States of Emergence
November 8-11, 2018, Atlanta, Georgia
From drone strikes in Yemen to white nationalist violence in Charlottesville, emergency and crisis are constant facts of life in the United States and in the world. The theme for the 2018 annual meeting of the American Studies Association, “States of Emergence,” emphasizes that our sense of crisis must be thought alongside our constant commitment to challenging the calamities that beset us and to producing alternative—indeed better—worlds. The theme is partly taken from Homi Bhabha’s 1986 forward to Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks. In a reading of Walter Benjamin’s famous theorization that the tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule,” Bhabha added, “And the state of emergency is also always a state of emergence.” In our extension of Bhabha’s suggestion, we seek to underline the plural nature of those emergences and to question what emergence means in the contemporary context.
In doing so, we invoke the various inspirations from the global north and the global south that have occasioned American Studies scholarship and its critical interventions for the last twenty years. Colleagues within the association have turned their attention as teachers and as scholars to the workings of settler and franchise colonialism, neocolonialism, militarization, heteropatriarchy, ableism, and labor exploitation to practically every region on the globe, from the early American and colonial periods to the present day. Part of this effort has meant that our members have also tried to detail the ways in which everyday people—in the words of Cedric Robinson—engaged in the “recovery of human life from the spoilage of degradation.”
That degradation is one of the devastating characteristics of modern life. In 1958, the sociologist C. Wright Mills wrote, “the history of modern society may readily be understood as the story of the enlargement and the centralization of the means of power—in economic, in political, and in military institutions.” Perhaps more today than ever, we are witnessing that enlargement and centralization not only in the U.S. but in Latin America, Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Africa. At the same time, that enlargement and centralization have been met with political, intellectual, and cultural productions that are brilliantly revising and overturning received paradigms. As the world has become a battlefield, so too has it become a site of protest, critique, and dissent.
In bringing together emergency and emergence, the Program Committee invites inquiry into the intersecting means of power and critical responses to it. How should we analyze the current state of emergency or crisis? What are its main features and outcomes? What is its history? How can we understand its transnational dimension and also its geographical specificity? What social forms are emerging in relation to and out of this enlargement of the means of power? What critical and resistant political, cultural and intellectual formations have emerged and are emerging? From which institutional and geographical locations do they arise? What are their histories or genealogies and their strengths and weaknesses? How does conceiving emergence as constitutive to emergency change what the emergency is?
In understanding states of emergency as always and simultaneously states of emergence, we underscore the importance of a critical analytic for how we might apprehend and understand our contemporary moment. That is to say, how might we read our moment in order to recognize the emergence of contradictions, resistances, and resurgent modes of struggle where we might otherwise only see violence and brutality? What is the role of culture and epistemology to political practice? What alternative genealogies of resistance become legible when we register different arenas of struggle? What emergences are made visible while others are buried?
Foregrounding the notion of “emergence” as the ever present corollary to “emergency” also renders heterogeneous the various temporalities of struggle. The notion of a “state of emergency” connotes a condition whose permanence is legitimated through the guise of being temporary, one which is, as in the Carl Schmitt-ian mode of exception, mobilized for an absolutist or authoritarian rule of law. In contrast, the temporality of “emergence” is always historically and materially contingent, provisional, and liminal--that is, mobilized for the purposes of liberation.
In an effort to imagine the broadest forms of liberation, we observe “states of emergence” as domains of coalition and relationality. This year’s theme is therefore an affirmation of Audre Lorde’s sense that our emergences and interventions are not “one-time [events].” They require us to “become always vigilant for the smallest opportunity to make a genuine change in established, outgrown responses.” They are opportunities to “[learn] to address each other’s difference with respect,” creating allied emergences that are necessarily feminist, queer, unpredictable, and unlikely.
In contrast to Lorde’s appreciation for the “smallest opportunities,” our world too often assumes that the scholarly work that we do--that of interpreting the world--signifies our presumably comfortable retreat from and our insignificance to the world. Yet much of the contemporary theorization of American Studies scholars draws on the intellectual approaches of ethnic, indigenous, queer, Marxist, disability, postcolonial and feminist studies--formations embedded in social struggle, and interventions that provide much of the grammar for today’s social activism. How might we use those formations and grammars to identify those opportunities for genuine change?
Lastly, Atlanta is a fitting location to explore the meanings of the 2018 theme. We recall that W.E.B. Du Bois wrote The Souls of Black Folk, Dusk of Dawn, and Black Reconstruction while teaching at Atlanta University. While there, he also founded the journal Phylon, an interdisciplinary quarterly whose goal was to do what the mainstream disciplinary journals and associations would not--that is, provide a voice and a forum for black intellectuals and their allies around issues of race and culture. In The Souls, Du Bois addresses Atlanta as a city at a crossroads: it could bow to the seductive but alienating ideals of racial capitalism, or it could--as he put it--”realize the broadest possibilities of life.” With the local, national, and global parameters of that realization in mind, we submit this year’s theme.