- What Is to Be Done?
I'm going to need your help tonight, as I always do. At some point I'm going to do this. You'll remember. I move a lot when I talk, but I'll only once do this [raises arms over her head]. And when I do this, you will say, other than your gender or transgender or other identity of choice, woman-man, person, human, lover, masculine-center, whatever you're going to say, make it fit, in two syllables, "Other (fill in your blank) like me will rise." So let's practice. "Other ___ like me will rise." Okay, now everybody say it. "Other ___ like me will rise." One more time. "Other ___ like me will rise." And you've got to say it with a little bit more enthusiasm. [Laughter.]
So when we do that, and if you want to rise as Marlon did, feel free to rise.
If I had a title tonight that was more specific than "What is to be done?" it would be something like "Universities and Unions: Institutions with Meaning for the People." I grabbed that phrase from Vijay Prashad's fantastic book, which everyone must read, The Darker Nations. But just keep that in mind. Universities and Unions: Institutions with Meanings for the People.
I think all ASA presidents must do the same thing. On receipt of the election results from John Stephens, they immediately put fingers to keyboard and start drafting the talk they're going to give in twenty months. Because area studies, of which American studies is part, is in some profound sense a presentist enterprise—we study the past to understand the present, we revise the present on new senses of the past—the speech changes and changes and changes until we arrive at the moment, this moment, and the president starts speaking. Weirdly enough, the practice ghosts, of all people, that nightmare specter Frederick Jackson Turner, who was trying to figure out in 1893 the historical geography, or rather the historical geographic future, of what we, though not he, would call the American empire. The empire had a long historical geographical past, and he, in thinking about the frontier and its "closure," wanted to figure out what the future might be. However, in the spirit of the antecedents I do wish to body forth—Du Bois, for example, and Ida B. Wells—we also ask, in a constantly reglobalizing context, why this? Why this, here? Why this, here, now? [End Page 245]
But since there's something irresistible in talking about the present, the paper I started to write after getting John's e-mail burst forth into the world as "Life in Hell," and many of you heard versions of its forced march toward a book at Santa Barbara, Berkeley, Cornell, NYU, and University College Dublin. That project informs what I have to say here today, but this is going to be more like the discussion we could have after the "Life in Hell" book is done—which it's not.
Twenty-one years ago, I gave my first paper at a scholarly meeting. It was an MLA in DC. The rubric was "The Status of Women in the Profession," organized by the MLA commission devoted to the scrutiny of same. The presentations were arranged into a plenary and a series of sessions, with my panel of the series on the last hour of the last day.
In 1989, we were trying to figure out where women in the profession had gotten to, where we could go, and how we might get there. I use "we" advisedly. I was a drama school doctoral program dropout who caught a break, thanks to a friend from Yale School of Drama, Michael Cadden, who recommended me to his former colleague at Princeton, Val Smith. There are clear benefits to rolling in and with the elites. As was the case in March 2009 when John Stephens e-mailed, back in January 1989, when Val Smith telephoned me, I immediately grabbed a new notebook and fresh pen to write a radical revisionist history of the world to be delivered in...