THIS WEEK, the American Studies Association convenes its annual convention in Toronto. LARB Senior Humanities Editor Sarah Mesle spoke with current ASA president, historian David Roediger, about the conference, the ASA’s ongoing relationship to social action, and the place and places of “America” in American Studies.
The following has been edited for clarity and length.
SARAH MESLE: The obvious place to start is with this year’s ASA conference theme. Last year it was "The Fun and the Fury"; this year it’s "The Reproduction of Misery and the Ways of Resistance." Were you involved in choosing this year’s theme? Why misery? What’s its resonance?
DAVID ROEDIGER: Yes, I was on the program committee and the theme reflects our collective discussions. I just noticed yesterday on somebody’s Facebook account, joking and not-so-joking, that “it’s last year’s theme without any of the fun.”
Do you think that’s true? Do you think that misery is the opposite of fun? Some people seem to enjoy it!
Actually, that was part of what we wanted to get at: thinking about misery as a part of a system, not separate from pleasure. I actually wanted to evoke the Surrealist idea of misery — of not just misery, but “miserablism” as a system — a situation in which the production of misery doesn’t necessarily yield resistance. It might just be an attraction and addiction to misery.
I was for years a member, and still am, of the Chicago Surrealist Group. I’m the only non-gifted artist in that group. And I wanted to think about the relationship between misery and resistance. A system can produce misery, but in a way that isn’t threatening to the system or antithetical to people’s sense of personal satisfaction or desire.
I was recently discussing elsewhere the difference between suffering and struggling: suffering seems like just taking it, whereas struggling seems like working through it. Is that a similar parallel?
Yeah, I think that’s right. I think that the question is how the relationship develops, and how movements move from one to the other. There are moments when suffering produces struggle, and there are also moments equally where suffering produces resignation, or as you say, contentment, desire, processing of suffering.
The other term in the theme is "reproducing." The Fun and the Fury was definitely a theme that was about — especially in association with Lisa Duggan, the ex-president — queer studies and queer of color critique. Was using the word "reproducing" an attempt to continue how you think about reproduction as a word that’s both economic and embodied?
Well, in the actual title, it’s one of those “(re)productions” with the parenthetical “re” and then “production,” which is a way to use language that I’ve almost entirely managed to resist, but I thought it worked here in the sense that I’m a labor historian, so we were bound to get a lot of submissions from people who do working-class studies in one way or another. And so, production totally made sense. But often, that very phrasing of things means that you don’t give consideration of sexuality and also reproduction of the labor force and the ways that gender and unpaid labor matter. It’s meant to fill that double meaning. And we did get a lot of papers that took it to mean reproduction, sexuality, labor that’s unpaid — and then we also got a fair number of labor history submissions as well.
So, although the themes sound very different, it sounds like in your mind this year is a continuation of last year.
I was happy about that dovetailing, because I thought that a lot of things had opened up in Los Angeles that were conversations that should continue. And so, it was meant to be that way. And I think the program is that way. Some of the hall talk that I’ve heard about it is like, “Oh, this is so different from last year’s theme.” And I think in the round it’s really not. It’s meant to reflect what people in the ASA do.
I’m so interested in — perhaps I should have known — this revelation that the word "misery" is coming from you out of Surrealism. I didn’t know your association with that at all.
I think I mentioned the miserablism one place in the call, but I certainly didn’t want it to be — that you had to be sympathetic to Surrealism. That’s pretty narrow, a pretty high bar for a conference.
As you say, I think of you not only as a labor historian, but as one of the most important labor historians! And I suppose I think of there as being — well, let’s say, a gap between American Studies approaches that are more historicist, on the one hand, and more theoretical (particularly around sexuality and identity) on the other. And because of the way I know your work, to the extent I’d thought about it, I’d have put you on one side of that equation. But it seems like your work and interests actually bridges that divide — if you think of it as a divide?
I think you list those things as separate fields on your CV, but I think there’s more overlap than people realize. I met the Surrealists in Chicago in a picket line where we closed down the Museum of Science and Industry’s coal mine in solidarity with the 1979 miners’ strike. Meeting them just opened a whole new world to me, of people who were tolerant of my lack of creativity but fascinating to be around and thought about things that I didn’t think about. And I really thought about psychoanalysis from the Surrealists.
And of course, that’s a movement that’s also a Marxist movement. And I think a lot of the ASA members, like Lisa Duggan, are people who are very, very active in labor causes and have a materialist approach to things, in that way. (It’s worth saying that the ASA is by far the most attentive conference I go to about the working conditions and the union representation of hotel workers. John Stephens, the director of the ASA nationally, has been a leading force in trying to get conferences to agree to work with the unions and work with racial justice organizations in planning what hotels they’re going to use.) So I think there’s a divide, but there’s also a lot of “bridge intellectuals,” that take various theories and try to apply them and are in dialogue with each other.
I guess that makes me curious about your view of American Studies as a discipline or an anti-discipline. Even given the overlapping concern with material, on-the-ground conditions, historical and theoretical approaches can be very different. How do you see those things working in relation now, or over the course of your career?
Well, I think that American Studies — when I first came to it, I was trained in history and came to it really by chairing an American Studies department at Minnesota and started going to ASA about 20 years ago, 25 years ago. And at that time, it was still what it had been, which was largely a place for historians and professors of English to socialize and share ideas and work out frameworks. And it’s changed an extraordinary amount since then, in a way that I think doesn’t quite submit to the simple division between history and the rest of things. I think that history, rightly, is now one of many, many, many components of American Studies.
I would say though that lacking — I wouldn’t consider it a lack — but without a common methodology, and really trying to incorporate and draw from so many different things, that I think that American Studies sometimes tends to define itself around a search for its own cutting edge, a search for what’s current. And sometimes I love that. I really like the way that prison studies, for example, has come to the front in American Studies in a moment. But at other times I think that people become a little bit apologetic if they’re not on that cutting edge, and they start to think, “Well, maybe I don’t belong here if I’m not doing that exact kind of work.” American Studies is defined less by its methodology than by its currency, and that’s both a good and a bad thing, I think.
That’s a really interesting way of thinking about that. I guess I’m also just interested in — not only in your sense of the place of historical objects of study, but historical standards or methods. How would you describe, to someone outside of the academy, what the difference might be between going to a history conference and going to an American Studies conference — or asking a historical question versus an American Studies question?
Yeah, I think historians are much less comfortable with theory. I had a recent book that I did with a lot of theory in it, and a very, very good history editor. And the manuscript came back with just all the theory crossed out, basically. But when I put this out there as a historian, I don’t mean to say, “Well, if only we could have the rigor of history.” I think history needs the theory and needs the ability to make leaps once in a while, sometimes even from a scrap of evidence. But there have always been scholars, as well, who are omnivorous. And a lot of extraordinarily important American Studies people were trained in history; all their early writing was in history. George Lipsitz is a history PhD. He wrote history before he wrote other kinds of things. So, I think that there’s an overlap as both fields change.
Shifting gears a bit, last year when I spoke with Lisa Duggan before the ASA, the big question was the BDS resolution and whether the controversy over that resolution would make the conference unsafe, whether there would be protests or threats. And I asked her if she felt like a wartime president, governing an institution under attack. What’s your sense of where the ASA is now, vis-à-vis that issue?
Well, I haven’t had to feel like a wartime president, and I appreciate what Curtis Marez and Lisa went through in taking the brunt of those attacks, and even, as you say, attacks on the very ability to hold a conference in Los Angeles last year. We’re not having that, knock on wood, with Toronto. And in general, I think that the key to the rhetoric and the amount of articles against ASA are much, much diminished. I think part of it is that we’ve weathered the storms and we haven’t panicked. I think that we decided that the most important thing that ASA could do was to continue to function as a scholarly organization and to show that an organization can take a stance on something like BDS and not tear itself up in the process or become only about that one thing.
And that was a difficult thing to do, especially when under attack. There was a necessity to respond. But as the attacks went away a little bit, we’ve been able to concentrate on being a scholarly organization that takes positions but isn’t entirely defined by its decisions. So, I think that that’s been a big part of it. The other part is that when the ASA passed its resolution, there were very few similar resolutions. Now there are several that have already passed and more that are in the works. It was possible to portray ASA’s actions as fringe and crazy, and now in every realm of life — in the EU, in Irish supermarkets, in Canadian labor unions, in California labor unions, you begin to have these resolutions pass so it’s a little harder to say, “This is an organization destroying itself by taking a completely out-of-bounds position.” We really benefit from that as well.
So this year the ASA isn’t “at war” in the same way. But, on the other hand, you’ve been the ASA president during a very difficult year in America, particular around race, police violence, and other kinds of brutality. Just yesterday there was another mass shooting. Can you talk about how you see the ASA relating to this moment in political struggle?
The way that the timing of it worked out was, of course: the “Ways of Resistance” part of the theme was written before Mike Brown’s murder and was not directly responsive to that. But then, as #BlackLivesMatter matured, many panels included — either directly or as an awareness — police violence and racism as issues that were now particularly, pointedly posed.
My presidential address is going to begin with Ferguson, and it’s about solidarity, and it’s going to talk about black Palestinian solidarity and Black Trans solidarity in Black Lives Matter, and in particular in St. Louis and Ferguson. The actual presidential address spins those things out in a way that makes us think about what we mean by “solidarity,” and when solidarity doesn’t work as well as we want it to work. The emphasis on prisons and policing was already also strongly there in the ASA, and so it was particularly apt that panelists would be able to address Black Lives Matter because they were already going to be talking about police and incarceration. One particular moment of this for me is the moment when much of the media began to say, “Well, Mike Brown was guilty.” And I think that some of the ASA scholarship is actually around prisons and around defending prisoners in general, and not only the innocent. It made some scholars and people influenced by American Studies scholarship able to say, “Here, wait a minute; what do we really mean by ‘innocent’ and ‘guilty’ here? What’s the logic of limiting those whom we defend against police violence to those who are absolutely blameless in every way?”
It’s been interesting in the last few weeks to see how that same community has responded to Kim Davis’s incarceration.
It’s a hard set of issues. I was on a program maybe 10 or 15 years ago with Angela Davis in New Orleans, and it was right after James Byrd had been lynched and murdered in Texas. It was a huge crowd of people, thousands of people, and she spoke against the death penalty for his murderers. She said, “I speak as a death penalty abolitionist, and if I don’t believe that in the case of these racist murderers, then I don’t believe it at the end of the day.” And it was a hard talk to give, in a way. Almost every other moment in her talk was just wildly applauded, and then all of a sudden there was this almost total silence when she was making that difficult point.
That’s fascinating. I guess that’s a way to follow up — I don’t want you to give your address in advance, but are there any points you’d like to hint at here? This certainly seems like a moment when there’s some difficult pressure on solidarity. Perhaps sometimes it’s difficult to be in solidarity with our own ideas, or ideals.
Right. With our own, often multiple, ideals. This isn’t in my talk, but Edward Said once remarked that everybody is more than one thing — I heard him say that almost right before he died — and I think that that is very much a part of our problem. We think of solidarity as only reconciling different parts of the populace. But also, it’s often reconciling different parts of ourselves; we start emphasizing different parts of ourselves that we’re wrestling with.
The title of the presidential address ended up being “Uneasy Solidarities,” and I’m just trying to think about what we do when solidarity is predicated on the exclusion of others, and also our tendency to think of solidarity sometimes as the natural state of things. When it happens, as in these examples of trans black solidarity in Ferguson, it looks like there’s such a compelling logic to it, and then when we look at history, we realize that it’s not this steady state of things. It’s a very rare thing. Ongoing effective solidarity is a pretty rare thing in history. And so, if we begin to expect that that’s the normal turnout of things, we can blame each other, we can blame this leadership, we can overlook structural factors. But that’s the gist of what the talk is about.
Well, it also seems to me to come back to the point that you were opening with, about your interest in psychoanalysis. A psychoanalytic self is the opposite of the solid self. It’s quite fractured and layered, and partially beyond its own access. So how do we think about political solidarity, not only historically but also emotionally — not only solidarity between people or groups or individuals, but just the impossibility of solidarity within your own self?
Yeah. Yeah. I don’t know that there are very many people talking about that. I think it’s an interesting question.
I would love to see — does this exist? — a good psychoanalytic reading of labor history! Like The Shell and the Kernel but for unions.
I think we’re in a moment where there’s a lot of consideration of the idea of optimism, and a little bit of what I’m trying to get at is related to that. Terry Eagleton, I think, has a new book called Hope Without Optimism. But there’s an argument for a kind of radical pessimism, and there’s a wonderful new British journal called Salvage that is organized around the same set of ideas. So, I think that it’s a moment where it’s particularly interesting to think about — how and when does optimism serve us, rather than thinking that optimism always serves us?
Right. I always think something similar about 19th-century American literature — that the first half of the 19th century, up to the Civil War, is the literature of optimism and then afterward it’s the literature of disappointment. And I always say that’s why I work on the first half, because I’m already disappointed! I want to go read some hopeful people. It’s just so refreshing.
Right. Though to say that you have to avoid Poe a little bit.
Of course! And of course my favorite of the optimistic writers — Melville, say — are the preemptively disappointed ones.
The other example that I would add to what you’re saying is Ta-Nehisi Coates’s new book, which refuses the hopefulness of eight years before, rather dramatically.
Yeah, and that’s part of it. I think the end of the Obama presidency is a part of it.
I want to talk about place a little bit. Last year, ASA was in Los Angeles, which was a really exciting place to think about "American" studies. But I want to talk about two other places. First — the Midwest, where both you and I are from. How do you think the Midwest relates to America, particularly in light of the recent racial violence that has burst forth out of Ferguson?
I’m fascinated more and more with the question of the Midwest, probably because I moved to Kansas. Our Mid-America American Studies Association meetings are in the winter, and they’re in Lawrence, and to take this older Midwestern Studies that’s existed here for a long time and put it in dialogue with Ferguson has been fascinating. But also the boundaries of the Midwest are so various. Someone once told me that there’s some Rand McNally guidebook of the 50 states by regions, and that it left Missouri out altogether. There’s just no place it can be. And Ferguson — yes, I think that matters. A lot of the protests have been both at the courthouse in St. Louis where the Dred Scott decision was made, and then also in St. Louis is the Arch, a monument to empire and expansion. We’re really now only talking about the boundaries of the Midwest. I think that it’s a regional history that is going to really take off, and particularly around race. How are Midwestern race relations alike and different from Southern race relations?
And then, the second place: Toronto. What does Toronto open up as a way to think about American studies?
I had no role in picking Toronto, but I was delighted that it was one of the out-of-the-country meetings that are relatively rare for ASA. There’s a quite vibrant American Studies, meaning mostly United States Studies, group in Canada. I think there are maybe two or three hundred Canadian scholars on the program.
The pope said, recently, in one of his speeches, that he was an American by virtue of being from Argentina, and he confessed a little confusion about the way that the United States tries to claim the word “America.” I think that as much as we in ASA talk about transnationalism, that there’s a long way to go in including transnational scholars — even including scholars from neighbors like Mexico. And this has really given us an opportunity to involve Canadian scholars.
We’ve been talking about different kinds of solidarities, and how different political movements intersect with the ASA. One movement we haven’t talked about is environmental justice. I’m thinking about it particularly because next year there will be the vote on officially demarcating the "anthropocene" as a unit of geological time. I’m curious about how you think environmental issues fit into the conversations the ASA is having.
One thing to say is that there’s a fair amount of excellent work on the environment that’s represented on the program. Some of the work that has been so vibrant inside the ASA positions us to think about environmental continuities in a certain way. It’s also worth noting that among the resolutions proposed this year — social action continues apace, and includes resolutions against police violence, for instance — are some proposed resolutions about environmental issues. It will be interesting to see which of those get forwarded by the Caucus on Social Action.
My presidential address actually ends with a quote from the French anarchist geographer Reclus, who says we need solidarity with all the lives and labor who have gone before us in history. And I think that that might imply, also, a solidarity with generations to come that is not always present in how we think about things. That solidarity is a part of environmental scholarship, and I look forward to that work flowering in the years to come.