to the contemporary art world — this mirrors the ongoing violence of the projection of indigenous life into the past as “lost” and “extinct.” And so “Scaffold” appeared to some as a way into a history that is otherwise inaccessible. But from a different perspective — “Scaffold” looks like a blank re-presentation of ongoing violence. It looks something like an ideological prison.

Durant’s work often has this re-presentative form. He has long history of making work that confronts racist structures of power — or that is, at least, about confronting racist structures of power. I’ve always struggled with this element of his work: it raises, for me, the question of what it means to make work about anti-racist forms of struggle, and what it means to make anti-racist work — it raises the question of the difference between one thing and the other.

I believe that “Scaffold” is meant to represent the blankness, the flatness of the machine — the mechanics of state-sanctioned violence as something that is administered. (“The instrument upon which the extreme sentence of the law was to be performed, was constructed in a very simple yet most ingenious manner.”) Durant’s architectural work is so blank, however, that when situated in public, it risks becoming a playground.

At a historical moment when so many seem to enjoy their murderous racism, this is not bearable.

We can greet the news of this work’s dismantling with a sigh of relief. Perhaps the action of taking it apart will operate as some kind of cleansing — if not of the history that the work cites, then of the institutional failures which had placed that history at so very great a remove.

[5/30/17: A few people closer to Minneapolis have shared their perspective in comments regarding this post on my Facebook page. Those remarks are worth sharing here. From Angela Anderson:

I think it’s worth adding – for all of those unfamiliar with Minneapolis geography – that the Walker Art Center and the American Indian Center & the Little Earth housing complex are located on two diametrically opposed ends of the same street (Franklin Ave). One end is situated on the edge of one of Minneapolis’s most posh neighborhoods (the Walker), while the other one in a neighborhood made up of largely poor/working class poc (the American Indian Center/Little Earth), which was plagued by police violence for many years (and maybe still is). As a former Mpls resident, reading about this sculpture and the non-interaction with anyone in the Dakota community (even though they are down the street) made me very angry & very happy that it’s being taken down.

On top of that, the Mankato hanging was part of an ongoing genocide, and not just a “state-sponsored hanging”.

I couldn’t agree more — these executions concentrate that (also state-sanctioned) ongoing genocide into a single spectacle —  this was a public execution, punctuating the War of 1862. It is worth taking a minute to learn about this war — one might start with the Minnesota Historical Society’s website.  Aren Aizura remarks on the location: “the Sculpture Garden is on Minneapolis Parks and Rec land, so the decision is not just about the difficulty of art in an abstract sense but public accountability more generally.” Sheila Regan’s article for Hyperallergic includes a lot of information about the protests, Durant’s work, the site itself — including photos. I’ve chosen not to reproduce those images in order to encourage clicking through to Regan’s essay. The photo below is as the work appeared at Documenta.]

[6/1/17: Here, a report on the outcome of the mediation: Agreement Reached on Scaffold.]

 

durant-daily-pic_klmulz
Sam Durant, “Scaffold” (2012). Photo by Lucy Hogg.

news

Just caught myself wondering, what is it that I am dreading?

I feel something pressing. There is something specific.

A problem I could not solve. An enemy I’d forgotten. A deadline.

Or is it something in the headlines?

I draw a blank; there is too much to track.

 

collage

 

Notes on Open Casket

Dana Schutz’s painting Open Casket is, at the moment, the defining controversy of the 2017 Whitney Biennial. It is an oddly blank, quasi-expressionist painting based on the photographs of Emmett Till’s body that were published in Jet in 1955. A community of artists, scholars and concerned people have asked that the painting be removed from the exhibit — some have suggested that it be destroyed. Below are some thoughts about this.

The Schutz painting is controversial — offensive — for a lot of reasons. A section of Hold It Against Me centers on Carrie Mae Weems’s work (“From Here I Saw What Happened…And I Cried”) — there I take up how Weems navigates just this overdetermined terrain — making anti-racist work about emotion/affect, sentiment and racism. That section was hard to write because Weems’s work is challenging. If I have anything to say about Open Casket, it’s because I spent a lot of time thinking with “From Here I Saw…” 

A white woman artist made work which reproduces the photograph of the brutalized face of a black boy who was murdered in a lynching provoked by a white woman’s false accusation. Right out of the gate, the scenario is overdetermined. Black artists’ work is read all the time as “about” blackness — all the time. And often by critics who are not equipped to say anything on that topic at all. (Thinking of NYT art critic Ken Johnson, for example. Jerry Saltz is no better.) Reading a work as “about” race, racism, racial difference is no easy thing — what is that word “about” about? What is blackness is this work? How does the artist’s identity and location matter? In the art world, presenting work as “about” race is often done in such crude terms — this is powerfully true when that presentation unfolds in an art space in which there is not enough expertise re (for example) the 300+ years of debate regarding aesthetics and politics where anti-racist forms of representations are concerned. Debate staged within communities of abolitionist thinkers and artists, debate staged within black communities in, say, the 19th C. In my experience, a lot of people in positions of power and authority in the art world know next to nothing about that body of knowledge. (You can see this changing in at least leadership of some LA institutions. Oddly, I think museums are maybe “getting it” faster than Art History and Art departments?) Artists of colors are routinely put in such intense representative positions vis a vis race/ethnicity. White artists are not. White artists are rarely held to account for the place and function of whiteness in their work. Open Casket is absolutely about whiteness — it is a perfect expression of the relationship of white authorship to black suffering. In this painting, in the artist and museum discourse about it, a very white sentimental formation takes shape around the dead body of a black boy murdered by white men in the name of protecting a white woman. It’s in the zone of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. A modernist, painterly version of what Baldwin called a catalogue of violence (“Everybody’s Protest Novel” — helpful reading for “getting” this particular debate.) It is actually right that a white woman artist take up this subject, but taking up the subject alone is not enough. Doing so meaningfully takes an active commitment and a lot of expertise. Working with that particular image archive — the photographs of Till’s body — comes with a lot of responsibility — a responsibility to the history, and to a canon of artworks and performances by mostly (but not only) black artists. Billie Holiday, Charles Chesnutt, Nina Simone, James Baldwin, Leon Golub, Carrie Mae Weems, William Pope L., Aaron Douglas, Bettye Saar…the list goes on and on. Making anti-racist work requires fluency. There is a large, meaningful and important bibliography of criticism on this subject — Stuart Hall, Saidiya Hartmann, Audre Lorde, Elizabeth Alexander, Lauren Berlant, Eric Lott, Kobena Mercer, Hortense Spillers, Angela Davis, Fred Moten — that list goes on and on. Almost none of these artists and writers figure into the education of BFA/MFA tracked artists; almost none of these writers have figured into the curriculum of art historians, critics and curators. I mean, what art historians not working in African American Art History read The Souls of Black Folk — or Langston Hughes’s essay “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain”? What art historians not working in African American Studies know Baldwin’s essay on Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Native Son? Outside of the communities of artists of color and art-workers of color, there are too few people who can do a studio visit with Schutz and break down where a painting like that goes off the rails.

A lot of racism goes into the creating the conditions of possibility in which people can’t see what’s wrong with the painting until it’s too late.

hate’s favorite genre

The gleeful troll, the smug right wing extremist who casts “political correctness” as the enemy of fun — this is not a new formation. Racists, sexists and homophobes claim satire for themselves — that genre allows them to disguise their genocidal lust. That they enjoy their hate makes them more frightening, not less. A reminder: for those holding the rope, a lynching is not somber affair.   

A Waste of Good Shoe Leather?

A Waste of Shoe Leather?

On the afternoon of May 22, 1970 forty seven student protestors were arrested, charged with unlawful assembly for blocking traffic along Shaw Avenue outside Fresno State University. The students were protesting issues that ranged from the war in Vietnam to the removal of the university’s lone Black Studies professor, Marvin X. My father, who was among the arrested, always maintained that the protest was infiltrated by police provocateurs, that is, counter-demonstrators hired by the cops to hurl rocks, incite mayhem and discredit the aims of the protest. For his involvement, my father would pay a heavy price; expelled for his role in the demonstration, he lost his scholarship and his draft deferment and was subsequently drafted to fight in the very war that he had protested that day in May.

The case against bringing bodies into the streets begins here, with the susceptibility of spectacular protest to sabotage.

The week that Philando Castile was shot dead by police in front of his girlfriend Lavish Reynolds and their daughter, the same week that Alton Sterling went down to police bullets, protest marches and rallies were convened in cities across the country, some under the banner of Black Lives Matter, some under no banner whatsoever. Almost wholly peaceful in their demonstration of righteous indignation at not only these but several videotaped killings of unarmed black men by police, the protest actions were capped by the incongruous act of a lone wolf murderer in the early Dallas evening: Micah X. Johnson, a military veteran with advanced weapons training, positioned himself outside the perimeter of the protest and fired upon police, murdering five. At least for some, Johnson’s act overshadowed the message of the protests themselves, despite the fact that Johnson had no affiliation with BLM or any other widely recognized organization.

The afrocentrist historian John Henrik Clarke once called protest marches a waste of good shoe leather. This might be too dismissive. But given that their only barrier to entry is the perimeter that the police set and even this is permeable, their resultant susceptibility to infiltration and re-direction from all manner of forces makes street protests seem like the lowest, commonest fruit on the tree of resistance.

In the days after Donald Trump secured the electoral college majority and became President-elect, spontaneous street demonstrations, some peaceful, others riotous, broke out nationwide. Now, with his inauguration, an estimated 200,000 demonstrators converge on the nation’s capitol to protest Trump’s race-baiting and misogyny, his xenophobia, and ultimately his victory in an election where the popular vote tally tilted against him by more than 2.5 million votes cast. But what, if anything, will all these planned protests amount to? Obviously, no one tactic will turn ripe what is rotten in our Denmark, but are there better tactics than taking ourselves into the streets to hurl our bodies upon the gears of the system?

Certainly, there are other ways, as demonstrated by the anti-Obamacare town halls of 2009. Deemed vitriolic and out-of-control by many in the media, these protest forums nevertheless provided conservatives a highly televisable forum to harangue the Affordable Care Act and to foment a relentless opposition that has culminated in Donald Trump’s promise, however flimsy, to repeal ACA. Activists on the left would do well to take up the town hall formula: Its controlled, enclosed space has some advantages over the streets, among them that weapons can be kept out, limiting the lone wolf element, and that TV cameras can easily capture the fervor and specific thesis of the proceedings, whereas street protests are often portrayed by TV news as more diffuse than in fact they are.

It should be noted that street protests of police shootings have resulted in several city police departments deciding to equip their officers with body cameras, a significant concession to police oversight advocates. Whether this reform can withstand the back-sliding that is likely to take place across police departments nationally once Trump starts beating the law and order drum from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is another matter.

It remains to be seen what will come of all the post-election protests. In view of the vulnerability of street protest to sabotage and lone wolf actions, the blood and treasure expended will seem, to many in the mainstream, too heavy a price to pay, resulting in the marginalization both of the protestors and their message. Witness, for instance, the widespread and false notion that Black Lives Matter is a radical front organization for cop killers, responsible for the murders of police in Dallas and Baton Rouge when, in fact, BLM is a nakedly stated sentiment and crowdsourced concept without headquarters, centralized leadership or fixed agenda.

In Oakland after the election, street demonstrations against Trump’s multiform assault on decency themselves turned ugly, with scattered but spectacular acts of violence, windows broken, a building set alight. We have a bad reputation, by the way: According to FOX News, the city of Oakland has been nuked to the daisies by its own inhabitants at least five times annually since forever yet, amazingly, enough of us seem to survive the carnage to do it all over again come the next crisis in the American conscience. Point being, the substance of Oakland’s protests is typically subsumed in the national consciousness by the fits of violence that follow close in the wake of the on-message protesters like an anarchic second line. Not just the political right, but mainstream folks of all stripes, driven to moderation by their jobs and the responsibilities of parenthood and property see Oakland’s street protests as something to stay clear of. I mostly stay away, for my own reasons.

As my dad, who was only kept out of war by the congenital condition that would one day kill him, grew older, he decided that John Henrik Clarke was right about protest marches wasting sneaker tread and shoe leather, and, heir to that line of experience and thought, I find myself thinking not about when the march will meet, but what comes after the placards go back in boxes and people return to the everydayness of living.

After the first two nights of protest, the Oakland police came out in force. It was a Saturday night and in gentrifying Oakland that meant people with money would descend downtown to dine at pricey restaurants. Prime commercial hours can never, in America, be jeopardized. The police presence was impressive in the full meaning of that word and the night went quietly as a nodding drunk. A day or two before, a Facebook invite had gone out calling for a silent Sunday afternoon demonstration at 3-mile wide Lake Merritt near downtown. It was estimated that thirty-five hundred people would be needed to ring the entire lake. By my count, three times that number showed up to silently express their disquiet with the turn our national politics has taken. We nodded at one another, smiled, held hands, bowed our heads, and abstained from chucking Molotov cocktails at glass windows. And we wondered what, beyond simple solidarity, this well-organized, on-message, highly mannered, mostly middle-aged, less than urgent demonstration achieved.

For me, there was nothing more. For me, street protest, whether malicious or milquetoast, serves the singular purpose of fortifying the protestors, of reminding each lone person that “You are not alone because I am here, too. All of us are here. We together will stoke this fire.” But the spectacle becomes obsolete precisely at the point where solidarity is no longer enough.

Just above our heads, drones of unknown origin orbited. It was a low-tech reminder that the state no longer exerts and replenishes its power through crowding bodies into the streets to see men crucified or drawn-and-quartered. Instead its power is maintained through systems of surveillance that are, if not always over our heads, often virtual and invisible. Ed Snowden exposed a host of semi-secret surveillance programs, all of which the American public has been assured are laser-focused on the bad guys abroad and in our midst and not on us. One is free to draw one’s own conclusions about America’s bedtime stories— the point is that the technological complexity by which the government girds itself against dissent renders primitive the grassroots left taking to the streets whenever injustices become too obvious or brutal to bear.

In the saga that will be Donald Trump’s season in power, various injustices will come to pass. It is in the nature of power, especially when held by a vindictive arbiter in a nation as powerful and as anxious as ours. Many on the Left fear Trump’s threats made against the press, against undocumented immigrants, women and individuals whom he personally dislikes. But if Trump’s policies prove ineffective or, worse, indifferent to the wayward working-class voters he’s excited, Trump may find that he has loosed political forces he cannot control. And then his authoritarian tendencies will be that much more troubling. Given that presidential powers have seen rapid expansion over the past several presidencies and given the post-9/11 expansion of the government’s capability to surveil us, the prospect of a malign individual given to retaliatory rage serving as Commander-in-Chief is, in Trump talk, very bad. Maybe the Donald once in Office will return to his roots in absurd celebrity. But if President Trump is the man he sold himself as on the campaign trail, there is great cause for concern.

But there is also cause for hope. And that hope is not in the protest actions we’ve seen of late, but in protective, restorative and ameliorative organizations and their sustained campaigns against injustice.

I wish my dad could have lived to see the water protectors at Standing Rock. The conflict at Standing Rock is not a protest action. It is not a march. It is a renaissance in the Goliath and David struggle for Indian dignity and sovereignty in their native lands. It is being engaged on the levels of legislation, land occupation, peaceful protest, confrontations with the police, and sabotage. As with the struggle for black freedom and freedom struggles throughout time, everything is on the table, including disorganized acts of resistance. And here the enemy is clear, and the resistance is not for a season alone.

There is not yet reason to oppose Trump to the degree that one sees the Dakota Access Pipeline battled at Standing Rock. But if Trump challenges the denial of easement decision of the Army Corps of Engineers on Standing Rock, and if his presidency turns as his campaign did to America’s most terrible motive forces, isolationism, xenophobia, and a draconian law and order politics, then taking to the streets will serve as little more than a first head count.

Germ Theory and the Erotics of Hate

He can’t shake a person’s hand for fear of being contaminated by it. He is himself so revolting that one winces at the idea of his touch.

At some point in the distant past he came into contact with his loathsomeness. Disgust with his fat. Anger at the blotches of his skin. The awful shape of his lips.

He buries his awfulness under a wig. A thin disguise. It is his mother’s hair — he is her baby; he wears her pussy on his head.

Their last moment of contact.

A hirsute emblem for his boundary problems.

Because he cannot contain himself, in the middle of the night he furtively cycles through a handful of stock obsessions. These are public figures — people who are loved, powerful, charming. People who appear to be at ease with themselves and with the world. People he sees as having what he deserves, people he sees as not getting what they deserve.

Because everything we have is his, we should have nothing. A storm of debt, he is himself less than nothing. He sucks the world down a gold toilet — we are, in this story, so much shit.

He commissions a ritual in a fancy hotel: he makes ‘whores’ piss on those he hates. He sits in a chair at the edge of the room. He does not touch a thing — not even his own horrible self.