Reflections on the Salaita Case: Contradiction, Overdetermination, Mobilization

By Michael Rothberg

[An earlier and shorter version of these remarks was first presented at the forum “Academic Freedom and Political Dissent,” which was sponsored by Illinois Faculty for Academic Freedom and Justice and took place on September 18, 2014 in Urbana’s Independent Media Center. The forum featured a lecture by Katherine Franke from Columbia Law School about the legal and political ramifications of the Steven Salaita case followed by short responses by several Illinois faculty members and graduate students.]

Much has already been said in the weeks since University of Illinois Chancellor Phyllis Wise informed Steven Salaita that she was not forwarding his appointment to the Board of Trustees and was thus effectively revoking a tenured job offer in American Indian Studies that Salaita had already accepted in October 2013. When a local faculty group I am involved with organized an off-campus forum on “Academic Freedom and Political Dissent,” I decided to step back and try to theorize the nature of the event we have been living through and the political response that has arisen out of it. Despite the context, there has been pleasure in writing this piece because it represented an opportunity to thinkagain after six weeks of a distracting (and ongoing) crisis. The questions I have sought to address are these: what has made this case so powerful for so many people and what are the implications of that fact for political mobilization?

My first hypothesis is that the Steven Salaita case has become a national and even international affair because of the way it condenses multiple, ongoing crises. Other cases share many features with this one, but the Salaita affair has hit a particular nerve—and may well be remembered as a landmark case—by virtue of the extraordinary number of very current flashpoints it brings together. To enumerate what is a long, but no doubt incomplete list, I have in mind the following critical features: the type of job Salaita was offered (comparative indigenous studies); the particular global political conjuncture in which that job was offered (the Israel/Palestine issue in its local and global manifestations); the kind of intellectual work Salaita does (bringing together indigenous and Palestinian issues); the administrative logics that attended his hiring and firing (especially the erosion of faculty autonomy and meaningful shared governance in the face of the corporatization of the university); long term trends—call them neoliberal—in the economics of public higher education, including questions of funding and de-funding and struggles over labor conditions for tenure-track and non-tenure track employees; the organization and prestige of academic disciplines (including splits between the humanities and social sciences, on the one side, and STEM fields, on the other); the politics of race and culture on campus (including discourses and practices of “diversity”); developments in technology and media and tensions around their relation to education and scholarship; and the changing parameters of free speech (including the monitoring of political speech, especially by Zionist-affiliated organizations, and the seemingly sudden turn toward “civility” on campus).

In enumerating this incomplete list of contexts and crises that create the salience of the Salaita case, I want to make a second, relatively simple point—one that I think has significant consequences for political mobilization in the wake of Salaita’s firing. The Salaita case is overdetermined. Overdetermination was a concept coined by Sigmund Freud and developed several decades later by the Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser, who used it to describe the complex causes of social phenomena. Like dreams according to Freud, society according to Althusser is composed of multiple, interlocking systems that ensure that politics plays out on a field where singular, clear-cut meanings are unlikely to be found:  overdetermined and sometimes incompatible contradictions characterize all social formations. 

It may well be true—as Katherine Franke has convincingly argued—that the clear trigger of the Salaita crisis was the organized movement to limit dissent about Israel and Palestine on the part of Zionist groups. This movement, which has targeted numerous other scholars in recent years, brought Salaita to visibility during the Gaza war and shaped the administrative response to the revelations about his tweets through its discourse of civility. Nevertheless, understanding why those groups have been as successful as they have been and why a lively opposition has thus far failed to secure reinstatement for Salaita involves making sense of the complex conditions in which the case has unfolded, conditions that include the defunding of public education and the importation of business models of management into the university. Even when there is a clear catalyst for an event, the contradictions that arise from it are never simple: events always play out on uneven terrain. 

As the Salaita “event” demonstrates, the multiplication of overdetermined contradictions can lead in two different directions: to rupture with the status quo or to the blockage of social change. This may sound a bit grandiose, but I think the insight speaks to our situation. First, the concept of overdetermination helps explain why the Salaita case has been so mobilizing for so many people. Following an initial vote of no confidence in the leadership of the university by the American Indian Studies program, a chain reaction took place: more than a dozen other departments rapidly followed suit, even though none of them was involved in Salaita’s hire. The coalitions of faculty and students that have been involved include many people I’ve never seen politically active or so deeply upset by campus politics before. Beyond the Illinois campus a similar chain reaction took place with thousands of people signing on to boycotts and other statements of opposition after Bruce Robbins and Corey Robin made initial pro-boycott statements. The dynamics of social media played their part in the swift unfolding of the event (as they did in its initial moment), but I think we also have to imagine that people came to this cause for many different, perhaps contradictory reasons: some that might have to do with the politics of Israel/Palestine, some that have to do with the governance of universities, some with the politics of free speech—and of course some for several of the above reasons. 

Such multiplicity has been a positive factor in mobilization, but the fact of overdetermination in politics means, second, that we also have to think seriously about the limits of coalition building and about the problem of how to hold together different interests and expand our base. We don’t need to convince everyone—and there always has to be an oppositional, antagonistic moment in mobilization in order to create solidarity within a coalition—but we do need, for instance, to cross the divide between the “two cultures” of the university and reach the STEM fields if we want to exert real power on campus. So far, no departments representing the natural sciences or engineering (not to mention business or even law) have joined their colleagues in the humanities and social sciences in voting no confidence—and a small number of departments and a large number of individuals have taken the opportunity to register support for the chancellor. 

I would also argue that we can—and in fact need to—reach more people who are genuinely concerned about the content and mode of expression of some of Steven Salaita’s tweets and who might have less radical positions on the Israel/Palestine question than many of us do. Some of these people are already with us—see the boycott statements of Jonathan Judaken and David Blacker, for instance—but we could reach even more if we address people’s concerns about antisemitism head on. The attempt to tar all opposition to Israeli occupation, blockade, and bombing as antisemitic has been a tactic of those who seek to prevent dissent on the question of Palestine, but that does not mean that antisemitism is never present in such opposition—something that was visible, for instance, in some of the recent demonstrations in Berlin, where demonstrators called Jews “coward pigs.” 

I find Steven Salaita sincere in his statements of opposition to antisemitism—and have argued that most of the tweets that have been labeled as antisemitic are, in fact, commentaries on the exploitation of antisemitism to silence dissent. But I think it is also true that some of the rhetoric Salaita deploys against Zionists occasionally comes close to tropes that have a long history of anti-Jewish use. (I’m thinking here of the references to “scabies” and to sexual perversion in two of the tweets I’ve seen.) To be sure, the context of those tweets includes asymmetrical violence against Palestinians and vile, racist statements made by Israeli politicians, among others; there were even suggestions by some commentators that genocide in Gaza would be an acceptable outcome of the bombing and invasion. Despite this dispiriting context, however, principled opposition to antisemitism—beyond lip service—should be a component of our program along with opposition to all forms of racism. One crucial effect of such principled opposition could be the expansion of solidarity with Palestinians among those uneasy about the expressions of antisemitism that arise intermittently in otherwise legitimate criticism of Israel.

The fact of overdetermination—the uneven, contradictory nature of social phenomena—entails that coalitions require work to bridge divides that sometimes seem (and sometimes actually are) unbridgeable because people’s multiple interests don’t always line up. A further example from organizing work around the Salaita case on the Illinois campus involves the relation between those who have been working hard to create a faculty union—the Campus Faculty Association—and those mobilized specifically by the rescinding of Salaita’s job offer. The overlap between these groups is enormous in terms of personnel and political commitment, but the interests of the two movements do not correspond perfectly. Commitments to workplace justice and academic freedom unite both groups, but the Israel/Palestine question is naturally not at the center of union organizing and not all who are upset about the Salaita situation are necessarily union supporters. The movement for faculty unionization has been a long-term, relatively slow-moving process. The mobilization for academic freedom in the wake of Salaita’s termination, in contrast, has been rapid and characterized by a high level of energy among faculty and students—although it remains unclear how long such intensity can be maintained. 

My argument would be—once again—that the speed and energy of the Salaita mobilization result from the multiplicity of the contradictions it makes visible. The release of such energies might have the unintended effect of furthering the unionization struggle. At the same time, the union offers a potential structure that could provide longer-term stability and an institutional form for those energies. 

The blockages and inhibitions that follow from overdetermination are also relevant here, however. Although divergent in various ways, the two struggles—for unionization and for reinstatement of Salaita—have hit similar roadblocks: in particular, both movements have failed to activate a large number of faculty outside the humanities and social sciences. While this failure might—in the Salaita case—have to do with divergent views across the disciplines about such issues as international politics, my sense is that the underlying issue for both struggles involves both local and structural issues. The uneven terrain of the modern research university and the unequal division of resources and power between the disciplines—both generally and at the University of Illinois in particular—ensure that some faculty will feel more “confident” in the university’s leadership in moments of crisis, while others will find the basic conditions of their intellectual work imperiled by top-down management decisions. It is, in any case, impossible for me to imagine that were Salaita a chemist rather than a cultural critic the chancellor would have made her decision without consulting with the department head and college. This case exposes contradictions in the university that ramify across contexts. 

Reflecting back on the long list of crises and contexts I mentioned at the beginning of these reflections, the ultimate points I want to insist on are these: 

At stake here is first of all the question of justice for Steven Salaita and for theAmerican Indian Studies program that selected him in their search. But the overdetermined contradictions that this case illuminates indicate to me that we are also close to the core of today’s political conjuncture: the Salaita event reveals how interwoven the politics of higher education has become—or perhaps always was—with the most pressing political, economic, and cultural contradictions of our times. Organizing around the case puts us in touch with those contradictions.

4 thoughts on “Reflections on the Salaita Case: Contradiction, Overdetermination, Mobilization

  1. Thanks for all your ethical stand and your efforts on this issue among others.
    Yet, I do not find the characterization of the Salaita case is being over-determined is an accurate one. If Salaita wrote the same tweets about any other country he would not accused of incivility or Antisemitism. It is these categories that are over-determined, and your work on them helps much in understanding that.
    Like all other issues, there are always different factors in causing an event. Yet, there is always more important factors in that than others. If we start from this, than we can go forward in much productive way to create stronger mobilization. In this case the elephant in the room that people mention but keep dancing around it is Israel and the Zionist pressure. The rest are secondary factors.
    Engaging with this issue seriously will connect us with other related questions around labor, public education, and the rest. Marginalizing it (Israel, Zionism) by making it just a factor among others gets us no where, and we will be looking for the needle in the dark.

    Thanks for writing this blog. .

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