Blog Post

Reflections on Norming in the Neoliberal Global University: A Conversation with Rey Chow

Graphic design by Sheena Lai.

This asynchronous interview with Rey Chow was conducted by Anna Jayne Kimmel, Victoria Zurita, and Roland Greene in response to Chow's recent book, A Face Drawn in Sand: Humanistic Inquiry and Foucault in the Present (Columbia University Press, 2021). 

ARCADE:  A Face Drawn in Sand treats humanistic inquiry as an alternative to capitalistic and entrepreneurial logics. You also critique recent trends to adapt the humanities to new modes (e.g. environmental, digital, public, and computational). In the spirit of the new book, how do you see the public humanities in particular? Must it be a form of capitulation, or does it have the potential to resist neoliberal demands and problem-solving mindsets? Additionally, in the introduction, you observe that while the impetus to diversify the corporate university has “granted marginal populations and representations a token share of visibility and recognition,” it has nonetheless “precluded serious critical engagement with such populations and representations in ways that are on par with their counterparts in the formal disciplines. Not only are such populations and representations left to multiply in the spirit of ‘anything goes’ (as in cable television), but they are also presumed to be always-already oppositional and emancipatory in their acts of enunciation” (Chow 28). In your view, how might identity politics be redeemed from its entanglement with the neoliberal university? Are there applications of identity politics (say, certain scholarship of the past five or ten years that is itself opposed to the corporatized version of diversity—think Fred Moten or Alexis Pauline Gumbs) that can stand apart from your critique?

RC: I do not believe that, in the foreseeable future at least, there is any way identity politics can be disentangled from the neoliberal university. The reasons for this are mechanistically more complicated than I can describe, but one thing seems clear: the neoliberal university is a financial institution that has to take income and expenditure into account in every undertaking. Emphasizing the economic as such used to be labeled a “vulgar Marxist” way of thinking, yet in the overwhelming financialization and marketization of the contemporary world, it is difficult not to heed the economic dimension in higher education. Given the current circulation of moralistic jargon such as “systemic racism” and “structural racism” in our media, it would be inconceivable for the neoliberal university not to follow this global trend for the sake of safeguarding its reputation and futurity—that is to say, its credibility for potential donors. One common approach some universities are taking along these lines is thus, quite logically, making adjustments in their demographics by hiring and promoting employees (including faculty) who are of the desired racial profiles, by recruiting students from diverse cultural backgrounds, by advancing and normalizing certain kinds of objectives for pedagogy and research, and so forth, in order to stay viable while competitive as a financial institution. As teachers, we have the obligation to show our students how to navigate this complex and at times treacherous terrain, where identity politics is inscribed into different levels of administrative bureaucracy but where important intellectual matters must still find a space to be explored and pursued in a serious fashion. Showing our students how to negotiate the oftentimes blurred boundaries between different types of discourses may not require us to use only texts that are published by authors of color, but it is a matter of guiding them through the nuances of language and context as well as through the larger historical frames of knowledge production to which they may not yet have access because of their tender age. In the end, I think they need to learn to see that identity politics is not just politics from which they should redeem themselves but also an unavoidable historicity and social reality that pertain to all of us. As I suggest in my book, identity politics needs to be recognized as part and parcel of the population management mechanisms of our age; the utilization of race, including elite administrative implementations of so-called “anti-racism” initiatives, is one such mechanism.

ARCADE: In chapter 3, you contrast Frantz Fanon’s phenomenological/psychoanalytic understanding of race with Michel Foucault’s approach, according to which “race is primarily as an outcome of the intensified, compulsory objectification, bureaucratization, and normalization of life.” Are these two approaches mutually exclusive? And are all first-person theorizations of exclusion “identity politics”? What is the proper place of a work like Fanon’s, which engages philosophy while being rooted in his personal experiences and medical practice, within your view of how we should address exclusion or oppression?

RC: Of course, there is a place for Fanon’s interesting work in the study of race in relation to philosophy and medicine. I do not think that an engagement with Foucault necessarily precludes a simultaneous engagement with writings on race based on personal experiences such as Fanon’s. The point is rather that we need to pay attention to how personal experiences—and whose personal experiences, in particular—are typically invoked or fetishized in the study of race, and for whose interests and benefits. In the introduction of my book, I discuss the organizational logics and politics typical of the global corporate university, where the pursuit of more traditional, formal disciplines in the humanities such as Philosophy, History, Classics, and English usually proceeds these days alongside Identity Studies and Area Studies. Identity Studies pertains to the interests of women, LGBT, transgender, disabled, indigenous, and other politicized populations, while Area Studies pertains to various geopolitical regions of the world whose importance has been defined and assessed in relation to postwar U. S. foreign policy. I argue that, if we follow Foucault’s analyses of social processes of norming, of institutions’ self-regulating discourses of accountability, and of historically evolving devices of governmentality, we will have to see that Identity Studies and Area Studies are typically made to perform the tasks of risk management and damage control in the university setting; they are, in other words, implicitly called upon to provide a kind of sanitation service for the depraved, guilt-ridden Western soul. My question is: how is a university curriculum supposed to function when one part of the humanities is supposed to clean up the “filth” of the other (the more traditional, formal disciplines), and for whose edification and salvation? Putting it a bit bluntly, if the nonwhite populations of the globe have not created problems of racism that arose with Euro-American imperialism of the past five hundred years—we are repeatedly told that they have been victimized by such racism, in fact—they are nonetheless tasked by default with providing solutions to those problems within the parameters of the university curriculum. It is in this light that your questions should be approached. 

In chapter 3, I discuss how Edward Said’s criticism of Orientalism has so powerfully shaped the direction of postcolonial studies that it has sometimes led to a less than nuanced representation of non-Western cultures, which are simply assumed to occupy an oppositional stance vis-à-vis the West. In such a context, I argue for a more careful reading of Foucault’s discussions of race and racism, which are an inextricable part of his longstanding critique of modern European political reason. For Foucault, racism is a kind of governing mechanism that erupts from within (rather than outside) the social fabric; racism is thus inseparable from class stratifications, of which our elite institutions of learning clearly partake. These are precious lessons to keep in mind as we challenge the ideology of identity politics currently permeating our educational institutions—and as we continue to learn from authors such as Fanon.

Obviously, being a nonwhite author, often though not exclusively working on Asia and the postcolonial world, has sensitized me to these issues. Regardless of what I write or say as a scholar, I notice that my work tends to be read in a certain predictable fashion, probably because of a routine racial or ethnic stereotyping in reading habits even a largely progressive academy. This racial or ethnic stereotyping, a process of interpellating, recognizing, and rewarding minority subjects, is what I have analyzed in detail as “coercive mimeticism” in my earlier book The Protestant Ethnic and the Spirit of Capitalism. 

ARCADE: At its core, A Face Drawn in Sand puts forward a method, the slowed and non-utilitarian mode of humanistic inquiry, that suggests “how not to have answers before the questions are asked.” Presumably no one admits they have answers before the questions are asked; the possibility of bad faith aside, everyone must think they are sincerely following questions with answers. From a practical standpoint, and in the face of the pressures on the humanities, how does one cultivate this disinterested attitude? What advice would you offer to a graduate student conceiving a dissertation or a junior scholar developing a first book?

RC: These are tough questions that speak to the acuity of problems facing the humanities in our time. I believe that, as teachers, it is important to keep ourselves informed of what younger people, our graduate and undergraduate students in particular, are thinking, even when—perhaps especially when—we notice that we do not agree with them. If we have knowledge to impart to them, we need to remember that they also have much to offer us precisely because they are still in the process of figuring out the world, because they are not yet “mature” or “set” the way we are. In this process of exchange, we may learn something about what being disinterested can amount to on an everyday level, in our interactions with co-workers of different kinds. When it comes to writing, I often tell my graduate students or junior scholars to remember what led them into this type of contemplative work in the humanities in the first place, and to ask themselves if they are willing to adhere to their original goals (and the pleasures such goals bring) however difficult things may turn out to be. That said, I also believe in being affirmative and supportive if and when a student, having completed their Ph.D., tells me that they would like to embark on a different line of work or go into a different kind of profession because of the difficulty of finding a job as a humanities candidate.  

Arcade: How does the Foucault of 2021, represented in books such as A Face Drawn in Sand, Davide Tarizzo’s Life: A Modern Invention, and others, differ from the Foucault who prompted many books in the 1980s and 90s? Which aspects of his thought have receded and which have been reinvigorated?

RC: If you would excuse the mischievous coinage, I’d say that Foucault was thoroughly Californicated in the 1980s and 90s, in part because he himself showed a great interest in California, was a visitor at Berkeley, gave the Tanner Lecture at Stanford in 1979, and so forth. What emerged from those decades—if we speak only of his impact on the humanities—was an invigorating historicism that prompted, with the help of some of Foucault’s ideas, a productive reexamination of Western literary and cultural history, from the study of Shakespeare to the study of the European novel, from the unveiling of the disciplining work performed by bourgeois institutions to the discovery of non-heteronormativities embedded in the writings of famous authors such as Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, the Brontës, and others in both modern and premodern periods. Above all, the 1980s and 1990s promoted a Foucault that, in spite of the compelling critiques he made of the scientia sexualis of modern Western society, was mostly about sex. (This “Foucault and sex everywhere” trend continues today under other guises, where critical interest remains fixated on sexual orientations, identities, transformations, repressions, and epiphanies.) Foucault’s elaborations on race and biopolitics in the last part of History of Sexuality, volume one, was hardly discussed, despite his acknowledgment (in an interview) that it was the fundamental part of the book. Fortunately, because the topics Foucault wrote about with such critical energy remain entirely timely some 40 or 50 years later, scholars have been returning to his texts and coming away with all kinds of fresh insights. With the publication of the Collège de France Lectures, we also have a newer Foucault, about whom much more awaits being said. And, to be honest, my own serious reflections on his works only began when I realized to my astonishment that the Californicated version I had followed while still a graduate student and junior professor was somewhat limiting, and that I needed to go considerably beyond the Foucault that had been popularized by his American following in the Bay Area. Needless to say, I feel very indebted to scholars who published on Foucault well before me: Sylvia Wynter, Arnold Davidson, Paul Veyne, Pierre Macherey, Niklas Rose, Bernard Harcourt, Ann Laura Stoler, Gary Shapiro, Wendy Brown, Maurice Godelier, Lynne Huffer, Timothy O’Leary, Simon During, and many, many others in a variety of fields and subfields whose works I noted in my book.

Let me express my gratitude to the editors of Arcade for the thoughtful attention they are bringing to my book. Thank you very much.

Rey Chow's picture
Rey Chow is Andrew W. Mellon Distinguished Professor of the Humanities at Duke University. She received her education in Hong Kong and the United States, where she completed her doctoral studies in Modern Thought and Literature at Stanford. She is the author of many publications in the areas of modern literature, film, critical theory, and cultural studies, including, more recently, Entanglements, or Transmedial Thinking about Capture (2012), Not like a Native Speaker: On Languaging as a Postcolonial Experience (2014), and A Face Drawn in Sand: Humanistic Inquiry and Foucault in the Present (2021). She is the co-editor of the volume Sound Objects (2019), and a co-editor of the book series Asia Pacific published by Duke UP.