“‘America’ Is Not the Object”: An Interview with Kandice Chuh, President of the American Studies Association

What does the American Studies Association make possible in 2017?

“‘America’ Is Not the Object”: An Interview with Kandice Chuh, President of the American Studies Association

THIS WEEK, the American Studies Association will host its annual conference in Chicago. This conference, which will be the largest in the history of the association, is organized around the theme of “Pedagogies of Dissent.” LARB Senior Editor Sarah Mesle spoke with ASA President Kandice Chuh about the possibilities of dissent, organization, and hope — and of the forcefulness of the idea of “America” itself — in this tense political moment.


SARAH MESLE: Last year I had a lovely conversation with ASA’s then president, Robert Warrior, about two weeks before the 2016 election; the interview was published during the ASA’s conference, a week after the election. It was a very dramatic illustration of how quickly the world had changed — and how different our vision of the future had become!

And I really thought the 2016 ASA conference last year was such an intense cauldron of feeling! I’m curious what you think this ASA will be, how it will respond to its moment in time, and also about what story you’d tell about the theme. When did you pick the theme, and how did its meaning change over the course of the year, with all its complicated events?

KANDICE CHUH: I was elected as ASA chair well before the conference; we put together the theme and the program committees in the summer. At that point in the election cycle, there was already a lot of — well, maybe it was dissent? There was a lot of feeling that ranged, let’s say, from curiosity to alarm. Even before the election there had been student protests unfolding nationally; there were a lot of questions about campus carry in the air; there was just a lot of concern over what was possible, in and through education. We had all been experiencing the shifting landscape of what I’d refer to as neoliberalization, in our daily experience but also as a broader phenomenon within US culture and politics.

And then after the election, the salience of the theme we had already selected was amplified. It was impossible not to think of how much what we were feeling as antagonism was something that we also needed to consider in terms of the work we did as scholars and teachers. And this was important for many of us on the program committee, and certainly for myself, to think about in terms of my relation to American Studies.

How did American Studies play a role in your intellectual history? It seems the last several ASA presidents have had very different approaches: although all of you are interdisciplinary in your work, it seems fair to say that Robert Warrior comes out of Indigenous Studies, David Roediger from labor history, Lisa Duggan from Queer and Sexuality Studies. How would you describe your own relationship, and how it shapes the questions you ask?

I think about my genealogy with American Studies as being a sort of sideways genealogy, because I came up through Asian American Studies, and Women of Color Feminism, and so it was not necessarily the case that I would end up in the ASA!

I did my degree at the University of Washington in Seattle, and my degree is in English. My dissertation project was in the field of Asian American Studies, and at that time, the advice that I got was that American Studies was not necessarily a field that would be welcoming to Asian American Studies, or, really, Asian-American people. In the late ’90s, it was still possible to go to an ASA conference, which I had at that point done a couple of times, and to know every other Asian-American person there. That is not the case anymore, and I think that change has been the case for other racialized people, racialized bodies, as well — and certainly it’s more welcoming to women, who — well, I don’t know if this is actually true, but I always feel like women dominate at ASA!

So, at the beginning, I was fairly cautious about my own engagements. But one of the things I’m really mindful of is that the people who were committed to the ASA at that particular moment really actively worked to make the association hospitable to these other kinds of intellectual traditions. They worked hard to make sure there was representation on committees, and worked to recruit people into doing panels. And so now, I think that the possibility for someone like me, or Robert, to become president of the ASA — to take up these positions — is a direct consequence of that organizational work and the shift it brought about.

That’s so hopeful! What a positive story, to hear at this time! I’m sort of grinning at you over the phone, like: Wow! A story of women being listened to in meetings!

Ha! It is a good story! And the lesson for me is really about organization, and putting things into place in the moment that might have an impact in the future.

How fantastic.

Yeah, it’s kind of great to think about that, especially right now, when everything feels so dreadful, and like dissent is the only possible modality. It makes you think that dissent is actually, or can be, generative, and can help us think in these future perfect tenses: What will have been? What will the ASA have been?

How do you think about the relationship between dissent and organization?

That’s interesting; it’s true that they’re not the same.

I’ve been thinking about this lately because of a conversation I had about a sort of melancholy essay I’d written, and someone said to me something to the effect of, “Stay hopeful and stay with institutions!” And that really gave me pause, because I’ve always been a real joiner, and a believer in institutions, and this has always been something I’ve liked about myself. But lately I find myself just like: “Gah, these institutions, with their task forces, they are not helping me.” But I like organizing! So I’m curious how you think institutions play into this tension around dissent and organizing — and I guess just interacting, sustaining ourselves in these times.

Hmm. I don’t think I have a huge amount of faith in institutions to be able to do that. The difference between an association like ours and an institution — and this is obviously just my sense of things — is that I really think of “association” as being the most important part of the ASA’s name. Which is to say: What the ASA allows us to do is to associate, to create networks and affinities and opportunities to acknowledge the ways we may be able to collaborate.

And I think those are the moments when the possibilities for organizing emerge. Those are crossroads encounters that are sometimes spontaneous and sometimes planned, but it’s the act of associating that feels to me the important part of what we’re able to do.

That seems like an important distinction.

That’s not to say that just any gathering matters. But the program committee and I have been certainly mindful, this year, that we wanted the conference to be something that would afford broad collective conversation about how we imagined our relationship to our work, our relationship to the world, vis-à-vis the experience of teaching, vis-à-vis the intellectual traditions that allow us to really understand the experience of dissent.

So, the thing about hope is that it’s not a thing you can plan for. You know, the conditions shift and hope emerges! But I can’t will myself into it, and I can’t will myself out of it either. But what I can do is try to produce conditions where we don’t have to be “hopeful,” because we can do things. And the doing things, that for me is the organization part.

And the doing can be a wide range of things! From the creation of new curricula, to joint writing, to — even every once in a while! — the creation of task forces! But, you know, my thing about the institution is that the way that institutions have responded to dissent is actually by the formation of committees. And I’m never sure what they’re supposed to do! There never seem to be any enforcing measures around them.

A friend recently described task forces as the “great deflection” of moral responsibility.

It really is! It’s a way of like, soothing, or of consolation. And, you know, I don’t want to be consoled! I want to see what else there is to do.

I think dissent can have a strong relationship to melancholy and to depression and to anxiety, certainly. But one of the ways I conceive of my job as a teacher is to expand those ideas — the experience of these things — and to work toward figuring out and articulating what the conditions are that are inducing them. And in what ways can we collectively address those conditions.

What you’re saying makes me think of the theme two years ago, “Miserablism and Resistance.” I was so interested to talk to David Roediger about what that theme meant to him, and how it came from his history of organizing with these surrealist protestors who were really thinking about the “miserable” in surrealist terms as a condition of possible … well, not joyfulness, but definitely of energy and change. We can get sunk in depression, but we can also find in something similar a communal and even sustaining experience.

I think that’s right, and I think there’s something to me there about how it’s only in the collaborative that we can experience the possibilities that still remain even when things really suck. You know? Even when it’s really bad. It’s only in the collaborative that it’s possible. And that is I think why I care about the ASA, and a lot of the reason why people come to the ASA every year.

I felt that really strongly in Denver, actually, after the election, when everyone was walking around so disoriented and slightly stunned, and personally for me it felt really great that I could walk around and not worry that I was going to have a conversation where someone was going to defend what had happened, or, say, minimize sexual harassment.

So I have a couple of things I want to say! One is that, you’re talking about collaboration as an interpersonal activity, but another scale that occurs to me is that ASA itself, in its interdisciplinarity, is structured around a kind of holding the space for a kind of intellectual collaboration between the different kinds of questions and ideas taking place in different fields and modalities. It’s important that ASA recognizes, and it does recognize, intellectual differences. But — this is the second thing — at the same time, one thing about the space of ASA is, as you say, that there are some agreed upon principles. I guess what I’m saying is that one great thing about ASA is that it’s a place where people are really to engage and admit disagreement, at the same time that everyone can say, you know, fuck no to sexual harassment!

Which is really valuable in this strange and shifting world we’re in, where it seems as a nation we can’t even agree on something as terrible as the Ku Klux Klan — it’s great to have a space, like the ASA, where some first principles can be leaned into as a foundation for conversation.

So I’m interested in the relationship between shared principles and at the same time an insistence on intellectual separateness across which we can collaborate.

I’m thinking about whether we have a shared set of principles!

Does that seem right?

Well I tend to think that that’s true, and I’m trying to think about why, and what makes that possible. I actually think it’s related to interdisciplinarity, but not interdisciplinarity as simply multifacetedness, but rather interdisciplinarity as a critique of power.

Which is to say that interdisciplinarity as it emerges through Ethnic Studies, Black Studies, Women’s Studies — those iterations that came to us through the political movements of the 1950s and ’60s and ’70s were really about saying that disciplinary mechanisms were really mechanisms that were reproducing certain relations of power. And the interdisciplinarity was to try to interrupt those mechanisms, and to show different ways of asking questions, asking things that hadn’t been asked or that couldn’t be asked because of the relationship of power that were in place.

So I think that attentiveness to the domain of power and its material effects — that’s the common principle, that’s what allows us to say: sexual harassment, Nazis, these are things we can’t, possibly, be behind. There can be no neutral because from this position we know that the social itself cannot be a neutral ground.

That’s a great way to think about “American Studies” as an interdisciplinary space, and what it makes possible! And it leads me to a really basic question: if you were asked to describe American Studies to somebody who was not an academic, what would you say that American Studies is?

[Laughs.] That’s a really hard question!

I know! That’s why it’s a good question!

Okay, so, to someone who is not an academic?

Yeah, you know, like you’re talking to someone sitting next to you on an airplane or wherever and you say, “I’m going to the American Studies conference.” An interested but non-expert audience.

Let’s start here. For me, “America” is not the object of American Studies. It’s actually a space through which we think, to ask other kinds of questions, questions having to do with humanization, with materiality, with power, with possibility, with nation, with colonialism — with home, or misery, or furiousness, to refer to the themes of the last few years.

So American Studies is interested in the forces that are often enacted through the idea of “Americaness”?

Yes, and it has to do with knowledge base: with the specificity of the here and now, and history and context, that shapes the kind of geographic sense of American Studies. But America is not the point of arrival. It’s rather that by thinking through these bases of knowledge, we can ask questions that we couldn’t otherwise ask, or address questions that we couldn’t otherwise address.

That’s my sense of what American Studies is. But you know, I don’t know that that’s an explanation I could give to someone on a plane! It’s a useful exercise to think about it that way. On a plane I would probably explain it by saying that we are a group of scholars, teachers, and students, who are interested in thinking through US culture, history, and politics. And we do that every year together so that we can consider how to think better about those topics.

Imagining talking to someone on the plane is an interesting pedagogical exercise.

It is, actually! One of the weird things about my job now, at CUNY’s Graduate Center, is that I only work with graduate students. Which actually, in these terms, is not a good thing, because I can take short cuts, in some ways, to answering some important questions that should always be present, which are the really simple questions about what it is that we do and why we call ourselves this thing and not something else.

And frankly, I think there’s a sort of potency to the idea of America that is part of what we are interested in studying and understanding but also in mobilizing toward the end of furthering research and teaching. Where else can we go with this? And that is my relationship with American Studies! And when I understood that that was something it was possible to do in the field of American Studies, that’s when it stopped feeling so different from Asian American Studies, or Ethnic Studies. It was yet another rubric through which we could answer questions.

That would be a beautiful place to end, but I do have one more question! Which goes back to what you were saying about teaching at a graduate school, and the questions we ask in graduate school and the questions we ask as undergraduates and the ones we ask in public. My question would just be: How do you think the ASA is thinking about the changing professoriate, what it means to be an academic organization at this moment of changing academic infrastructures — how the ASA thinks about different kinds of access, both intellectually and materially?

In a variety of ways! One thing to mention is that there’s the emerging field of Critical University Studies — I’m not even sure it’s emergent any more, it’s probably fully emerged! — and Chris Newfield and Rod Ferguson, the ASA president-elect, are important figures here — and that intellectual field is looking at how education becomes a crucible for critical issues. Those questions are being thematized and becoming a vein of American Studies, as well as other fields.

But otherwise, the association has tried to be very attentive to these shifts, particularly in terms of labor, and the process of the adjunctification, and as an association we’re trying to restructure how we can support people who don’t have research funding to come and participate — everything from travel funding to creating local and digital modes of association. And we’re trying to really take up the question: Given the changing landscape of education, what is the responsibility of an association? What can we do, given that we’re not an institution ourselves but that we are certainly related to them?

We’re really trying to emphasize to our member institutions that these questions matter, and trying to circulate information, in the form of white papers or what I think of as working papers, about the things that one institution is doing that might be useful to another institution. So we’re trying to be useful in that way, as a platform — we’re trying to genuinely be helpful.

And the other thing that I want to say is that this relates to the closing of the DACA program, and the closing of the borders — all of these are things that we feel and experience within our academic institutions. Changes in immigration law are a different kind of neoliberalification from the changing university, but they are of a piece with that. And they are topics that our members tend to be aware of and to address, and as an association that is a shared value: that an accident of birth should not determine the possibility of learning. And in a really basic way, I think that’s what the ASA stands for.


Sarah Mesle is Senior Editor at Large at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

LARB Contributor

Sarah Mesle (PhD, Northwestern) is faculty at USC and Senior Humanities Editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books. Prior to arriving at USC, she held postdoctoral fellowships in English at the University of Michigan and the University of California, Los Angeles. She is a 19th-century Americanist by training and is interested, generally speaking, in the long history of the American popular novel and in the many ways pop culture can excite, estrange, and surprise.


With Sarah Blackwood, she is co-editor of Avidly.org. You can follow her on Twitter.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!