CUNY@ASA: Practicing Critical Generosity

As a graduate student contemplating a future career in the academia, I have often found myself wondering about what constitutes the academic community that we imagine.  Not surprisingly then perhaps, I often find a special form of academic pleasure at participating in conferences, experiencing how gatherings of scholar provide the most visceral forms of apprehending the type of scholarly community that cluster around certain disciplinary fields.  At ASA, I witnessed practices of critical generosity shared by a group of scholars.  Through conversations in various formats, scholars were earnestly concerned about productively engaging questions of interdisciplinarity in the hopes of an American Studies geared toward the continual project of social justice.  Even at points of disagreement, scholars genuinely and politely debated about how changes could be made in disciplinary and institutional practices.  This community of American Studies scholars practiced a continual self-reflexivity and impulse toward cross-intellectual engagements, guarding against the production of violent knowledge forms that foreclose other epistemological possibilities.  I witnessed a community of scholars productively and sincerely engaged with questions toward disciplinarity and institutionality through exploring methodologies offered by science, the transnational, and the affective.

Accustomed to reading texts in which scholars seem intent on winning a competitive rivalry, I sincerely appreciate the atmosphere of the ASA as one keen on critical generosity and an engaged rethinking of disciplinary practices.  One of the most fascinating dynamics I witnessed occurred in the panel entitled “Early American Methodologies,” organized by fellow CUNY colleague Sari Altschuler and featuring our very own Duncan Faherty.  The discussion that ensued during the Q&A session exemplified a form of critical generosity and productiveness that I did not quite expect.  Taking on Duncan’s challenge to think about the “critical interregnum,” two decades of novels that are often neglected within Early Americanist discourses, passionate colleagues contemplated some of the forces shaping this silence.  One member of the audience asked whether such a phenomenon occurs not necessarily because of scholarly attachment but rather institutional necessity.  The papers opened up a very nuanced and insightful discussion about the parameters of Early America as an important time period of study.

Furthermore, as someone becomingly increasingly interested in questions of disability studies, I found Sari’s intervention especially moving.  Her exploration of disability in Early America not only beckons us to consider the historical genealogy of disability, but also emphasizes the need for a greater engagement with disability theories to interrogate the ableist assumptions embedded within American cultural and political development.  Particularly, Sari points to the centrality of orality and the problem that disability enabled, exposing the very artifice of American sociality and citizenry through the oral.  In future American Studies meetings, I hope that a greater of scholars will take up the call put forth by Sari and other scholars in disability studies to examine the ableist narratives that underwrite American history, culture, politics, and knowledge production.

Scholars demonstrated that academia is not dictated by a stone-faced seriousness.  Karen Tongson’s talk in “Affective Histories” spoke to the affective attachments and pleasures within our academic practices.  Speaking of fidelity as the formal ethics of disciplinarity, she animates questions of propriety that still loom over scholarship that puts pressure on the parameters of one’s field and dares to forge intimacies with the methods and objects of other methodologies.  And yet, this type of “infidelity” of interdisciplinarity speaks of a desire for something else.  The affective pleasures of this disciplinary infidelity that Karen Tongson performed excite me.  Taking these risky maneuvers invite us to allow questions to guide our research into as yet unimagined, queer openings.

As such, even institutionality itself might not be set in stone.  “Institutionalizing Gender: Movements in Feminism” provocatively engaged with questions that have preoccupied some of our seminar discussions, particularly those surrounding Roderick Ferguson’s scholarship.  Robyn Wiegman aimed to reframe discussions around the institution, however, encouraging us to instead think about the possibilities within institutionality.  She asked: can we give agency to absorption, as not “complicity” but a politics of negotiation?  How may community formation be an institutional building project?  On the practice of examining institutionality, Wiegman asks what does it mean to examine institutional history if the archive is exclusively a textual history?  Moreover, in response to a paper researching the state funding toward satellite campuses throughout the globe, Wiegman asks us to resist easy readings of imperialism by considering how the local spaces assert agency to thwart desires by the U.S. state department to directly guarantee its goals in these global spaces.

Almost two weeks have past and I still find it difficult to exactly articulate the impact that the ASA conference made on me.  I came to the ASA annual meeting not quite knowing what to expect and was both surprised and inspired to witness the forms of support, generosity, and genuine intellectual curiosity among the various scholars.  Increasingly incorporated into the institutional and administrative demands by academia—teaching, grading, coursework—I found myself turning to stone.  The conference, however, rekindled my passion for research and my motivation for continuing in this path.  It encouraged me to believe that some of the more romanticized hopes that I had of academia are actually in existence and practice.

I am inclined to think of the wonderful experience at the conference as a point of departure, an invitation to imagine what else is possible.  On the final day of the conference, having departed from Baltimore, I accompanied my dear friend to his lab at the National Institute of Health where he conducts basic science research in epigenetics.  Usually, the name of scholars who resonate with each of us is quite foreign and unfamiliar to the other.  A few months ago, I had forwarded him an article by Priscilla Wald.  Passionate in his conviction that cross-talk among fields of basic science, epidemiology, and public health is possible, he was fascinated by her scholarship across the science/humanities divide.  Still deep in the midst of a powerful experience, I was tripping over words as I unsuccessfully tried to convey to him the graceful power of Priscilla Wald’s presidential address.  Affectionately calling her “Priscilla,” he asked me about specifics, curious about the ways in which cells, a most basic object of study in the laboratory, came to open a discussion on stories, the role of the humanities, and the critical work of American studies.  He asked me if I wanted to see the infamous and immortal cells of interest.  I examined the intricate structure of HeLa cells through the circular vision, at once magnified and circumscribed by the lens of a microscope.  I was never quite able to imagine the possibilities of reaching across the science/humanities divide; now, I am excited to be part of a larger research community actively pursuing the possibilities for what has yet to be imagined.  This is only the beginning.

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