This essay explores questions of what it means to participate in publicness—to be both discursively and physically in public spaces and to perform (functionally) and perform (productively) our identities as citizens of local, national, and global communities. Using a multiple/collaborative autoethnographic approach, the authors further theorize on the relationality, emotionality, and affect of both public response and collaborative methodology.
There is too much to say.
michele: Recent events, like the outbreak of violence at the white nationalist protest rally in Charlottesville, VA, and similar happenings around the world that link protest and violence, like Israeli troops shooting and wounding Palestinians among crowds demonstrating at the Gaza–Israel border—call for a critical engagement with questions about what it means to participate in publicness. What it means to be both discursively and physically in public spaces and to perform functionally and productively our identities as citizens of local, national, and global communities. The increasing emphasis on public demonstrations (with resulting violence) have given scholars important opportunities to engage in academic analyses and to deliver commentary and intervention(s) as public intellectuals. Arguably, we will—personally, publicly, and professionally—feel the rippling effects of these events for an extended period (the near-future and beyond).
bryant: And it is critical to reflect, not only on situations in which “peaceful protest” turns violent with oppositional acts of resistance and response, but also when the oppositional response to presumed political injustices (governmental or cultural), use acts of violence as a strategy of oppositional engagement; thereby flipping the question as to whether “peaceful protest” is an anachronism of current global political protest. And in fact, the notion of political protest is a question or commentary on the interlatedness of culture and performance; culture as the situatedness of local beliefs and practices; and performance as the intentional and embodied articulation of human expression, both as response to social happening and as activator or articulation of positionality in daily practice.
michele: As co-authors and teacher–scholars, we are grounded in different—but complementary—aspects of our field. With a combined emphasis on performance and rhetoric (performance as rhetoric/rhetoric as performance),1 we share a commitment to the critical exploration of the material and performative foundations of identity and agency across all spheres of engagement. Engagement, here referring to discrete moments of historically grounded and contained (constrained) rhetorical action and the ever-expanding/ever-expressive performance of self in/as potentiality.2 We share roots in a common geographic region in the US South, and have similar generational experiences. But we also have complex differences—raced/sexed identities: a Black man and a white woman. Both identifying as gay and/or queer—we share non-heteronormative embodied perspectives, but these do not necessarily unify us across the complex differences they entail. In a cultural-historical moment that demands an accounting for (and of) identity, difference, solidarity, and—always, always, always—privilege, our complementary and asymmetrical differences are rich with potential.
bryant: Yet there is also a boundedness of that potentiality. We are bound by the parameters of our being; our own location and locality; our own strategies of engagement that at times are both bodily present on the frontlines of social activism with material and representional consequences, as well as at times intentionally sequestered in the ivory tower looking from a distance. Sometimes in judgement of those whose bodies make present their political ideology through enactment, but always with the recognition that our bodies are always differently on-line in the social construction of our identities.
There is too much to say. There is just, too much.
michele: But let us use this one instance as a point of entry, knowing that there are national and international examples that others might outline as their own points of recent reference. On 12 August 2017, Charlottesville, VA, was the site of a violent encounter between “Unite the Right” demonstrators and a broad collection of counterprotesters, including members of the controversial antifa group.3 After hours of confrontation and outright violence, which actually began the prior evening as “Unite the Right” groups gathered for what amounted to a pre-event rally, Saturday was decidedly defined by the tragic death of Heather Heyer when James Alex Fields Jr. drove his car into other vehicles, causing a chain reaction that ultimately took Heyer's life.
Commentary on the day's events (from admittedly left-leaning sources) documents the extremity of the racist rhetoric that both emerged from and fueled the events in Charlottesville. Discussions have also focused on the extent to which the alt-right demonstrators came prepared for and incited the violence that would mark the weekend.4
In the aftermath of the Charlottesville tragedy, public officials responded. The sitting US President made a series of statements—notably asserting that there were some “very fine people” on both sides of the Charlottesville conflict. These comments drew extensive criticism—coupled with outrage and, in some cases, despair. The President's response to Charlottesville was substantively lacking—and, for many, telling. In contrast, responses at the state and local levels were swift and concrete.5
While political leaders reacted—or failed to react—citizen–activists responded with direct action. Alt-right demonstrations have been met with counterprotests. On 19 August 2017, an alt-right free speech rally scheduled in Boston, MA, was effectively shut down by a crowd of counterprotesters estimated to number in the thousands. In the wake of this, alt-right group “ACT for America” cancelled “America First” rallies around the United States originally scheduled for 9 September 2017.
This effective deployment of protest as a form of civic engagement and political action has incited both celebration and invective. For members of the communication studies discipline, that has deep roots in both the philosophical foundations and practical limitations of public participation and performance of our public selves. The events of Charlottesville—and related events across other times, places, and experiences—present opportunities for reflection, engagement, and mourning.
There are some things that need to be said.
bryant: And the saying of such things, is always already linked with the manner of the saying; the voice in which it is said; and the mode of that said engagement. Michele, you have already articulated a sense of our differing yet co-informing personages or lived experiences. What is critical in this moment of the saying and telling, is that it is always grounded in an ethic of the personal. And that construction is suddently very important to me. It is important because the notion of an ethic of the personal recognizes the criticality of personal experience as a moral standpoint, as well as a mode of organic theorizing on lived experience, which might be associated with autoethnography.
MICHELE: STORMING THE MARKET
I am (not) a diversity thug.
Not long ago, one of our disciplinary list-servs published a discussion piece by a scholar of stature—an intellectual gatekeeper. This entry became the equivalent of a live grenade tossed into the list-serv's discursive space. This particular disruption hinged around a descriptive (and evaluative) phrase—“diversity thug.” This phrase began the post:“Diversity thugs are one of the few truly transparent conspiracies in modern society.”6
The author invoked a “marketplace” as a metaphor for the exchange of ideas in a public arena. And while the author did not take up the details, in its simplest form a “marketplace” metaphor presumes that individuals will embrace stronger arguments and “good” ideas, eventually driving weaker arguments and “bad” ideas out of the market. Of course, in a marketplace “good” and “bad” are relative—depending on valorization by the market. Good is only good if enough people buy into it. Bad is only bad if enough people reject it. And so it goes.7
The marketplace—as a model—doesn't appear equipped (or willing) to address moral or ethical value judgments. Questions of existential importance—questions of basic humanity—should not be left to the same model of competition and exchange as smartphones, fashion trends, and luxury cars. We ought to know better than this. We ought to be better this.
But, there I go again—pushing my snowflake agenda.
While I think about this “marketplace” mentality, I wonder whether, instead of talking about markets, we should be talking about publics. Publics—plural—because I am not naive enough to believe that there is (has been, should be) a singular place/space for sharing, critiquing, and deliberating. But even as I turn toward the “public sphere” as an alternative to a marketplace metaphor, I am left dissatisfied. After all, public sphere—and counterpublic—scholarship long has demonstrated that presumptions about access to, and full participation in, public deliberation are questionable at best (and elitist bullshit at worst).8 What we know about the public, a public, publics, counterpublics—the spaces and places we occupy with our words and, more visibly, our bodies—is that our words and bodies are not all equally welcome or equally protected. Lived experiences tell us, painfully and adamantly, that not all persons get the chance to have their say. We know, in fact, that some (certain) voices and words and bodies are actively disciplined and, yes, punished, when they try to enter the sanctity of the public.
There are all kinds of gatekeepers.
While one might rail against the deterioration of a marketplace of ideas, I mourn the fact that Charlottesville is just one tragic example of what happens when bad (truly bad) ideas have, for too long, been allowed to take root in the daylight and fester in the dark.
I am not a diversity (thug).
So, I don't think it's thuggish to resist a marketplace mentality when that mentality is invoked as shield against the voices, experiences, and bodies that have—for too long—been denied/disciplined/punished. I don't think it's thuggish to push back against this mentality when it is used as so much political cover—designed to use the retreat to “civility” as a shield against what it can no longer control.
I am not a thug.
I have been and remain committed to impassioned, well-reasoned debate, to respectful deliberation that honors—and seeks to understand—differences in lived experiences. I believe that robust disagreement has the potential to yield something more than just (hollow) victory and (begrudging) compromise. But then again, my privilege(s) allow me the luxury of these commitments and beliefs. My indignation at the marketplace metaphor is steeped in the privilege that allows me to invoke comfortably the alternative conception of public. [After all, I have far less to bracket than others.]
I may not be a thug. But that doesn't mean that I will yield the floor (stage, platform, public sidewalk or, yes, the classroom) just so (intellectual, political, public) gatekeepers can keep on doing what they've always done.
For those who have traditionally had the most to say from the largest and most influential platforms available, to cry foul now that they are no longer in full control of our public narratives, is disingenuous at best, and hypocritical at worst. They cry foul and I call bullshit.
BRYANT: “BUT I WANT TO BE A DIVERSITY THUG”
I confess that all of my life I wanted to be a thug as a means of participating in publicness.
Not a thug, as that violent, criminal, antisocial, ne'er-do-well; nor what has been described as a member of a religious organization of robbers and assassins in India. Devotees of the goddess Kali, the Thugs waylaid and strangled their victims, usually travelers, in a ritually prescribed manner.9 But maybe closer to how American rapper Tupac Shakur defined the term: “someone who is going through struggles, has gone through struggles, and continues to live day by day with nothing for them… . That person is a thug and the life they are living is the thug life.”10
What is attractive is the articulation of struggle (and consequently survival) in the everydayness of being; a person “making it by the hardest” (as my father would say); or a person surviving “by any means necessary” (as Malcolm X would say),11 or “Every worthwhile accomplishment, big or little, has its stages of drudgery and triumph; a beginning, a struggle, and a victory” (as Gandhi would say).12 And while the construction of the thug has often been rendered antisocial, particularly masculine, and ethnically disenfranchised, I am actually fine with that in this moment. I am fine with it because of the element of performative resistance that is at play here; as in being performatively Black; performatively authentic; performatively enraged; and performatively present and persistent—which works at the intersections of my being a Black man in America. Though also a constructively tensive positionality in being a Black gay man at the intersections of academic, personal, and political life. Ahhhh, but not really; same issues and same variables: a struggle against invisibility, a struggle against erasure, a struggle to regllate a perceived temperament. I wonder, in the academic environs in which I circulate, maybe I am a diversity thug.
I am a diversity thug, as a person who persistently uses voice and identity-presence, the raced/classed/sexed/gendered/intersectional/Other; with an insistence of recognition and protest; not just the individuality of being seen and heard. But the persistence of arguing for a recognition of “the other” in the everyday practices of decision-making that often leave so many of us thuggishly struggling to find our voice in place and space—in this “ivory tower,” this presumed haven from the struggles of everyday living and from the streets. Always thuggishly struggling regardless of how we are perceived in our efforts; always striving as a means to a productive end, or towards the potentiality of our own horizons.13
So, I am less interested in the ranting of a political conservative; or defending a marketplace of ideas (as he invokes it), for such voices try to outshout the already wretched of the earth—the perpetually problematized raced/sexed/gendered/intersectional/Other—globally; those for whom the dehumanizing effects of colonization is still real; always real. And I am less interested in how the perpetuation of the marketplace of ideas as a strained facsimile of freedom of speech (relatively applied across the globe) is used to, in fact, reify imperialist identities in the quest to maintain the colonizer and colonized relationship with its master/slave dynamic, and the sanctioned vulnerability of attack as a discipline on those who would demand humanity as a birth right.14 So, fuck the marketplace of ideas, if it is used as an idealized space to perpetuate terrorism, hatred, and violence—spoken words under the protectionism of freedom of speech or freedom to assemble that are always used to incite violent actions by sleeper cells. Sleeper cells who have been waiting to hear the clarion call of their leader.
So, I am saying, “Fuck, the allusion to a marketplace of ideas”—like a real OG, like an original gangster, or is that the diversity thug that I want to be? “Fuck the allusion to a marketplace of ideas” in this current context of its invocation, even as I practice it—if the aforementioned allusion is not regulated as a practiced space for social good and promoting the diversity of ideas that has the potential for social transformation. “Sometimes you have to disrupt the immoral status quo to find justice.”15
I am using the word “fuck” partially for shock value, partially as an expletive of disdain, and maybe in its repetition, to even partially desensitize the word from its garish and uncouth connotation to a bona fide performance of outrage that offsets the perceived snowflake agenda of polite academese. Outrage that often makes little progress in derailing the hardcore shit that forestalls progress and turns back the hands of time in cultural and racial activism. In fact, I may have been guilty of this in my past; staid performances of academic critique that circulate only in audiences of like-minded folk, along with a particular performance of grace that is both appreciated by many, and invalidated as weakness by others. In my current performance of diversity thug, I am unleashing my tongue to engage the appropriate performance of outrage in relation to my oft practiced and delicate restraint. In using the word “fuck,” my tongue is untied.16
I am not using the “F-Word” as a crass reference to sex, or even an act of violent rhetoric. I am using it as emphasis to express anger, annoyance, contempt, and impatience. (And here I am representing the “F-Word” in this manner, only to show the volition of my engagement).
But when am I allowed to get mad? When is the wretched of the earth, the disposed, the disenfranchised, and the subaltern allowed to get mad? And not get shot, or bombed, or gassed as a deterent and violent response to articulating lived experience, passion, and dissent? When?
When am I allowed to get mad—without invoking and being reduced to the mythic “angry Black man”? That angry Black man who has always had a reason to be mad because of historical inequities; yet is now reduced to the mythic angry or bestial Black man—once a marketing strategy in slavery (for the Black masculine worker, fighter, breeder), now a back-up positionality to further justify (in)difference.
And this is the moment when I invite the culturally and ethnically disenfranchised reader to ask the same.
When am I allowed to get outraged—and to express that outrage with my critically articulate tongue, my critically articulate fist, or my critically resistant body that shall not be moved?
And if you have noticed, I am actually choosing not to mention “He who must not be named,” like the great corrupter in the Harry Potter series (and around the world we all have our own “great corrupters,” whether specific to the one invoked in this essay or the leaders of respective governments). This in the fear that such an invocation summons his presence, empowers his voice and spirit, and maintains his importance as a threat to deride the world in which I want to live. As well as my ability to live freely as the muggle-born Black-gay-academic-wizard without any extraordinary powers that I am; but always using my magic for good. This is not about him anyway. It is about me wanting to be a diversity thug, pushing for progress both sequestered in the ivory tower looking from a distance, and always with a body that is always on the line. My political ideology must be enacted as a form of survival.
My life is on the line here—in so many ways—on the streets, the highways and byways of everyday life, and even in the ivory tower. So this is a protest.
MICHELE: THE SONG OF A SNOWFLAKE
This summer one of our institution's upper administration greeted our college by singing the opening number of Hamilton. It was the first time I had ever heard it. And while his rendition was far from stunning, the impact left me stunned. Those who know me know that I wear my emotions on my sleeve and would not be surprised to know that I teared up during the song. Silly? Perhaps. But that musical moment continues to permeate my thinking, feeling, and doing. Sadly, I fear that this affective response says more about me than just my emotionality. And, I'm afraid that what it says is not as complimentary as I might like.
Maybe we need a few more thugs.
I confess (I feel like a lot of white people are doing a lot of that these days) that my first visceral reactions to the word “thug” were to identify the term with the “antisocial, ne'er-do-well.” Without the framework that Bryant provides, I would never have imagined the potential for “thug” to be anything but a ne'er-do-well. Nor would my own reactions have presented me with an imagined thug without racial markers.
This limited, and racially biased, constriction of potentiality is a testament to the kind of white, social, economic privilege that permeates the streets I walk, the classrooms in which I teach, and the scholarship that I do (perhaps not this time).
It's no accident that it's an ivory tower that the gatekeepers lay claim to.
A thug wasn't something I wanted to be. These reactions—my reactions—circulate around the same racialized stereotypes that circulated around Trayvon Martin's hoodie. I want to say that I recoil from the word “thug” because I know it drips with racialized stereotypes—that I protest the word from a place of enlightened sensitivity to the power of language to name. But what if I recoiled from the word “thug” not because of its affiliation with a racialized stereotype, but because I did not want to be affiliated with those stereotypes? Do I recoil from the racism, or is that visceral reaction a residue of the subtle, non-conscious-but-still-real racism that underlies my own fear of a ne'er-do-well association? I don't know.
Maybe we need a few more diversity thugs.
But, I sit here with the indignant voice inside my head—aching sorrow in my soul—wondering if my reactionary rejection of the word “thug” ties me, still, to that Texas that follows me, haunts me, even after I've left it so far behind.
I just don't know and that's fucked up.
BRYANT: “THE IMPACT LEFT ME STUNNED”
When sending me her last entry, Michele wrote: “I am, honestly, a bit paralyzed by the space this has taken me to. Perhaps—no, there is no perhaps—this is the potential and the threat that comes from this kind of engagement.” I am using this important construct of hers not to poke at the paralysis she felt, but in fact to point out “the potential and the threat that comes from this kind of engagement.” I am feeling the same. Autoethnographic-based work is always a critical self-analysis in a field of culture and cultural knowing; a practice that turns inward the critical gaze of studying and writing about the self, in culture; often exposing our own complicities in that which we most often critique in others; or shine the light on the emerging yet still forming self that creeps out of the womb or bowels of culture. And I am no different.
The impact left me stunned.
I must admit that I was also sitting in the same space when our joint administrative leader sang his rendition of that key song from Hamilton. That song that has now become almost ubiquitous as confessional and celebration, as prologue, Prometheus, and Pentateuch—in that way that it begins to narrate a treachery, ignites a fire to illuminate and enlighten an auspicious beginning with consequences to be unfolded and told in different voices, maybe different tongues; it becomes biblical in that way that it establishes not only a set of truths by which some live (and die), but also a set of situational standards that establish consequences of historical proportions. Our joint administrative leader who sang this song is not white. And he sang the song with a purpose, not to entertain us—though it was entertaining. He sang the song, while playing the ukulele, as an act of appreciation, if not evidence, of his burgeoning understanding of the power of performance. He sang the song to explicate what performance studies scholars know:
We can think of performance (1) as work of imagination, as an object of study; (2) as a pragmatics of inquiry (both as model and method), as an optic and operation of research; (3) as a tactics of intervention, an alliterative space of struggle… we often refer to the three a's of performance studies: artistry, analysis, activism. Or to change the alliteration, a commitment to the three c's of performance studies: creativity, critique, citizenship (civic struggles for social justice).17
His performance was part of introducing himself to us; evidence of his knowing (to some degree) what we do in relation to the empowering mission of the university. But as engaging and well-intentioned his attempt was, it is important not to claim the breadth and depth, the critical histories and theories that guide and undergird a collective discipline broadly constructed as performance, with all of its
deep understanding of the epistemological underpinnings, the conceptual challenges, the methodological pragmatics, and the representational politics open to researchers across the human sciences, and particularly in communication and cultural studies. It means exchanging the exuberant “innocence” of “discovering” performance and claiming it for oneself alone for a rich and diverse intellectual neighborhood of hardworking, precise, and playful interlocutors, whose creative scholarly turns inspire defter, richer ones in those who engage them.18
The impact left me stunned.
Like Michele, I was not stunned by his virtuosity or a surface understanding and application of performance praxis, but at the sensed impulse for him to demonstrate his knowledge, to demonstrate his commitment of knowing in the vulnerability of display; not vulnerability to perform in front of teacher–scholars of communication, performing, and fine arts—but to put his body on the line as evidence of his still nascent understanding of our purpose—or a common commitment to being fully present and fully alive. Hence, this is not a critique of his effort but a contextualization of that effort in the midst of a much broader argument about the intersections of the academic, personal, and political; and about the legacy of cultural happenings and appropriations that the production of Hamilton actually addresses through performance—each in a context of critical response to history and maybe our current cultural climate.
The impact left me stunned.
When Michele writes that her “affective response says more about [her] than just [her] emotionality,” I was left stunned. She was primarily referencing her response to the lyrics from Hamilton that she then reanimated with a purpose, and later a reference to my reimagined potential for the notion of thug. So, I want to meditate on each, and the critical interrelatedness of each at the intersections of academic, personal, and political sensibilities.
Judith Hamera writes:
Grace is undertheorized. Consider “grace” one of the myriad templates of sociality that organize bodies and, through them, the practices of everyday life… templates of sociality expose, manage, finesse tensions that come must continually be resolved by embodied subjects, successfully or otherwise.19
I appreciate Hamera's construction and the project that seeks to “interrogate the strategies and tactics performing bodies use to create and inhabit enabling templates of sociality and to resist others. … [T]hey expose both materials and methodological moves that are sometimes ambivalent and equivocal, attentive to transformative possibilities and the reverse.”20 I also want to state that I believe that affective responses in/asemotionality are also undertheorized, especially affective responses that come with the immediacy of exposure as a critical, uncensored and political response—deeply felt stirrings that at times drive us to tears; drive us to bodily action; drive us to shout. Affective responses that move us immediately to say, “Fuck!” Affective responses as evidence of our “social presence, in terms of a [c]ommunity of [i]nquiry, [involving] personal expressions of emotions,” the range of humor, and sorrow that disclose our immediate orientation to experience when stimulated.21 And while emotionality, in the colloquial sense, is often reduced to an uncontrollable performance or presentation of one's emotional state (sometimes linked to hysteria and the feminine22), for me, emotionality can also be constructed as a technology of knowing and showing; a concerted analysis of one's core experiencing-of-a-happening; and a conveyance of how it made one feel. Emotionality, as a technology of knowing and showing, references for me a critical performative, a politicization of emotional experience as subject, and a mode of engagement. Emotionality can be the actuality of articulating emotional memory to make sense of experience, and to share that experience and the process of sense-making with others. Not only for them to feel into experience, but also to thinkingly-feel or feelingly-think into the articulation of experience. Thereby, the processing of and through emotionality becomes critical intellectual activity as a point of entry into shared humanity.23
So for me, Michele's reference to her “affective response saying more about [her] than just [her] emotionality” is a complex construct that speaks first to the immediacy of her visceral response, but then beckons speculation on the relationality of such immediate responses. And the critical reflection on the emotional response presents an occasion of inviting others to share the nature of her experience—not only the paralysis of that experience, but also the critical reawakening of the body and mind to feel and think about the happening, and why. In fact, she names and describes the nature and effect of the engagement as paralysis. But it takes the active processes of her academic, personal, and political facilities to give me access to her experience—which is a critical aspect of sharing.
On a different note: I want to reframe the referent of being a thug that also gave Michele pause. I don't want to be the type of reified Black thug at the expense of causing well-meaning folks like Michele or others to recoil as she writes: “to recoil from the racism, or is that visceral reaction a residue of the subtle, non-conscious-but-still-real racism that underlies the ne'er-do-well association?” Within their being white, how many are engaging in the critical performance of nonwhiteness?24 These individuals are allies, nay compatriots, in a war of positive (re)construction. Their bodies, like the white female body of Heather Heyer made martyr to the cause against white supremacists/neo-Nazis in Charlottesville (8/12/17), makes bare our concurrent struggles and sacrifices.
The term “thug” still has residue for me—but not of racism. Maybe it is grounded in the residue of my own pained comparison as its opposite… the sissy boy, the faggot, the gay, the queer as I was described and taunted for being the opposite of the oft hetero-masculine thug. Maybe wanting to be a diversity thug is my personal rescue mission. A consciously-unconscious mission not only to claim the radical activist–scholar, which I can perform well, but also to recover the displaced masculinity for which I yearned in the days of my boyhood—a performance from which I could not quite muster the reciprocated audience recognition of the effort. So, I use my scholarship as a critical process of excavating and recovering the missing and missed parts of myself, or helping to heal the wounded parts of myself hoping that it not only establishes a template of sociality, grace-filled or not, but also offers a generative autobiography from which others may begin their own processes of self-knowing and recovery.25 And such actions always operate at the intersections of the academic, personal, and political—especially for the so-called sissy boys, faggots, gays, queers, lesbians, or particular others still waiting to creep, leap, or spring out of the womb, bowel, or head of culture—like Athena from the head of Zeus, fully formed and in full armor—owning the beauty and brilliance of their being, and ready to defend it come what may.
MICHELE: MAYBE IT'S NOT TOO LATE
So, there are three threads—well there are so many more than three, but here I'll focus on three—that are weaving their ways through and around my thoughts. The first, latent in my own prior section and not something I would have thought to comment upon, is the nature of emotionality when coded and read against the backdrop of the gendered nature of the public sphere. Fortunately, Bryant went there. As I read this sentence—“And while emotionality, in the colloquial sense, is often reduced to an uncontrollable performance or presentation of one's emotional state (sometimes linked to hysteria and the feminine), for me, emotionality can also be constructed as a technology of knowing and showing; a concerted analysis of one's core experiencing-of-a-happening; and a conveyance of how it made one feel”—I said out loud (to the bemusement of my partner sitting only a few feet away), “Yes. This.”
“Yes. This.” Because I know my own reactions to and judgments upon my emotionality are deeply impacted by the lessons I learned through both my study of and participation in public spheres. I know that sexed/raced/classed/queered bodies and voices are excluded from and disciplined within these spheres. I also know that much of this exclusion and discipline is substantiated by reference to the over-emotionality and “disruptive” performativity of those bodies and voices. It's the mind/body split coming back to bite us—well some of us—on the ass once again.26
In this particular historical moment of Hillary Clinton—when Maxine Waters reclaims her time and Elizabeth Warren persists—I cannot help but recall that the connection between female-ness and inappropriate emotionality was a primary rhetorical battleground during the First Wave's suffrage efforts. But this battle (clearly) wasn't won once and for all with the acquisition of the vote. Women in myriad professions and—definitely—in the public arena of governmental leadership and politics still battle over the role that (our) emotionality does and should have in the evaluation of our intellectual, professional, and/or public selves.
So, “Yes. This.”
I am not a performance studies scholar. But, maybe it's not too late.
The next thread has to do with my growing understanding of the limits of my own intellectual toolkit when it comes to grappling with the questions and challenges we face as we enter the era of politics-after-Trump. As I've worked on (and worked through) my contributions to this project, I have repeatedly “reached” for theory—wanting to return to my public sphere roots. But I find myself withdrawing even as I reach. Something is missing. I am not sure if it is a failure of theory per se or just a failure of my own facility with said theory. The part of me that never gets over feeling like an academic impostor fears it is the latter. But that fear, while it can be—and has been over the weeks of this project—paralyzing, is also motivational because it drives me, again and again, into the words. In this case Bryant's words, where theory becomes something that provokes thinking and feeling in the lyrical-logic of Bryant's prose: “Not only for them to feel into experience, but also to thinkingly-feel or feelingly-think into the articulation of experience… as a point of entry into shared humanity.”
“Yes. This” is also deeply about the wider knowledge and practices that underlie what is at stake here. Not here in this dialogical exchange (although that is not without its own significance—particularly for me, as I both buoy and flail my blissful way within it), but Here. In this historical moment and cultural space, where the lived experiences of far, far too many are haunted by threats of disrespect, displacement, silence, erasure, punishment, and, yes, death. With this much at stake, we cannot afford to remain unmoved by these experiences (both ours and others).
Our historical moment cries out for the affective potential of both performance studies and critical autoethnographic methodology; how else are we to come together and even hope to overcome the threats we face as the deep “trenches”27 in our cultural landscape threaten to swallow us whole and hate-and-fear mongering demagogues flood the marketplace of ideas and our public squares with both bigotry and violence?
So, I'm thinking that I've got some re-tooling to do.
I am not a diversity thug. Maybe it's not too late for that, either.
Finally, and perhaps—no, there is no perhaps—the most important thread to be captured here, is bound up with my response to Bryant's reframing of diversity thug, which opens a space of potentiality to which I had previously been blind. When he describes a diversity thug as a
person who persistently uses voice and identity-presence, the raced/classed/sexed/gendered/intersectional/Other; with an insistence of recognition and protest; not just the individuality of being seen and heard. But the persistence of arguing for a recognition of “the other” in the everyday practices of decision making that often leave so many of us thuggishly struggling to find our voice in place and space… this presumed haven from the struggles of everyday living and from the streets.
Bryant gives me a vision of diversity thug that I can aspire to be.
Maybe it's not too late.
BRYANT: ON VIOLATION, VOLITION, AND VISION
I agree. “Maybe it's not too late.”
Not too late—not to claim the authority of knowing a different discipline, but to embrace the potency and potentiality of interdisciplinary inquiry into the politics and polemics of human social engagement.
And “maybe it's not too late” as a mantra for many to explore the pained intersections of the academic, personal, and political. To use the diverse disciplinary and interdisciplinary academic toolkits to deconstruct the role of our personal experiences (accomplishments and conceits). To interrogate the promotion and perpetuation of the academic endeavor (intellectual and social bullying) and how such idioms, ideals, and ideologies can be used beyond the academy to make a difference in political life: with the knowledge that all life is political and that autoethnographic work is political; as a purposed positionality that always stands in tension or relation to others in/and with cultural significance. Autoethnography is always an examination of the self in culture as a starting point to transforming self and culture. But here, as Michele previously referenced, I am also suggesting that we are in a particular cultural-historical moment that demands an accounting for (and of) identity, difference, solidarity, and—always, always, always—privilege, in which our complementary and asymmetrical differences demand a democratizing attention. How do we tap into that potential to enhance the best of our humanness?
Here I want to respectfully play with the important, previously-mentioned, alliterative impulse of Dwight Conquergood to invoke our participation in multiple/collaborative autoethnographic work across racial/cultural/gendered and maybe political lines; in service of examining the intersections of the academic, personal, and political. So, when Michele speaks (or writes) of a vision of being a diversity thug, it is different from the problematic characterization that originated the utterance. I believe that she is also referencing the potentialities of being and becoming that are cultural endeavors. She is referencing the critical processes of personal struggle to be fully present in society. And she is referencing, for me, a relationality that exists within our own cognitive and emotional sensibilities, and the ways those play out in social encounters that need as commonplace in everyday life the presence of diversity from thick intersectional identities.28 I am also striving towards that unification of intent without compromising the possibilities of personal growth and expression.
And maybe. Without having to be or become, a thug.
The notion of a marketplace of ideas ostensibly endangered by a conspiracy of “diversity thugs”—when considered in light of the bigotry and violence of Charlottesville and as is present in countless international examples—provoked this reflection on the academic, personal, and political. Our meditation(s) on the meaning, being, and becoming of a “diversity thug” challenged us toward deeper understandings of and appreciation for the role of affect—not only in our academic work, but also in our personal interactions, and more pressingly, in our political lives. Affect, while not always discretely theorized, enriches our understanding of the work done not just through autoethnography, but also in public protestation, activism, and resistance. The core of this is not just an intellectual or academic articulation of opposition; it is also a displayed empassioned, responsive, and embodied positionality both to show and to have an impact on public respondents.
Grounded in mutual respect, openness to risk, the suspension of judgments, and creative play, our engagement of multiple/collaborative autoethnography has much in common with Robert Asen's discourse theory of citizenship, wherein citizenship is understood not as a set of constitutive acts but as a mode of being (and becoming)—a “process of active, willful uptake” across multiplicities of interactions and contexts.29 A discourse theory of citizenship promotes an understanding of citizenship–citizen engagement as generative, risky, creative, committed, and affective. In a discourse theory of citizenship, democracy is an “active achievement” that is created and sustained through ongoing “‘inventive effort and creative activity.’”30
What we see is a synergy between the practices of multiple/collaborative autoethnography and the broad construction of citizen engagements/citizenship enactments in the form of protest, activism, and political response. We see the introspective, interrogative, and invitational impulses at the heart of autoethnographic practice resonate with critical ideals of performative democracy in an age of discourse-based citizenship. In other words, to couple the critically reflexive form of knowing derived from autoethnography, to place it into dialogic interplay with an other, particularly a historicized other—a Black man and white woman in a US historical context—is to chance finding mutality across difference and embodying the promises of democracy. Such is the power and the potential of collaborative approaches to auteoethnographic exploration—but we are pushing towards the horizon of that potentiality by marking our difference as an entry point to collaboration.
This multiple/collaborative autoethnography's potential of discovery is not just in shared experience or the sensousness of dialogic interplay, but also in teasing out the intercultural/interracial/interclass/intergender/interpolitical/intersectional aspects of identities that are often kept at bay in the historized tensions of difference that often spawn acts of resistance and disdain. The collaborative nature of our autoethnographic engagement under such defined circumstances of difference forces us to work not in the presumed tensions of difference but actually in the empowering tensiveness of the dynamic. Recognizing those qualities that hold use in a relational stasis, thus requires us to negotiate meaning—across borders, across difference, across histories of blame and shame—to reach resolutions of understanding.
So, while we are grounded in our particularities, the nature of what we achieve in our multiple and dialogic autoethnography is both material and methodological; we illuminate the material affects31 of converging narratives, perspectives, and bodies in relation one to the other; and methodologically we establish a template of critical sociality that is multidisciplinary in nature and is global in its possibility to engage a dialogic cultural critique through shared lived experiences. The shared and critiqued emotionality between the two participants builds its own relationality, breaking silences that have long contributed to self-suffering and bridging spaces of shared understanding that makes healing possible—which might translate to the bordered places of social and political protest; and indifference.