(the potential for) diasporism countering gentrification

by tobybee

In her most recent book, The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination, Sarah Schulman traces a history of post-AIDS gentrification in New York City. She explores the ways that the city and its streets and inhabitants, its cultures and its politics, have been gentrified in various ways over the last few decades. It’s a nicely provocative read, as Schulman always offers us.

At one point she writes of the gentrification of art, and argues, in part, that there has been “a pivotal moment of change, when art must become something that does not make people uncomfortable, so that they will spend money. […] The long-term effect of such a condition is that gatekeepers (producers/agents/publishers/editors/programmers/critics, etc.) become narrower and narrower in terms of what they are willing to present, living in a state of projected fear of ever presenting anything that could make someone uncomfortable. There is a dialogic relationship with the culture—when consumers learn that uncomfortable = bad instead of expansive, they develop an equation of passivity with the art-going experience. In the end, the definition of what is ‘good’ becomes what does not challenge, and the entire endeavour of art-making is undermined.” (90-1)

Since reading this passage I’ve returned again and again to what it offers us, to consider the ways in which the field of art and inquiry in which I work—academia—is gentrified in this way.

For instance:

I recently had an article accepted in an academic journal of Jewish Studies. It was passed by the review process, but then the editor wrote to me asking that I remove the postcolonial theory from the piece because it didn’t work for her. Which is fine (lots of things don’t work for lots of people), except that someone else who has read this work commented that bringing together this stream of postcolonial theory with diasporic Jewish writing and thinking was precisely the contribution my work could make. But these new ways of thinking—these new meldings of disciplinary thinkings—can’t occur in public if those in control of those public spaces won’t publish them.

Another one. I was rejected for a job in Jewish Studies (in a department located within a school of historical studies) a year or so ago in part because, I was told, my work is insufficiently historical. This is despite the fact that I have a PhD in history, and my work, while clearly interdisciplinary, is also clearly located within history, and within Jewish Studies.

And a third. Another article I had published earlier this year was published by the sixth journal I sent it to. And it required so many changes that, by the end, it’s only partially recognisable as something I would have written. (I tell this story also to make public that sometimes it takes submitting to 6 journals, or more, times to get something published. Someone I know had an article accepted on the tenth go. If you’re trying to get an article accepted, keep submitting. The process is frustrating, and awful, and depressing, and upsetting, but someone will hopefully pick up the piece. The gain is the potential promise of a job, of having one’s work read. But then, at what cost?).

And a final example. At dinner the other night another academic—a philosopher—told the group that he had a book coming out soon. When he sent the first draft to the publisher he was told that it was great, but it wouldn’t sell, so he would need to change it. So he did.

These are the workings of the gatekeepers of academia, who ensure that what is written is what they want to be written, which inevitably—it must—limit the scope of knowledge, of ways of thinking, and of ways of writing.

But it’s more than that, I think. From the perspective of Jewish Studies, this is fundamentally important, particularly for those of us who work in diasporic jewish studies, and whose writing cultures and politics reflect that diasporism. Certainly, there are jobs out there for some of those people; and certainly, the job crisis in the humanities in academia is much broader than just in Jewish Studies (just today La Trobe University has announced that they are cutting large numbers of staff and programs, including their Gender, Sexuality and Diversity Program.) Progressive modes of thinking, teaching and researching are most certainly under attack.

Surely though, interdisciplinarity is the very definition of diasporic writing. It is the melding together of different types, of different ways, of thinking. It is the productive, in-between, liminal space in which creativity occurs. It is representative of a certain openness. It brings together different cultures, politics and modes. It is, I think, important.

But, as long as editors, hiring committees, publishers, and the like, continue to approach what is acceptable for public presentation as being that which they already know, those methodological approaches with which they are already comfortable, then we will see what Schulman writes of: the gentrification, and the homogenisation, of ways of thinking.