Coming from Abroad

My friends and many thousand strangers to me, are gathered at various airports across United States trying to let strangers in. The strangers, in this particular case in early 2017 America, are Muslims born or affiliated with the un-desirable nations of Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Somalia, Sudan. Some 134 million are theoretically barred from this country for 90 days. They are barred pending some ‘extreme vetting’ that will determine they are … non-Muslims.

I do not, as a rule, write about my present or past here and this will be no exception suffice to say that perhaps my longest theoretical engagement has been with the question of hospitality in America. As a young immigrant, Emma Lazarus’s words “give us your poor” were often, repeatedly, insistently recited to me as indicative of America’s putative promise of hospitality. A few years ago when I moved to NYC and started walking bridges, I learned about Lazarus’ inspiration for this creed of hospitality, when I visited the National Park on Wards Island. Here is what I read:

The island lay largely abandoned until 1840, when overcrowded Manhattan sought convenient locations for almshouses, mental health facilities, and potter’s fields (graveyards for the poor). Hundreds of thousands of bodies were relocated to Wards Island from the Madison Square Park and Bryant Park potter’s fields. The State Emigrant Refuge, a hospital for sick and destitute immigrants, opened in 1847 and it was the biggest hospital complex in the world during the 1850s. The predominance of public works led the City to purchase Wards Island outright in 1851. Twelve years later, the New York City Asylum for the Insane opened on the island. From 1860 until the 1892 opening of Ellis Island, Wards Island along with Castle Clinton on Manhattan’s southern tip welcomed America’s newcomers at its immigration station. The New York State Department of Mental Hygiene took over the immigration and asylum buildings in 1899, opening Manhattan State Hospital. With 4,400 patients, it was the largest psychiatric institution in the world. It later became the Manhattan Psychiatric Center.

Lazarus worked in the immigration center at Wards, where she encountered sick and destitute applicants for entry– detained before their cases could be heard. The foreigners stood directly on the re-interred bones of the slaves and poor of New York. Where they stood, would then stand, those termed insane and deviant.
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XQs VII: A Conversation with Sarah Besky

[The XQs (Ten Questions) series is a conversation with the author of new and exciting works in South Asian Studies, whose aim is not to “review” but to contextualize, historicize and promote new scholarship. Interview conducted by Patwari via e-mail. Previously: IIIIIIIVV, VI.]

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Sarah Besky received her Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and is currently Assistant Professor of Anthropology and International and Public Affairs at Brown University. She is the author of The Darjeeling Distinction: Labor and Justice on Fair-Trade Tea Plantations in India (University of California Press, 2014). Her current research works across ethnographic and archival evidence as well as rural tea plantations and urban auction houses and blending factories to explore “cheapness” as a social and economic value. A second book based on this research is tentatively titled The Cost of Cheap Tea: An Ethnography of Value in India.

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1. Let’s start with the title of the book, The Darjeeling Distinction. What is the significance of this title?

Darjeeling is often represented as distinct—a place apart from the rest of India, and tea unlike (and better tasting than) other teas. Darjeeling tea is known for its smoky, muscatel taste. It is not drunk with milk or sugar. It is one of the few teas on the market whose name is also the name of a place. The Nepalis, or Gorkhas, who constitute Darjeeling’s majority population, are often portrayed as internal others within India. They have built a longstanding movement for subnational autonomy. Their claims for a separate state of Gorkhaland are largely based on their shared sense of ancestral attachment to the place. (Meanwhile, the plantations on which many Gorkhas live serve as the pastoral backdrops for Bollywood musical asides–when the budget does not allow for a trip to Switzerland). With the book, I wanted to critically examine Darjeeling, as place and product, in national and international imaginaries. The book examines the linkages between geographical and consumptive distinction, but it also looks at the ways in which the plantation, as a productive form, remains exceptional.   In it, I critically engage Darjeeling’s multivalent distinctiveness, where it comes from, how it is perpetuated, and what it means for Gorkha belonging. Continue reading “XQs VII: A Conversation with Sarah Besky”

Fake News isn’t a Truth Problem, it’s a Personhood Problem

By Kris Cohen

[In this new Age of Orange, we’ll be bringing you a series of thought-provoking pieces on the new political landscape (and the same old landscape, as well]

K Tran, The Treachery of Images, print on canvas, 50cm x 70cm, London, 2013.

Whatever else it is, fake news is a problem that will not be adequately addressed by any single discipline. It does not have a proper home. It threatens everyone but belongs to no one. It is a problem for social media no less than for the most institutionalized forms of journalism; for massive conglomerates like Fox News or The Washington Post (now owned by Jeff Bezos of Amazon.com) no less than it is for your uncle. Nor does the fake news phenomenon reside neatly in some one historical period: it is not new, but neither can it be explained away by conflating it with every other time that publicity has made truth complicated. Fake news matters because of Trump, but not only because of him. So the phenomenon is going to attract a lot of commentary, as it should. The rush to fill the void of uncertainty shouldn’t be taken as a sign that the problem is simply faddish and hollow. People are struggling to arrive at the right questions, and that kind of trial and error-style work takes time. Lauren Berlant has recently called this “genre flailing.” But the problem is even more complex than arriving at the right questions. It’s about arriving at the right scale of question. In many ways, “fake news” is but a single symptom of a far more massive destabilization, as people on every possible side of every possible political spectrum re-orient themselves to what feels like the new political realities of 2017.

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F**K(ABLE?) HATE

By Grace Argo

[In this new Age of Orange, we’ll be bringing you a series of thought-provoking pieces on the new political landscape (and the same old landscape, as well]

Richard Spencer. Photo Credit: Mother Jones

In the aftermath of the 2016 election, media portrayals of white nationalists registered an ambivalent sort of surprise that white supremacists can be both evil and good-looking at the same time. “Meet the dapper white nationalist riding the Trump wave,” tweeted liberal magazine Mother Jones above an embedded image of “alt-right” ringleader Richard Spencer in a Brooks Brothers-esque pose, his blond brows furrowed, gaze alert but disinterested in the camera. Spencer is a statuesque relic of bygone boys’ club days, a spitting image of white masculinity pre-every-major-social-movement-of-the-twentieth-century. His stance effects power through a performative indifference we recognize as the “heartbreaker aesthetic,” that styled arrangement of cool masculinity which shrugs and says, “Whatever, you’re disposable to me.” (White girls, make no mistake: he’d pull your hair in bed.) The tweet was hastily redacted, but the original Mother Jones report on Spencer endures, as does a more recent CNN portrait of Martin Sellner, “the trendy young face of Austria’s far right.” Unlike Spencer, Sellner sports hipster frames, a black turtleneck, and the quiet, intimate gaze of a romantic partner. He exudes a more enlightened masculinity, subtler and soft-spoken. He’s probably into sensual lovemaking, emotional vulnerability, and equally shared parenting practices—so long as his partner shares his commitment to raising the next generation of Hitler Youth. The media’s (which is to say, the liberal white public’s) faint amazement at the charisma of these men emerges, of course, from the assumption that hate and attractiveness should not be able to cohere in the same body simultaneously.  Continue reading “F**K(ABLE?) HATE”