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The Politics of Inequality in the Present: 5 Questions with Ann Stoler

January 20, 2018

 

This interview was conducted during Ann Stoler's visit to Washington University in St. Louis. The interviewer, Vasiliki Touhouliotis, is the Mellon Sawyer Postdoctoral Fellow.

 

 

“I often respond when asked what my work is ‘about’ to say that what I care about is the politics of knowledge. But it’s really much more about the stark and occluded politics of inequality and I’m interested in the politics of knowledge because it invariably opens to the politics of inequality, to how visible and invisible bounds of distinction and difference are drawn, made durable, and redrawn.”

 

Vasiliki Touhouliotis: What inspires your current work and how did you come to your present project? 


Ann Stoler: I suppose one could say it’s an effort to be in the world more than I think my earlier work was. My earlier historical work was inevitably ‘of’ the present but this project is even more directly about what our shared and not shared present look like now. Not least it’s a way of being both attentive and accountable to what is going on in the world right now –inspired in part by those things, relations, situations from which it’s too easy to turn away.  I often respond when asked what my work is ‘about’ to say that what I care about is the politics of knowledge. But it’s really much more about the stark and occluded politics of inequality and I’m interested in the politics of knowledge because it invariably opens to the politics of inequality, to how visible and invisible bounds of distinction and difference are drawn, made durable, and redrawn.

 

VT: What do the terms ruin and ruination mean to you and evoke for you? 


AS: Ruin has force for me, as you know, not because the derelict and abandoned serve as monuments to nostalgia.  I’ve sought to take “ruin” elsewhere. I really think of ‘ruin” in its verbal form “to ruin” – as an active, and corroding verb. “Ruination” is not a free standing noun, but a state into which one is put, one imposed, and in which one lives. I think of ruination in some ways as a form of duress, something that is ongoing in people’s lives, that’s not so much about remnants and dead matter, but rather an emphasis on corrosive wear and wearing down, of “being ruined”… Derek Walcott’s invocation of a rot that is active, acidic, bacteria eating away at people’s lives still holds me tight. 
 

“It is a challenge to work with and about and in the company of people whose politics you find abhorrent without immediately assuming who they are or what they are and how they think. But I’m equally challenged by not reducing or diluting that difference to “opinion” (a point that Arendt made so often) by saying “well they have their own logic” and I have mine.”

 

VT: Can you talk about the practical and intellectual challenges of your field site or the materials you work with?

 

AS: It is a challenge to work with and about and in the company of people whose politics you find abhorrent without immediately assuming who they are or what they are and how they think. But I’m equally challenged by not reducing or diluting that difference to “opinion” (a point that Arendt made so often) by saying “well they have their own logic” and I have mine. I’m more concerned with understanding something about what affiliating explicitly or implicitly does to one’s perceptions of the world and the threats imagined in it:  where does the beleaguered emanate from….these are efforts all tied to what I’ll talk about today in “Interior Frontiers: Dangerous Concepts in Our Times.”

 

VT: So the challenging subject is something like your work on colonial officials?

 

AS: In some ways, yes, it’s a strange continuation. When I was working on the archive book in 1998, when I folded up all those archives and went and worked on Le Pen, I did not see it as a huge rupture.

 

VT: You’ve had many collaborations and various iterations of collaboration. What role has collaboration played in your research and can you reflect on this?

 

AS: The earliest, first collaboration was with Fred Cooper for Tensions of Empire. We worked for years on an introduction just because the tension between the ways we wrote and what we wanted to say was the most productive part and we made an effort to respect that difference and work with it.  And then working with Karen Strassler, then a former graduate student who is now a professor. I just learned so much from her; then thinking out loud with David Bond, another former student and now professor, when I first got to The New School. Now I’ve been working with Eric Fassin, a French sociologist who works on racism and the Roma, and Particia Williams, who is a law professor at Columbia. We’ve been developing this project, something that I’ve been really interested in for years. I don’t know what the configuration of our work will look like but there is already synergy in our thoughts. One might think of it addressing the racial sensorium  and the law, about the sensory regimes that go into racisms, the distaste for the other, the forms that disgust takes and how much some of these forms of racisms are not more mild or subtle, just part of the gestural physical economy of  distinctions that are hard to name if not see. Patricia Williams and I are excited about teaching a graduate seminar in the Fall 2018 on Contagion: affect, race, and the law.

 

“I see the humanities needing to take a leading role and a bold one, one that underscores that literature, aesthetics, novels and poetry, comprise one of the most important expressions of creative critique of the norms to which we subscribe and provide good evidence for why we do not need to subscribe to those norms. They express why dissension and not consensus, a point that Chantal Mouffe has made over and over again, is the most vibrant mode of democracy and should be.”

 

VT: So collaboration is not only in the writing and the research but now in the teaching as well. Finally, I’d like you to share your thoughts on what role you imagine for the humanities today and in the future given the particular political and ecological challenges of this moment.


AS: I see the humanities needing to take a leading role and a bold one, one that underscores that literature, aesthetics, novels and poetry, comprise one of the most important expressions of creative critique of the norms to which we subscribe and provide good evidence for why we do not need to subscribe to those norms. They express why dissension and not consensus, a point that Chantal Mouffe has made over and over again, is the most vibrant mode of democracy and should be. This is what defines democracy, the creative, contested spaces of dissensus. It is not that we all agree.  

 

 

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