Symposium Introduction

Julietta Singh is my closest friend. Our adjacency allowed me occasion to read almost every draft of Unthinking Mastery: Dehumanism and Decolonial Entanglements (Duke University Press, 2018). In its sustained attention to how a very specific power relationship—mastery—works across a stunning range of contexts (from classrooms to hospitals, humanitarian aid to anticolonial revolt, from the most intimate confines of a home to the sprawling networks of neoliberal geopolitics), the book’s concepts, arguments, and readings give form and language to so many things I’ve felt—inchoately—at every turn in my own academic labors. For this reason, I cannot imagine what my own thinking or writing or teaching would be today without Unthinking Mastery. It’s on my desk every time I sit down to write.

Although the book draws extensively on contemporary feminist, queer, new materialist, posthumanist, and animal studies scholarship, it is also a book clearly and self-consciously situated within postcolonial studies broadly, and its more literary currents specifically (the work of Edward Said and Gayatri Spivak always hovers nearby, even when they aren’t directly cited). It is to that field that the book’s central argument is most obviously pitched: that while anticolonial thinkers and activists diagnosed coloniality as a “bad” form of mastery that must be undone, those same thinkers often ended up articulating their ostensibly anti-mastery politics in terms that reproduce mastery in displaced ways. Across chapters 1 and 2, Singh painstakingly traces how this works in the writings of Mohandas Gandhi and Frantz Fanon, as well as other hugely influential anti-colonial writers like Albert Memmi, Chinua Achebe, and Ngugi wa Thiong’o. Chapters 3 through 5 and the Coda turn to postcolonial literary texts by Aimé Césaire, J. M. Coetzee, Mahasweta Devi, Jamaica Kincaid, and Indra Sinha, and Singh offers readings that owe as much to Spivak’s formalist deconstruction as to Donna Haraway’s passion for more-than-human worldmaking. At stake is ultimately a provocation to the field of postcolonial studies to examine its abiding investment in forms of power it claims to reject, a provocation that puts Unthinking Mastery in conversation with other recent books1 that query the fraught ways fields are sutured to objects, aims, and concepts that undo their conscious commitments. Moreover, focusing on mastery leads Singh to find crucial continuities across the anti- and post-colonial moments, undoing any neat periodization (whether empirical or conceptual), and sliding the field toward more entanglement with the related (but crucially distinct) field of decolonial studies.

Throughout the book, Singh proposes a handful of concepts that, taken together, conjure not just interventions into interpretive methods and political organizing, but that set the entire affective tone of academic labor trembling. “Vulnerable reading” and “vulnerable writing” are ways of moving from Judith Butler’s early-2000s writings on the politics of vulnerability, mourning, and embodiment toward new, more generous possibilities for intellectual and political relationality. In Singh’s reimagining of vulnerability as a motor for listening, reading, writing, and feeling, the borders shored up by mastery begin to erode. Instead of a knowing subject or actor engaging “objects” (of scholarly attention or humanitarian aid, for example), Singh imagines the self as a porous, complicit, constitutively entangled, interdependent thing. Like Elizabeth Grosz’s provocation for a feminist politics of “becoming undone,” Unthinking Mastery urges its readers not just toward letting reading surprise the self by leading its attentions in unexpected directions (even if it urges that too). Instead, Singh links vulnerability to a politics she calls “dehumanism”: “a practice of recuperation, of stripping away the violent foundations of colonial and neocolonial mastery that continue to render some beings more human than others” (4). This is not an “easy repudiation and renunciation of dehumanization” that would find repair in inclusion (re-humanization), but, instead, “a much more radical process of opening us to the possibility of becoming ourselves promisingly dehumanized” (6). For Singh, the position of dehumanization is constituted only through (mastery-fueled) coloniality, but it is also a space outside of imperialist humanism from which the question of human can me asked in a different key. Among other things, this gives Singh’s book a polemical edge: in asking “What is the human?” she avoids answers that come from those people—mostly white, mostly male—who understand that question as a question about themselves. Instead, Singh finds that the dehumanized—the subaltern, the queer, the colonized, those who are supposed to genuflect before international aid—think “the human” differently. And their answers make us uncomfortable to the precise degree that we are sutured to mastery. These voices are really heard only by risking the kind of vulnerability that, as Unthinking Mastery makes very clear in some of its more autobiographical sections, doesn’t find much hospitality in the university today. Or anywhere else.

One of the forms of mastery that comes under closest scrutiny in the book is the disciplinary, and it is in the ways that we are disciplined as thinkers and then discipline the texts we read and the students we teach, that coloniality shapes most of what we do as academics. Most but not all, since there are those of us who have little patience with or love for disciplinary strictures. This anti-disciplinary thrust is, I think, a fairly important reason why Unthinking Mastery should find an increasingly far-flung readership. This symposium captures some of this: our contributors are from postcolonial literary studies, political theory, performance studies, black feminist studies, and anthropology. We could easily have invited more voices from affect theory, animal studies, religion, art, psychoanalysis, education, and sociology. That a book so obviously situated in a specific field—postcolonial studies—should resonate so widely tells me something about the kinds of feelings some (many?) of us have about the promises and pitfalls of committing to queer, decolonial worldmaking as academics. We’ve been made to feel like we have to calibrate our desires to mastery, to disavow our vulnerabilities, to abide within disciplinary borders no matter how much they choke us. Singh’s book begins with an epigraph from Hélène Cixous: “Everywhere I see the battle for mastery that rages between classes, people, etc., reproducing itself on an individual scale. Is the system flawless? Impossible to bypass? On the basis of my desire, I imagine that other desires like mine exist. If my desire is possible, it means the system is already letting something else through” (1). What this book enables—and I hope this symposium can amplify—is nothing less than the formation of a collectivity articulated through a shared desire for something other than mastery to guide our worldmaking.

There are moments in Unthinking Mastery where Singh’s attention shifts from analysis of political and literary texts to autobiographical writing (this is part of what she calls “vulnerable writing”). As two symposium contributors note, she has significantly expanded on this approach in No Archive Will Restore You (Punctum, 2018), a book that Singh wrote while Unthinking Mastery was in production. Given this turn toward thinking philosophically about living—as a messy, collective endeavor—it’s not surprising that many of the symposium essays move from specific claims in Unthinking Mastery toward concerns “outside” it: how we teach, how we mentor, how we find histories and traditions that sustain or challenge us as we seek to survive colonialist mastery. In many ways, Singh’s books refuse to stay on the page, and reading her spills out into all kinds of attention that aren’t focused on printed words. The essays gathered here take up this spillage in a range of different ways, and Singh’s responses take the epistolary form: a kind of intimate, individuating genre that refuses to separate thoughts from people, from social relations. This symposium, we hope, isn’t just a discussion of arguments and texts, but a kind of blossoming collective. So consider this an invitation to join us. What we share are our vulnerabilities, which might not sound like much. But it might just be everything.


  1. Among others, I’m thinking of Kadji Amin’s Disturbing Attachments, Jack Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure, and Robyn Wiegman’s Object Lessons.

Olivia Michiko Gagnon

Response

on gratitude

1.

In the Coda to Unthinking Mastery, Julietta Singh directs our attention to the troubled question of the “we.” Citing Jeanne Vaccaro—for whom “we” is “a shape”1—Singh insists on “we” as a fraught but “hopeful summons,” a future-oriented gesture that pulls together an always-shifting, always-provisional cohort of those “who might be or might become invested in collective reorientations in the world” (173). In this, “we” is a relational shape, one “to question, to envision, to amend,” such that it might better aggregate, materialize, and hold the many forms of being together in difference that Singh so carefully maps and which, she argues, might be “necessary for survival” (173).

Gratitude is another kind of relational shape, one that I want to linger with here not only because it has of late felt like a structuring affective orientation of my day-to-day life—one that is also a crucial reprieve from the deeply historical violences of the present—but also for how it might “upend the stability of the . . . sovereign subject” and leave in its wake a renewed understanding of ourselves as vulnerably porous, entangled with others and other things, and radically open “to the nonhuman and inhuman actors that materially and biologically give rise to and sustain human life, and to the lives and histories of other humans” (170). I therefore begin with an understanding of gratitude as that which blooms from “a recognition of what one bears within oneself as a consequence of one’s porosity and openness to others.”2 Gratitude can undo us in some beautiful ways, which Singh’s work is teaching me to trace as another set of contours to an ethico-political project in service of becoming ourselves otherwise, with and alongside others.

2.

In his breathtaking, nearly breathless, poem, “Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude,” Ross Gay traces the entangled “dehumanist ecologies” (151)—a knot of people, objects, plants, animals, moments, and so much more—which comprise his life, and toward which he feels he owes the greatest of what Stefano Harney and Fred Moten have called “unpayable debt.”3

His list is a wild one, and longer than I can detail here. But, in it, there is a thank you for “what inside my friends’ / love bursts like a throng of roadside goldenrod,” and “for the way a small thing’s wail makes / the milk or what once was milk / in us gather into horses / huckle-buckling across a field.” There is appreciation “for the corduroy couch,” and for you, “dear reader, / you, for staying here with me.” To his love, he is thankful for “what does not scare her / in me, but makes her reach my way,” and for “the love / she is which hurts sometimes.” And there is a tiny thank you for “paisley panties,” and “for saying it plain: / fuck each other dumb,” and for “the baggie of dreadlocks I found in a drawer / while washing and folding the clothes of our murdered friend,” and for “zinnia, and gooseberry, rudbeckia / and pawpaw.” And there is one for “the way my father one time came back in a dream,” and for “the ancestor who loved you / before she knew you / by smuggling seeds into her braid for the long / journey, who loved you / before he knew you by putting / a walnut tree in the ground, who loved you / before she knew you by not slaughtering / the land.”4

I’ve spent a lot of time with this poem, returning to it as a reminder, as a salve, as a pause—sometimes sending it to a friend or as a love letter. But somehow, reading it alongside Singh’s meditation on “other modes of relational being” (1)—beyond mastery and which undo or remake the human—it’s as if I’m listening to it for the very first time: as a performance of “intimate acts of embracing and enfolding” (148), as the materialization of a vulnerable speaker—he is “excitable,” he is “sorry,” he is “grateful,” he “just want us to be friends now, forever”5—who lingers in and with his relationships not only to zinnias, fathers, friends, couches, robins, fucking, readers, cups of tea, honey, fig trees, purple hats, and blackberries from the garden, but also to histories of violence and grief, which in his rendering, are also always histories of care, hope, and love. Gratitude, here, does not displace the things that hurt, but lets the world in anyway. I am reminded of how Lauren Berlant describes “letting something or someone come in the way a sound comes, without being defensive.”6 Or else, of the dawning forms of relation that Singh helps us imagine when she calls on us to listen, rather than know. And so like Unthinking Mastery, Gay’s poem is an important text for moments of political, social, and ecological violence. It holds difficult histories—of slavery, land, death, addiction—in its tender scoop, even as it returns us to the urgent and sometimes fraught question of how “to be always both different from and proximate to those others to whom we are bound” (146).

Radically porous, dependent on others and other things, and manifested through this overflowing catalog or “historical inventory” (176), Gay reminds me that gratitude can be a promiscuous affective orientation whose stickiness constellates a relational shape that disrupts “I” in favor of a capacious “we.” And this expansive reach—this “feeling” (134) as a “mode of knowing” (137) that we have never been stably or solely just ourselves—might become the grounds for an ethical reorientation through which each thank you can be a small undoing. Moving against smoothness in favor of something like the composite, gratitude helps me imagine the catalog or the inventory as a remaking of my self and of my body—as chaotic fullness, as accrued unpayable debt to foremothers and friends and family and comrades and animals and plants and oceans, as bursting with “an infinity of traces,”7 as made up of so many more things than I could have ever dreamt.

3.

I like to teach another of Gay’s poems to my undergraduate students. In “To the Fig Tree on 9th and Christian,” he moves us through the streets of Philadelphia—“a city like most / which has murdered its own”—toward a tree—“which everyone knows / cannot grow this far north / being Mediterranean / and favoring the rocky, sun-baked soils / of Jordan and Sicily / but no one told the fig tree / or the immigrants / there is a way / the fig tree grows / in groves it wants”—under which people are talking and feeding each other figs, “strangers maybe / never again.”8

This moment of encounter—between people, between people and a tree, between people and history—amidst social violence and wrought by narratives of movement is also a scene of what Moten and Harney call study: a mode of open-ended intellectual engagement that is also the kind of pedagogical style that Singh’s work has been teaching me how to cultivate. Her explicit engagement with the lived contradictions of scholarship, disciplinarity, and the humanities has encouraged me to be as thoughtful as I can about the kind of teacher that I want to be and the kind of relationship to knowledge that I want to both cultivate in myself and encourage in others. And so, in its own generous and vulnerable reflexiveness, Singh’s book is good medicine. Perhaps these are the naïve musings of a junior teacher, but I really do want to know “what [kind] of [subject]—and what [kind] of [object]—[I] can . . . be for [myself] and for others” (94), how to “mobilize” my own “messiness” (30) in order to help my students to do the same, and in doing so, risk forging our classroom as a site for encounters that undo us all.

But it’s consistently harder than I think it’s going to be, and is fraught—differently, for me and for my peers, friends, and colleagues—with the sharp demands of racialized and gendered performances of mastery and rank. During the first class that I ever taught on my own, I consciously performed my teacher drag the entire semester because the reality of how the students might perceive me—how I spoke, how I dressed, how sure I seemed, or not—hung over my head like the threat of losing a respect that I would never get back. And when I told them the truth at the end of the semester—revealed my junior-ness—their kindness nearly made me cry.

4.

In a recent mock interview, one of my mentors counselled me to “put my teacher hat on” for the real job interview. If it worked to buoy me up (it did), it wasn’t because she wanted me to pretend to be someone or something that I’m not—it wasn’t because she wanted to make me appear or feel invulnerable—but because she reminded me of how pleasurable it can be to at once feel you know something and to allow yourself to be caught in that act of feeling by someone who asks you to move with them in a new way. If the teacher hat is about anything, maybe it could be about this? About being open to forms of contact that allow you to dance with what you (provisionally) know, but in steps and with others that remain perpetually strange.

The job market is hard for many reasons—some of the most pressing being economic—but why it sometimes hurts is that it asks you to swap out your “unanswerable questions” (xi) for a certain performance of certainty that is always racialized and gendered and feels so utterly wrong, even if this re-elaboration of yourself without crack, misstep, or fissure might come with a momentary rush. But good feminist mentorship—ones, as Singh models, with robust decolonial slants—can remind you how to move with, against, and inside of these withering demands. When I think about all the feminists in my life who have helped me understand this, it’s as if there could never be enough thank yous or a “we” that I so much wanted to be a part of.

5.

One of the most important reminders of Singh’s book is that we “[locate our] own violent entanglements” (158), which can mean our desire for mastery in a classroom or over a body of knowledge, as well as pay attention to the histories that shape those desires. These can emerge in seemingly innocuous places, too. My (mis)use of chopsticks, for instance, has long been a site of great anxiety for me. I hold them incorrectly, crossing them at the ends (which apparently means I’ll never marry . . .), in ways that frequently impede my ability to pick up a grain of rice with the grace of the other women in my family. An entire history of racial anxiety and misrecognition—my own hauntedness by the dynamics of identity politics, despite an attempt to “eschew it” (90)—as well as of privilege and assimilation, plays out through this micro-gestural infelicity: the unmasterful glide and slip, the improper cross and touch of two thin pieces of wood, which marks both my own hybridity and it’s inevitable disappearance.

6.

But there are more complicitous entanglements too, ones that Singh invites us to sit with rather than run from. In some recent writing on closeness as a feminist and decolonial method in contemporary performance, I spend time with Syilx artist Krista Belle Stewart’s ongoing media-based Potato Gardens Band. This work has had several iterations, all of which center on an archival collection of 1918 wax-cylinder recordings made by ethnographer James Alexander Teit of Stewart’s great-grandmother Terese Kaimetko singing. Each iteration re-mobilizes the 1918 recordings in order to reorient them away from their origins as anthropological objects of capture undergirding a project of colonial knowledge production and toward a project of Indigenous “knowledge repatriation,” or perhaps more nearly, what Eve Tuck and Rubén A. Gaztambide-Fernández term rematriation.9 In a recent 2018 iteration, these recordings were played back out on the land in Spaxomin, Syilx Territory (situated within what is today called the Canadian province/colony of British Columbia) where they were initially produced, with only family members in attendance. The performance was simultaneously live broadcast to gallery-goers at 221A’s Pollyanna  圖書館 Library in Vancouver’s Chinatown (and what is today called Vancouver is situated within the unceded territories of the Musqueam, Skxwú7mesh-ulh Úxwumixw (Squamish), and Tsleil-Waututh peoples), and Stewart donated a bucket of soil from Spaxomin to one of the Library’s research collections.10

In Spaxomin, Stewart models the fullness and porosity that characterize the kind of non-singular self that gratitude moves me toward. Constellated with her great-grandmother and her (maternally) inherited land, Stewart performs herself as entangled with others and other things—a gynarchic transtemporal ecology of family, self, and territory—while also producing communities of Indigenous and non-Indigenous listeners across geographic distances. Riffing off of Stó: scholar Dylan Robinson’s formulation, how might these separate listening spheres perform sovereignty?11 For Stewart’s close kin are invited to listen to the recordings on the land. Differently, gallery-goers’ visual and auditory access is heavily mediated by geography and technology: 300+ km, the overwhelming sound of wind, the pixilation of the live stream, and her use of multiple walky-talkies to further exacerbate the sound’s distortion. The gallery-goers seem frustrated because they expected a “real” performance. An act of conscious withholding, this distancing becomes closeness’s necessary inversion, a way of thwarting what Robinson calls “hungry listening,” whose expectation to possess everything is matched only by the colonial archive’s rapacious extraction.12 But if the use of the wax cylinders invokes a closeness to colonial technologies, then the re-performance is the rematriative embrace through which the songs come home.13

Staging her own situatedness in a dense ecology that moves beyond the human, with history, and across time, Stewart’s renegotiation of the terms of spectatorship forces viewers to confront their own desires to know and access—perhaps “master”—the performance. I don’t wish to make any assumptions about who was in the Chinatown audience, so I will speak only from where I am, which is to say that for a settler viewer, the performance forces a consideration of how these desires (and entitlements) emerge out of colonial disciplinary formations, histories of knowledge production and display, and concomitant perceptual practices and technological developments. For me, as a settler, the performance’s refusal is a critical moment in which to sit with my own complicitous relationship to and entanglement with histories of settler colonialism in Canada, as well as the ways in which I have profited from and emerge out of the violent dispossessions upon which the country was founded. For Singh, this kind of complicity is “not something negative to be resisted and disavowed but something to be affirmed in order to assume responsibility” (120). And while this moment might be uncomfortable, Singh reminds us that “practicing and teaching our discomforts can become acts of learning to live with the ambiguities and uncertainties of our complex ethical entanglements” (152). Stewart’s curation of spectatorial zones therefore helps move me toward the possibility—the “risk”—of being “dispossessed” of my habituated modes of watching, listening, and knowing (136). Encouraging a mode of vulnerable spectatorship, her performance is a generous and firm invitation to “[undo] the very logic that constitutes [my] own [subjectivity]” (23) in order to, perhaps, “[become] myself differently” (24).

7.

Singh’s account of a porous and entangled subject who is constantly in the process of being un- and re-made has helped me conceive of gratitude as one crucial affective orientation of such a subject. For if encounters with (human and nonhuman) others are the way that I become myself at all, then the unpayable debt that accrues between us is an ethical fact that can beautifully organize my life. And closeness, or sometimes enforced distance, is a kind of precondition for these moments of encounter that write and “[rewrite] me” (24). Encouraging such vulnerable forms of engagement, Singh shows us how “when we open ourselves to the ways that texts can teach us, what we begin to learn is our own undoing” (175). Unthinking Mastery has been one such book for me, and I have tried, here, to give my own incomplete catalog of where and how it has bent my perceptual modes and forms of practice into new shapes. I am grateful for this book—and for Singh as a scholar and mentor—for what it and she risks, asks us to risk, in order to trace the outline of a dawning “we” that is so expansive, so un-selfsame, and necessarily still so fraught, that it could only be the most breathtaking, chaotic, and urgent of relational shapes on our collective horizon.


  1. Jeanne Vaccaro, “Feelings and Fractals: Woolly Ecologies of Transgender Matter,” GLQ 21.2–3 (2015) 273, cited in Singh, 173.

  2. James McMaster, personal correspondence with the author, 2020.

  3. Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study (New York: Minor Compositions, 2013), 67.

  4. Ross Gay, “Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude,” in Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015), accessed at https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/58762/catalog-of-unabashed-gratitude/.

  5. Gay, “Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude.”

  6. Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), 42.

  7. Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, edited by Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith (New York: International Publications, 1997), 324, quoted in Julietta Singh, No Archive Will Restore You (Brooklyn: Punctum, 2018), 18.

  8. Ross Gay, “To the Fig Tree on 9th and Christian,” in Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015), accessed at https://poets.org/poem/fig-tree-9th-and-christian/.

  9. “Potato Gardens Band: Decolonizing the Archive” [formerly titled “Potato Gardens Band: Art as Knowledge Repatriation”], UnionDocs: Center for Documentary Art, https://uniondocs.org/event/2019-04-11-decolonize-the-archive/; Eve Tuck and Rubén A. Gaztambide-Fernández, “Curriculum, Replacement, and Settler Futurity,” Journal of Curriculum Theorizing 29, no. 1 (2013): 72 – 89, https://journal.jctonline.org/index.php/jct/article/viewFile/411/pdf/.

  10. This event was organized by Jenn Jackson, as part of her 221A curatorial research project sum of the parts.

  11. Dylan Robinson, “Welcoming Sovereignty,” in Performing Indigeneity: New Essays on Canadian Theatre, ed. Yvette Nolan and Ric Knowles (Toronto: Playwrights Canada, 2016).

  12. Dylan Robinson, Hungry Listening: Resonant Theory for Indigenous Sound Studies (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2020).

  13. For more on rematriation, please see Tuck and Gaztambide-Fernández.

  • Julietta Singh

    Julietta Singh

    Reply

    Response to Olivia Michiko Gagnon

    Dear Olivia,

    Thank you for this gorgeous reckoning, for opening yourself up here through so many layers of gratitude. I want both to begin and end by returning my own deep gratitude to you—because what I discover in your writing is a citation of my work that teaches me back to myself, that allows me to learn myself anew, learn from this future-moment what I was trying to articulate in the past. Myself comes back and forward to me through your engagements, and the effect is vitally orienting, sustaining. It is also profoundly humbling to be merged in thought with so much brilliance—your glistening prose, Ross Gay’s drop-to-your-knees poetry, Krista Belle Stewart’s explosive knowledge reparations. I’m left wondering whether gratitude, when received, felt, and returned, takes on another shape? Is my gratitude like yours, or has it become something else in the exchange?

    Early in your response, you write that gratitude has emerged in your life as both a “structuring affective orientation” and “a crucial reprieve from the deeply historical violence of the present.” I translated this, perhaps too simply, as another way of saying that gratitude is both a feeling and a way of life. And of course it can be difficult to sustain the intimacy of gratitude under the weight of enduring historical violence, blatant political corruption, and the ceaseless production of ecological catastrophe. “Gratitude,” you write, “does not displace the things that hurt, but lets the world in anyway.” We are hurt. We are hurting together. We are grateful to be together in this hurting.

    I am always most touched by those who are precariously positioned in and around the academy, who face its “withering demands” and discover in Unthinking Mastery some kernel that helps them to negotiate the many-tiered dispossessions of this increasingly brutal thing called “the job market.” It’s still a bit strange for me to write from the “other side” of job precarity, a place that is amazing in its economic security but is also affectively rife with bad feelings. Looking back at my own experience of academic precarity, I feel how unlivable, how psychically and economically destabilizing I found that time, and how much the experience has left an indelible imprint. It is a lasting wound, one that will keep us close in spite of our requisite “performance(s) of certainty.” Thank you, too, for articulating the profound dis-ease of this economy and the performances it demands of us, for staying close with me even across this structural divide. And in so doing, reminding me to think and act with more tenderness and ferocity in service of those in the immediate raw exposure of that wound.

    When you cite my desire in (and beyond) Unthinking Mastery to “mobilize my own messiness,” you turn to a consideration of “the kind of teacher that I want to be and the kind of relationship to knowledge that I want to both cultivate in myself and encourage in others.” Far from being the “naïve musings of a junior teacher,” I find these to be the foundational queries that we, as feminist teachers, must turn toward over and over again as the world changes around us and changes us. How to undo ourselves with and for each other? How to relinquish the stranglehold of our masterful trainings and desires? Especially those of us caught up in the “sharp demands of racialized performances of mastery and rank”? The questions themselves indicate a vital recognition of our entrapments, but then what? You confess that this “risky” practice of letting the mess unfold, letting ourselves be undone, is “consistently harder than I think it’s going to be”—and when I read this, I think immediately of Chad Shomura’s response in this symposium, in which he writes that “accepting the task of unthinking mastery is easier than living it.” It is hard for me too, always, harder than I am able fully to reckon with, and in the face of that commitment and failure, the only response that feels right is radical gratitude—for finding the questions, for being together in them, and trying to undo our violent foundations and hold each other in that undoing as we emerge in and as new collectivities.

    My gratitude may take a different shape than yours, but it is likewise deep and enduring. Call for me when you need me, and know that I will be ready to respond to your sounds.

     

    Yours,

    Julietta

Dorinne Kondo

Response

Unthinking Disciplinary Mastery

Though I’ve met Julietta Singh only virtually, I feel I’ve discovered an intellectual/creative companion, through her inspiring works Unthinking Mastery and No Archive Will Restore You. They leave me kokorozuyoi, “strong-hearted,” as the Japanese would say.

As the only anthropologist and only playwright among the interlocutors, I offer a complementary view of disciplinarity and autocritique, then move on to consider two of the many compelling issues Singh’s work raises: (1) complicity (in tandem with dynamic narration, vital ambivalence) and (2) genre, that Singh approaches through the humanimal in Unthinking Mastery and by enacting embodied vulnerability in No Archive Will Restore You. Singh argues that our challenge is not to overcome mastery, but to survive it (2).

I.

Unthinking Mastery is situated at the cutting edge of our contemporary intellectual and political turn toward autocritique of the human and the humanities. Mobilizing the new materialisms, animal studies, ecological feminisms, queer inhumanisms, among other theoretical perspectives, Singh stages the work through close readings of political discourses (Mohandas Gandhi, Frantz Fanon), cultural theory, and (primarily literary) texts, advancing the subversion of Man in conversation with Sylvia Wynter, Alexander Weheliye, Hélène Cixous, and a host of others. New work continues this trajectory of autocritique, notably Kandice Chuh’s interrogations of aesthetics and the disciplines of English and American Literature, as founded in racial/colonial/gendered domination in an aesthetics that putatively “transcends” the social (Chuh 2019). Similarly, David Lloyd argues for the ways race shapes the fundamental assumptions undergirding aesthetic theory, that is structured from the start by racial exclusion (Lloyd 2019, 7).

Singh’s interventions are critically urgent. She takes on the figures of mastery and the master subject, joining those of us who have long sought, in different registers, to problematize these figures. Unthinking Mastery reveals the scotoma in anti-colonial and postcolonial discourses that reproduce tropes of mastery in their challenges to colonial domination, thus limiting liberatory aims and preempting openness to more vulnerable, expansive ways of being. The efficacy of the anti- and postcolonial projects depends, then, on recognizing and destabilizing the unexpected, disavowed traces of mastery that always remain with us.

This general movement toward autocritique across the humanities and the arts is a welcome development. Here, I rhetorically assert my anthropological affiliations, given well-rehearsed autocritiques dating back to at least the 1970s. For this minoritized subject, anthropology—both during the heady early days of feminist anthropology and the period of autocritique in the ’70s and ’80s—represented the only intellectual site in the Western academy that took cultural difference seriously and treated everyday life and what I call “corporeal epistemologies”—experiential, embodied knowledges—as possessing ontoepistemological weight. Anthropology is the Western discipline most obviously and directly enmeshed in the reproduction of colonial power, and the wave of disciplinary autocritique occurred roughly contemporaneously with the appearance of Edward Said’s Orientalism, the early work of Gayatri Spivak, and the explosion of postcolonial theory in Western academe. Understandably, many indigenous activists and scholars remain suspicious of Anthropology; the legacies of Ishi and the reduction of “humans” to “specimens” can never be disavowed. Yet no discipline, no matter how aspirationally insurgent, is free of power relations or of reinscriptions of mastery. As I argued in 2001 and as Singh cautions us, the tendency among scholars is to split: “For all of us involved in the production of knowledge, the point is to be open to problematizing our own positions, regardless of the disciplinary space one occupies . . . each discipline has its complicities” (Kondo 2001, 30).

Singh deftly avoids this splitting, problematizing the disciplines that formed her, through productive notions of “complicity” that animate a generative praxis of surviving mastery. In the chapter “Posthumanitarian Fictions,” Singh analyzes literary works that spotlight humanitarians as central characters. “They emerge as figures that stand in opposition to the colonial mastery of others but also unwittingly work alongside its modern-day iterations.” She proposes “a praxis of dynamic narration that not only avows the inescapable complicities of the ‘good’ subject but also refuses the ability to neatly separate my humanitarian impulses from those less redemptive and messier qualities that have shaped me through the power of narrative structures” (120). Here, Singh as literary scholar displays her confidence in and love of narrative, implicitly incorporating psychoanalytic theory to acknowledge the continuing presence of messy, “negative” feelings and structural positionings, proposing instead the generativity of a “politics of entanglement.”

Complicity is the condition of our existence, and political entanglements should be obvious for those of us who inhabit the Euro-American academy. Splitting nonetheless remains tempting for many. Here, literature and the arts more broadly offer portals to “vital ambivalence,” emerging through Singh’s analysis of Jamaica Kincaid’s contradictory, complex structural and affective positionings. Kincaid challenges the violence of colonial relations that shape gardening (gardeners as masters of their environments) and opens us to non-human ecologies, both living and nonliving. Yet despite critical awareness of gardening’s colonial legacies, Kincaid’s “seed hunting” for rare specimens leads her to Nepal and other parts of Asia, where she enacts a jarring Orientalist stance toward Asians (calling a Nepalese man “table,” because his job was to carry a table). Singh argues, “Kincaid . . . makes her readers uncomfortable, by confronting us with her own violent fantasies and with her own perversely Orientalist representations of other dispossessed peoples. . . . She thus writes her garden through relays of unease, offering discomfort as a politically fertile affect” (152). Those of us in the North American academy would do well to recognize and explore this discomfort.

The critique of the constitutive contradictions of (inter)disciplines like postcolonial studies that are forged in liberation struggles is especially bracing and necessary. I have long been suspicious of “insurgent knowledges” that too often split between good and bad, that presume themselves to be politically pure. Singh’s analysis refuses to disavow our complicity with existing power relations. One of the nodes for my new project, Vulnerable Theory, takes on this splitting (dis/ability, injury, and openness/susceptibility comprise other chapters). Often, practitioners of diasporic/transnational studies believe themselves to be inherently more contestatory than those “confined” to the nation-state. I have described my movement to work in US theater (that does not preclude transnational engagements) as one of (relative) decolonization, to try to “make things better” through creative registers, and in communities where I live. Do we always escape the “colonialist theory of most efficient information retrieval” (Spivak) in our travel to sites both within and beyond the nation-state? Do we, for example, make use of language training provided by often underpaid instructors of color? Are we supported by “Foreign Language Area Fellowships,” formerly known as “National Defense Foreign Language Fellowships”? Imperial histories and institutions everywhere leave their mark. Apposite here are Roderick Ferguson’s critique of the ethnic studies as incorporated into the neoliberal university, the diversity work Sarah Ahmed analyzes, Kandice Chuh and Karen Shimakawa’s words of caution about the ways Asian American / ethnic / queer / postcolonial studies can contain and limit foundational critique. Still, Ruth Wilson Gilmore tells us that structure represents “agential capacity.” This constitutive, contradictory double valence animates our complicity, the ways we are created in and through power relations. Recognition of these complicities may, as Singh suggests, lead us to “politically fertile” affects and ways to unthink/undo mastery.

II.

What might such an unthinking look like? (Interestingly, I often unconsciously mistake the book’s title as Undoing Mastery, no doubt because of my own disciplinarily overdetermined attraction to making and process.) Singh proposes “vulnerable reading” and “vulnerable listening” as ways to move us toward dehumanism, resonating with Butler’s susceptibility/vulnerability and Deleuze’s affecting / being affected. Singh argues: “In failing to master, in confronting our own desires for mastery where we least expect or recognize these desires, we become vulnerable to other possibilities for living, for being together in common, for feeling injustice and refusing it without the need to engage it through forms of conquest” (21). Here, literature assumes a preeminent role; reading thus assumes a similarly pivotal position. “By reading literature vulnerably—with a willingness toward undoing the very logic that constitutes our own subjectivities—postcolonial literary texts can open us to other earthly relations and assemblages” (23).

I share many of Singh’s intellectual and political aims, inflected slightly differently given the pull of differing disciplinary forms of “mastery”: ethnography and performance. Ethnography exposes us to ontoepistemological vertigo; our bodies / “selves” / ways of being in the world are, ideally, productively upended. Vulnerability is our “method.” The arts tout court, as well as psychoanalytic and affect theory, are premised on vulnerability. Theater and performance spotlight embodiment and emotion; here, vulnerability is a virtue (its own form of mastery). In my work with playwright actress Anna Deavere Smith, for example, I could see Singh’s notion of “vulnerable listening” in what I’ve called Smith’s “full-body listening.” Smith’s documentary theater “walks in someone’s words,” opening Smith and her audience to embodied vulnerability to others.

Performances of mastery lead us to genre as one potential strategy for unthinking mastery. In an arresting chapter on the humanimal, Singh analyzes Coetzee’s creation of a character, a middle-aged/elderly white woman scholar, Elizabeth Costello, who gives a series of prestigious lectures at a private liberal arts college in the United States. The woman reads short stories (about her feelings about animal abuse) instead of “lecturing,” much as Coetzee himself did at Princeton when he delivered these short stories as the Tanner lectures. In bending genre, the woman thus becomes animal, and her reliance on the creative and the emotional, her choice of animals as subject of her stories, relegate her to as animal, as less-than-(masterfully) human.

The narrative hits hard. I was among the anthropologists involved in the reflexive turn in the discipline, when the “I” of the fieldwork memoir began to be integrated into the conventional ethnography and when the recognition of ethnography as a textual production (not transparent, objective “truth”) led to various modes of textual experimentation. Too often, I have experienced this relegation to the “merely” emotional, the confessional, the atheoretical, the “too personal” (a century after Marcel Mauss theorized the category of the person!). As an Asian American woman by definition excluded from the masterful, I risk these still entrenched suspicions surrounding “creative” work by integrating my play Seamless into the conventional academic text and by structuring my most recent academic book as a three-act play. However, if we aim as scholar-artists to move people intellectually, affectively, politically, then for me the creative register offers vibrant potentiality.

Similarly, Singh’s memoir, No Archive Will Restore You, makes for felicitous pairing with Unthinking Mastery. No Archive writes bodies / affect / vulnerability / sexuality / the animal in searingly moving, theoretically rigorous ways. Both Singh and I engage “creative” work; perhaps because both of us experience different forms of bodily dis/ability, the creative allows us to unthink/undo mastery, at least partially, in acts of integration and repair. Challenges to genre are thus potentially generative strategies for that unthinking. Singh’s occasional invocation of the first-person in her scholarly text serves as a positioning move that enlivens the rigorous theoretical and literary analysis; the memoir in turn enacts theoretically robust insights. Arguably, the two books are “masterful” exemplars of their genres—though Singh, informally, has expressed a preference for the term “skillful”—while bending genre from within.

Can we envision multiple strategies to unthink scholarly mastery? Singh’s invocation of the scene of the lecture as one of vulnerability mirrors my own attempts to intervene in our everyday academic practices. I seek to integrate drama into lectures, pairing the reading of scenes from (my) play(s) with conventional scholarly analysis to interrupt what I spotlight in my book Worldmaking as the bodily mastery we are compelled to enact as we stand behind the lectern. I recently organized a panel with scholar-artists who enacted conventionally rigorous theory in tandem with performance art, drama, music, drawing, dance and spoken word. Later, someone told us that we “changed the air.” Singh’s work serves as inspiration as we continue our quest to change the air: to unthink, undo, and survive mastery, both in the academy and beyond.

 

Works Cited

Ahmed, Sarah. On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. Durham: Duke University Press, 2012.

Chuh, Kandice. The Difference Aesthetics Makes: On the Humanities “after Man. Durham: Duke University Press, 2019.

Ferguson, Roderick A. The University and Its Pedagogies of Minority Difference. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012.

Gilmore, Ruth Wilson. Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis and Opposition in Globalizing California. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007.

Kondo, Dorinne. “(Un)Disciplined Subjects: (De)Colonizing the Academy?” In Orientations: Mapping Studies in the Asian Diaspora, edited by Kandice Chuh and Karen Shimakawa, 25–40. Durham: Duke University Press, 2001.

———. Worldmaking: Race, Performance, and the Work of Creativity. Durham: Duke University Press, 2018.

Lloyd, David. Under Representation: The Racial Regime of Aesthetics. New York: Fordham University Press, 2019.

Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Pantheon, 1978.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Past. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999.

Singh, Julietta. No Archive Will Restore You. 3Ecologies Books/Immediations, an Imprint of Punctum Books, 2018.

———. Unthinking Mastery: Dehumanism and Decolonial Entanglements. Durham: Duke University Press, 2018.

  • Julietta Singh

    Julietta Singh

    Reply

    Response to Dorinne Kondo

    Dear Dorinne,

    I love that Unthinking Mastery and Worldmaking came into being at roughly the same time, and that we discovered each other through these sister-texts we had just given over to the world. And I love that in writing those books we were already thinking together from across a long distance without yet knowing each other’s work. When we first made email contact, we were both in states of recovery from bodily crisis, mulling over the new shapes and patterns that had come to structure our everyday lives. Given that our books were so intellectually aligned, this shared bodily aspect seemed to me uncanny. . . . But of course, once we undo the entrenched fiction that there is a separation between our work and our bodies, it makes perfect sense that we would be mutually involved, as you put it, in “acts of integration and repair.” We have both been bringing our bodies to our minds, our minds to our bodies.

    There are so many points of connection between these books, between us, many of which you attend to here in your response. Overarchingly, I could say that these connection points involve a willingness to “risk” the creative, to have been trained theoretically (in my case, to illustrate my mastery over literary objects of study) and in response to embrace acts of artistic creation not only from within, but inextricable from theory itself. Your play, Seamless, and No Archive Will Restore You are for me acts of feeling into the cleaves of knowing and unknowing. I am besotted by the final line of Seamless in which the character Diane, querying inconsistencies and uncertainties of historical and filial memory, asks: “How do these fragments go with all the other fragments”? This query utters an enduring wonderment over how each fragment—whether text, or person, or ecological event—fits with another. How everything goes with everything else, even when the act of foreclosing the fit remains beyond us.

    You also signal some divergences between us, which reveal themselves in interesting ways, such as when you confess to unconsciously renaming my book Undoing Mastery, a slip that for you reveals your own propensity for and leaning toward making and doing. It reveals something for me, too; a certain propensity for staying stuck in my head—for thinking and unthinking even amidst bodily trauma—when acts of doing and making might open up more space, offer up more air to breathe. Though each “theoretical,” our training has also been disciplinarily distinct, and I appreciate how you have offered a brief history of autocritique and your own “corporeal epistemologies” in order to emphasize complicity, but also to illuminate some of the specific legacies and inheritances we might not yet recognize.

    Thank you for bringing Unthinking Mastery into direct conversation with No Archive Will Restore You, books that you call a “felicitous pairing” but might otherwise appear, due to the strictures of genre, as entirely separate projects, one a radical departure from the other. In fact, they grew with and out of each other, little mutants turned inside out.

    In the sea of fragments, sometimes we find pieces that fit. Perhaps not seamlessly, but close. Two fragments that belong together, in any case. In the fragments that we have made, and the fragments that we are, I am so delighted to be situated alongside you.

     

    Yours,

    Julietta

Jennifer Christine Nash

Response

Feminist Mastery

Julietta Singh’s Unthinking Mastery is a brave endeavor that performs its commitment to undoing mastery, to upending certainty, and to embracing dispossession as a radical form of being-together. Singh urges us to consider mastery as a troubling “inheritance,” as a colonial attachment that we must unlearn in order to find something like collective survival—or perhaps even freedom (16). The book demands that its reader contend with questions including: How might we free knowledge from the desire for possession and objectification that Singh persuasively argues are at the heart of mastery? How might we embrace corporeal and vulnerable ways of knowing, even as they are so often devalued and discredited? In posing these questions, I see Singh as in conversation with feminist scholars including Lisa Marie Cacho (whose Social Death: Racialized Rightlessness and the Criminalization of the Unprotected deconstructs “value”) and Christina Sharpe (whose In the Wake calls for becoming undisciplined which we might think of as both an ethic of un-mastery and a call for radical antidisciplinarity). Collectively, these scholars urge us to find and practice forms of knowing that refuse domination.

The bulk of my response to Singh’s book swirls around the question of mastery and its relationship to feminist thought. How does feminist theory both perform anti-mastery and celebrate mastery simultaneously? And how might this complex relationship to mastery help us develop an account not merely of mastery’s capacity to seduce, but its potential utility as a feminist analytic. As I was reading Singh’s arguments about mastery’s colonial roots and commitments, I found myself reminded—again and again—of what I see as a contemporary black feminist investment in mastery that, I would argue, posits itself as fundamentally decolonial. The recent plea to “cite black women” which is about the recognition of the long history of black women’s intellectual production is a call for scholars to read, learn, and yes, master genealogies of black women’s intellectual histories. Undergirding this call for mastery is a sense that knowing the field, and knowing it well, is a form of doing justice to black feminist theory, and to black women. Mastery is also a way of showing, performing, and making visible that there is something to be mastered—a robust and lively field.

Black feminists have long critiqued the perception of black feminist theory as, in Ann duCille’s words, an “anybody-can-play pick-up game performed on a wide-open, untrammeled field,” and the cherry-picking of black feminist scholarship by scholars with little knowledge of the field, with little investment in its genealogies and histories.1 Too often, black feminist scholars have argued, black women have been “trotted” onto the page, to borrow Angela Harris’s formulation, as evidence of something—pain, trauma, suffering, or perhaps of an author’s Left credentials.2 The remedy, black feminists have suggested, is not merely to “cite black women,” but for scholars to learn the field, its “intellectual histories,” internal debates and nuances.3 The remedy, black feminists suggest, is something that Singh might deem mastery. For black feminist scholars, mastery becomes not a colonial endeavor, but a deeply decolonial one, a sign of an investment in forms of knowledge that have been wholly devalued. Here, mastery is imagined not as a practice of domination but as one of freedom, that invests in black women’s visionary intellectual labor, and that refuses the prevailing logic of the university which strategically takes up this work as evidence of the university’s own commitment to difference.

This vision of mastery as a practice of doing justice to black women’s histories is not, I think, outside of the “vulnerable readings” Singh celebrates, even as it is often a form of solidifying black feminist theory—making it invulnerable (63). But the investment in citational bona fides is also a revelation of the stakes of black feminist scholarly work for black feminists, who are too often still imagined to be synonymous with “black women.” Black feminist theory is still regularly hailed as a project that saves lives, described with affection and love, and celebrated for its generative world-making capacities. Much as Singh argues that her own archive is one where she “stays close to those thinkers and texts I cannot do without”—an admittedly vulnerable conception of scholarly work—the practice of mastering black feminist theory is increasingly talked about as a form of care for the tradition, as being vulnerably attached to the work, as being undone by it through a commitment to it (22). How might we square this conception of mastery as a practice of affection with Singh’s critique of mastery as a colonial project? I raise the critical challenges black feminism poses—its radical embrace of mastery—not to unsettle Singh’s critique of mastery and its colonial logics, but to instead suggest mastery’s multiple ethical valences. I also raise it to complicate a narrative where mastery is our bad object, and to instead probe if it isn’t mastery, but instead certainty, that generates the violent outcomes Singh deconstructs.

I also remain deeply curious about the book’s relationship to feminist theory more generally. As I was reading, I couldn’t help but wonder how “mastery” is a stand-in for something that we might call simply patriarchy, which feminist theorists have long diagnosed as privileging particular forms of knowing and denigrating others. Here, we might think of an array of feminist scholars—with vastly different intellectual and political commitments—including Luce Irigaray’s championing of feminine poetics as a disruption of patriarchal logocentrism and Patricia Hill Collins’s celebration of the outsider-within. These are calls for troubling dominant forms of knowing, and insisting on new forms of valuation, and even new forms of writing, for making visible other modes of thinking, knowing, and feeling. Yet, Singh’s critique of mastery, which I see as deeply indebted to decades of feminist scholarship, actually sounds in the register of a particular form of feminist inquiry: dominance feminism. In her foundational works on gender, Catharine MacKinnon treats gender as about the production of m and f (to put it in Janet Halley’s terms), and as always about a power relationship between m and f, where f is sexually subordinated, violated, subjected to unrestricted male access. Mastery seems to work in much the same way for Singh: it produces a relationship between self and other, one that is marked by possession and control, and that is enduring. It produces this relationship through the language of virtue, much as gender produces this relationship—at least for MacKinnon—through the language of the natural. In both accounts, objectification is necessarily and exclusively a form of violence that must be eradicated for our collective survival. The long history of feminism’s engagement with dominance feminism—from its disavowal to its #metoo resurgence—is the subject of a longer inquiry,4 but I found myself wondering—longing to hear more—about the relationship between patriarchy and mastery, and about what political and ethical trappings of dominance feminism get smuggled into Singh’s account of mastery and its violence. Must we reject objectification entirely, or might it be, as Darieck Scott suggests in his recuperation of black abjection, a source of pleasure and even certain forms of political power? Are processes of exerting control or even dominance necessarily and always acts of violence, or might we be able—as scholars in black erotics have argued—to consider how domination itself, fraught and messy, can also be part of our path to freedom?


  1. Ann duCille, “The Occult of True Black Womanhood: Critical Demeanor and Black Feminist Studies,” in Female Subjects in Black and White: Race, Psychoanalysis, Feminism, ed. Elizabeth Abel et al. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 31.

  2. Angela Harris, “Race and Essentialism in Feminist Legal Theory,” Stanford Law Review 42 (1989) 596. In the same piece Harris notes, “In MacKinnon’s writing, the word ‘black,’ applied to women, is an intensifier: If things are bad for everybody (meaning white women), then they’re even worse for black women. Silent and suffering, we are trotted onto the page (mostly in footnotes) as the ultimate example of how bad things are” (596).

  3. Intellectual history has increasingly become a key word in black feminist studies, as in Brittney Cooper’s Beyond Respectability: The Intellectual Thought of Race Women.

  4. I find myself inspired by Joseph J. Fischel’s “Catharine MacKinnon’s Wayward Children,” differences 30.1 (2019) 34–54.

  • Julietta Singh

    Julietta Singh

    Reply

    Response to Jennifer Nash

    Dear Jennifer,

    It’s exciting to have the book, which originated as a feminist summons to the field of postcolonial studies, taken up beyond this particular intellectual landscape. I’m animated by your response because it offers me an opportunity to clarify my argument, and it also points to what may well be a core divergence between us on the question and pursuit of mastery. I argue in Unthinking Mastery that there is a vital link between what we have learned as “bad” and “good” forms of mastery. While some of us might decry the mastery of the colonizer or slave owner, we also hail the achievement of mastery over our disciplinary fields. My aim was to interrogate the desire and pursuit of mastery in all of its forms, as we have inherited it in its various iterations. As a form and function of European enlightenment, the quest for evermore mastery remains tied to a worldview that is, quite literally, delivering us to wholesale ecological catastrophe. What I ask of us in this book is to think critically about our inheritance of mastery, to query our desires for particular forms of it and to consider its abiding relationship to the endurance of imperial subjectivity.

    In your response, you signal the call to do justice to the indispensable field of black feminist theory by citing black women. This call is a movement toward recognizing the profound indebtedness to black feminist thought in what might hesitantly be called the intellectual left today, which has exploited black feminisms and effaced its indebtedness to this tradition. Extending from the arguments I make in Unthinking Mastery about mastery’s particular relations to the practices and legacies of coloniality, I locate a vital difference between pursuing or claiming mastery over a field, and of “knowing the field, and knowing it well,” as you so succinctly put it here. The act of knowing-well—which we might also call skillful intimacy—is vital to celebrating and accounting for the profound effects that black (and brown) feminisms have had on contemporary theory. Yet in my thinking, there is a critical chasm between the pursuit of mastery on the one hand, and the pursuit of deep knowledge, open indebtedness, and intimate study on the other.

    As I theorize it, one emerges as the “master” by objectifying an “object,” by situating oneself in a hierarchized relation to it, and by fantasizing that one’s immediate performance of mastery can and will endure over time. In other words, one makes property of the thing being mastered. I’m interested in how we have inherited this drive toward mastery, even while in particular contexts we have also been critical of it. Here, I’m reminded of your work in Black Feminism Reimagined where you articulate “a vision of black feminist theory that is not invested in making property of knowledge.” One “makes property” when claiming mastery. I’m also reminded of Audre Lorde’s frequently cited provocation that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Is it really mastery over black feminist writing that is being called for, or is it another kind of relation altogether—one of careful, loving, consciously engaged and indebted precision?

    As a student, and then a junior faculty member, I saw the desire and pursuit of mastery everywhere. It was, in fact, my own failed pursuit at intellectual mastery that led me into this work, and toward an ever-growing intimate understanding that some of us have been trained to fit more neatly into the role of intellectual master than others. The book, in its essence, was an attempt to trace other ways of living and learning amidst those firmly entrenched desires and pursuits of mastery; to learn to uphold another kind of careful knowing, to unthink the force of mastery within my own life and education.

    In terms of the feminist genealogies of my thinking, I was raised through postcolonial feminisms and see the work as engaged with those particular voices. It has never been for me a question of eradicating mastery, but a question of surviving it in spite of its pervasive reach in and around us. I spend significant time in the book with Fanon and Gandhi (as anti-colonial patriarchs), and on postcolonial literary figures, all of whom are as steeped in mastery as I am, and all of whom are situated with and against mastery in complex and compelling ways. You ask, also, can there be pleasure in mastery’s abjection? Certainly! But for me, the fact of pleasure in abjection does not mean that mastery’s enduring hold need not be challenged to its core. After all, this is a hold that is as rooted in colonial conquest as it is in climate catastrophe and the threat of human and so many other extinctions.

    I’ll look so forward to crossing paths with you and meeting in person one day, and to discovering there and then where we are in our individual and collective thinking on mastery and all of its contemporary iterations.

     

    Yours,

    Julietta

Parama Roy

Response

Animal Sacrifice

Among the signal achievements of Julietta Singh’s Unthinking Mastery is the way in which she urges us to note that the nonhuman, whether in its bodily or its figural forms, was critical to the making of empires as well as the resistance to them. We will not achieve a full accounting either of imperialism or of decolonisation, she contends, without acknowledging the constitutive power of animality, including human animality, to these enterprises. Imperial settlement, cultivation, extraction, display, knowledge production, biopolitics, dietetics, conservation, and leisure would all have been unfeasible without the dialectic, both imaginative and economic/material, between the human actors of empire and its extra-human dramatis personae. For imperialists, several distinct imperatives emerged in their thinking and writing about the treatment of nonhuman life and ecology in the colonies, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa and in the Indian subcontinent. There was the question of how best to manage the animal as a commodity, whether for labour or for dietary ends; empire, after all, was not solely about the management of men. There was, moreover, the question of how to deal with dangerous beasts that were constituted as threats to the local population and the spread of settled agriculture. Such forms of sovereign protection of powerless human populations accorded nicely with the pleasures of war upon exotic megafauna; these were pleasures that imperialists far from home saw as compensation for the rigours of colonial exile, and that also affirmed the heroic character of the civilising mission of empire. At the same time, imperial thought also had to imagine animals—or some animals—as subjects of imperialist care and protection. The humanitarian turn in nineteenth-century Anglo-American ethical thought came to identify compassion as a distinctively civilised and Christian emotion, while cruelty came to be seen as primitive or barbarous, characteristic of non-Europeans (as well as of lumpen elements at home). In this new humanitarian dispensation the animal functioned as a critical figure mediating intra-human relations between coloniser and colonised within the imperial context; one’s civilisational standing as a human was made legible through one’s response to the suffering of the animal.

Finally, and at least as importantly, in the colonies animality assumes the form of a zooanthropology, an anatomisation of the colonised human not so much as pure animal—given that some animals were protected and even cherished—but as that noxious composite that Roberto Esposito has identified as the “animal-man: man in the animal and animal in the man.”1 It is this “animal-man” that, more than any mere animal, undermines the category of humanity from within. While Esposito writes of Nazi eugenics in the 1930s, his diagnosis has an inescapable relevance for the colonial situation as well. It is such a zooanthropology that Frantz Fanon anatomises in one of the most famous passages in The Wretched of the Earth:

At times this Manicheism goes to its logical conclusion and dehumanizes the native, or to speak plainly, it turns him into an animal. In fact, the terms the settler uses when he mentions the native are zoological terms. He speaks of the yellow man’s reptilian motions, of the stink of the native quarter, of breeding swarms, of foulness, of spawn, of gesticulations. When the settler seeks to describe the native fully in exact terms he constantly refers to the bestiary. . . . Those hordes of vital statistics, those hysterical masses, those faces bereft of all humanity, those distended bodies which are like nothing on earth, that mob without beginning or end, those children who seem to belong to nobody, that laziness stretched out in the sun, that vegetative rhythm of life—all this forms part of the colonial vocabulary.2

When he yearns, in Black Skin, White Masks, to be “a man among other men,” he seeks to leave behind this teeming, acephalous life-world of animal and specifically verminous life.

Such a history of the bestialisation of racially subordinated groups has led to a postcolonial studies “primarily centered,” as Singh notes, “on the urgency of policies and practices of dehumanization among peoples,” and wary about acknowledging the ligatures that bind nonhuman forms to a “‘properly’ human subject” (18). Postcolonial theory has undertaken a sustained engagement with the category of the human—a category fundamental to colonialism’s mapping of the world and its articulation of its own raison d’etre—while paying something less than sustained attention to the multiple species and ecologies that constitute life in the colony or postcolony. This continues to be broadly true, notwithstanding the recent work by scholars such as Elizabeth DeLoughrey and George Handley, Neel Ahuja, Jennifer Wenzel, Rob Nixon, Dipesh Chakrabarty, Monique Allewaert, and others. Singh underlines the irony of the fact that much anti-colonial thought has echoed, sometimes unwittingly, the anthropocentric logic through which a human/animal distinction is produced through the sacrifice of the animal. This leads to an instrumentalisation of the animal for exclusively human ends. “The animal continues to be put to work as a figure for injustices toward dehumanized human subjects—or as that which, because of its inhumanity, remains a largely unquestioned and thus ‘proper’ sacrificial body,” she remarks (133).

This is particularly well illustrated in the thought and career of M. K. Gandhi, perhaps unparalleled among twentieth-century anti-colonial thinkers, as Aishwary Kumar notes, in being “sensitive to the animal, . . . [and] alive to its empirical, conceptual, and rhetorical potential.”3 As is well known, Gandhi’s commitment to ahimsa (non-injury) constituted the governing principle of his ethical universe, and it encompassed humans and nonhumans alike. His first entry into political life took the form of a vegetarian gastropolitics, and his interest in a bloodless diet was to be the hallmark of his entire career. In addition to condemning the slaughter of animals for food or for purposes of vivisection, he was strongly opposed to the killing of members of companion species who had outlived their usefulness for humans. Almost alone among the prominent leaders of the anti-colonial movement, he devoted significant attention to the mistreatment of animals in the subcontinent, especially in the pages of his journal Young India.4 “In no country in the world are cattle so ill-fed and ill-kept as in India,” he was to say in a rebuke to Hindu compatriots putatively dedicated to bovine worship.5

Nonetheless, animals were “among Gandhi’s most unreconciled, inconsistent, and indeed for him haunting aspects of his ethico-politics,” Singh suggests (50). Animals were fully deserving of moral consideration, though not necessarily on grounds that could be construed as egalitarian, since the mahatma’s pronouncements on the subject “repeatedly returned to the exceptional status of the human” (49). It was, rather, their lack—their incapacity for anything recognisable as speech or moral volition, and their vulnerability to injury—that invited human compassion and protection. Perhaps predictably, the cow functioned as the most emblematic figure of an animal docility and vulnerability that solicited human compassion.

But other, less ideologically resonant animals could elicit a very charged disquiet in Gandhi. Watching a lizard hunting a cockroach and the latter in turn hunting smaller creatures, he was to conclude somberly that animal life was governed by a violence and cruelty that served as a monitory example to humans: “Seeing such violence often, I feel that the law of animals and of the lower orders of creation is not the law of man. Man has to make a determined effort to conquer and kill the animal within him and thus keep alive his soul. We have to learn the great magical formula of non-violence out of the conflagration of violence raging around us.”6 Man’s nature is only human insofar as it allows man the possibility of becoming that distinctly non-natural being, a man. This is a being who may share physical functions and appetites with animals, but who is not otherwise in harmony with a nature red in tooth and claw, nor a mere specimen of a biological species. To be human is to set certain restraints to natural processes rather than accepting all that is given by nature and being driven solely by biological necessities. “In eating, sleeping and in the performance of other physical functions, man is not different from the brute. What distinguishes him from the brute is his ceaseless striving to rise above the brute on the moral plane,” he was to tell his audience at a Bombay prayer meeting.7 The animal is a principle of violence and evil, and when humans act violently, it is the triumph of the animal in them. Gandhi’s opposition of the “truth-force” of satyagraha to the “brute force” of a world of uncontrolled force also loses much of its rhetorical power without this gesture towards the otherness of the animal. Nonviolence itself is inconceivable without passing through the animal world as an antithetical force. In Hind Swaraj (1909), his first sustained examination of modern civilisation and nonviolence as a political doctrine, he memorably characterises the modern state, as represented by imperial rule and its institutions, as tigerish—as animal in its predation. To his interlocutor, who wishes to retain all the appurtenances of the modern state, including all its instruments of violence and mastery, in a postcolonial order, he offers a telling admonition: “You want the tiger’s nature, but not the tiger; that is to say, you would make India English, and, when it becomes English, it will be called not Hindustan but Englistan. This is not the Swaraj [independence] that I want.”8

Such a disaggregation of the human from the animal can only be sustained through the logic and structure of sacrifice. “By claiming the human—over and over again, across discrete historical moments and within particular political contexts—we have in this act of bringing some into the fold of humanity continued to produce others as abjectly outside,” Singh reminds us (146), even as she summons postcolonial scholars to a more expansive sense of responsibility than the field hitherto has been willing to claim as its own. It is possible to think this responsibility through a counter-archive of literary texts—in particular, J. M. Coetzee’s Life and Times of Michael K and The Lives of Animals, Mahasweta Devi’s “Little Ones,” and Indra Sinha’s Animal’s People. This archive presents “entangled forms of ethical becoming” that trouble human, animal, and vegetal taxonomies and their hierarchical relations (147). It places humans, animals, and other life forms on a single horizontal plane—beside one another rather than ordered hierarchically. Such juxtapositions and comminglings do not translate only or necessarily into privation, disaggregation, or derangement. These authors do not calculate the inhumanity or humanity of the entities that people their texts; indeed, such calculations can count only as forms of ethical myopia. Rather, they leverage the juxtaposition and confusion of humans, animals, and their ecologies to put into question the notion of a discrete, static, sovereign category of the human beloved of colonial ideology. In introducing a deep scepticism about the viability or even the desirability of the category of the human–by sacrificing (an anthropocentric conception of) the human rather than the nonhuman, in other words—this archive opens up a world of intellectual and political possibilities foreclosed by postcolonial studies’ ethically and imaginatively attenuated focus on human entitlements and human rights. Julietta Singh deserves our gratitude for prompting us towards a humanimalities to come.


  1. Roberto Esposito, Bios: Biopolitics and Philosophy, trans. Timothy Campbell (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008), 130.

  2. Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Constance Farrington (New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1963), 42.

  3. Aishwary Kumar, “Satyagraha and the Place of the Animal: Gandhi’s Distinctions,” Social History 39.3 (2014) 359.

  4. Katherine Mayo’s notoriously Indophobic Mother India (1927) would cite extensively from the pages of Gandhi’s journal in building up its polemical case against the nationalist demand for emancipation from imperial rule.

  5. M. K. Gandhi, “Cow-Protection,” Young India, August 4, 1920.

  6. Gandhi, “Assorted Questions v. Non-violence,” Navajivan (April 18, 1926), CWMG 35, 104; cited in Kumar, 377.

  7. Gandhi, “Speech at a Prayer Meeting,” Selected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, vol. 6, ed. Sriman Narayan (Ahmedabad: Navajivan, 1969), 110–11.

  8. Gandhi, Hind Swaraj and Other Writings, ed. Anthony J. Parel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 28.

  • Julietta Singh

    Julietta Singh

    Reply

    Response to Parama Roy

    Dear Parama,

    Your focus here on the animal’s crucial role in the making of and challenges to empire is such a rich and engrossing reminder of Unthinking Mastery’s absolute indebtedness to your work. It is in no sense an exaggeration to say that this book would not have been possible without you, and I would like to take this time and space to elucidate how and why this is so.

    Sometime in or around 2005, you flew to Minneapolis as a guest lecturer at the University of Minnesota’s South Asia Seminar, a monthly gathering of faculty and grad students from various disciplines across the humanities and social sciences, headed by Simona Sawhney. Simona was the postcolonial feminist epicenter around which a group of female grad students—myself, Priti Mishra, Aditi Chandra, and Emily Rooke-Koepsel—constellated. She opened up worlds for us, and we lived in those worlds together for many years. Your visit came in the early days of that constellation, when we graduate students were having our minds blown open by a generation of South Asian feminists who had come before us. It was through this encounter with you and your work, over a giddy lunch and an afternoon lecture, that my own critical thinking of the politics of food and eating as it intersected with empire began to take shape. I was besotted by your work on Gandhi’s meat-eating and masculinity, made almost breathless by your capacity to put deconstruction to work on archives that would begin from that point on to change my life and learning.

    In 2010, during my first semester on the tenure track, you published Alimentary Tracts (Duke University Press, 2010). I read the book voraciously, and realized in full just how much of my dissertation on the politics of food and eating in postcolonial narratives had been a novice salute to your brilliant thinking. I decided then and there that I would write a review of the book, and set off in another direction, in pursuit of the mastery question that was lingering everywhere in my work.

    A few years later, as I began the incredibly anxious process of shopping the manuscript around, it was picked up by an editor I admired at a university press and sent out for external review. When the reviews were finally returned to me, one was a brutal and belittling response to the manuscript, and the other was the most unbelievable feminist engagement with my work that I have ever received. The feedback was careful and precise, a kind of feminist beacon that guided me through the un-thought angles of the manuscript, that showed me where to turn, chapter by chapter, to realize the project as it could be. I studied this review as one might study a beloved poem—word by word, cadence by cadence, citation by citation—and I gleaned through this study that it must have been penned by a mid-career South Asian feminist. I imagined that it was you, because some part of me understood that it could only have been you. Years later, when the fully re-envisioned book found its home at Duke under the editorial guidance of Courtney Berger, I began to write my acknowledgments and finally reached out to you and asked, Was it you?

    Indeed, it was. Unthinking Mastery could not have existed without you. I mean this literally, though it may sound hyperbolic. I could not have thought empire and animality without you, could not have understood Gandhi’s gastro-politics without you, could not have dreamed how to engage with the great anticolonial patriarchs through acts of indebted critique without having witnessed your own engagements. And I could not have written the book as I did without your scrupulous movement through the early draft, an anonymous feminist mentor showing me the way in and through a manuscript I was only just beginning to understand.

    You end your piece by writing, “Singh deserves our gratitude for prompting us towards a humanimalities to come,” and I am immediately drawn to Olivia Michiko Gagnon’s piece in this symposium, in which she dwells on gratitude as practice and as guide. Asking how to live a feminist life otherwise in an economy that thrives on performances of mastery, Olivia learns that other ways, strategies, and tactics to move through everyday life. She writes: “When I think about all the feminists in my life who have helped me understand this, it’s as if there could never be enough thank yous or a ‘we’ that I so much wanted to be part of.” I am borrowing her beautiful words to offer over to you, for whom my endless thank yous could never express the ways that your thought has offered new shapes to my life, and new ways of imagining other ones.

     

    Yours,

    Julietta

Chad Shomura

Response

The Dehuman Condition

1

In The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt observes that the history of political thought is rife with drives toward mastery due to the issues of human plurality for political action. Plurality is a condition marked by different people being close enough to affect each other but not too close lest they become the same. This “in-between” (the public realm, for Arendt) means that political action is not a straight line from a single intention to a definite outcome. Action is irreversible, unpredictable, and anonymous. Political thought has sought refuge from “action’s calamities in an activity where one man, isolated from all others, remains master of his doings from beginning to end.”1 This escape has shorn up tyrannical forms of government and technocratic efforts to obliterate politics entirely.

Arendt’s thought is an important counterpoint to mastery in political thought. When we are less in charge, surmises Arendt, we are more free. Nonetheless, Arendt remains anxious over the chanciness of action. For her, while action is indispensable to the richness of the human world it also might terminate human existence. She thus devises two safeguards: forgiveness of others for the unanticipated consequences of their actions and making and sticking with promises as best one can. These failsafes surely chasten mastery but are also residues of it, at least in Arendt’s thought. They are “remedies” for the “disabilities of non-sovereignty” and even “control mechanisms.”2 Arendt does not value the irreversibility and unpredictability of action; they are the unfortunate baggage of human plurality, not political goods. For Arendt, mastery can never be overcome, only channeled to prevent more destructive forms.

This brief engagement with Arendt is meant to illustrate just how difficult it is to confront mastery. In my view, her effort is impeded by a commitment to human exceptionalism. Contemporary political and ecological predicaments unfold on multiple fronts along uneven lines, speeds, and intensities. These complexities demand a more subtle engagement than human exceptionalism can provide. Rather than erase plurality (as much of political thought does, in Arendt’s view) or preserve it (as Arendt does), it could be reimagined. One might listen more exquisitely to those who have been dehumanized and those entities that may never be considered human—that is, those who have been excluded from politics on account of racist and colonialist orders of being. It might be wise to think in terms of a dehuman condition.

2

Can the human be imagined apart from mastery? If so, what might become of it? Julietta Singh’s Unthinking Mastery addresses such questions by opening a vital path into a dehuman condition. Here, I wish to think with this remarkable text by focusing on a few important aspects and extending a request to further engage the connection between mastery and survival.

Singh finds that the drive to human mastery animates some of the most pressing issues today, from neocolonial exploitation to ecological crises. Her primary focus is the reproduction of mastery in efforts to resist it, especially in the world built by colonialism. For example, Singh shows that Mohandas K. Gandhi and Frantz Fanon, across their differences, affirmed mastery as a crucial tool in anticolonial movements. However, their descriptions of mastery were shaped by gendered, ableist, and speciesist frames that left intact colonialist entanglements of being. Singh traces the subtle workings of mastery in anticolonial thought, postcolonial literature, humanitarian projects, and the humanities while also teasing out the potential for solidarity with all those who fall to the wayside of Man.

“Dehumanism” is the name given by Singh to the practice of “stripping away the violent foundations (always structural and ideological) of colonial and neocolonial mastery that continue to render some beings more human than others” (4). The aim is not to humanize some of the excluded at the expense of others. It is “a form of radical dwelling in and with dehumanization through the narrative excesses and insufficiencies of the ‘good’ human” (4). Dehumanism moves Singh’s work off course from posthumanism and queer inhumanism, which challenge human exceptionalism and mastery but tend to maintain the human and the inhuman more as ontological than historical figures. The brutal legacy of colonialism is not a stark line between the human and its others but multiple shifting lines between certain humans and all others, whether racialized and colonized humans or nonhuman animals. Unthinking Mastery is a much-needed corrective to efforts in political thought that complicate the human without due attention to the effects of coloniality.

One of the most striking things about Unthinking Mastery is the manner by which Singh navigates a tall order: how to engage mastery without reproducing it. The difficulties are numerous. Mastery is “inherited,” perhaps unawares. It is an understandable and sometimes successful response to structures of violence. If we are not mindful, mastery will have a hold on us. Singh admittedly cannot expunge all traces of mastery from her text. Not that she would like to; attempts to defeat mastery allow it to return. Instead of offering a strict, exhaustive definition of mastery, which would enable us to master it, she alerts us to some of its chief manifestations: the fracturing of entities, including those who would master; the construction of relations of dominance; and the extension of this hierarchy across time. Unthinking Mastery teaches us how to read for mastery, detect openings in and beyond it, and face our estrangement from deep vulnerability.

3

At the heart of Unthinking Mastery is an embrace of vulnerability—“a willingness to engage that which we have wished to avoid, and in so doing be crafted anew” (109). Part of what makes the text so refreshing is Singh’s openness. She shares incidents in personal life when the call to mastery rang loud, even in benevolent forms such as empathy and care. Folding vulnerability into her text unsettles the institutional and affective framework of intellectual exchange founded upon stuffy academic expectations for mastery. Fresh air is life-giving.

In this spirit, I confess that the book unexpectedly drew me into memories that I might have wished to avoid. Mastery has been my guide far too often in the classroom, in love, in family (cat included), among friends. I thought about all sorts of “if only I had . . .” moments. I realized that regret involves beating up one version of the self by another: the kind that could have been appraised of all angles, that could have done otherwise, been otherwise. That is, a self that could have been in control of oneself and one’s circumstances. In moments of deep vulnerability, the call to mastery is particularly strong. Accepting the task of unthinking mastery is easier than living it.

Fortunately, Singh lends a hand. She holds open gaps in mastery to let us through. The gaps are many. No one is ever masterful though surely we are all vulnerable, albeit in different ways. Mastery alienates us from our sore spots and tender sides. Turning away from mastery reconnects us with our vulnerable selves.

What if our bearings for politics, ethics, and care were set by what mastery dismisses: all that is impractical, hopelessly utopian, soft, doomed from the start? We might sense vital relations and modes of being that already exist, more as potentiality than as actuality in the world designed by mastery. As Singh puts it, “In failing to master, in confronting our own desires for mastery where we least expect or recognize these desires, we become vulnerable to other possibilities for living, for being together in common, for feeling injustice and refusing it without the need to engage it through forms of conquest” (21).

4

“I am interested in mastery not as something to be overcome,” writes Singh, “but rather as an inheritance that we might (yet) survive” (2). I am particularly compelled by the link between mastery and survival, for it touches on issues of life circulating in areas such as new materialism and critical biopolitical studies. I would like to explore it further (hopefully with Julietta’s help!). Can we imagine survival without mastery? Might that require a suspension of attempts to master survival? Can we survive mastery without surviving?

Apart from mastery, survival seems to lose meaning. After all, to survive is to outlive, which could seem to require dominance over what threatens death. Yet mastery does not have a good track record for preserving life, at least not equitably. Mastery has animated the lethality of colonialist untanglements of beings, and efforts to control nature have spectacularly backfired in the form of uncontrollable ecological crises, including our currently unfolding mass extinction event. The version of survival defined by mastery is an instance of what Lauren Berlant calls “cruel optimism”: mastery is believed to extend life but it might actually kill us all.3

Perhaps survival requires deep vulnerability. The will to mastery would have us decide which beings should live diminished lives, if they should live at all, because they threaten the good life. Yet collaboration is vital for survival, as Anna Tsing reminds us.4 This does not mean that it guarantees life or that the process is necessarily harmonious. Not all beings can make it through, not even us, and that’s a risk we must accept. None of us can survive on our own.

One way to survive mastery might be to risk letting oneself fall apart. If mastery projects a teleology, an endpoint in which we will have outlasted the present, then refusals of mastery bend the temporality of survival. We must “learn from a future we have not yet reached,” Singh urges (147), and that may not be reachable, I add. That endeavor requires a more exquisite sensitivity to what affects us, both today and from undead pasts and looming futures. If that seems apolitical, it’s because masterful subjectivity clouds our political vision. Against more action-oriented modes of political thought, perhaps it’s time to crank up our capacity to be affected. Lifeways cannot be rigid.

Of course, that level of vulnerability means we might not survive, at least not in the terms of life projected by mastery. Can life be indefinitely extended? Should it be and who or what might have to bear the fallout? How does mastery shape not only which lives are valuable and which are not but also what life is? How might unthinking mastery lead us to reimagine what life could be? A refusal of mastery brings one dangerously close to death but also, I suspect, closer to other notions of life or away from life entirely. “To distance ourselves from mastery,” writes Singh, “is, first, an act of reframing our relations to all things, regardless of whether in the moment we bestow them with something currently called ‘life’” (175). Such a path would exceed the narrow bounds of “the human.”

Without mastery, we might feel helpless before an overwhelming world. Yet, Singh shows us that we might discover a new in-between, an open-ended plurality, a wide embrace. Perhaps we would be more eager to carry and be carried by each other. Experimenting with other modes of being and relating might be easier, and thrilling. Action could be relaxed. The irreversible and the unpredictable might be valued. Half-formed futures might become instructive. We might become attuned to an otherwise that, strangely, has been right beside us all along.

Most importantly, we might allow vulnerability to make an “us” of us all. Perhaps that is key to survival in our dehuman condition.


  1. Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 220.

  2. Arendt, Human Condition, 236, 246.

  3. Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011).

  4. Anna Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibilities of Life in Capitalist Ruins (Cambridge: Princeton University Press, 2015).

  • Julietta Singh

    Julietta Singh

    Reply

    Response to Chad Shomura

    Dear Chad,

    Thank you for your nuanced engagement with my work, for situating it within the context of Hannah Arendt’s political theory, and for the care and inquisitiveness with which you have approached it here. In your desire to explore further the relation between mastery and survival, you ask: “Can we imagine survival without mastery? Might that require a suspension of attempts to master survival? Can we survive mastery without surviving?” I am taken by these questions, not only for their exquisite composition, but because in picking up where the coda of Unthinking Mastery leaves off, they also anticipate my current writing.

    The arc of Unthinking Mastery moved across histories and scenes of mastery to illustrate how a particular form of the human—the masterful subject of European enlightenment thinking—is foundational to the forms of advanced capitalism that, as Marx would say, have sown the seeds of its own destruction. I was interested not only in how mastery emerges in political theory and imperial history (something I look forward to talking with you so much more about!), but how it has come to shape us, even in our individual and collective attempts to challenge colonial and neocolonial structures and worldviews. This formulation of “man” as masterful subject that can and should hold dominion over land, animals, other humans whose worldviews fall outside the paradigms of mastery, delivers us to this moment in history—to what is called the sixth mass extinction, in which human and other extinctions are the perishing products of human mastery.

    Tracing the anticolonial movements of the last century who deployed various forms of mastery as resistance to the mastery of the colonizer, I learned a simple lesson: that newfangled forms of mastery aimed against colonial mastery have not succeeded in producing a less violent world. From this vantage point, it seems clear to me that we will not survive if we continue to meet the global effects of mastery with other forms of mastery. A technological fix to an aspect of climate crisis, for instance, works like a Band-Aid over a gangrenous wound. Without challenging the particular version of masterful Man that abides here, we do not let in the infinitely more capacious, world-abiding, dehumanist styles of being that came before, that are still living on the edges now. I love the moment when you write that “a refusal of mastery brings us dangerously close to death but also, I suspect, closer to other notions of life or away from life entirely.” We are here now, dangerously close to our deaths, living on the verge of our species’ end; whether or not we survive may be incidental in the end, but the ethical pull toward dehumanist solidarities will never be stronger than it is in the wake of our extinctions.

    For a while now, I’ve been writing a long letter to my daughter about race and mothering at the end of the world. It sets off by refusing the modern logic of reproduction, in which we reproduce “ourselves” (our class status, our belief systems, our educations) generation after generation. Across this epistolary essay, I reckon with the fact that if my child hopes to survive, she will need to break from me, from virtually all of my legacies—my everyday practices made manifest by and through extractive capitalism, my lazy political resistance that in no way forces change. On the verge of extinction, I’m asking what kinds of teaching and learning might arise to make life enduringly livable. It is both a rallying cry from the position of the complicit, and a way of reaching toward an urgent feeling, a profound desire, another life.

    Reading you here, I realize that we are strangers, but ones who are also becoming something together. This seems to me somehow vital—that I am reaching for my child by attempting to relinquish a self that is constituted by and through the legacies of colonial force, and also reaching for you in a friendship we might begin to live, formed through our mutually ambivalent failures and desires for and against mastery. Every reach becomes a promise of something survivable, something else that might yet hold us.

     

    Yours,

    Julietta

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