Charlie Bertsch (cbertsch) wrote,
Charlie Bertsch

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Putting the Lay in MLA

Here's one from the archive for you. Annalee was supposed to be presenting a paper called "Walk Like Your In Cyberspace" for the 1992 MLA in New York. The fall semester leading up to the convention, however, she and many other Graduate Student Instructors at UC Berkeley went on strike. While only a Reader at the time and therefore not technically part of the festivities, I easily won the wonderful Julian Boyd's approval for me and my fellow Reader Donna Kaiser to participate in the strike as if we were also supposed to be striking. From early November until the end of classes, I woke before dawn and braved absurdly bad rush hour traffic to make it onto the picket lines by 8am.

The experience was transformative for me, as it was for so many of my fellow strikers. Incidentally, that fall semester also saw the debut of Bad Subjects: Political Education for Everyday Life, which even put out a special "Why We Strike" supplement. Somehow, in all the turmoil, Annalee decided that she didn't want to travel to New York to give a paper that seemed irrelevant to the matters at hand. I offered to go in her stead, since I was already planning to be on the East Coast. Together, we wrote a paper for her MLA slot that reflected, not on the airy abstractions of postmodern lifestyles, but the concrete reality that we had just experienced as strikers.

I proudly wore my AGSE/UAW baseball hat throughout the MLA, indoors and out, telling anyone who asked why I was wearing it. I had it on when I approached Frederic Jameson and gave him copies of the first three issues of Bad Subjects -- he seemed decidedly underwhelmed -- and when I later attended the UC Berkeley English Department's annual gathering for faculty and graduate students, held in the wet bar-outfitted and mirror-ceilinged absurdity of Department Chair Fred Crews's suite. Even though I felt simultaneously stared-at and stared-through, I kept the hat on. Finally, James Turner, who was away that year, approached me in a friendly, if intense, manner and made a surprising reference to Bad Subjects -- someone must have told him about it -- in which he wondered whether Althusser wasn't a little too 70s for our generation. He also commented on the hat. No one else acknowledged it.

Later, I stood in the bedroom with Carlos Camargo, Fred Crews, and Stephen Greenblatt, while the four of us half-watched the San Francisco 49ers beat the crap out of a bad team -- I think it was the Detroit Lions -- while talking tensely about various matters. I was President of the English Graduate Association that year, a task Carlos had passed on to me, and had therefore been instrumental in coordinating various liaisons between the Department and the strikers. I never had the impression that Fred Crews wanted to talk to me, but he seemed to feel some sort of professional obligation to make conversation with me and Carlos.

Greenblatt, whom I had never really spoken to before, wondered aloud why we were bothering to watch the game, since it had no bearing on the playoffs and was already a rout. "Because Joe Montana might play," I replied. "But he won't play until the second half, " Greenblatt answered. "This is the first half. We don't need to watch Steve Young."

At one point in the conversation, Crews, who grew up in the Philadelphia area, talked about the importance of squash. Having grown up in a rural portion of northern Bucks County, beyond the range of "official" suburbs but still within the ambit of the Philadephia media, I responded that squash hadn't been a big deal where I lived. "It's a class thing," Crews replied, making the all-too-common mistake of imagining that I was some sort of proletarian rustic -- based on attire, field of interest etc. -- instead of opening his mind to the possibility that maybe, just maybe I knew what I was talking about. See, I knew some of the high-end families in our area. But they all played tennis at the club, not squash.

The trauma of that evening receding in the rearview mirror, I returned to the hotel room Carlos and I were sharing and prepped like mad for my presentation the next day. Of course, since my panel was at the end of the conference, it wasn't well attended. My moderator Ann Powers was a half hour late, caught in a subway delay -- she had already quit grad school and was writing for the New York Times by then -- so Carlos took her place. Because the panel was in a giant ballroom, with the audience spaced out over what seemed like ten acres, I felt very odd standing up at the elevated platform, delivering my first academic paper ever. The fact that the paper wasn't very academic only enhanced my sense of dislocation. Still, it came off pretty well.

Looking back on it now, I'm amazed at how strange the paper seems. I can't believe I was up there talking about sex. It seems so brave and foolhardy in retrospect.


This paper is as marked and transfigured by recent historical events as those human beings who have worked to write it in the midst of the current graduate student employees' strike at UC Berkeley. As you may have noticed, this paper's original title indicated that it would concern technology, identity politics, and graduate students. Moreover, it was originally intended to be the work of one author who would herself be here in New York to read it. But, as a materialist might say, everything has changed. This paper is now the result of a collaborative effort between Annalee Newitz, its listed author, and myself, Charlie Bertsch, the speaker you see before you today. It will no longer concern cyberspace, or the technological innovation known as virtual reality, because those of us participating in the strike at UC Berkeley have recently encountered something far more important: in attempting to gain recognition for our union, we came smack up against 'real' reality. Therefore, rather than discuss the way technology might transform social and cultural spaces, today we would like to explain how a community of human beings has been attempting to change the conditions under which they labor and live.

The community of human beings to which we refer is AGSE, the Association of Graduate Student Employees at UC-Berkeley, affiliated with the UAW: our union (I'm wearing my union hat), which went out on strike November 19th, remained on strike through four weeks of class and finals until semester's end December 21st, and is still on strike as I speak to you now. We do not have time here to give an extended history of the union's efforts to organize and be granted recognition by the UC administration. Some brief notes will have to suffice. While AGSE has existed since the early 1980's, the UC-Berkeley administration has repeatedly refused to recognize it as a union representing graduate student employees. In spite of the fact that AGSE does not officially exist, its dues-paying membership includes over a thousand graduate students from virtually every discipline on campus. These union members work as Teaching and Research Assistants and Readers, who grade the papers and exams for large lecture classes. Following a two-day strike three years ago, the UC-Berkeley administration signed a three-year interim agreement with AGSE which guaranteed that the university would remit a little over a third of graduate student employees' fees and pay the cost of their health insurance.

This year, when union members asked for an extension of the interim agreement, the administration refused. Union members first voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike, then trooped out in large numbers once the strike itself began to signal their active participation. During the first few weeks of the strike AGSE strove for a boycott of the Berkeley campus, setting up picketing lines around its perimeter. As the semester drew to a close, the union began exploring other strategies but continued picketing. Despite the attrition to be expected in a strike that goes on much longer than initially foreseen, AGSE members remained remarkably supportive through the end of classes: almost all upheld the boycott and most did not resume normal teaching. Although the university threatened harsh punishment for those graduate students who withheld their grades, many did so anyway. As things currently stand, AGSE is a battered but not yet beaten organization still trying, however slim the odds, to overcome both the bureaucratic inertia and ideological predilections of the nation's largest university system.

Although we members of AGSE call ourselves a union, it should be clear that we are a union like few labor history has seen. While we are sure that we are workers, it is hard to say what our product might be; it is equally hard to say what constitutes our labor. Furthermore, we realize that our status as graduate student employees differs sharply from the historical status of, say, auto-workers, electricians, or actors in one important respect: it is unequivocally temporary. Union members are a temporary community of graduate students serving a temporary community of undergraduate students. Because the labor that we do and the product it results in slip past the conceptual boundaries with which we seek to delimit them and because our relative socio-economic status is similarly in flux, defining ourselves as a community with shared interests has proven to be extremely difficult. Two areas of discourse in particular have prevented and continue to prevent us from forming the sort of community that both the university administration and we ourselves might recognize as a 'real' union. These discourses, put simply, originate in those institutions and social practices associated with heteronormative gender identities and those associated with traditional economic and class relations. In the rest of this presentation, we hope to show how individual identities fashioned during the historical period known as the 'postmodern' could be said to impede progressive political action by fragmenting community, specifically the community represented by AGSE.

We choose to use the term 'identity' here, although it took the two of us quite a while to come to an agreement about what exactly it might mean. We decided that we do not wish to open the intellectual can of worms known today as 'identity politics', for we are not here to debate the legitimacy of particular forms of self-identification. Rather, we prefer to think of the term 'identity' as we would prefer to think of the term 'postmodern', as convenient place-markers for characterizing ways of thinking and acting in a specific historical period. Hence, when we say that someone has a 'postmodern gender identity', we are merely trying to relay information about the kind of historical conditions in which this person has emerged as a subject. We do not intend to characterize the content of this person's identity, for we believe that it would probably be stupid, if not impossible, to attempt a blanket definition of gender and class after the 1960's. We also feel that it is appropriate to use historical categories as a way of explaining ourselves and our subject matter for another reason: we are going to be dealing with a specific group of people in this analysis, most of whom are members of the post-Baby Boom generation and have thus spent their entire lives in the era that most critics, beginning with the traumas and transformations of the early 1960's, define as the 'postmodern'.

During the AGSE strike, it is common knowledge that we strikers have been having a lot more 'sex' with each other than we normally would. Those who have not performed physical acts have engaged in blatant forms of flirtation; and those who have done neither have certainly been talking about everyone else who has been! We see this as a side-effect or symptom of the way individual graduate students attempted to make themselves over as a community. Representatives from the UAW, which provides AGSE legal and financial support with very few strings attached, noted that AGSE has ordered more doughnuts and had more general membership meetings during the strike than any other union in the history of UAW-affiliated unions. This information suggests two things about the psychological make-up of AGSE members. First of all, we associate community with some form of consumption; secondly, we need to get together to talk a lot to feel like a collective. We union members appear to be profoundly uncertain about how we, as individuals, might be implicated in each others' lives if not in the traditional middle-class contexts of sexual gaming, consumption, and a kind of weird group therapy.

Ideally, if we wish to form a strong collective like a union to protect our personal interests as workers, we would want to feel some sense of solidarity with our brothers and sisters in the union. The problem in this ideal is the concept of 'union'. Capitalism, thriving as it does on the frictive exchange between different nations, groups, and individuals, encourages us to abstract every social exchange into an idealized 'one-on-one' pitting buyer against seller, giver against taker. 'Union' thus appears to us as the relation between individuals trying to get the better of each other, or at least 'get off' in the process. It is here that the heteronormative asserts itself. Understood properly, this 'heteronormative' denotes not just a certain relationship between a man and a woman, but more generally any 'one-on-one' relationship between parties inscribed within the competitive framework of capitalism. Ideally this relationship involves an equal distribution of power, need, and desire; in practice it almost never does. Ideally the 'man' in such a relationship (and here I must make it clear with more than my intonation that 'man' is in scare quotes, but usually wouldn't need to be!) is the equal of the 'woman'; in practice this is rarely the case.

One of the cruder ideological expressions of this relationship casts light on the process involved. The 'man' (again, in qualified scare quotes) gives 'it' to the 'woman'. Of course, the 'woman' usually ends up, as we know from capitalism, paying a price for this gift she clearly does not need in any material way. Likewise the consumer finds that her or his desire is constructed by the very goods and services so generously offered by the merchant. What matters for our purposes is that this 'it' is not shared (and here we think of Freud's id or 'es', the German word for 'it') but is, rather, passed unilaterally down a chain. Under capitalism, 'union' that should involve sharing 'it' finds itself ideologically reconfigured into exchange that merely transfers 'it' at a price! We near omniscient graduate students are, unfortunately, just as likely as less educated people to mistake this narrow sort of 'union' for the real thing. Heteronormative and capitalist discourses interweave to convince us that whatever desire for union we feel must be one individual's desire for sexual union with another individual. We cannot imagine ourselves as individuals desiring non-sexual union with thousands of other individuals. Failing to imagine ourselves as non-gendered, non-sexual collectivist workers, we fall back on what are, under capitalism, historically traditional ways of acting out desire and collectivity. We become dyads and triads linked up through our sexual desire, small groupings that ultimately work against the interests of our collective's cathexis. At worst, we end up fucking our colleagues instead of bucking the system. Few of us escape being led temporarily astray by the urge. It has been sobering to see again and again how individuals' commitment to walking the picket lines depends on the social scene to be found there. We are committed to the union, but spend a large portion of our time representing that commitment in sexual gaming. Even more disturbing to us has been ways in which this behavior has reminded many men and women of a supposedly outmoded division of labor along gender lines, in which men give orders while women do the dirty work and men are paragons of calm and rationality while women act out their frustrations hysterically.

Why do we perceive an upsurge in the intensity of the heteronormative precisely when we have consciously set out to collectively oppose, in our own limited and specific way, the laissez-faire ideals of capitalism? It is in this apparent paradox that we perceive the strength of those ideals to sneak through the back door, so to speak, and hail us from behind. Throughout our strike both the university administration and many of our own departments have sought to appeal to our individual self-interest as graduate students in order to bring us back to work. Two things are striking about this appeal. The first we will mention later; the second bears on our present discussion. As the authors of this paper, we firmly believe that, in order to continue onward as a collective, union members have repressed their response to this appeal only to act it out in their sexual relations. In other words, when we repress 'public' self-interest of the academic sort, we end up pursuing 'private' self-interest of the sexual sort, for we are distracted and immobilized by our confusion regarding the overlap between 'public' and 'private' forms of cathexis and desire.

So far we have been speaking generally about capitalism and heteronormativity. It is perfectly clear to us, however, that both unfold over time. We take it for granted that capitalism has been the driving force behind the increasing rationalization of the globe, that capitalism itself has become more rational in the process, and that this process of rationalizing has dissolved and is still dissolving all manner of social and political boundaries by reducing differences to the common denominator of exchange-value. We also take it for granted that what is referred to as the 'postmodern era' represents the acme of this process thus far. We thus read our confusion at the overlap between 'public' and 'private' as another symptom of both our 'capitalist condition' and its most virulent strain: the postmodern. It is no secret that gender and heteronormativity aren't what they used to be. Especially after the political and cultural upheavals of the 1960's and 1970's, one would be hard-pressed to give a strict definition of what it means to be gendered or have sexual desire. It would, perhaps, be most accurate to say that the post-1960's generation has a range of gender and sexual identities from which to choose. Anti-essentialist critics like Judith Butler or Donna Haraway would make the claim that gender and sexual identities are so problematic that one cannot simply 'be' a gender or sexual orientation: one can only 'perform' gendered or sexual acts. That is, the most coherent identity a person can claim is merely the sum of her or his isolated acts in particular situations rather than some universal category like 'man', 'woman', or 'homosexual'. For an anti-essentialist, no identity is forever. It is always contingent upon how one performs. Hence a person might perform as a homosexual yesterday and a bisexual today.

Under capitalism, before the 1960's the vast majority of people would have conceived of themselves as permanently heterosexual; the rest as permanently marginal, outcasts forever. In large measure this stable heteronormativity depended on a traditional gendered division of labor in which women were responsible for maintaining private, domestic order and men were responsible for maintaining public order. Certainly this generalization over-simplifies matters, but it is one feminists and anti-homophobes are fond of making. We are also fond of it, and would want to make the point that the pleasure we get out of making such generalizations is no doubt connected to the difficulties we face when asked to generalize about the state of gender and sexual relations between actually existing women and men today. If our gender and sexual orientation are not necessarily linked by any causal relationship, and if neither is any longer a permanent component of our identity, but something we may 'perform' differently day to day, then it is safe to assume that the gendered division of labor they grounded has been similarly destabilized. How is it that emotional and economic labor gets divided up among the genders today? Indeed, if we cannot in any way fix the meaning of our genders and sexual orientations, it becomes impossible for us to participate in labor divided up along these lines. We think that people try to solve this psychological and social problem by occupying several different identities at once. One might be a feminized male who has sex with women, or a masculine male who has sex with men. One might even be a hypermasculine woman who has sex by writing pornography to electronic partners in cyberspace! In a nutshell, gender is no longer a sure indicator of what one's predilections might be. We can and do shift positions at will. Our gender and sexual identity is emphatically temporary.

One the one hand, then, we have the persistence and intensification of heteronormative discourse; on the other, however, we confront that discourse's apparent dissolution into the stream of postmodern boundary-flux. The same old power relations continue to prevail, but we are increasingly hard pressed to say anymore who is giving 'it' to whom, or whether there is any human agency left in the perpetuation of this chain. For us, the crucial thing to see in this tidy dialectic is the way that our perception of the second phenomenon helps to mask our responsibility for reinvigorating the first. Because we are all smart enough to know that our identity is, as Chantal Mouffe puts it ""constituted by an ensemble of subject positions that can never be totally fixed in a closed system of differences" it is obvious to us that what initially seems to be evidence of our perpetuation of the heteronormative is really an ironic pastiche of it. Surely we cannot be passing 'it' along with a straight face, for we have no power to initiate any positive action. Put less sarcastically, we find it extremely difficult to think of ourselves as being anywhere other than the receiving end, whether we are buying the latest Routledge or M.I.T. title, eating unheard of numbers of doughnuts, or just being forced to open ourselves to that famous 'it'.

Of course, somewhere in the back of our minds is the thought that we may well end up publishing a book with Routledge or M.I.T., learn to deep-fat fry, or use our power and influence to make some poor graduate student miserable. It is this vague glimpse of future promise that the university and its departmental minions have held before our snouts like the proverbial carrot during our strike. Mentioning "impecunious graduate students" who "carry the teaching load for full professors", Barbara Ehrenreich notes how "the requirement of lengthy education and apprenticeship makes the youth of the middle class into a sort of internal lower class." For many graduate students this demotion to functionally lower-class status can be borne only because they know that they will eventually be allowed to mount the donkey and take the reigns. Because our present status as graduate students is so thoroughly bound up with our aspirations to a position in which we may lord over them, our temporary identity does not give us much to organize a collective around. Our self-interest of the present moment comes in perpetual conflict with our long-term self-interest, for if we do not play by the rules of the heteronormative, capitalist, and academic games, we may well never outlive our 'temporary' demotion to the lower class. For this reason we can safely state that the intensification of the heteronormative during our strike is partially a response to the realization, conscious or unconscious, that in acting collectively now, we may be acting against our individual long-term self-interest.

What all this means is that even in our most ironic pastiches of the heteronormative we are really training ourselves for our future positions in the profession. No matter how true it is to say that all identities are temporary in the postmodern era, our saying so ultimately helps justify the system that so generously confers temporary lower class status upon us. Ironically, perhaps our biggest obstacle in the strike has been the faceless fluidity of the institution we are battling. Like us, the University of California finds refuge from responsibility in the postmodern. Again and again we are reminded that the administrators we deal with are bureaucratically naive professors who have assumed the temporary identity of dean or chancellor because the university, which apparently has a strong speaking voice, plays a lot of golf, and has little tolerance for measly humans, 'asked' them to! AGSE's attempts to ascribe agency to various administrators, including the president of the entire system, have been repeatedly frustrated. One day Dean X has power; the next day she doesn't. One day the impasse is at UC's 'system-wide' office in Oakland; the next day it rests squarely on the UC-Berkeley campus. Sometimes it's even on the UCLA campus! Step for step our own uncertainty about our collective identity has been mirrored back to us in the most grotesque fashion by a university for which (or should I say whom?) Heisenbergian uncertainty is a guiding principle.

We firmly believe that the only way out of our dilemma and countless others like it is to peer beneath the fractured surface of postmodern identity to the power relations that both produce and thrive off its very fragmentation. This is not to say that we should discount our feelings of powerlessness and alienation, or our sense that permanent or even stable identity is irretrievably lost. Rather we would suggest that precisely these perceptions occasion probing analysis of the relationship between our particular postmodern situation and the ongoing evolution of capitalism it heralds. We deem it imperative that such analysis be accompanied by a search for alternatives to the dilemmas it uncovers. Looking at the situation described in this paper, we can get a better idea of how this works.

Above all, our strike has taught us the importance of reflecting at all times on our own uses of power, however powerless we may sometimes feel. We take seriously the age-old critique of unions and other forms of 'alternative' organization that lambastes them for reproducing in mirror-image the power structures they are supposedly trying to subvert. It is vital that not just the content of such power structures, but also their form be fully re-imagined. We are convinced that it is not possible to eradicate heteronormative behavior by indulging in it, however ironically. On the contrary, we consider it essential (and, yes, we do mean 'essential'!)) to break the chain in which the euphemistic 'it' is passed along. We must learn to separate our sexual desire from our desire for community. It has often been claimed that desire for community represents an etiolated form of sexual desire, that form social unions in order to enable sexual ones. We would like to venture that the reverse may well be true, that it may be our sexual desire that is a diluted or even perverted form of our innate desire for community! After all, we can never be collectively happy as a species until we stop transferring this 'it' from person to person and learn to truly share 'it' with everyone equally.


This paper is a good example of the work being put out in Bad Subjects, a free mini-journal devoted to problematizing contemporary culture and the Left that analyzes it. Bad Subjects is edited by Joe Sartelle and Annalee Newitz, my co-author. Joe, Annalee, and I began to print and distribute Bad Subjects on a more or less monthly basis this fall. The strike and the related politicization of the graduate student body ensure that our spring issues will be hotly debated. I have quite a few free copies of our second and third issues for anyone who is interested in seeing how easy it can be to create a forum for regular exchange of ideas. Many of our readers, by the way, are undergraduates and Bad Subjects is committed to being as intellectually accessible as we can make it. The paper I just read was conceived in the same spirit. Thank-you.

While there's something more than a little ridiculous in writing a paper with one's ex-girlfriend about the ideological closure of coupling, I can live with most of it, including the final paragraph's discussion of the "it". And I'm pretty happy with our conclusion that, "we must learn to separate our sexual desire from our desire for community." Word on that.


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