Imagining a Collectivist Humanities
By Rachel Stein | Published on September 2, 2020
Every time I read Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote, I am struck anew by its destabilizing effects. Cervantes incessantly names, mocks, and renders visible the artifice and constructedness of systems of power and control. Titles of nobility and social status, censorship licenses, notarization, positions of governance, and the very authority of the written word—nothing is exempt from radical questioning. In the process, I, the reader, begin to radically question myself. What is real around me, and what is performance and construct? What is reality anyway? How do I shape the world as I move through space, and how do those spaces shape me?
Don Quixote, like no other text I have read, lays bare the fabrics and failings of early modern Iberian society.
I used that same phrasing on June 8, 2020—“lays bare the fabrics and failings of our society”—to characterize the COVID-19 outbreak and racist killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and Ahmaud Arbery. I was writing an introductory email to adult learners in Don Quixote: Into the World of the Book, a course I teach for The Brooklyn Institute for Social Research. I had taught this class twice before, but this third iteration would be online, amidst entwined pandemics and righteous racial uprisings that will surely define this year, this decade, and this generation.
As I prepped my Quixote class for adult learners, I struggled to articulate the connections that vibrated in my mind and nervous system between Cervantes’s systemic unveilings and the systemic unveilings around me. Then, something unexpected happened. On Juneteenth, protestors in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park spray-painted “bastard” on a monument to Miguel de Cervantes, figuratively gouged his eyes red and marked targets on Don Quixote and Sancho’s backs.
The activists in Golden Gate Park did not spray-paint Cervantes alone. They toppled a statue of Fray Junípero Serra, whose California missions subjected Native Americans to physical abuse, forced labor, and infectious disease. They felled sculptures of Francis Scott Key and Ulysses S. Grant. They painted a bright red “Adiós America” on Grant’s monument.
The anonymous protestors, like so many propelling the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, were asking questions fundamentally Cervantine:
What would happen if the whole world stopped playing along with the trappings of the current order, gave things new names, new landscapes to inhabit, and used different vocabularies and definitions to reshape, re-signify, and conceptualize our lived reality?
In the words of adrienne maree brown: “We are in an imagination battle.”
Instead of police reform—abolition. Instead of vandalism or defacement—creative protest. Instead of denying and ignoring white supremacy as the complex social system in which we live, naming it. Examining it. Owning it. Visibilizing that brutal, unjust pasts are not past: they still live in our bodies and spaces. And it will take work—lifelong, generational work—to retool our imaginations to bring a just world into being.
BLM activist discourse and actions, which draw on and feed into and out of critical race, Black feminist, and queer theories, have deep interrogatory power no less valid than the Spanish philological methods that constitute the bedrock of our field. In response to the Cervantes pintada, the reigning reaction of scholars of early modern Iberia was: ‘Why Cervantes? The protestors must not have known who Cervantes was and what he stood for. They must be confused! And ignorant!’ But in fact, the protestors read and interpreted that monument to symbolize exactly what it was erected to convey. As Miguel Martínez has highlighted, the statue’s financier inaugurated it with words of “ferviente amor a Cervantes, y recabando para la vieja España toda la gloria a que tiene derecho por el descubrimiento, conquista y colonización de América.” The monument’s creators signified Cervantes as a symbol of Spanish colonialism and (white) European supremacy, whether or not we would do so today. That original signification still palpitates in the space.
“Imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy,” to use bell hooks’s term, also courses through our field. It showed up in racist and nationalist reactions to the Cervantes pintada, rooted in an academic culture of white Spanish male superiority. It shows up in patriarchal and white-dominant performances of erudition as a means of exerting power over others. It shows up in the exclusion and belittling of knowledge and ideas of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) and women in conferences and other forums. It shows up in the ways that scholars in our field consider our particular forms of education—which grew out of the societies that brought colonialism and slavery to the Americas—as superior to others. It shows up in the policing, mockery, and belittling of Spanish not sanctioned by the Real Academia Española. It shows up in affirming commitments to decolonial and antiracist approaches to research and teaching without fighting for the rights of BIPOC workers across our universities, from the support staff who hold it all together to faculty on the tenure-track.
In this essential time of laying bare, what can we imagine tearing down? Just as importantly: what can dream of building up?
It may seem odd to use imaginative, dreamy language and questions in a field, profession, and country so steeped in imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy. That culture keeps us constantly on guard, fending for individualistic rewards and recognition (jobs, tenure, promotions). Our institutions commodify and co-opt decoloniality and antiracism, because our capitalistic society commodifies everything, and we exist inside it. Which makes it difficult to ascertain each other’s intentions when claiming or striving to do decolonial and antiracist work. The current order breeds suspicion. And there is anger, pain, and anxiety among us about all of this.
But there is also joy and love in the collective enterprise of studying and unearthing the cultural artifacts we hold dear. There is community in our conferences and classrooms, in the special collections, archives, reading rooms, and libraries that preserve our objects of study. There are scholars in our field—like those I am lucky to speak with in this seminar—who are pushing against the status quo, building on those who came before them.
So I put it to you all: What kind of field of the future could we collaboratively ideate?
I am dreaming of a collectivist, rather than public, humanities, which would:
- pay as much care and attention to those working and living alongside us as to our historical subjects and objects of study.
- not bemoan presentism. Own the legacies we embody, the long histories and ancestry that got us to where we are today. The problem is not applying a present lens to the past; it is the failure to interrogate the ways we are still living and enacting the imperialist, colonialist, white-supremacist past.
- create space to build trust to work with emotion and vulnerability among us; eschew dehumanizing modes of critique and judgment of each other’s work
- for my fellow white people, especially: prioritize doing the deep, hard, consistent work to dismantle racism, following principles like those laid out by The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond.
- for my fellow white people, especially: open ourselves up to feedback from BIPOC colleagues and to those who have been doing this work for much longer to keep us accountable, growing, and evolving. Build on existing efforts rather than trying to spearhead something new.
- organize and unionize without maintaining the silos of the academic hierarchy. Find solidarity with all academic workers and workers in the communities in which we live.
- consistently interrogate whether we are using “decolonization” and “antiracism” as metaphors and performance. Use critical tools from cultural studies to interrogate what kinds of powers, both transformative and insidious, those metaphors and performances have.
- commit to and advocate for open-access publishing so that as many audiences as possible can read our work. Collectively fight against the prestige and impact factors of tenure requirements that are holding the current system of pay-walled knowledge in place.
- let in forms of wisdom, knowledge, and culture from outside the traditional bounds of our field. “Get experimental.”
I am just one voice—the voice of a white, Jewish, cis, hetero woman who decided not to pursue the tenure track; nerds out on histories of early modern Iberian monarchy and the book; became a librarian; is a mother; is new to activism; is trying to join with gratitude and humility. Thank you for taking the time to read this; I look forward to your thoughts, input, and ideations.
- I have been becoming more aware of my nervous system and the somatics of racism and white supremacy culture by listening to Resmaa Menakem and reading his book, My Grandmother’s Hands. Menakem prefers the term “white-body supremacy.”
- Rubenstein and Swan, “Historical Statues Toppled.”
- Brown, Emergent Strategy, 18: “We are in an imagination battle. Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown and Renisha McBride and so many others are dead because, in some white imagination, they were dangerous. And that imagination is so respected that those who kill, based on an imagined, racialized fear of Black people, are rarely held accountable. Imagination has people thinking they can go from being poor to a millionaire as part of a shared American dream. Imagination gives us borders, gives us superiority, gives us race as an indicator of capability.”
- I draw on the language of “creative protest” from Take ‘Em Down Nola’s social media posts. Take ‘Em Down Nola is an activist organization fighting to take down all symbols of white supremacy in New Orleans.
- See Vélez-Sainz, org. “El legado,” for Martínez’s intervention, in which he cites “Don Quixote en California,” 75.
- Cited in Lomuto, “Public Medievalism,” originally from Hooks, Writing Beyond Race, 4.
- Rather than fully rehash the debates that transpired in the wake of the Cervantes pintada, I direct readers to Jones and Leahy, “Cervantes y la matera de las vidas negras.” and the ensuing roundtable, Vélez-Sainz, org., “El legado de Cervantes.”
- Leung and López-McKnight, “Dreaming Revolutionary Futures,” and Ferretti, “Building a Critical Culture,” make these arguments about critical information literacy and academic library work; they are applicable in this case as well.
- Lomuto, “Public Medievalism,” argues: “we must not confuse the institutionalization of diversity work with anti-racist or decolonizing work. The former protects the institution… whereas the latter would tear it down.”
- Brown, Emergent Strategy, 19, speaks of collaborative ideation: “We must imagine new worlds that transition ideologies and norms, so that no one sees Black people as murderers, or Brown people as terrorists and aliens, but all of us as potential cultural and economic innovators. This is a time-travel exercise for the heart. This is collaborative ideation—what are the ideas that will liberate all of us? The more people that collaborate on the ideation, the more that people will be served by the resulting world(s).”
- Late in composing this paper, I found that Toby Miller briefly uses the term “collectivist humanities” in the conclusion to Blow up the Humanities, 123.
- See The People’s Institute (PISAB), “Principles.” PISAB is “a national and international collective of anti-racist, multicultural community organizers and educators dedicated to building an effective movement for social transformation,” founded in 1980 and based in New Orleans, where I live. I want to express profound gratitude to European Dissent New Orleans and the White Anti-Racist Learning Community (WALC) at Tulane.
- See Tuck and Young, “Decolonization is Not a Metaphor.”
- brown, Emergent Strategy, 18: “It is so important that we fight for the future, get into the game, get dirty, get experimental. How do we create and proliferate a compelling vision of economies and ecologies that center humans and the natural world over the accumulation of material?”