Remi Joseph-Salisbury and Laura Connelly
Aesthetics of Excess: The Art of Politics of Black and Latina Embodiment
Manchester University Press, 2021
Reviewed by Cindy-Lou Holland
Grounded in a scathing critique of what the authors call the “neoliberal-imperial-institutionally-racist university,” this book challenges readers to reflect on both the definition and the location of anti-racist scholar-activism by asking: what counts as anti-racist scholar-activism? The authors’ answer forms the book’s most common refrain: anti-racist scholar-activism must be understood as engaged praxis that takes place outside of academia in service to communities of resistance.
The book is set in the context of higher education in the UK, a scene currently dominated by an increasing reliance on performance metrics captured through various neoliberal technologies, which will ring familiar to other Western audiences. Along with this context, the book triangulates among three specific “coordinates”: anti-racist resistance in Britain; anti-racist scholar-activism, both its historical and contemporary manifestations (not limited to the UK); and the “neoliberal-imperial-institutionally-racist-university.”
These three concepts work as the project’s lodestar, and together create a tight agenda for the authors’ research, which centers on a set of semi-structured interviews conducted between 2018 and 2019 with a diverse group of twenty-nine individuals who were identified (or who self-identified) as anti-racist scholar-activists affiliated with universities in the UK. With a few exceptions, the interview participants are people of color at various stages in their careers, ranging from advanced PhD students to senior faculty. While this dataset provides compelling anecdotal material, the authors also take pains to emphasize and reference the long history of Black resistance, anti-racist scholarship, and anti-racist activism—both within and outside the academic community—to which they are beholden.
Audiences familiar with anti-racist discourse will find the authors’ references familiar: Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, Angela Davis, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Stuart Hall, and Patricia Hill Collins to name a few regular mentions. Indeed, the text acts as something of a primer to anti-racist scholarship in that it quotes from a wide variety of well-known anti-racist scholars, placing them in conversation with the contemporary anti-racist scholar-activists interviewed for the project. What’s more, the book’s non threatening language and the semi-informality of its style, offering a manifesto in place of a traditional conclusion, for example, contribute to this sense of its potential utility as an anti-racist primer suitable for use in graduate and undergraduate classrooms.
The project is organized in six accessible chapters, each with a conclusion that neatly sums up its salient points, again making it a strong contender for use in the classroom. The first chapter sets out to gain some clarity around terminology, unpacking the term ‘scholar-activist’ and revealing how academics committed to anti-racist activism struggle deeply with their institutional identities. To that end, the authors note that “Terminological criticality is perhaps one of the few consistencies in how our heterogeneous group of participants self-identify.” Thus, this chapter offers important insight into the heterogeneity of anti-racist scholar-activism in general: in the people doing the work, in the ways they work in service, and in the issues on which they focus.
The next four chapters offer commentary on the principles revealed by the authors’ research, and I’ll cover these briefly. Chapters Two and Three, on the concepts of working in service and reparative theft, lay out the importance of embedding oneself in community-led efforts that specifically position the academic in service to communities of resistance. For the authors and their study participants, the idea of being in service underpins the whole game—it ensures activism is Other-oriented instead of ego-oriented. This orientation insists that both scholarship and activism should reflect the interests of those without power, inducing a sense of accountability in scholars while acting as a guide for evaluating the usefulness of one’s work to those without power. At the same time, noting that some groups working toward social justice “are, quite simply, getting it wrong,” the authors suggest it may be “more useful to conceive of ourselves as working in service to social justice and anti-racism.” Similarly, the principle of reparative theft, the focus of Chapter Three, argues that “the act of reparative theft acts as a reminder of whose side anti-racist scholar-activists are on.” The chapter advocates the deliberate redistribution of material resources (money, time, labor), as well as social and symbolic capital, such as using your status as an academic to lend support to non-academic activists facing public scrutiny. Booking university space for community groups, printing materials for community groups, accessing scholarship that lives behind paywalls, and amplifying the voices of non-academic intellectuals number among the “small” acts the authors insist can have big impact for peoples without institutional resources.
Chapters Four and Five cover the related ideas of backlash and struggling where you are. Backlash, the opposition to anti-racist work in the academy, emerges from the tension between the university’s desire to commodify anti-racist work for its own end and its inability to bear the scrutiny of such labor. The chapter frames backlash as a phenomenon underpinned by whiteness, the effects of which are “mediated by one’s location within the matrix of domination” (italics in original.) Through the practice of devaluing anti-racist scholar-activism, backlash aims to penalize the outspoken and deter any who might join in. Pushing back on it, say the authors, is crucial, thus creating networks of support and exploiting the university at its own game are critical practices. But it is because of backlash that Stuart Hall’s idea of struggling where you are, the focus of Chapter Five, is so important. Recognizing that the weight of oppression experienced by differently positioned anti-racist scholar-activists will vary, the idea to struggle where you are recognizes that none of us can do it all, and that working within your “sphere of operation,” a concept borrowed from Guyanese historian and activist Walter Rodney, is where we must start. In a longer quote from Rodney, the task of the ‘guerilla intellectual’ “is to operate within the aegis of the institution and the structure and to take from it and transform it over time,” an idea that harkens back to the authors’ concept of reparative theft. Throughout this chapter, the authors offer pragmatic suggestions for those facing overwhelming conditions with little to no support, which include adopting a critical pedagogy, fostering a classroom-to-activism pipeline, and engaging with trade unions as potential avenues for action.
The final chapter offers a meditation on the inevitable complicity that accompanies academic employment. Developing Gayatri Spivak’s under-fledged notion of “constructive complicity,” the authors suggest such complicity is comprised of three overlapping steps, and this elaboration seems the most original contribution of this text. The steps include: 1) recognizing the contradictions and problematics of the institution, 2) recognizing our complicity in the injustices of the university, and 3) working within and against the university to ensure our complicity is constructive, i.e., working to subvert. In other words, despite the inescapability of our complicity, we must act, and the book’s conclusion, in manifesto-form, offers ten practices to that end.
Indeed, the most salient points of this book, for this reader, were found in its efforts to distinguish anti-racist scholar-activism from purportedly anti-racist activities that do not emerge directly from the needs of, nor directly benefit, those without power. The reminder, throughout the book, is to understand that while we might be positioned in the university, we do not have to be of the university; that, indeed, there are others to whom we are obligated.