Thursday, July 19, 2018

Patricia Ticineto Clough: Why the cyborg can no longer be a figure of either politics or ontology.

Professor of sociology and women's studies at the Graduate Center and Queens College, City University of New York

Following the publication of The User Unconscious, I had the occasion to revisit Donna Haraway’s “Cyborg Manifesto” and found myself challenged to articulate the relevant differences between what is proposed in The User Unconscious and in Haraway’s groundbreaking essay. In the manifesto, Haraway famously offered the cyborg as the figure of feminist politics as well as an ontological standpoint from which to understand the late twentieth-century technoscience and its cultures. Minimally defined, the cyborg was meant to point to border wars between animal and human, between human and machine. The latter was the focus of the manifesto and drew attention to what was becoming a machine-human hybrid or an organic-inorganic hybrid. With the cyborg as politics and ontology, Haraway eschewed Freudian psychoanalysis as reductively biological and for its offering an oedipal timeline that implies either healing “the terrible cleavages of gender in an oral symbiotic utopia or post-oedipal apocalypse.” While much of the manifesto still holds important insights, in The User Unconscious I argue that the cyborg can no longer be a figure of either politics or ontology; nor can we point only to the “pleasures” and “responsibilities” in the confusion of boundaries, celebrated more often than not by Haraway in the manifesto.

The confusion of boundaries has been displaced by the indeterminacy or incomputability that ordinarily functions as the condition of possibility of algorithms operating in finance, governance and sociality, while also urging new forms of intervention relevant to datafication by which I mean the data mining of tracking and sensing technologies as well as internet use and all sorts of mobile devices. These technologies are putting us in touch with the agencies of other-than-human objects and environments, which in themselves are inaccessible to human consciousness or bodily-based perception or to which consciousness and bodily-based perception have no direct contact. Feeding forward to human conscious the data of what already has occurred prior to consciousness and perception, the algorithms supporting datafication are operating in ways that often enough are also inaccessible to human consciousness and perception. Not surprisingly the scholars in media studies, critical theory, and philosophy to which I turn in The User Unconscious have fostered a “speculative empiricism” inspired by Alfred North Whitehead, where consciousness and bodily-based perception have been displaced as the stable, substantial hub of all experience, extending the domain of the social to the pre-affectivity of environmental forces or other-than-human agencies that initiates a rethinking of sociality as well as subjectivity, the unconscious, and affect—all as part of the ongoing reconfiguration of the liberal arrangement that purports to sustain a separation of the state, economy, the private and public spheres.

In the manifesto, Haraway would situate the cyborg in a displacement of the separation of the private and public spheres in terms of what she referred to as the “homework economy”–not just a matter of the feminization of labor generally but more “the integration of the factory, home, and market on a new scale” (39), making possible what more recently would be called affective labor or as I would put it: the labor of affect-itself. Referring to the capitalizing of affective capacities at the human scale and the pre-affective capacities at the other-than-human scales of matter, the labor of affect-itself refers not only to economy but to a biopolitics that is as well geontological, as Elizabeth Povinelli puts it, in extending Foucault’s take on power, dismissed by Haraway in the manifesto. In this context, the separation of the public and the private spheres to which Haraway referred in the manifesto now is further displaced by what in The User Unconscious I describe, following Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, as “the separation of the personal and the networked,” where economy and (bio/geontological) politics are confounded in the subject or the I’s inextricability from the networks of data which the I in part constitutes and in part is constituted by through the ‘free labor” of giving off data in using digital media usually without the subject’s consciousness or perception. As the I is composited with its own data traces as well as the data fed forward to it from other-than-human agencies beyond consciousness and bodily-based perception, the subject, I go on to propose, is humanly and other than humanly embodied.

Not only has affective labor expanded to operate from within the human body and from without it, putting the body beyond the skin, or embodiment beyond the organism, there also has been a shift in psychoanalysis beyond Haraway’s rendition of it that has invited an account of affect as the force of the unconscious, its force in seeking objects: that is, refinding objects that are lost (infantile objects). (For a reconsideration of affect and the unconscious, see: Studies in Gender and Sexuality, Volume 19, Number 2: 2018.) But affect is not only a matter of the human scale; there also is the pre-affectivity of the other-than-human scales of matter beyond consciousness and perception. The user unconscious, I therefore have suggested, is a matter of affect, in psychoanalytic terms, the force of seeking lost (infantile) objects, operating, however, in a networked environment of objects that along side those lost are those that are not lost but rather are lively and not containable brought by datafication out of reach of human consciousness and bodily-based perception, that is, an environment of the endless availability of the search that in itself supersedes finding an object. (For a discussion of online searching and the objects of the unconscious, see Stephan Hartman (2011), "Reality 2.0: When loss is lost," Psychoanalytic Dialogues, 21, 468-482.) This endless searchability supported by datafication is another way of posing the liveliness of objects or their other-than-human liveliness that suggests an embodiment of the I and the unconscious that is human and other than human, yet to be fully engaged as a matter of subjectivity and sociality.

As the user unconscious refers to the subject or an I that is both humanly and other-than-humanly embodied, it is necessary to rethink the social and subjective characteristic of race, gender, sexuality, age, and ethnicity usually attached to the body-as-organism but which are being reconfigured in the ongoing rearrangement of inside and outside the body beyond the skin, the public and private spheres and the economy and state. Linked to a biopolitics of populations, what I have described in The User Unconscious as a datafied population racism aimed at the profoundly unequal distribution of life capacities among populations, the body-as-organism now is the site of a shift in critical concern about confused boundaries to one about the incalculability functioning in the operation of algorithmic production of datafication registered differently across populations as a traumatic recognition of other-than-human agencies that are the speculative empirical condition of possibility of human experience.

While “The Cyborg Manifesto” has stacked up a number of criticisms, perhaps most notably those aimed at its all too celebratory take on cyborgian technoscience, I have found in returning to it an invitation also sounded in The User Unconscious to not only research the devastations of current datafication but also to engage a fuller appreciation of it in forming interventions that affectively address changes in sociality and subjectivity registered in the user unconscious.


Patricia Ticineto Clough is professor of sociology and women’s studies at the Graduate Center and Queens College, City University of New York. She is author of The User Unconscious: On Affect, Media, and Measure (Minnesota, 2018); Autoaffection: Unconscious Thought in the Age of Teletechnology (Minnesota, 2000); Feminist Thought: Desire, Power, and Academic Discourse; and The End(s) of Ethnography: From Realism to Social Criticism. She is editor of The Affective Turn: Theorizing the Social with Craig Willse, editor of Beyond Biopolitics: Essays on the Governance of Life and Death, and, with Alan Frank and Steven Seidman, editor of Intimacies: A New World of Relational Life. Clough is also a psychoanalyst practicing in New York City.

Friday, July 13, 2018

On constitutive contradictions, LGBT citizenship, and the church.

In May 2018, students in Prof. Lorena Muñoz’s University of Minnesota graduate seminar “GWSS 8620: Geographies of Sexualities and Race: Economies, (Im)Migrations, and Borders” read and discussed David K. Seitz’s book, A House of Prayer for All People: Contesting Citizenship in a Queer Church. Prof. Muñoz’s seminar taught first monographs to help demystify the transition from dissertation to book manuscript for Ph.D. students. In this blog post, Seitz offers condensed answers to some of the students’ excellent questions about his book.

What are the curiosities that led you to the meshing of queer citizenship and the church?

What first brought me to the Metropolitan Community Church of Toronto (MCCT) was a 2010 story in the Toronto Star about the church’s refugee program. I was fascinated by the ways in which the story positioned members of this predominantly LGBT Protestant congregation as “model citizens,” but model citizens who were extending hospitality and care to and breaking bread with refugee claimants, whose motivations, identities, and claims were subject to remarkably high scrutiny, particularly but not only under the previous Canadian federal government.

On the one hand, the scene presented yet another iteration of the all-too-familiar story of what Lisa Duggan calls “homonormativity” – queers as well-adjusted, ideal-typical, non-threatening citizens of a neoliberal state, one reliant on private charity for provisioning for the most vulnerable people. But on the other hand, it was also a story about refugees, people regarded by agents of the racial state, as Engin Isin puts it, as “the worst kind of beggars,” but to whom these “good” gay citizens were extending hospitality. At a time when some LGBT people in Canada were (and are) quite celebratory and triumphalist about gains like same-sex marriage (or faux “woke bae” Justin Trudeau), I was struck by the convergence of these refugees, who experience so much state violence, with a big-tent LGBT institution that had a non-secular mandate – one that answered not only to the sovereignty of the Canadian state, but to the sovereignty of a loving God.

Of course, what I could not glean from one newspaper article was whether the church approached its refugee work with a savior mindset, or through a framework of solidarity. But in the case of the church, as in the case of contemporary migration politics in the United States and elsewhere, there is an extremely aggressive incitement to put respectable faces on marginalized populations, to differentiate between “deserving” and “undeserving” migrants and/or queers. This incitement is to some extent always present, at the very heart of biopolitics, but it is amplified under open-handedly white supremacist, “family values” governments. Such differentiations must obviously be resisted, and when they are successfully resisted, as it to at least some extent has been in the case of the MCCT refugee program, it becomes crucial to ask: “How?”

What in your personal journey led you to explore affect in your work?

One of the things I had observed as an undergraduate, but not really gotten access to language for interpreting until my graduate work, was that there is a constitutive gap – as much on the radical intersectional activist and academic Left as anywhere else – between what people say and what they do. Many, many people on the Left say all the right things politically, but you have no idea why they as individuals are on the Left until you get to know them, and maybe not even then. Do we want to be recognized for our moral righteousness? Brilliance? Radicality? Sex appeal? Hipness? Efficaciousness? Grassroots authenticity? Charisma? Empathy? Pain? Professional prowess? Vision? Cleverness? For making a material difference in the world? If so, recognition from whom? Or, are our preoccupations even with recognition at all, or are we after something else altogether? What are we running away from, or chasing? What are we trying to resolve or secure for ourselves? Is it enough to be against the Right? What is the Left for, and what are we on it for?

Then there’s the question of attachment, of what keeps people on the Left, or what in a neoliberal moment passes for the Left, and of what keeps people attached to institutions that to one extent or another may be trying to be big-tent, coalitional, with all of the contradiction and disappointment and de-idealization that can attend that. When is that disappointment worth sustaining, and when does it suggest the object is beyond repair?

Particularly in times such as these, it can be extremely easy to let the Right be a limiting foil, one that shuts down self-reflection and debate on the Left, to the Left’s peril. Yet I would argue that it has to be possible for us to ask these questions of ourselves and one another in good faith for a capacious, coalitional Left to accomplish any of its aims. That’s one of the big lessons of the book, probably because it’s one I find myself learning over and over again: it isn’t self-indulgent and bourgeois to figure your shit out; it’s crucial to any healthy relationship, including the relationships that populate and constitute our political and spiritual spaces. Rev. Darlene Garner’s question to the MCC denomination in its desires to grow internationally – “Why are you doing this?” – is one to which I argue the church and the Left should constantly return.

I think these are questions my book tries to open up around a predominantly LGBT church as an object of emotional and political investment for many differently situated people, but similar questions might be asked of a number of different objects: educational institutions, social movements, Left and center-Left political parties. Object-relations psychoanalysis and affect theory have proven helpful to me here, in part because they can offer us less functionalist language for thinking about people’s complicated attachments, while remaining centrally informed by people’s constitutive contradictions. We all contain them.

How do you connect this reparative work with a broader sense of spirituality (e.g., outside of Christianity)?

Reparation in the affective sense is by no means limited to Christian scenes, archives, or thinkers – some of the most writers on the subject whose work I consult most often (Melanie Klein, Eve Kosofky Sedgwick) were secular Jews. For me, working on Christianity is a question of what Minnie Bruce Pratt calls “doing one’s own work.” While psychoanalytic psychotherapy and astrology are probably the practices that most closely resemble “church” in my quotidian life, I consider myself “culturally Protestant,” in a way that goes unmarked in the constitutively Protestant arrangement that we in the United States call “secularism,” but that I think is worth marking if we’re ever to live, as Talal Asad puts it, as “minorities among minorities.”

In that vein, I have long been inspired by the intellectual, ethical, political, and spiritual work of my progressive Jewish friends to resist forms of state racism in Israel that invoke the figure of the Jewish people for self-justification. That work implicates me as an American citizen, too, because of what’s done in my name in the region. In “Love, Guilt, and Reparation,” Melanie Klein uses explicitly colonial metaphors to think about reparation – repairing guilt over the genocide of natives leads to a repopulation of a colonial locale, not with indigenous peoples but with one’s European countrymen. David Eng and others have confronted this colonial way of thinking about reparation, and sought to imagine alternative ontologies of affective and political repair. Judith Butler suggests that ethical cohabitation – cohabitation with the neighbor one doesn’t have the right to choose – is itself a reparative practice. That anti-racist vision of ethical cohabitation is what I saw in the church refugee program, and it’s what I see in the leadership that a lot of my progressive Jewish friends – and progressive Muslim friends – have provided in fighting for the human rights and self-determination of Palestinians and racialized Jews.

Likewise, at this moment in the United States, I think multi-faith movements like the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for a Moral Revival do an amazing job of demonstrating how faith can be a departure point for coalitional, multiracial work for economic justice. One bad (but at times salient) caricature of liberal faith communities is that they’re normatively white and/or normatively middle class, crunchy granola spaces in which everyone more or less agrees about the profoundly unjust state of the world, but no one actually acts – to recall Hannah Arendt’s definition of politics – no one acts in public in concert with others, particularly people differently situated from them. Yet the Poor People’s Campaign, which actually stems from the work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr and began in 1968, brings faith and labor communities, differently racialized, differently religious people together, in public, risking arrest and in a number of cases getting arrested, around robust, substantive political demands like a $15 minimum wage and universal healthcare. That’s the kind of potential that I think brings many people to a wide range of progressive faith communities, and it’s important to both map that potential and to pay close attention to the moments when it’s realized in concrete political acts.

How do you see your work being taken up across disciplines inside and outside of academia?

A number of you talked very thoughtfully about your work in education – what it means to do anti-racist, feminist or anti-homophobic work in an institution so historically and constitutively enmeshed in settler colonialism, anti-Blackness, the instillation of more or less explicitly Western Christian values. To what extent does contemporary education reiterate these hierarchical power relations, and to what extent is repetition with a difference possible? I hope the case that the book makes – for remaining harshly critical of inequality and injustice, but curious about the prospect of historically bad objects to offer even modest good surprises, and for staying around long enough to find out what goes down in “bad” institutions – is one that resonates with you in your important work. And to be clear, I don’t think academics corner the market on the capacity for careful attention to bad, potentially transformative and occasionally surprising, political and quotidian scenes. Community organizing, progressive and community journalism, and therapeutic and other forms of care work are all in their own ways rigorous practices grounded in both a strong sense of justice but also a commitment to careful listening, a commitment not to know their object in advance, and to revise judgment about their objects. Folks in all of these fields have certainly taught me a great deal, in ways that I hope show up explicitly and implicitly in the book.


David K. Seitz is author of A House of Prayer for All People and assistant professor of cultural geography at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, California.

"David Seitz’s rendition of the politics of refuge within faith community in Toronto is challenging, insightful, empirically rich, and conceptually bold. Seitz offers ‘improper queer citizenship’ as a messy, unfinished political project. His analysis is essential reading that grows more pressing with each passing day." —Alison Mountz, author of Seeking Asylum

Wildflower Series #4: Heading North

Rose pogonia.


We’ve headed out on a road trip to Winnipeg to catch a plane to Churchill, Manitoba, to take a class on sub-arctic wildflowers at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre. Our plane leaves soon, but we’ve left a few days early to spend some time in the aspen tallgrass prairie parkland and places en route. Rain hammers down as we leave town, but we’re hopeful we will drive through it. Kelly assures me the forecast is for the rain to end at three.

We’ve packed, unpacked, repacked, shopped for essentials (including bug shirts, our new favorite thing) and packed some more. Churchill’s weather will be cool and rainy, but Minnesota promises to be hot and sunny, a forecast that the cold rain pouring down clearly hasn’t heard. We drive on in hope toward Long Lake Conservation Center, where last year we hiked through the woods to see several rose pogonia and grass pink orchids. This time we’ve been offered a canoe to paddle down past floating bogs toward where we saw the orchids. Rain still falls as we don our new bug shirts under raincoats and launch the canoe at 1:30, but within five minutes the rain no longer matters, because we’ve come to a gathering of blue flag, pitcher plant, and rose pogonia—not just one rose pogonia, but many. We paddle on, past more and more rose pogonia, the occasional grass pink, bog rosemary, water lilies, yellow pond lilies, water shield, bog cranberries, water arum, and sundew with tiny, tiny buds almost ready to bloom.


We paddle back through a richness of flowers we had never imagined when we hiked out to see orchids last year. It all depends on your point of view, and the view from the water is spectacular.

And at three minutes after three, the rain stops.


Phyllis Root and Kelly Povo spent ten years collaborating on Searching for Minnesota's Native Wildflowers: A Guide for Beginners, Botanists, and Everyone in Between. Check back on this blog as they document their wildflower-seeking adventures this summer.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Children. Before. Borders.

Bennington College

Academics are typically tasked with giving complex accounts of complex situations. We specialize in stories of nuance, where power operates with such subtlety that its movement through the social body requires explaining and unmasking. Simple explanations are to be suspect, as are prescriptions for immediate action. There are moments, however, when we confront realities that require a different register of response and resistance. Such is our situation today, with the U.S. government’s treatment of migrant children and families.

What more can be written about – and what mode of historical or theoretical analysis can be deployed to confront – a human tragedy so obvious and odious as one where the naked power of the state collides with the bare life of the child? There is no need for a genealogy of how nativists have historically constructed immigrant children – the answer is too predictable (as criminals, imbeciles, and, more recently, potential terrorists). There is no point in responding to the myths being propagated by the Trump Administration – that this was the Democrats’ fault, that there is a law that compels this, that the Obama administration did the same thing, etc. – because no more than a fraction of the 25% of so of Americans who believe them are going to change their minds. And I can’t bring myself to write a biographical piece that imagines what I’d do if my own infant daughter – together with her parents, sleeping soundly in her crib – were put in the shoes of the children heard wailing through the walls of detention facilities. The mere thought of it is too terrifying. There is no nuanced story to be told here, only a seething rage to be marshalled toward collective action.

What logic can possibly justify the cruel and unnecessary separation of children from their parents? The policy was swiftly condemned by all but the most callous of restrictionists. Jonah Goldberg, writing in the National Review, referred to it as a “moral horror.” Red State called it “traumatizing and devastating.” Rod Dreher, of The American Conservative, opined that it was “vicious and inhumane.” Even immigration restriction groups like the Federation for American Immigration Reform, Center for Immigration Studies, and Californians for Population Stabilization avoided directly voicing support for the policy of family separation, preferring to more obliquely defend it by diverting blame onto immigrants for their allegedly phony asylum claims, the Obama administration for its refusal to control “border chaos,” and even Congressional Republicans who supported Paul Ryan’s “Amnesty Plan.”

Only in the depths of nativist and white-supremacist land did the family separation policy find enthusiastic praise. Fortunately, most people don’t share this sentiment. The images of children, the accounts of their plight, and the recordings of their cries led to widespread outrage. In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt, herself a Jewish refugee, famously remarked that, amid the rise of 20th-century fascism, the liberal democratic states who had so-loudly touted their commitment to inalienable rights were incapable of recognizing or restoring the rights of refugees. When those who had been stripped of political rights most needed help, she observed, “the world found nothing sacred in the abstract nakedness of being human.” This was – and still is – unfortunately true.

But, much of the world – or at least much of a notoriously nationalistic country – saw, in the images of the children in detention, something sacred being profaned. More than two-thirds of Americans opposed the family separation policy. In this case, the abstract nakedness of being human – the fact that children’s bodies are not perceived to be quite-so-tightly bound to their membership within a national polity – was their saving grace. Due to the lack of agency that we attribute to children, the images are more easily translated, accurately, as the suffering of people who have done nothing to deserve it. They are simply human beings – literally, biological lives – born into difficult situations, taken along on an arduous journey, and now separated from their parents. They made it to the land of freedom only to find themselves in chains. The resistance that these images produced is not proof of American progressivism or a deep commitment to human rights, but it does reflect an extant limit to encroaching neo-Fascism. Thankfully, there are some moral lines that you still don’t cross without political repercussion.

Recent survey data suggest that it is a precarious limit, though, and that the moral lines are blurry. According to an Economist/YouGov poll, 44% of Americans feel that the most responsible way of dealing with immigrant children is to hold them together in detention with their families until an immigration hearing. A CBS/YouGov poll found that 48% want to deport the entire families back to their home country, where many face extreme poverty and violence. These statistics point toward a tension that warrants interrogation: we’ve reached a breaking point on immigration politics. On one hand, if we are going to continue to have restrictive immigration laws, especially those that rely on securitized borders, families will be torn apart on a large scale. It is inevitable given the size and scope of the deportation machine constructed under Clinton, Bush, and Obama. Most Americans don’t want this. On the other hand, if we are to protect children and keep families together, we need to have relatively open borders and an inclusive immigration policy. Most Americans also don’t want this.

Broadly speaking, there are three ways of navigating this tension. The first is to convince more Americans to become moral monsters who embrace the nativist project currently institutionalized in the Trump administration; one that revels in the ethical and political imperative of keeping out non-European populations, including children, by any means necessary. The second is by acceding to the politics of centrist liberals and conservatives, where guest worker programs and paths to citizenship are coupled with further securitization and, perhaps, the construction of Trump’s Great Wall. This still results in mass family separation, but it positions the ethically unsatisfactory result as a regrettable outgrowth of necessary political compromises. The final path is to persuade more Americans to join in the Leftist project of working-class solidarity across borders; one that seeks relaxed immigration restrictions coupled with strong civil rights and labor protections for immigrants and refugees. If ending the separation of families and the suffering of children is our goal, then this is the sole project worthy of our support.

In this vein, the immigrants’ rights crisis of the past month – Trump’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy and the Supreme Court’s upholding of the “Muslim ban” – has made several things clear. First, immigrant children pose real threats to the nativist project, and we shouldn’t be surprised to see more cruel policies in which they are targeted. The problem – from a nativist perspective – is not that immigrant children are incapable of becoming Americans; it’s that they are too capable. The ease of their transition renders intelligible the real foundation of the nostalgic nationalism to which nativists cling: immigrant children become Americans, but their complexion persists. The danger posed by immigrant children lays bare the foundational urge of the nativist project, revealing the racism that undergirds all hyper-nationalism, and showing just how weak and pathetic the nativists are.

Second, Trump’s failed policy, a response to an imagined influx of immigrants, was unlikely to have any notable deterrent effect to begin with; the real political impact is to lower an already low bar on American immigration policy. Just as Dreamers have been used as bargaining chips in conservative efforts to increase border securitization, the executive order simply ends one humanitarian disaster (the separation of immigrant families in detention) and seeks to replace it with another one (the indefinite detention of families). But now, such a shift appears like progress. (Indeed, classical conservative Andrew Sullivan has already argued for a grand immigration compromise that necessitates giving Trump his wall).

Finally, the racialized – and false – image of immigrant criminality is so ubiquitous today that it takes the image of a child to rupture it, however momentarily, and to remind the American public that our ethical obligations to other lives ought not be dictated by an imaginary line in the sand. This creates a punctuated equilibrium in which changes to immigration policy are possible. The direction of these changes, however, is an open political question. Since the centrist option seems even more palatable to many politicians than it did a month ago, a Leftist explanation for (and alternative to) our current political conjuncture must be more forcefully and unequivocally advanced.

To recap: why would anyone support the separation or indefinite detention of immigrant families? The explanation is simple: they are nativists. What should be done about it? The immediate solutions are not easy, but they are clear: create sanctuary cities and states, vote all restrictionists out of office, abolish ICE, and tear down the border walls. The long-term solution requires a more thorough and thoughtful reworking of the global political economic order. Only then will we have a world – as my friends working with the Repeal Coalition demand – where everyone is free to live, love, and work anywhere they please.


John Hultgren teaches politics at Bennington College. He is the author of Border Walls Gone Green: Nature and Anti-immigrant Politics in America.

On David Wojnarowicz, politics, and gestures.

Professor of women's and gender studies, State University of New York at Stony Brook

Next week, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York will launch a major exhibition of the work of David Wojnarowicz, "History Keeps Me Awake at Night." It notes that Wojnarowicz was “queer and HIV-positive” and an “impassioned advocate for people with AIDS,” who would die of AIDS in 1992 at age 37. Publicity for the exhibition also indicates concern that because of Wojnarowicz’s association with the AIDS crisis and the culture wars of the 1980s, his work is “too frequently treated as a footnote” to this historical moment. I am excited about the retrospective at the Whitney, both as an opportunity to celebrate Wojnarowicz’s work as more than a footnote and as an opportunity to return to a particular moment in time that still reverberates in the present.

In my work, I am interested in the conjunction of illness-thought-activism in time. Or, put another way, I am concerned with illness and disability in action in particular times and places. My recent book Indirect Action explores this conjunction in the period just before and after the emergence of HIV/AIDS in the United States, challenging the frequently repeated origin story that locates AIDS activism in particular and health activism more generally as emerging with the formation of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) in 1987. Attempting to demonstrate the conceptual and practical uses of indirection, I conceived of the overall form of the project diagrammatically as a spatial network of interlinked experiences and events of illness, with shorter chapters, which I call snapshots, as nodes in the network that condense and encapsulate the overall structure. The image that helped me conceive of this form was the cover of a xeroxed catalog for David Wojnarowicz’s show In the Shadow of Forward Motion at P.P.O.W. gallery in New York City in 1989. Thinker/writer/activist Félix Guattari contributed a foreword of sorts to the catalog, and his name, along with Wojnarowicz’s, is on the cover of the catalog.

In 1989 Felix Guattari contributed a foreword to a xeroxed catalog
for a show of David Wojnarowicz's In The Shadow of Forward Motion
at the P.P.O.W. gallery in New York City. 

The cover image on the catalog, a detail from Wojnarowicz’s Sex Series, is a copy of an x-ray photograph of a sexual encounter as if viewed through a microscope or pinhole. What we see is difficult to discern, and we must peer closely at the image to see there are two men in the scene; as microscoped, x-rayed, and then photocopied fragment, sex is not simply impersonalized but depersonalized. The sex is both there for all to see and difficult to discern. Our own voyeuristic desire is captured in the pinhole’s structuring call to look. The image vibrates eerily on a black background while the text boxes—“David Wojnarowicz,” “In the Shadow of Forward Motion,” and “Notes by Felix Guattari”—float in white rectangular blocks above and below the image. The catalog materially and conceptually links the names, words, and ideas of Guattari and Wojnarowicz, even though the two men never met.

A name not on the cover of the catalog is that of the photographer, Marion Scemama, who collaborated with Wojnarowicz and was a friend of Guattari’s; it was Scemama who brought the two men together at the very end of the first decade of AIDS, in 1989, three years before both of their deaths, only weeks apart, in 1992. In an interview with Sylvère Lotringer, the founder of Semiotext(e), a cultural theorist and archiver of French theory in the United States, Scemama describes how Guattari’s involvement in the catalog came about and the pleasure Wojnarowicz felt in having his work linked with Guattari’s. Because Guattari couldn’t come to New York to meet Wojnarowicz or see his work in person, Guattari’s “David Wojnarowicz” is, Scemama believes, a “little superficial” but nonetheless important as “a gesture.” “Gesture” is a key word and concept in Wojnarowicz’s work and features frequently in his diaries. Wojnarowicz’s concept of the gesture emerges not only from his practices of art and writing but also from his practices of sex. For Wojnarowicz the gesture is a link between word and image, writing and painting, sex and intimacy. For example, in a diary entry in September 1981, Wojnarowicz describes picking up a guy in a park in the East Village and going for coffee with him. As they make “slow spare conversation,” Wojnarowicz explains, “I knew I wanted to lie down with him but nothing was mentioned. I wondered how it would be approached, if at all. What words, what gestures.” Or as Agamben puts it in his “Notes on Gesture,” “The gesture is the exhibition of a mediality: it is the process of making a means visible as such.” The snapshots in my project are meant to function like gestures: they are intertexts and interimages that make a means visible—here, linking sex, illness, art, and politics before and after AIDS.

In his superficial gesture, Guattari argues that Wojnarowicz reinvents the “inspiration of the great 60s movements” in order to “transcend the style of passivity and abandon of the entropic slope of fate which characterizes this present period.” A superficial gesture, then, links Wojnarowicz back to the social movements of the 1960s, and forward or, perhaps we should say, in the shadow of a forward motion to “a singular message that allows us to perceive an enunciation in process,” as Guattari puts it. The enunciation in process catalogs macroevents, like the worldwide devastation of AIDS, the detritus of capitalism, and the expropriation and exploitation of land once inhabited by Native Americans. In his writing and visual art, Wojnarowicz demonstrates the metamorphosis of all things—rusted-out factories, defunct machines, and insect shells are placed side by side as images of “what history means reached through the compression of time.”

My own superficial and small gesture redraws a line between Guattari and Scemama and Wojnarowicz. The redrawing of the line is not meant simply as a reminder that politics is about the personal, in the sense that through personal relationships we make politics, although of course personal relationships are an important aspect of the practice of all politics. Rather, what I want to think about are those figures who act as relays between people, places, ideas, and entire movements: Scemama between Guattari and Wojnarowicz but also Guattari and Wojnarowicz between the radical psychiatric politics of the 1960s and 1970s and forms of AIDS activism in the 1980s. Like Wojnarowicz, I am interested in “what history means reached through the compression of time,” a snapshot or a xeroxed catalog linking two names, word and image, sex and love, art and politics. Doing politics is about all kinds of further gestures: personal and impersonal, large and small, profound and superficial.


Lisa Diedrich is professor of women's and gender studies at State University of New York at Stony Brook. She is author of Indirect Action: Schizophrenia, Epilepsy, AIDS, and the Course of Health Activism and Treatments: Language, Politics, and the Culture of Illness.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

¿Cómo Ubico Mis Hijos? (How do I locate my children?)


University of Wisconsin, Madison

I am not an expert on the effects of the forcible separation of children from their parents.

I believe the experts. I believe the American Association of Pediatrics president who says that the policy, in that it affects children’s brain chemistry, causes irreparable harm. I believe the scholars of education, history, psychology, sociology, and other fields who have delineated the effects of inflicting this particular trauma on children, named the practice unconscionable, and called for immediate reunification. I believe the wails of the children themselves, that if they are not haunting their captors, should be haunting the rest of us.

I write this post as a scholar of immigration and literacy who listens to people’s migration stories—the stories of those who have had to leave their loved ones and the stories of those who have been left. I write to offer my views on the role of stories in this humanitarian crisis.

The Official Story

The official story is the one composed by the Trump administration, who in a cruel upping the ante of this country’s shameful history of unjust immigration practices, instituted a policy of separating children from their parents to deter both asylum seekers and potential labor migrants. This official story is underdeveloped in relation to plot and context and human complexity. It can be summed up, as bad stories often can, in one brute, unimaginative, if-then clause: If you don’t want your children taken, then don’t come here.

In fact, this story is so poorly composed that if it weren’t written down in papers—in the visas, green cards, passports, in the laws that grant or deny the right to be treated as a human in the United States—we would probably ignore it. But we can’t. Because this story, whose meanings are now indelibly branded into the tender developing consciousnesses of children, is backed up by an army of one of the most powerful nations in the world.

For example: look at this flyer (pictured below). Look at Step Three. It is a response to the question posed in bold font: How do I locate my children? ¿Cómo ubico mis hijos?

From the U.S. Customs and Border Protection website:

Three actions follow. They are presented logically, as if it is a reasonable thing to be separated from one’s children by armed officers. There are ifs. There are thens. There is syllogistic violence, and I feel the panic heating my neck, and I feel my nerves fly loose. How do I locate my children? The ones you have taken. The questions are given a non-answer by an unsympathetic narrator with a baleful bureaucratic gaze.

The official story represented here seeks to tidy up the ragged edges of wrong. It seeks to replace human identity with government identification. It seeks to stamp as legitimate a hostile textual regime which is also a hostile racial regime, in which the right papers supposedly equal the right kind of person, a regime for which hostile might be too mild of an adjective.

As a scholar of words, I believe the correct word is "evil."

Resistance Stories

The official story is never the only or last word, no matter how much terror it inflicts. There are other stories underneath. Human beings are smart and we are also loud, by which I mean this textual/racial regime was not invented yesterday, nor was human resistance to it. There are stories of how African American slaves risked dismemberment and death to learn to write. With their knowledge, they sometimes authored passes to escape to freedom in the north. There are stories of how, under the Chinese Exclusion Act, some families developed paper sons to avoid deportation, conceiving of whole villages and personal histories with such thorough novelistic imagination that they became almost true. There are stories I heard during my fieldwork with Brazilians in Massachusetts, who despite not having legal papers, studied to attain church papers in the form of missionary cards, which authorized them to preach. They were legal, they told me, in the eyes of God. After all, they said, it’s not God who makes borders.

Children are smart, too. And children are also loud. In the op-ed that the president of the American Association of Pediatrics wrote for the LA Times about her visit to a border facility for children, she told of a weeping toddler who was not allowed to be physically comforted. What she left out of the op-ed but subsequently shared on NPR was that the other children in the room were eerily quiet. Perhaps they already knew there was no audience for their story. No touch to acknowledge their pain.

Under unjust neoliberal economic policies and punitive immigration laws pre-Trump, parents and children were regularly separated (though not forcibly as a part of state policy) in the course of labor migration. In my fieldwork, I have been told of children being sent ahead for safer passage. I have been told of children left behind with family members, receiving remittances from parents abroad as they waited for reunification. One family told me of a child who died waiting for her mother to save enough money to send for her.

Listening to these stories, I have often thought of my own white enough, documented, middle-class, single-mom hustle. The birthday parties. The price of milk. From where I sit, I can only imagine the historical conditions of violence or poverty or both, can only imagine the hopes and dreams and years of planning, can only imagine, God, the nauseating risk, for parents to dare to approach the US border. From where I sit, it would be unethical not to imagine. Especially now, when familial separation is not only a byproduct of an unjust policy, but is in fact the policy itself.

Future Stories

For many of the young children being held captive, whose voices we have heard, their words right now are these: Mom. Also dad. Sometimes aunt. These words are the beginnings of their stories.

Once this policy has ended (and please, it is time to act), educators, social workers, psychologists, family and community members will be tasked with helping children, and eventually their children, sort through the layers and consequences of the evil they have endured. In doing so, we can learn from educators working in creative literacy programs with incarcerated youth. And we can learn from our Latin American brothers and sisters, like those in Colombia, who have been helping children develop narratives to overcome the trauma of their country’s decades-long civil war and to project a peaceful future. The job of adults, these scholars and activists teach, is to accompany children, to hear and hold their stories, to help turn their cries into a collective call for peace.

I am not an expert on the forcible separation of children from their parents. I am a scholar of literacy and immigration. What I know is this: It is a moral imperative to write a better story.


Kate Vieira is the Susan J. Cellmer Distinguished Chair of Literacy in the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin, Madison and a 2018-2019 Fulbright Scholar in Colombia.

Children are collateral damage in Trump's border war.

Vanderbilt University

Most of us in the US remember the horror of seeing pictures of the tiny body of three-year-old Alan Kurdi laying face down on a Turkish beach. Or the small, ash-covered face of Omran Daqneesh as he was placed in an ambulance in Aleppo.

Alan and Omran became tragic “poster children” for the violence in Syria that lead to one of the most publicized, if not the biggest, refugee crises in modern history. Today, we face a border crisis closer to home. While refugees from violence in the Northern Triangle of Central America have increased dramatically, the recent policies of the Trump administration, including ending Temporary Protection Status and introducing zero-tolerance and the separation of children from their parents, have intensified trauma and harm to refugees and migrants at our own borders.

The most heinous consequence of the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy is the separation of children from their parents. In just six weeks, between April 19th and May 31st, nearly 2,000 children were taken from their parents. Some parents were told their children were being taken for a bath, but then didn’t see them again. Hundreds of children are being detained in prison-like facilities, locked in cells with dozens of others, with only food and water and very little care. Guards have been instructed not to touch them, even to comfort or care for them. AP News reports: “Michelle Brane, director of migrant rights at the Women's Refugee Commission, met with a 16-year-old girl who had been taking care of a young girl for three days. The teen and others in their cage thought the girl was 2 years old. ‘She had to teach other kids in the cell to change her diaper’, Brane said. Brane said that after an attorney started to ask questions, agents found the girl's aunt and reunited the two. It turned out that the girl was actually 4 years old. Part of the problem was that she didn't speak Spanish, but K'iche, a language indigenous to Guatemala. ‘She was so traumatized that she wasn't talking,’ Brane said. ‘She was just curled up in a little ball’."

This example points to the special status of dependent children, who cannot yet take care of themselves, and cannot articulate their needs, let alone recount their histories, even when they do speak the same language as their captors or officials. U.S. law provides special protections for children. Yet, these refugee and migrant children have been stripped of all but the most basic protections. Given restricted access to facilities, and the secrecy surrounding them, it is likely that in some facilities even the most basic needs are not being met. If citizen-parents treated their children in the way that our government is treating refugee and migrant children—locking them in cages with instructions not to touch them—they could face investigation by Child Protective Services for child neglect and abuse.

The Trump administration is using refugee and migrant children as political pawns to force Congress to negotiate on the issue of immigration and Trump’s border wall, and to deter parents from seeking asylum or trying to enter the United States illegally. It is morally wrong to punish innocent children for their parent’s illegal entry; and yet imprisonment, detention, and the accompanying trauma is the penalty to paid by refugee and migrant children who reach the U.S. border. The policy of zero-tolerance is cruel and unusual punishment for both parents and children, guilty of illegal entry (a misdemeanor) or not.

It is important to point out that many of these families are refugees fleeing violence and seeking asylum in the United States. In other words, they are not migrants entering the country illegally, except in the sense that most refugees enter their host country illegally, which is to say without proper documentation. Most people fleeing totalitarian regimes have difficulty obtaining passports or other official documentation. The Immigration and Naturalization Act allows refugees to seek asylum whether they enter through a port of entry or not and whether or not they have passports.

The current zero-tolerance policy not only violates national law, but also international law. The fundamental principle of the United Nations Convention on Refugees stipulates that a refugee should not be returned to a country where they face serious threats to their life or freedom, what is called the principle of non-refoulement. While poverty and climate change may cause displacement and threaten life and freedom, and while in these cases the distinction between refugees and economic migrants becomes more difficult, international law is clear that those fleeing persecution in countries that cannot or will not protect them, are considered refugees and not migrants. For better or worse, the distinction between refugee and migrant is central to international law protecting refugees from non-refoulement.

The Trump administration is violating international law insofar as they do not recognize the distinction between refugees and migrants. Even those already in the U.S. are not safe. In May, the Trump administration ended the policy of Temporary Protected Status for 90,000 Central Americans living in the United States, threatening to deport refugees who will face violence and possible death if returned. And, for the record, the current administration has set the lowest cap on refugees in U.S. history.

Tens of thousands of women and children flee violence in the Northern Triangle region of Central America, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, and seek asylum in the United States and Mexico. Worldwide, El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala rank first, third, and seventh, respectively, for rates of homicides of women. Most of the refugees from this region are women escaping repeated rape, assault, extortion, threats from armed criminal gangs, watching their children being recruited into gangs or killed, and watching other family members being murdered or disappeared, while authorities do nothing. Often, they reach a breaking point when their lives are in imminent danger unless they flee immediately. But escaping presents its own dangers, as women are forced to pay exorbitant fees to “coyotes” and then suffer more rape, beating, and sometimes murder by these human traffickers. If they reach Mexico or the United States, these women face detention, a lack of adequate health care, and lengthy interrogations, which too often exacerbate their psychological trauma; and then, there is no guarantee that they will be given asylum rather than sent back home to face more violence.

Today, in addition to these dangers, if they reach what should be safe asylum, women escaping gang violence at home, face the trauma of separation from their children. These women risk their lives to protect their children, only to have them taken away.

People escaping violence and abuse should be welcomed as refugees and not treated as criminals. Even when parents cross the border illegally, their children should not be punished, especially not with the trauma of separation and detention. The Trump administration’s policies are immoral, if not also illegal. The policy of separating children from their parents is cruel and unusual punishment, in many cases levied against refugees, who are protected by international law.


Kelly Oliver is W. Alton Jones Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University. She is the author of sixteen scholarly books, and the editor of another eleven books, including Carceral Humanitarianism: The Logic of Refugee Detention (University of Minnesota 2017); Hunting Girls: Sexual Violence from The Hunger Games to Campus Rape, winner of a 2016 Choice Magazine Award (Columbia 2016); Earth and World: Philosophy After the Apollo Missions (Columbia 2015), Technologies of Life and Death: From Cloning to Capital Punishment (Fordham 2013); Knock me up, Knock me down: Images of Pregnancy in Hollywood Film (Columbia 2012); Animal Lessons: How They Teach us to be Human (Columbia 2009); Women as Weapons of War: Iraq, Sex and the Media (2007); The Colonization of Psychic Space: A Psychoanalytic Theory of Oppression (Minnesota 2004); Noir Anxiety: Race, Sex, and Maternity in Film Noir (Minnesota 2002); and perhaps her best known work, Witnessing: Beyond Recognition (Minnesota 2001). Her work has been translated into eight languages. She has been interviewed on ABC News, appeared on CSPAN Books, and published in the New York Times and Los Angeles Times. Most recently, she has published three novels in the Jessica James Mystery Series (which have won the IPPY award for Best Mystery, The Silver Falchion Award, and The Claymore Award). More information:

Friday, June 15, 2018

Wildflower Series #3: A day full of prairie

Butterfly weed, like other milkweeds, is a host plant for monarch butterfly
larvae, who eat the leaves. Unlike other milkweeds, this one has clear sap
and flowers that range from pale yellow-orange to vivid orange to deep red.


We’ve been to the big woods to see the springtime flowers, we’ve been up north for a second spring (and even a bit of a third spring this past weekend near Duluth). Now we’ve a hankering for the prairie flowers, so Sunday we headed out to McKnight Prairie, the closest undisturbed prairie we know of, located seven miles from Northfield in the midst of a tree farm and corn fields.

As soon as we stepped onto the path that leads up the nearer of the two hills that make up McKnight Prairie, I was jotting names in my notebook while Kelly snapped pictures: tall meadow rue, Canada milkvetch, golden Alexanders, Canada anemone, clammy ground cherry, and northern bedstraw were all blooming, and scattered spires of prairie alumroot shot up above the grasses and flowers. Prairie roses dotted the green with their bright pink petals, and along the hilltop we found the leaves of many pasque flowers, which must have made for a glorious early spring sight. Usually Kelly puts her camera back in her camera bag between pictures, but on this visit she just kept shooting flower after flower after flower.

Prairie rose plants are the shortest of Minnesota's four native roses,
growing up to three feet tall, with bristly stems and leaves
made up of several jagged-edged leaflets.

No matter what kind of puccoon we see
(pictured here is hairy puccoon), they
light up the early prairie.

Pussytoes, puccoon, blue-eyed grass, butterfly-weed already turning orange—everywhere we looked the prairie was awake with flowers. On the second hillside the prickly pear cactuses were budding, larkspur bloomed, harebells danced and prairie smoke gone to seed rippled in the endless wind while several white camas bloomed brightly. Down the sweep of the hillside we recognized spiderwort and prairie sage. The only worrying sight was the large-flowered beardtongue, which seemed blighted by spots on the leaves with only a few plants flowering, something we want to find out more about.

We took our time following the path back along the hills, soaking up the prairie and identifying one more new-to-us flower: green milkweed. Back at the car I pulled ticks off my socks (white socks so the ticks show up), and we drove home on a perfect prairie day, filled up with wind and flowers and sky.

Like many other spring flowers, prairie smoke's stalks and bracts
are very hairy. Bees that pollinate prairie smoke do so by buzz
pollination—vibrating their bodies to shake the pollen out of the flower.


Phyllis Root and Kelly Povo spent ten years collaborating on Searching for Minnesota's Native Wildflowers: A Guide for Beginners, Botanists, and Everyone in Between. Check back on this blog as they document their wildflower-seeking adventures this summer.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Governing the countryside: On modernity and progress in rural South Dakota.

University of California, Berkeley

How should we make sense of “red states” and “blue states,” and in a way that does not fall victim to the political polarization that seems to have reached a crescendo in the present? My new book, Power and Progress on the Prairie, seeks to uncover the history of power (legal, political and social) in the Rosebud Country of South Dakota—power that has saturated the relations between the heartland and Washington, DC, since South Dakota became a state in 1889. While it may be that those who designed, enacted, and implemented national policy affecting the heartland had benevolent intentions, the forms of influence that they wielded often harmed and were resented by those people who live in the heartland (both Indian and non-Indian).

Power and Progress on the Prairie focuses on the policies and practices of governing that the federal government (both in Washington and in its local agencies in South Dakota) put into place to “improve” Indian and non-Indian people and their lands. For example, the allotment policy for Lakota people was designed to break up collective tribal landholdings into individual tracts of 160 acres or 320 acres (depending on whether the land was for farming or grazing), just as the homestead laws (which benefited primarily whites) were meant to populate the public domain with small-scale farmers. This Jeffersonian policy for individualizing land ownership in order to found a primarily rural and agrarian society was generally not seen as onerous by either Lakota or non-Indian people in South Dakota, even though it was a policy invented by elites in the east.

Less benign from the point of view of South Dakotans was the early-twentieth-century project to make them into “progressive” farmers and farm-wives (the policy was deeply gendered). For Lakota people, the goal was to “civilize” them by eradicating Native culture (and language) and discipline them to think and act like full-time farm families. Day schools and boarding schools (run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Jesuits, and the Episcopalians) would do some of this disciplining. The rest would be done by the Bureau of Indian Affairs “agent” (later, “superintendent”) at the Rosebud Agency and his field staff. The aim was to keep Indian families focused on the task of raising crops and tending to livestock, to get them to prudently plan for the future (the assumption was that Indians were present- or past-, not future-, oriented), and to encourage them to be rational in their use of time, money, and property. In the process, Lakota culture was systematically denigrated, consigned to the “primitive” past, and Lakota people suffered profound personal scarring in and out of boarding schools. This is part of the colonial legacy of the policy to “civilize” or “modernize” Native people that still has repercussions in the present.

The Cooperative Extension Service took essentially the same approach to improving non-Indian farm families. While farmers and farm wives did not feel personally stigmatized by the teachings of the Extension Service, they were aware that their seat-of-the-pants approach to making ends meet on the farm was rejected by the uplifters as “backward.” The aim was to teach farmers to think like businessmen, to keep detailed records of expenses, assets, and revenue, and to identify precisely how they could improve their bottom line. Many farm families came to see this project to improve them as nonsense, invented by “theorists” who had never been real “dirt farmers.”

The advice of outsiders—or those working at the behest of outsiders in Washington or the (quite distant) South Dakota State Agricultural College—became even more burdensome during the New Deal. In the face of the Dust Bowl and the Depression crash of agricultural prices, the New Dealers sought to socially re-engineer rural society. Instead of seeking to maximize the production of cash crops and livestock, farmers and ranchers would now be paid a fee to reduce production; the idea was that prices had declined because of “overproduction” relative to demand. What is more, farmers and ranchers were encouraged to practice forms of agriculture that protected the land (for example, contour plowing, crop stripping, and fallowing) for “future generations,” even if they reduced farm income in the present. Farmers were criticized by the Department of Agriculture and the Extension Service for being “individualists” who needed to develop “social responsibility,” and turn their backs on their habitual ways of doing things (much of which has been encouraged earlier by the Extension Service). To rural people who had long had their own forms of commitment to the greater good (for example, through military service, church participation, and commitment to neighbors), the collectivist vision of the New Dealers was deeply suspect. While the history of “red state” and “blue state” resentments is complex, finishing this book up at our present moment in American politics has convinced me that much of the left-vs.-right ill will in American politics—and particularly the suspicion of the heartland toward the East and West Coasts—originated during the New Deal. This suspicion of certain outside theories is not at all unlike the understandable suspicion of Lakota people toward the larger, non-Indian society and its ideas about “the Indian problem.”

One of the founders of anthropological method, Bronislaw Malinowski, once described the goal of ethnography as the struggle “to understand the native’s point of view.” In other words, the idea is to translate the thinking of “the native” (the community understudy) in terms that allow one to see the rationality of native thought and behavior—indeed, how one would think and act in the same way in the native’s shoes. Inevitably, this methodological base has ethical and moral implications. The scholar must seek to understand, not critique, the community understudy—in my case, a “red state.” I cannot overstate my deep appreciation for what I have learned from both Indian and non-Indian people in South Dakota, both those I have talked to formally and informally, and those whose thoughts and feelings I have read in the archives. My book is a hopefully not-too-feeble attempt to offer a different kind of scholarly understanding of a special place in a red state.


Thomas Biolsi is author of Power and Progress on the Prairie: Governing People on Rosebud Reservation. Biolsi teaches Native American studies and comparative ethnic studies at the University of California at Berkeley. He has been conducting research on Rosebud Reservation for thirty years. His previous books include Deadliest Enemies: Law and Race Relations on and off Rosebud Reservation (Minnesota, 2007) and Organizing the Lakota: The Political Economy of the New Deal on the Pine Ridge and Rosebud Reservations.

"An insightful, empowering read for those working to understand U.S. policy over time in rural contexts and Indian-White relations in the context of State interventions, this book will help students think creatively and confidently about operationalizing political economic theory over space and time to unpack the messy and incomplete process of governing rural America."
—Beth Rose Middleton, University of California, Davis