I borrowed The Eminem Show – the CD, it was 2004 – from my housemate, a friend. I worked in a back office, wore headphones. I got in around nine. My boss got in around three. The floor of the warehouse we worked in was settling and to keep my chair from rolling backward I hooked my ankles around the legs of the desk. Eminem rapped about white America, a subject I thought I knew well.
It was 2004 and there was war in Afghanistan and war in Iraq. White America had started two wars.
There were four housemates, a kind of communal living thing that didn’t last. We’d all gone to college together, an elite institution, New England. We lived way out in the country. Our landlords lived one hill above us, their yard scarred with several dozen car chassis he claimed he was working on. Dirt bike trails looped through the neighborhood into the nearest woods and at the foot of the hill a wooden cross marked where a couple dirt bikers had died. Our landlords’ grandkids, we thought, maybe wrongly. The landlords would invite my Jewish housemate particularly to go to church with them. I thought he shouldn’t go but he went. He was nice about things like that, too nice, he was from the South. I’m from rural white New England and if rural white New England landlords try to sell me on their white church I know what white expression to make, though I couldn’t describe it.
My CD-loaning housemate and I carpooled inefficiently into the small city we worked on opposite sides of. She was staffing a helpline at an organization that works to prevent the sexual abuse of children. People called the helpline if they felt they were at risk of abusing a child. A lot of people before you have burned out from that job, her coworkers told her, or she understood. To help prevent burnout they’d redesigned the position, which seemed to mean that it was not a full-time job with standard benefits but a part-time job with limited benefits, though I believe they eventually added mandatory counseling.
I was working at a leftist publishing house, and Eminem was helping me correct a travel guide to Helsinki, or the index to a history of Hamas. Or I was checking the proofs of a debut novel by a Nigerian writer, my first proofreading assignment, and later I realized how much I’d missed, how many errors had passed me by. My lack of ear for Nigerian English didn’t help. I was twenty-two or twenty-three and had a lot to learn about English. None of this was Eminem’s fault.
The house in the country was on Sprinkle Road. I was often arranging repayment of my college loans over the phone (a landline): Hilary Plum, I’d say, 5 Sprinkle Road. So cute! someone would say, and we’d set up a plan for me to repay my loans while making $11/hour. I was content with $11/hour. My previous wage had probably been less than $7. I paid off my loans within five or so years, partly from working but mostly from several small inheritances from elderly relatives, without which I would be in debt to this day.
Is any inheritance small?
I got up early. I wanted to do so much before I had to go to work. In the mornings I’d let my big dog out the door, and he – the only male dog in the neighborhood, or he acted like it – would trot out to the paddock where our landlords kept three old bored horses. Sometimes my big male dog would raise his nose by the fence while the old male horse lowered his nose. Noses touched. A patriarchs’ greeting. It was early, misty. The wars outlived them both.
For two years at my last job I worked alone in a corner office my employers rented in a larger suite. The office building belonged to a private university that seemed to have bought out a quadrant of the city. Most of the suite worked for something called Business Services. Probably spreadsheets. My employers – a scholarly history journal, the job looked great on a CV, everyone reminded me – rented three offices there, but I only used one; the other two sat decadently empty while the suite’s younger workers were stuck in cubicles. For two years the days were nearly silent. The six or seven people who worked together in Business Services rarely spoke. I’d never been anywhere so populated yet so quiet, other than in a public swimming pool, underwater.
Once I asked one of them, the friendliest one, if the music I played in my office bothered him. Oh no, he said, we all listen to music.
I’m telling you they were all silent.
Later some stray offices got rented to a teachers’ organization, and I would sometimes hear the man who was the boss tell young women interns about his youthful time on a kibbutz.
Upstairs was a sleep lab. People came and went slowly.
I was bored.
The job was twenty-five hours a week but there were maybe two to fifteen hours a week of work to possibly do. My predecessor had kept a pretty mysterious schedule, and so there was an idea I should work regular shifts, Monday through Friday, one to six. Mostly I did, at least at the beginning. Then I didn’t. Mostly no one knew if I was in my office or not, or no one I worked for. The rest of the suite could have narc’ed to my employers, but they didn’t. They were on my side, I think, if they cared at all, largely because I (a woman in her thirties) was left to do the dishes of the senior editors after our monthly editorial meetings, with their ritualized sandwiches and potato salad. Until the boss of Business Services said this to me about the dishes, in a tone of decorous solidarity, I hadn’t even noticed this offense. It just felt natural to me to do everyone’s dishes. I was embarrassed, suddenly the worst feminist here in Business Services.
I’d taken the job so that I could stop working freelance but I took freelance jobs again (more academic editing) and double billed, got paid by two private universities at once.
Maybe it became my job to do everything in my life for which I didn’t get paid while I was there, in my office, getting paid. I texted a lot, wrote long emails, received long emails back. I had long conversations. Friendships that had lain dormant, or never quite existed, or been nearly lost amid the sorry I’ve been so slow to write backs were suddenly vibrant. It seemed impossible no one could hear. I would leave to take phone calls by a fence enclosing a nearby lot that was becoming a parking garage. Giant black stockings filled with detritus snaked across it, blocking some movement of water. We talked about literature, for hours, not bored with any of it, not bored with each other.
My husband and I are part of a small press founded by two friends, all unpaid. I brought the novel I was editing to my office. The novel has eighteen sex scenes. I got flushed.
When necessary I tightened the sentences of history and made citations conform to Chicago style, Documentation I: Notes and Bibliography (not Author–Date). To drown out the silence I did listen to music. I didn’t know what music to listen to because I have no musical culture, I might say, a phrase I think I heard Derrida say in that documentary about Derrida. But of course I listen to jazz, I think he said. My relationship to music is sentimental, aiming to recreate a sense of promise and inchoate freedom I associate with dark late-night adolescent New England roads, the curves you try to take as fast as your friends. Beastie Boys, A Tribe Called Quest, Moby, Soul Coughing, fucking Blink-182. And college, the Strokes, sure, or Kid A, while around you everyone is dropping acid and playing bocce for days. (They’re all lawyers now, or they run motivational programming for lawyers.) Musically I didn’t know where to start and I didn’t want anything in English. I can’t listen to English while editing English, which is the only language I edit, and only partially, it increasingly seems. It occurred to me that although I’d worked in literature in translation my whole career (career?) I only ever listened to Anglo-American music. I can’t read without reading critically, but I listen to music in some ignorant way, barely hearing anything, no craft. I doubt I know what’s snares.
In the novel I was writing then I wrote the sentence: When your husband is dying you get a job that pays better. We thought then that my husband was dying. I’d dropped out of a PhD program I was lukewarm about to get a job that paid better, that job. In those two years my husband had two tumors, the second one perfectly visible.
My work life – like, maybe, yours – is built around another, non-paying vocation. Writing one, two, four hours in the morning. I try to be efficient. I arrive everywhere with my hair wet. My ambitions to have a job – to be, for example, an editor doing important editing, or to be a person who makes more than $18,000 a year – seem to conflict with my ambitions to do this not-job. You can describe these two ways to spend time (writing, working) – to spend or sell time – as if they made up one story, the story of your life. But in your life they have to happen at the same time. At that time you are due at the office. At that time someone is or may be dying. When I wasn’t in my office, I might be at the hospital. I might be at my desk, writing. I might be in Microsoft Word’s Track Changes mode, listening to an EP by the Swet Shop Boys.
What is it we need from each other?
What could we still make happen?
At my first ever job I did the dishes most nights. Dairy Queen. I was sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, nineteen. The controls on the hot water heater didn’t work and the water could scald skin red. I don’t feel much in my hands, so no problem. After closing we divvied tasks up, tried to finish as fast as possible. We got paid by the hour but if your shift clocked out slow when you next saw him the owner would raise an eyebrow.
Just after close, 10 p.m., Big Steve would dial the local radio station to request ‘C’Mon ’N Ride It’, the train song, so he could dance like a train while he cleaned the hot-dog roller or mopped the floor. ‘Big’ just meant old – Big Steve was in his thirties, we guessed. He called everyone chief though no one seemed to like it. Hot Steve was a senior in high school and very attractive. When his girlfriend got pregnant he quit DQ to work demolition. People said you made $17 an hour working demolition.
When Big Steve got laid off from his second job, driving an oil truck, our boss at DQ gave him a straight-up $2 an hour raise so he could still make his child-support payments. There was a lot of resentment. My friend had worked there as long as Big Steve and thought it wasn’t fair he was getting a raise just because he was a dad. She had a point but I didn’t agree. I was not very worldly, still virginal, and I couldn’t have said what I felt: that we were sharing in an act of compassion for Steve’s ex and kids. No, not compassion: responsibility.
Customers at DQ often ordered in Spanish, and those of us workers who didn’t speak Spanish learned an in-between, ice-cream-specific language. Because I picked that up easily I assumed I’d learn Spanish naturally as I got older, but that isn’t how learning works. DQ’s workers were white, Latinx, African American, Lebanese American, Afghan American, that’s just what I remember, I don’t really know. It was what’s called a diverse workplace. What does it mean that phrases like that are largely formulated in workplaces that aren’t diverse? Since DQ I’ve mostly worked in publishing and higher education, workplaces that are usually very white. The faculty are – what about the students? The editors are – what about the readers and writers? Who gets to decide if you get to work, and who your work is for?
Publishing and higher-ed are so-called white-collar industries, though in the US many of those working in them – higher-ed especially, where adjunct instructors are nearly half the teaching workforce – don’t make anything like a middle-class income.1 As adjuncts (termed by our employers part-time) our jobs are precarious, low-wage, no benefits, little support, but requiring graduate degrees. Often we piece together work at multiple universities to make a living, maybe $20k or $25k a year. Those who have full-time or tenure-track positions make two, three, four, five times as much, teaching the same classes at the same institutions. Of course tenure-track faculty have additional responsibilities that every year, given their dwindling presence in the faculty ratio, fall on fewer and fewer shoulders.2
Some adjuncts are just as qualified as their tenure-track colleagues, or more so. Some aren’t and wouldn’t be considered for that kind of job – whose work they are, every day, doing. As an adjunct, sometimes I interviewed for tenure-track positions and found I was already more qualified for the job I didn’t get than people interviewing me who’d had that job for years. In contrast, the standards for hiring adjuncts aren’t that high. The more selective the institution, the less adjunct labor it uses. The more selective the institution, the richer and whiter its student body.3
The trend toward replacing stable middle-class jobs that support scholarship and whose workers share in self-governance, with low-paying contingent jobs that maximize teaching volume and minimize workers’ power, has occurred dramatically nationwide over five decades and seems irreversible. Attempts to organize adjunct labor win local victories, but the cause hasn’t won the interest of the larger culture, which seems hostile toward workers whose labor occurs in intellectual institutions and who could have chosen to get a real job, the sentiment goes. Or is it that teaching should be a labor of love, so it’s impossible for the work of teaching, an act of love, to be exploited? Adjuncts are often called the fast-food workers of the academic world.
College instructors find themselves on public assistance, using food stamps, approaching or entering homelessness. The extreme inequality between the two types of positions creates an environment of scarcity, competition, humiliation. Full-time faculty may start to fear for their own job security. Increasingly overwhelmed with the out-of-classroom labor of the institution, while having little say in how budgets are spent, full-timers are made into ineffectual, or even hesitant, advocates for their part-time colleagues. You’re meant to be grateful anytime a budget isn’t cut or someone gets paid a living wage.
Given the $1.5 trillion in American student debt, but next to nothing spent on class after class, isn’t someone or everyone being defrauded? You, the adjunct, feel caught up in fraudulence. It’s a sense of hypocrisy you share in, standing in front of the classroom, encouraging promising students with mounting loans and complex family and health and job obligations to keep on working for their degrees. You believe in the class you’re teaching. You believe statistics that attest to the economic value of higher education in individuals’ lives, their earning potential. You rarely discuss how these degrees might fail to yield a steady job or a dignified means to participate in the life of ideas. Though the proof of this failure could not be closer at hand.
It seems you’re still learning how this failure works.
The degradation of academic labor is a large-scale problem, yet it must occur in specific choices made repeatedly by individuals. Somehow over time across the country it is as if there were a mass agreement, as if every time you looked at a budget spreadsheet you agreed that teachers should be paid only $2,500 for teaching a fifteen-week course, and that more and more of the instruction at your university – the mission of your educational institution, or the product you are selling to students and their parents – should be made up of this low-wage labor, performed by people whose names and faces their colleagues won’t recall and which are less and less likely (given the exhaustion of their days, commuting ceaselessly from school to school, grading and meeting students in hallways) to be known in their field. How does this feel? Now that I am not an adjunct (I have a full-time, non-tenure-track position – still by definition contingent), I don’t know most adjuncts in my department. We just never meet.
Guys would come around Dairy Queen, where there were always teenage girls smiling behind the counter, bare legs and matching polos spattered with butterscotch, cherry dip. It could have been funny, the tears shed over the years for these guys. We girls would hole up and cry in the walk-in freezer. He said he was eighteen and had no kids, but he’s twenty-two and has two kids, the lament went. I didn’t suspect a thing. I didn’t do anything. You shouldn’t take breaks that long. You shouldn’t get pregnant. But if you did get pregnant, if you did get thrown out of your house, your dad some kind of Christian minister, or just a deacon, you might find that before long the boss at DQ had made you a manager, though there had never been managers before. Comes with a raise. A lot happens but we have some choices. You might find her on Facebook fifteen years later, mother of two sweet girls and pursuing a doctorate at Jerry Falwell’s private Christian right-wing Liberty University, you can’t tell in what.
I say that I took my current job for the benefits. While my husband was close to dying, my job-that-paid-better still didn’t have benefits. No health insurance. If he started to die again, if he could no longer work, if we ran out of medical and disability leave, I wanted health insurance I could offer us both. This was the responsible decision, for my family, which was the two of us. For this new job of mine we had to move cities, though we loved the city we lived in. But really I wanted this job, benefits aside – I’d been trying for years to get a job like this, and I wanted it, even though we had to pick up and move from a city that had kept us, unexpectedly, alive.
At this new job I would work with a close friend, an old friend with whom I often talked literature, with whom I already worked on the side to publish literature. I knew that a chance like this, to be two women working closely together in our field, in charge more or less of ourselves, would not come again. Now we work together all day every day. When I get into her car, a bag of sour gummy candy awaits me on the passenger seat. After work I go to her house, or vice versa; we exchange writing; we meet for drinks here and there, swearing about this or that email. When I covered her maternity leave at our university, I realized how able I was to assume her role and responsibilities. We know each other so well that we know how we are different.
Later I returned to the draft of the novel in which an avatar of my own husband was dying. Once he was no longer dying I didn’t want to write about that, and now in the novel a woman is pregnant, on her own, in a state of love with someone with whom she will not have what is seen as a relationship. This what is seen as is what I’m trying to mean. A relationship has a structure that allows it to go on, emotions and responsibilities stable, expectations understood – a way to introduce each other, for example, to family, or to become for one another a family. There is a form, and the recognizability of the form defines this as a relationship. Otherwise what terms to use, what forms to try? How do I know who I could be for you? Through what work may we gain this knowledge?
Today my husband and I live in two different cities. Our jobs are now in different cities, and we both want or need to have jobs, or to have these particular jobs. It’s a question. It’s a common situation for those who work in the academy (over the years he and I have applied to other kinds of jobs, with no results). After years of cancer he is in remission, a state defined by lack of proof for its opposite, no evidence of disease. If the disease returns (it has returned before, from states like this), it will be because it was always there. Remission describes a state to be finally determined later.
To achieve this has required four major surgeries and two rounds of intensive chemotherapy. I’d guess the total cost was millions. Though the cost is never calculable; it represents an exchange that hospitals, insurance companies, individuals, and governments are continually in. We probably paid $15k, $20k, I stopped keeping track because it stopped seeming to matter.4 I know that the cost of his survival was shared by strangers, not just through compassion but through insurance, a means to collectivize risk in order to equalize assistance.
Sometimes my husband will, at the end of the day, the end of the work week, tell me about something happening at his job. We’re married, it’s a thing people talk about. When I’m listening to a description of a task that I fear is a waste of time – normal bureaucratic assignment, sounds familiar – I feel an anger that returns me to any room in the hospital. I feel that if someone on the management level wastes his time, they’re wasting the time of every doctor and nurse and visiting friend whose expertise and labor and care made it possible for him to be, today, alive and working. Each hour of his work bears within it these other hours. But then, I think – furiously I think – this is true of every one of us. Our labor isn’t ours; it bears within it others’ work, others’ time, their years of frustration, boredom, achievement. And our work radiates through the living hours of those we in no other way know. You may feel what I’m trying to mean.
I think an office job – a boring, unsupervised office job – may be necessary for anyone who loves someone who needs care (someone ill, someone dying, someone just born). Anyone whom others call caregiver. And maybe for the ones who care for the caregivers. I guess the economy would suffer if we all stopped working whenever we needed to care for each other. But wouldn’t we suffer less? In those years when I needed or wanted to be at the hospital, I went to the hospital. Sometimes I took proofs of the history journal with me, though there was no point. It’s hard to do that sort of work in a hospital, surrounded by the sounds and smells of the work a hospital is doing, and in my husband’s room a TV playing a marathon of a reality show called Escaping Polygamy. On reflection that’s a pro-monogamy message, though this wasn’t the show’s point. The show was about a group of women extracting themselves and one another from some sort of rural white polygamous cult. It felt clear that severe abuse took place in the cult that the show – for legal reasons, I figured – didn’t describe. Or the show manipulated me into this belief. Its tone was uneasy, a contrast between the established genre of a reality show, the familiarity with which people narrate themselves to a camera, and the barefaced emotion of these young women, who had a guileless desperation the show couldn’t tame. Of course this contrast was great to watch. During my work hours I came and went from the hospital or spent hours on the phone in my office talking to insurance companies, talking to the string of operators whose job it is to sound sympathetic – it’s sincere, that sympathy, though I wanted to tell them not to be sincere, not to sell their sincerity to their insurance-company employers for such a low wage – while blocking the progress of your claim. Even if your husband has been, for example, denied coverage for painkiller prescriptions when discharged from the hospital, sixty-nine stitches in his torso, metastatic tumor in the liver freshly removed. My boyfriend’s mother just died of cancer, an operator told me, sympathetically, her sympathy becoming a tool her employers exploited, my husband’s prescription forever denied.
While editing I can sometimes listen to hip-hop when I can’t otherwise listen to music in English. The beat keeps the language I’m hearing from blending with the language I’m paid to read. Different modes of editing require different levels of attention; sometimes you want your reading mind to be lightly distracted, so that instead of following narrative or argument you are attuned to pure error, moving through minute units of language and watching as they assemble, again and again, into machines that mean. You want to see if any part fails to slide into place. To see this you don’t attend to what the whole is gradually doing.
In that office when I first heard the Swet Shop Boys, when I clicked on the link for the album Cashmere, what I noticed, with distracted wonder, was the difference between the Englishes of the two MCs. The Swet Shop Boys are two rappers, Heems and Riz MC, and producer Redinho. Heems is Himanshu Suri, formerly of Das Racist; Riz MC is Riz (full name Rizwan) Ahmed, the actor; Redinho is aka Tom Calvert. Heems is American, Riz and Calvert/Redinho British. In ‘Phone Tap’ Heems gives some background: ‘His family from India but Riz Pakistani / My family from Pakistan I’m Hindu Punjabi.’ Often their songs have a call-and-response structure, alternating between MCs, and listening I blandly realized this is less common in hip-hop now than it once was, back in my Beastie Boys and A Tribe Called Quest days. There’s a choppy/smooth shift between Riz’s keen rapid flow, with his forceful rasp and British accent, and Heems’s round nasal lush American drawl. As I edited, Riz’s rapping accompanied me, edgy and restless, the lyrics – quick wit, quick politics, interlocking multisyllabic rhymes – not quite arriving into the language I moved through on my screen. But then Heems’s sly wide style would slap right at my attention, the big Americanness of his voice, his coy straight delivery sliding through ironic registers. In the specific environment of my editorial office, the delicate case of my professional mind, this shift among Englishes interrupted me, altered my listening. Again and again, a delicious surprise.
Surprise describes the beauty and risk of correspondence: how a note arrives in your inbox or crosses the screen of your phone and you can’t predict it, a voice addressing you no matter what you are, in your own small life, doing. The voice sounds like itself; it’s not yours. Surprise because whenever you send such a note you can’t say how or if another might reply. In what forms does friendship take place? There’s an ethos and an eros to the question. Correspondence is writing: it’s the work of literature but not a product of literature. It’s not concerned with production – a text that’s known only intimately, not published, not for the public. Its language and thinking, the process of corresponding, informs whatever work you’re doing, whatever day you’re in, whatever books we may later, or never, read or write. But you still can’t quite say: this produced that. There was no author, not even of one text or another, not quite; each act of language was a response.
In those years in that office I was a correspondent. I took on that work or the work took me from myself, relieved me of myself. I needed friendship and friendship was offered. A note arrived. What happens next? The question is a sensation of trust – next we will say something else to each other, we will be talking as we are now and yet differently, together amid differences to come.
Now I’m describing both a form of friendship and the work, as I see it, of editing. The editor makes a text into a site of dialogue, a place the writer is no longer alone. Editing is feared as intrusive, adversarial – the red pen and its violence; this suppression of the writer – but its work can be a rich collectivity. Word by word, sentence by sentence, I care for your work by dissenting from it, differing from it, responding to it. I build alternatives within and of it. This may feel like a release. I accompany you in the work, in its continual fearful flight from itself. I share my difference with you, and you with me. A book somehow results. But beyond the book lie hours of readers and writers attending to one another, together in a work in progress, meeting carefully in an unstable state. The greatness of this generosity is its risk.
‘Post-9/11 Blues’ was Riz Ahmed’s first release as a rapper, a 2006 solo effort banned from UK radio play for its political commentary: ‘post 9/11 getting around can be expensive / Cost twelve dead Iraqis for a litre of unleaded.’ In the Swet Shop Boys’ songs, cops mirror and extend the imperial oppression served up by the ‘alphabet boys’ – FBI, CIA, NSA, IDF, TSA.5 ‘Counterterrorism’ is a cover for racism, Islamophobia, fearmongering to feed endless war. Daily life under post-9/11 empire is subject to empire’s necrotizing militarized logic.
In a 2018 interview on the Daily Show, host Trevor Noah asks Riz how he thinks about issues of ‘diversity’ and/or ‘representation’ in his work as an actor. ‘I don’t like to talk about diversity’, Riz responds:
I feel like it sounds like an added extra, it sounds like the fries not the burger . . . It sounds like . . . you’ve got your main thing going on, and yeah, sprinkle a little bit of diversity on top of that. That’s not what it’s about for me. It’s about representation. And representation is absolutely fundamental in terms of what we expect from our culture and from our politics. We all want to feel represented. We all want to feel seen and heard and valued.
Not to be seen and heard and valued is to be killed. ‘Think we’re termites, wanna terminate us’, the chorus goes in ‘T5’, lead track on Cashmere. The lines before that were still playing, drawn out and sardonic: ‘Oh no, we’re in trouble / TSA always wanna burst my bubble / Always get a random check when I rock the stubble.’ The ‘termite / terminate’ line presents the stakes of the game. Riz’s 2018 solo track ‘Mogambo’ offers this bluntness again, defiantly: ‘They wanna kill us all / But they can’t kill us all.’6
To be denied representation is to be defined by necropolitics, as Riz describes in a video interview about ‘Mogambo’:
When you turn on the TV and you see a brown guy on it, nine times out of ten they’re either being bombed, or they bombed someone . . . Either side I pick, I’m either killing people or I’m being killed. So in either of those outcomes, we just end up as the kebab meat, we’re the dead meat to feed people’s appetite in this war that’s going on.
While listening to the Swet Shop Boys I worked for the private university that paid me and I worked for the journal it housed. The journal is prestigious in its field. The work done by its editors intimidates; anyone would admire their erudition, dedication, precision. As an institution the journal is, historically, immensely white and male. Of thirty-four editors on the masthead in one 2017 issue, eight were women. The authorship of articles followed similar demographic trends (over two years in which I worked there, sixty-three articles were published, sixteen of them authored by women; the overwhelming majority of authors were Anglo-American or European and white). Editors expressed concerns about diversity. Could these concerns become more than ‘an added extra’, what Riz calls a ‘sprinkle’ – could they become ‘your main thing’, and how? Some editors proposed forcible strategies. In the meeting room one felt the presence of inertia.7 The inertia of publications and structures like these is ‘white men’, as the scholar Sara Ahmed defines them, as ‘an institution’; as ‘the mechanisms that ensure the persistence of that structure.’ ‘White men’, Ahmed stresses in an essay of that name, means not just ‘who is here, who is given a place at the table, but how bodies are occupied once they have arrived’; ‘white men’ is ‘conduct’, ‘behaviour as bond.’
White men, occupying the place of ‘white men’, still dominate the academy, its scholarship, its decision-making, the publication where I found myself as a nonvoting member. (Recent progress in the diversification of faculty – more women, people of color, workers from historically underrepresented backgrounds – has largely occurred among part-time, not full-time, ranks.) In my other field – trade and literary publishing, outside the academy – the institution of white men is now occupied predominantly by white women, or people like me, people I’m like. When I work, I work as part of a white majority built on exclusion and disproportionate representation; I’m within a self-protective whiteness whose exclusionary forces I must work to recognize.
Scholarship reproduces itself, recognizes itself. It recognizes reproduction of its forms. Knowledge made in the form of what it knows how to know. There’s little opportunity here for iterations that differ; the form resists innovation – not like that, or not by you. To prove its significance, your argument must descend from and engage with the tradition of significant arguments, meaning the same thinkers, the same body of work, a whitened body of work that is accreted onto, made to increase.
It wasn’t just the lack of diversity among authors published; the lack of diversity among thinkers discussed and cited began to wildly trouble me. As I edited citations I began to note, without even wanting to (gender imbalance gets so easy to glean, skimming names), how rarely the work of women was ever read, discussed, referenced, or recognized as existing. In article after article, citations seemed relentlessly male, overwhelmingly white men. Canon. How rarely a woman’s work was treated as meaningful. In my office, underemployed, unworthy of this wealthy university’s health insurance, husband in and out of the hospital, correcting others’ writing so it would conform to the standards I had been hired to know, I felt the silence of these centuries of women. Felt, like a hand on the mouth. Where were their thoughts, their days and nights, the worlds they were building, their histories, philosophies, the frictions of their language, its private and shared forms? Who represented the dream of their living? Where the fuck was the world? Elegantly some machine recreated endless absence.
From afar a cemetery looks like a field of young birches.
But I was too close.
On slow days in the office I worked for a group I’d learned of through a friend, one of its cofounders. Together they or we ran a series of social-justice-themed correspondence courses for people incarcerated in our state’s maximum-security prisons. Course readers were mailed out every six months, and participants proceeded through units of readings and discussion questions, mailing responses back to us. In that state, if you are incarcerated you are forbidden from corresponding with anyone incarcerated: inmates can’t write to other inmates. One goal of the program was to provide, in spite of this cruel restriction, some forum for discussion. Volunteers typed up participants’ replies to questions, compiled them, mailed them back out: below each question a half-dozen different answers sat next to one another, almost talking to one another. When your job was to type – to transcribe these handwritten responses – you had to decide whether to make any corrections, or ‘corrections’, and which. In general we transcribers made few changes. You shouldn’t change anyone’s syntax, their voice. But – we wondered, and often asked one another – should you quietly correct a misspelling, two switched letters or words, or a word that was one word off in an obvious way? What would the writer prefer? To correct would be to standardize divergent Englishes, an act complicit with institutional racism, a subjugation of living variants of a language to the version the capital recognized. On the other hand, many writers might have wanted to have their spelling corrected, if you could ask them, which for practical reasons you couldn’t. They might feel embarrassed to see someone had deliberately reproduced an error they’d made, just as my college students are often embarrassed, overly so, to find typos in their work and go out of their way to acknowledge errors of no consequence. Further, you might wonder if providing texts that lacked systematic grammar or spelling might be a disservice to those who wished to improve their skills in those areas – skills that enabled me, for example, to have the decent job I was, as I typed, exploiting. Further yet, any correction, any alteration, felt like a violation of the form of listening in which I was, as I typed others’ thoughts into a discussion, engaged. But why should it matter what I felt, since I was facilitating an experience for others, not myself? Suspended in such questions was the power to identify and reproduce – or choose not to reproduce – the standardized majority variant of a language (a global, hegemonic language), and the indeterminate responsibility that this power entailed. In the silence of that office this power was my company.
Sara Ahmed writes: ‘It takes conscious willed and willful effort not to reproduce an inheritance.’8
What body was I reproducing? Whose English do I enforce?
Like many adjuncts, I first taught college courses in composition, or first-year writing. Such classes, generally required, help students who have been variously prepared in high school learn the critical writing and reading skills needed in college. The genre is academic writing, since that’s the context (even at schools where the dominant majors may be fashion merchandising, or dance, or graphic design).
Composition courses devote much time and energy to MLA in-text citation style. I always want to teach the principles of research and citation: as a reader and writer you’re entering into an ongoing conversation; you have a responsibility to attend to and credit the contributions others have made; through this responsibility you may benefit from the work others have done. But I faltered when we got to the technicalities of MLA style, the quizzes on parentheses and periods and absent commas I was supposed to give. As an editor I regularly standardized and corrected the citations of established writers and scholars. In other words, the professors of these students didn’t quite need to know, and regularly failed to know, the sort of detail on which we were testing students. When a professor had a book or article accepted, someone like me would be hired to attend to those details, would correct where the writer had forgotten or diverged or erred. In my experience some scholars had perfect textbook citations; others were looser, or used alternative or idiosyncratic styles. This didn’t reflect on the originality of their arguments, the accomplishments of their writing. Citation style is a knowledge so specialized a separate job exists to make sure it gets done. Yet we ask every student to master it and judge them when they fail. We invite students into unimaginable wealth – endless cultural work preserved, reproduced – on the condition that they’ll be corrected when they don’t perform this encounter in the form of our choice. At the cost of that little violence, entrance into this discourse community. But of course some will feel the sting more than others; some will feel more fully invited than others. And I will be the one wielding the red pen, a skill I have but don’t need to coerce others to value. Or do I, to stay employed?
It occurred to me that if I could succeed in teaching every student flawless MLA style – if they then became scholars who could execute it without fail – I could put myself out of work as an editor. But no, to publish scholarship you need much more than good citations (though that was what our class spent time on). And anyway who will keep doing the hard work of scholarship, when, after a few more decades of adjunctification, scholarship is finally no kind of job?
To write her book Living a Feminist Life, Sara Ahmed employed a strategy: she refused to cite the work of white men. When I first learned of Ahmed’s refusal, sitting in that editorial office, I thought: if this journal tried that, even for a single issue. For a moment it wouldn’t know itself. What would happen next?
I think that office job was boring because authors rarely disagreed with me. Editing is a back-and-forth, a conversation about how literary effects are made, the intricacies of genre, grammar, possibility. It gets heated. Writer and editor don’t agree with one another, then they do, or they split somehow the difference, or one disagrees with their own disagreement. The conversation takes months or years. Authors become your daily interlocutors, your friends, your beloved correspondents. But at the journal most authors were simply glad to have their language tidied and polished. Their priority was the argument and the scholarship it represented, not the sentences of which it was made. Their priority was the publication. Many were writing in their second or third language; I might rewrite a third or a half – maybe more – of their sentences, which were then correct, clearer, nicer in English. No one objected. They thanked me warmly, which I did appreciate. This was my skill; it wasn’t hard for me. I did the dishes.
There are moments of encounter that expose the terms of encounter. We return to them because we are returned to them. Again and again in interviews Riz relates experiences in airports, where signs of Muslim identity are interpreted as signs of criminality. In these sites, where the events of 9/11 serve as nationalism’s parable, he is read as potential terrorist, read as other, under suspicion of foreign intent. An early challenge, during an award tour for his role in Michael Winterbottom’s 2006 The Road to Guantánamo, is prototype: an officer violently twisting his arm, violently asking, ‘Did you become an actor to further the Muslim struggle?’ He says that for some time he felt himself, knew himself, in the terms of this stereotyping.
‘I’m so fly, bitch / But I’m on a no-fly list’, goes one Swet Shop Boys chorus. ‘Always get the random check when I rock the stubble’, in ‘T5’. Antecedents in hip-hop include the airport encounter in the 1999 track ‘Mr. Nigga’ by Mos Def (now known as Yasiin Bey), or the trenchant ending – from stoner vacay in Amsterdam to locked up in Guantánamo – of Das Racist’s 2009 ‘Rainbow in the Dark’. Or the scene of interrogation implied in M.I.A.’s 2005 ‘Sunshowers’ – ’Ain’t that you with the Muslims?’ – a question Heems cites in SSB’s ‘Benny Lava’.9
Riz speaks of this racism directly into mainstream American cultural spaces – late-night talk shows, right out of the 50s – creating a potent friction of ‘de-colonial precision’, as Sara Ahmed might say. On the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, he tells the story of the ‘Ahmed 3’, a meme of a boy band he and two other ‘Mr. Ahmed’s joked they could form when airport security summoned ‘Mr. Ahmed’ for an additional check, and three men bearing that name booked on that flight appeared. The powers-that-be didn’t know which man they’d meant, so searched them all. The Ahmed 3’s first single, the short-lived band decided, should be called ‘Randomly Searching for You.’ Throughout the anecdote Fallon laughs a little manically, as if to insist he’s in on the joke. From where I sit, he isn’t. I’m not. (‘I’m glad you find it funny, cheers,’ Riz says good-naturedly at one point, when someone in the audience preemptively laughs at his reference to being searched.) When I watch as this story is told, I start to smile – everyone’s smiling – then pause. I’m not sure what expression my face should bear. By now I’ve watched a lot of these clips, and through these repetitive interviews I’m struck by something hard to name in Riz’s expressions: a grace prepared for the trespass of all these expectant faces. (My own.) That he shares this joke is his choice. That he wills this reality into a joke he’ll tell.
I wrote a book that discusses my teenage history of anorexia nervosa and proposes the disease as a form of terrorism: self-starvation in the land of plenty as a terrorist form. The anorexic’s protest is incoherent and literally self-defeating, yet its violence is unrelenting, self-sure, heedless of argument.
Anorexia nervosa involves a loss of self-perception, a loss profound enough that perhaps you can’t trust your own seeing again. In those years I couldn’t see myself as others saw me, which I guess is how you need to see, if you want to live among others, which is the only way to live.
Family works to sustain its children, to put food on the table; the anorexic refuses the fruits of that work. She presents an alternative ideology, in which dying is a mode of speech. She violates the genres of her own young life, inviting deprivation into sites that would exile it, making suffering and lack visible, asking death into adolescence and its promise. Anorexia is most often discussed in terms of body image, gender, dieting, media, looks. Sometimes personality, sometimes family. But above all it is about dying; it is a very slow, very public suicidality. Inexorably the anorexic resists domestic life with her dying; flagrantly she takes her dying out of the house and into the public world. Her extremity makes a stable cultural form – the dieting body, the disciplined body, the ‘healthy’ body, productive and reproductive – into a mockery of itself.10
The anorexic is a pitiable figure. Wannabe beatific, at best. Thinness is prized, but the anorexic, this good-girl student, learns the lesson so well she gets it wrong. It’s sad, her mistake, falling for the myth of beauty so slavishly that she misses the mark, dies. Her appearance gets read as a symptom of gender oppression, evidence of unrealistic, exacting expectations of gendered appearances, of the complicity of mass media therein. Though her condition requires great willfulness, she’s often described as more victim than agent. This perspective is true, but incomplete. Its condescension is act of mercy not extended to young men who participate in political violence. And it’s a means not to read her meaning further, not to know what politics she may represent when she makes of herself something that resembles beauty but is grotesque – something that recasts her, in a domestic and global context, as a body with a different fate. Given a place at the feast, she chooses famine.
Today I sit and answer emails, I keep track of the tasks for which I’m responsible daily, I go on. Then, as a young teenager, I threatened to leave everything, I threatened to destroy everything by destroying myself in it, denying it the value of being worth living for, worth accepting a place in, worth taking part in, worth eating the food its global economy placed, to my very good fortune, before me. Worth nothing, no value. I’ll prove it. Just watch.
Today climate change is a daily reality; the unequal history of mass consumption has an irreparably sinister tone. Against this background the figure of the anorexic appears, I think, as harbinger. As I left childhood to become an adult, an agent in society – expected to make choices I would take for my own, to purchase this or that, to be known through money, through labor I sold on the market, the products marketed to me and which I purchased – I paused. I sought an exit, built a slow exit out of myself. Anorexia seems like a girl’s misguided superficiality. But it is her excess of critique. She doesn’t want to sustain herself here, in a place that promises unsustainability, inequity, denial, exploitation, freedom’s opposites. Her protest is tragic, even amoral. But it’s not meaningless. The potential of its meaning is ours to bear. She’s trying to say something too self-contradictory for her to endure. She knows we don’t want to know what she thought she could learn.
In that office the thoughts that occupied me, that fed my conversations, rarely touched the work I was meant to do there. My mind was rarely employed. I was very alive elsewhere. This was the hospital, the marriage, a book or two or three or a dozen, a poem you sent me, a book of poems, my own face in the bathroom mirror, a series of faxes I sent my Republican senator, Trump’s Muslim ban and the spontaneous protests at airports I only read about, the end of a book I wanted to write, an article for a feminist journal on body cameras, a man singing to a man a poem written centuries ago for a mythic woman, a murmured argument, a book I recommended you didn’t like, smell of cigarettes on my fingers, a happy hour or another, a benefit for an Egyptian writer absurdly imprisoned for two years of his life, a book, a song, a poem, a book, a coffeemaker that overflowed repeatedly into a carpet I sudsily cleaned, another manuscript I printed illicitly, research on the Ferguson uprising you asked me to mail to your address in prison, forms of literature in which I was trying to live. When I walked back from the hallway bathroom, I forgot my face could be seen by others tucked behind cubicle walls. They could glimpse anyone who passed by. Did my face betray me, my distance from the place I was? As I was consumed – as we say – by my thoughts? What of my refusals were public, vulnerable, legible? Of what argument were they evidence? Your face appears in histories you won’t write, can’t read. If your face appears.
My father’s job was the foundation of our family: what we were built on, built around. When he got a new job, we moved. For years my mother stayed home with us kids and worked part-time or freelance. For decades now she has been an adjunct professor of English, never tenure-track. I felt I dishonored her when I accepted this job myself, though she does it with honor. My father was a librarian, then a professor of library science – mostly in New England, but through various programs he worked and taught around the world, Vietnam, Kosovo, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Liberia, elsewhere. He left the house early, gave us a ride to high school, playing mix tapes my brother made, came home around six, all day, every day, lunch packed by my mother in a reusable bag. He died of a brain tumor that slowly diminished his speech. When he was dying and expressed himself in gestures – a thumb’s up, a wave – he kept trying to put something in his breast pocket, where you might put a pen or a pair of glasses. He was not wearing a dress shirt, of course, but a hospital gown. There was no pocket, but he kept trying, with any item you gave him, as if to keep it there, where it would remain safely with him at his office all day. A photograph my mother was trying to show him, of a field seen from the window of a house he had loved, or prayer beads my brother had taken off his own wrist. Later we might retrieve what he’d hidden there, where the pocket wasn’t, next to his skin.
Is writing a political/activist act? a friend asked me recently in an email. How? He meant for me to answer the question publicly, in a video I’d make for his bilingual English/Arabic online magazine, which like him is based in Cairo. Because my books would be described as ‘political’, it’s a question I’m asked and ask myself. I suppose I find myself a little bit surprised, I responded in the video he’d asked me to make, to be on the other side of having written those books and not feeling particularly more like an activist. Just feeling like a writer and editor and reader. But I suppose that’s the work that I know how to do. Or that I’ve made myself into someone who does. I suppose the answer is no, that it’s not activism, but that even though I’m kind of disappointed by that answer, I still believe in it (literature, I meant), for the ways in which its relationship to action, to the forms of the political, can’t be pinned down, can’t be described or easily known. And so when I think about . . . how I might begin to answer the question ‘what is the role of the writer’ (I seem to have replaced my friend’s question with a different question, one my students are often asking) for people who are feeling the urgency of that question, in political and historical terms, who are trying to respond, as we do, to history and the ruptures of history . . . And here in the video I sidetrack myself into some of the events that have occurred since 2011, when I first met my friend (via email) – just after the 2011 revolution in Tahrir Square, in which he participated – and January 2019, when I’m speaking. I return to the idea that what literature can offer is practices of attention. Literature keeps pushing beyond or through or dissolving the forms in which our attention and our language and our narratives and rhetorics take shape, and are disseminated, and establish themselves. So I guess that’s what I want. My meaning doesn’t seem clear, though I seem confident my friend will know what I mean. Or at least that he will be interested to listen. Correspondence, I stress at the end, is a practice of attention. I describe correspondence as intimate, as collectively made, as outside the forms of production. I repeat something I’ve already said. I say: And I think that’s a good place to start.
Riz Ahmed gets interviewed because he’s an actor, that’s the reason he’s there, on this or that talk show. His music is mentioned, sometimes discussed, but it wouldn’t get him invited into spaces like these. He works in one way that’s prominent and lauded, and another that is, in his case, not as recognized; the fame born of one lends only so much limelight to the other. There’s a sort of dance between cultural forms toward the center and toward the margin. In what moments or movements do you feel yourself in a politics you hope to share?
But now I’m exposing my own state of need, the questions I keep wanting someone to answer. I still want to know how work that’s marginal matters, how publishing a book almost no one reads can be a meaningful act. The question is basic, embarrassing. When students ask it of me, I just nod. I just mean that I have the same question.
No, I mean that I trust them with the question. Our equality in asking it means there’s a threshold beyond which they may learn what I don’t know.
When I began my new job, I felt I became a new person. An aura of fraudulence dissolved. At the end of any day, having taught a class or two, having labored at a literary press at the university, a press meant to teach students the work of publishing, I have a feeling of having worked. On reflection, absolutely nothing perfect occurred. The feeling is its own reason; it’s not to be justified. Some of the books I’ve published have sold only a couple hundred copies. Some have sold four or five thousand, or more, but how much more meaning is thus made? Some receive no reviews. Some receive great reviews, but if you’re the writer you still have to do something the next day, have to find a new question, now that you’ve answered something so fully the resulting book no longer needs you. At the end of a day there is a feeling of meaningfulness when you offer detailed comments, a thick close forest of notes, on a student’s work, even or especially if you reword those notes in your mind pointlessly later. Or, when a chaotic class discussion concludes that pursued the unresolved possibilities of some text read together. You could never predict what someone would raise their hand and say. You couldn’t prepare except by preparing some means to listen. Probably no publication will result from any of this, no recognizable trace. A book wouldn’t get read enough anyway. Probably no vote was changed, no carbon captured. Later there’s a grade, a degree, but just then as you leave the class there’s no product. There’s a feeling that people were meeting somewhere, that it mattered to us, even if differently, what we were trying together to do. Trying matters most because it’s the most incomplete, the hardest to speak of – how much you feel its limits, how you don’t know what it does. For a moment there was an opportunity – like a side effect that feels like the only cause – to care.
The EP Sufi La, according to a review by Mehan Jayasuriya, ‘serves as a reminder that Heems and Riz MC have range – that neither fit neatly into a box as joke-rapper or conscious-rapper.’ Are the Swet Shop Boys some kind of ‘joke rappers’? When you sit down together with people for the purpose of watching the Swet Shop Boys, the Swet Shop Boys seem a little jokey. They’re between something and something else. They’re putting genre in play. ‘We’re sad but we’re stunting’, they say.11
Joking is a means to ask a question so that those with power might finally allow themselves to be questioned. Refusing a joke can work the same way. ‘To live a feminist life is to make everything into something that is questionable’, writes Sara Ahmed.
(Maybe this is the part that’s Eminem’s fault, that epically angry clown – his rage isn’t enough of a question.)
‘Is this a joke that everyone thinks is a graduate thesis, or vice versa?’ was the kind of question Das Racist faced (that one from an interviewer for the Village Voice, but the line got widely quoted). Not serious enough, or too serious about the wrong things? Who’s the fool? The members of Das Racist were skeptical about how these questions worked.12 People who like your jokes, who decide you’re cool – they think you owe them something.
To question the security genre seems to offer, to shrug at genre right at the point of mastering it, to make a joke of the things you’ve had to sweat for. ‘A middle finger you can dance to’, is Riz’s catchphrase for his single ‘Mogambo.’ Critics comment on how in the SSB’s work, humor and the party jam meet the political, how the group ‘capitalize[s] on contrast.’13 The in-betweenness of their genre identity seems to flow from the difference in style between the two rappers – as if the gap between them leads to further openings, a more contestable sense of space.
Examples of this in-betweenness are, say, in ‘Swish Swish’ when Heems starts a verse, ‘I’m getting paid to lecture at unis that turned me down / Guap from Princeton, Stanford and Columbia.’ Das Racist got started at Wesleyan, a ‘potted ivy’, I went to one myself. The joke is kind of on me, then; the joke is kind of on the genre of boasts like this in rap, class-transplanted. ‘Uni’ is a British/Commonwealth English word, not something Americans say. But Heems borrows from Riz MC’s English, they meet somewhere in between – just as the personas they move through song by song are multiple, never meaning just one thing. Never unaware of how any real sign can get stolen, get sold (Heems’s ‘You out of place like a brown Hare Krishna’; ‘ . . . Hinduism in the bottle / Marketed and sold like fairness cream, that’s the model’). In ‘Half Moghul Half Mowgli’, Riz includes what seem like descriptions of himself from messages he’s received (‘terrorist little Paki piece of shit’ vs. ‘Because of you I went to uni, you’re the man’): to someone, this is who he is.
Heems’s lyrics have a just-rolled-out-of-bed quality: ‘I’m a cool guy, I’m good at rapping,’ he puts it in ‘Zayn Malik’; sincerity is another flirtation. Riz’s style is about being one step ahead. In the New York Times Joe Coscarelli frames this juxtaposition as a working-class aesthetics:
In the studio, the pair even found their disparate creative methods to be coming from a similar place of first-generation angst. ‘There’s the working-class immigrant in me thinking, “This is not a real job, so I’ve got to make it as complicated as possible”,’ said Mr. Ahmed, who obsessively tweaks his rapid verses.
Mr. Suri is more prone to trust-your-gut improvisation. ‘I go the other route: “I should be working a desk job, so let me just get this thing over as quickly as I can”,’ he said. ‘I don’t want to have to think about the fact that I’m an aaar-tist.’
After all, he added, ‘What kind of kid from my neighborhood becomes an artist?’
When in my office I listened to these two voices pick up from each other, I thought without thinking about it: I’m listening to a friendship. Listening, you’re outside this friendship and inside the music it makes, a product that feels incidental, trace left of a long encounter. No industry executive would have planned a product out of these two: the fit’s not tidy. It sweats.14
Friendship tries amid and into difference; it trusts one moment into the next.
I think there are moments in which care discovers a form for itself, when care takes form. You might miss them if you’re looking for something you expect. You might miss the responsibility you have to them. They seem to happen in an instant of questioning, of listening, of sliding out of some expectation, the beat after the punchline, a gesture, an expression, the pain or sweetness of being included in work no one could do alone. You’re caught between yourself and a voice that’s not yours, speaking right to you.
When ‘Mogambo’ is released, Riz invites friends and fans, regular and celebrity, to join in: to record a video of themselves saying the movie supervillain Mogambo’s tagline ‘Mogambo khush hua’, which means ‘Mogambo is happy’ or, depending on translation, ‘pleased’. Mogambo is a definitive Bollywood villain, made popular by the 1987 movie Mr. India. Tom Hardy gives the tagline a shot, and so does Jimmy Kimmel when Riz is a guest on his show. The gimmick is simple but its stakes are real: prominent Brits and Americans trying to get Bollywood right.
Shortly before his appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live, Riz traveled to Pakistan, he says in the interview. His first time there in thirteen years. When he starts enthusiastically to describe the trip, Kimmel jumps in to say, ‘we hear things, and to me [Pakistan] seems like a scary place to go.’ Riz responds by citing Trump’s recent speech in the UN, noting that ‘to a lot of people, America is a very scary place.’ Who is Kimmel representing with this interruption? He’s speaking on behalf of a position he thinks he needs to accommodate: someone who couldn’t hear Riz’s story without their unwillingness, their suspicion, getting officially recognized. In the story that follows, alongside every reference to Pakistani police and military (he did run up against them), Riz includes a quick joke about the TSA, building an argument about how oppression works.
The two of them chat about the new single. Riz has an idea for a spinoff series in which he’d bring back the villain Mogambo, play the lead. Kimmel nods along, laughs, offers to collaborate, to play the part of ‘Mr. India’.
Riz says: ‘Okay, let’s do it.’
‘We can do this together,’ Kimmel says. And it sounds like he knows how all this goes, knows that moments like this don’t need to mean much to whoever sits where he sits. We can do this together. But Kimmel could see, if he cared to see, that Riz isn’t joking when he repeats himself – when he accepts what is now an overdue invitation – when he says again, just, ‘Okay.’
Thanks to Genius.com for help with lyrics. Thanks to the friends and students who have spent years in practice, research, and conversation with me, on the work of adjuncting and the politics of editing and publishing (some related thoughts appeared in a 2017 post on the Full Stop blog, ‘On Editing: A Work in Address’). This essay is for Terry Plum.
Photograph © Ester Segretto
1 When graduate assistants and non-tenure-track faculty are included, then nationwide over 70 percent of faculty are contingent labor.
2 Sources consulted in this discussion include: American Association of University Professors (AAUP), ‘Background Facts on Contingent Faculty Positions’, AAUP.org; Dan Edmonds, ‘More than Half of College Faculty Are Adjuncts: Should You Care?’, Forbes, 28 May 2015; Colleen Flaherty, ‘The More Things Change’, Inside Higher Ed, 11 April 2017; Flaherty, ‘More Faculty Diversity, Not on Tenure Track’, Inside Higher Ed, 22 August 2016; Alastair Gee, ‘Facing Poverty, Academics Turn to Sex Work and Sleeping in Cars’, Guardian, 28 September 2017; ‘The Just-in-Time Professor: A Staff Report Summarizing eForum Responses on the Working Conditions of Contingent Faculty in Higher Education’, House Committee on Higher Education and the Workforce Democratic Staff, January 2014.
4 Note this statistic on Americans’ economic health in the wake of a cancer diagnosis, cited in a 2019 article by Nathan Heller: ‘A study in The American Journal of Medicine last fall found that 42.4 percent of the 9.5 million people diagnosed with cancer between 2000 and 2012 had depleted their assets within two years’ (Heller, ‘Tell Us What You Need’, New Yorker, 1 July 2019).
5 My discussion of Riz Ahmed and SSB benefits from reviews, interviews, and articles including Ahmed, ‘Typecast as a Terrorist’, Guardian, 15 September 2016; Joe Coscarelli, ‘Riz Ahmed’s Double Identity: Actor and Rapper’, New York Times, 26 August 2016; Mehan Jayasuriya, review, ‘Swet Shop Boys: Cashmere’, Pitchfork, 13 October 2016; Grant Rindner, ‘Riz MC Breaks Down ‘Mogambo’ on Genius’ Series “Verified”’, Genius.com, 27 October 2018; Ben Roazen, ‘“Our Music’s Got Teeth”: A Conversation with the Swet Shop Boys’, HYPEBEAST, 1 September 2016; Carvell Wallace, ‘Riz Ahmed Acts His Way Out of Every Cultural Pigeonhole’, New York Times Magazine, 30 August 2018; Ayyan Zubair, ‘“Mogambo”: Riz Ahmed’s New Single Is an Anthem for the Unwanted’, Brown Girl Magazine, 4 October 2018. Note that the Swet Shop EP, a four-track release prior to Cashmere, included multiple producers; Redinho joined as sole producer on Cashmere.
6 The word ‘defiant’ comes from the Trevor Noah interview (‘Riz Ahmed: The Timeliness of ‘Venom’ and Creating Defiant Music’, YouTube, posted by the Daily Show with Trevor Noah, 10 October 2018.) On necropolitics, see also Fady Joudah, ‘Say It: I’m Arab and Beautiful’, Blog of the Los Angeles Review of Books, 12 December 2017.
7 It’s right to note that as of July 2019, the masthead of the journal in question includes several new editors and significantly greater diversity in its workforce than when I was there.
9 The song’s title refers to the YouTube phenomenon ‘Benny Lava’, in which an American added fake English lyrics, homophonic translations, to the Indian Tamil music video ‘Kalluri Vaanil’, yielding this phrase. SSB presents the Indian original in the terms of its American cooptation, re-embodying its viral mockery when they claim they’re ‘hot as Benny Lava.’
10 I say she for convenience and as autobiography; anorexia nervosa is more common among women, but it’s not exclusive to women, nor to the upper or middle class, as stereotype suggests. The population of those who suffer is diverse and diversifying; members of the LGBTQ+ community, especially those who are transgender, bear a particularly high risk of eating disorders.
12 Himanshu Suri, Victor Vazquez, and Ashok Kondabolu, ‘Das Racist: Thanks, Internet!’, Village Voice, 19 January 2010. See also Rob Harvilla, ‘A Chat with Das Racist, the Geniuses Behind “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell”’, Village Voice, 17 June 2009.
13 See Roazen, ‘Conversation with the Swet Shop Boys’; Mick Jacobs, review, ‘Swet Shop Boys: Cashmere’, Pretty Much Amazing, 14 October 2016; and Mehan Jayasuriya, review, ‘Swet Shop Boys: Sufi La EP’, Pitchfork, 31 May 2017.
14 ‘A sweaty concept might come out of a bodily experience that is trying. The task is to stay with the difficulty, to keep exploring and exposing this difficulty’ (Sara Ahmed, Living a Feminist Life, 13).