URBAN Conference Welcome Remarks

(Here We Are)NonVenn logo only

Over the past year, we’ve listened to calls for critical research that helps workers, immigrants, students, and others to revamp campaigns that have traditionally targeted governmental policies— but must now tackle complex webs of decentralized private-public partnerships. For example, I’ve listened to activists wonder how to organize undocumented workers here in New York, trying to connect with workers in the Philippines, to demand better working conditions from multinationals, asking URBAN to help them rethink how government should be framed. From these conversations, we came to the conference theme of building critical solidarities, constantly negotiated, and speaking truth to multi-scalar powers, at local, national, and global levels, in multiple policy arenas at once.

Inspired by abolition geographies, radical inter-disciplinarities, unusual methodological pairings, and on-the-ground concerns, we hope to engage critical refusals of neoliberal disempowerment and surveillance as the new normal.

We recognize that we do this from within a fraught institution, on fraught land. The Lenape are the first known people who lived in what is now Manhattan, and some say that Broadway was the longest Native American trail in the US… This gives another twist to our laments on the loss of Broadway as the “Great White Way,” yikes, even as grievances about the Disney-fication of our public spaces remain valid. Literally, we stand in what used to be an emblem of commerce, the former flagship B. Altman Department Store from 1906 to 89.

And then, there’s the academy. CUNY, for instance, works with over 540,000 students a year. More than three-quarters are students of color. 40% are the first in their families to attend college, come from households with incomes below $20,000, or both. Public institutions like CUNY, Wisconsin, the UCs, and UMass play special roles in American democracy, ostensibly operating with motives other than power & profit. But we’re under attack through corporatization and a profound, anti-intellectual disbelief in—or refusal of—our students’ ability to think critically.

This divestment from and privatization of our public institutions only intensifies the academy’s history of colonizing knowledge, of commodifying it, of attempting to reduce knowledge to a routinized and codified product. We know the academy tends to legitimize certain forms of knowledge. Many of the recent social science guidelines on this are pretty anti-democratic, implemented without due discussion, and they especially affect those of us who do policy-oriented work that values local knowledge, protest, and infra-, below-the-radar politics alongside technical knowledge.[1]

Even as our socially engaged work is devalued, universities use it to advertise their community relations, to burnish reputations. So we fight to not only be taken seriously, but to simultaneously resist co-optation, to keep administrations accountable as best we can, demanding that if they’re going to use us for a splash of color on their subway ads, they better walk their talk, and provide resources. We try to work in but not of the systems we navigate, as Stefano Harney and Fred Moten write.[2] We keep contesting the main frames used in popular debates, calling out stereotypes, drawing upon evidence, amplifying the perspectives of those who are most affected. And we keep contesting the criteria by which we’re judged, so that dominant discourses don’t become hegemonic. We carve out enclaves of resistance in which different ways of knowing constitute resources, not oppositional stances.

We could also consider Nancy Fraser’s calls to challenge the false binaries of the politics of recognition, of identity, versus those of redistribution.[3] As Michelle has written, economic disadvantage and cultural oppression travel together, in circuits of dispossession.[4] After all, what demarcates a “typical,” “mere” cook from a “true” chef, a teacher from a professor, a secretary from an administrator, a bookkeeper from an accountant, except pervasive devaluation of tasks coded as “feminine” by gender or sexuality, or to be performed by people of color, with material, financial consequences and persistent harm to bodily integrity, dignity, and control.

True circuits of solidarities demand work in which cultural recognition, economic equality, and meaningful representation operate not in lockstep but in tandem, in a dance. For them to be meaningful, to not devolve to lowest common denominators, our solidarities have to be multiple in number, specific to contexts.

I’m inspired here by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s articulation of reparative critique. By contrasting reparative critique with “paranoid” fixations on “exposing and problematizing hidden violences in the genealogy of the modern” citizen, Sedgwick doesn’t imply that the violence isn’t real, or that the work isn’t important. She writes, “There’s plenty of hidden violence… [but] also… an ethos where [hypervisible] violence [is] offered as… exemplary spectacle.”[5]

With this passage, I remember Freddie Gray, killed by Baltimore police officers during a euphemistically named “rough ride.” This is hypervisible, fast violence. When Gray passed, he’d been trying to address what Rob Nixon calls “slow violence,” gradual and often invisible killings.[6] In his 2008 lawsuit against his absentee landlord, Gray testified, “The windows, [lead] paint was peeling off the windows.” Scientists state that blood lead levels of 5 micrograms per deciliter cripple cognitive development, decrease IQ, impair memory. In June 1991, when Gray was 22 months old, his blood carried 37 micrograms.[7] Right now, there are an estimated 10,000 children exposed to lead paint in Baltimore.[8]

In Touching Feeling, her last book before she died of breast cancer, Sedgwick avows that reparative critiques can be just as sharp as paranoid ones. She writes, “I’m a lot less worried about being pathologized by my therapist than about my vanishing mental health coverage—and that’s given the… luck of having health insurance at all.”[9] Alongside deconstruction, she encourages scholars to engage in other ways of knowing as well, less oriented around suspicion, more oriented around dynamic, historically contingent ways of documenting and theorizing the issues that drive our work, to be open to hope, to mistakes—that are “sexy, creative, cognitively powerful.”[10]

This is a gathering where we should be encouraged to make mistakes, to surprise, to refuse easy answers and instead ask better questions. As such, us academics in the room should definitely not be designated as the experts.

Because we’re a beautiful group, with activists, artists, and scholars from different disciplines, it might also help to be mindful of our different vocabularies—academic jargon, nonprofit acronyms, art and design terms. Each of us brings different bodies of knowledge, or knowledges.

Which brings to mind some lyrics by Kendrick Lamar:

I know some rappers using big words to make their similes curve
My simplest shit be more pivotal//
So won’t you bear witness while I bare feet
So you can walk in my shoes and get to know me[11]

Lamar’s words here are wise, even if I probably spend half of my waking life trying to find the right simile or metaphor.

We may not suddenly stop using all vocabulary words from our work, but we’ve all engaged in acts of simultaneous translation, from English to Spanish, from legalese to English, from the written to the visual. These translations are gifts to connect us.

Let’s listen to recognize each other, but also listen to the silences, bear in mind those who aren’t here—youth, for instance, the incarcerated, those who couldn’t take time away from their jobs. Let us also be mindful of typically invisible axes of inclusion and exclusion—mental illness, sexual violence, disability. When the Centers for Disease Control report that one of every 5 American women is raped in their lifetime,[12] it is not up to these women to serve as our teachable moments.

We individuals live through these experiences, but our collective problems concern policies, institutions. This demands us to constantly keep multiple units of analysis in mind, to always trouble systems of oppression, bring attention to intersectionalities, so that we don’t homogenize groups of people, tokenize representatives in the room, essentialize identities, or conflate the individual with the systemic, with the political.

Keeping multiple scales in mind prompts some pretty hardcore contradictions. Can we cry with joy at our gay weddings, for example, and refuse romanticized, bourgey notions of gay marriage as the ultimate LGBTQ rights campaign, and protest marital status as a qualifier for child welfare benefits, hospital visits, survival? When we protest police brutality, we’re not talking so much about individual officers but the police state and the prison industrial complex. When we battle gentrification, we aren’t just talking about gentrifiers, but speculative real estate developments made easy, and profit-driven corporate-state policies that made displacement inevitable. As we continue our local, national, and global work, let us hold onto contradictions, rather than sweeping them under our rugs.

I’m looking forward to our work together. Classes, deadlines, meetings, protests, family emergencies, and so much else—We know it’s difficult for you to take time out to share, strategize, and reflect here. We don’t take this for granted.

There’s no best way to articulate themes, but we organized panels according to policy areas to keep our conversations grounded. We’re excited to have small group discussions, while building community across nodes. We’re here for a short time, with a packed agenda, so we didn’t envision the panels as lectures but as starting points, sparkplugs for something more, something lasting.

Here we are. The poet Claudia Rankine writes, “one meaning of here is, ‘In… the presence of’ …It also means to hand something to somebody—Here you are…. Here both recognizes and demands recognition…. A hand must extend and a hand must receive.”[13]

I’m thrilled that we are here, that I am here, in your presence. Welcome.

Celina Su, CUNY Graduate Center, March 31, 2016


[1] For example, many scholars have objected to new policies on transparency in political science; see http://dialogueondart.org/.
[2] Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study (New York: Automedia, 2013).
[3] Nancy Fraser, “From Redistribution to Recognition? Dilemmas of Justice in a “Post-Socialist” Age,” Feminism and politics (1998), 430-60.
[4] Michelle Fine and Jessica Ruglis, “Circuits and Consequences of Dispossession: The Racialized Realignment of the Public Sphere for US Youth,” Transforming Anthropology 17:1 (2009), 20-33; Lois Weis and Michelle Fine, “Critical Bifocality and Circuits of Privilege: Expanding Critical Ethnographic Theory and Design,” Harvard Educational Review 82:2 (2012), 173-201.
[5] Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003), 140.
[6] Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011).
[7] Terrence McCoy, “Freddie Gray’s Life a Study on the Effects of Lead Paint on Poor Blacks,” Washington Post 2015.
[8] Woods, Baynard, “Baltimore warns that children are at risk of lead poisoning from paint,” The Guardian 2016.
[9] Sedgwick, 141.
[10] Joseph Litvak qtd. in Sedgwick, 147.
[11] From “Poe Man Dreams (His Vice),” Section.80 (Top Dawg: 2011).
[12] See http://www.cdc.gov/ViolencePrevention/pdf/SV-DataSheet-a.pdf.
[13] Claudia Rankine, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely (Saint Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 2004), 131.