- Dangerous Associations
When Curtis Marez delivered his presidential address on November 22, 2013, he could not have known that days later, the American Studies Association would become the target of a hegemonic bloc of university presidents and regents, politicians and watchdog institutions connected through their condemnation of the ASA resolution to boycott Israeli academic institutions.1 Yet his speech that evening made a strong case for why American studies scholars should orient our interests in empire, racialization, settler colonialism, gender, political economy, and culture around a new critical framework: “an American studies version of critical university studies.” What are we to make of this co-incidence? Of the fact that Marez calls us to take up the contemporary university as a critical project at the precise moment when that dense configuration of forces takes hold of the association? In my response, I revisit “Seeing in the Red: Looking at Student Debt” for the insights it yields into the complex strategical situation in which American studies—the field, we scholars, the association—now finds itself.
At the outset, reviewing Marez’s speech beside the dominant discourse of academic freedom being articulated in reaction to the ASA’s boycott reveals the silences and exclusions—the productions of ignorance—required to make that discourse appear coherent and noncontradictory. The first of these, as many have noted, is the exclusion of Palestinian scholars and their routinely violated academic freedoms from consideration. Yet dominant academic freedom discourse also produces ignorance about student debt, the repression of campus protest, the administration of higher education according to market values, and all the other coercions Marez outlines in his speech. Not surprising, but worth noting is that, despite all the national media at the annual convention, and all the university presidents who decided to investigate their institutions’ relation to ASA, none of their defenses of academic freedom cast even a disparaging glance at any of the issues Marez discusses under the rubric of “the university of debt.” Instead, the rubric of academic freedom enables a kind of epistemological violence; it circumscribes knowledge so that a statement such as “the true essence of a university [is] to foster dialogue and develop solutions [End Page 289] without regard to political, racial, and cultural differences” can be isolated from Marez’s critique (which would readily reveal its hollowness and violences): That the university—a site that has held so much promise for the transformation of society and our collective imaginations—has historically been a key institution within racialized and gendered capitalism; it has been a main locus for the social reproduction of racial, class, and gender inequalities and normative morality; and now it has become center and transit for the ongoing neoliberal debt economy, controlling dissent, and perpetuating old and new forms of settler colonialism.2 Palestinian suffering must be made meaningless to uphold this particular definition of academic freedom, coincident with student debt being made meaningless so as to preserve the emancipatory ideal of the university.
In sharp contrast to these exclusions, Marez’s presidential address both foregrounds and connects student debt and Israel–Palestine. This occurs strikingly in his penultimate argument, one that in the larger context of the speech provides an example of the “possibilities for comparative, transnational, and global critical thinking and action” opened by “the analytic of student debt.” Observing that a number of non-Palestinian groups focused primarily on student debt have posted boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) endorsements on a Birzeit University website, Marez provocatively argues that “the student-led BDS movement on college campuses [in the United States] could thus also be described as part of a broader effort to take some control over the student debt financing of settler colonial violence.” What enables Marez to make such a dangerous association between student debt and BDS? What enables him to boldly go where managerial discourses of “academic freedom” forbid us to tread?
Methodologically, it is important to note that Marez is exceptionally attentive to social movement activism alive on college campuses right now. He describes his speech as an “attempt to center collective dissent to student debt in American studies,” and mentions it began amid “mass student protests against budget...