EDGES BLOG: CSC Interview with Roderick Ferguson

The Cultural Studies Program’s colloquium (CSC) series features talks by distinguished scholars from across the disciplines. Graduate student M. Liz Andrews spoke with Roderick Ferguson, professor of American Studies at the University of Minnesota.

To begin, let us acknowledge the passing of Professor Stuart Hall. Our own Dr. Paul Smith wrote an email to the Mason Cultural Studies community stating that Hall was “indisputably a colossus in our field–indeed, perhaps the only such figure.” On behalf of the emerging generation of scholars, and specifically those of us in the field of Cultural Studies, what lessons must we learn from Stuart Hall?

One of the essays that comes to mind is Stuart Hall’s Cultural Studies and its Theoretical Legacies. The argument there is that Cultural Studies is about the delineation of stakes. Whatever else it is, it is always trying to assess the historical moment and trying to look for the possibility of an intervention within that moment. Those are some of the things I take away from Stuart Hall’s work – that there is a sort of necessary politicization to the scholarship. It is about developing strategies and tactics to intervene in the given historical formation.

The other things that come to mind about Stuart Hall and his work have to do with his openness as a reader and a listener. If you read his work, if you have seen the film, John Akonfrah’s The Stuart Hall Project, you really get a sense of a scholar’s evolution. Hall said that with the encounter with feminism, we had to confront the fact that we were an all boy’s club. There had to be an openness to receiving feminist critiques. That is something I have always tried to mobilize within myself and produce within myself as a scholar: not to recoil from an epistemological challenge, but to figure out ways to embrace that challenge.

Another thing I learned from Stuart Hall — this wasn’t necessarily something that was in the essays — my first year of grad school, George Lipsitz invited Stuart Hall and Catherine Hall to UC San Diego. George was my advisor, so he invited me to dinner with them. I remember Stuart Hall saying this thing at dinner when someone asked him the question of cultural studies now: Is it what he wanted it to be? And he responded by saying that, of course with any intellectual formation, it goes in directions you never really intended and that his job was not necessarily to police, and take on a patriarchal position of laying down the law of what cultural studies is. That refusal of a kind of logocentrism, I have always tried to observe, and think about, and enact. Especially now that queer of color critique, a formation that I was a part of, has sort of taken off the ground and gone in many different directions.

I’d like to put you in conversation with our most recent colloquium speaker, Walter Benn Michaels. During his talk, Dr. Michaels argued that anti-racism and anti-discrimination are good for the functioning of capitalism. In many ways, this argument mirrors one that is central to your most recent book, The Reorder of Things: The University and Its Pedagogies of Minority Difference. Your book brings to light the ways that the 1960s and 70s protest movements in the U.S., namely the civil rights movement and women’s liberation movements, led to the selective integration of minorities, of difference, into the university and into the state. I would like to read you a portion of Professor Michaels’ interview for Edges and hear where you think there may be dissonance and resonance between your arguments.

“Part of the point of distinguishing class from race and gender is that class is a fundamentally unequal relation — it cannot be made equal in a capitalist society. Whereas race and gender are fundamentally equal relations and what a liberal society wants is for us to recognize the equality that in fact exists. Thus, nothing, in my view, is more confused than something like intersectionality, the idea that weaving all these things together will get you a more sophisticated account when in fact you get a more confused account — with the ideological effect of helping produce a society where people are extremely attached to a particular form of social justice (anti-discrimination) while being extremely disconnected from another model of social justice (anti-exploitation).”

Dr. Ferguson, your thoughts?

I, like a lot of people who claim the category intersectionality and have tried to resignify it, would not agree with an assessment that to care about race, to care about gender, to care about sexuality, is not to care about class inequality. So, off the bat, that is not a position that I can agree with. My own interest, which I take to be a kind of archaeological one in intersectional analysis, is precisely reading it for the ways in which it was always and already the critique of political economy.

If you think of something like Fran Beal’s 1970 article, interrogating the roles of black women called “Double Jeopardy“: there you have an intersectional analysis before the category existed that is every bit about capitalist political governments. If you think about Angela Davis’ work, “Reflections on the Black Woman’s Role in the Community of Slaves,” in many ways that is also a sort of labor analysis that tries to rethink the category of labor through the historical figure of the black slave; none other than the black slave woman. I think that the literature and also the history are pretty rich in terms of talking about experiments with intersectional analysis that were also ways of re-approaching the text of political economy and the text of Capital. For instance, you think about Gayatri Spivak’s work in this regard; you think about Jacqui Alexander’s work in this regard. All of those works are ways of re-theorizing capital, neocolonial capital, neoliberal capital, by thinking about the various modes of difference that go into their articulation.

So, it’s not an argument that resonates with me, the one that wants to see something ontological about class as a category by which we can observe inequality, whereas with these other categories, they’re about, not the observation of inequality, but the progressive development into liberal notions of equality. That actually flies in the face of a lot of work, not just in this century, but in the prior century, too.

Finally, I would like to reflect back to the 2008 Barack Obama Presidential campaign. I’m going to venture to say that this campaign season represented a moment in American history, as well as electoral politics, unlike one we had seen before. Technology, media, race, and art were all instrumental in building a broad coalition of support for the candidate. It was not a movement against the state, or for rights and resources outside of the state; it was something that almost felt like a movement but was very much within the parameters of the state. Given your interest in difference being integrated into the state, what do you think we can learn from that moment?

In fact, I wrote a piece called “An American Studies Meant for Interruption” that was a reflection on the then-president of the ASA Kevin Gaynes’ presidential address that was about the Barack Obama campaign and eventual win. This is maybe the part where Walter Benn Michaels and I are trying to observe, but with very different conclusions, a similar phenomenon, and that is the way that forms of minority difference that were previously subject to absolute exclusion become selectively integrated into state, into capital, into university.

The Obama campaign was, in many ways the culmination of that moment: a hegemonic affirmation of minority difference. I think what we have since learned, what everybody knows now, is that was a pretty selective incorporation of minority difference. I’ll never forget that moment at the first inaugural for him, Joseph Lowery quoted from Dolemite, and I thought, oh my god, this is a crazy, crazy moment. I was also in the moment of writing The Reorder of Things, I think I was even finishing it up, and I was seeing it here at the presidential level. Of course, what we’ve seen since then is actually what I was trying to argue. There is a selective incorporation of minority difference so you can have the White House being a kind of tributary to certain versions of black history and black culture. It involves leaving out other elements of that history, that culture, particularly the ones in which the mobilization of cultural forms, historical knowledge, are used for the cause of critique of state and capital.

Now with this spectacular win, and this new kind of White House, you can really see the ways in which minority difference is routed, pretty forcibly, as an endorsement of the state and also of capital, of the war machinery. It is the kind of difference that has to suppress those moments, powerful moments, in which, Martin Luther King was against the Vietnam War, for instance. I am thinking of moments in which radical thinkers and activists, such as the Black Panther Party, had stinging critiques of capital and U.S. state imperialism. We’re at a moment where we can actually see the manipulation at work.

I think what it means for me, and for those of us who are doing interdisciplinary work, that — and this is where I think I have a disagreement with Walter Benn Michael’s statement — to make that critique is not to surrender minority difference, or to abandon minority difference. It is to ask the question: how do we remobilize and redeploy minority difference? That, for me, is a very materialist exercise. You think about what Marx says about labor power. You think about what Althusser, in “Contradiction and Overdetermination,” says about what it means to mobilize a contradiction, to produce a rupture. You think about what Gramsci says about using culture to produce a new kind of formation.

In many ways, I think that’s the question we should be asking about minority difference, because it is a resource. It does no good to say minority difference is not a resource and all the things it represents are not resources, the only real resource is class as a category. It makes no sense to say that in a historical moment in which everyone knows, everyone agrees — liberals, conservatives, and radicals alike — that the nation is changing. People of color will be the majority very soon. It doesn’t make any sense, to me, to have a category, and to deploy a category, that can’t actually capture that emergence.