Collective Anti-Disciplinarity: Feeling Promiscuous, Positioning Narrative, and Making Home

Dear reader,

We invite you to join us in this chaotic
but melodic space of collective
going beyond the comfort zone
of single, sovereign authorship
to narrate our shared stories.

Disciplines, like borders, are drawn in blood.
We’ve come to this collective across both.
In our promiscuous crossing,
we contest territories of knowledge which continue
to stake their integrity on dispossessed grounds.

The knowledges we collaboratively produce
attempt to agitate a new space for engagement among those
who challenge and disrupt
the politics of knowledge production in the academy. 1

How does our academic work lead us to grow, and what kind of journeys does it take to actually grow in this work? In a world with so many (mundane and spectacular) struggles for social justice, why do academic theories matter? Throughout our graduate education within a U.S. imperial higher education institution, we2 have realized that we cannot help but make decolonizing struggles a part of our academic journey. Imperial knowledge production historically and currently violate and commit violence on our relations – beings that we love, we care for and we are ourselves. In this piece, we share our journey of exploring what it means to be academics in solidarity with decolonial struggles everywhere.

“But what is your thesis?”

This is a question many of us have confronted throughout our time as graduate students. Simple as it may be, it represents a deeper, more urgent pedagogical issue of the uneven disciplining of knowledge in the academy. As graduate students, we 3 understand this demand for a thesis – for one singular, unifying statement under which each piece of evidence must be filed – as a disciplinary measure seeking to streamline and uncomplicate knowledge that is often nuanced, vexed and relational. As the privileged modes of interaction within classrooms and institutional spaces become decidedly less relational and more abstract, they thus demand fictitious forms of coherence amongst ideas, knowledge sets and knowledge holders. So, we come together to consider both the import and promise of anti-disciplinary modes of knowledge production towards liberatory ends.

How does one navigate the uneven terrains of scholarly recognition within academic work? What happens when no matter how loud you speak, certain bodies and the collectives they signify are not engaged, entirely dismissed or ignored within the academy, or within dominant intellectual and political institutions more generally? Feminist of color pedagogy has marked the classroom as an institutionalized political site capable of reproducing privilege and oppression, while also holding the capacity to challenge both. In the spring of 2015, we found ourselves together in Richa Nagar’s graduate seminar on Caste, Race and Indigeneity. Throughout this course we engaged with the ethics and responsibilities of scholarship in relation to the vibrant and powerful lives of people and social movements that are multiply marginalized in dominant narratives of our pasts, presents and futures. We recognized that the individualistic, monolingual and disciplinary forms of academic writing and theory we were used to could not adequately represent those movements and are, themselves, parts of the systems that actively devalue the knowledge, narratives and theories of the marginalized.

Nine of us from the class of 12 decided to bring together our efforts in the course into a co-authored course paper that aimed to synthesize the rich readings and conversations that had taken place in the seminar. This labor began with a collectively written review of some key texts we read in the seminar. As we engaged these texts together, we were excited by the common themes that emerged in our analyses and decided to collectively write an article which has gradually evolved into this current piece. In 2015-16, five of us (HK, NZP, SB, SJ, SR) compiled and edited the first draft of this piece, with inputs from SP. The same five of us continued to write and edit a second draft in early 2017. NZP, SB, SJ and SR carried on to edit and submit that draft to the AGITATE! Editorial Collective and worked on editorial feedback in summer of 2018.

From the beginning of this journey, we had no idea what those 15 weeks together in Spring of 2015 would incubate in terms of our thinking, writing and collaborative learning. A key part of this collaborative journey over three years has been a commitment to showing up for each other, as full people. We made space for our lives as we worked together – the first 30 minutes of any of our writing meetings were spent actively listening and processing everything that was going on in each of our lives, as friends. We shared our struggles with the process of the preliminary or comprehensive exams that we are required to take for our doctoral degrees. We reflected on the shifting social, political and personal terrains in multiple countries and social locations and repeatedly wondered if we really belonged in this place. This was important as we meditated on what discipline and rigour meant in the academy and what it meant to find a home for ourselves in the creation of this work. Over twenty thousand words of writing, with many months of several eyes, hearts and mouths engaging collectively with these ideas, this article has ended up looking very different from the book reviews with which it began in 2015. One thing that continued to ring true, however, was our shared desire to agitate the disciplinary bounds of knowledge and knowing.  

“I see, that is interesting. But again – What is your thesis?”

Our thesis is a story which attempts to narrate in and through the intersubjective, the spaces between the “I” and the “We.” In taking up this often-times difficult intellectual labor, this collective attempts to join in and contribute to ongoing articulations of new academic grammars that muddy the divisions between testimony, storytelling and theorizing. As we labor to weave together our narratives, we confront the ways in which colonialism affects and structures knowledge production. In understanding colonialism as ongoing practices not only of material dispossession but also discursive erasure, we trace the ways in which disciplinary academic traditions have blossomed in spaces of higher education and worked to eclipse more collaborative, compassionate and radical forms of collective labor and consciousness building. We undertake anti-disciplinarity as a new guiding practice – a line of intention – which  challenges us to survive within each discipline, while at the same time, trying to shake and go beyond those disciplinary boundaries. We write together while living layered dilemmas and contradictions inside academia.

Writing this paper performs a methodological intervention. As graduate students and scholars coming from a variety of locations and disciplines, the rigorous labor of speaking to/with one another, rather than speaking around/past/above each other, called all of us into this collaborative project of refusing disciplining through unruly theorizing. We work to muddy genres of academic writing and to agitate a new space into being: a home for collective anti-disciplinarity. For us, this begins with collective writing. In weaving our personal narratives with our collective one, we have understood more deeply the webs that entangle academic representational practices with colonial dispossession and historical erasure. We interarticulate this collective’s journey with the stories of those whom we honor as our epistemic foremothers. Through this endeavor we flag six texts that we feel are important resources for other scholar-activists interested in disrupting epistemic violence and working towards new spaces of coalition and collective action. These are Andrea Smith and Audra Simpson’s edited volume Theorizing Native Studies (2014), Himadeep Muppidi’s Politics in Emotion (2013), Zenzele Isoke’s Urban Black Women and the Politics of Resistance (2013), Audra Simpson’s Mohawk Interruptus (2012), Sharmila Rege’s Writing Caste/Writing Gender (2006) and Richa Nagar’s Muddying the Waters (2014).


Positioning ourselves in anti-disciplinarity

What happens to our narratives in academic scholarship – the narratives we tell about ourselves, our commitments, and the ‘things’ we are passionately intertwined with? Where do they go once we have released them? We wish to probe the often unexamined spaces wherein our stories – our lives (and those of others) – are readied for academic consumption. Together, our conjoined efforts push back against disciplinary pressures to produce depersonalized ‘scholarly’ and ‘theoretical’ results as we draw from raw and deeply personal experiences. We do so in order to understand how we are inseparable from the narratives we tell and choose to write together.

There is no single author, nor academic, here. Through sharing, retelling and critically engaging with each other’s narratives, this writing represents an assemblage of voices which speak “together separately.”4 In speaking “together separately,” we traverse the borders of the ‘I’ and the ‘we.’5 We interpret this as an act of border crossing, a collective refusal to disappear. These crossings enable us to construct a ‘liminal’ subject position through the slippages between subjectivities and embodiments, garnering narrative accounts from disparate locations and joining them together in a shared account of the world.

For Nida Sajid, this represents the conjoined power to invoke an individual’s life experiences and a Dalit6 collective consciousness, whilst rejecting the totalizing framework of communal suffering that commonly informs auto-ethnographic accounts.7 This creates a blending of Dalit atmakatha (autobiography), narrative, svanubhuti (self experience) and poetry, which Nida8 analyzes in the work of Dalit poet activist Mohan Das Naimshraya. This invocation of a shared rather than communal account de-individualizes and reconstructs the method of auto-ethnography, which we feel is often abstracted from relational experiential grounding.  Following in the spirit of this work, we use narrative, poetry and critical analysis as complimentary discursive sites for radical critique and knowledge production.

Theoretical promiscuity” and a “praxis without guarantees” are two additional methodological tenets of our work. “Theoretical promiscuity,”9 as coined by Simpson and Smith, refers to the shared risk in theorizing with or about the non-normative. Similarly, Richa Nagar’s formulation of “muddying the waters” from her 2014 work by the same name, details the vulnerabilities of such messiness within the politics of language, location, engagement and epistemic hierarchies. Richa writes:

In these journeys of the “I” and the “we,” defined by situated solidarities, the possibilities of alliances are inseparable from a deep commitment to critique that is grounded in the historical, geographical and political contingencies of a given struggle. These are journeys enabled by trust with the ever-present possibility of distrust and epistemic violence; journeys of hope that must continuously recognize hopelessness and fears; and journeys that insist on crossing borders even as each person on the journey learns of borders that they cannot cross.10

With attention to the historical and geopolitical challenges of theorizing, narrating and translating marginality, power and justice, we adopted a praxis without guarantees. Envisioned by Richa, a praxis/politics without guarantees is one that roots itself in and through radical vulnerability, with the hopes of opening up spaces for negotiating the ethics of how we come to tell the stories we tell. Most importantly, this praxis, “unavoidably struggles to decenter the authors and to complicate the meanings of authorship and coauthorship,” whilst also questioning how certain sites, languages, texts and arguments garner institutional power and dominance.11  

Likewise, I cannot see where this collaborative article effort is going. I have no idea what it will look like or how we will get there or remain true to our individual voices and those of the authors whose works we will interpret. Progress is slow, I think at least partially in response to this lack of clarity, which can lead to impatience and procrastination in the face of the many pressures each of us face beyond this project. I hope that when we tell the story of this project, we don’t leave out these difficulties. I think they’re important to understanding what barriers we face as we go about muddying the waters.
-Reflection written by a collective member in August 2015


Feeling Promiscuous: Indigenous Critiques of Academic Grammars

Constricting the throat, blocking the air
I feel trapped within myself, because speaking is not safe
I feel the ancestors locked out of the room
They are pounding on the door—seeping through the cracks in the floor
Unsettling me
Breath by breath.

We have left parts of ourselves at classroom doors
Forgetting to hold space for silence –forgetting those who walk with us–forgetting
that there is enough time to bring ourselves into our studies.

Cut after cut
Repetitive, institutional woundings
The teachings of theory sans emotion.    

Indigenous critiques of ‘Theory’ have sought to dismantle the settler-colonial logics and imperial grammars of power that underwrite traditions of abstraction and universality within Western epistemology. Western languages and modes of inquiry need to legitimize their own methods/histories and constantly render alternative knowledge practices subordinate. Constituted primarily in Euro- and Anglo-centric standpoints, Western theorizing not only erases indigenous peoples from its notions of humanity, but also takes indigenous peoples as objects of theory in order to know ‘the Native,’ and subsequently conquer her.12 Thus academic theorizing in and from Native Studies is a contested site of power.

Theorizing Native Studies (2014), like the title suggests, offers a collection of chapters that carve into the unstable spaces of theorizing within the academic discipline of Native Studies. Indigenous forms of resistance to Western theory have percolated into what co-editors Audra Simpson and Andrea Smith describe as an isolationist approach in the field. This approach engages the politics of sovereignty through strategic isolation from non-Native traditions, texts and theoretical frameworks. Simpson and Smith complicate this approach, distinguishing between a “politics of recognition” and a “politics of decolonization.” Isolationism in Native Studies demands from academic institutions “cultural distinctiveness and political integrity”13; but in doing so, Simpson and Smith suggest Native Studies continues to operate within a neoliberal culturalist regime – one that entraps indigenous sovereignty and its conditions of possibility within the terms (and recognition) of the settler-state.

The authors instead call for a politics of decolonization that targets the more foundational and fundamental structures of settler colonization and genocide against Native peoples and analyzes how these structures are “not disconnected from the logics of imperialism, capitalism, heteropatriarchy and white supremacy.”14 Native Studies, then, must engage in “intellectual promiscuity, sympathy and solidarity” with other disciplines and movements that center decolonization in their struggles.15 Simpson and Smith’s project of decolonization via promiscuous theory and coalition-building has been provocatively nourishing for our collective. Beside the gendered and sexualized stigma that accompanies ‘promiscuity,’ we embrace this term to emphasize our rejection of a pure, virtuous genealogy of academic theorizing and our insistence on the need to explore far more complex and diverse ways of building knowledge.

Promiscuity, as an approach, resists power’s claim to sovereignty over the subject. Thus it becomes a labor that takes to task elite professionalization and rejects disciplinary borders drawn around us. It becomes a process of self-determination which emerges from our continued refusal to abide by imposed allegiances and ‘inherited’ settler-colonial regimes of truth and value.

How do we look to and draw from our intellectual ancestors in order to engage in intellectual promiscuity? For critical indigenous theorist Dian Million, promiscuous theorizing is one that preserves “the affective legacy of our experiences … [and] felt knowledge,” through claiming indigenous life as the ‘stuff’ of theory.16 Million’s definition of theory rethinks the ownership and lineages of intellectual sovereignty within the field of Native Studies and “mobilize[s] boundaries of what can be felt, thought and acted upon.”17 Insofar as everyday stories become life-affirming and life-giving possibilities in the slow death of settler colonialism, storytelling becomes an affective and promiscuous process capable of narrating the past and conjuring decolonial futures.

Similarly, Mishuana R. Goeman’s “Disrupting a Settler-Colonial Grammar of Place” works through Hulleah Tsinhnahjinnie’s Photographic Memoirs of an Aboriginal Savant to stitch together an intertextual18 critique of a “settler-colonial grammar of place.” Goeman imports the term ‘grammar’ from Hortense Spillers:19 insofar as discourses, representations and embodied experiences of blackness necessarily operate within ‘American grammar,’ so too does the settler’s sense of ‘national belonging’ rely on “repetitive practices of everyday life that give settler place meaning and structure.”20 This settler-colonial grammar maintains a binary opposition of public and private spaces and structures native bodies and lands as fixed, finished and stagnant, as well as easily and objectively readable and accessible to the settler.

In contrast, the native subject that Tsinhnahjinnie displays is messy and non-linear. She represents an identity in motion that consciously navigates, negotiates, disrupts and reworks the body, the land and the discourse, simultaneously blurring the lines between public and private to display a story of being from the ground up. Engaging with the symbolic, Goeman’s reading of Tsinhnahjinnie’s photographic memoir renders individual experience and self-identification far more complex than how they are traditionally framed within academic discourse. When we reject the claim that geopolitical space is finite, finished and conquered, we are able to attest to the power of bodies and narratives to uproot these discourses of fixity and generate radical dissonance accompanied by new grammars and languages.

I need to be moved,
Moved by art and music, dance and song, by tales and lives all around me.
Lest I forget,
Forget all that I are, all that I’ve been and all that have made me where I am right now,
in this world of endless webs, tears, love and laughter.
So that I live,
Live in all the churning differences, of the reality that so often we turn to drama, as a way of
                turning away from
the parts inconvenient to feel, to smell, to be.
When a phone keyboard tells me slaughter is a word close to laughter.
I only feel stronger the need to feel.

Himadeep Muppidi opens Politics in Emotion: The Song of Telangana (2013), with two crucially similar tensions to Theorizing Native Studies (2014), which he sustains throughout this short but powerful work. From Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North, Himadeep recalls a scene wherein the narrator is entrusted by late Mustafa Sa’eed to visit his house. During this visit, the narrator comes across a peculiar room – a locked room – overflowing with stacks and stacks of books, not a single one of which are in Arabic. Himadeep understands this room as a doubly locked space. On the one hand, the room is literally locked, insofar as the books it confines are vaulted away from physical circulation outside Sa’eed’s walls. On the other hand, however, the room is linguistically locked, whereby the rich knowledge it purportedly withholds is accessible only via access to its colonial English grammar.

Himadeep invites his readers to engage Salih’s scene as an extended metaphorical image that allegorizes the room of the academic. In thus framing Politics in Emotion, Himadeep compels us to ask: what might the narrator have found if he had walked into my room several years after I had passed? Important, here, is how this double confinement of knowledges mirrors the isolation, (or even the active exclusion) of academics from other realms of political life. Himadeep notes the “dances in the streets and towns and villages sprawling outside”21 during the Telengana struggle as forms of agitation which surround him, yet he does not join. How does one withstand such an enclosure of academic life?

Himadeep’s autoethnographic writing, which interrupts his descriptive historical frameworks and economic analyses, reflects inward and yet simultaneously outward. At once, he  peers deeply into his social location and through that metaphorical window, conjuring a space of visibility and belonging. Himadeep writes that Telangana social stories are a “compulsive presence that I have no choice but to voice”.22 Dominant spheres of academic production center the “reasoned dissection of events and causes and personalities and their motivations,”23 while the accounts of the Telangana movement are filled with the “poetic-idiomatic dimension” which is often ignored or relegated to the realm of the “emotional,” “vulgar” and the “sentimental.” In his words, “The Telangana movement and its politics are so constituted through the idiomatic that I am unsure of how to carry across my translations of the vernacular.”24

Himadeep positions himself, albeit tenuously, as narrator and mediator of “the relation between the English and the Telugu, the visible and the opaque, the global of international relations and the local of Telangana.”25 As a translator, he highlights the existing theoretical labor performed by local youth singers, teachers and peasants that connects developmental policies and practices of the postcolonial state to imperial legacies of the colonial state. He challenges the idea of the subaltern subject “as confined to an archival past” or “a silent past in the academic present.” Rather, he writes these subaltern subjects into a politically active present, making visible the failures of universalized, disenchanted language of sociology and more broadly, of U.S. academic scholarship.26

How do we work towards such translations of narratives across difference? Himadeep encourages us to ‘do our homework’ – to respond to encounters with the familiar yet foreign with a desire to “do enough work on the state of their home to be able to respond ethically, outside of banal generalities or violent suppression.”27 Describing academic ‘fieldwork’ as ‘homework’ inspires us to disrupt the spatial, temporal and emotional separations between home, field and university. Yet, translation remains an extremely difficult ethical labour.

One and a half months is the time that it took me to become a translator (to finish my first translation). Two years later, I still question if I succeeded at being, let alone becoming, an ethical translator. When I first tackled translating I quickly realized that my ‘job’ was tough work, as my job consisted in conveying someone else’s message in another language while at the same time attempting to reach both them and a different audience. Therefore, throughout this ‘journey’, I not only did my homework but also grew conscious of the enormous amount of work that this job came with, as I found myself in both a position of authority, for being the chosen translator but also of vulnerability. It is the latter that is important to define here, as this is what led me to translating what I deem to be an ethical translation.


Feminist Homemaking: Storytelling, Refusals and Talking Back

The perspectives incarnate in this labor – those which radically survive the dredging across colonial and settler-colonial cartographies – do not belong to any place. We embrace this homelessness. In radical vulnerability and radical togetherness, we find for each other a new kind of home and reaffirm the importance of home-making for ourselves beyond the academy.

If the disciplined languages of sociology, political science, historiography, anthropology and so on are disenchanted, then we must shift our focus to the radical intervention that narrative performs in knowledge production. In this section, we direct our attention to three works which demonstrably integrate feminist praxis within translocal narratives. In reading Sharmila Rege’s Writing Caste/Writing Gender: Narrating Dalit Women’s Testimonios,28 with Zenzele Isoke’s Urban Black Women and the Politics of Resistance,29 alongside Audra Simpson’s Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life Across the Borders of Settler States,30 we meditate on how narration becomes a mode through which place and space are claimed and knowledges about spatial entitlements31 are both reified and refused by communities.

In Writing Caste/Writing Gender (2006), Sharmila Rege (1964-2013) directs our attention to how the narratives of Dalit women disrupt the hegemony of ‘Brahmani feminisms’ in the public sphere, which uncritically understand caste and gender oppressions to be mutually exclusive hierarchical orders. As the narratives of upper-caste women continue to over-represent feminist autobiography throughout South Asia, South Asian feminisms fail to connect experiences of caste oppression with gender.32 Troubling ‘common sense’ is a critical epistemological and pedagogical practice to disrupt Brahmani feminist ‘frames of reference,’ which have yet to – or perhaps cannot – conceptualize non-Brahman patriarchal regimes. This troubling is enacted though the specific ways Dalit womens’ narratives mobilize new languages via testimonio, and the ways in which they embody — in asserting that perceptions are determined by social location — the critical claiming of identity outside of a play for power.    

For Rege, the genre of testimonio is crucial to this project of making and claiming a Dalit feminist standpoint. The book is constituted by life narratives of Dalit women that push at the boundaries set by bourgeois autobiography. Autobiographies make readers into consumers of painful stories, but do not invite an engagement with the radical politics of Dalit lives. Testimonios, by contrast, “summoned the truth from the past; truth about the poverty and the helplessness of the pre-Ambedkarite era.”33

The intentionality that foregrounds testimonios is what sets them apart from other genres of life writing. As the narrator claims agency in their story, they call upon readers to engage with their pain and relate to their politics. As individual stories and collective experience embedded in a web of relations, they highlight the dialetics between the self and community, escaping the romantic and homogenous notions of community that saturate dominant histories and autobiographies. Dalit women’s intentional usage of difference to call out the Brahmanical complicity in mainstream Indian feminist thought is a movement of reclamation. To show this, we turn to a powerful episode in Shantabai Dhanaji Dani’s (1919-2001) testimonio, translated with additional narration by Rege in Writing Caste/Writing Gender.

[Rege:] When Shantabai was studying in the fifth standard, the family was invited to her father’s friend’s house for a Holi feast. This friend belonged to the Maratha caste so Shantabai and her father were served food in the cattle shed while others sat and ate inside the house. She was surprised that they had been singled out for dining in the shed that stank of cow urine and dung. She recalls the conversation that she had with her father that evening in the shed.

He said, “We are Mahar. How can we eat with them? They get polluted by our presence.”

[Verbatim from Shantabai’s autobiography:] “What is pollution?” I asked.

“We cannot touch them.”

“What will happen if we touch them?”

“What else will happen – the one who touches and the one touched will become sinners.”

“What is sin?”

“That which is not a good deed.”

“What is a good deed?”

“Good deed is a good thing and sin is a bad thing.” Father summarized in simple words.

“Are we not human beings?”

“Yes of course, we are.”

“Then these people touch cats and dogs then why not us?”

“Do not ask so many questions. Eat quickly.”34

In writing difference strategically, Dalit biography storms into the horizon of Brahmanical imagination and claims for itself in narration those material, symbolic, epistemic and pedagogical powers of which Brahmanical patriarchy continually deprives their community. Dalit lives and testimonios expose the silenced and ignored stories of mundane caste violence; at the same time, they craft languages and forums where visions of a different community can be shared, reinforced and affirmed collectively.

In a similar vein, Zenzele Isoke’s Urban Black Women and the Politics of Resistance (2013) takes up the project of mapping the peopled spaces and embodied existences of Newark, New Jersey — a space often rendered violent and desolate by white spatial logics. While Rege sees narration as a political resource for subaltern peoples to re-present themselves and imagine new presents, Zenzele similarly sees storytelling as an indispensable component to what she terms “homemaking.”

Spaces occupied by communities of colour are often narrated from racist, white supremacist (de)valuations of urban space and supplemented by discourses of decay, desolation and disenfranchisement. Far too often, scholars of race and space forgo deep interrogation of these narratives in an attempt to render geographical space more readable and less ‘foreign’ to academic audiences. Feminist geographies in America explore how space, place and bodies become stitched together – how they work in tandem and sometimes in oppositional agitation to map space and create home. The labors that map space in this way directly contend with white spatial logics that render certain spaces violent due to their failures to acknowledge the importance of narrative in placemaking.

Through her ethnographic and autoethnographic research, Zenzele Isoke engages in what she calls the project of “homemaking” as “a critical form of intersectional spatial praxis” which attempts to center personal narrative in the naming and reclaiming of space.35 Homemaking is not just about defining home; it involves recognizing how site-specific, spatial agency challenges race and gender-based subjugation and embraces blackness as it is intimately tied to home spaces. The honest reflections and testimony that Zenzele infuses into her text work to establish different imageries of Newark that circulate around each other – sometimes in competition and sometimes never brushing up against each other.

Her first impression of Newark was of a dark space “colored by media accounts of ‘inner city crime’ statistics.”36 Yet, as Zenzele entrenched herself in the “everydayness” of Newark’s political underbellies, she saw “New-ark” from the eyes of those who live and work in the city – an urban city center that is resilient, hopeful and triumphant, even in the face of cold, statistical accounts of decay and hardship.”37 Refusing the objectification and dehumanization of ‘statistical knowledge’ which claims the narrative authority over Newark, Zenzele turns to the narratives created through black women’s political organizing and embodied resistances — narratives that carve spaces of home across the city’s landscapes.

Within her autoethnographic work, Zenzele positions herself as a kind of ventriloquist–a medium between those who call Newark home and the regimes of political and academic visibility which render Newark as a space of violence. She creates a new kind of narrative space where the author’s personal experience sets up spatial agency as an element to understanding the narrative of resistance. She reflects on how her informants taught her “to ‘trace the other in myself’ and to locate that otherness within complex webs of power and knowledge that granted me the privilege to tell the story of black women’s resistance.”38

Her work allows us to interrogate the ways in which being someone is tied to being somewhere, enabling blackness as a spatial engine in Newark – a sacred place of resistance rather than an urban space of disconnectedness, alienation and hopeless domination. Part and parcel of her intervention is a troubling of the representative relationships affixed to her role as translator. She is frank about the shared experiences of alienation between her and “the hood” which she “could not claim as [her] own.”39 Although acutely aware of what it is like to grow up in a mostly black and Latino urban city center, Zenzele does not instinctively claim Newark as her own. This nuanced and critical perspective on ownership of knowledge and experiences in Zenzele’s work speaks to many of our collective’s discussions around the difficulties of activist-scholarship and academic praxis. We are referencing the tensions that surround constructions of the insider/outsider, the violences of institutional complicity and the pressure of intelligibility.

Zenzele brings the project of “homemaking” to our attention as a project that seeks to redefine where it is that we can seek home for the fragments of our identities.40 Here, we can begin to understand how politics of homemaking make political transformation possible through the authoring of “living histories,” – narratives that breathe, are in concert with the intimacies of community and transform the meanings of home. Her methodological attention to the entanglements of history and physical landscapes opens up an axis of critique that challenges colonial academic language which renders certain forms of political life subaltern, invisible and non-agentic. She writes herself into her work, into her praxis; but importantly, she writes the politics of homemaking out of academic subalternity.

Zenzele’s work gives more depth and nuance to our definitions of resistance. She explores how black women’s subjectivities are constructed through the pain and the marginalization caused by the “negative effects of gentrification and neoliberalization”41 and how black women’s complex and “unique relationship to space and place”42 move them from a place of deprivation and uncertainty to one of power and self-transformation. She helps us appreciate the crucial role of embodiment, positionality and strategic difference in the interruption of racist narratives about urban space. When urban geographies become grounded in black womens’ spatial-temporal narratives of home, they more deeply politicize belonging within living histories of black social life.  

A similar strategy of refusal operates on at least two levels in Audra Simpson’s Mohawk Interruptus. The first focuses on an ongoing historical strategy of refusing recognition – which Simpson understands as a kind of shorthand for the legislative, juridical, institutional, affective and psychic forced relations of compliance between the settler state and those Indigenous nations who predate, survive and outlive the genocidal settler occupation of their lands. This refusal entails, albeit not exhaustively, the willful aversion by Indigenous peoples of the colonial forces of recognition which take form under the purview of the ‘multicultural’ tolerance state. Under these terms of recognition, sovereignty is “strangulated” (to borrow that powerful verb from Simpson) into the narrow confines of the modernist, monolingual settler nation which can only imagine sovereignty as belonging to itself. Simpson unpacks recognition thus:

“…to avert one’s gaze and refuse the recognition itself. This moment of turning away can turn us toward Haudenosaunee assertions, which in different ways tells a story about a territory of willingness, a willingness to “stay enslaved.” We could see this as a political strategy that is cognizant of an unequal relationship, understands the terms of bondage and chooses to stay within them in order to assert a greater principle: nationhood, sovereignty, jurisdiction by those who are deemed to lack that power, a power that is rooted in historical precedent but is conveniently forgotten or legislated away. Perhaps here we see a willingness to assert a greater principle and, in the assertion of this principle, to assert and be free whether this is apprehended as such or not.”43

But refusal also operates on the level of ethnographic methodology. Simpson recognizes her fraught position as a conduit between these intensely political spaces of Indigenous struggle and the regimes of academic visibility. She constructs this work with the same kind of careful, honest and yet daring approach as we’ve witnessed in Himadeep Muppidi’s and Zenzele Isoke’s work. In a way, Simpson seems to offer a kind of introduction to Haudenosaunee political lives but crucially, she refuses to do all of the labor for us. By actively choosing to leave out certain [intimate, private and sovereign] records of Indigenous political labor, Simpson at once pushes and entices us to ‘do our homework’ rather than rely on our ‘native’ informants to do this labor and teach us how to be good decolonial academics.

What Isoke, Rege and Simpson’s works demonstrate together is a refusal to submit to normative practices of conditioning knowledge for academic consumption. If ethnographic refusal is a decolonizing method and an epistemic politic employed to resist total legibility and translatability within academia, narrative itself becomes part of academic refusal. It is in and through the writing of new narratives with alternatively formed grammars that the other can refuse to refashion vitality and resistance into depersonalized jargon for comfortable publication and consumption. This is visible in Rege’s reclaiming of Dalit women’s stories as testimonios, Zenzele’s emphasis on the embodied dimensions and stories of black women’s labor to make home and Simpson’s double-refusal with regards to orienting the academy to the Kahnawà:ke yet refusing to bring them under its totalizing demand for exhaustible subjects. We regard these authors and their texts as powerful foremothers for liberatory scholars, models for living resistance and homemaking in and through the undisciplining of  knowledges.


“You either evolve or you disappear”

“I want to grow.
I want to be better.
You Grow.
We all grow.
We’re made to grow.
You either evolve or you disappear.”44

How does our academic work lead us to grow?

Where does the academic belong, where is our home? Why should one even look for a home in such a violent place? In seeking out a home we must ask of our theory: whom does it speak for and whom does it speak to? In a world with so many struggles for social justice, what salience do academic theories hold? How can we, as academics within frameworks of settler colonial, racist, casteist, gendered power, speak in a manner that enacts responsibility to the struggles we are passionate about — the struggles that we have been raised in and continue to draw inspiration from? When power endeavours to stifle imaginations and politics, can we imagine the academy as a home for connecting people through creating new stories of power and embodied theories of social life?

Was our journey, itself, one such creative home?

We began in a crowded feminist studies conference room, with a musical table and storied walls full of ideas, where 12 students (9 departments, 7 nationalities), our teacher and 5 (visiting) faculty gathered for 42 hours over a semester, breaking down our disciplines, breaking up ourselves, sharing and building upon experiences, learning to see how power and violence perversely pervade all that we are, do and love, but also, in that sharing, finding a home with each other in that very space, re-affirming each other as individuals from different homes, different worlds, each with our own knowledge and experience of the respectfully un-translatable. We fragmented and critiqued ourselves, otherselves, our politics, other’s politics and in the process, became more conscious of the finitude of each of our academic and personal lenses in viewing the vitality of the world.

To “muddy the waters” in academia is to embrace rootlessness in a setting which encourages discipline, specialization and expertise. This collective writes with deep appreciation for and indebtedness to Richa Nagar’s “praxis without guarantees” and politics of “radical vulnerability.” Our collective journey with her, in our seminar on Caste, Race and Indigeneity in Spring 2015 moved us into unknowable territories, against the pressure to prioritize one’s own personal and academic identity over collective learning.

Too often academic training centers the celebration and reproduction of one’s own disciplinary ideals. Continuing the logics of colonial dispossession and historical erasure, we are taught to value the act of abstracting information and theory from messy, non-linear stories held by communities and then celebrate the novelty of our ideas and sovereign authorship in publication. This individualistic and exclusionary approach continues in academic seminars. The success of a seminar is often understood when each graduate student achieves greater insight by rehearsing and perfecting individual critiques of others. However, those patterns of engagement with different disciplines have worked to keep our disciplines mainly imperialist, white, casteist, elitist and heteronormative, however well-intentioned. This is what we collectively learned through the multi-sited and deliberate anti-disciplinarity of that seminar and this writing. Being used to the emphasis of single authorship in academia, we often encountered frustration and a lack of direction as we developed this collective writing.

Yet, to make meaning of our work, to answer the question of “What is at stake?” with which we began the semester (and to which we continued to return to throughout our forty two hours together) we realized that we must make a home in the vitality of community and the wholeness of people and stories, a vitality that academic disciplining and propriety seek to tear us away from. From this new kind of home, we embraced a collective homelessness that comes from interrogating the histories of power involved in making disciplines, communities and identities. From this home we read the theories of others, not to violently tear them down as individual academic predators, but to grow together with compassion. From this home, we theorized about power, about histories, experiences, bodies, places, stories and lives in the context of our rich and complex social worlds.

The concepts of radical vulnerability, ethnographic refusal and home-making give us analytical tools to begin answering the questions we began with. To be defined by an opposition to a concept or position sets the terms of our engagement with those concepts. Through our homelessness, we give theory the power to connect people and conversations normally separated by disciplinary and geographic boundaries and we begin to appreciate and engage with the complex lives that grammars of the powerful seek to “reduce, reroute and reroot.”45 We exist in the academy not defined only by resistance to oppression.

Rather, we exist in affirmation of different lives, of breathing bodies and rich politics. We speak from a home centered not on the enterprise of the academy, but on the lives obscured and crushed by the march of progress. To be attentive to histories of power and violence in the academy requires us to recognize the plural origins of our theories and the necessity of making them promiscuous and muddied. Only then can our agitation inspire theory from multiple sites, struggles, histories and bodies, from radically unequal locations. Sharing, delicacy, negotiation, friendship and trust. Suspicion, braveness, conviviality and co-constitutiveness. Praxis of love, praxis of vulnerability. Making mistakes together, living mistakes, living our vulnerabilities together separately.

What logics of alienation, expertise and production can collective, promiscuous labor disrupt? Can the collective work of narrating our linked histories help us find a home for liberatory anti-disciplinary knowledge production? Connected to this political and narratological, process of slipping between the I, you, they and we is Nida Sajid’s powerful title – “Resisting Together Separately.”  These three words, in that order, remind us that we cannot demarcate the discrete boundaries of the ‘individuals’ which make up this collective, nor can we blend such collectivities into one homogenous voice or experience of the classroom and writing process. Instead, we must confront the challenging ethics of collective narrative representation and perhaps settle somewhere in between preserving liminality and grappling with the task of authoring multiple worlds separately, together…



This collective extends a warm thanks to Dr. Richa Nagar, who was not only an active intellectual laborer in the conception of this project, but also organized the graduate seminar in 2015, authored the syllabus and coordinated guest instructors. We love you, Richa. We also are indebted to all the intellectual energies alive within the course which brought us all together. Thank you to all our guest speakers–Antonadia Borges, Zenzele Isoke, Himadeep Muppidi, Nida Sajid and Ajay Skaria–for sharing space with us. Finally, thank you to our fellows classmates –Heider Tun-Tun, Jacqueline Daigneault and Matthew Struth–for your insight and to all of those who began this article journey with us–Michelle Grace, Hale Konitshek, Denise Malauene, Soham Patel and Beaudelaine Pierre–for your fierce commitment to collective work.



Goeman, Mishuana R. “Disrupting a settler-colonial grammar of place: the visual memoir of Hulleah Tsinhnahjinnie.” Theorizing Native Studies, edited by Audra Simpson and Andrea Smith, pp. 235-265. Durham, London: Duke University Press, 2014.

Isoke, Zenzele. Urban Black Women and the Politics of Resistance. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

Million, Dian. “There is a river in me: theory from life.” Theorizing Native Studies, edited by Audra Simpson and Andrea Smith, pp. 31-42. Durham: Duke University Press, 2014.

Muppidi, Himadeep. Politics in Emotion: The Song of Telangana. New York: Routledge, 2014.

Nagar, Richa. Muddying the Water: Coauthoring Feminisms Across Scholarship and Activism. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2014.

Nagar, Richa. “Caste, Race, Indigeneity.” Syllabus. Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies Dept., University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN, U.S. 2015.

Palmer, Vera. “The Devil in the Details: Controverting an American Indian Conversion Narrative.” Theorizing Native Studies, edited by Audra Simpson and Andrea Smith, pp. 266-296. Durham: Duke University Press, 2014.

Rege, Sharmila. Writing Caste, Writing Gender: Reading Dalit Women’s Testimonios. New Delhi: Zubaan, 2006.

Sajid, Nida. “Resisting Together Separately: Representations of the Dalit-Muslim Question in Literature.” Dalit Literatures in India, edited by Abraham, Joshil K., and Judith Misrahi-Barak. New Delhi: Routledge, 2016.

Sangtin Writers and Richa Nagar. Playing with Fire: Feminist Thought and Activism through Seven Lives in India. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006.

Simpson, Audra. Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life Across the Borders of Settler States. Durham: Duke University Press, 2014.

Simpson, Audra., Andrea Smith. Theorizing Native Studies. London, Durham: Duke University Press, 2014.

Smith, Andrea. “Native Studies at the Horizon of Death: Theorizing Ethnographic Entrapment and Settler Self-Reflexivity.” Theorizing Native Studies, edited by Audra Simpson and Andrea Smith, pp. 207-234. London, Durham: Duke University Press, 2014.

Smith, Linda Tuhiwai. Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. London: Zed Books: 2012.

Spillers, Hortense J. “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book.” Diacritics 17, No. 2 (1987): 65-81.

Suggested citation:
Caste, Race, and Indigeneity Collective. 2019. “Collective Anti-Disciplinarity: Feeling Promiscuous, Positioning Narrative, and Making Home.” AGITATE! 1:
  1. Throughout this essay, we separately highlight pieces of narrative and poetry. These pieces are italicized and centered in the text.
  2. Here, “we” signifies the authors who are graduate students from across different colleges at the University of Minnesota- Twin Cities. This we, albeit fractured by race, gender, class, and discipline, is invoked to convey a sense of solidarity and shared experiences. Throughout the piece, this we is invoked as a tool to deprofessionalize our writing approaches,  maintain a more conversational tone, and convey the political stakes of this text.
  3.  This collective formed in the space of our graduate seminar in Spring 2015 entitled Caste, Race, Indigeneity, conceptualized and facilitated by Dr. Richa Nagar, which gathered 12 students from seven disciplinary departments: Feminist Studies; History; American Studies; Spanish and Portuguese Studies; Geography; Political Science; and Ecology, Evolution and Behavior.
  4. Sajid, Nida. “Resisting Together Separately: Representations of the Dalit-Muslim Question in Literature.” Dalit Literatures in India, edited by Abraham, Joshil K. and Judith Misrahi-Barak. (New Delhi, India: Routledge, 2016).
  5. Our collective methodology draws inspiration from Nida Sajid, who demonstrates how renowned Dalit activist poet Mohan Das Naimishraya’s poetry ethically traverses spaces between the autobiographical ‘I,’ the poetic ‘I,’ and the collective ‘we.’
  6.  Dalit means “the most underprivileged castes, who have been subjected to practices of untouchability by upper-caste Hindus or Sawarns; Literally, oppressed.” Sangtin Writers and Richa Nagar. Playing with Fire: Feminist Thought and Activism through Seven Lives in India. (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2006), 170.
  7.  See also the discussion later in this article about Dalit women’s testimonios in Sharmila Rege’s Writing Caste/Writing Gender (2006).
  8. We have chosen to refer to authors we have met and interacted with in the way that we are comfortable conversing with them.
  9.  Audra Simpson and Andrea Smith, Theorizing Native Studies. (Durham, London: Duke University Press, 2014), 9.
  10.   Richa Nagar, Muddying the Waters: Coauthoring Feminisms across Scholarship and Activism. Dissident Feminisms. (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2014), 5.
  11. Ibid., 14.
  12. Smith, “Native studies at the horizon of death: theorizing ethnographic entrapment and settler self-reflexivity” in Theorizing Native Studies, ed. Audra Simpson and Andrea Smith (Durham, London: Duke University Press, 2014), 228.
  13. Simpson and Smith (2014: 10).
  14. Ibid., 10.
  15. Ibid., 11.
  16. Dian Million, “There is a river in me: theory from life.” Theorizing Native Studies, ed. Audra Simpson and Andrea Smith. (Durham, London: Duke University Press, 2014), 31-32. Emphasis added.
  17. Ibid., 37.
  18. “In a broad sense, intertextuality is the reference to or application of a literary, media, or social “text” within another literary, media, or social “text.” In literature, intertextuality is when a book refers to a second book by title, scene, character, or storyline, or when a book refers to a social “text” such as a media, social, or cultural story. This borrowing invites a comparison between our understanding of the text outside of the book, and its use inside of the book.” Lemaster, Tracy. “What is intertextuality?” (2012). Link:
  19. Hortense Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book.” Diacritics 17, no. 2 (1987): 65-81.
  20. Mishuana R Goeman, “Disrupting a Settler-Colonial Grammar of Place: The Visual Memoir of Hulleah Tsinhnahjinnie,” in Theorizing Native Studies, ed. Audra Simpson and Andrea Smith. (Durham, London: Duke University Press, 2014), 237.
  21. Himadeep Muppidi, Politics in Emotion: The Song of Telangana. Interventions (Abingdon, Oxon; New York, NY: Routledge, 2014), 6.
  22. Ibid., 11.
  23. Ibid., 12.
  24. Ibid., 12.
  25. Ibid., 10.
  26. Ibid., 94.
  27. Ibid., 24.
  28. Sharmila Rege, Writing Caste, Writing Gender: Reading Dalit Women’s Testimonios (New Delhi: Zubaan, 2013).
  29. Zenzele Isoke, Urban Black Women and the Politics of Resistance. First ed. Politics of Intersectionality (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).
  30. Audra Simpson, Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life across the Borders of Settler States (Durham, London: Duke University Press: 2014).
  31. Here we draw on Gaye Theresa Johnson’s definition of spatial entitlement as the way in which community members share the physical and discursive places they occupy to form alliances amidst social and political subordination.
  32. Rege (2013: 4).
  33. Ibid., 16.
  34. Ibid., 132-133.
  35. Isoke (2013: 75).
  36. Ibid., 62.
  37. Ibid., 63.
  38. Ibid., 69.
  39. Ibid., 61.
  40. Ibid., 78.
  41. Isoke (2013: 66).
  42. Ibid., 117.
  43. Simpson (2014: 187).
  44. American rapper Tupac Shakur
  45. Vera Palmer, “The Devil in the Details: Controverting an American Indian Conversion Narrative,” Theorizing Native Studies, ed. Audra Simpson and Andrea Smith. (Durham, London: Duke University Press, 2014), 268.

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