Faculty Spotlight: Roger Lancaster Granted Research Leave for 2017-18 Academic Year

Cultural Studies faculty member, Roger Lancaster, was granted research leave for the 2017-18 academic year. He will continue advising student’s research during that time, but this leave will afford him the opportunity to take up new research of his own. Adam Proctor caught up with Lancaster for an update.

You recently embarked on a year of research leave. How have you spent your summer?

So far, I’ve spent the summer writing provocations for Jacobin.

One considers identity politics, not as the natural state of social movements against homophobia, racism, sexism, etc., but as a devolved or derivative form associated with neoliberalism and diminished political horizons.

The other gives a brief history of mass incarceration in the US and shows that neither the prison abolitionists’ linear histories of the prison nor their normative goal of abolishing prisons are adequate.


Tell us about your current research project — where will you be located?

I’m in Mexico, beginning write-up of a long-term ethnographic project on globalization and gay life here.

I’ve been working on this over the last ten years. The advantage of long-term ethnographic research is that instead of asking how globalization—or for that matter, capital—might act if it obeyed the formulaic rules or laws, we can try to understand how changes are experienced on the social ground, amidst institutional shifts, the heave and shove of classes, and the messiness of everyday life in general.


Do you have preliminary findings?

Two things stand out.

First, globalization has changed everyday sexual cultures here—or perhaps better put, it has been associated with changes having to do with the end of one-party rule, wider leeway given to civil society, the proliferation of sped-up social media, a relative decline of forms of authority based in religion and family, and consequently an expansion of gay spaces and scenes (bars, clubs, NGOs). These are the liberalizing components of neoliberal globalization. But not all of the changes of the past 20 years have been happy ones, and on the down side, neoliberal globalization is also the story of widening social inequalities, ramped-up corruption, narco-warafare, and other glaring maladies which might suggest that life is becoming more fraught, more violent, for most people. So this too is part of the picture. Against such a backdrop, many of my informants dream of having a gay life—as they understand it, as it might be depicted in gay guides or gay-themed movies—which eludes them. One thinks of Lauren Berlant's picture of frustrated citizenship in Cruel Optimism.

Second, what specifically stands in the way of most people’s desires for a better life often has to do with social class. Now it’s no secret that when cultural studies scholars have recited the litany—race, gender, sexuality, and class—they only pay lip service to the final term. I want to put class at the forefront of the picture. To be very obvious: up to 40% of the population lives on $5 a day or less, while cover charges or minimum consumption tabs at gay clubs might come to $10. The cosmopolitan gay life is simply not accessible to very large numbers of poor and working-class people. But there are other more subtle effects in play. In Mexico people talk a lot about skin color, rusticity, or implied indigeneity, but what they mean by these terms, really, has everything to do with class. Although discrimination based on race, ethnicity, and so on, is formally prohibited, social scenes, including the gay scene, do erect barriers against class mixing—and this, too, is an important part of the picture.

So on the one hand, you have gay visibility as never before. On the other hand, you also have various forms of exclusion operating alongside concerted efforts by municipal authorities to shut down gay scenes where class mixing might occur and to also curb those social spaces where lower-class gays, lesbians, and transgender people historically have cruised, celebrated, found partners, and made social lives. All of this happens without direct reference to homophobic intent—indeed, it celebrates tolerance—much less other prohibited forms of discrimination. And you can’t make sense of any of it unless you start with class.

So that’s what I'm working on in a nutshell.

It might sound depressing, but I’m hoping that part of what also comes through is people’s perseverance in the face of adversities and obstacles. And many activists on the scene here “get” this.