Charlottesville or University of Virginia: The Locations of White Supremacy (2)

In the 1980s, Michael Ryan, a leading social theorist, was denied tenure at the University of Virginia. At the same time, up and coming postcolonial feminist theorist Gayatri Spivak was rejected for employment. In the late 80s, Ryan wrote a piece, for Semiotexte, entitled “Mr. Jefferson’s University”, in which he stressed Jefferson’s being a slaveowner. According to Ryan, the architecture of the University of Virginia had been designed for White Masters, purposefully to deny the body, and to enhance the Master/Slave structure of power. Ryan also noted that much of the town of Charlottesville was built on old slave quarters.

I attended the University of Virginia, later, when Emily Post’s “Manners are how we get along” acted like a purposeful restraint on the possibility of invested exchanges that might not follow specific rules. This social mandate ignored the question: are there only ‘manners’ and violence? Can something else exist? I was told I was un-mannered for saying complicated things, for asking people to listen too hard or read too carefully. My cis-het-man-colleagues were less harshly criticized. These “manners” echo in current discussions of “what happened in Charlottesville”. This echo invokes the socially formalized and reversed restraining order against the traumatized one who says too much. Sometimes the language of trauma, privation and of the imperialized has to be improvised and innovative.

Richard Rorty, the preeminent American philosopher who worked for decades at UVA and with whom I studied, was one of Pragmatism’s greatest advocates. Rorty believed that the world does not need theory, complex notions or any engagement with the analytics of social differences, but only needs the mechanical and usable protocols of science and commerce. His work legitimated a tidal wave of American anti-intellectualism. For decades Rorty held his position in pleasant well-mannered arguments with those of us who saw where his dream was going, and, in the end, he got his wish that theory be seen as useless and be done away with.

When I attended the University of Virginia, the English Department was hostile to most forms of theoretical work, especially those that responsibly carry considerations of the social world.

The famous 90s Hoax by Alan Sokal clarified a multi-decade attack on ‘Theory’ and theoretical methods that analyze historical events and scientific ideas, make predictions, open dialogues, and most importantly enable different approaches. It was a spectacular moment of a well-regarded entity being taken in by ‘fake news.’  It’s time to revisit that discussion. There are millions of ways to misread. If the editors of Social Text were acknowledging their own lack of scientific knowledge and deferring to the title of a decorated scientist, the critique could have been aimed at the acceptance of authority as institutional position rather than the language of theory. The outcome of a critique aimed at positional authority would have been vastly different. It might have opened a dialogue about the toxicity of deference, rather than promoting a widespread attack on diverse schools of thinking suddenly all yoked together as “jargon.”

There has been only one sanctioned way to understand the Sokal affair: that decades of social theory – including identity politics, postmodernism/poststructuralism, materialist feminism, historical materialism, subaltern histories, French sociology, linguistics, hermeneutics, phenomenology, a multitude of anti-imperialist considerations, and many other schools and ideas and combinations thereof – all became de facto fraudulent pseudo-scientific posturing that deserved to be ridiculed. Any iterations of reality outside of the always obviating norm were collapsed into identity politics – as if there were only one way to think social reality against empire. While theoretical work and its difficulty were embattled long before the Sokal Hoax, Sokal managed to produce a sudden, sweeping, universal revaluation of these now fully othered methods. That this revaluation happened could have spawned an enormous study on an instance of the sudden reconfiguration of truth. That so many possible dialogues were so successfully silenced should have provoked more suspicion. Instead mechanical reality has since become the norm. The utility and pragmatism of life have reigned with little opposition: only the technical masters of science are permitted to construct unchallengeable narratives about the world and its progress.

This silencing uber-coherence under the aegis of rational simplicity is White supremacy in its very form and being. Silencing is not what the Antifa are ‘doing to’ Unite The Right. Silencing is being denied engagement with the many variant and possible apparatuses for thinking.

The Sokal Hoax legitimated a major backlash against theoretical work, and seemed to forge part of the ether of shrinking departments and dismissals. Why were questions about being forced to speak Standard English not circulated more? What are the implications of the notion of a ‘transparent’ or ‘plain’ language? Why was this perfect plain simple language with its Emily Post manners of dotted “i”s considered the language of the non-elite? How White is it? Why are some technical languages permitted while others not? Who gets shot down for using big words or complicated sentences? What is wrong with learning, asking questions, reading slowly, looking up words? Why is it discrediting to give an author the benefit of the doubt while reading their work?

All of this has been part of White supremacy’s quiet maintenance program. It was theorists who saw and noted it decades ago, many of whom, including Michael Ryan at UVA in the 1980s, lost their jobs.

The advent of White supremacy in Charlottesville is no surprise, even if it’s not particular to now and not particular to Charlottesville. The University of Virginia has always been a location where White privilege not only perpetuates but strengthens, and where those stamped with degrees help each other into the highest offices. The myth that Universities safeguard histories or that White philosophy engages real questions of ethics was exposed decades ago in the work of thinkers like Spivak and Ryan. Now the substance of their work, their exposes, “call-outs,” concerns and criticisms, are being spectacularly played out.


(Photo Credit: Huffington Post) (Image Credit: The Nib / Nomi Kane)

Charlottesville or University of Virginia: The Locations of White Supremacy (1)

The narrative that occurred during Brexit and the election of Trump that continues with regards to the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville is that “educated people” understand the evils of racism while White supremacy is solely owned by a White working class. But the idea that those with a privileged University education are immune or exceptional is not a given. The violence, cruelty and hate that has appeared in recent and not-so-recent shootings or trolling seems to serve as a screen against which scholars, professionals, and/or the wealthy and prestigious hide their own contributions to social containment and control, and worse.

This kind of hiding halts and dismantles any inquiry into how supremacy gets preserved. Neither racism nor toxic masculinity have been completely eviscerated by any group to date, even if the strategies, methods and frequency of these things differ drastically among different groups. Some activism contexts, and a myriad of campus political movements, have recognized neo-fascism on the Left and within universities, covert forms of maintaining White power, and conflicts of interest when fighting on behalf of imperialized social bodies, identities, cultural realities and genders.

At the “Unite The Right” rally in Charlottesville, The University of Virginia appears repeatedly painted with a broad brush, as if the entire University had, without exception, participated in the counter-protest. I wonder about the role of fraternities, and faculty members and administrators who support them, and budget cuts for departments that analyze historical conflicts or engage social reality. UVA is a locus for producing famous and powerful White people. Even if now the entire University is against Trumpism and its White supremacist supporters, I believe those who practice eugenics, Great White Man reading practices in literature and history, and legalized date rape, among other examples, owe an explanation for how this transformation into an anti-Nazi university en totale came about. How do such miracles occur?

I raise three examples as practices that abound not just at UVA but in many university contexts. First, UVA’s history of eugenics, its “American scientists [who] pushed for the perfection of the human `gene pool’ by influencing the reproductive process” supports arguments of segregation, and justifies violence against and dehumanization as ‘sub-normal’ particular populations whose social conditions of despair and privation are occluded by statements about intrinsic or genetic inferiority. Though eugenics gets dismissed as a history healed by progress, schools of essentialism, the under criticized realism of biology, and speculations as well as the science of DNA remain ongoing obsessions, with DNA uniquely rendered as the profound and concrete analysis of life-being. No stably funded science-critical fields seem to exist to trace the social implications of the genealogies of these sub-fields.

Second, “Great Man Theory” pertains to the order of works and knowledge, most obviously in literary studies where meaning is explicitly granted in relation to authorship, but also in practices that span many disciplines, including history and the sciences. The order of authorship produces a category of special, elite, privileged (usually White, male, often imperializing) figures whose work is read and re-read, from which entire communities that influenced and cultivated them are erased. Ideas ordered around ‘great’ people simplify the reality of social existence, and misleadingly produce, stabilize, and sanitize a supreme actor while erasing the uneven and multi-dimensional thicket of an ever-discoverable social reality.

Third, ‘legalized rape’ refers to a legal system that values and devalues evidence in an order that nullifies the wishes, limits and corporeal autonomy of survivors who are most often of a class of people such as cis-women, people of non-conforming genders, disability, people of color, and those designated to provide informal and exploited labor in prisons, in domestic contexts, and as undocumented workers. The more networked and privileged the rapist, the more the law does not apply to him.

Days after the rally, UVA English Professor Mark Edmundson wrote an opinion piece that broke the crowd down into three types: antifa, fascist and “peace and justice people.” In his telling, the antifa and the fascists are both extremists, each with some good, bad and comedic qualities. He doesn’t align himself within these groups except as basically critical of Donald Trump, though not critical of Trump’s “violence on all sides” phrase, which he agrees with. Edmundson’s position of exteriority in which racism should be condemned, but that the expressions of rage it produces is no better than that which initiates it, aligns with white privilege. The position of his article is almost neutral. For many in the classes of people who fear for their lives in the presence of threatening expressions, a mild temperament such as Edmundson’s may not be an option. He mildly acknowledges this kind of experience but does not meet or encounter it in any sincere way. His statements are un-critical of “freedom of speech,” with ‘speech’ being the supreme right with little exploration of its uses for endangering much more concrete freedoms of those people this right was not written for. What does it mean for a UVA English professor of administrative power to permit and concur with Trump’s whitewashing of life and death matters?

The Nazi March’s main organizer, Jason Kessler, is an alum of the University of Virginia. Richard Spencer attended UVA for undergraduate work. Neither of these men qualify as White working class if education is the gold standard for defining pedigree. Neither of them appear to be the types who can be ignored because, as Edmundson puts it, “they can only spell cat on the third try.” And what does it mean for a highly-celebrated teacher such as Edmundson to suggest that the uneducated can or should be dismissed?

We must not turn a blind eye to the role University administrators have played in producing the current situation, or the role of universities in sanctioning supremacist political stances and forms of being-in-the-world. What is the social role of the Humanities and Social Sciences and why have they been so fully disempowered?


(Photo Credit: The Guardian / Lois Beckett)