Wednesday, February 24, 2016

The boombox on the bus: Erik Satie's furniture music in 2016

Postdoctoral fellow in global media and film studies at Brown University

2016 marks the 150th birth anniversary of the French composer Erik Satie (1866–1925). As far as musical ideas go, Satie is best known for his notion of “furniture music” (musique d’ameublement), first introduced nearly 100 years ago in 1917 and later popularized by American composer John Cage. Furniture music aspires to “make a contribution to life in the same way as a private conversation, a painting in a gallery, or the chair in which you may or may not be seated.” The music would “fill up those heavy silences that sometimes fall between friends dining together. It would spare them the trouble of paying attention to their own banal remarks. And at the same time it would neutralize the street noises which so indiscreetly enter into the play of conversation. To make such a noise,” Satie says, “would respond to a need.” (John Cage, Silence (1961)).

Nearly a century later, background music to support and augment everyday activities is commonplace. The Muzak tradition of sonic productivity enhancement carries on, though the stimulus progressions are now ever more individually tailored for specific times and tastes. On my phone, Apple Music offers streaming playlists based on time of day, profile data, and past clicks: “Experimental Music for Studying,” for example, or genre-appropriate ways to “Wake Up Gently” in the morning and “Tune Out Your Boss” in the afternoon.

To consider background music only as a practical physical support for the isolated individual, however, risks losing the inherently interpersonal aspect of Satie’s musical furnishings. This is music not just to keep the body in tune, but to soften the spaces between individuals, helping to make the awkward pauses that interrupt even friendly conversation a little less awkward.

Looking back over what we know of Satie’s life—he was a brilliant but idiosyncratic loner par excellence—it isn’t hard to imagine that the “need” he sought to fill wasn’t for greater productivity and efficiency, but rather a way to use music to feel more at home in what otherwise might have been a world of fraught social relations.

Flash forward to 1980. Satie’s gentle piano music is growing popular among a new generation of listeners. The recently released Sony Walkman and Brian Eno’s Ambient 1: Music for Airports are pushing furniture music in more personal and autonomous directions, combining the Taylorist push for utilitarian efficiency with more flexible and open-ended musical formats.

Meanwhile back in France, Gilles Deleuze and FĂ©lix Guattari publish their reading of the musical “refrain” (ritournelle) in A Thousand Plateaus. Unlike the more atomized individual sounds of personal audio technologies, this approach to music similarly locates it as a territorial device, helping a person (or other animal) establish their place in the surrounding world. Walking home at night, they write, a whistling child “ventures home on the thread of a tune.”

Jump again to the present. If we think of background music as just a tool for the privatized individual, we risk missing the central role of musical furnishings in negotiating interpersonal and environmental space. Rather than algorithmic soundtracks ever more finely tuned to a person’s biodata, a more fundamental role of furnishing music in 2016 might be much the same as it was a century before: a tool to fill up those heavier silences, particularly for those who might not otherwise feel at home.

Consider the mildly defiant act of boarding public transit with music leaking out of your backpack on small speakers (perhaps from a phone or boombox). Eschewing the privacy of headphones, the music immediately establishes a relational space, defining the vehicle not just for the would-be DJ but for everyone else, too.

Background music chosen by a co-passenger on public transit
brings to mind the central role of music in negotiating interpersonal
Image: San Francisco's F Line. Photographer: Momoko Shimizu.

A few months ago I was riding the F Line down Market Street in San Francisco when a woman boarded, sat in the middle of the back seat of the crowded train, and after about five minutes switched on M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes” at a volume just loud enough for everyone to hear. Suddenly we were in it together, with the lyrics about “sitting on trains” and the lolling rhythm of the beat perfectly matched to the rocking of the light rail. This cozy atmosphere suddenly turned confrontational during each chorus, however, when three gunshot sound effects ring out and M.I.A. tells us all she wants to do is “take your money.” After a few minutes the song ended and we went back to our private thoughts. The woman alighted at the next stop, having spoken to no one but having marked out a territory all her own.

Other silences: an Uber ride late one recent weekday night. The driver, after talking with me about his recent experience immigrating from Eastern Europe to the US, suddenly shifted to proclaim his love for the free Pandora music streaming service—how essential it was for him to get through his long hours at the wheel. Driving all night and with plenty of time to think, he had refined it down to a simple equation: “gasoline is what fuels the car, Pandora is what fuels me.” It would be fair to call this stimulus progression, perhaps, but this doesn’t capture the whole situation. Well aware of his vulnerability as an independent contractor at the mercy of Uber’s latest app update, the low-volume electronic music streaming endlessly from the dash provided some solace and some energy, a way to be at home while driving forward.

Rather than think of background music as merely a matter of consumer choice or utilitarian design, Satie’s legacy pushes us to understand and recognize music as a way of negotiating shared space. Musical furnishings can powerfully realign the social division of comfort and discomfort, the emotional economies of awkwardness and groove. Sometimes background music becomes a way for individuals who might not otherwise have a way to fit—for any multitude of reasons—to push back and carve out a little territory of their own.

To make such a noise would respond to a need.


Paul Roquet is author of Ambient Media: Japanese Atmospheres of Self. He is a postdoctoral fellow in global media and film studies at Brown University.

“Through a series of probing interventions, Paul Roquet generates a new environment for Japan studies—one that takes into account the faint, ambient, receding, and ubiquitous immaterialities that fill Japan's ether. This is a work worth noticing.” —Akira Mizuta Lippit, University of Southern California

“Paul Roquet smartly cuts through multiple strata from music to experimental performance to design, offering a fresh and novel perspective on the atmospheres of ambient media.” —Marc Steinberg, Concordia University

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Reparative therapies remain alive and well in some US states—Texas and Oklahoma included.

This billboard appeared in Dallas, Texas, in 2015. Despite widespread condemnation,
reparative (also known as "ex-gay" or "reorientation") therapies still exist in some states.

Assistant professor of sociology at Temple University

I recently traveled to Texas to talk about my new book The Straight Line: How the Fringe Science of Ex-Gay Therapy Reoriented Sexuality. While there, I learned a bit more about skirmishes in that region over the past year—many of which continue—regarding conversion therapies for homosexuality.

Responding to recent bans for reorientation therapy for minors in some states, the current Texas Republican Party platform maintains, “We recognize the legitimacy and efficacy of counseling, which offers reparative therapy and treatment for those patients seeking healing and wholeness from their homosexual lifestyle.” Oklahoma State Rep. Sally Kern filed a bill preventing bans on reorientation, protecting the rights of counselors to offer conversion therapy in all circumstances in that state, though this bill has not yet passed. (This was one among many anti-gay bills she filed, some of which she has withdrawn, including a right for businesses to discriminate, and banning gay affirmative therapy for minors.)

Last year in Dallas, a billboard promoting a reparative therapy clinic was put up and taken down after protests. This clinic has recently opened the “Children’s Center for Healthy Gender & Sexuality” to explicitly conduct reparative therapy with minors. While there was an attempt to ban these practices for minors in Texas, and despite condemnation from all major professional mental health associations in the US, conversion therapies remain alive and well in these areas—though likely practiced by a small minority of mental health practitioners, given general opposition to these practices in these professions.

San Francisco Pride, 2013.
Image via Creative Commons.

The gay community has also responded to the threat of conversion therapy. I dropped into a gay bar in Austin on my trip where a large flag hung over a pool table. Rainbow letters on a black background shouted "BORN THIS WAY" in all caps. This flag has been popular at pride parades this past year, including at the one in my home town of Philadelphia, taking the Lady Gaga anthem and transforming the title into a full force political slogan.

This pattern of viewpoints is quite common in debates over homosexuality: anti-gay folks often believe homosexuality is a choice that can be unchosen, while supporters of gays believe in innate and immutable sexual orientations from birth. Considering these two views simultaneously, they clearly cannot be reconciled. Each is rooted in a version of “essentialism”—an idea about the underlying nature of human sexuality, including the idea that sexual desire exists independent of culture. These ideas exist in a kind of symbiosis—the more one group promotes one of these views, the more opponents assert the opposite. But we know from decades of research on sexuality around the world that culture plays a crucial role in what forms that sexualities can take—biology does not establish sexuality any more than it establishes food preferences.

While these essentialist viewpoints seem irreconcilable, it is important to note that both have the capacity to reinforce the idea that same-sex sexuality is something shameful. For reorientation proponents, homosexual desire is to be eradicated and is a symptom of excessive shame. For promoters of “born this way,” same-sex sexual desire must be tolerated because it cannot be helped, and this position does nothing to suggest that a gay and lesbian life might be a desirable outcome. Making pro-gay arguments from the position of biology alone misses the cultural work that needs to be done if same-sex sexual desire and behavior are to be fully acceptable. The missing but perhaps necessary argument is that there is nothing inherently shameful about consensual sex and relationships between members of any sex, including sex between men, and these relationships may actually enhance human lives. With this position, the questions of the cause of homosexuality and concerns over malleability become moot points. In efforts to create tolerance, gay rights has ceded the idea of sexual fluidity, fighting for the recognition of clearly delineated types of persons, which science seeks to reinforce. Yet, establishing general sexual freedom for all was much more a position of gay liberationists who participated in the Stonewall Rebellion.

Source for these axes of comparison: Dawne Moon, 2005.
"Discourse, Interaction, and Testimony: The Making of Selves
in the US Protestant Dispute over Homosexuality."
Theory & Society 551-577.

New research is beginning to show ways that the “born this way” message may even be inappropriate for advancing gay rights. Consider how new generations are changing views on these issues, a recent poll in the UK found that 50% of people age 18-24 reported some same-sex sexual attractions, and most think sexual orientation is on a continuum. These trends may be similar in the United States, as researchers continue to uncover evidence of expressed sexual fluidity for men and women. With taboos on homosexuality and gender fluidity lessening, the old category systems of gay/straight and male/female are no longer exhaustive. Even more problematic for the “born this way” position, new research by University of Tennessee, Knoxville, psychology professor Patrick Grzanka and his research team shows that a substantial group of anti-gay people believe that people are born gay.

So what to do about the continued presence of conversion therapies in Texas, Oklahoma, and elsewhere? Recognizing the kinds of harm that these therapies can cause is certainly central, but so is the cultural message that there is nothing inherently wrong with same-sex sexual expression. Meanwhile, some scholars have argued that a better model for gay rights that sidesteps the issues of mutability and cause would be analogous to rights to freedom of religion. In that case, a state cannot force a person to change their religion in order to get rights because religion is crucially important to a person’s sense of self. Perhaps this kind of argument rooted in American ideals of freedom could be a better basis for arguing against therapies that treat same-sex attraction as something rooted in shame, and could be a more open-ended basis for protecting freedoms of a broader range of sexual and gender expressions.


Tom Waidzunas is author of The Straight Line: How the Fringe Science of Ex-Gay Therapy Reoriented Sexuality. He is assistant professor of sociology at Temple University.

"Finally we have a book that takes a deep, inside look at sexual reorientation therapies and their far-reaching cultural effects. In a provocative turn, The Straight Line not only interrogates the fringe science of sexual reorientation, but it shows us how these efforts to reorient gays and lesbians have shaped—and been shaped by—more liberal ideas about sexuality."
—Jane Ward, author of
Not Gay: Sex Between Straight White Men

Thursday, February 11, 2016

On Climate Change War Games and "environmentality."

The military's seizure of climate change and other environmental issues
is not as radically new as one might suppose.
Image via Creative Commons.

Associate professor of environmental and postcolonial studies, Purdue University

In 1947, George F. Kennan, writing under the pseudonym “Mr. X,” published “The Sources of Soviet Conduct” in Foreign Affairs. The article had considerable impact. Advocating a global strategy of Communist “containment,” it influenced the Truman administration’s shift to an anti-Soviet policy and served as a road map for what the journalist Walter Lippman would soon criticize (and popularize) as the Cold War. Kennan’s “X” article, and his earlier 1946 “Long Telegram” from Moscow prompted President Truman in March of 1947 to unveil his Truman Doctrine, which led to the creation of the National Security Act of 1947, The Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Council, and NATO. For the next forty years, the US would harden its defense-oriented position, freighting the western world with the mutually assured destruction of nuclear arms buildup, the witch hunts of McCarthyism, and a domino-effect rhetoric that would bolster conflicts in Greece, Turkey, Korea, Vietnam, and elsewhere. Global geopolitics would never be the same.

That admix of madness and hubris, which makes up any grand narrative of power, may have become antiquated after the collapse of communism. But the attempt to contrive a narrative of pandemic proportions is in the works again. The new enemy to the free world? Climate change.

In 2012, US Navy Captain Wayne Porter and US Marine Corps Colonial Mark Mykleby, writing as “Mr. Y,” published “A National Strategic Narrative.” Backed by former Defense Secretary Robert Gates and hailed as a “grand strategy for the 21st century,” the narrative commandeers the immediate and future safety of the earth’s ecosystems—mainlining climate change with the venom of national security.

The war machine’s seizure of climate change and other environmental issues is not as radically new as one might suppose. The Pentagon has been taking climate change seriously, and growing more public about it, since the publication of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) 2007 “Fourth Assessment Report.” But long before the turn of our century, Cold War military officials had their eyes on the environment. The CIA and other agencies headhunted scientists to learn just how much they could about manipulating natural environments. As far back as 1949, NATO investigated and even tested various potentials for transforming enemy environments on a planetary scale, going so far as to suggest the use of nuclear bombs to reconfigure the sea floor and change the course of ocean currents.

Global warming, however, is a game changer. Since the 1980s we’ve been hearing and ignoring the warnings from climate scientists: Species extinction (as much as a 50 percent die-off in the next century). Mass migration due to water and food scarcity (as many as 250 million on the move by 2050). Drought. Storms. Heat waves. Temperature increase. Sea level rise. An interminable roster of calamitous transformations continue to unfold almost daily. So, one might ask, in the wake of any serious green political movement in the US, having the military on board can only be a godsend, right?

Yes and no. Militarized engagements with the environment might give the gravity of the situation more attention, and soldiers indeed might be on the ground to help climate refugees (though one wonders, given the reaction to Syrian refugees, how much help will ultimately be given). But this “environmentality,” as I term it, brings with it an aggressive approach that can emphasize a nation’s insecurities at the expense of discovering alternatives to humanity’s destructive relation to nature. In July 2008, for instance, the Center for a New American Security, with the help of scientists, the Department of Defense, various private funding organizations, and ABC News, held a “revolutionary” military exercise: the Climate Change War Game. During the initial stages of the game players focused on sustainability, but they were steered away from this approach and came to reject it as a worrisome distraction from the central issue of global security: “a focus on cutting greenhouse gas emissions runs the risk of crowding out full consideration of adaptation challenges.” In the final analysis, confronting the complexities of climate change—questioning the gamut of human environmental abuses, changing patterns of overconsumption and waste, preserving biodiversity—involved too much risk.

We’ll be hearing more arguments, I suspect, in favor of viewpoints like Mr. Y’s, who redefines Cold War scenarios of containment with a “strategic ecology” of US-directed “sustainment.” We should pay heed, however, to these maneuvers to strategically capture climate change for defense purposes. George Kennan certainly did. As he came to see his policies turn more aggressive and militaristic, he began to abhor the impact of his X-article. He yearned for a more positive dialogue with the Soviet Union. One can only hope, in the wake of December’s Climate Summit in Paris, that the grand strategies for confronting global warming will be more solicitous, regenerative, and temperate.


Robert P. Marzec is author of Militarizing the Environment: Climate Change and the Security State. He is associate professor of ecocriticism and postcolonialism in the department of English at Purdue University and associate editor of MFS: Modern Fiction Studies. He is also author of An Ecological and Postcolonial Study of Literature and the editor of Postcolonial Literary Studies: The First 30 Years.

"Militarizing the Environment: Climate Change and the Security State offers an illuminating, perturbing account of the greening of military discourse and strategy amidst an era of advancing climate change. Robert P. Marzec brilliantly details the neoliberal assault—at once militaristic, economic and discursive—on the commons and its most vulnerable inhabitants. His book is essential reading for anyone committed to understanding the new imperialism and its cynical, sinister appropriation of critical environmental ideas like resilience, adaptation, and sustainability."
—Rob Nixon, author of Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Shipwreck narratives are central to the Age of Discovery.

Shipwreck narratives, writes Steve Mentz, portray humanity caught
between divine fiat and the insufficient promise of human agency.
The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, Rembrandt, 1633.
Public domain image via Wikimedia Commons.

St. John's University

Humans love to tell stories that put humans at the center of things. In these fantasies, the Renaissance celebrates the rebirth of human knowledge, the Enlightenment shines its light on human realizations, and the postmodern era fractures human ideals. More recently, the Anthropocene shoulders its way into view with the power of Old Man Anthropos, the all-powerful Man who ruins everything.

These anthropocentric visions paper over the disturbing truth that human history overflows with unexpected turns. We seldom end up where we thought we were going. Stories about transformation and tragedy err when they claim more certainty about their destinations than they really have.

To put it more directly: the Age of Discovery was an Age of Shipwreck.

Modernity remains a contested term in literary and cultural scholarship, and controversies about the meaning of “early modernity” capture the unsettled nature of thinking about historical change and continuity. Ideas about transformation have long dominated scholarship of the literature and culture of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, whether that transformation appears as a “Renaissance” of classical forms, a “Reformation” of Christian cultures, or through more particular discourses such as skepticism, political republicanism, or the rise of empirical science. My book Shipwreck Modernity supplements these human-centered visions with disaster. Adding the modifier “shipwreck” to the modernity of European culture’s first age of globalization minimizes human control and relocates unplanned errancy at the center of world history.

Shipwreck modernity describes an understanding of historical change that is impersonal rather than humanized, material as well as ideological, and driven by random catastrophes more than singular acts of vice or virtue. Turning to shipwreck follows the offshore trajectory of recent scholarship in the oceanic or “blue” humanities that treats the sea as a corrective to pastoral dreams of harmony. This saltwater approach to human cultural history places the encounter with what oceanographers call the World Ocean at the center of the global movement of European culture. Ocean currents and prevailing winds drove European ships around the globe, carrying and encountering viruses, plants, animals, languages, cultures, and catastrophes. The disasters and narratives of hybridity that emerged comprise a global shipwreck. The rapid integration of the ecologies of Afro-Eurasia with the Americas created disruption and change on a massive scale that continue to resonate today. Shipwreck modernity brought smallpox to the Americas and the potato to Ireland, while disrupting local ecologies around the globe.

No trope in the oceanic archive resonates more than shipwreck, an ancient story of disorientation and disruption that punctuates Western literary culture from Odysseus and Jonah to Prospero and Robinson Crusoe. Especially during periods of maritime expansion, shipwreck narratives portray humanity caught between divine fiat and the insufficient promise of human agency. The technical labors of mariners in crisis, as portrayed by canonical authors such as Shakespeare and Defoe as well as common sailors and others, create allegories of humans struggling to endure nonhuman environments.

Representations of shipwreck in and beyond the early modern period suggest three subcategories or interpretive clusters for human-ocean encounters: wet globalization, blue ecocriticism, and shipwreck modernity. Each of these phrases identifies a trajectory for blue humanities scholarship.

Wet Globalization: Twenty-first century responses to globalization sometimes fly above the earth in passenger planes. The blue humanities recall that historically and still today, the global economy floats on ocean currents.

Blue Ecocriticism: The sea’s overwhelming physical presence in the natural environment emphasizes that this element, long marginalized by green eco-thinking, can revolutionize ecological thought in a post-sustainability context.

Shipwreck Modernity: From an oceanic perspective, the story of emerging modernity resembles a catastrophe-ridden epic of ocean-fueled expansion and its attendant disasters.

Responding to the alienating pressure of the ocean on human bodies and institutions makes the blue humanities a form of post-human investigation. With cognates in post-sustainability ecocriticism, cyborg studies, catastrophe studies, and other discourses that separate humans from the spaces that comfort them, the oceanic turn in humanities scholarship combines ancient narratives that remain vibrant in contemporary culture with a new emphasis on dynamism in the relationship between humans and their environments.

Shipwreck Modernity refuses sentimental consolations such as green sustainability or political utopianism. But it does not sink into the depths without hope. The shock of immersion has positive lessons as well as critical ones. The book ends in the “bright light of shipwreck,” alongside the hybrid vision it names the Bookfish, with “Seven Shipwrecked Ecological Truths.” Seeing catastrophes as opportunities means seeking an ecological future with wet swimmers rather than dry sailors, in an oceanic world in which survival, while only temporary, gives pleasure. This wet and disorienting vision shines a light on early modern ecological globalization that resonates with our post-climate change present.


Steve Mentz is author of Shipwreck Modernity: Ecologies of Globalization, 1550–1719. He is professor of English at St. John's University in New York City.

"A compelling, provocative, even lyrical piece of scholarship that will undoubtedly inaugurate new critical discussions in the fields of maritime humanities, eco-criticism, early modern English literature, and shipwreck studies."
—Josiah Blackmore, Harvard University

Monday, February 1, 2016

What are the implications of philanthropic relationships in education?

University of Pennsylvania

On a spring day in 2010, I interviewed Sebastian Thomas, head of the in-house nonprofit organization at the public New York City high school at which I taught for two years (referred to here as “College Prep”).

Thomas was responsible for organizing the benefits, films, flyers, media, and other forms of PR that “sold” our unscreened, traditional public school to private-sector funders, who supplemented the resources we were getting from the state.

It wasn’t hard to make our school look like a worthy cause. Our numbers looked good. College Prep’s student body was predominantly black and brown, and teachers were predominantly white. About 80% of the student body was eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. Unlike many urban schools that served a similar demographic, College Prep boasted a 93% graduation rate and a 97% college matriculation rate for its students. Due to  Thomas’s hard work, donors to College Prep’s nonprofit included, among others, a corporate firm in midtown Manhattan, the Gates foundation, and the Robin Hood Foundation, as well as more than 300 individuals who contributed $5,000 or more.

During our interview, Thomas stated that through his work soliciting donations for the Foundation, he felt like he was “effecting change.” Yet he expressed ambivalence, stating that he had to “constantly work with people so that the messaging about the school is not exploitative.” While he believed that this was important, he asked:

If some rich, important person has his or her heartstrings tugged by the story of so-and-so, and that person writes us a check for like $30,000 and then we are able to do all this stuff with it, is that okay? I don’t know. I am still asking myself that question. I don’t know.

Thomas shared an anecdote about NBC wanting to film a show that would feature Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, giving a college scholarship to a student with a “big sob story.” Thomas pulled aside one student, Kadeem, who had been raised by his grandmother in an impoverished section of the city, and asked him if he was interested. But, he advised Kadeem, he should only agree to this if he was comfortable. Thomas explained to Kadeem, “TV producers are always looking for the human-interest story, even if ironically it takes the humanity out of the person who they are interviewing.” He advised Kadeem not to sell himself out, but told him: “sometimes we buy ourselves opportunity by telling people what they want to hear.” In sharing this information both with Kadeem and again with me in the interview, Thomas expressed his ambivalence about his work. On the one hand, College Prep is served well by access to important private-sector resources. On the other hand, in order to access the resources, the institution has to conform to, and in fact rely on, a very specific image that both conflates and reifies problematic stereotypes about race, class, and place: the needy (but college-bound) black or brown student, the white (female) savior teacher, and the generous white (male) corporate funder.

In fact, while at the school, I attended a posh benefit at the corporate office of one of the school’s sponsors. At a meeting beforehand, Thomas coached me, along with a few other teachers and students he chose to attend, to “sell” and “talk up” the school. Students were to attend the benefit in uniform, teachers were to “dress like teachers,” we were not to walk around the room in groups larger than two, and we were not to eat much (since we were supposed to focus on talking up the school) nor were we to partake from the two open bars at the event. The keynote speaker, a white female corporate lawyer, emphasized the neediness of College Prep’s college-bound students, and funders dropped checks made out to the foundation into a box in the back of the room as they left. The revenue from that benefit equated to one-third of the Foundation’s budget for the year.

While some of our students came from low-income families, others came from middle-class ones. While some of our students would be the first in their families to attend college, others had parents with college and graduate degrees. While some of our students were homeless or lived in shelters, others went home every day to traditional two-parent nuclear families. Yet in the keynote speech at the event, the narrative about College Prep students was not one that allowed for diversity of experience or collective solidarity. Rather, it was one that constructed College Prep as a unique miracle, a school that worked with kids who, despite coming from the most challenging of circumstances, were set up for college matriculation and success due to their hardworking teachers and the generosity of funders.

What are the implications of philanthropic relationships in education? At every level at College Prep, I saw great ambivalence from teachers, students and administrators about the school’s relationship with its philanthropic funders, and an implicit awareness that we were not healing, rather we were deepening the wounds wrought by centuries of white supremacist and capitalist plunder, pillage and violence against black, brown, poor, and female bodies in the United States.

In an interview, Principal Sands, a white woman who had been an English teacher at the time, stated, “I really do think it is about love. It’s about loving the children as people and it’s about loving them so much so that you want what’s best for them. And what’s best for them so often doesn’t look like what your track was.”

We think of love as an individual feeling, act, or intention and in many ways we think of solidarity in the same way. Indeed, at College Prep, it seems that while it might be important to practice love and solidarity on an individual level, this is not enough. Rather, through agonistic solidarity, we might reach a place of what Tricia Rose, bell hooks, and James Baldwin have termed as both affirmational and transformational love, a love that is grounded in students’ nuanced and diverse lives, agency, and experience but also sees the potential for growth and collective resistance against schools’ dependence on inequity, competition, and marketing students for resources. This kind of love and solidarity also would lead to policy shifts: perhaps changing our tax structure so that we have fair funding formulas in each city and state that lead to equity, as well as ensuring that people have access to affordable food and good health care, and ending environmental destruction. Policy shifts in the interest of affirmational and transformational love and agonistic solidarity would ensure that teachers are well supported, with strong, community-engaged unions that prioritize the experiences of children and families, and work for racial and class justice. “Love” in the form of philanthropy and privatization of schools, or in the form of individual actions or feelings does not lead us to a place of equity, agonistic solidarity and healing. Through both policy and practice, perhaps we can work toward collective resistance and creative alternatives.


Amy Brown is author of A Good Investment? Philanthropy and the Marketing of Race in an Urban Public School. She is an educational anthropologist and a faculty member in the Critical Writing Program at the University of Pennsylvania.

"A Good Investment? is a well-developed and well-executed ethnography. Amy Brown’s ability to tell a broad story about the privatization and marketization, as well as their enactment, of public schooling is exemplary." —Jill Koyama, University of Arizona