[-empyre-] Engineering the University : Week One : Nguyen and Simpson

Nguyen, Mimi Thi mimin at illinois.edu
Sat Mar 7 18:09:04 AEDT 2015

(I don't know what happened to all my formatting in cutting and pasting here, so I hope this still makes sense -- and also it's like 1 a.m., I am barely coherent but really, really wanted to send an answer!)

Thanks again for these provocations, elizaBeth, and I believe I can answer both at once, actually! To do so, I should situate that I come from the interdisciplines – all my degrees, undergraduate and graduate, are granted in those fields of inquiry (feminist studies and ethnic studies) that are usually narrated as emerging from the social movements of the 1960s and ‘70s. So first, I can say truthfully that the critical scholarship I read in those fields blew my mind again and again; as an activist who found herself wanting to stop reacting and responding to the immediacy demanded by the language of crisis, it was immensely transformative for me to be able to sit (and struggle) with those theories that helped me to understand that what we called “crisis” was actually our condition. It wasn’t that I didn’t encounter critique in the other spaces I occupied as a punk –there was no limit to the arguments anarchists could have with sectarian Marxists and Maoists and amongst ourselves!— but most of it, at the time, didn’t speak to gender, race, or coloniality in a satisfying way, nor did it unfold for me the “how” as well as say, Gayatri Spivak or Lisa Lowe did. 

I say “usually narrated as emerging from social movements,” however, because as scholars such as Roderick Ferguson and again Nick Mitchell observe, the rise of the interdisciplines within the academy is not distinct from power’s control or knowledge’s interference. The university is all too willing to incorporate the minor as minor! Ferguson’s The Reorder of Things demonstrates so well how easily the interdisciplines were enfolded (in order to contain) into state and capital forms, and Mitchell recently tweeted for National Adjunct Walkout Day an analysis of the political economy of adjunctification. He argues that adjunctification is not primarily (or singularly) a neoliberal effect, but a consequence of the academy’s double-dealing with the interdisciplines – that is, granting them some marginal status (because it suits the premise of liberal inclusion) while under-resourcing them with deliberation. Here’s the collected tweets:


So academic “legitimacy” (which is a shifting set of metrics) for what I call minor objects is less an achievement or even a process (which would seem to lead to something), but a contingency.

These are some of the tensions we deal with, I think, when we consider the “marginal” in the academy. We must also contend with the fact that the humanities broadly, but the interdisciplines specifically, are forced to justify themselves all the time to their institutions in an increasingly “output-driven” economy, and according to an austerity logic – in terms of resources, including tenure lines and budgets, but also research, including tenure approval, academic freedom, and faculty governance (as we are watching unfold on our campus right now, over the administration’s breach of the American Indian Studies program’s decision to hire Palestinian American professor Steven Salaita, but which also happens all the time at so many other universities and colleges over “uncollegial” women of color faculty denied tenure, for instance). So I believe that our incorporation into the institution is a wary one, on both sides (hopefully, on our side – there are probably too many who believe the institution is actually on our side!). 

A few more specific notes: Though there are clear distinctions between the university and punk –I mean, obviously, just all the forms of capital and their distribution through structures is so on two planets— I actually feel that there’s not a clear divide in terms of their transformative effects on me, personally. The critique of US empire I first read as a sixteen year-old in the pages of the punk magazine Maximum Rocknroll set me on a (long, long) path toward the first book. It was Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, which I would bring with me to punk shows to read between sets, who helped me figure out how to understand the particular traction of the gift of freedom as not just a ruse but the rule of that empire. 

I will also say that in my own academic research, I just noticed that I argue all the time against rendering minor objects transparent or accessible, even as I write about refugees or punk. I very explicitly note in The Gift of Freedom that I am not uncovering refugee subjectivity, even though people ask me all the time how some of the persons I discuss --like the Vietnamese woman whose napalm-burning as a child is pictured in that award-winning photograph-- how they really feel. (My answer is always, “I am not a mind reader.”) And I actually hate writing (or talking) about punk as an object of scholarly inquiry, and (yet?) I wrote a whole essay about it for the “Queering Archives” special issue of Radical History Review. Here’s the premise of the essay, which is called “Minor Threats”:

“Called on to provide presence (as a constitutive outside) and course correction (toward a more ‘complete picture’), even as a minor object might be brought to bear upon the fractures of empire, ‘the good life,’ or feminist movement, the negative integration or partial recognition or presence of some minor objects into major histories can be made to resolve the same. What happens to the brats, new bloods, poison girls, androids of Mu, persons unknown, or younger lovers, when interpellated to fill a void, correct a partial claim, set straight a story? How do the politics surrounding institutional discourses of a minor threat, especially at the crash with race or gender, displace or defuse that threat through its incorporation into a politics, history, or archive? How might the specific difference of the minor object be enlisted to enhance a normative principle, an already known unity? This query then is about minor objects becoming objects of knowledge, especially once marshaled in institutional histories and inquiries to achieve continuity, chronology, and correspondences, and the consequences for those objects and those who might wish otherwise for them.”

I end the essay arguing against legibility and accessibility, drawing on this amazing movie called Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains. Suffice to say for now that the last line of the essay modifies slightly a famous line from the movie (uttered by a teenaged punk played by Diane Lane): You’re perfect, don’t let anyone in this shithole get you, you don’t have to put out.

Mimi Thi Nguyen
Associate Professor,
Gender and Women's Studies
Asian American Studies
Unit for Criticism
Associate Chair,
Gender and Women's Studies
Conrad Humanities Professorial Scholar 2013-2018
University of Illinois
1205 W. Nevada MC 137
Urbana, IL 61801
mimin at illinois.edu

From: empyre-bounces at lists.artdesign.unsw.edu.au [empyre-bounces at lists.artdesign.unsw.edu.au] on behalf of Nguyen, Mimi Thi [mimin at illinois.edu]
Sent: Friday, March 06, 2015 2:43 PM
To: elizaBeth Simpson; soft_skinned_space
Cc: Hamilton, Kevin
Subject: Re: [-empyre-] Engineering the University : Week One : Nguyen and Simpson

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