Literature of 9/11

In response to a number of incorrect reports about my course on the Literature of 9/11, I published an op-ed in the Raleigh News & Observer. Please also see the statement from the Department of English and Comparative Literature at UNC, the letter of support from concerned faculty, and the public email about my course from the UNC Provost. Finally, the UNC Faculty Council unanimously approved this resolution in defense of the course and of broader institutional protections for academic freedom in teaching.

The One-Year Anniversary of the Rana Plaza Factory Collapse

Rana Plaza Collapse

Today is the one-year anniversary of the building collapse at Rana Plaza, an apparel factory in greater Dhaka, Bangladesh where over 1100 workers were killed due to gross negligence on the part of the management, lax governmental oversight, and the failure of US and European clothing brands to enforce workplace protections. Thousands of survivors and their communities still live with the fallout, facing ongoing trauma and ailments as well as significant impediments to restoring income for disabled workers. Students at UNC are holding a memorial at noon in front of South Building to commemorate the victims and to call on UNC to join the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, an initiative that aims to prevent future disasters related to the international contracting of apparel production to Bangladesh.


Day of Action and Remembrance, UNC Chapel Hill

A Year after Rana Plaza: What Hasn’t Changed

Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh

ActionAid’s Report on Rana Plaza Survivors One Year Later

The Debate over Palestinian Solidarity at UNC-Chapel Hill

On December 16, 2013, after a multi-year debate, the American Studies Association voted by a two-thirds majority to end formal institutional collaborations with Israeli universities. Soon after the vote, hundreds of university presidents took the unusual step of publicly denouncing the ASA for its support of the growing Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement which challenges US support for Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestine and its denial of equal citizenship rights to non-Jewish residents of Israel.

UNC-Chapel Hill was among those institutions where administrators publicly rejected the ASA’s democratic process. On December 31, UNC Chancellor Carol Folt and Executive Vice Chancellor James W. Dean, Jr. released a short letter claiming that UNC “opposes the resolution” and suggesting that the “values” it expresses are “diametrically opposed” to the university motto, “light and liberty.” Although the editorial page of the UNC student paper The Daily Tar Heel clumsily backed Folt and Dean, dismissing the main international organization devoted to the study of American culture as “obscure,” faculty and students in early January began challenging the administration position. UNC student Layla Quran, one of the first students to be interviewed by the paper, noted that “academic freedom is something that should be applied to all people” including Palestinian students and scholars. I published an essay in Ethos, UNC’s online journal devoted to the study of the humanities and public ethics, critiquing Folt and Dean’s call for “open access” for failing to grasp the context in which Israeli access to knowledge and education is structurally linked to the everyday dispossession of Palestinians, as well as the suppression of freedom of speech and a right to education in the occupied territories.

On January 23, 2014, a group of 37 UNC faculty holding a variety of views on the ASA boycott published a letter to the editor questioning Folt and Dean’s statement. In addition to arguing that UNC administrators had improperly spoken for the entire UNC community without public deliberation, the statement calls on UNC to “unequivocally acknowledge the right of scholarly associations to democratically determine their own institutional rules.” It furthermore notes that in the climate of backlash against the ASA resolution, Folt and Dean’s statement exemplifies a disturbing trend in which public figures “assert opposition to the ASA without accurate explanations of the resolution or rationales against it.”

Several UNC faculty in the Department of American Studies — colleagues who I respect and admire despite our differences on this issue — have joined one or more public statements opposing the ASA resolution. Despite impassioned opposition to the resolution among some of its members, the Department as a whole released a statement that “affirm[s] the right of individual faculty and students to speak and act on political and ethical issues according to the dictates of their own conscience” and that maintains a departmental affiliation with the ASA. This move came despite the rumor aired in Richard Behar’s vitriolic, misinformed, and homophobic attack on the ASA National Council that UNC was “preparing” to “quit as a result of the boycott vote.”

We can expect more debate on the fallout of the ASA resolution locally and internationally in the coming months. While opponents of the resolution have successfully orchestrated a backlash led by university administrators, politicians, and mainstream US media, it is notable that the ASA action has already changed the tenor of the public debate on Palestine in the US and has garnered the attention of politicians in Israel. In a series of statements since the ASA vote, Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni has argued against the illegal settlements, noting the power of the growing international boycott movement.

To learn more about the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel and the debate over academic freedom, please visit the following links:

Understanding the Boycott of Israel’s Universities

Does the ASA Boycott Violate Academic Freedom? A Roundtable

Defending Zionism under the Cloak of Academic Freedom


In Memoriam: Rosemary Marangoly George

Over the weekend we heard of the tragic death of Rosemary George, Professor of Literature at UCSD. Rosemary was an important South Asian feminist thinker and a mentor to many young scholars working in the areas of postcolonial cultural studies and gender and sexuality studies. In addition to her book The Politics of Home on domesticity in twentieth century postcolonial literatures, she convened an important transnational conversation on the history of same-sex love in South Asia, published pathbreaking writings on the social experience of race among South Asian Americans, and completed important recent work on gender in the literature of Indian partition, as well as a forthcoming book on Indian English. See more about her writings here. Rosemary was a passionate teacher with a warm personality, and her absence will be felt across continents.


Queering State Secresy

Some unformed initial thoughts on Chelsea Manning:

Today, lawyer David Coombs confirmed knowledge that had been circulating online since 2010: that the convicted military analyst we knew as Pfc. Bradley Manning was transgendered, and would from now on be called Chelsea Manning. Making this statement in the aftermath of the Snowden affair, and as new information concerning NSA spying on documented citizens is disclosed daily, the timing of the announcement places questions about gender identity squarely in focus in the ongoing debates about the authority of the security state to spy and to keep secrets. Coombs’ request that the media use feminine pronouns and to refer to Manning as Chelsea has yet to be heeded by most of the mainstream media — reiterating an all-too-common public transphobia.

The “outing” of Manning as trans poses a historical counterpoint to the rumored transvestism and homosexuality of J. Edgar Hoover, the red-baiting architect of the closed security state that Manning exposed. As Erin Carlston suggests in her book Double Agents: Espionage, Literature, and Liminal Citizens, there is an intimate relationship between fascination over state secrets and the social reproduction of “invisible others” including queer subjects, Jews, and Communists: “others” who live askance social norms without visible markings on the body. If Manning’s gender transition is likely to add discriminatory fodder to attacks on her from those who excuse the much more egregious manipulations of classified information to sell the Iraq War and the drone wars, the Pentagon’s swift declaration that it would not fund hormone therapy or gender reassignment surgery for Manning may pose problems for a military attempting to launch its own pinkwashing campaign. As it grants benefits to same-sex couples, it attempts to distance itself from the British government’s preemptive detention of David Miranda.

Though if Snowden and the journalists who presented his leaks can summon the moral authority attached to those who carefully follow disclosure protocols of whistleblowers, Manning may not fare as well. If Manning’s disclosure of US diplomatic cables included whistleblowing activity, it surely exceeded mere whistleblowing. Manning committed a much more daring act: an all-out rejection of the expansionary logics of secrecy that have blocked democratic debate over US foreign policy since World War II. As anthropologist Joseph Masco explains, alongside the development of a monopoly on high-tech nuclear weapons by the US during that war, the state has built increasingly massive amounts of policed information such that today, many thousands of people (at least) are involved in administering the control of state secrets. With this expansion, as well as the neoliberal move toward private contracting and the digitization of records, there is a greater potential for leaks. Yet leaking itself is also a technology of war, and one threat that Manning’s disclosures offer is displaying the massive amount of useless or embarrassing (but not particularly sensitive) information that is now quarantined from the public record. (Check out the Wikileaks logs that include, among controversies, cover-ups, and debates, boring everyday posts from US diplomatic missions who continue the inane Cold War surveillance of Leftist movements.) Within the echo chamber of state secrecy, paranoia about small threats is then regularly inflated into international crisis — whether the spurious accusations against scientist Wen Ho Lee or the Plame Affair and the yellow journalism of Judith Miller in the leadup to the Iraq War.

Manning’s rather careless online bragging about the disclosure — which led to her arrest — stands in sharp contrast to the controlled whistleblowing of Snowden, who has carefully positioned himself as masculine martyr, having given up his citizenship rights and heterosexual relationship in the public interest. If Manning’s act helped expose the violence of the dubious post-911 wars (as she explained in her eloquent post-sentencing statement), it might also be read within a longer history in which the technocratic norms of state secrets are posed against the queer entanglements of rumor, publicity, and invisibility.