Toward a Marginal Understanding of Object Being in the Neoliberal University

Emily Mitamura


This piece offers a series of joined meditations on violences of the neoliberal university through conceptions of object-being, romance, imagination, and newness. In it, I experiment with a poetics of liminal meaning and forms of marginal writing thinking with (w/) after Trinh T. Minh-ha’s “Mechanical Eye, Electronic Ear, and the Lure of Authenticity,” refusing synthetic argumentation as colonial knowledge practice emerging from institutions of U.S. and Euro-imperial domination. As such, I draw from my experiences of graduate education, conversations around Edward Said’s conception of Orientalism and racialized thingification in the works of Frantz Fanon, and vexations of desire within academic formations.

Toward a marginal understanding of object being in the neoliberal university
After Trinh T Minh-ha’s “Mechanical Eye, Electronic Ear, and the Lure of Authenticity”

What would it mean to think about the violences of object-being—of being made thing, defined, policed, and punished against this definition—as primarily a matter of relation?  We have resources for this (Hartman, 1997; Weheliye, 2014; Said, 1979). Yet I want to dwell: what can it do for us, marked and marketed in the neoliberal university as objects of alterity, to think of, for instance, Orientalism as foremost a relationship? Early in grad school, I hear this wager in my seminars: It’s less about whether we include the voices of scholars from the Global South than whether they have anything new to say. In ostensibly addressing the whiteness, heteropatriarchy, U.S.- and Euro-centrism of social science field training and conversations, what becomes salient for this disciplinary logic is the project of ‘new’ and the progress it intimates. From my vantage now, I think ‘new’ here attempts to override the question of inclusion in much the same way inclusion discourse itself operates in the neoliberal university: to resettle the grounds of historical violence, colonialism, resource and labor extraction onto the terrain of an imagined shared project of progress in which all involved have equal stakes, capacity to shape, and benefit. In these words, we’re given an imagination of a Third World thinker, ‘Global South’ scholar, clamoring to be heard—marking with frustration (dare I say anger, with all of its racialized dismissals) the violence that discourses of inclusion propagate. And to us in the classroom—racialized, femme, working class, Third World, and otherwise marked—what was new? It is less about whether we include. What was new? What can be new? In Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes its Object, Johannes Fabian ekes out such diligent practice in the field of Anthropology, namely the “denial of coevalness:” “a persistent and systematic tendency to place the referents,” in his lexicon, the objects of anthropological study, “in a Time other than the present of the producer of anthropological discourse” (1983: 31). This relegation of the studied, the objects one seeks to ‘understand’ or perhaps explain (and thereby wield dominance over), to a temporality other than the modernity in which the scholar dwells comprises a form of abridgment. It is the process by which the histories of Others are collapsed, their tenure on the planet or in zones of reason foreshortened in order to explain not only their subjugation but also their position as objects of knowledge production rather than knowing producers of knowledge themselves. In this way progress itself is made impossible, the lateness of those in the Third World to the conversation always already so great that there is no possibility that they might ever catch up so as to contribute meaningfully to it. On slimmer geographic and imaginative grounds then, if Orientalism has always weaponized consumption of an aspirationalized yet deficient Other, neoliberalism converges on the commodification of enticing and dominable narratives. The neoliberal university too. Within the perceptual contestation of American ideological Cold and hot wars, the forever war, controlling images and stories is of central importance to containment of the moral order that secures Western dominance. Imagination and the knowledge it purveys then are not only the domains of contestation, but likewise colonial weapons themselves (Keeling, 2007). Yet, desire here, desires of domination that pervade and persist into the very shaping of namable want, are (in attempt at least) excised from academic disciplinary work. Desire is uncouth, not objective, something objects have: excessive passions and patterns of living. Social sciences are often burdened with a relationship to knowledge where production is always already filtered through the problematic of authority. This is an insecurity. A potential place of breech. We practice authority-seeking, work that elides its own founding and maintenance—the success of which is treated as a foregone conclusion. Risking, on the one hand, irrelevance, where the production of scholarship loses all social value because it fails to predict the outcome of international action or interaction, and, on the other hand, absorption into the political system where any analysis produced is overtly tainted by the sway of power, the scholar must be seen to walk a fine line (Schmidt, 2002). Is it tautological? Wielding definitional power means retaining the capacity to reify difference. A fault of style. Similarly: The value of racialized Third World bodies (included in or imported into the U.S academy) is rarely construed as newness. Indeed, having anything new to say, would often seem to indicate an enforced conformity to legible argumentative and citational practices, marking oneself as at least partially accessible to disciplinary definitional power. Or else, saying anything new would be a violation of the definition of Third World scholar, racialized scholar. Standing in excess of object-being against which they/we are policed. What is the way out of object-being then? What are the relationships nurtured and needed? In emphasizing the process by which violence emancipates, Fanon centers both the definitional violence or objectification by which the colonized become ‘things’ which have specific responsibilities to that designation (which liberatory struggle transgresses, thereby constituting violence). As well, there is the power of struggle itself in seizing self- and world-making potential, allowing the colonized and, more broadly, all the wretched of the earth to come together on radically open terms to found new being. Invention. A leap. Fanon’s works amplify violence as contestation, as well as its power to radically alter and inaugurate new lived orders of meaning. In Wretched of the Earth, he famously posits that the colonized stand in necessary relation to violence in achieving humanity, or rather a new humanity,  a new species, which colonization has systematically and violently denied. Published in 1961, the year of Fanon’s death, the text is immediately mediated by Jean-Paul Sartre’s claim that, “Offspring of violence, he [the colonized] draws every moment of his humanity from it: we were men at his expense, he becomes man at ours” (lvii). He thus founds an interpretive tradition of understanding violence in Fanon’s works as a kind of law of thermodynamics whereby its force and consequence are not created or destroyed but only appear as colonial violence transformed into the colonized’s violent revolution. By contrast, Homi Bhabha in his 2004 forward to the same text centers its phenomenological and psychoanalytic valences to argue that Fanon’s thesis of colonialism’s compartmentalizing modality articulates onto the process by which colonized peoples are turned into objects with a specific responsibility to act within the colonizer’s definition of them, from which any deviance cannot but be read as violence. In this sense, “decolonization is always a violent event” not (or not only) because the colonized have a right and need to seize and utilize the violence done to them for their own emancipatory ends, but because any excess of their petrified colonial relationship is violence by definition. It is thus the acts and relationalities forged in this ‘violent’ process which are transformative, re-definitive, and emancipatory. I find it important to hold onto both interpretations insofar as it forwards that, for Fanon, revolution must occur both in material and in meaning, both through violence. Here, he says, it is crucial to ‘decipher the social reality’ of that system. That is, violence likewise stands as a mode of understanding  and unpacking what flows beneath and in the margins of political reality, as well as that which may destroy, sustain, and remake it. Grappling with the violence of colonial world-making through both the exposure of its categories of investment as well as the transformative potentiality of emancipatory struggle requires deciphering colonialism’s schematic of thingification which differently renders people and groups as different types of things.  In order to understand not only the content of objects’ excesses (the ways in which we/they violate the condition of colonial objectification and the imposed trajectories which prompt the colonizer’s often violent response), I want to understand how colonial categorizations and compartmentalization are differently borne and particularly transformed. It is less a question of inclusion. Much less and much more. A relationship is work, does work. For us in the room, what was new? The binding and reading of difference in struggle, the deciphering of social reality between us in the room. The vernacular of ‘new’ can’t contain this. So what are the relationships struck out between Orientalists and the Orient? Between Orients, other Others? Of what category? Morphology? What about those between studiers and studied? What of that between study and sex? A flawed and messy taxonomy (my lineage): The sexual desire of exploration (McClintock, 1995). The state as gendered in its colonial extractions, its violences, material and otherwise (Simpson, 2016; Spillers, 1987). The sexual extractions of militarisms in which the academy is embedded and which the academy supports (Cho, 2008; Hong). The sexual aspiration and desire embedded in Orientalist projects, the want of skin (Parreñas Shimizu, 2007; Bow, 2022). The sex that may open space for ulterior knowing, spaces for decolonial knowledge production, fortification, play (TallBear, 2019; King, 2019). A relation denotes, may denote accountability beyond the infantilizing parental/imperial, beyond the given language and figuration of structure enshrined in the heteropatriarchal family and the state, beyond the most apparent meaning-making of violence in domination. I don’t say this because it’s new. We can’t and won’t be this. There’s more to be. 

(w/ After) “Capture me. This i feel, is no surrender. Contraries meet and mate and i work best at the limits of all categories.” (Trinh, 1991: 53) Shared in Minneapolis in 1983. These margins become us.

(w/ Orientalism) Edward Said offers us a picture of imagination as a disciplinary formation. Orientalism is a discipline, a tradition, a mode/area of study. Orientalists work. Orientalism is a relation of power, of domination, between ‘the east’ and ‘the west.’ What does relation, relationship mean here? What does it promise, threaten, purvey, open? 

(w/ vantage) Where’s my body in this piece? With the pre-pared violence, succinct, pre-packaged, where the labor to make aggregate the slow and disperse doesn’t fall to me this time (does it)? Read me. 

(w/ imagination) “Imagination is among the weapons on offer in societies of control,” Kara Keeling writes. What is the imagination of speech? Of voice? Of words’ content, meaning, weight?  It is about whether they have anything new to say. Heard as, they do not have anything new to say or their inclusion would be a foregone conclusion. They do not have anything new to say or they would have said it already. Let them now perform, offer proof that they have something new to say. (w/ anger) “muscular dreams” (Fanon 1961)

(w/ catch up) Anything new to say.

(w/ Orientalism) Orientalism is the creative hand of the metropole designating its strong imaginative tie to a distant land over which it wields dominance. The registers of this dominance are multiple. The hands multiple. Yet we might look closer at how it marks a distinct form of romance in positioning the desirable Other at a reachable yet measured distance. Distance and strangeness become obstacles, are created as obstacles the scholar as hero (as masculine knower) will surmount to reach the object of desire, curiosity, affection. Yet, the end is foretold, closure will occur in knowledge of the other. The mediation of desire, deferral, expectation, anxiety come together in the eventuality of Orientalist romance’s consummation, of its fulfillment in consumption. 

(w/ Similarly) Christina Sharpe writes, “In other words, for Black academics to produce legible work in the academy often means adhering to research methods that are ‘drafted into the service of a larger destructive force,’ thereby doing violence to our own capacities to read, think, and imagine otherwise. Despite knowing otherwise, we are often disciplined into thinking through and along lines that reinscribe our own annihilation…” (2016, 17) Having quoted this last point in a seminar paper, I’m asked for evidence of this condition.

(w/ say anything new) Grace Hong writes, “The invitation to respectability becomes a way of regulating and punishing those populations it purports to help.” (2008, 57)

(w/ Here) I think Fanon asks me to ask: what do Orientalists make of themselves? The lives they make against and with their objects? What are the tools they have to decipher the reality of their own making? In dictating the terms of imaginary and material relations, how do they stand in relation (and by what process is that power understood, questioned, and undone)? Difference is the reading practice, Anzaldúa and Moraga open. This is my question and desire. 

(w/ margins) I work best at the limits of all categories, the margins of all definitions. In margins, by some margin, the peripheries hold muscular dreams – worked out in practice and repetition. Worked out w/ and after, excessively. 

(w/ Orientalists) For instance: what is the point in pretending any longer that sex and the sexualized racialized discourses and practices of power that subtend the university don’t bear in the writing we do and the knowledge we produce? That a white man senior scholar doesn’t stand too close, breech the appropriate, make of me meat? That, too, loved ones haven’t changed my thinking? Sex is a part of scholarship, deeply implicated in both the reproduction of canonical imaginaries and pathways of expertise as well as in anticolonial life worlds. Romance, passion, power direct valuation, violence, vision. If sex is the off-screen, the marginal: What continuity is preserved with its absenting? Who does such an absent presence protect, preserve, benefit as well as discredit, malign, obscure? What does its elision, imagination attempt to contain as reproductive unseen space? What else might erupt from this marginal understanding?

(w/ new) I am as fruitful as I am indebted.


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Image Credit(Thumbnail): The barley monoprint
Hordeum Vulgare / A Plan for Jaffa by Lamia Abukhadra (2018),
Trace monotype on paper, included with permission of the artist

Suggested citation:

Mitamura, E. 2024. “Toward a marginal understanding of object being in the neoliberal university.” In eds. José Manuel Santillana Blanco, Kidiocus King-Carroll, Naimah Zulmadelle Pétigny, and Kong Pheng Pha in collaboration with AGITATE! Editorial Collective. Seditious Acts: AGITATE! Special Volume with CRES:

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