Tomas Almaguer Talks Trash, Too
Tomas Almaguer, author of Racial Fault Lines: The Historical Origins of White Supremacy in California and Dean of the College of Ethnic Studies at San Francisco State University, sat down with me over lunch on March 6, 2001 to talk some trash.
Robert: I guess the first question would be, where is the "left" in the Academy today?
Tomas: That's a really interesting question because I would be able to say 20 years ago when I first kind of engaged the left they were they were on the margins of the academy. They were the people who were the "house Marxist" in a department. I can remember being at Berkeley, for example, you had Michael Reich in Economics who was the "house Marxist", Richard Lichtman in Philosophy who was the "house Marxist", Michale Burowoy in Sociology who was the "house Marxist". All of these people were at the margins. Most of them were assistant professors from very prominent places. For example, Burowoy from Chicago, Reich from Harvard, people like that. But they were always kind of peripheral assistant professors. Every one of them had a brutal tenure struggle. Many other very well-known people on the left, like Nancy Chodorow, they wouldn't hire for many years at Berkeley and eventually she got hired. So that question is easy to answer twenty years ago. Now, it's a very curious turn of events because you now have in the academy, and here my experiences are basically at UC Santa Cruz, UC Berkeley, and the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and what's curious is that those marginal left people are now absolutely at the center of departments. They are the chairs. Burawoy, for example. You have in fact, some departments that have been well known to have a number of people on the left, like at Santa Barbara Sociology, who literally dominate the entire department. It's the same at Santa Cruz. And so it's very interesting, I think that the left was at the margins of the academy and are now at the center of it in very high-powered administrative positions and the great irony of that is that for folks of color many of the people we battled ten or twenty years ago were the more traditional, conservative types. And sometimes today the people who we wage the most volatile battles with are people who are from the left. That will happen in the campuses that I know, but throughout the country I think that tends to be the trajectory. In Ann Arbor, for example where I just left, the current chair of American Cultures, the department I just left, was the most marginalized Marxist white man in the entire department. Now he's the chair. And so, that is most often, we'd like to think, a positive thing, but it doesn't always play out that way because their politics on race issues are not always as progressive as their politics on class issues.
Robert: What do you think is the schism is between Ethnic Studies and Leftist or Marxist studies?
Tomas: Well, I think it is inherently an ideological and theoretical divide. And I think I can speak as a Marxist, certainly I was schooled and committed to the worldview and paradigm. And it is certainly a paradigm or worldview that certainly privileges class in a way that obscures any real serious understanding of race. In some respect, the schism and the divide is not just a contemporary political divide, but are so fundamentally anchored in the problematic way that Marxist attempt, or unsuccessfully attempt to deal with race issues. And so, it just comes with the territory in some respect. So I don't see it as much of a contradiction as one might be inclined to see it. Because I think it is something that is inherently problematic with the whole worldview. So why does the politic of the people who adhere to that become problematic and then causes us to be surprised? We shouldn't be. It kind of comes with the territory.
Robert: It's just a function of ideology?
Tomas: I think it's related to the framing of the world from that worldview. And again, I don't think they have ever very rigorously interrogated the meaning of race in the kinds of ways that would lead them to have to revise their kind of paradigmatic view of the world and the politics that follow from that. I don't think they, or most, have not taken that challenge seriously. If they did they'd become Weberians like I did! I think the worldview just doesn't deal with those issues in the fundamental ways they need to be addressed. And so, that's why there was a whole group of us, including David Montejano and Mario Barrera, who as at Berkeley, who were working from a Marxist perspective and literally had to move outside the paradigm. Montejano, at least when his book was published, was still working half in and half out of the paradigm. And Mario Barrera was certainly in the paradigm when his book was published 15, 20 years ago. And I think increasingly, those works that have come out since then, particularly in the late-80s and 90s and have clearly moved away. Ramon Gutierrez's work is out of the paradigm. My work is out of the paradigm. A group of Berkeley people, like Pat Sevilla work outside the paradigm, although her work is Marxist-feminist, it is critical of the paradigm as much as it was taking keys from that worldview. That's the way I kind of see the trajectory of things. And then now, the postmodern folks are outside the structural worldviews that Marxism tends to buy into. So post-structuralism and the other more trendy theoretical perspectives, whether it's psychoanalysis or what have you, all basically use as a point of departure their engagement and transcending of Marxism. And I think that is where the more interesting work is and it's work that is outside of the paradigm. And it leaves those people who are talking about political economy, labor and the class struggle on the margins and back to where they were and renders their contributions as old-fashioned and obsolete. I think. I can be more specific if you have specific examples or instances you want to talk about.
Robert: I was wondering, because you brought up issues of feminism, about someone like Judith Butler who happens to be in the vanguard of leftist feminist politics today and someone who is also very post-structurally influenced.
Tomas: Well, I think, the easiest and most uncharitable dismissal is that she takes the body and everything else with material grounding and throws the baby out with the bathwater. And so what you end up with, a crass Marxist would argue, is idealism; there are just empty ideas and categories with no real people or no relationship to the "real" material world. It's all just a word game and linguistic discourse, etc. etc. And so, I think on the one hand, it's a healthy countering to the more simplistic socialist feminist works, can I think of any? Natalie Sokoloff, Zuillah Eisenstein, people like that who were trying to bring Marxism and feminism in an analysis of the labor market and the home. What I think Butler and other folks have done is literally turned it on its head. Do I think it's any more positive or on target? Probably not. But as a body of work that's within the post-Marxist camp it is important because it is pushing our attention in another area and getting us to think about categories in the relationship of these categories to class in a more innovative and interesting way. But do I think it's the guiding light to take us into the next 10 to 20 years of research? No, not at all. It leads to the kind of prattle we hear from Norma Alarcon and other folks of that persuasion that I don't think have very much to say, to be quite honest.
Robert: What about issues of Transnationalism? Some theories of transnationalism are extremely immaterial. When you look at issues of the IMF and World Bank there is the potential for a very material critique of the transnational.
Tomas: I guess I have to hedge my bets here a little bit. I don't have a clear enough sense of how these folks are merging post structuralism and the transnationalism to be able to give you much of a sense. As I said a bit earlier that I am outside the paradigm, I still have enough of a foot in the paradigm that any kind of work that is completely disembodied or has no reference point to the political economy or to issues like that that deal with the material world I think can be very one-sided just as a very crass Marxism. The more discursively oriented work that refuse to acknowledge the embodied existence we have and the material expression of identity categories and these existential categories are more than things we put on and take off at a whim that would be troubling. The kind of transnational work that you are talking about, if it's anchored in the same camp as Judith Butler's work, I can see how it would be difficult to for me to say that we need to follow that as a model and guiding light to illuminate the nocks and crannies of the world that we don't quite understand that our work will help shed some light on it--I don't see that. That is why it is most often word play and self-indulgent. And it's easy for me to say that. But what else can I say?
Robert: The last question, your prediction for the left. What does the left need to do to become more relevant outside the academy?
Tomas: They need to retire!! Those old white boys and girls just need to cash in their IRA accounts and just get out of the way. That would be the very best thing they could do. And I say that to the degree that many of them have become obstacles and impediments to us rather than natural allies that help promote and shepherd folks of color through the academy. I think that there was at time when they tacitly played that role of running interference and mentoring in the absence of our own folks to help us. But now, it's not at all clear to me what utility they play except the ironic gate keeping role that many of fall victim to. So, that's a very tongue and cheek, very dismissive way of being uncharitable. But, yeah, there was a moment and I'll say this self-critically, when I just worshipped the ground those people walked on. I thought they were the smartest, brightest, the most scholarly and rigorous people around and we were just lucky enough to know them. I thought that at one moment, but am now incredible more cynical and skeptical and would not to accord them the same sort of privileged role that I initially had in my mind about what they were doing and what they were doing for us. But I am probably too uncharitable I would have to confess. But I no longer send students to work with Michael Reich, or to seek out Nancy Chodorow or Judith Butler. I ask people to read and know their work. To be able to engage it and be able to put it in some kind of historical trajectory of their particular field whether it's political economy, gender studies or psychoanalysis or whatever. But, to take them as our kind of guiding lights, it's giving them much too much credit. (laughter) That was a subtle, understated assessment!!
Robert: Well, thank you.
Robert Soza, a Ford Foundation Fellow and graduate student in UC Berkeley's Department of Ethnic Studies, hates garbage and would like to see the world free of it. He's also a member of the Bad Subjects collective. He'd like to thank Mike Mosher for the swanky graphic that accompanies his essay. Also, Fred Aldama and Darren Ranco provided helpful editorial comments.