Texas Tech University

From the Border: Empire, Art, and Social Justice*

Sara Spurgeon

* Originally delivered as a keynote address to the 2014 meeting of the Conference of College Teachers of English.


When I was invited to speak at this year's CCTE conference, I asked the conference organizers what they would prefer me to talk about. I work in contemporary American literature, especially literatures of the American Southwest. I've published quite a bit on Cormac McCarthy, for one, but I also work in a broad and amorphous field most recently defined as Social Justice theory. So, I asked the CCTE folks, would they like me to speak about my work in "safe" or less controversial areas, like say, Cormac McCarthy (and yes, someone did point out to me later how hilarious it is that Cormac McCarthy is my version of safe), or, I asked them, would they prefer a talk engaging social justice. They emailed me back right away—Social Justice, they said. All right then.

In teaching in this old but newly named field, one of the first things I find I need to do is to define what exactly social justice theory might be. There is nothing particularly new about the term "social justice." It was coined by a Jesuit priest, Luigi Taparelli, in the 1840's. He argued that neither capitalism nor socialism took sufficient account of what he termed "moral philosophy," an idea John Stuart Mill furthered in claiming that society should treat all equally and equally well. While this may seem like common sense or common courtesy, it's been a surprisingly controversial stance.

In academia, theoretical writing about social justice has examined literary texts that engage this battle from many different sides, and have drawn from the fields of feminist theory, ecocritical theory, race theory, queer theory, geography and urban planning, economics, postcolonial theory, among many others. Put concisely, social justice theory is interested in the ways human rights are experienced in the everyday lives of people from every level of society. As opponents of social justice theory argue, this is a definition that appears to be so large it could mean anything and nothing. Fair enough. So what I'm going to attempt to do today is to ground social justice theory, literally, starting here in Texas. Texas is a state defined more than any other by our borders, the ones that physically separate Texas from Mexico, from other states, from the rest of the US, and the borders that separate us metaphorically and historically. As the Texas State Tourism Bureau tells us, "It's a whole other country." While the tourism folks mean that un-ironically, I'd like to ask us to think about borderlands in new ways, ways that may suggest unexpected intersections and unlooked for possibilities.

We are all a bit wary these days, inside and outside of academia, of throwing up border walls to keep people out, or to fence texts in. And rightly so. At the same time, we all recognize that making definitions and drawing boundaries serves a very real purpose, both academically, and in the "so called" real world with which we in academia are so intimately entwined. While it is a cliché that those in the ivory towers are somehow above or beyond the dirt and fuss of the rest of the world, most of us recognize that stance as an illusion. William Blake, a man who knew a bit about social justice, once wrote, "The foundation of Empire is Art and Science. Remove or degrade them, and the Empire is no more. Empire follows Art and not vice versa."

Out there in the real world, where Empires struggle with each other and real people live and die on the border fences that divide nations and families, and are violently riven by definitions that allow or disallow genders and races, nationalities and sexualities, we are seeing a furious disruption of traditional boundaries and borders. Some term this a crisis. If so, it is a crisis that has set free an abundance of creative and critical voices coming together in the field we now call social justice theory or social justice studies. It has set the stage for an Art that demands Empire follow, whether Empire wants to or not.

Poet Juan Felipe Herrera, who grew up as a migrant farm worker, says this kind of Art is made up of what he calls "A Wetback Alphabet", undetectable by Border Patrol K-9 units, passing unseen under the very eyes of La Migra, smuggled back and forth across border checkpoints. More dangerous in the end than any illegal drug or weapon. His poetry collection, Bordercrosser with a Lamborghini Dream, contains a Wetback Alphabet poem called "This is the Z":

Z for elongated suffering

Rodent dweller seeking wisdom in the fold of the blue

Little letters that can be tricked to read all

The freedom in the universe. Except the rodent

Has a hard time getting to the center since it

Cannot distinguish between the margin and the heart

Hunger & enlightenment

Is this poem set in El Paso or Juarez? Is its elusive center somewhere between San Diego and Tijuana? Or is it about the West Bank rather than the border of Mexico and the Western US? It could be about the experiences of a transgender high school student in Atlanta, or a Sikh professor at Columbia University trying to walk across his campus. Or maybe just a carload of African American teenagers in Florida listening to music some refuse to recognize as Art.

This sort of Borderlands Art embodies mobility and mutability, a willingness to cross over into what may be figured as forbidden or impure, but is still somehow imperative. Alienation and perversion are transformative elements. This Art could come from Baghdad or Soweto or Mumbai or Midland.

Social constructions have always included borders, as social anthropologist Mary Douglas explains: "The idea of society is a powerful image....This image has form: it has external boundaries, margins, internal structure. Its outlines contain power to reward conformity and repulse attack." To make social justice literature or theory then, may mean running up to those borders and shouting your Wetback Alphabet at the other side. It may mean to seek what theorist Donna Haraway calls "affinity without unity" across forbidden boundaries, an acknowledgement of difference that will necessarily struggle against paradigms and logics, binaries and dialectics which seek, as Douglas argues, to "reward conformity and repulse attack."

It's no accident, of course, that the rhetoric of warfare so often accompanies those who move across borders and walls. The battle to make the kind of Art that shakes its fist in the face of Empire requires fighting an ephemeral war with constantly shifting frontlines. Poet and writer Linda Hogan, who is half Native American and half white, has observed that it means wearing the face of the enemy, for both sides. But as Douglas also notes, "The danger which is risked by boundary transgression is power. Those vulnerable margins and those attacking forces which threaten to destroy good order represent the powers inhering in the cosmos" (161).

Those powerful, dangerous boundaries also define, and often confine us in academia, albeit in different ways than they define other Bordercrossers inhabiting less privileged spaces. But none of those spaces, ivory towers or maquiladoras, gated communities or blue-collar barrios, are every really separated. Or put another way, the boundaries that attempt to keep such spaces apart are far more permeable than we imagine. As theorist Anamaire Jagose points out in her essay "Slash and Suture," borders actually have a dual function—they both divide us and join us together. Slash and suture. Real human beings cross borders every day, and the wetback alphabet they carry with them is, Herrera suggests, more powerful than we imagine. This means Poets may be our most well-armed revolutionaries. Native American poet Joy Harjo writes of being searched at the Albuquerque airport in a poem aptly entitled "I am a Dangerous Woman":

The sharp ridges of clear blue windows

Motion to me

From the airport's second floor

Edges dance in the foothills of the Sandia Mountains

Behind security guards

Who wave me into their guncatcher machine

I am a dangerous woman

When the machine buzzes

They say to take off my belt

And I remove it so easy

That it catches the glance of a man standing nearby

(maybe that is the deadly weapon that has the machine singing)

I am a dangerous woman

But the weapon is not visible

Security will never find it

They can't hear the clicking

Of the gun

Inside my head

As my grandpa used to say, "them's fightin' words," from a woman who grew up in Eastern Oklahoma in what is still sometimes called "Indian Territory," a woman who understands perfectly the relationship between Empire and Art, and who should be following whom.

As Harjo's image of armed security guards and poets whose words are weapons suggests, this is at once the blessing and the curse of making Art from the Borders. While the "powers inhering in the cosmos" may indeed be swirling in the margins, all the discourses of Empire will be directed against those who transgress, who, as Father Taparelli had it, seek a moral philosophy through social justice. To have penetrated or inhabited the Borderlands is to have risked the pollution and impurity which marks those who cross over from the safe and contained into the powerful and alien. Just ask the Egyptian women who dared to protest in Tahrir Square and were raped by both the opposition and their fellow protesters; or gays and lesbians in Russia who lack the corporate sponsors and state protection afforded to elite Olympic athletes. For women, for queers, for people of color, for the poor and many others who have no choice but to inhabit the borderlands, making Art that challenges Empire can be terrifying.

"On the positive side of this equation," social justice theorist Alvina Quintana speculates, "this marginal position between ideologies contributes to new aesthetic opportunities, as it provides the writers with the strategic position to enhance or refute...outside sources and thereby contribute to the emergence of a new culture, a culture which by its very nature is characterized by a multiplicity of voices and experiences" (259). Foremost among these voices, especially for those of us in Texas, is the social justice poetry and theory of Gloria Anzaldua. She accomplishes her bordercrossing through the identity- and gender-shifting figure she calls la mestiza, who can be seen as a coyote figure, male and female, sexually, racially, linguistically "neither one nor the other" rather both or all at once. But her mestiza is more than a Chicana version of Coyote the Trickster. This mestiza coyote inhabits multiple meanings, especially in the various Hispanic and indigenous cultures of Texas and Mexico. In Mexican-American slang, coyote can mean someone of mixed race, usually, but not always, Mexican and Anglo; in South Texas, where Anzaldua was born and raised, coyote is also used to describe someone who is on the fringes of society, an outlaw with all the connotations of both condemnation and romanticization inherent in that image. The newest definition of coyote refers to professional border-crossers--smugglers who specialize in bringing illegal cargo, most especially human beings, across borders, often robbing and/or raping them but at the same time representing an offer of freedom, however illusory, which is difficult to refuse.

Donna Haraway reminds us that no matter how high we build the walls that define national boundaries, some of our most fiercely defended borders are actually those we construct to separate ourselves from the non-human world. Her cyborg, like Anzaldua's mestiza, derives from the deliberate penetration of borders and a delight in the destruction of binaries. Haraway creates her border-crossing figure in what she terms, "the ironic political myth" of the cyborg which exists in necessary irony, a state she explains as being about "contradictions that do not resolve into larger wholes, even dialectically, about the tension of holding incompatible things together because both or all are necessary and true" (149). Her cyborg, a being that combines the organic and technological, demands that we think deeply about terms like "Illegal immigrants." "Virgin land." And "Natural social orders." And about cyborgs. Cyborgs, Haraway playfully reminds us, advocate noise and pollution, the subversion of the purity of un-penetrated binaries. She writes:

A cyborg body is not innocent; it was not born in a garden; it does not seek unitary identity and so generate antagonistic dualisms without end (or until the world ends); it takes irony for granted. One is too few, and two is only one possibility. Intense pleasure in machine skill ceases to be a sin, but an aspect of embodiment. The machine is not an it to be animated, worshipped, and dominated. The machine is us, our processes, an aspect of our embodiment (180).

She goes on to point out that the machine technology of the personal computer is special in the contemporary borderlands. "Communications technologies," she writes, "are the crucial tools recrafting our bodies. These tools embody and enforce new social relations, especially for women, world-wide....The boundary is permeable between tool and myth," she continues, "between instrument and concept, historical systems of social relations and historical anatomies of possible bodies." Like it or not, Harraway suggests, today we are all cyborgs.

While these words may have seemed farfetched when Haraway wrote them in 1985, the notion of living our daily lives without access to smart phones, voice mail, email, facebook, Instagram, texting, tweeting, or the internet now seems nearly unimaginable to many of us. These tools are shaping our lives today, spinning up the myths we are making about ourselves and the world here in the early 21st century. From the Arab Spring to the hunt for the Boston marathon bombers, we are intimately connected to our machine technologies and we are intimately connected by them. The boundary between tool and myth, as Haraway suggested nearly thirty years ago, is very permeable, and it leads us directly to calls for social justice that connect academia and the rest of the world in ways we might never have imagined.

For example, as of 2011, according Business Week, there were approximately 156 million public blogs. One of the most amazing of these has been around for an almost unimaginably long time by internet standards—eleven whole years. This blog is an astonishing example of social justice literature, theory, and praxis, of cyborgs and bordercrossers all rolled into one. It's written in English by a young Iraqi woman known only as Riverbend. Her blog is called Baghdad Burning, and she began writing it in 2003, when, as a 24 year-old computer programmer, she watched as US troops first began pouring into her hometown. Eventually her blog became so popular excerpts from it have been collected in a book you can now order, on-line, from Amazon. The book has the requisite legitimizing introduction by a white man (apparently needed by every brown woman who fancies herself an author) penned in this case by investigative journalist James Ridgeway.

In some senses, we know quite a bit about Riverbend. While she was born in Iraq, she went to school somewhere in the US where she studied computer science, some claim clues in her blog point to the University of Texas; her family is mixed Suni and Shiite; she has a least one brother who she refers to only by the letter E in her blog. When the war began she and her family lived in what appears to have been a middle-class house somewhere in Baghdad from whose rooftop she and her brother E would watch their city burn. But virtually nothing else is known about her. Were her identity to be revealed she and her family would potentially be in danger from any number of forces for any number of reasons. Her blog could be her death sentence. But she writes anyway, because her blog is also her lifeline. Riverbend writes using her own version of the Wetback Alphabet, and she makes Art that goes to places Empires fear to tread.

Her writing is eloquent, angry, reflective and darkly comic. At times, the tragic blends into the absurd, as she tells of her family jumping out of bed to wash clothes and send e-mails in the middle of the night when electricity is briefly restored, or of their tragicomic quest to bury an elderly aunt when every mosque is overbooked for wakes and all the cemeteries are full. She writes about working for days to gather a cadre of armed men to take her cousin's kids to the store to buy crayons, and describes in heart-wrenching detail what it's like to be a well-educated young woman in a once-secular city where she and thousands of other women have now lost their jobs and are afraid to leave their homes without head coverings and a male escort.

Riverbend is native to a place she terms a newly colonized frontier. She writes both in that physical location and at the same time in the geographically unfixed borderlands of cyberspace, a space often termed "the new frontier" and likened to the Wild West in its freewheeling disregard of authority. But Riverbend lives the Wild West in ways most of us, thankfully, will never experience. In an entry from January 18, 2006, she writes about the abduction of Christian Science Monitor journalist Jill Carroll and the murder of Carroll's Iraqi interpreter in a way that emphasizes the intertwined nature of technology, literacy, and machine skill in contemporary Iraqi life and begins to suggest why social justice theory claims such a wild variety of forebears: "I read the news as a subtitle on tv (sic)," she says of the abduction and murder. "We haven't had an internet connection for several days so I couldn't really read about the details... Only later did I find out that the interpreter killed was a good friend--Alan, of Alan's Melody, and I've spent the last two days crying." Riverbend goes on to explain that Alan was a Christian from Basrah who owned a record store called Alan's Melody in Baghdad. The store carried both Arabic recordings and a wide selection of world music, much of it from the US and Europe, "everything," she notes, "from Abba to Marilyn Manson." While the content of the music in Alan's store comprised an interesting example of the cultural polyglot that follows both globalization and imperialism, a sort of musical Wetback Alphabet, Riverbend describes the physical space of the store itself as a borderland, accessed through the personal, organic presence of Alan and through the technology of CD's and the internet, but always mediated by the violent realities of war, even as the borderland space it represented for her is envisioned as a (temporary) escape from those realities. "His shop wasn't just a music shop--it was a haven" Riverbend writes,

During the sanctions, prior to 2003, Iraq was virtually cut off from the outside world. We had maybe four or five local tv stations and it was only during the later years that the internet became more popular. Alan was one of those links with the outside world. Whenever you walked into the store, great music would be blaring from his speakers and he and Mohammed, the guy who worked in his shop, would be arguing over who was better, Joe Satriani or Stevie Ray Vaughan.

In writing about Riverbend and her blog in PMLA, Susan Stanford Friedman recognizes the complex combination of machine skill, literacy, and politics that Riverbend embodies, noting that "Riverbend writes openly for a virtual public, an unknown and potentially worldwide cyberspatial audience. . . . a community of readers that she assumes to be diverse, not sharing race, nationality, religion, gender, class, occupation, or even political views. . .Thus her blog, Friedman concludes, "constitutes a virtual community of the unalike".

Riverbend's last blog post is dated April 9th of 2013. Over the previous decade chronicled on her blog, readers have followed Riverbend as she and her family flee Iraq for Jordan, return to Iraq, flee again to Syria, escape Syria before the fighting there becomes too horrific, land in another country she describes as "relatively nearby," then move again as refugees to "a third Arab country" she also cannot name publicly. She writes that the April 9th entry will probably be her last post, although she won't say why. April 9, 2013 marks the 10 year anniversary of the fall of Baghdad. In this final post, Riverbend reflects over that decade:

In 2003," Riverbend writes, "we were counting our lives in days and weeks. Would we make it to next month? Would we make it through the summer? Some of us did and many of us didn't. Looking back at the last ten years, what have our occupiers and the Iraqi governments given us? What have we learned? We learned a lot. We learned that while life is not fair, death is even less fair--it takes the good people. We learned that even in death you can be unlucky. Lucky ones die a 'normal' death... A familiar death of cancer, or a heart-attack, or stroke. Unlucky ones have to be collected in bits and pieces, their families trying to bury what can be salvaged and scraped off of streets that have seen so much blood, it is a wonder they are not red. We learned that you can be floating on a sea of oil, but your people can be destitute. Your city can be an open sewer; your women and children can be eating out of trash dumps and begging for money in foreign lands. We learned that innocent people are persecuted and executed daily. Some of them in courts, some of them in streets, and some of them in private torture chambers. We learned that it's not that difficult to make billions of dollars disappear. We learned that militias aren't particular about who they kill. The easiest thing in the world would be to say that Shia militias kill Sunnis and Sunni militias kill Shia, but that's not the way it works. That's too simple. We are learning that ignorance is the death of civilized societies and that everyone thinks their particular form of fanaticism is acceptable. But it wasn't all a bad education... We learned that you sometimes receive kindness when you least expect it. We learned that people often step outside of the stereotypes we build for them and surprise us. We learned that there is strength in numbers and that Iraqis are not easy to oppress."

Riverbend continues, "For those of you who have been asking about me and wondering how I have been doing, I thank you." She then offers an Arabic saying: "Lo khuliyet, qulibet..." Which means "If the world were empty of good people, it would end." "I only need to check my emails," Riverbend says, "to know it won't be ending any time soon."

Gloria Anzaldua once wrote, "Nothing in my culture approved of me" as she recalled her childhood and the hours she spent reading and writing instead of cooking and cleaning, of being scolded for not behaving like a good, obedient girl. For the poets and writers making Art from the Borderlands, who wave their metaphorical guns in the face of Empire's all-too-real artillery, the act of writing can also be a struggle to overcome the guilt of boundary transgression, of disappointing one's parents, of endangering one's family. Vietnamese theorist Trinh Minh-ha says this reality is present to some extent in all women who write, but most especially for colonized women. Although literacy and machine skill may be a lifeline for colonized people, it is frequently obtained under the metaphorical or sometimes literal threat of death. Possession of literacy and machine skills like Riverbend's by women and colonized people is often a crime which at once aids survival even as it invites punishment. According to Trinh, such "writers are both prompt to hide in (their) writing(s) and feel prompted to do so. As language stealers, they must yet learn to steal without being seen, and with no pretense of being a stealer..." (19).

It is a Texan, Gloria Anzaludua, who explains most eloquently what it means to make theory and Art grounded in social justice, to be a cyborg and a coyote at the same time, to be a stealer of language and a smuggler of the Wetback Alphabet even within one's own native land. She writes in the opening poem of her book Borderlands/La Frontera:

In the Borderlands

you are the battleground

where enemies are kin to each other;....

To survive the Borderlands

you must live sin fronteras

be a crossroads.