Thursday, April 16, 2009

Distorting the Hush: Diversity as Political Rationality and Public Pedagogy

Introductory Bio

Vorris Nunley is an assistant professor of English at the University of California, Riverside. Professor Nunley is interested in Rhetorical and Critical theory, public pedagogies and composition, visual culture, neo-liberalism and African American expressive culture. His work addresses the intersections of rhetoric, space, and episteme (knowledge). Informed by work in literature, rhetoric (traditional/ethnic/gendered), cultural studies, and critical/feminist geography, Professor Nunley argues for the existence of a strand of African American rhetoric and knowledge he refers to as African American Hush Harbor Rhetoric (AAHHR). Recently, his work engages neo-liberalism as a public pedagogy and how it commodifies, produces, and mediates the construction and reception of masculinity/femininity, Blackness, the communal, and excess. He is currently the Professor in Residence for the Honors Program. He works with vice-provost on epistemic diversity. He also lectures and does workshops on related epistemic diversity issues. His book Keepin’ It Hushed: African American Hush Harbor Rhetoric and Knowledge will be published by Wayne State University Press in 2010.

Blog Entry

Experts in the institutionalization of diversity in corporate America and on university campuses refer to the hegemonic version of diversity as compositional or body count diversity. Compositional diversity, or what I refer to as neo-liberal diversity, pivots around the inclusion of different bodies and various subjectivities. To wit: let’s add some icing to the normative institutional cake. A little chocolate. A smidgen of brown, yellow, gender, and class. Oh, did someone forget the red again? Can we queer all of this damned icing? And while we are at it, let’s disable the cake? While compositional diversity is a necessary first step, it falls short, if the end game—particularly for those of us interested in more transformative social practices, political rationalities, and public pedagogies—is intended to exceed mere inclusion. Neo-liberal diversity discourse, for the most part, is a status quo buttressing, political rationality that inadvertently smuggles in hegemonic institutional, social, and racial relations through the backdoor of tolerance and market logics. Neo-liberal diversity does not reconfigure or dismantle what constitutes legitimate political and social knowledge.

Instead, it jettisons rhetorics of gender, race, and sexual orientation from the epistemic and then explicitly or implicitly relegates them to the stagnant, theoretical backwaters of difference, the cultural, the resistant, the sociological, and my personal favorite, the alternative.

Wendy Brown in “American Nightmare: Neo-liberalism, Neoconservatism, and De-Democratization” describes a political rationality as “a specific form of normative political reason organizing the political sphere, governance practices, and citizenship . . . [it] governs the sayable, the intelligible, and the truth criteria of these domains”(5). Neo-liberal diversity, as both an economic and political rationality, allows a euphoric discourse celebrating a range of marketable differences, for togetherness across those differences, and for colorblindness, tolerance, commonality, and ethnic unity—as long as they are flattened into a homogenized logic. A logic informed by what Slavoj Zizek (borrowing from Walter Benjamin) in Violence (2008) refers to as the “culturalisation of politics, depoliticizing diversity from unruly episteme and messy politics, and resituating it into difference, personal feelings, and a supermarket for ethnic choice" (140). In my view, what Brown argues about tolerance as a “depoliticizing trope” in Regulating Aversion: Tolerance in the Age of Identity and Empire (2006) also applies to diversity: “One sure sign of a depoliticizing trope or discourse is the easy and politically crosscutting embrace of a political project bearing its name” (16). As a result, Presidents George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, President Obama, and most major corporations also support diversity.

At this point, I ask readers not to misread my critique: Compositional diversity is important. It carves out a space for marginalized folks to have a job in the academy and elsewhere. In the classroom, it allows previous, backstage student voices (to borrow Erving Goffman’s term) to occupy center stage. And if neo-liberal diversity is merely about center staging marginalized academic and student voices so that they can be slotted into the normative political rationality, then let’s celebrate the inclusive dance, but not the illusion of a transformative political rationality that seduced many of us to purchase admission tickets to the diversity ball in the first place.

In terms of American and African American rhetorical practices, President Obama’s March 2008 “A More Perfect Union” speech offers a useful example. The speech was rhetorically savvy, and productively galvanizing in the fragmenting wake of the Bush years as it was an epideictic speech in praise of the common that advocated for inclusive America.

Unfortunately, “A More Perfect Union” re-inscribed the normative political rationality through the trivialization, then the omission of African American epistemes, knowledge’s, and subjectivities I refer to as African American Hush Harbor Rhetoric (AAHHR). “A More Perfect Union” accomplished this through its disavowal of Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s assertion that “racism is endemic to America.” Obama argued that his primary reason for distancing himself from Rev. Wright was that he had a “distorted” view of America (see "A More Perfect Union" speech at

For good or ill, Rev. Wright’s claim is a commonplace in AAHHR. Hush harbors are African American Black publics, micropublics, or what Michael Hanchard in Party/Politics: Culture, Community, and Agency in Black Political Thought (2006) refers to as lifeworlds. Lifeworlds foster the taken-for-granted bundles of beliefs, subjectivities, standpoints, and the language use which ordinary people engage in to create meaning within African American civil society. A civil society where African American rhetors speak to and exchange knowledge and information with primarily African American audiences (6-8, 223-224).

In African American hush harbors, African American political rationalities and terministic screens are not alternative, not counter, nor merely cultural; they are normative. Rev. Wright was the fifth most popular preacher/speaker in the United States due in part to his immersion in the epistemic parreshia (dangerous or frank speech) of AAHHR. Indeed, most African Americans understand White racism/privilege to be endemic to the American nation-state. Further, scholars as disparate as David Theo Goldberg, Ruthie Gilmore, Cedric Robinson, and Elaine Richardson have all written directly or indirectly about the centrality of Whiteness and racism to American identity and how both are not only coterminous with the development of the nation-state but also with Enlightenment humanism and modernity. Even if most African Americans did not agree with Wright’s position, they certainly understood his position to be legitimate and rational, not distorted. But the normative political rationality required the President to distance himself from both Rev. Wright and from the political rationalities of AAHHR to rhetorically construct himself as invested in diversity and multiple identities yet, racially non-partisan, rational, civil, and therefore, electable.

Indeed, neo-liberal diversity not only embraces multiple identities, spheres, discourses, and identities; not only celebrates the choices, diversities and hybridities of post-racial ontologies; not only cheers pluralized border-occupying subjects and subjectivities; but also attempts to produce all of the aforementioned on the very terrain of the subject as citizen-consumer.

Citizen as consumer-subject privileges market logics of utility that gloss over the antagonisms between citizens as political-subjects in the quest for unity, commonality, and consumption. Flattening tensions in the hegemonic political rationality is one reason why in the state of California, voters could both support President Obama—a marketable Blackness or diversity object that did not disrupt the dominant political rationality around race—but then, simultaneously, vote against Proposition 8, the so-called Gay Marriage amendment that definitely transgresses the hegemonic political rationality around masculinity gender, and marriage expectations.

My primary concern in this posting is not with President Obama’s intentions; rather, my argument is that the “A More Perfect Union,” speech, together with and by extension, neo-liberal diversity, function in tandem with the very political rationality that requires the rendering of African American and other hush harbor rhetorics invisible or distorted. If we take seriously Henry Giroux’s notion of neo-liberalism as public pedagogy as he argues in his book, Against the Terror of Neo-Liberalism, then we must also understand pedagogy and learning occur across a spectrum of social practices and settings through the educational force of the entire culture. Neo-liberalism and Obama’s “A More Perfect Union” speech can be said to be public pedagogies that are marked by both the possibilities and limits around what is intelligible and sayable in the public sphere vis-à-vis diversity, race, and sexual orientation, flattening out a more unruly, but more vital democracy.

But such flattening makes for a more easily digestible, more consumable, diversity cake.

1 comment:

Kristin Jacobson said...

Thanks for this article, Prof. Nunley.

You address in clear terms the problems associated with a neo-liberal understanding and application of diversity. I found your reading of Prop 8 and Obama's election especially powerful.

I think we can apply your ideas to classroom pedagogy in a powerful fashion: for example, the inclusion of diverse authors has only a limited capacity to change the curriculum if we do not at the same time radically change the the context and means by which these authors and texts are included. What's true for a syllabus holds true for our institutions.

Plenty to chew on here. Thanks again.

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