What the Temple University Press staff are reading while sheltering at home

This week in North Philly Notes, we ask the staff what they are reading while self-quarantined.

Shaun Vigil, Acquisitions Editor

While acclimating myself to the Press’s frontlist, it was a special pleasure to discover Kimberly Kattari’s Psychobilly, due for publication this spring. As a longtime fan of the genre — as well as a voracious reader of books on musical subcultures — nothing could have better signaled that my arrival at Temple. This book is truly a perfect match. Kattari’s in-depth accounts have not only helped to launch me into a world outside of my apartment during quarantine, but have also inspired me to pick up my Gretsch guitar and start brushing up on my picking!”

Kate Nichols, Art Manager

I just finished the design/layout of the first pass pages for Amy Finstein’s Modern Mobility Aloft: Elevated Highways, Architecture, and Urban Change in Pre-Interstate America, forthcoming in October. The book focuses on New York, Chicago and Boston and includes 103 halftones and 12 maps. I read a bit as I work, but I primarily focused on the images. Having spent a lot of time living in both New York and Boston, I was very interested in the historic photographs. Once published, I will give this book to my brother who is an architect in Boston.

As for a non-Temple book, I just began reading The Overstory by Richard Powers.

Ann-Marie Anderson, Marketing Director

I didn’t bring any recent TUP books home. It was too short notice, so along with new book projects, I’m reading and relaxing with James McBride’s Deacon King Kong. Luckily, I bought it before the pandemic hit and since the book is new, there are loads of reviews of it online. Being a former Brooklynite I’m enjoying an escape into a hilarious sixties Brooklyn neighborhood, told in McBride’s usually captivating way.

Aaron Javsicas, Editor-in-Chief

I’m reading Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, which is just the right kind of escapism for me right now — a voice from another world, in which records and relationships somehow managed to command center stage. Wouldn’t it be nice to go back?

Mary Rose Muccie, Director

I just finished The Clockmaker’s Daughter, by Kate Morton. I’m a big fan of how she interweaves the past and present around a transformative event, usually a death.  I’ve started an older book of hers, The Secret Keeper. 

Gary Kramer, Publicity Manager

Before our offices closed, I grabbed a copy of our recently published book, Action = Vie, by Christophe Broqua about the history and accomplishments of Act Up-Paris. It is an interesting title to read during the pandemic. I had read (and seen) and been inspired by David France’s How to Survive a Plague, so I am seeking similar inspiration from Broqua’s Action = Vie.

 

Time to Remember French AIDS Activism

This week in North Philly Notes, Christophe Broqua, author of Action = Vie, writes about Act Up-Paris.

Since the end of 2018, large-scale mobilizations in France by activist groups have challenged the authorities and demanded more social justice. The “Yellow Vest” movement holds demonstrations every Saturday in Paris. Among the streets that they have regularly occupied—sometimes without providing advance notice to the Prefecture (as prescribed by French law)—is the famous Avenue des Champs-Élysées, which stretches from Place de la Concorde to Place de l’Étoile, where the Arc de Triomphe is located, an area largely inaccessible for street demonstrations.

Action=Vie_SMTwenty-five years earlier, on December 1, 1993, the AIDS organization Act Up-Paris braved the difficulty of demonstrating in this same area by placing a giant condom on the Obélisque de la Concorde. They also blocked the top of the Avenue des Champs-Élysées on December 1, 1994, an action illustrated by the photo on the cover of Action = Vie: A History of AIDS Activism and Gay Politics in France. At the time, Act Up-Paris was considered one of the major social movements in France. The organization met with considerable success in terms of mobilization as well as media coverage and political impact—contrary to the predictions of failure that it had initially inspired.

Indeed, when Act Up-Paris was formed in 1989, the vast majority of local commentators thought the organization, based on the American model, could not succeed. They reproached it for being a lame copy, unsuited to the French context. That it was linked to the gay and lesbian community undoubtedly added to mistrust and discrediting of the organization. The success of Act-Up-Paris, however, continues the long French protest tradition—it reached its peak in the mid 1990s. The criticism was indicative of the tense relationship between the French and the United States, rather than of the relevance (or not) of political activism in the face of the epidemic in France. Indeed, France is dominated by an ideology that claims to reject “communitarianism” in favor of “republican universalism,” but which, in reality, fears political organization of oppressed or stigmatized minorities more than anything.

Nevertheless, the success of Act Up-Paris had some limitations, particularly when new treatments led to a drop in HIV/AIDS-related mortality, at least in the Global North. Little by little, without ever disappearing, the organization got smaller, while the other dominant AIDS organization in France, AIDES—inspired by the Gay MHC (New York) and the Terrence Higgins Trust (London)—succeeded due to their commitment to helping individuals. In contrast, Act Up defined its actions as strictly political. In the 1990s, Act Up-Paris had become a major player in the AIDS fight and gay rights movements, but lost its media visibility in the following decade and was virtually unknown to new generations.

MV5BZWM2NTcxM2QtOTYxMC00OTllLWJhN2MtODBjNjA2Y2FjYmU1XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNzQzNzQxNzI@._V1_UY268_CR3,0,182,268_AL_This progressive erasure and oblivion slowed in 2017 with the release of the film, BPM (Beats Per Minute). Directed and co-written by Robin Campillo a former member of Act Up-Paris, the film retraced the first years of the organization in a fictional but very realistic way. It also included a tragic love story between two activists, Nathan (Arnaud Valois) and Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart). Debuting at the Cannes Film Festival, the film won the prestigious Jury Grand Prize. From the outset, critics were ecstatic in their support of the film and the emotions it stirred. When it was released in cinemas, it was a huge success; in just a few months more than 800,000 tickets were sold. This tremendous response to a past that was largely forgotten, especially among the new generation, was impressive. For younger viewers, it was the discovery of a heroic past that many people did not know about; for older viewers, the film stirred memories of difficult times or the feeling of having missed out on history.

Overall, the film enabled society to indulge in a kind of collective redemption in the face of what it had not wanted to see—i.e., an epidemic affecting stigmatized minorities who used forms of political action to survive. Far from being an isolated phenomenon, the movie success was part of a larger remembrance process affecting both the history of the fight against AIDS as well as the mobilization of sexual and gender minorities in various European and North American countries.

Alas, this rediscovery of Act Up-Paris was focused mainly in France, as the film BPM did not enjoy the same commercial success in the United States, though it fared well critically.

French history is strongly connected to American history: the founder and several important activists of Act Up-Paris went through Act Up New York, which also represented an important model for the French group. Later, Act Up-Paris became the largest Act Up group in the world.

Now that time has passed, will its history finally be discovered beyond the French borders?

A Feminist Post-Liberal Future

This week in North Philly Notes, Judith Baer, author of Feminist Post-Liberalism,  writes about how feminists and liberals can correct each other’s characteristic errors.

Basketball great Kobe Bryant died in a helicopter crash on January 26, 2020. Early media coverage consisted mostly of eulogies. They stressed his five NBA championships with the Los Angeles Lakers, his two Olympic gold medals, and his commitment to equality in race relations and women’s sports. These stories, like the one in my local paper, ignored the worst incident on his record: an accusation of rape in 2003. (Criminal charges were dropped; a civil suit was settled out of court.)

Once this information emerged in postmortem coverage, all hell broke loose on social media. Fans accused critical commentators of bad taste and cruelty to the families of the crash victims. Bryant’s defenders also pointed out that he had made restitution and apologized, urging critics to put the episode behind them. Some, assuming without evidence that all women who criticized Bryant were white, accused them of ignoring the fact that black men are more likely than white men to be punished for rape and the long history of white women’s false accusations of black men. These commentators urged the critics to confront their own racism.

What does all this have to do with feminist post-liberalism? In my book, I suggest how these two belief systems can correct each other’s characteristic errors and how feminist ideas can break the connection between liberalism and male supremacy. The issues I explore include mass incarceration and cultural appropriation, both of which are relevant to the Kobe Bryant discussion.

Feminist Post-LiberalismA 40-year “war on crime” that began when Richard Nixon became president gave the United States the highest incarceration rate in the world. (We used to be third, after the USSR and the Union of South Africa.) This mass incarceration, which many liberals supported,  disproportionately harms African Americans. So many lose the right to vote that a “new Jim Crow” negates the effects of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Twenty-first century liberals want to end mass incarceration. But they fail to ask how fewer and shorter sentences might affect victims of sexual assault and domestic violence. Most rapists, whatever their race, get away with it. Feminism gets lost in the dialogue.

Cultural appropriation occurs when writers or artists use material from a culture not their own, especially without understanding or respect. Those who advised Kobe Bryant’s critics to face their own racism echoed the accusations an argument that goes back at least to 1932, when the poet Langston Hughes criticized the children’s book Little Black Sambo. Feminist critics of male authors have done likewise. Critics of Jeanine Cummins’s novel American Dirt have accused the African American author of appropriating the experience of undocumented Mexican immigrants—accused her so angrily that the publisher canceled Cummins’s promotion tour in fear for her safety.

Commentators who have jumped on the cultural appropriation bandwagon have abandoned a central tenet of liberalism: its commitment to reason. Passion does not turn an opinion into a fact or a difference of degree into a difference of kind. To lose these distinctions frustrates rational discourse.

Feminism and liberalism are distinct but tangled philosophies. Modern Western feminism developed logically and historically from liberalism. A belief system that replaced faith with reason, divine right with representative government, and hierarchy with equality invited critical scrutiny of male supremacy. Defenses of women’s rights appeared in Great Britain, France, and North America during and after the democratic revolutions in these countries. So did anti-feminist tracts. Jean-Jacques Rousseau found gender equality incompatible with motherhood. Some anti-revolutionary Frenchwomen opposed equality on religious grounds. French radicals rejected feminism because they considered a decent standard of living more important than legal rights. All these arguments existed by 1800 and still thrive today. Conservative critiques of feminism continue to emphasize religion and the family. Radical critiques insist that class and/or race is the primary, and gender a secondary, determinant of inequality.

Feminism and liberalism are compatible belief systems, but not all feminists are liberals and not all liberals are feminists. Both belief systems are complex and diverse. Feminists do not all think alike. Neither do all liberals. Differences of opinion and emphasis exist within both groups, as they do among conservatives and radicals. I devoted much time and space to distinguishing among various types of feminism and liberalism.

My first draft envisioned a feminist post-liberalism free of male supremacy and misogyny. I argued that the two sets of theories could correct characteristic errors, like some liberals’ emphasis on human rights at the expense of human needs and some feminists’ acceptance of gender roles. I also discussed characteristic errors that feminist and liberals shared, like a predisposition to guilt. My optimistic tone jarred with reality in the form of the 2016 election, which decisively rebuffed both feminism and liberalism.

A progressive feminist woman lost the presidency to a billionaire outsider. A coalition of conservatives, capitalists, and fundamentalist Christians was born. Enough people in enough states preferred a misogynist to a woman and a political novice to a seasoned legislator and diplomat. Enough people in enough states sat out the election to give Donald Trump the victory. Enough voters wanted change, and did not see a woman insider as an agent of change. Instead, we got reactionary change. Conservative ideas dominate the executive and judicial branches of the federal government. Feminists and liberals have a great deal of work to do.

Tipping toward possibility: an alternative framing of identity

This week in North Philly Notes, Milo Obourn, author of Disabled Futures, writes about the thorny issues of identity politics. 

A recent episode of NPR’s 1A featured a story about the great divide in political thinking that blamed, you’ll never guess, identity politics.

Bob Garfield, co-host of WNYC’s On the Media was arguing that the U.S. has an “identity obsessed culture” which “erodes the ideal of e pluribus unum” and inevitably leads to authoritarianism. Identity politics in this reading is factionalism that keeps us from working together, not the result of long histories of resistance to very targeted and explicit violences and discriminations. I could not help but think of the images that circulated after the 2017 Women’s March of a person I read as an older woman looking bored and holding a protest sign that reads, “I can’t believe I still have to protest this shit.” The image is now a poster, pin, and T-shirt you can buy on Amazon. Even the wry commentary on the never-ending cycle of the same political and social arguments is commodified into the never-ending cycle of capitalist incorporation of political and social arguments. How to get out?

Disabled Futures_022719_smThis question of “how to get out” underlies many of the theoretical moves I make in Disabled Futures: A Framework for Radical Inclusion. In this book, I explore the concept of “racialized disgender” as a way of framing identity that is not about a series of contemporary differences but rather a complex and nuanced framework of power in which ideologies of ability inform and construct our understanding of gender. A framework of power in which racism and constructions of dis/ability and its use to do violence to bodies are inextricable. A framework of power in which no one living in contemporary U.S. society is unaffected or unharmed by the ways race, gender, and dis/ability are assigned to our material selves. And finally, a framework in which no one couldn’t use their own experience to start to unpack how all oppression is, to quote Staceyann Chin, connected.

My first book Reconstituting Americans: Liberal Multiculturalism and Identity Difference in Post-1960s Literature was a way for me to deconstruct the fear of an “identity politics” that looms in popular culture as a force of divisiveness that causes those with historically marginalized identities to cling to our pain and/or is criticized for being empty politically correct nonsense—the kind of identity politics that turned “diversity and inclusion” into buzzwords translating into serving tacos in school cafeterias to represent Mexican culture. I wanted in this first book to think about how narrative and literary representation can help readers understand the ways American liberalism has eroded or put up barriers to our understanding of the politics surrounding identity oppression as offering us actual avenues for justice, knowledge, and ways to thrive in this world. It was a “how we got distracted” after all this work kind of book. Our world is full of these distractions—instead of wondering why things are so deeply inequitable we focus on Black people and Jewish people not getting along; instead of wondering how to make people feel more valued, safe, and included we argue about whether we should call it a “safe space” or a “brave space;” instead of asking why we have so many homeless trans youth and trans women of color being murdered every year; we focus on whether it’s okay to allow people in bathrooms and the struggles cis parents have understanding trans kids.

When I started writing Disabled Futures, I was ready to move beyond why we get stuck and look at models for how to frame our work toward greater justice in relation to inextricable intersections not just between marginalized identities but between systems of power that impact us all. What made me ready? Two things. First, I lost a child in infancy, I got very depressed, and the only thing that I could manage to do productively was work related to implementing active change based on knowledge from my academic research. Need a workshop on white privilege and how white people can process and own that? I was on it. Build a team to offer trainings on why respecting names and pronouns is important? I’m your trans person. The loss of this baby, Woolf, made any more critique without implementation feel like yet another distraction. I wanted a more potentially realizable (if still complex and very challenging) framework for understanding questions of identity and justice. The second and related thing was that I stepped in as Brockport’s Interim Chief Diversity Officer and found myself excited to be in a different relation to the immediate systems around me, to have my focus be big picture systems and the communities that inhabit them, as well as building connections with students outside of the classroom where I could mentor them in self advocacy that was not draining and distracting, but helpful to their ability to flourish in their academic life as well.

As an academic, I have been trained in critique. I have not been formally trained to present solutions. Disabled Futures is not a solution per se. But I felt at the point I was writing it that I needed the perspective of solution to survive and to thrive and that is the perspective I carried into my writing. I am committed in Disabled Futures to the idea that analyzing complex representations of race, gender, and dis/ability closely offers shifts in perspective that can keep us out of the cycle of distraction and argumentation, without devaluing the political and social knowledge that comes from living with and advocating from our social identity positions.

Years ago, when I discovered disability theory it gave me the seeds of some of the connections I make in this book. It let me talk about woundedness and impairment without shame or feeling like I had to isolate the harm of violence from the power of processing and living through it. To me this was applicable not only to disability as we understand it in our current moment but to the ways disability and ability form and inform all of our identities. It was a way to talk about whiteness and identity without fear that it would become white supremacy (the only choice according to the 1A interview with Garfield); a way of thinking about how dominant social identities work in complex collaboration with marginalization, not as its opposition, and not in ways that leave any of us unscathed by history. It was a way of connecting to myself and to years of academic study that I hadn’t known before and it became the platform for a theory of possibility. I hope that readers will leave this book tipping slightly more in the direction of possibility.

Announcing Temple University Press’ Spring 2020 Catalog

Happy New Year! And Happy New Catalog! This week in North Philly Notes, we announce the titles from our Spring 2020 catalog

 

Shakespeare and Trumpby Jeffrey R. Wilson

Revealing the modernity of Shakespeare’s politics, and the theatricality of Trump’s

Rude Democracy: Civility and Incivility in American Politicsby Susan Herbst

A look at how civility and incivility are strategic weapons on the state of American democracy, now with a new Preface for 2020

The Great Migration and the Democratic Party: Black Voters and the Realignment of American Politics in the 20th Centuryby Keneshia N. Grant

Examining the political impact of Black migration on politics in three northern cities from 1915 to 1965

Clowns to the Left of Me, Jokers to the Right: American Life in Columnsby Michael A. Smerconish

Now in Paperback—the opinions—and evolution—of Michael Smerconish, the provocative radio/TV host and political pundit

Good Reasons to Run: Women and Political Candidacy, edited by Shauna L. Shames, Rachel I. Bernhard, Mirya R. Holman, and Dawn Langan Teele

How and why women run for office

Gender Differences in Public Opinion: Values and Political ConsequencesMary-Kate Lizotte

Explores the gender gap in public opinion through a values lens

Under the Knife: Cosmetic Surgery, Boundary Work, and the Pursuit of the Natural Fakeby Samantha Kwan and Jennifer Graves 

How the pursuit of a “naturally” beautiful body plays out in cosmetic surgery

Sport and Moral Conflict: A Conventionalist Theoryby William J. Morgan 

How we make our way morally and otherwise when we cannot see eye to eye on the point and purpose of sport

Whose Game?: Gender and Power in Fantasy Sportsby Rebecca Joyce Kissane and Sarah Winslow

How fantasy sport participants experience gendered power

Biz Mackey, A Giant behind the Plate: The Story of the Negro League Star and Hall of Fame Catcherby Rich Westcott

Now in Paperback—the first biography of arguably the greatest catcher in the Negro Leagues

Allies and Obstacles: Disability Activism and Parents of Children with Disabilitiesby Allison C. Carey, Pamela Block, and Richard K. Scotch

Addresses the nature and history of activism by parents of people with disabilities, and its complex relationship to activism by disabled leaders

Degrees of Separation: Identity Formation While Leaving Ultra-Orthodox Judaism, by Schneur Zalman Newfield

How exiting ultra-Orthodox Judaism is not a single act of defiance, but an interactive process that extends for years after leaving

Psychobilly: Subcultural Survivalby Kimberly Kattari

How people improve their lives by participating in a rebellious music-based subculture

Metro Dailies in the Age of Multimedia Journalism, by Mary Lou Nemanic

How daily metro newspapers can continue to survive in the age of digital journalism

Reinventing the Austin City Councilby Ann O’M. Bowman

Examining how Austin, Texas changed the way it elects its city council—and why it matters

Disruptive Situations: Fractal Orientalism and Queer Strategies in Beirutby Ghassan Moussawi

The first comprehensive study to employ the lens of queer lives in the Arab World to understand everyday life disruptions, conflicts, and violence

Transnational Nationalism and Collective Identity among the American Irishby Howard Lune

How collective action creates meaning and identity within culturally diverse and physically dispersed communities

Communists and Community: Activism in Detroit’s Labor Movement, 1941-1956, by Ryan S. Pettengill

Enhances our understanding of the central role Communists played in the advancement of social democracy throughout the mid-twentieth century

A Collective Pursuit: Teacher’s Unions and Education Reformby Lesley Lavery

Arguing that teachers’ unions are working in community to reinvigorate the collective pursuit of reforms beneficial to both educators and public education

The United States of India: Anticolonial Literature and Transnational Refractionby Manan Desai

Examines a network of intellectuals who attempted to reimagine and reshape the relationship between the U.S. and India

The Winterthur Garden Guide: Color for Every Seasonby Linda Eirhart

How to build a garden with the “Winterthur look”

University Press Week Blog Tour: How to build community

It’s University Press Week and the Blog Tour is back! This year’s theme is Read. Think. Act. Today’s theme is: How to build community

banner.upw2019.jpg

Paul Farber and Ken Lum, co-editors of our new book Monument Lab penned this entry on community building.

From coeditor Paul Farber:

Monument Lab_CMYK_090319_smWhen we started Monument Lab, it was not a fully-realized curatorial project or interventionit was a classroom experiment. Ken and I were teaching in Fine Arts and Urban Studies, respectively, and were galvanized by our conversations with our students about representation, equity, and memory. We each spent time with scholarly texts and we also moved outside of our classes into public spaces as their own primary sources. We met one another, and connected with a circle of collaborators after that expanded what we could have ever dreamed of on our own. We iterated and took our questions outside to the courtyard of City Hall in 2015 for our first discovery phase exhibition. We eventually that moved to public squares and parks around the city for the citywide project with Mural Arts Philadelphia documented in the book, and now work in other cities with similar goals of critically engaging monuments we have inherited and unearthing the next generation of monuments.

We have been fortunate to work with a range of artists, writers, and organizers*. Some have artworks and essays represented in this book. Others put fingerprints and directed their own forms of expertise to the project to make this possible. We hope people will read the essays, but we hope people also tend to the captions, credits, and thank you’s, as they give insights into how monuments could be and are made, critiqued, and re-imagined. This was a profoundly collaborative effort and that is the point.

There is no single fix to our monumental landscape. There are ways of engaging the moment worth nodding to by many people representing previously exisiting and ongoing approaches. This includes antiracist, decolonial, feminist, queer, ecological, and other systems of social justice perspectives that take long first steps toward redress. These practitioners understand we live at once in the deep seated past, changing present, and unknowable future. The book and the work of Monument Lab is meant to document collective aspirations for art and justice and serve an active, living approach to history.

2_Olivier_FC

Enter Karyn Olivier, The Battle is Joined, Monument Lab 2017 (Steve Weinik/Mural Arts Philadelphia)

6_Hayes

Sharon Hayes, If They Should Ask, Monument Lab 2017 (Steve Weinik/Mural Arts Philadelphia)

From editor Ken Lum

I just received Deborah Thomas’ book Political Life in the Wake of the Plantation: Sovereignty, WitnessingRepair. She is an esteemed colleague at Penn and we both co-taught a course in Kingston, Jamaica that looks at a major violent incursion that took place in the impoverished neighborhood of Tivoli Gardens in 2010. From this moment of eruption, there followed an uneven and halting pattern of attempts at recognition, redress and reconciliation for the many human lives affected, and continues to affect, by the incursion. Although a different context, as I started reading this book, it made me think about Monument Lab: Creative Speculations for Philadelphia, the new book from Temple University Press that Paul Farber and I edited. 

There are many sites all over the world, even sites within sites, such as neighborhoods within neighborhoods or streets within streets, whereby were they truly examined in a holistically democratic and critical sense, would reveal many of the same flailing patterns that stymies institutional and official initiatives that attempt to confront issues of human trauma and under-recognition. I started thinking about how Monument Lab: Creative Speculations for Philadelphia is not just a book but also a method of thinking about matters of address and redress that offers no presaged prescription or anticipated conclusion. What Monument Lab offers is a way of thinking about the world in as open a manner as possible. Monument Lab is a project of inclusion including the real inclusion of Philadelphia’s many unheard voices. Monument Lab recognizes the untapped wisdom of the unacknowledged peoples and the truths that they offer. Monument Lab is a means rather than an end, but one that produces hope in the coming together of voices. 

Monument Lab draws on visual art, oral histories, scholarship and subjugated knowledges—there is no one knowledge that takes precedence over another. It is this openness in both thinking and method that accounts for whatever success Monument Labhas been able to achieve.


*Contributors: Alexander Alberro, Alliyah Allen, Laurie Allen, Andrew Friedman, Justin Geller, Kristen Giannantonio, Jane Golden, Aviva Kapust, Fariah Khan, Homay King, Stephanie Mach, Trapeta B. Mayson, Nathaniel Popkin, Ursula Rucker, Jodi Throckmorton, Salamishah Tillet, Jennifer Harford Vargas, Naomi Waltham-Smith, Bethany Wiggin, Mariam I. Williams, Leslie Willis-Lowry, and the editors 

Artists: Tania Bruguera, Mel Chin, Kara Crombie, Tyree Guyton, Hans Haacke, David Hartt, Sharon Hayes, King Britt and Joshua Mays, Klip Collective, Duane Linklater, Emeka Ogboh, Karyn Olivier, Michelle Angela Ortiz, Kaitlin Pomerantz, RAIR, Alexander Rosenberg, Jamel Shabazz, Hank Willis Thomas, Shira Walinsky and Southeast by Southeast, and Marisa Williamson

Redefining Toxic Masculinity in Trump’s America

This week in North Philly Notes, Cynthia Barounis, author of Vulnerable Constitutions, writes about “anti-prophylactic citizenship,” and Trump’s rhetoric.  

When I first began to develop the concept of “anti-prophylactic citizenship” five years ago in my research on queerness and disability, I did not anticipate how explicitly its opposite would take shape in the campaign, election, and presidency of Donald Trump. To say that Trump ran on a platform of racial exclusion and xenophobia is to state the obvious. But less frequently do we invoke the word “prophylactic” to describe Trump’s obsession with closed borders. Our discussions of prophylaxis tend to center, more progressively, on preventative medicine and public health. Against the puritanism of abstinence-only education, safe sex campaigns advocate the availability of prophylactic barriers to minimize the risk of STIs. And against the autism panic of anti-vaxxers, immunization records in schools are a commonsense strategy for protecting children against preventable outbreaks of contagious diseases.

And yet this primarily medical term also cuts to the core of the Trump administration’s attitude toward those populations he has named as threats. Indeed, there is perhaps no greater symbol for national prophylaxis than Trump’s promise to “build a great, great wall on our southern border.” A prophylactic barrier is designed to preemptively seal off the body from foreign invaders. While Trump has not succeeded in erecting his wall, his administration has enacted more insidious forms of border security since he took office, from the discriminatory Muslim Ban to the mass detention of asylum seekers and the unconscionable separation of parents from their children at the border. Even as I write this, Trump is making new headlines in his refusal to admit Bahamian climate refugees into the U.S. in the wake of Hurricane Dorian because they contained “some very bad people and some very bad gang members and some very, very bad drug dealers.” To make America “great again,” in this worldview, is to safeguard the imagined purity of an American “us” against infection and contamination by a supposedly un-American “them.”

Recognizing Trump’s rhetoric as fundamentally prophylactic allows us to more easily see the ableism that motivates his fixation with closed borders. During an interview with NPR last month, Trump’s acting head of Citizenship and Immigration Services, Ken Cuccinelli, took it upon himself to rewrite Emma Lazarus’s famous poem, etched onto the Statue of Liberty. Quoting the iconic lines, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” Cuccinelli improvised an extra addendum: “Who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge.” More than just an ableist metaphor, the requirement that immigrants be able to “stand on their own two feet” and not request assistance sends a clear message: sickness and disability have no place within Trump’s America. To what extent does the nostalgic rallying cry “Make America Great Again” resemble the rehabilitative pressures that demand that certain individuals become able to “walk again”?  More importantly, what would it look like to refuse that demand, requesting care instead of cure and demanding access rather than quarantine? What would a model of anti-prophylactic American citizenship look like?

Vulnerable ConstitutionsAs I was writing Vulnerable Constitutions: Queerness, Disability, and the Remaking of American Manhood, I discovered the answer to this question among an eclectic set of American novels and memoirs, from the canonical voices of William Faulkner and F. Scott Fitzgerald to the more explicitly radical writings of James Baldwin and Samuel Delany. Each of these writers rejected the prophylactic impulse to seal off the borders the body (and nation) against infection. In so doing, they rebelled against the medical wisdom of their day. Against doctor’s orders, they imagined a new form of American masculinity that celebrated the virtues of the viral. In their works, I was fascinated by the number of shapes these infectious visions took, from the risky intimacies cultivated among queer barebacking subcultures in response to the AIDS epidemic to the rejection of the sanitizing psychiatric labels and coercive therapies applied to gay men in the 1950s and 60s.

Rather than embracing an ideal of impenetrable masculinity, these writers believed that individual body, as well as the body of the nation, becomes healthier and more robust as it drops its defenses. They help us to envision an alternative form of manhood that dictates that the body remain open, incorporating and adapting to those elements that others identify as ‘threats.’ This alternative masculinity, of course, is not beyond critique. Its glorification of risk and resilience (“what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”) might simply replace one masculine ideal with another. But by celebrating the value and even the pleasures of contamination, it is a masculinity that is “toxic” in the most positive sense of the word.

 

%d bloggers like this: