5 Questions with Dr. Stephen Marshall

We return on the eve of Spring Break by publishing one of our classic features. Here’s an absolutely fascinating conversation between Ph.D. student Christine Capetola and Dr. Stephen Marshall, associate professor of American Studies and African and African Diaspora Studies.

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CC: What’s your favorite project to work on and why?  In the past or maybe right now, whichever…

SM: Well… I’m having a lot of fun with my research right now.  I don’t feel nearly the same amount of pressure that I felt trying to get first book done.  The first book, actually, was not connected with my dissertation.  The dissertation was an entirely different study that was probably too large an undertaking for someone in that stage of their career.  The kind of question I was pursuing in the dissertation was not only a huge question but one that became really politically salient as I was attempting to revise.  The dissertation was on the problem of evil as a political problem, the political as particular kind of interpretation and engagement with evil.  I looked at Hannah Arendt, St. Augustine, and James Baldwin as thinkers who in different ways understand the political in these terms.   So I’m writing about evil and, as it turns out, September 11th happens and everybody and their mother begin to talk about evil.  I find myself responding to everybody and I realize that I could probably spend another three, four years working on this project to do it right.  So after three years on it, I turned to a smaller project that I had been kicking around for a little while and that turned into my first book.

But of course after spinning my wheels on the problem of evil for two, three years, I was under a lot of pressure to get this book done in time to get tenure.  So, that wasn’t a lot of fun.  There’s a chapter in my first book where I write about James Baldwin and I really did feel like I was inspired when I wrote that.  I mean, I actually wrote it out by hand.  I was smoking cigarettes at the time so I sat right out there (points to outdoor space at Flight Path) and Shirley [Thompson] and Solomon, my son, were out of town and over a two day period I just basically wrote out a large part of that chapter.  Those moments of inspiration are rare and special but I can’t say that… I don’t claim that as fun.  Fun is something like I used to experience when I was a graduate student.  After I completed my coursework and before I began writing my dissertation, I was reading everything that I wanted to read at my own pace.  That’s kind of where I’m at right now, pursuing the questions that I’m interested in, engaging authors that I want to engage.  I’m certainly feeling there’s a time constraint, that I need to get this second book finished fairly soon but not feeling like my livelihood or the livelihood of my family depends on me getting this thing done tomorrow.

So what are some of those questions that you’re thinking about right now?

So there are a couple of things.  The general problematic is this question about the afterlife of slavery; that is, the problem of slavery as an ongoing reality of American culture and politics. However, what I am interested in is turning from prevailing investigations which track this reality on and within black life to an investigation that thinks this problem through the problem of mastery- the political constitution of mastery as a legitimate but threatened practice that must remain silent yet always in need of special forms of protection. So, I’m thinking about the political legacies of this problem; where within American culture and politics one finds traces, and in fact, actual reconstitutions of it.

I’ve been recently looking very closely at Du Bois’s arguments about the way the post-Reconstruction consolidation of capital incorporates the ethos and management techniques of the plantation- spiritual commitments to and practical experience with dominating nature that were part and parcel of the southern slaveholding experience but foreign to northern capitalistic practices among smaller property owners.  So I’m thinking about the skills and expertise of the plantation finding their way into corporate practices.  And, also with the way in which the reconstitution of unfree black labor in the south occurs alongside the imperial constitution of virtual slavery in other parts of the world facilitate the emergence of what DuBois describes as the unprecedented power of the super corporation.

There’s another piece to this as well which is trying to figure out how it is that other practices of mastery show up in more mundane and  quotidian practices, some of which become central to African American life.  So, how is it that Americans from all walks of life come to adopt commitments and practices that were originally rooted in the exercise of mastery?   What does this mean for a cultural and political community which claims to have abolished slavery? What does it mean for a counter-tradition and political culture which has historically understood itself as organized around the quest for freedom?  Does it mean that when we take the full measure of the problem of mastery we must come to see freedom as always that something which stands outside the law and all the authoritative normativities which prevail in the U.S?  Is freedom always fugitive?

As per [Fred] Moten…

Moten, exactly.  Moten famously claims that fugitivity is expressly anti-political.  Not simply apolitical but actually anti-political.  According to him, you have to guard against the development of political interests because these interests implicitly connect you to institutionalized forms of race governance and state normativity.  So the experience of fugitivity, the experience of always being one step removed from the law means this refusal to stake a claim in yourself as an interlocutor with these logics.

I’m not totally comfortable with that.  At the same time, I’m not comfortable with other interpretations of black fugitivity which claim that the experience is sedimented in the radicality of those slave narratives which pushed the American regime to incorporate blackness and black folk within its conception and practice of liberty.  This view seems to flatten out the centrality of the fugitive’s experience of flight, evasion, and discipline to remain undetected by the law.  So, I think there is real work to be done around identifying the distinctive politics that flow from the experience of fugitivity. What are fugitivity’s conditions of possibility? What kinds of supports does it require and how does it exist in relationship to countervailing forces?  If it seeks to reproduce itself what must be done now and in the future to maintain and/or defend itself?  This is a political problematic that seems to me unavoidable for those of us interested in recommending fugitivity as an exemplary practice of freedom.  So, it is in light of these concerns that I’ve been drawn more and more to literary figures, Toni Morrison in particular.  So I’m having a lot of fun with this, reading widely in history and philosophy and putting this into conversation with political philosophers and literary artists has been a blast.

So what are some connections that come to mind for you between these questions and things going on both in academia and in the world outside of that?

One of the most exciting developments in my field and one of the most exciting things at the University of Texas is the emergence of black political thought as a recognized intellectual paradigm.  For political science, actually political theory, to finally acknowledge the authority and wisdom of these texts pushes the margins of the canon and the field.  To be forced to reckon with the philosophical autonomy of these texts even as we acknowledge their engagement with central questions of the canon and discipline means recognition of the need for a kind of specialized engagement with these texts. And, to reckon with the concerns of this literature that go beyond the traditional canon means the possibility that the entire enterprise of political theory may be undergoing important change.

The University of Texas was founded as an institution to carry out the project of reconstituting the nation along lines imagined by nostalgic former confederates.  One important founder was a large plantation owner from Mississippi who moved to Texas, and decided to invest in the mission of cultivating white manhood for a new south.  Since then, there’s been a slow and uneven opening to blackness at this university- first, with the admission of a small number of students and then with the hiring of a small number of black faculty. Today, we have this major opening where permanent institutions devoted to scholarly engagement with blackness have been created to serve the interests of the entire university.  This is a pretty dramatic transformation and wonderful opportunity. I think the acknowledgement of black political thought and black studies have been really important interventions.

You know this question of mastery is for me at the heart of the crisis of black vulnerability in our present moment.  The racialization of crime and the criminalization of blackness are obvious and well documented examples of the afterlife of slavery.  The recent spate of indefensible killings of young black men under suspicion of criminality by law enforcement and their auxiliaries are too easily regarded as a break from or malfunction of the regime of American liberalism. And what this view does is displace victims and families of victims as the center of moral concern and focus attention on the frailties of ostensibly just American institutions.  And of course, this focus obscures how black vulnerability to surveillance, interdiction, and incarceration is and always has been constitutive of our politics.  So what I’m asking is what if what we’re really wrestling with when thinking about these killings is the normal operations of post-slavery liberalism?  What if that’s the regime that we live in? American liberalism and various projects of attempting to master blackness go hand in hand.

I started thinking about the problem of mastery long before the vulnerability of black men to executions became topical.  It actually came to me as I was thinking about this dispute between Du Bois and Douglass about the survival of the power and spirit of the confederacy.  But as I began to think about it, it began to illuminate for me the continuities between a number of unpleasant political moments.  I think a number of people are increasingly coming to believe that while we have this extraordinary array of theoretical formulations to make sense of the political past, we don’t really know the fundamental character of the regime we inhabit right now.  We don’t know where we are.  And I suspect part of this has to do, as George Shulman says in American Prophecy…, this is because we orient ourselves in light of models which presuppose the political experiences of Europe rather than the experiences of new-world political modernity. We need to devise the theoretical tools and frameworks that actually engage our experience and history to describe where we’re at right now.

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